Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ever hear of High Pointe?

High Pointe, from Doak's infamous book 'The Confidental
Guide to Golf Courses' (1996).
The educated taste admires simplicity of design and sound workmanship for their own sake, rather than over-decoration and the crowding of artifical hazards.

- Tom Simpson, 1927.

Three golf courses immediately come to mind when I think about those that really inspired me to pursue a career in golf course architecture at a relatively young age: Donald Ross' Essex, in Windsor, Ontario, where I grew up playing; Pete Dye's Harbour Town Golf Links, in South Carolina; and High Pointe. 

Opened for play in 1989, High Pointe was Tom Doak's first solo design. After reading Doak's treatise, The Anatomy of a Golf Course, shortly after it was published in 1992, I excitedly rushed up to Traverse City, Michigan to see and play High Pointe. The course was a revelation. So much that's talked about, and now practiced by many in golf course architecture - working with the land, designing holes to give maximum advantage to imaginative shot-making, bringing a Scottish approach to maintenance and fescue grasses to North America - began, or was at least resurrected on this side of the Atlantic at High Pointe.

Doak has since risen to the top of our profession. The popularity of his subsequent design work at places like Pacific Dunes, Cape Kidnappers, Barnbougle Dunes, Ballyneal, Sebonack, The Renaissance Club, and Old Macdonald - compounded by the recent, and terribly unfortunate closure of High Pointe - has rendered his first course a fond memory for those of us who learned about, and experienced it early on.

I'm no fan of the term 'minimalism'. It's used too frequently and often incorrectly these days. In a modern context though, the now popular 'minimalist approach' to golf course architecture began at High Pointe. As he describes in his infamous book The Confidental Guide to Golf Courses, Doak opted for "the least possible disturbance, even in building the greens" at High Pointe. As a result, the course was an incredibly natural looking one, with every hole simply draped over the existing landscape. High Pointe was without contrivance.

Instead of over-decorating the course with bunkers, Doak smartly used natural slope and contour to present playing interest and challenge at High Pointe. His goal was to utilize "steeper undulations for the fairway landing areas and green sites, so that the golfer would be forced to consider the slopes in playing the hole(s)... and counteract and minimize the bounce of the ball." This idea was contrary to what was going on in golf course architecture pretty much everywhere else at the time. So many courses built during the 1980s and '90s involved flattening out borderline slopes in the interest of 'fairness' rather than using them to advantage. When a course is flattened out, golfers tend to approach every hole the same. Boring.

As a means to emphasize the importance of considering slopes and contour in playing the holes at High Pointe, Doak also elected to grass the entire course with fescue. At the time, many experts thought this idea was simply foolish. Now it seems every new course we hear about - from Sagebrush to Cabot Links - is being planted with fescue. Doak's aim was to promote a firm playing surface at High Pointe, but also to create a course that could be playable under less-than-perfect conditions so that, as he puts it, "the budget could be kept austere and the green fees affordable". This philosophy is even more applicable today than during the late 1980s, considering current economic conditions.

Doak's 'experiment' at High Pointe was gutsy, if not a complete success. I understand much of the fescue disappeared or was eventually eradicated over time, for example. But, looking back, his 'experiment' was a revelation, and inspiration to a generation of future golf course designers, including myself. High Pointe encouraged 'out of the box' thinking, illustrating some innovative and interesting possibilities for golf archtiecture and course maintenance moving forward.

Most important though, High Pointe was a fun course to play; and, its simple appearance yet complex challenges were an incredibly beautiful contradiction to what golfers had come to believe golf course architecture to be over the previous three decades and more, before High Pointe.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The difference between a hockey rink and a golf course.

'Scheme for The Pine Valley Golf Course
 as suggested by H.S. Colt.'
National Hockey League games must be played on a rink that must adhere to dimensions and specifications prescribed by the League.

The rink must be 200' long and 85' wide. The corners must be rounded in the arc of a circle with a radius of 28'. The rink must also be surrounded by a wall - known as 'boards' - not less than 40", but not more than 48" above the ice surface. Safety glass must be affixed to the boards as well, extending vertically 8' above the boards at each end of the rink, and not less than 5' feet along the sides. Spectator netting, hung in the ends of the arena, is required too.

