Saturday, December 31, 2011

What's in a name?

Rymill's early 1920s plan for Kooyonga.
A good golf course trumps a bad name. But a simple, original, and sensible name is icing on the cake.

Without exception, the world's top-10 golf courses (according to GOLF magazine) have great names that all make sense based on geography, history, etc.: Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Augusta National, The Old Course at St. Andrews, Royal County Down, Shinnecock Hills, Pebble Beach, Oakmont, Muirfield and Merion. How about Loch Ness Links, to cite just one bizarre example of a ridiculous name here, in Canada? Not so much.

Here are a few of my favourite names:

Kooyonga Golf Club
Adelaide, Australia

Australian golf course designer Cargie Rymill named his beachfront home 'Kooyonga' under a misunderstanding that it was an aboriginal word meaning 'plenty sand, plenty water'. Erroneously again, Rymill felt the same word described the site of his first, and most famous golf course design.

Winged Foot Golf Club
Mamaroneck, New York

Winged Foot Golf Club was established by a group of men who were members of the New York Athletic Club. These two historic clubs have never been affiliated, but Winged Foot's founders borrowed the NYAC logo - a winged foot belonging to the Roman god, Mercury - for their golf club.

Friar's Head
Baiting Hollow, New York

Laid-out amongst treed dunes on the north shore of Long Island, New York, Friar's Head is named for a particular dune with a 'bald' top that looks like a friar's head (and has been used by mariners as a navigational point for many, many years). Interesting too, it's not Friar's Head Golf Club or Friar's Head Country Club, but simply Friar's Head.

Devil's Paintbrush
Caledon, Ontario

One of two courses that make up the Devil's Pulpit Golf Association, this 'faux links' on the outskirts of Toronto is named for a unique wildflower that exists on the property - a simple name that makes sense, and is unforgettably original.

Redtail Golf Course
St. Thomas, Ontario

I can think of two other courses where the word 'Redtail' is used in a name, but this one is unique because, similar to Friar's Head, it's not Redtail Golf Club or Redtail Country Club. Even though Redtail is the ultra-exclusive domain of its owners, its official tag is Redtail Golf Course. I like that, too.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Traps versus bunkers.

Bunker short of the green at Essex' 388-yard 16th hole.
Robert Trent Jones' affect on (too) many golfers' understanding of course architecture endures.

It was Jones, beginning with his infamous redesign of Donald Ross' South course at Oakland Hills Country Club, in preparation for the 1951 US Open, who introduced the concept of purely penal bunker schemes. That is, placing bunkers specifically to penalize marginal misses by low-handicap golfers.

Significant advances in playing equipment technologies were occurring at the time. The world's best golfers were driving the ball longer and straighter than ever before. So, Jones - a progressive thinker - felt that golf architecture had to change with the times.

At Oakland Hills-South, he strictly used stats rather than artistry to re-bunker Ross' original 1917 design, which featured a seemingly (but not really) random bunker scheme. On Ross' South course, there might be a bunker right of the fairway some 200 yards off the tee at one hole then, at the next, a sand hazard 270 yards out on the left. Ross tightly bunker some greens while others feature bunkers 20-30 yards short of the putting surface. Jones changed this. Hole after hole at Oakland Hills-South, he placed bunkers at calculated distances off the tees, left and right of the fairways, in the perceived "landing zone" where the best golfers were presumed to drive the ball and made the greens "targets" surrounded by "traps".

The problem with this design philosophy, which Jones continued to employ worldwide for more than four decades following his redesign of Oakland Hills-South, is that no golfer - not even Tiger Woods in his prime - plays the game like a robot. Using Oakland Hills-South as an example, there's a sameness about the tee shots when every hole features bunkers left and right of the fairway at calculated distance off the tees. Less skilled golfers are never presented with a driving challenge, either, because they usually can't hit it far enough to have to worry about those bunkers. And, playing the ball along the ground onto tightly bunkered greens isn't an option, which makes golf very difficult for high-handicap players, women, juniors, seniors and beginners.

