Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"We're talking about a sport, something that's supposed to be fun..."

#11 at Oakland Hills-South:
The anti-thesis of what Turner's talking about.
An architect should never lose sight of his responsibility as an educational factor in the game. Nothing will tend more surely to develop the right spirit of the game than an insistence upon the high ideals that should inspire sound golf architecture.

- Wm. Flynn (1891-1945).

Last night I listened to episode 4 of an interesting new series of podcasts called 'State of the Game'.

In this episode, host Rod Morri talks golf architecture with guests Mike Clayton and Greg Turner. Both Clayton and Turner are Tour pros turned architects. Clayton has done some great work recently in his native Australia, and now partners with fellow Aussie, Geoff Ogilvy, in the design business. Turner is also a golf pro turned architect, who's doing some interesting work with fellow Kiwi Scott Macpherson. 

Geoff Shackelford has a link to this very interesting discussion, at his blog, here.

One of the most interesting bits of this 46 minute chat came from Turner, who says it's critical that golf architects play a role as educators. (I agree.) Some times it's not easy though. Turner adds: When working at clubs with means, architects are often dealing with people who are successful in their own walk of life and who, in turn, are some times disagreeable with views on golf and course architecture. Many of these people look at golf architecture simply as a way to penalize golfers for erring, he says. And, the more a golfer errs, the greater they think the penalty should be.

Turner recognizes that this is a rational, logical way to think about things, and a reasonable way to run a society. But, we're not talking about running a society, he says. "We're talking about a game. We're talking about a sport, something that's supposed to be fun and enjoyable."

Words of wisdom that more golfers need to consider.

I agree with Turner. A strictly penal approach to golf architecture results in making the game increasingly more miserable for those who are least able to deal with it. Sound golf architecture is not about penalizing poor shots. It's about making golf more interesting, fun and enjoyable.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bernard Darwin on architecture.

Bernard Darwin.
The greatest golf writer of them all is Bernard Darwin (1876-1961); and, his writings on 'golfing architecture' (Darwin's term) are essential reading for serious students of golf. Whenever I'm asked which books on golf course architecture are most important, I always include The Golf Courses of the British Isles, which Darwin published in 1910. There's also an excellent chapter in his 1944 book, Golf Between Two Wars, simply titled 'Architecture'.

In that particular chapter, 'Architecture', Darwin discusses the philosophies and works of some of the most influential thinkers and pioneers in the field, including John Low, Harry Colt, Herbert Fowler, Tom Simpson and J.F. Abercromby. To my mind, the following paragraph - written nearly 70 years ago - neatly sums up the what is, really, 'modern golf course architecture'. Darwin writes:

They have, I think, generally speaking eschewed the mere punishing of a bad shot directly and for its own sake have rather tried to contrive that it shall ultimately bring its punishment in the subsequent play of the hole. They have not come down like a hundred of bricks on the bad player, who will always have plenty of trouble of his own, but have insisted as far as may be that the strong player shall be set problems. They have held out baits, tempting him with great advantages if he will make a particularly bold and accurate shot and trapping him if it is not quite accurate enough. They have tried more and more to match their wits against the player. They have demanded that he shall do more than hit what he calls a good shot, just because it is hard and clean, and that he shall hit it to a particular place. In their own language they have discarded the penal for the strategic. Many examples might be given from many courses which have been made or greatly altered between wars, but if I had to choose one as embodying the spirit of modern architecture I think it should be the eighth on the New Course at Addington laid out by Mr. Abercromby. The hole, as many people know, is but the length of a drive and a pitch; it is 350 yards or so and the drive runs rather downhill. There is apparently most ample room into which to drive from the tee. The green is narrow, guarded in front by a pond and having one bunker eating its way into the right-hand side of the green and another guarding the left flank. The whole point of the hole is in the angle at which the green is placed. Only the player who holds his tee shot well to the left-hand side, almost skirting the rough, is ideally placed for his second, having the length of the green in which to pitch. He who goes straight down the middle or drives to the right is faced with a shot which it is intensely difficult to keep on the green. An apparently simple hole is in fact extremely subtle.

