Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Narrow entrances to the greens = wrong.

An ultra-wide entrance to the green at Overlake's 12th hole, restored.
I visited a fairly well-known golf club recently and was shocked by the narrowness of the entrances to the greens at almost every hole. Even where there's an absence of greenside bunkers, arbitrary mow lines pinch the entrances to these greens, creating skinny necks of fairway leading into the putting surfaces.

There are several problems with narrow entrances. First, they aggravate weaker golfers who tend to play shots along the ground and, in turn, benefit from a legitimate chance to bounce the ball onto the greens. Low handicappers play golf more through the air than ever these days. They're unaffected by narrow entrances. This set-up contradicts the ideal in golf architecture, which is to present adequate challenge to better golfers while at the same time allowing less skilled players to enjoy the game.

Another issue with narrow entrances is purely aesthetic. Where there are no reasons for the fairway to become arbitrarily narrow leading into the greens (ie greenside bunkers), so many holes simply look chintzy because the scale of the fairway cut is wrong. (You don't see skinny necks of fairway leading into the greens at St. Andrews, Royal Melbourne, Cypress Point, Augusta National and all of those other great courses long recognized as the world's best.)

At Overlake Golf and Country Club's 12th hole, we quadrupled the width of the entrance to the green. Before we arrived in Seattle, this 200-yard + par-three featured a ridiculously skinny neck of fairway running into the putting surface. By increasing the width of the entrance, the look of the green site from the tees now matches its setting. Most important, the hole is now more accommodating to higher handicap golfers without having compromised the interest and challenge presented to better players.

In fact, I could argue Overlake's 12th is a bit more challenging in some ways since we made this adjustment...

We also filled in a bunker right of the green and replaced it with short grass. Most golfers don't think of it this way, but short grass surrounding greens can be a much more effective and interesting hazard than rough and sand. Mown slopes take balls further from the hole, and present golfers with a decision on what type of shot to play. The right side of the green at Overlake's 12th probably looks like the "best miss", but the ground in this area tilts right to left. Getting up and down from a fairway lie right of the green can actually be more challenging than a bunker shot from the left side some days.

What's interesting, too, is: Higher handicap golfers tend to simply putt from short grass areas around greens - a fairly easy way to at least get the ball onto the putting surface. Better players, on the other hand, tend to be more challenged by the dilemma of deciding whether to chip, pitch or putt from a tight lie - whether right, left or short of the green. When not entirely confident in the option chosen, poor execution often results.

As a general rule of thumb, fairway entrances to the greens should be mown to match the width of the putting surface. Those skinny necks of fairway that arbitraily become narrow leading into the greens look silly and make the game more frustrating for the wrong players.

Monday, November 28, 2011

News on our work at Victoria Golf Club.

Golf Course Architecture magazine's posted a short news story on our work at Victoria Golf Club. Click here to read.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The clubhouse, and other details.

The clubhouse at Chechessee Creek Club, from the home green.
I love building architecture nearly as much as golf architecture. On my bookshelf, right next to all of the golf classics, are On Architecture, a wonderful collection of Ada Louise Huxtable's essays on building architecture; Preserving the World's Great Cities by Anthony M. Tung; and, of course, a number of books on the life and works of Frank Lloyd Wright.

As I mentioned more than a month ago now, in the first post at this blog, the overall brilliance of The Toronto Golf Club stems from more than its revolutionary Harry Colt-designed course. There's also the entrance drive, which elegantly winds through the course, providing golfers with a glimpse of what they've come to enjoy; and the wonderful clubhouse architecture, which adds tremendously to what would be one of Canada's great courses anyway.

Great golf course archtiecture is most important, of course. But it's many of the other important details, including the overall land plan of a golf development, the clubhouse architecture and course accessories that create truly distinct, unforgettable golfing experiences. Take those classic clubhouse designs at places like Toronto, Winged Foot, and Shinnecock Hills for example. Incredible. There's also stuff like those green pails filled with water on the tees at Roaring Gap, in lieu of the modern ball washer. Tee markers made from indigenous materials, like the drift wood markers at Victoria Golf Club, too. And, of course, Merion's famous wicker baskets atop traditional flagsticks. 

Which reminds me of the locker room showers at Merion. Fantastic. Those showers have been maintained but, presumably, not replaced since the famous East course there was opened for play in 1912. At Merion, you still pull a chain hanging from the shower stall ceiling then watch it rise until the water stops falling. Unforgettable.

