«A unique character of the best kind»

At the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, 9-year-old Mario Verdieri and his father were watching the ice hockey. At that time, he could not have imagined that he would design a golf course there some 50 years later. The father of Kulm Golf Mario Verdieri tells us why the course is so special and what makes golfing so fascinating for him.

Mr Verdieri, are you still playing golf at 77?
Yes, regularly. Once or twice every week in St. Moritz.

Then you must get lots of feedback from other golfers. What do the guests who ae playing at Kulm Golf for the first time have to say about it?
Most people are amazed that it’s possible to play such great golf on a course as small as this. Many also appreciate the landscape surrounding the golf course, although that is secondary for golfers. 

What makes Kulm Golf so special compared to other golf courses?
The topography of the course and the setting are very special. Here, we’re playing on the highest point of the Upper Engadine valley and have a completely different view at each of the nine holes. Although the Kulm Golf course is technically a short, the layout makes it quite demanding. Golfers find a different challenge at every hole.

What type of golfer is Kulm Golf best suited for?
Anyone who has “platzreife” (German equivalent to a handicap) or similar can play here. In St. Moritz, precision is more important than drive. Elsewhere, short courses are often sections of large golf courses, which are suitable for beginners. Or in Asia, there are the so-called city golf courses where businessmen can play a quick round at lunchtime. Kulm Golf is something completely different. It is a unique specimen of the best variety that integrates perfectly with the landscape and terrain. I say that without any self-praise.

Golfing has a long tradition in St. Moritz – beginning in 1890. What’s the importance of golf in St. Moritz today?
It’s very important, especially because of this great tradition. The first official golf course in St. Moritz stretched from the railway station along the lake to the casino and to today's skating rink. The Engadin Golf Club was founded in 1893, and I think it’s safe to assume that it’s the oldest of its kind on the continent.

Do more people play golf today than when you were younger?
Yes, a lot more. In my family it extends from my 4-year-old grandson to the 77-year-old grandfather (laughs). Seen from this angle, golf is an ideal family sport. The golf explosion was foreseeable as early as the 1970s – especially in England where golf is very popular. 

Is golf really a sport in the proper sense of the word?
Definitely. Top players must be extremely fit, both physically and mentally because the first tee is as important as the last one. Even though the time between the two may well last for 4½ hours, you can’t afford to lose focus. This is only possible if you are very fit. 

What’s the fascination of golfing?
That can easily be explained: you can play a great round, but afterwards you sit there and think you could have done it even better. It’s this constant provocation that keeps you playing.

Would Tiger Woods enjoy golfing in St. Moritz?
Yes, I can imagine he would. However, he would only need to bring two golf clubs (laughs). Today, top professionals like Tiger Woods have an incredible amount of drive. On the one hand, this is related to the nature of today’s golf course. 

How many golf courses have you actually designed?
Many (laughs)! From the first sketch to the final course, it’s 18. But all in all, I’ve worked on 65 projects – In Switzerland, Italy and Germany, in the Canaries, in the USA and in other countries.

How does one become a golf-course architect?
There are now classes teaching it in America and Germany. I planned my first golf course in 1965 when I was working for an architect in Lugano, and already had a single-digit handicap. After that, I was abroad for a few years. In 1978 the former St. Moritz resort manager, Peter Kasper, took over the operations committee of the golf course Samedan and entrusted me with the conversion of the course because the professionals were simply too expensive. Afterwards, I had calls from people interested in constructing or re-designing golf courses.

What was your actual job at that time?
I had my architecture office with 15 employees in St. Moritz. At some point I had so many golf inquiries that I said to myself: either you do it professionally or leave it. I decided to go with the first option and opened a second office.

What was the personal highlight of your career as a golf-course architect?
Designing the course here in St. Moritz, my hometown. That naturally gave me great joy. It still makes me proud today

Would you tell us which is your favourite golf course in the world?
(Chuckles) There’s one at Boat of Garten, in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. I was there as a young man when I was a ski instructor and wanted to learn English. On this course, I’d change practically nothing because it is so beautifully embedded in the landscape. The lawnmowers of the fairways were sheep (laughs). The course has influenced my later work as a golf course architect because it was designed to blend into the natural landscape so well. I am a very visual person, and something odd in the landscape bothers me.

Last question: Does Mario Verdieri have a golf hero?
Yes, Arnold Palmer. That reminds me of an anecdote: I was golfing with Swiss friends in Santo Domingo and wearing a sun hat and sunglasses. To my friends’ surprise, all the Americans greeted me in a very friendly way – even though I didn’t know them. A year later, I was playing in Florida. At the tee, another golfer looked at me and said, "You look like Arni Palmer!" A couple of holes further on, I was told that I had the same swing as Arnold Palmer. A lot of people wanted photos of me and I had to give autographs. That’s when I realized why the people in Santo Domingo had greeted me so kindly (laughs).