Saturday, October 29, 2011

They all can't be Cypress Point...

The par-four 17th hole at Cypress Point.
... but, improving any - and all - golf courses is important.

I've been very lucky the past three years, flying coast to coast, working simultaneously at building Cabot Links (Atlantic) and restoring Victoria Golf Club (Pacific). Along with my mentor, Rod Whitman, I've also been fortunate to be involved with creation of Blackhawk Golf Club (ranked 25th on SCOREGolf magazine's list of the top-100 courses in Canada) and Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club (ranked 18th). These are four top-notch Canadian golf courses.

I also have plans for significant golf course improvement in the works at excellent clubs like Overlake Golf and Country Club (Seattle), The Derrick Club (Edmonton), The Oakville Golf Club and York Downs Golf and Country Club (Toronto). This past summer, I laid-out what could become another of Canada's great courses, at a stunning location in Saskatchewan, if it's ever built (fingers crossed). And, there's another promising site in the Maritimes where a new MGCD course could, possibly, be built soon. Then there's other work:

I'm currently consulting on improvement to a very, very challenged golf course in Ontario - fundamental routing, playability, and drainage problems abound. There's basically no architecture here to speak of, at all. This particular course - which shall remain nameless for the time being - was picked up out of bankruptcy earlier this year by a family with good intentions. But so much needs to be done to make something of this property, I'm not sure we'll ever get there. In the short term, we're working at simply making the 1st and 2nd holes more playable. A number of trees and a few extraneous bunkers have been removed to give golfers more room to play; and, relatively significant cuts and fills in these fairway areas are underway to improve drainage. (Both greens at these holes were recently reshaped as well, without my involvement.)

Frankly, when I was initially offered this project, I questioned whether or not to take it. An integrity thing kicks in for those of us trying to build a top-notch reputation, with aim to consistently create courses which compare to the world's best. But, again, doesn't every golf course owner and/or club deserve some good, honest advice realtive to improving their courses, even if the work is carried out piecemeal with no definite end in sight? I'm thinking so.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


VGC: Restored bunker right of the green at #11.
Someone once asked Ben Crenshaw to identify the most important element in golf course architecture. Mr. Crenshaw simply answered, "Time".

That's right, time. Time to think. Time to shape and build. Time to look. Time to ponder. And, of course, time to adjust.

I happen to agree with Mr. Crenshaw. Time is very important. But, when renovating existing golf courses, time usually works against us. Golfers rightfully want those holes under repair back in play as soon as possible. So work must be completed as quickly as possible. This type of schedule more often than not prevents all of that time we'd prefer to have to think, look, shape and build, ponder, and adjust.

Which reminds me of a great story I was told by Dick Youngscap. Mr. Youngscap is most famous for developing Sand Hills Golf Club (designed by Mr. Crenshaw, and his partner, Bill Coore), in Nebraska. He is also the brains behind Firethorn Golf Club in Nebraska's state capital, Lincoln. Pete Dye designed the original 18-holes at Firethorn. During construction of the course, Pete was using time to his advantage, constantly changing this and that, tinkering with all of the details. Finally - however many months into it - Mr. Youngscap finally had it. I'm paraphasing, but I recall he frankly told Pete, "Alright, you're done." Grass it.

I'll be honest, golf course designers - including myself - need that kinda push (at least some times). Sticking to the schedule at VGC for this fall, I'm on an airplane tomorrow morning... even though I could have easily stayed to continue to think, look, ponder and, of course, adjust.

I'm lucky though. The remaining work at VGC is left in the capable hands of a fine crew, under the leadership of Paul Robertson and Derek Sheffield, who've been making me look good for almost three years now.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

VGC: golf course archaeology.

VGC's par-three 2nd hole, post-restoration.
It's interesting working on a golf course that's been around since 1893. It's like archeaology some times. You find some interesting things when bunkers and other pieces of ground are opened up.

While restoring a bunker between the 1st and 17th holes, at Victoria Golf Club, today - one that hasn't been in existence since the 1970s or earlier - we ran into the main line of an old irrigation system installed in 1986. In other spots, we've run into even older irrigation pipe, clay drain tile (likely from the 1920s), etc. It's amazing what's underground at VGC... while people play golf over top.