But, because of the extensive coverage Jones' "modern philosophy" received as he developed into, arguably, the most famous golf course designer of all-time between the 1950s and '80s, too many golfers these days still think that bunkers should be placed simply to penalize marginal misses by the best golfers. This is not a direct criticsm of Jones' architecture, but more so recognition of the remarkable psychological affect his design philosophy has had on so many golfers understanding of course architecture. It's amazing how often, when recommending restoration of a bunker 200 yards off the back tee or 20-30 yards short of a green, I hear: "what for... that bunker's not in play?". Listen, I've played a lot of golf, with many different players of varying abilities and I'm yet to see a golf course feature that's "not in play".

Take the beautiful cross bunker some 30 yards short of the green at my home club, Essex Golf and Country Club's 16th hole for example. (Mr. Ross designed Essex too.) Sure, when good players drive long and straight at this 388-yard par-four, this bunker might "not be in play". But if, the next day, the same golfer skies his tee shot or drives left or right into the rough or trees, suddenly this bunker becomes a major factor on the next shot. Moreover, it beautifully decorates the scene there, at Essex' sixteenth. Take a look at the accompanying photo (click to enlarge) and imagine this hole without this bunker. The look toward the green, from the tee and the fairway, would be much less attractive.

Golf course architecture is very subjective. As long as the course drains water effectively, everything else is a matter of conjucture. But, from my perspective, when bunkers are placed in calculated fashion, as at Oakland Hills-South, monotony develops for all classes of players and golf holes are comparatively less attractive.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas from OGC.

Historic photo of the 10th hole at The Toronto Golf Club.
There was only one gift I really, really wanted for Christmas this year, and I got it - approval to start our work at The Oakville Golf Club in spring 2012.

Established in 1921, OGC is a private golf club, about 40 kilometers west of downtown Toronto, featuring a neat 9-hole course atop the bluff at the edge of Sixteen Mile Creek. The club's course was originally designed by George Cumming. Who, you ask? The name George Cumming might not attract the same attention as Stanley Thompson here, in Canada, these days, but Mr. Cumming was a fine golf course designer and a pioneer in the field. In fact, he was instrumental in starting Stanley Thompson's now legendary career. 

Cumming and Stanley Thompson's eldest brother, Nicol, were two of the most famous golf professionals in Canada during the pre-World War II era. Mr. Cumming was head professional at The Toronto Golf Club for half a century, beginning in 1900. Nicol Thompson held the same position at Hamilton Golf and Country Club for some 50 years. Both the Toronto and Hamilton courses, designed by the Englishman, Harry Colt, revolutionized golf course architecture in Canada when completed in 1912 and '14, respectively. Messrs. Cumming and Thompson had some involvement with the creation of each of those remarkable courses. Shortly thereafter, with Mr. Colt back in England, they formed a new golf course design and construction firm dubbed Thompson, Cumming and Thompson, which included Nicol Thompson's younger brother, Stanley. OGC is one of many pioneering golf course designs throughout the province of Ontario attributed to Mr. Cumming and/or the Thompson brothers.  

A lot has changed at OGC since Mr. Cumming's days, but the fine structure of his original design is still intact. With a 1934 aerial photograph of the course in hand, our plan is to restore a look, feel and playability reminiscent of early 1920s era golf architecture at OGC. We've been studying historic photos of Mr. Colt's Toronto and Hamilton courses, too. Toronto, in particular, but presumably Hamilton as well, undoubtedly influenced Mr. Cumming's own design philosophy and style.

Having started work on this plan for OGC back in 2009, this is a project we're very, very excited about. First though, it's back to VGC (Victoria Golf Club) in early January to continue with our work there.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Photo visualization.

While we continue to deliver traditional two-dimensional overview plans to our club clients, we're frequently creating three-dimensional photo visualizations as well, which more effectively convey our ideas for restoration and redesign of existing courses. Below is an interesting example of how a photo visualization comes together. Click on all images to enlarge. 