Unfortunately, the New course at The Addington (1933) no longer exists; but, you can read about, and see some of Abercromby's original 1912 design there - the Old course, which is located just 13 miles from the centre of London, England - here, at

And, for more on Bernard Darwin, click here

Friday, February 24, 2012

The importance + appeal of diversity.

The 18th green at Harbour Town Golf Links.
One of my favourite courses in the world, which really ignited my interest in golf architecture as a kid, is Pete Dye's Harbour Town Golf Links, at Hilton Head, South Carolina.

In his book, Bury Me in a Pot Bunker, Dye writes: "In an ironic way, my design concepts at Harbour Town were influenced by the architecture of Robert Trent Jones, in that I took Mr. Jones' ideas and headed in the opposite direction."

While Dye was building Harbour Town, Trent Jones was designing a course down the road, at Palmetto Dunes. Dye took his cue from Palmetto Dunes. In contrast to the long tees, huge bunkers and massive greens Trent Jones was laying out, Harbour Town features mutliple tee positions, tiny greens, waste areas (a term coined at Harbour Town) and abrupt little pot bunkers.

Harbour Town's scale is much tinier, and its profile significantly lower that Palmetto Dunes and so many other courses built during the 1960s; but it's chock full of character and originality. Whether you like Harbour Town or not, it's remarkably original; especially when you consider Dye's concept for the course in the proper context. Bucking every trend of the era, Harbour Town opened in 1969, long before imitators dampened its influence on golf architecture. Some say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but copycats actually diminish originality.

Like Harbour Town, the very best courses in the world are remarkably distinct. This is only common characteristic shared  by the great courses of the world - originality. Take Shinnecock Hills and the National Golf Links of America for example. These two giant courses are literally side by side, out on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York, and couldn't be more different. This remarkable diversity is one of golf's greatest attractions.

As I say repeatedly, there are no standards in golf course architecture; yet we see too many courses seemingly designed to conform to perceived 'standards'. This isn't good for the game, or for any particular course interested in grabbing a larger share of a specific market. Think about it, you don't make a point to visit Paris because it's just like your hometown; and, you certainly don't make a special effort to play a course like Harbour Town because it's exactly the same as your local muni. You make an effort to get to courses like Harbour Town because they are distinctly attractive.

More courses need to be more original, like Harbour Town. In many ways, originality = sustainability.

For more on this subject, read this: Preserving the World's Great Golf Courses.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Creating Sagebrush: #11.

Whereas the 2nd hole was one of the simplest to create at Sagebrush (see previous post), the 11th was quite challenging to build. This 500-yard par 4 is a very important hole too. Along with the 8th (another long par 4 that also required a major construction effort), the 11th hole is key to the routing coming together; getting golfers to a beautiful spot at the back of the property (where the wonderfully short 12th and 13th holes are interrupted by 'The Hideout').

There's a lot of talk about 'minimalism' in golf course architecture these days; and, finding natural holes - like Sagebrush's 2nd - requires unique talent. But to be a great golf course designer, you must also possess extraordinary powers to visualize possibilities through construction work. Most holes at Sagebrush were quite easy to 'see' on the raw ground before construction of the course began; not the 8th and 11th though. In fact, when Rod Whitman first pitched what is now Sagebrush's 11th hole, most people involved with the project couldn't see it at all. 

Below is a pre-construction view of the proposed green site (click on all images to enlarge). This photo was taken from the 11th hole side of a massive fairway area shared with the adjacent 14th hole, at right. This proposed green site for the 11th hole was a steep hillside; a beautiful spot, but not an ideal location to build a green, really.

Below is a similar view during construction. Work is being done to soften a steep slope in the fairway area, some 300 yards off the back tee. The beginnings of a green pad, created by gouging material out of the hillside there, can also be seen in the distance. It took quite a bit of time and material to create a site for this green that was large enough and flat enough to accommodate golf. In fact, a lot of work went into creating all of the greens at Sagebrush. Due to the extreme nature of the site, it was challenging to make these sites flat enough while at the same time creating interesting putting greens.

Finally, below is a view of the 11th green site complete (photo by Duncan Ridley). It's another of Sagebrush's many massive putting greens, featuring some neat 'waves' rolling across its surface from front to back. (Quite a climb is required to get to the short par 3 12th, which is well above the 11th green, playing across a tiny plateau in the shadow of that large rock face you see in the image below.)

