Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mixing it up.

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, which touched on the importance of creating distinctive golf courses, below is a collection of photos illustrating a variety of architectural styles I've been involved with implementing over recent years, at select projects (click on all photos to enlarge) ~

Blackhawk Golf Club ~ Edmonton

Blackhawk was the first project I worked on with my mentor, Rod Whitman. I was fortunate to work on the design/shaping of a majority of the course's 'naturalistic' bunkers under the fine tutelage of Dave Axland and James Duncan (Coore and Crenshaw), and continue to consult at Blackhawk. Pictured above is a bunker short-right of the home green that golf course superintendent, Duane Sharpe, and I 'freshened up' this spring, as part of the comprenshsive bunker 'refresh' project that's currently underway at Blackhawk.
Victoria Golf Club ~ British Columbia

Victoria is a fascinating project. The course wasn't so much designed by an individual (though, Vernon Macan is largely responsible for its current configuration) as much as it's evolved over the past 119 years since golf was first played over VGC's spectacular seaside tract, at Oak Bay, in 1893. As a result, VGC features an ecclectic collection of bunkers, built in different eras throughout the course's existence, which presents a very unique aesthetic that we've faithfully preserved as part of our restorative-based work there. Pictured above is the par 3 2nd hole, shortly after my colleague, George Waters, and I remodelled its bunkers in winter 2009.
Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club ~ British Columbia

Working with Rod Whitman, Richard Zokol and Armen Suny on the design/construction of Sagebrush was a wonderful, educational, rewarding, and unforgettable experience ~ appreciated more so now, in retrospect, than on those long days while building the course when 35C heat and 50km winds consistently tried to beat us down. I'm not sure I'll ever be involved with another project on a scale comparable to Sagebrush, either. Laid out over a 300+ acre tract that was formerly part of the Quilchena Cattle Ranch, the course features a couple greens that measure some 25,000 square feet, incomparably wide fairway areas, and hundreds of massive, 'blow out' style bunkers that beautifully fit the rugged, desert landscape there, in interior B.C. Pictured above is the approach to the par 4 17th, from approx. the centre of the fairway, where a few of those aforementioned 'blow outs' beautifully decorate a hillside along the left margin of the hole. The par 4 18th hole can also be seen in the distance.  
Overlake Golf and Country Club ~ Seattle

Overlake was also originally designed by Vernon Macan (during the early 1950s). Located on the eastern shore of Lake Washington, the course features a fine routing and an excellent collection of greens, but its suffered typical affects of aging. Unfortunately, there's a lack of historic materials to clearly illustrate Mr. Macan's original design intent; but still, the goal is to restore a 'Macan sensibility' throughout the course. So, we've made a study of Mr. Macan's work elsewhere and have tried to implement looks and strategies throughout the course consistent with his design style and philosophy, at Overlake. With great assistance from my colleague, George Waters, the bunker pictured above was installed short-right of the green at the par 3 12th hole in fall 2010. It's style was inspired by historic photos of a bunker at nearby Inglewood Golf and Country Club, which was also originally designed by Mr. Macan.
The Oakville Golf Club ~ Greater Toronto Area

Tucked away, along the eastern bank of 16 Mile Creek, some 40 kms west of downtown Toronto, The Oakville Golf Club is another distinctive and interesting property. This 9-hole private club course was originally designed by pioneer golf architect, George Cumming ~ who was also head professional at The Toronto Golf Club for half a century, and at one time partnered with Stanley Thompson. The course had been remodelled in piecemeal fashion on several occasions since it opened for play in 1921. As a result, Oakville featured contrasting styles prior to implementation of a comprehensive bunker renovation project earlier this year. The goal of our bunker work at Oakville was to restore a style consistent with the course's unique design heritage. Along with restoring design continuity, our aim was to design/build bunkers to match that '1921' the club proudly displays on its logo. Pictured above is a greenside bunker at the par 4 1st hole, exhibiting this 'old time' style ~ relatively simple and classy in shape, with grass down and a flat sand bottom.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Building architecture > golf architecture.

Our recent work at The Oakville Golf Club, influenced and
inspired by site characteritics and conditions, history,
client needs and desires, etc...
As I've written (too) many times before, I often think of legendary golf architect A.W. Tillinghast - specifically as his work relates to genuinely creating distinctive golf courses.

The contrasting styles of Tillinghast's golf architecture at Somerset Hills (New Jersey), Winged Foot (New York) and the San Francisco Golf Club, for example, provide a wonderful illustration of this very important element in golf course design.

If we didn't know better, we'd likely think each of these remarkable courses were designed by different architects - not all by the great Tillinghast.

Over the past weekend, I came across a short column on Moshe Safdie in the June 2012 issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Safdie is one of the world's leading building architects, who first became famous some five decades ago with his design of Habitat '67, in Montreal. Safdie has since designed many more revered buildings throughout the world, including the National Gallery in Ottawa and the U.S. Institute of Peace, on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

John Heilpern writes about Safdie's resistence to the phenomenon of "starchitects", who have become "almost as famous in the U.S. as celebrity chefs". The theorist-teacher within (Safdie), writes Heilpern, opposes the unquiet architecture of Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind and what he terms, ominously, "the Bilboa effect".

"I don't think I have a signature style that announces, 'This is a Safdie'," says the 74-year old architect. "But I think star architects have seized an opportunity to go anywhere in the world to produce meaningless buildings. You know?"

According to Heilpern, Safdie is constantly asking what the purpose of a building actually is - as his early mentor, Louis I. Kahn, once asked, "What does a building want to be?"

This, to my way of thinking, is a question golf course architects should constantly be asking themselves as well - "What does a golf course want to be?" The answer to this all-important question should be unique in each case - relative to site characteristics and conditions, (in some cases) history, client needs and desires, and other important factors which should (almost always) assist with consistently creating distinctive golf courses.