Photo of a short par-four as it exists today, from the start of the fairway area. The flag that can be seen is actually on a temporary green. The real green for this hole (if you can believe it) is atop the hill in the distance. Better golfers drive to the bottom of this hill with nothing more than a mid-iron then play a blind pitch straight up the steep grass bank seen in the distance. This hole is impossible for some weaker golfers who can't flight the ball high enough to carry this hill on approach to the green. I've learned that some people play this course and actually skip this hole - not an ideal situation. As the great Harry Colt once said, there's nothing worse in golf than a "frontal assault on a hill". And, a hole that's dull for low-handicap players and impossible for some others doesn't not meet my criteria. This hill is extremely steep, too, presenting potential danger for golfers and course maintenance staff.
Mock-up of our proposed solution following a site visit last fall, which is to abandon the green atop the hill and create a new par-three. Curiously, this idea came to me prior to seeing the temporary flag shown in the first photo, above. Seeing the flag in its temporary position at the bottom of the hill only confirmed that I wasn't the only one to instinctually determine the most appropriate green site for this hole. As is typical with such a dramatic change, creating this new par-three (which would be the 2nd hole) complicates getting to the current 3rd tee, which is behind the existing green atop the hill. So, we've also proposed to change the current 11th to the 3rd hole; the current 3rd becomes the 12th hole. Getting to the 11th tee from this new green site involves a much simpler walk across a gentle side slope, through a beautiful native forest at left.
The completed photo visualization, by my talented associate Keith Cutten, illustrates our proposed redesign. Some readers may notice a Stanley Thompson bunker style. If so, good observation. Mr. Thompson did some redesign work at this vintage layout during the early 1930s. While we don't have his original plans or many historic photos of the course, the club is proud of this link to Canadian golf history, so our long-range golf course improvement plan aims to create a look, feel and playability throughout the course consistent with Mr. Thompson's architecture during this era, at courses like Cataraqui, St. George's, Kawartha Lakes and Capilano.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Shorter, not longer.

The short par-four 10th at Blackhawk.
It's no secret the game's governing bodies lost control of regulating playing equipment many years ago now. As a result, the best golfers are driving the ball way too far these days.

The search for new back tees at existing courses is rampant. And, the "7,000 yards standard" is quickly becoming 8,000 yards. Pete Dye just opened a new course at French Lick Resort, in Indiana, that measures an astonishing 8,100 yards from the back markers! 

But, is blatant length always the correct response to the threat of 400-yard drives? I don't think so.

The biggest issue with building 8,000-yard courses are the associated costs. The longer the course, the wider it needs to be. So developers have to purchase more land and spend more money to construct longer courses that are also appropriately wide. A bigger course costs more to maintain, too. This all translates into higher green fees and club dues, which is no good for the future of golf.

Moreover, length doesn't really present challenge to top-notch players. If we look at recent professional events at Royal Melbourne, TPC Boston and Plainfield for example, it's the short holes that have been most interesting.

During the Presidents Cup, many players couldn't resist trying to drive the greens at Royal Melbourne's fantastic short par-four holes. This frequently brought them more trouble than if they had played a more conservative tee shot. At TPC Boston, an annual stop on the PGA Tour, Gil Hanse has taken hundreds of yards off a course originally designed by Arnold Palmer's design company, including creation of the wonderful 298-yard par-four 4th hole. Hanse also recommended shortening Plainfield's finishing hole from a ho-hum driver/wedge affair to sub-300 yards during the Barclay's, which provided great theatre at one of the season-ending FedEx Cup events earlier this year. 

It's not all about the pros, either. My younger brother, who's won three club championships at Essex Golf and Country Club in recent years, confirms that the par-four 2nd hole at our home course can be much more challenging, and certainly more interesting for the club's best golfers when the tee markers are at 296 instead of 326 yards. The temptation to try for the green when the tee markers are up enhances the psychological challenge of the hole and brings more trouble around the green into play off the tee.