Many of the great golf clubs throughout the world simply don't fix what ain't broke. They leave well enough alone. At Pine Valley, which perenially ranks as the world's #1 course, members' lockers haven't changed since the early days of the club, established during the pre-World War I era. Lockers there, at Pine Valley, still feature doors made of simple wood frames covered with chicken wire. At the world's #1 course? Yep. If interested, you can see the contents of every one of those lockers, including the Pine Valley member listed as "007" on the club's roster - Sean Connery.

Only a handful of golf clubs developed in the modern era exude comparable charm, and present similarly unforgettable golfing experiences (unfortunately). Chechessee Creek Club, with its wonderfully understated course, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, is one. If you didn't know better, you'd think this South Carolina low country golf institution was vintage. As a result, Chechessse Creek Club is an incredibly unforgettable place. 

More golf clubs - old and new - should strive to make golfing experiences more different, more distinct, more unique, and less the same as so many others. Otherwise, what's the attraction? Golfers will play anywhere if it's all the same.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


The 17th hole at Sagebrush, with 18 in the background.
Golf holes are played tee to green, but many of the best holes on this planet were designed in reverse. In other words, the design of the putting greens and their surrounds dictate playing strategies and, in turn, the placement of fairway hazards.

Take the 17th hole at Sagebrush for example. A high tee at this hole presents golfers with full view of the green at the end of an ultra-wide fairway featuring bunkers left and right. From this high tee, golfers can clearly identify the location of the flagstick. Sagebrush's penultimate hole features a rather large green built upon what is basically inherent topography. Very little earthwork was required to create this green, but a few significant tweaks were made during the shaping process to create enhanced strategy off the tee.

A sand bunker guards the green at front right, where there's a shelf of putting surface that falls off sharply behind. A pronounced knob, which existed prior to golf course construction and is now mown at fairway height, similarly protects the left side of the green. When holes are cut on the extreme right and left portions of the 17th green at Sagebrush, the smart play off the tee is to drive down the opposite margin of the fairway. Down the middle is safe, as usual, but not ideal. Because of the contour, slope and orientation of the putting surface and surrounding hazards, approaching a right pin from the right side of the fairway is comparatively awkward; and vice versa. And, because the right and left margins of this fairway are often the ideal place to be off the tee at this hole, sand hazards were installed along the fairway margins.

This type of green design is, simply, golf course architecture 101; not brain surgery. Again, the design of the green site - putting surface and surrounds - dictates playing strategies, which, in turn, dictate the placement of fairway hazards.

I've been working on a number of plans to improve existing courses, with aim to enhance playing interest. But at a few such courses we're not rebuilding existing greens. More often than not, unfortunately, the design of many of these existing greens don't make much strategic sense relative to the placement of fairway hazards. In other words, no matter where the hole is cut on these surfaces, approaching these greens from anywhere in the fairway at the holes in question is a relatively similar proposition. Fairway bunkers and other hazards can be placed anywhere in such cases; in a purely penal sense. But, if we're trying to think about golf architecture in a more intelligent fashion, and improve these courses in a comparatively sophisticated, strategic manner, a very, very important question begs: If the design of the green surface doesn't dictate playing strategies, where should the fairway hazards be located?

And, of course, what can be done to the green surrounds - without alteration of the putting surface - to enhance playing strategies and make sense of fairway hazard placement?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The top of my to-see list, at the moment.

St. George's, New York (couresty of Geo. Waters)
As mentioned in a previous post here, traveling to see and play the world's best courses is a must for every aspiring, and working golf architect. I'm very fortunate; of the top-10 courses in the world (according to GOLF magazine), I'm only missing visits to Royal County Down and Royal Melbourne.

Gaining understanding of how the world's best courses look, play and feel, and how those layouts relate to their surroundings (etc.) is invaluable; and often inspiring.

Here are three seemingly fascinating courses I plan to visit soon, with hope to gain inspiration for specific upcoming projects:

St. George's Golf and Country Club
Setauket, New York

Not the famed Stanley Thompson layout in Toronto, but Devereux Emmet's intimate 1917 design on Long Island. Emmet was a pioneer golf architect who laid-out many revolutionary courses during the pre-1920s era. Today most Emmet courses have either been redesigned or are often considered too short and quirky for "modern standards". Emmet's original design appears to be very well-preserved at St. George's; and, the engineered look of many features is distinctly attractive. Moreover, plenty of open space presents stunning long views across a property beautifully decorated by swaths of lovely native grasses.

