If you tee off in Tunisia or take a Malaysian mulligan, you may be part of Ron Fream's grand design. Fream (above) runs Golfplan, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based firm that has planted more than 150 golf courses in 62 nations, from icy Finland to the Indonesian rain forest, where one of his tracks fills the crater of a dormant volcano.
Fream studied turf-grass management at Washington State. When he drew up plans for a muni course as a class project, "I was hooked," he says. After apprenticing with Robert Trent Jones and Robert Muir Graves, he and a partner founded an architecture business in 1972. "We started with $3,000, but it was gone fast," says Fream. "Then Peter Thomson called."
Thomson, who won five British Opens before turning to course design, put Fream to work in Asia. In 1975 Fream unveiled Bali Handara, the course he built inside an Indonesian volcano. "There were virtually no machines used. Every foot of earth was moved by shovel or by workers carrying baskets on their heads," he says. Today the course ranks among Asia's most famous. Yet it's a tricky paradise. Monkeys dart from the forest to steal golf balls at Bali Handara, just as wild boars scuff the fairways at a Fream layout in Tunisia and cobras sun themselves at Malaysia's Saujana Golf and Country Club.
"Cobras aren't so bad," he says. "It's the fer-de-lance snakes in Trinidad I worry about—just little green things about two feet long, but deadly, and they'll drop down on you from the trees."
The sultan of Brunei hired Fream to create a private course in Borneo. "The soil was as acidic as lemon juice, and there were places where you'd take a divot and see oil ooze up," the designer says. He spread lime and organic humus over trouble spots to control the soil's pH level. He redirected a few holes to keep players from striking black gold with every swing, and finally presented the sultan an Augusta National-inspired course sown with a Bermuda-grass blend that could survive Brunei's stifling heat and 200 inches of rain per year. It was a fitting bookend to Fream's Oulu Golf Club in Finland, where temperatures plunge to -30� in winter but golfers enjoy a rare treat between May and August: round-the-clock golf under a midnight sun.
"I'm a missionary, a Johnny Appleseed for golf around the world," says the 55-year-old Fream. "In Florida or California you can build a golf course by phone. You spend a lot of money, and everything is perfect—perfectly artificial. I'd rather make something that looks like it belongs where it is."