NHL rules on the 'Playing Area' then continue to address dimensions and specifications related to lines, division of the ice surface, goal and referee creases, the goalkeeper's restricted area, face-off spots and circles, etc.

Imagine how golf would suffer with a similar set of rules on dimensions and specifications for golf courses (as some golfers and course architects seem to think exist). After all, one of golf's greatest attractions is the remarkable diversity of its playing fields. All of the world's most interesting, and attractive courses are incredibly diverse. Thankfully, there are no rules on dimensions and specifications for golf courses. As long as a golf course drains water effectively (which is, essentially, a 'rule' of sorts) anything can happen relative to length, green contour, bunker placement and style, etc.

In fact, most of the very best golf courses throughout the world break every 'rule' perceived to be by those contemporary golfers lacking the adventurous spirit of Harry Vardon, James Braid, Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Peter Thomson, and Tiger Woods.
Read more here: Preserving the World's Great Golf Courses.

Some of the 'other stuff'.

Short grass area right of the 9th green, Overlake.
At most golf clubs, focus is on bunkers. It's remarkable how many golfers feel bunkers need to be improved, when in fact, they're hazards where you're not supposed to find an ideal lie and a simple shot.

Drainage is paramount, but most of those golfers who feel the bunkers 'suck' talk about playability and overall maintenance. As a result, bunker remodelling projects are very popular. But other stuff has equal, and some times more impact on actually improving an aged golf course.

I visited Overlake Golf and Country Club, in Seattle, earlier this week. Golf course superintendent, Scott Stambaugh, and I looked at some areas where he and I are recommending tree planting simultaneous with some tree removal throughout the course. Overlake is a classic example of a course where short-sighted, uneducated (I use this term with all due respect) tree planting over the past half century or so has created an unfortunate situation. Scott and I are simply recommending removal of non-native species + some other trees that are potentially hazardous, impede play, hamper course maintenace and negatively affect turf health. We've also recommended massive plantings of new trees - indigenous species in proper locations; 'proper locations' meaning areas where, when full grown, these new plantings will not hamper course maintenance, impede play or negatively affect turf conditions. Simple.

The goal of this long-range tree management plan at Overlake is to end up, decades from now, with a natural 'golf forest' that compliments the primary function of the property, which is to allow for a most enjoyable golfing experience, rather than detract from it. Some pretty cool-looking, functional bunkers have been built at Overlake recently, but for the long term, this tree management plan is most important to overall improvement of the golf course. Knowing the bunkers will have to be redone again and again over years to come, if we nail this tree management plan, there should be no tree cutting or new planting required for many, many years at Overlake.

Tree removal at the 2nd hole, Overlake.
Grass lines are very important too. Scott and I have also done some tweaking of fairway lines. Firstly, fairways should simply fit the scale of the 'picture' as seen from the tees. Too many courses feature fairways that are too narrow relative to the scale of the hole corridor, which also affects playability. Squiggly mow lines are also undesirable. Why should a rough line weave in here and out there, arbitrarily? This looks chintzy and negatively affects playability as well.

In most cases, wider fairways present more enjoyment for less skilled golfers without affecting the challenge presented to better players. And longer, flowing fairway lines are simply more attractive than those aforementioned squiggly patterns I see too often.

We've also introduced some short grass areas adjacent to greens at the 6th, 9th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th holes at Overlake. These short grass areas are somewhat reminiscent of green surrounds at Augusta National. Overlake's original designer, Vernon Macan, was a stauch advocate of the philosophy behind the original design of Augusta. (Click here to read more on this interesting subject.) So, it was entirely appropriate to 'restore' these features at Overlake, which can be a great 'equalizer'. In other words, less skilled golfers can simply putt onto the greens from short grass adjacent to a putting surface without thinking much about it. At the same time, tight lies tend to confound (some) low-handicap golfers attempting to recovery from a missed approach shot simply because they have a decision to make. As opposed to 2-3 inches of rough grass surrounding the green, hole after hole, short grass presents interesting shot options. This is a very interesting psychological element that adds greatly to the diversity and interest of recovery play.

We've also expanded/restored the green surfaces at Overlake, to great effect. Putting surfaces have a tendency to shrink over time. Consider, every time someone mows a green and tries not a scalp the collar, a putting surface loses a miniscule amount of surface area. Multiple this phenomenon by half a century and a green can loose a signifcant amount of surface area over decades. Not unlike most aged courses, this happened at Overlake (which opened for play in 1953). By taking the green surfaces back out to the edge of the fillpads, closer to surrounding hazards - fall-offs and bunkers, mostly - we've restored some very interesting (if you choose, read: challenging) hole locations.