Perhaps most interesting, though, is the amount of sand built-up atop the original elevations of most greenside bunkers. At the par-three 2nd hole, for example - which was the first hole we restored at VGC, back in January 2009 - about three to four feet of blasted and wind-blown sand created very dramatic, high shoulder features on bunkers flanking the putting surface. Originally, the top elevation of these bunkers were nearly level with the green surface. Along with club officials, we determined this evolution - which was imperceptible, over time - had actually improved the hole.

Even though we're "restoring" the golf course per se, removing these elevations would have actually made the 2nd less dramatic, both visually and from a playing perspective. So, the evolved bunker elevations were retained. We've continued to do the same as we continue with bunker work at VGC, 

Years prior to encountering this situation at Victoria, I knew that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw ran into a very similar issue at famed Riviera Country Club, near Los Angeles, where they were working at restoring the brilliant work of legendary golf course architect, George Thomas. At Riviera, Coore and Crenshaw also decided to retain the top elevation of bunkers built-up by blasted and wind-blown sand. And, Riviera's bunkers are some of the most attractive hazards in golf.

There are always gray areas in (so-called) golf course restoration. Genuinely restore? Or leave well-enough alone? These are continual questions. Learned, intelligent judgement is required when assessing whether or not this type of evolution has actually made a golf course better, or worse.

And, then again, golf course architecture is entirely subjective... as long the course drains.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

I wish it was my idea: restoration.

VGC: Historic aerial photo, circa early 1950s.
There's a bit of a theme to the work we're currently carrying out at Victoria Golf Club's 1st and 17th holes - restoring multiple greenside bunkers where single, larger hazards had been created about the time of the advent of the riding bunker rake.

VGC's 1st hole had a single bunker on each side of the green when we arrived. We've restored two bunkers left and three right. And, at the 17th, a single bunker left of the green has been restored as two. This work doesn't change the design of these holes fundamentally, but restoration of multiple bunkers is a very dramatic visual improvement.

The other day, one of the kids on the course maintenance crew remarked, "Wow, that looks cool. What a great idea." I responded honestly: "I wish it was my idea." It's not, really.

Much of the restorative-based work we're doing at VGC is inspired by a historic aerial photo taken during the early 1950s. I believe the course was at its architectural peak about this time. Vernon Macan (click here to read more) had been tinkering with the course design for almost three decades by this point in its long history, and most of the work he did prior to his death, in 1964, was complete - aside from signifcant changes to the 12th and 13th holes, which are documented elsewhere. Shortly thereafter, things began to change for the worse, in my opinion - multiple bunkers became single bunkers, other hazards were removed, many trees were planted, etc.

In a nutshell, we're simply trying to restore VGC - one of Canada's most interesting and historically important golf courses - to its architectural peak; a priviledged opportunity, to say the least.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Par for the course.

The restored par-four 11th hole at Victoria Golf Club.
There was a bit of controversy this week over my recommendation to fill in a section of bunker protecting the front right corner of the 445-yard 17th hole at Victoria Golf Club. This portion of this greenside bunker was added during the 1980s - relatively recently, considering golf's been played at VGC since 1893.

The main issue relative to recommending this part of the bunker be removed is drainage. The green was surface draining water directly into this section of the bunker. Sand would wash down the bunker face during frequent rain events in the Pacific Northwest, and was constantly wet. So, form follows function. A fix is in order, right?

The controversy stems from the fact that some think VGC's 17th will be too easy if this sand hazard is removed. A 445-yard hole too easy? Well, yes, when it's labeled a par-five. I've learned that this bunker was extended to front the right half of the 17th green about the same time the club decided to convert this hole from par-four to par-five. (During a 1968 Shell's Wonderful World of Golf match, between Al Geiberger and George Knudsen, at VGC, #17 played as a par-four.)

There's a simple way to make the 17th hole more challenging, I suggest. That's simply restoring the hole to a par-four on the scorecard. However, then the issue becomes par for the course. VGC would become par 69 if #17 was labeled a par-four. But, is this really an issue? There are a number of great courses throughout the world that play to a total par of 69, including Swinley Forest (84th on GOLF magazine's ranking of the top-100 courses in the world) and Donald Ross' Wannamoisett, in Rhode Island, which annually hosts the prestigious Northeast Amateur championship.