Boston Golf Club
Hingham, Massachusetts

The artistry of Gil Hanse (and his partner Jim Wagner) is consistently remarkable. Rustic Canyon and Castle Stuart have been talked about quite a bit in recent years. Lesser known Hanse designs, like French Creek and South Fork Country Club, look pretty cool too. Boston Golf Club, which opened for play in 2005, is one of Hanse's latest creations. I've heard pictures are worth a thousand words, so check out photos of the course at the club's web site, here. Boston Golf Club appears to be a stunningly beautiful celebration of the New England landscape.

Essex County Club
Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts

Essex County Club was established in 1893, but its current course is dated 1917. Its design is attributed to Donald Ross, who went on to layout some 400 courses across North America. Ross cut his teeth at designing and building golf courses at Essex Co. While serving as the club's golf professional and greenkeeper between 1909 to '13, he apparently tinkered with the course incessantly. Like Boston Golf Club, Essex Co. celebrates the beautiful nature of New England brilliantly. And, like Emmet's work at St. George's, the "built look" of many features at Essex Co. is uniquely appealing.

Ran Morrissett's posted an excellent profile of Essex Co. Club, here, at Golf Club Atlas.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"The course Augusta wants to be..."

Alister Mackenzie.
It's a bit depressing for me to admit that I've yet to visit Australia's Royal Melbourne Golf Club, which hosts the Presidents Cup this weekend. I've studied the genius of Alister Mackenzie's 1926 design - in great detail - from afar though.

There are actually two courses at Royal Melbourne, the West and East. The design of the West is attributed to Mackenzie, with assistance from Australian Alex Russell and greenkeeper Mick Morcom, who handled the construction. Russell and Morcom built the East course following Mackenzie's departure. This week, during the Presidents Cup, a Composite course, compromising 12 holes from the West and six from the East, will be used.

The terrain at Royal Melbourne is said to be ideal for golf - rolling and bumpy but not too hilly, with sandy, well-drained soils and beautiful native vegetation decorating holes without interfering with play. Mackenzie's and Russell's layouts make the most of the property's incredible natural attributes. The Composite course isn't long by 2011 standards. And there are no features at Royal Melbourne that instigate controversy. Yet its design is so complex.

In his infamous book, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Tom Doak writes: "Royal Melbourne, I think, is the course Augusta wants to be: wide enough for anybody, but brilliantly routed to make use of the topography and bunkered to reward bold play and bold decisions."

Mackenzie designed Royal Melbourne more than five years prior to arriving at Augusta to layout Bobby Jones' dream course. But he applied the same principles to both properties. Whereas Augusta has been significantly altered since Mackenzie's time, Royal Melbourne's basically stayed the same. The course's blatant width (there's nearly an absence of rough) caters to golfers of all abilities and, at the same time, subtle complexities created by contour, angles, well-placed bunkers, and a notoriously firm, fast-running playing surface adequately challenge the world's best players. This is the ideal in golf course architecture.

I'll be more than 16,000 kilometers from Melbourne, Australia this weekend, but I'll be tuned into the Presidents Cup. Not because I care much about the competition, it's just not too often that we get to look at Royal Melbourne for four days straight.

***Update: Who designed Royal Melbourne's West course?

After reading this blog post, Lorne Rubenstein was thoughtful enough to send me the following segment of an article on Alex Russell written by contemporary Australian golf architect, Neil Crafter:

Russell was asked by his club in 1924 to provide a plan for a remodelled 18 holes at Royal Melbourne and this indicates that the Club must have been well aware of his interest in golf course design. What is clear, is that he copied the approach used by Colt of first drawing a contour plan and then producing a three dimensional model of the planned course in plasticine, skills he would have learnt as a civil engineer and a Major in the Royal Garrison Artillery. This model was on display at the Club for some time and his modelling work commented upon by the press of the day as being “distinctly brainy. The one he constructed for his proposed lay-out for the new Royal Melbourne course was very well done, and received unstinting praise from Dr. Mackenzie.”