I'm sure - no, absolutely positive - many golfers at your club, or home course despise the bunkers. Granted, bunkers do need to be remodelled to improve function, playability, overall maintenance and aesthetics, from time to time. But also consider how much impact some tree removal (and new plantings of appropriate species in proper locations) and simple adjustment to some grass lines can make, at about 1/10th the cost of a comprehensive bunker remodelling project.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Some influences.

On-site at VGC, January 18.
It's been an interesting week at Victoria Golf Club. Over the past few years, we've had great success remodelling bunkers and making other improvements to the course during the winter months. Victoria is usually quite mild this time of year. Our luck ran out this week. A freak winter storm wreaked havoc over the past few days, shutting our job down.

I've been working on other things in the meantime, including the beginnings of a comprehensive tree plan for VGC. I also spent some time yesterday answering questions from a golf writer planning to pen an article on young golf architects, under the age of 40. One of the most interesting questions posed was: Which designers have influenced your philosophy and whose work, among your contemporaries, do you admire?

Inevitably, having worked along side him for a decade, Rod Whitman has greatly influenced my philosophy and understanding of golf course architecture. Rod has extraordinary talent for the two most important elements of golf course design - routing and contouring golf holes. From a construction standpoint, Rod taught me how to effectively implement design ideas on the ground, which is incredibly important. Ideas are one thing, knowing how to get those ideas on the ground is an entirely different proposition.

Philosophically, I’ve been greatly influenced by many of the same people as Rod. Studying the works and writings of men like Alister Mackenzie (author of Golf Architecture and The Spirit of St. Andrews), Robert Hunter (The Links), Tom Simpson (The Architectural Side of Golf), and (Victoria's own) Vernon Macan, who wrote prolifically and brilliantly on golf course architecture during his lifetime is a very important part of an education in golf in general, and course architecture in particular. It sounds a bit cliché these days, but I’m mostly, and unabashedly influenced by the greats of the so-called Golden Age of golf design, between the wars.

(As mentioned in a recent post here, I continue to be amazed that eighteen of the top-20 courses in the world, according to GOLF magazine, were built during the pre-World War II era. The others - Pacific Dunes and Sand Hills - were designed by Tom Doak and Bill Coore and his partner, Ben Crenshaw.)

Dave Axland, who’s been Coore and Crenshaw's main man for some 20 years now, has also been a big influence. Dave’s an old friend of Rod’s. He worked with us at Blackhawk Golf Club and Cabot Links. Dave is a super-talented golf archtiect in his own right. He and his partner, Dan Proctor, are designers of the great Wild Horse in Gothenburg, Nebraska. Both Dave and Dan have been integral contributors to creation of a number of outstanding courses designed by Coore and Crenshaw as well, at places like Sand Hills, Friar's Head, The Plantation course at Kapalua, Bandon Trails, and Chechessee Creek Club. Dave's helped me tremendously over the years, specifically with construction, costs and scheduling issues. In this regard, Dave's one of the most selfless people I know.

Among contemporary designers, I have to include Doak as well. Reading Tom's book, The Anatomy of a Golf Course, back when I was 18 (when it was first published, in 1992) provided a tonne of insight and inspiration. This is the first book anyone interested in golf course architecture should read. It's a wonderful summary of all of the classics by the likes of Mackenzie, Hunter and Simpson, discussed in a modern context. Tom was also very helpful when I was bold enough to contact him on several occasions as a young man seeking some advice on getting into the business. Gil Hanse, too. I have great admiration for Gil’s work. Coore and Crenshaw rightfully get a lot of praise for their attention to detail, but from what I’ve seen by Gil and his partner, Jim Wagner, they deserve equal praise. Visit Boston Golf Club, Castle Stuart, and their recent restoration of Los Angeles Country Club's North course (with Geoff Shackelford) to see what I mean.

Moreover, Gil is a very interesting, thoughtful, courteous, engaging, and impressive guy. Much like Bill Coore (and my friend, Ron Prichard, too). If I were to advise a young person interested in the business of golf course archtiecture to model themselves after any two people, it would be Gil and Bill.