Sagebrush's 11th hole is monument to extraordinary imagination in golf course design.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Creating Sagebrush: #2.

News that Dick Zokol's no longer associated with Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club has made me a bit nostalgic. Looking back, I feel very privileged to have been a part of creating such a distinct golf course in such a stunning setting. It was great fun.

When Rod Whitman first visited the property where Zokol wanted to build Sagebrush, he thought it was going to be impossible to play golf there - particularly in traditional fashion, as Dick envisioned it. There's over 300 feet of elevation change across the property. Rod's opinion changed as the routing came together though; and, it's Rod's routing that allows the course to work so well.

Holes like the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 8th (!), 11th, 13th and 16th required a lot of effort to put together. But there are also a number of very natural holes at Sagebrush, like the long-ish par 4 second for example. Following is an interesting sequence of photos illustrating the very 'minimalistic' development of this hole (click on all images to enlarge).    

Before construction: The tee shot plays over a rise immediately in front of the tees that hides the fairway from view. Above is a look down toward the proposed green site - hovering above Nicola Lake, in the distance - from the top of that rise.   

During construction: Vegetation and topsoil was delicately stripped from the fairway area, with effort to preserve existing terrain. Topsoil was then screened on-site and replaced after shaping and irrigation installation. As you'll see below, very little shaping work was required in the fairway area at the 2nd hole. In this photo, you can also see the green 'padded out' behind the pile of stripped topsoil. A small ridge that jutted out of the hillside, at left, in front of the green site was cut down. Material from this cut was used to create the green pad.

Finished and seeded, with the 'green' clearly seen in the distance: The greens are consistently massive at Sagebrush. This one, at 2nd, is only half the size of the 7th and 16th greens, but probably still measures 12,000 square feet or more. Most interesting is the distinct right to left angle of the green. My favourite holes are back-left. When the flagstick features over there, you're well-advised to drive down the right side of the fairway or face a very tricky approach from the left side. There's a neat rise in front of the green as well that makes front hole locations equally interesting.  

Complete: The fairways at Sagebrush - which in most areas transition into native vegetation (there's very little rough) - were planted with fescue. Conditions are always firm as a result. The downslope in the foreground will propel tee shots way down the fairway at the 2nd, turning this 440-yard hole (which in a preliminary draft of the golf course plan was the first) into a drive-short iron some days. The bunkers cut into the natural knob right of the fairway were Zokol's idea; I remember being on-site by myself one weekend when I personally scratched 'em in. You can also see a small bunker right of the green in this photo; there are three more behind the green, principally designed to prevent balls from falling off a cliff there, and another left of the putting surface.

The 2nd at Sagebrush - an incredibly natural hole in an incomparable setting.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Dick Zokol and Sagebrush.

With Zokol and Whitman, on-site, during the construction of Sagebrush.
I'm really disppointed to find out that my friend, Richard Zokol, has parted ways with Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club. Not unlike Bobby Jones and Augusta National, there (was) Dick Zokol and Sagebrush. You can't speak of one without immediately thinking of the other.

Sagebrush was Dick's idea. And, along with his partner, Terry Donald (who's still involved with the club), he put a difficult deal together to realize his vision.

I spent more than three years working with Dick (Rod Whitman and Armen Suny) on the design and construction of the golf course at Sagebrush. We didn't always agree, but I got to know Dick well. I developed a healthy respect for him as a big thinker. His clear vision and determination are very rare. (No wonder he's one of very few Canadians who've successfully survived the PGA Tour for more than two decades.) Dick's tough, and he was always resolute with his vision for Sagebrush.

The place turned out pretty good. Named Best New Canadian course for 2009 by Golf Digest and SCOREGolf magazines, Sagebrush currently ranks #28 on the list of the top-100 courses in Canada. But it's more than that. All of the very best golf courses share a single common characteristic. That is, they're all distinct. Sagebrush is an extremely unique golf course. Its massive scale, which Zokol imagined from the get-go, is unparalleled. But, perhaps most important, it's a fun course to play. Dick always wanted it wider and bigger, mostly so everyone had enough room to play golf. This was, arguably, his most important contribution to the golf course design - playability. Dick was adamant that all golfers, Tour players and hacks alike, were simply going to enjoy Sagebrush.