The 305-yard 10th hole at Blackhawk Golf Club (pictured) is similar. I've seen more 6s made by guys driving into the tiny pot bunker in front of the green than by those who've laid back in the fairway off the tee. If this hole was 30 yards longer, the urge to drive the green would be non-existent. Instead, it would be a comparatively dull 3-wood/wedge every time out.

Variety is key. We need short holes, long holes and all of those that fall in the middle of this spectrum. And we certainly need to ensure that the concept of a long par-four remains part of golf - that is, presenting the challenge of approaching a green from the fairway with a long club. But lengthening every hole possible in response to ever-improving ball and club technologies is not advisable; at least in part because so few excellent short par-fours have been built recently. Why? It's not easy to have the scorecard read 7,527 yards with a 298-yarder out there.  

Friday, December 9, 2011

Golf architecture in wintertime.

I'm often asked, what does a Canadian golf course designer do during the wintertime? Work, of course. The following photos prove it! Click on all images to enlarge.

December 9, 2011: The past two days I was at York Downs Golf and Country Club, in suburban Toronto, working on a long-range plan for golf course improvement. This involved trudging through some snow this morning, which is actually ideal. It's much less distracting - for myself and club members - to do this work without golf being played. Pictured is the 3rd hole on the South nine, at York Downs, from an obscure but interesting angle.
Winter 2007: This is an interesting shot of what is now the 17th hole at Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club. Rod Whitman and I were on-site periodically that winter and the snow patches outlined in this photo, on this day, provided inspiration for two bunkers. See the photo posted with my November 22 blog which shows the "snow patch bunker" outlined at left, built. The other snow patch outlined on the image above is now a small bunker immediately behind the forward tee. This bunker does a good job at hiding the forward tee from view from the back tees and decorates the foreground nicely.

Winter 2007: The same winter, Rod and I were also working on a long-range golf course improvement plan for Wascana Country Club, in Regina, Saskatchewan. Walking around a golf course covered with several feet of snow in -20C temperature isn't the most pleasant experience, physically. But this particular visit to Wascana was productive, and fun. Above, Rod marks out a new green site at the par-five 12th hole. The snow helped with visualizing this idea! 

February 2011: One of the many great things about working at Victoria Golf Club is that the moderate climate on the southern tip of Vancouver Island allows us to do a majority of our work during the winter months. Above is a look toward the green at the par-four 11th hole only a few days after we'd finished remodeling bunkers there, earlier this year. This was a freak snowstorm in Victoria that blanketed the course for just a day or so, and made for a great photo.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Perceived standards.

The 15th at Cypress Point (courtesy of Geo. Waters).
It continues to amaze me how many golfers think that a total par of 72 is some kind of standard. The same people find it very odd when I say that, as golf course designers, we rarely think about par. We simply try to create the most interesting holes. However the scorecard adds up in the end, so be it.

Many of the world's best courses play to par 71. Most championship layouts are par 70 these days. Two of my favourite courses - the National Golf Links of America and Garden City, on Long Island, New York - are par 73. And, Harry Colt's sublime 1910 layout at Swinley Forest near London, England, is par 69.

Over the past year alone, I've recommended changing the par of individual holes at three clubs where I consult - so-called par 5s, which measure less than 500 yards, to par 4s. At another club where we're planning to completely redesign an existing layout, our scheme results in three par 3s on the front nine and just one short hole on the back. Total par would be 34-36--70. In each case, recommending simple adjustment to the scorecard has resulted in more questions and concerns than physical alterations to the course.