Therefore, the perception that prior to Dr. Mackenzie's visit, Alex Russell was an "empty vessel" as far as golf course design was concerned and that he learnt all his skills from MacKenzie, is contrary to recorded opinion of the time. While there is no doubt that Russell would have learnt a great deal from the Doctor, there is abundant evidence that Russell was widely read and educated in the principles of golf course design prior to MacKenzie's arrival. He had studied the great links and inland courses of the British Isles and his amateur career had led him to play all the leading courses throughout Australia. It should also be remembered that at the time of Mackenzie’s 1926 visit, Russell was only 34 years of age.

The Doctor’s visit, along with the publishing that year of Hunter’s book “The Links”, stimulated an awakening of interest in golf design in Australia, as this account from the Melbourne “Herald” newspaper of November 3rd 1926 explains under the heading of “Pants for Pine Valley”:

“These days, with Dr. Mackenzie here, practically all our prominent golfers are discussing golf courses, golf holes and golf architecture generally. Everywhere one goes, someone is sketching what he considers an ideal hole, and explaining just what the Doctor does to bring about his golfing transformations. Robert Hunter’s great book, with its exquisite illustrations of greens and holes and bunkers and such like, has been bought up so ravenously that it is now impossible to procure a copy, and groups poring over it may be seen in every club house. Alex Russell, the former open champion, has been so intrigued by some of the illustrations, particularly some showing views of Pine Valley course in the U.S.A., that he will not now be happy until he plays over some of the courses.”

Russell’s design for Royal Melbourne was highly praised by Mackenzie in his letter of recommendation of Russell:

"He has made a study of Golf Course Architecture for some years, and on my arrival here I was most favourably impressed with his suggested design for the new Royal Melb. Golf Course as it showed far more originality and ability than the design of any other golf course I have seen since my arrival."

In that same letter of November 1926, Mackenzie announced that he had taken in Alex Russell as a partner to carry on his works after he left Australia. Further, he emphasises that Russell:

“…has been continually associated with me while I have been advising golf clubs, and he has not only drawn a number of my plans but has made many valuable suggestions.”

Very interesting, indeed.

Crafter seems to prove that a routing plan for the West course, by Russell, was complete by the time Mackenzie arrived in Melbourne; and that Mackenzie praised his plan. Question is, did the Good Doctor subsequently tweak Russell's layout significantly enough for the West course to be accurately considered a Mackenzie-design? Or was Mackenzie's input limited to contouring, bunker placement, etc.?

(This is not intended to diminish Mackenzie's significant influence on golf in Australia and course architecture in that country, but) if so, Russell is in fact the principal designer of both the West and East courses at Royal Melbourne.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Golf snob (and the new frontier).

The 13th hole at Blackhawk.
Visiting those golf courses considered to be the world's best is a very important part of studying to be a golf course architect.

Over the past decade and more, I'm fortunate to have visited eight of the world's top-10 courses (according to GOLF magazine) and 12 of the top-20; not to mention many other fantastic layouts around the world which reside not very far outside the world's top-20.

Not many "other" courses live up to this standard, by which I tend to judge others. I don't really enjoy when people ask me what I think of this course or that course as a result. It's difficult for me to be very positive about the run-of-the-mill. If this makes me a golf snob, so be it! If I'm not constantly thinking about the very best, my work will suffer for it.

My work has taken me to a lot of interesting places, for which I am grateful. In Canada, I've set foot in every province except Newfoundland. And, every time I've visited a major Canadian city I've planned in advance to visit its best courses. For example, when I started consulting at Victoria Golf Club, I couldn't wait to get over to Royal Colwood - Vernon Macan's revolutionary 1913 design just outside British Columbia's capital city. And, of course, while building Cabot Links over recent years, any excuse to get up to Stanley Thompson's mammoth Cape Breton Highlands Links was used.

There have been more disappointing forays, too. A decade ago, when we started building Blackhawk Golf Club in Edmonton, I rushed over to The Mayfair (now Royal Mayfair). Without a doubt, The Mayfair occupies one of the most interesting sites for a golf club anywhere in Canada. The course is literally downtown, on the opposite bank of the North Saskatchewan River from the city centre. But you'd never know that Stanley Thompson had a hand in its original design today; and not a single golf architecture aficionado would go out of their way to see The Mayfair following significant alteration to the course over the years since Mr. Thompson was there.