Even though he's stepped down as chairman, I can't imagine the names Dick Zokol and Sagebrush won't be linked forever.

In his own words: Geo. Thomas on Riviera's 10th.

An incredible photo of the Riviera's 10th, c. 1927, before three
additional bunkers were added to the hole a few years later.
(Irresistibly borrowed from;
click on image to enlarge.)
"The poorest of all holes are the short two shotters, where a missed first shot allows a recovery to the green that is only a mediocre shot. By reducing the size of the green, and by tilting it up from one side to the other, or back to front, so as to require a placement on the drive for a shot which can be played toward the higher part, and by making it narrow and long with the opening opposite the carrying trap, it is easy to insist on a fine first shot to make the second one reasonably possible. In other words, if the hole is 300 yards long, and a man misses his drive and goes only 125 yards, he should not be able to reach and hold the green.

This arrangement is most difficult to accomplish in short two shotters. The more exacting the test, the more skillful will be the golfers developed; but a really fine test for a long player is likely to make the second shot too penalizing for the short man, especially on short two shotters. A partial answer to this problem is found by the new 300 yard No. 10 at the Los Angeles Athletic Club course (Riviera), where the green is narrow, yet opens in the line of the short player, but is raised several feet above the adjacent fairway with no traps near it. This makes it very difficult for the short man to hold the putting surface unless his drive is an exceptionally long ball. This practice may be varied on holes of different lengths by the size and shape and facing angle of the green, and it does away with traps. However, it could only be used occasionally, and, therefore, is not a complete solution for the short two shotters."

- George Thomas, from Golf Architecture in America (1927).

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The very finest 'made' golf course in the United States.

Riviera's 6th hole, painted by Mike Miller, as
featured on the cover of The Captain, George C. Thomas, Jr.
and his Golf Architecture by Geoff Shackelford.
To see more of Miller's fine work, click here.
Pebble Beach last week, now Riviera on TV this weekend.

In his introduction to the golf course section of Geoff Shackelford's excellent club history, The Riviera Country Club, A Definitive History, Ben Crenshaw describes Riviera as 'the very finest made golf course in the United States'.

Riveria was built upon the relatively featureless floor of the Santa Monica Canyon, near Los Angeles, during the mid-1920s. Golf architect George Thomas and his construction foreman, Billy Bell, orchesrated a massive earthmoving operation at Riviera. Reportedly, a 27-foot fill was made to create the now famous 18th hole, with its amphitheatre green site. Greens at holes 1 and 11 were raised more than 10 feet above natural grade. And, creation of the wonderful, Redan-like par-3 fourth hole - which Ben Hogan called 'the greatest par 3 hole in America' - required 16 feet of fill material.

More amazing than the earthmoving operation undertaken to create Riviera is the shaping work. So many features of the course are designed to move water over the surface of the ground off of playing areas. Most holes feature a tilt toward a barranca that runs through the property - and also brilliantly factors into the design strategy of nearly half of the holes. Every slope, swale and valley designed to drain the course not only blend together to 'comply with nature', as Crenshaw puts it, but brilliantly assist with creating interesting golf as well. Despite the massive construction effort requried, Riviera is one of the most natural-looking golf courses in the world.

'It all looks as though it has been there forever,' adds Crenshaw. 'It is impossible to find where artifical work ended or began'

Then there are the holes themselves. In his landmark book, Golf Architecture in America (1927), Thomas wrote: 'When you play a course and remember each hole, it has individuality and change. If your mind cannot recall the exact sequence of the holes, that course lacks great assets of originality and diversity'. Riviera doesn't suffer this problem. The course features eighteen of the most distinct, memorable holes in golf; including the famed tenth. Played from a high tee, the 10th hole at Riviera is built over flat ground and yet, with its amazingly unique green design and bunker arrangement, is considered to be the very best short par 4 in golf. There's also the par 3 sixth, one in a collection of four incredible short holes, featuring a bunker in the centre of the putting surface. And the par 4 eighth, with its unique double fairway. This is to, unfortunately, say nothing about so many other fantastic holes at Riviera.