Friday, January 13, 2012

"The game has changed."

The par-five 12th hole at the Victoria Golf Club.
If I had a dollar for every time I've heard "the game has changed" after proposing restoration of a classic golf course, I'd have a few extra bucks in my pocket. This is a very common response from golfers who oppose the idea of putting an old golf course back together.

Sure, playing equipment technologies have improved greatly since the pre-World War II era, when so many of the best courses throughout the world were designed and constructed. Yes, the golf ball travels a lot further today; mostly for the best players... but, for the most part, has the game really changed that much?

Take a look at the world's top-20 courses, according to GOLF magazine's most recent biennial ranking, in 2011 (with annotation):

Pine Valley, 1918 (few major revisions)
Cypress Point, 1928 (few, if any major revisions)
Augusta National, 1933 (notable revisions; most pre-World War II)
St. Andrews-Old, 1400s (notable revisions, pre-World War II)
Royal County Down, 1889 (notable revisions, pre-World War II)
Shinnecock Hills, 1931 (few, if any major revisions)
Pebble Beach, 1919 (notable revisions, pre-World War II)
Oakmont, 1903 (notable revisions by original designers up to 1950s)
Muirfield, 1891 (notable revisions, pre-World War II)
Merion-East, 1912 (notable revisions, pre-World War II)
Sand Hills, 1994
National Golf Links of America, 1911 (notable revisions, pre-World War II)
Royal Melbourne-West, 1926 (few, if any major revisions)
Royal Portrush, 1929 (few, if any major revisions)
Pinehurst No. 2, 1907 (notable revisions by original designer, pre-World War II)
Royal Dornoch, 1886 (notable revisions, pre-World War II)
Ballybunion, 1893 (notable revisions, pre World War II)
Turnberry, 1909 (notable revisions, shortly after World War II; course was used by RAF)
Pacific Dunes, 2001
Crystal Downs, 1932 (few, if any major revisions)

Most of these courses have rightfully been lengthened over time. Perhaps a new bunker (or three +) has been added, here and there. But, otherwise, the integrity of the 'original, pre-World War II' design work remains unchanged. Exceptions are the two relative newcomers to the list (in bold). Sand Hills was designed by Bill Coore and his partner, Ben Crenshaw. Pacific Dunes by Tom Doak and co. Over the past 20 years and more, these men have unabashedly claimed to be strictly influenced by 'golden age' designers and courses. (The so-called 'golden age' of golf course design is generally recognized as the period between the two world wars.) Sand Hills and Pacific Dunes exude 'golden age' design principles per se.

So then, does GOLF magazine's ranking of the world's top courses speak to the fact that the game really hasn't changed that much? I could write a book on this subject. But this is a blog. So, for now, I'll sum it up like this:

In the early 1950s, Robert Trent Jones thought "the game had changed". Beginning with his redesign of Donald Ross' South course at Oakland Hills Country Club, in suburban Detroit, RTJ began designing golf courses differently than his predecessors. His first original design on GOLF's ranking appears at #88: Valderama, in Spain. Then came Pete Dye, who resurrected old-time concepts and 'golden age' principles (big time), following a trip through the British Isles during the early 1960s. Dye's first course on GOLF's ranking appears at #44: Whistling Straits, in Wisconsin.

Then, again, there's Coore and Crenshaw + Tom Doak - the only post-World War II era golf course designers to crack the world's top-20 courses, with Sand Hills and Pacific Dunes. Coincidence? Or has the game actually not changed that much at all?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Austrian pines versus Mt. Baker.

I'm back in British Columbia this week, working on holes 3-6 at Victoria Golf Club; and, there was a remarkable development yesterday, illustrated below. 

Pictured above is the green site at the 6th hole early yesterday morning. One tree, just right of the flagstick, had been felled at this point in the day. If you click on this image (to enlarge), you'll see Mount Baker's summit just above the clouds in the distance. As you can see too, until yesterday, the 6th green site at VGC had been encased by Austrian pine trees for decades. VGC's assistant golf course superintendent, Derek Sheffield, nailed it when he said: "If you bought a house on this site, would you plant a wall of pine trees to block this view?!" Behind this green are beautiful, rocky islands in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (read: the Pacific Ocean) then, beyond, the Cascade Mountains of Washington state and majestic Mount Baker; not to mention all of the wonderful sailboats that gracefully pass by each day.  