Other than what-was The Mayfair (and now Blackhawk, of course), there's not much for the serious connoisseur of golf course design to see in Edmonton, unfortunately. Which reminds me of Regina.

Rod Whitman and I have done some work at Wascana Country Club, there, in Saskatchewan's capital. But unlike most other Canadian cities, there isn't a single course that I'd go out of my way to see in Regina. With some luck, this is likely to change. Saskatchewan's economy is arguably the most robust in North America. No surprise, the province is growing significantly at the moment. And, the golfing situation in Regina reminds me very much of that in Edmonton when we started building Blackhawk = a growing city, with a thriving economy without a truly good golf course. Not an ideal situation for people who enjoy golf and have the means and time to enjoy the game properly.

Blackhawk truly epitomizes the "build it and they will come" theory. What started out as a pay-as-you-play facility, some 20-30 minutes drive from 'town, has become an incredibly successful private golf club.

I think Regina's ready for the same. Recently, I've been provided opportunity to layout two new golf courses over (no exaggeration) wonderful properties near Regina. Most Canadians believe southern Saskatchewan to be ridiculously flat, and devoid of any interesting vegetation. Not true, at all. The potential for golf at these two particular properties - where soils are perfectly fit for golf, and the wind blows - is absolutely remarkable. If these two courses are ever built, we might actually provide golf architecture buffs with a reason to visit Regina, too.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Willie Park, Jr. and Huntercombe.

Huntercombe, from
Willie Park, Jr. is one of the most fascinating characters in the history of golf. Amongst other amazing feats, including two wins at the Open championship prior to 1900, Park is arguably the father of modern golf course architecture.

In 1901, he changed everyone's thoughts on building quality golf courses away from the sea with the debut of Sunningdale-Old, Notts and Huntercombe, in England. My ol' buddy Ran Morrissett has posted a fascinating profile of Huntercombe, featuring some excellent photos, at his infamous Golf Club Atlas site. Click here to go there.

During the 1920s, Park ventured to North America where he laid-out many other equally fascinating courses, including Chicago's Olympia Fields and Maidstone on Long Island, New York. He's also noted as the original designer of Calgary Golf and Country Club, Weston, Toronto Hunt and Ottawa Hunt in Ontario, plus Beaconsfield, Islesmere, Laval-sur-la-Lac, and the ultra-private (and, perhaps, best preserved Park design here, in Canada) Mount Bruno, in Montreal.

Morrissett's profile of Huntercombe has me captivated, and makes me think: Why, more than a century later, have so few subsequent golf course designs matched the classy standard set by Willie Park, Jr. at Sunningdale, Notts and Huntercombe?

You can read more about Park here, courtesy of his great nephew, Mungo Park, and Golf Course Architecture magazine.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Bunker short-right of the 12th green at Overlake.
I just got off the phone with the esteemed Scott Stambaugh, golf course superintendent at Overlake Golf and Country Club... which prompts this post.

We've developed a very exciting golf course improvement plan for Overlake. Located on the east bank of Lake Washington, in the Seattle suburb of Medina, Overlake was originally designed by Irish-Canadian golf architect Vernon Macan during the early 1950s. (Again, you can read more about Mr. Macan here.)

The original Overlake course, built during the late 1920s, was abandoned not long after it opened for play. The club then re-established during the early 1950s when Mr. Macan was brought down from Victoria, British Columbia (his home base) to design a new course over the same property.

While historic materials indicate Macan's Overlake was likely built on a shoe-string budget, his routing (intact) and the greens (not sure exactly how many are originals, by Macan) provide an excellent foundation upon which to improve the current course. There are few historic images of Overlake available, either; and, old aerials don't show much. So this can't be a genuine restoration of Mr. Macan's original design. However, there's a lot of value in the course's heritage.

While designing courses between 1913 and his death in 1964, Mr. Macan wrote prolifically. A plehtora of historic articles on golf and course architecture provide detailed insight into his thinking. And historic photos of other Macan-designed courses have been useful. Our plan for Overlake is definitely inspired by Mr. Macan's architectural styings and philosophies. In fact, a bunker remodeled last fall, short-right of the green at the par-three 12th hole (click on photo to enlarge), was inspired by a historic photo of a Macan-designed bunker at nearby Inglewood Golf Club.