George Thomas also wrote that 'in golf construction, art and utility meet; both are absolutely vital; one is utterly ruined without the other'. Riviera is perhaps the greatest example of this extremely important architectural tenet. Perhaps no other golf course in the world exemplifies what is required of the golf course architect to create a world-class course; especially over a comparatively dull property.

Riviera is a textbook on golf course architecture, and a testament to the genius and artistic talents of George Thomas and Billy Bell. Enjoy it on TV this weekend.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Some unusual images from Monterey.

Back in January 2009 I made a trip to San Francisco to visit my friend and colleague, George Waters.

George and I played the California Golf Club (with Tom Doak and Jim Urbina, nonetheless). George assisted Kyle Phillips and co. with a remarkable reworking of the Cal Club. (Click here to read Ran Morrissett's review of the Cal Club at I was also fortunate to walk the San Francisco Golf Club (incredible) and The Olympic Club's Lake course (not so much), which hosts the US Open later this year.  

George and I then headed down to the Monterey Peninsula, which included a stop in Santa Cruz for a round at Alister Mackenzie's Pasatiempo (exceeded my already high expectations). No matter what anyone tells you, you have to visit the Monterey Peninsula to truly appreciate its unparalleled beauty. Then there's the golf: Cypress Point, Monterey Peninsula Country Club and, of course, Pebble Beach, where the final round of the AT&T Pro-Am takes place today. 

For the fun of it, here are a few unusual images I captured in Monterey; in other words, views you don't typically see in the golf magazines. Click on all images to enlarge.

Looking toward the 17th green from the 4th fairway at Pebble Beach.

Alister Mackenzie originally had plans to build a suspension bridge to get over to a back tee built on this rocky island at Cypress Point's 18th hole.
The incredibly beautiful landscape on the back nine at Pacific Grove Muni.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The passing of a legend.

The par-five 3rd hole on the South nine at York Downs.
Geoffrey St. John Cornish, designer of hundreds of golf courses - including New Ashburn and York Downs here, in Canada - died yesterday, age 97.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Mr. Cornish ended up spending most of his life living and working from Amherst, Massachusetts, from where he also authored many important books on golf course design and its history.

Other than York Downs, north of Toronto - where I'm now consulting on golf course improvements - I'm not very familiar with Mr. Cornish's design work. But his books - including The Architects of Golf, Golf Course Design, and Classic Golf Hole Design - are prominently displayed on my bookshelf. And I was fortunate to meet the man.

Spending a few days with him at Cape Breton Highlands Links a number of years ago now was priceless. Mr. Cornish was already into his 90s then but, with martini in hand, he enthusiastically shared some remarkable stories about working on the construction of Highlands Links as an associate of Stanley Thompson's during the late 1930s; and, with my full attention, talked candidly about Mr. Thompson himself.

Following that visit to Cape Breton, I was fortunate to be the recipient of a number of Mr. Cornish's cherished type-written letters. These letters would usually arrive at my house after I'd published an article in a magazine on some aspect of golf course architecture. Mr. Cornish was a prolific letter writer, and always very complimentary and genuinely encouraging with his words. His letters were incredibly thoughtful gestures which speak to the man's character.

Geoff Cornish's selfless contributions to golf and course architecture, and his admirable personal nature will certainly never be forgotten.

Here's Lorne Rubenstein on Mr. Cornish from yesterday's Globe and Mail:

More from Golf Course Architecture magazine, including a link to a recent interview with Mr. Cornish:

And, the Royal Canadian Golf Association's Hall of Fame profile:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"Lollygaggers Need Not Apply", at

I'm very fortunate to be one of a number of subjects in Tony Dear's latest article at on 'some of the young, upcoming golf course designers working around the world today'. Click here to read the article, which features several very interesting stories about some of my most accomplished contemporaries whose passion for, and work in golf course architecture I respect very much. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

GCA: "Mingay restores Macan's Victoria"

It's always exciting to receive the latest issue of Golf Course Architecture magazine. It's a fantastic publication, out of the UK, edited by the esteemed, Adam Lawrence. If you're a golf course architecture fanatic and don't subscribe to Golf Course Architecture magazine, do it

Flipping through the January 2012 issue today I was pleased to happen upon a nice blurb about our on-going work at the Victoria Golf Club featured in the 'Tee Box' (news) section.