Flash to this morning... with just three trees removed behind the 6th green, there was Mount Baker - as if it knew we needed it this morning, to truly showcase a controversial recommendation that had been carried out at VGC. You can click on this image to enlarge as well, but unfortunately it doesn't do this incredible scene justice. I can't describe the breathtaking view of Mount Baker from this vantage point accurately in words, other than to say it honestly looks like one of the greatest paintings you'll see in your life, in the sky. It's an incredible sight, restoring one of the most dramatic elements at one of the most uniquely beautiful seaside golf holes in Canada.   
Another 3-4 trees, and some underbrush right of the 6th green were removed as well, creating an equally stunning view down the 7th hole (at right)  - and out to sea, where impressively massive container ships travel with regularity. This view will undoubtedly become a bit of a wonderful distraction for golfers waiting for playing partners to putt out at VGC's 6th. 

As at all golf clubs (and I mean, all), trees are a very controversial subject at VGC. My hat's off to the powers-that-be at the club for approving this recommendation, knowing that any controversy will pass with time and that club members and their guests will again enjoy this incredibly unique scene at the Victoria Golf Club.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Reader comments.

I've received a few inquiries about commenting on posts at this blog. I consciously de-activated 'reader comments' when we re-launched back in October 2011. I've changed my mind. After all, one of the interesting things about a blog is interaction with readers. So, the 'reader comment' option is back on.

I look forward to hearing from you, hopeful that this will be an interesting avenue to expand on topics posted.   

Thanks for your continued interest,

Thursday, January 5, 2012

In retrospect: 2011, and onward.

With some luck, this'll be a golf hole some day.
I'm always looking forward, but am happy to look back on an interesting 2011. It was a good year. A lot of excellent progress was made with existing clients, including our continuing restorative-based work at Victoria Golf Club, in British Columbia. It's a joy to work at VGC - great people, at one of the world's most uniquely beautiful places for golf.

We also got through approval of a very exciting plan to renovate The Derrick Club, in Edmonton, Alberta, in 2011. I look forward to presenting this plan to the club's membership this year then, hopefully, getting to work implementing it in the very near future. The Derrick is a very well-established and respected club right in the middle of one of Canada's most prosperous cities. Its course simply needs a refresh to match all of the other fine amenities at the club.

I was disappointed that more work wasn't carried out at Overlake Golf and Country Club, in Seattle, in 2011. But I'm very pleased to report that I did establish a new relationship with York Downs Golf and Country Club. York Downs is one of Canada's most historic golf clubs. Established in 1922, its original 18-hole course was laid-out by the great Englishman, Charles Hugh Alison. That course has since become the City of Toronto's Earl Bales Park, though. The current York Downs, which features 27-holes, was designed by Geoffrey Cornish and his then partner, Bill Robinson, during the late 1960s. There are some very interesting opportunities at York Downs as well. I'll spend time in 2012 working on a plan for golf course improvement there, up in Unionville, north of Toronto. 

I was also involved with three potential golf course developments in 2011. I completed two preliminary layouts for new courses in Saskatchewan, over pieces of ground that most Canadians - actually, anyone who knows anything about Saskatchewan - wouldn't believe exist in that province. Beautiful sites for golf, both. With nothing to gain from making such a bold statement, one of these properties could easily be home to one of Canada's best courses. The other is nearly as good. The third project is on the other side of the country, in the Maritimes. Unfortunately, this one's been a victim of the times (so far). With financing hard to come by at the moment, we've had numerous 'false hope' commitments but nothing secured just yet.

I'm off to Victoria and Seattle next week then back to Ontario to prepare for the beginning of our work at The Oakville Golf Club, which is scheduled to start as soon as the weather breaks. There will also be a stop in Edmonton in spring, where we're continuing with refreshing bunkers at Blackhawk Golf Club. This reminds me, I'm also in discussions to write a book on the making of Blackhawk this year. The book is planned to celebrate the club's 10th anniversary, in 2013. I look forward to revisiting the creation of what has become one of Canada's best courses, and most successsful clubs. As the first big golf course project I worked on with Rod Whitman a decade ago now, my affection for Blackhawk never wanes.