With my colleague George Waters handling the shaping, and Stambaugh coordinating the project, the 12th was redone to provide Overlake members with a good look at, and feel for what's planned for the rest of the course. As I understand, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Club officials are now pondering the next move. However we end up tackling the rest of the project, I'm very excited about the potential at Overlake. So, stay tuned...

Monday, November 7, 2011

Invisible hazards.

The 12th hole at the Old Course at St. Andrews.
I was playing golf in Georgia earlier this year and saw one of the silliest design features: Two obnoxious-looking mounds that screen view of a small pond along the right side of the fairway, some 230 yards off the middle tee, at a par-four hole. Imagine, an invisible water hazard in the exact location where a majority of golfers are going to miss their tee shots. It was at the 2nd hole too; prime time for a right-hander's slice.

Invisible water hazards are really goofy. But what about bunkers that can't be seen from the tees? We've worked hard over the years - particularly on new golf course projects - to make bunkers visible; dishing out areas in front of these hazards and even making large cuts many yards back toward the tees to ensure good visibility of bunkers. Not only so golfers are aware of their presence but also to enhance the visual appeal of the course in question. With renovation projects we're some times handcuffed in this regard. Limiting areas of disturbance simply limits cutting well in front of certain bunkers to improve visibility.

I've struggled with this recently on renovation projects. My instinct wants to make said cut; which, again, in many instances is simply not doable. Then my mind goes to St. Andrews, Scotland; the Old Course to be exact, which is the highest standard in golf course architecture, and where so many bunkers are invisible from the tees. Not only because you're often hitting over contour and vegetation, so many bunkers at the Old Course are literally holes in the ground. You can hit what you think is a perfect tee shot at St. Andrews-Old then find your ball in a nearly unplayable lie in a bunker that you didn't even know was there. (Unless, of course, you've played the course more than once; a blind hazard, remember, is only blind once.) This, for whatever reasons, has almost become an unacceptable situation in North American golf; when, in fact, it's long been a part of the adventure on the classic links throughout the British Isles.

A friend of mine laughs at an answer I some times give when people ask me what I do for a living. I say that I put stuff (contour, bunkers, etc.) in the way of golfers. Now, does all of that stuff, including bunkers, need to be visible from the tees at every hole? As long as it's not a pond, I guess I can defer - yet again - to the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fall projects, 2011: Part deux.

Restored bunker at VGC's 9th hole, by MGCD.
Blackhawk Golf Club: Renovation of the greenside bunkers on the front nine is complete. With great weather throughout, the start of this bunker refresh program, which involved reshaping cavaties, checking and fixing drainage, some edging then replacing sand, was a great success.

After I left Edmonton on October 16th - shaping and edging work complete - golf course superintendent Duane Sharpe lead his crew at finishing up with drainage repairs and additions, and filling Blackhawk's decade old bunkers with new sand.

In spring next year, we'll tackle the greenside bunkers on the back nine followed by all of the fairway bunkers beginning in fall 2012. (Interesting stat that I've always loved: The back nine at Blackhawk features almost two times as many sand hazards as the front; and, prior to installing bunkers off the tees at the 1st and 4th holes, post-opening, golfers didn't confront a fairway bunker at Blackhawk until the 11th hole.)

Victoria Golf Club: Work continues at holes 1, 13 and 17 at VGC. With the design and shaping work complete, bunkers at the 1st and 17th are being drained, lined and grassed by VGC's maintenance/construction crew, under the direction of golf course superintendent Paul Robertson and his assistant, Derek Sheffield. At the 13th hole, a new teeing area is being finished. Without bias, the new back tee at #13 - which is right of, and signficantly lower than the previous tee - changes a comparatively mundane par-three into one of the most interesting looking, and exciting holes at VGC.

Victoria, British Columbia is one of the few places in Canada where we can shape and build golf during the winter months. Right after the New Year, in early January, we move on to the next phase of our continuing restorative-based work at VGC, seaside holes 3-6. The focus of our work to-date has been the green sites - bunkers, putting surface expansions, etc. Fifteen green sites will be complete by spring 2012. Holes 10, 15 and 16 remain; then fairway bunkers and other details.