Scratch golfers have always been the measure of par. And, scratch golfers have long played 445-yard holes as "two shot holes" (par-fours), not par-fives. In fact, there's not a great course in the world (though Capilano, in Vancouver - #10 - now comes to mind) featuring a 445-yard par-five hole.

While this is a somewhat interesting conversation piece (for golf minds), it's not a big deal. I say, label holes however you wish. Whether a par-two or a par-six, every golfer is simply trying to make the lowest score possible. Par is actually irrelevant. And, it's never been a factor in judging the ultimate quality of a course. Quality is about great (read: interesting and attractive) holes, which VGC has in abundance.

Our ambition, as golf architects, is simply to create the very best holes possible over any given property, no matter what the math (or rightfully varying opinions) may suggest total par should be.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Back at VGC.

Restored tee shot angle at the par-three 13th hole.
Following nearly a week in Edmonton, I'm back at Victoria Golf Club, where we've slowly been chipping away at restorative-based improvements to one of Canada's most historic golf courses (est. 1893).

Our work at VGC began in January 2009. To date, we've completed work at nine greens sites - bunkers, green surface expansion, adjustments to fairway mowing patterns, etc. This time around we're working on holes 1 and 17, and restoring the tee shot angle at the par-three 13th hole (click on image to enlarge).

When I arrived at VGC early this morning, I was anxious to see the results of our last project and couldn't be more impressed with the look of holes 11, 12 and 18. Fantastic - thanks to golf course superintendent Paul Robertson, his assistant Derek Sheffield, and their crew. We design and build golf, but then leave things to guys like Paul and Derek who subsequently make us look really, really good. I'm very grateful for their efforts and passion.  

I intend to post more photos of works in progress and completed, at VGC, over the coming week and more. So, stay tuned.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Cabot: "Grand slam home run".

Cabot Links, shortly after construction began.
I received an interesting email a couple days ago from a friend, and recognized authority on golf course architecture who'd just finished playing all eighteen holes at Cabot Links. If you haven't heard of Cabot Links, you're not paying attention to golf news. The development of this new seaside course at Inverness, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia has received a lot of attention over recent years.

Anyway, my friend's email simply reads: "Just played all eighteen at Cabot - your pal hit a grand slam home run!" My pal is Rod Whitman - Cabot's designer - who I've worked with over the past decade at Blackhawk, Sagebrush, Cabot Links, and elsewhere. Although this friend of mine, fortunate to play all eighteen at Cabot (which has not officially opened eighteen holes for play) shall remain nameless, this is indeed very high praise.

I can't recall the exact date, but it's been some six or seven years since Ben Cowan-Dewar - the driving force behind Cabot Links - and I first visited Inverness on a cold January day (update: I was just reminded it was a chilly, but very nice day in December 2004). We had both heard about the potential for seaside golf there, over a reclaimed coal mine site on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Ben called to ask if I was interested in making a trip to Inverness to simply take a look at this property. Of course. So we went. I remember calling Rod shortly after Ben and I walked the site, very excited. I'm sure I said, "Rod... if they can put this deal together there's something really, really special here".

Ben put the deal together. Construction of the course is now complete. And high praise from those fortunate enough to have played at least a few holes is starting to role in. Big time. Ben deserves much credit for making this happen. And, not surprisingly, Rod Whitman (and co.) has seemingly - based on early reviews - delivered with the golf.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My annual sojourn at Blackhawk.

"Dave's Bunker", greenside left at Blackhawk's 7th hole.
It's always great to return to Blackhawk Golf Club. I could easily be accused of (severe) bias but truly believe Blackhawk has developed into one of Canada's most unique, and attractive golf clubs.

Amazingly, it's been more than 10 years since I first showed up in Edmonton, Alberta to assist Rod Whitman with the design and construction of the course. Since, it seems I've made an annual visit to tweak this and that. Mostly minor adjustments: a couple new bunkers, a few new back tees, revisiting mowing lines. Stuff like that.

Blackhawk's founder and managing partner, Al Prokop - along with golf course superintendent, Duane Sharpe - is uniquely committed to ensuring the golf course is consistently the very best it can be. So, having Rod and I back to take a look at things frequently has become a given I'm thankful for. This fall, a bunker refurbishment program begins. Sand replacement and drainage improvements in the greenside bunkers on the front nine is the start; which presents opportunity to tweak some bunker cavities and do some edging work.