It's not obligatory to have two par 3s and two par 5s per nine. Cypress Point, which ranks 2nd on GOLF magazine's list of the top-100 courses in the world, not only features those world famous oceanside par 3s at holes 15 and 16 but back-to-back par 5s at the 5th and 6th holes, too. Total par at Cypress Point is 35-37--72. At Stanley Thompson's Cape Breton Highlands Links (ranked 6th best course in Canada by SCOREGolf magazine), golfers encounter consecutive par 5s at the 6th and 7th holes then again at 15 and 16. More recently, Tom Doak incorporated back-to-back par 3s into his design of Pacific Dunes, at Bandon, Oregon, which at #19 is the highest ranked course built in the modern era, according to GOLF magazine.  

Cypress Point, Highlands Links and Pacific Dunes don't return to the clubhouse after nines holes, either. Come to think of it, neither do National Golf Links, Garden City and Swinley Forest. Hmmm... so much for perceived standards it seems. Clearly, there are no standards in golf course architecture. In an ideal world, where preconception is not forced upon a golf architect, the goal is to simply create the most interesting holes possible, no matter how the scorecard math figures... or where the course returns to the clubhouse.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Olympic design competition.

Olympic gold medalist, George S. Lyon.
By the time the 2016 Olympic golf competition tees off in Brazil, it'll have been 112 years since the Royal and Ancient game was part of the program at the Summer Games. Back in 1904, at Echo Glen Country Club in St. Louis, Missouri, Canadian George Lyon took the gold medal.

The biggest obstacle to having golf at Rio de Janeiro in 2016 is a course. I understand there are a handful of courses in and around Rio, but apparently not a single one of Olympic quality. So, in conjunction with the International Golf Federation (IGF), Rio 2016 organizers are holding a competition to determine who will design a new course specifically for Olympic golf.

I took a quick look at the initial Request for Proposal, which contained a few oddities. Get this one, a mandate that the successful bidder have an office in Rio de Janeiro? Golf architects don't usually open offices in every city where they work. The timelines on submissions and review were incredibly tight, too.

Regardless, over a mere few weeks between mid-October and now, the selection committee has revealed a short-list of eight who remain in the running for what may be the most talked about, and anticipated golf course design commission in recent history.

The Olympic course commission is so sought-after, in fact, that Jack Nicklaus has teamed up with Annika Sorenstam on a bid. Greg Norman has done the same with Lorena Ochoa. Both Jack and Shark are short-listed, too, along with Robert Trent Jones, Jr.; Martin Hawtree; Peter Thomson and his partner, Ross Perrett; Gary Player; Gil Hanse; and, Tom Doak.    

It's a good thing I'm not on the selection panel. It'd be difficult for me to be impartial. I sincerely believe there are but a select few golf course designers who can provide Rio with exactly what it needs; and, that's not a course that simply tests the world's best golfers in Olympic competition for a single week. As the IGF and Rio 2016 organizers have made clear, this is a huge legacy opportunity. The Olympic course not only has potential to promote interest in golf worldwide, but create a beacon in South America's largest country and a city of more than 6 million people where the game is largely unknown. And, as my Australian friend and fellow golf course designer Paul Mogford points out in a response to this blog at Facebook, "an educative example of the right approach to golf course architecture, worldwide".  

Rio doesn't need what's become typical. That is, too much money spent on course construction; too many tees to accommodate 8,000 yards; too many bunkers and water hazards; narrow fairways bordered by thick rough... you get the picture. All of this translates into high green fees (or bust); six hour rounds; too many lost balls; and, too many people who become so frustrated with golf they don't stay with it. No, Rio needs a course that, first, can somehow be accessible and affordable for the masses following the Olympics and that epitomizes all of those wonderful characteristics we saw at Royal Melbourne a few weeks ago, during the Presidents Cup, for example. An absence of artificial water hazards; a conservative number of attractive bunkers in the right spots; plenty of width and short grass; and, influential contouring that presents interest and challenge in lieu of extreme yardage.

It's going to be interesting to see how this competition plays out. But, in my biased opinion, there are only two guys on the short-list who are capable of appropriately delivering in this circumstance. With no disrespect intended, I'll give you a hint... their names aren't Jack, Greg, Bobby, Martin, Peter, or Gary.