Anonymous Golf Club: In my previous post on fall projects, I also mentioned a very, very challenged course in southwestern Ontario. Work is in progress at this course, which shall continue to remain nameless (at least for the time being), as well. Frankly, this project isn't as exciting as VGC, and a number of others I have on the go, but we've made really good progress at simply beginning to make this course more playable (tree removal, eliminating bunkers, re-shaping fairway areas and green surrounds, etc.). Improving drainage is the other main focus. This property is extremely flat with some of the worst clay material I've ever seen. Worse than Wascana Country Club in Regina, Saskatchewan, which I didn't think was possible.

Significant cuts and fills have been made in two fairways this fall. These fairways have been contoured to surface drain effectively, and a lot of drain tile is going into the ground. Although a few unfortunate things, which were out of my control, have occured during this project, I'm quite happy with the significant improvement made to playability and drainage - two very, very important elements in golf course design.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Road hole bunker.

Road hole bunker, circa 1924.
I was just searching for pictures in my overloaded "golf photos" file and came across this image (at left) of the infamous Road hole bunker at the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, circa 1924.

New Zealand's Scott Macpherson, who designs golf courses in collaboration with touring professional and fellow Kiwi, Greg Turner, has written an excellent book on the evolution of the Old Course. Looking at photos of the Road hole bunker over the years since 1924 makes me think it's evolution, alone, could be worthy of a book, too.

All golf courses are in a constant state of evolution. Needless to say, all of the bunkers at St. Andrews-Old, where golf has been played for some 600 years, have evolved. All, including the Road bunker, are now revetted (read: stacked sod walls); which is not my favourite bunker style. This 1924 version of Road hole bunker, with sand splashed on a grass face is much more appealing to me than the current stacked sod wall version (click here to visit Stephanie Wei's web site, where she's posted a relatively recent photo of Ryan Moore playing a shot from the same hazard, for comparison).

There are a number of reasons why so many links courses have gone to revetted bunkers. But, I'm not so sure those reasons are legit when we look at places like Bandon and Barnbougle Dunes, Cabot Links, and even Sagebrush, where courses are played in equally windy conditions that play havoc with bunkers, and the sand hazards look more like the Road bunker circa 1924 than the stacked sod wall bunkers which feature at a majority of the great links throughout the British Isles these days.

Maybe I'm wrong, though. Perhaps some 550 years from now it will be decided that the bunkers at Bandon and Barnbougle, Cabot, and Sagebrush should be revetted too. I hope not. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Genesis: Essex.

The home hole at Essex.
It was a beautiful fall day for golf in southwestern Ontario; and, I was fortunate to enjoy what will likely be my last round for 2011 (at least in Canada) at Essex Golf and Country Club, in Windsor, Ontario, today.

I'm also fortunate to have learned golf, and developed a love for course architecture at Essex. I grew up around the club. I'm still a member, but not around to enjoy the place as much as I'd like to these days. Perhaps biasedly (but I think not), I consider Essex to be one of Canada's truly great golf courses.

Opened for play in 1929, Donald Ross' original design essentially remains intact; and, it's one of the best examples, worldwide, of how to create interesting and enduring golf over a flat site. I doubt there's more than 2-3 feet of elevation change over Essex' 130 or so acres. Remarkably, Ross' design didn't mandate much earthmoving and artificial shaping, aside from at the green sites, either.

Yesterday, I toured Paul Jansen, from (Nick) Faldo Design around Essex. He was as impressed with the design and shaping of the putting surfaces and surrounds as I've been over the past 27 years since I joined the club as a junior member.

The greens were typically slick in these beautiful fall conditions today, too. The speed of the greens really showed off all of the subtle slope and contour Mr. Ross devised. Essex' greens are beautifully shaped, but not necessarily visually intimidating from most angles. The design and shaping is very, very classy; which is not easy to achieve. It's much easier to create big contour and abrupt tiers - typical of too many over-cooked modern designs - than it is to replicate the classy style of Mr. Ross' greens at Essex.

While pointing out some of the subtlties in the greens at Essex to Paul Jansen yesterday, I frankly said: I don't believe many modern golf course designers would have the guts to stamp their approval on greens which appear as seemingly benign as a few at Essex (even though this is actually not the case, in fact). Of course there are a few exceptions.

We need more Essex'. Courses where the greens are beautifully classy-looking and adequately challenging, but not outrageous. Where tees are immediately adjacent to greens. And where a round of golf can be played with a single ball over 6,700 yards (max.) in less than four hours.

Too many modern creations are the antithesis of this formula, unfortunately.