Not surprisingly, one bunker we will not need to touch is "Dave's Bunker". Left of the green at the par-five 7th hole, this bunker is informally named for Dave Axland (Coore and Crenshaw/Bunker Hill), the artist responsible for this creation - Blackhawk's most attractive bunker, in my humble opinion. I wish I had the capacity and time, at the moment, to name everyone involved with creation of Blackhawk Golf Club. It was a very memorable crew. For now, I can say that this type of collection of talented, committed and hard-working individuals is the key to creating golf courses of true distinction and quality.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The flag of revolution.

Some golfers are very suspicious about golf course improvement plans. Usually without having heard the detailed rationale behind such plans, these golfers immediately have it out for the consulting architect. "Alright," they seem to be thinking, "who's this guy who's going to ruin our golf course."

While preparing for two upcoming presentations at clubs where I consult this past week, I happened to also be revisiting Bernard Darwin's classic tome, Golf Between Two Wars, originally published in 1944. Darwin includes an excellent chapter titled Architecture, in which he writes:

There is another difficulty in the way of the architects. The attitude of the general body of golfers towards them sometimes strikes me as like that of the public towards the police. Men know that they cannot get on without police and are in theory full of gratitude and admiration for them, but at the same time they are always on the watch to catch them out, and become on very slight provocation decidedly hostile. So the golfers are always ready to catch the architect tripping. They will not stand at his hands ingenuity that goes beyond a certain point. If he designs a hole with, as they think, too small a margin of safety; if the hole has too indistinct and baffling skyline; if it calls for too exact an achievement; if it debars them from doing what they want to do and makes them do something that they don't want, they shout in chorus "Away with it!", and that hole, sometimes rightly no doubt but sometimes wrongly, has to go. The average golfer does not appreciate subtlety and if he thinks he is being "got at" he raises the flag of revolution.

I guess we, golf architects, can take some solace from the fact that, apparently, things haven't changed much in the past 67 years (and more, I'm sure).

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fall projects, 2011.

The restored par-three 8th hole at Victoria Golf Club
A busy fall schedule begins Tuesday.  Seventeen days on the road, with stops at:

The Oakville Golf Club, Oakville, Ontario: We've been working on plans for golf course improvement at Oakville since 2009. Tuesday evening, our plan will be presented to the club's membership, hopefully in prelude of starting some some work on this charming old, 1921 George Cumming-designed course, near Toronto, in spring 2012.

Blackhawk Golf Club, Edmonton, Alberta: Since assisting Rod Whitman with the design and construction of Blackhawk (currently ranked 25th on SCOREGolf magazine's list of the top-100 courses in Canada), I've maintained a wonderful 10-year relationship with the club, returning to Edmonton annually to assist with keeping the course top-notch. Working with golf course superintendent, Duane Sharpe, we'll be cleaning out some bunkers this fall, making a few minor tweaks.

Victoria Golf Club, Victoria, British Columbia: Our on-going work at historic Victoria Golf Club (est. 1893) also continues this fall. Over the coming weeks, golf course superintendent, Paul Robertson, and I will be orchestrating restorative-based improvements at holes 1, 13 and 17. That'll be eleven green sites restored, since January 2009. This project is scheduled to continue beginning early in 2012. More detail, from Victoria, shortly.

+ MGCD has another new project - redo of an existing golf course - in southwestern Ontario beginning this fall. More detail on this project soon, too. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

MGCD returns to the blogosphere.

A recent scene at The Toronto Golf Club.
With a number of exciting projects on the go and in the works, it seems the time is right to (re-) enter the blogosphere. Please visit regularly as we showcase and discuss our work. We'll anecdotally explain our approach to golf course design and construction in the process, and talk about some of our influences, too.

Take The Toronto Golf Club for example. A recent visit re-confirmed its greatness. Not only TGC's revolutionary Harry Colt-designed golf course, either. The overall plan for the entire property, devised during the pre-World War I era, is brilliant. The long entrance drive winding through parts of the course presents a remarkable introduction. And the century old clubhouse is one of the most beautifully charming, and well-preserved buildings in golf.