"I try firstly to make buildings humane," adds Safdie. "Countries and places have a history, a story, and a culture. I want my buildings to take root and look as if they've always been there... it isn't about pastiche or adapting what's already there. It's about trying to blend the future and the past."

I could (and may) paraphase Safdie relative to my own work in golf architecture, simply substituting the words 'golf courses' for 'buildings'.

Safdie also makes an interesting point to Heilpern about inevitable contraints in architecture, citing past debates with influential American building architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005). "There are no rules," Johnson declared. "Only a sense of wonderful freedom."

... bares no resemblence to Sagebrush, where I was on-site
architect - working with Rod Whitman, Richard Zokol and
Armen Suny - through the course's development.
Safdie disagrees, calling Johnson's credo a socially irresponsible license to design anything that comes to mind. "It's treating architecture primarily as an expressive art, like sculpture and painting," he explains. "But architecture has constraints. They're real. It has to contend with them. Otherwise, a building can't fulfill its purpose and the course of its invention - the life that goes on within it."

The parallels between world-class building architecture and the very best golf architecture continues to fascinate.

What's most important to me is to, many years from now, be able to look back on my career in golf architecture and point to a remarkably diverse portfolio - unique golf course designs which derive from sincerely answering the question, "What does this golf courses want to be?"; distinctive golf course designs that intelligently deal with inevitable contraints in creative ways that allow each course to take root and look as if its always been there; and, individual golf courses that completely fulfill their unique purposes.

The works and wisdom of Moshe Safdie and A.W. Tillinghast speak volumes.

Friday, May 18, 2012

A bit more from Uplands.

Some (more) of what's left of Stanley Thompson's 1922 design in Thornhill, Ontario (click on all images to enlarge):

The par 3 4th hole.

Miss the green short at the 4th and you'll face this recovery shot.

Looking at Thornhill G&CC, through the fence behind the 4th green.

Tee shot at the par 4 5th - Uplands' best hole, I think.

Lumpy fairway leading up to the 5th green (not sure what's
being built there, right of the green?).

Looking back at the 5th hole.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Canada's toughest hole (in relation to par)?

I'd long heard about the famous 8th hole at Uplands before getting my first look at it, in person, last week.

These days, Uplands is a nine-hole public course in Thornhill, Ontario - just north of dowtown Toronto. Back in 1922, when the course originally opened as a private 18-hole club, it was surely one of Toronto's best. The original design is credited to Stanley Thompson, who's brother Bill was elected Uplands' first president.

A report on developments at Uplands in the July 1922 issue of The Canadian Golfer magazine reads: There is sufficient room for two 18-hole courses... work will be commenced on one 18-hole course at once. The plans provide for two reversible 18-hole links starting and finishing at the clubhouse, a new feature in golf course construction in Canada, and one which should prevent over-crowding. Only one 18-hole course was ever built at Uplands. And, I'm not sure what's meant by 'reversible courses', as in a literal sense I can't see how reversible courses could properly function on such heaving ground. Uplands is a wildly undulating property - up and down, quirky and bumpy, the course isn't long, there aren't many bunkers, but it continues to look like 'plain fun'.

Back in 1988, Uplands was reduced to nine-holes. At the same time, it also became a public-access course. Seemingly crammed into an urban setting these days - with massive homes covering what is now 'the lost nine' and the private Thornhill club (another Thompson design) immediately adjacent - it's hard to believe there was once 'sufficient room for two 18-hole courses' at Uplands.

The aforementioned 8th hole (originally the 17th) is a sight to behold. Some 235 yards long, it's labelled a par 3 on the scorecard; which, in my view, definitely makes it one of Canada's toughest holes in relation to par.

As pictured below, Uplands' 8th plays from an elevated tee, through an extremely narrow corridor created by overgrown trees, to a super-tiny fronted by a steep, rough bank that eliminates any opportunity to run a ball onto the putting surface. Oh yeah, there's also a creek meandering along the left side, assisting to make a 'lay up' off the tee look as difficult as hitting the green. I watched three groups play this hole last week during my brief visit, and it seemed (almost) unplayable for the average green fee-paying golfer. There was a back-up on the tee, in fact, as people searched for balls then made illegal drops and, generally, carded high scores.

There's no doubt the tee shot was less constricting and not as frightening in the course's early days, but I still thought - imagine playing this hole in the mid-1920s, with an old ball and hickory shafted clubs!

Witness the 8th at Uplands:  

A view from the front of the back tee - frightening.
(Click on all images to enlarge)

The steep grass bank fronting the green, as viewed from
short-right of the putting surface.

The super-tiny green, which may measure less
than 2,000 square feet - a daunting target from any
distance, never mind 235 yards.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Donald Ross' plan for Essex' 12th hole (c. 1928)
illustrates the left-to-right angle of the green.
Click image to enlarge
In many respects, the finest golf architecture is about angles; and, there is perhaps no other course in the world that emphasizes angles as much as TPC Sawgrass, where THE PLAYERS Championship is being contested this weekend.

At Sawgrass, Pete Dye literally transformed an inhospitable swamp into one of the most crook-ridden layouts ever made. Not only is it extremely important to play to certain positions off many tees at Sawgrass to gain a favourable angle of approach to specific hole locations, many (if not most) fairways bend at some 280-290 yards off the tees requiring draws and fades simply to hold the short grass areas, without running through the fairway.

Imagine, too, without any natural topography to inspire the design, Mr. Dye created all of those holes at Sawgrass from a 'blank canvas' too. Love it or hate it, Sawgrass is a stroke of architectural genius. While watching THE PLAYERS Championship this weekend, notice how often (the best of the) television commentators talk about the necessity of shaping the ball off the tees and coming into so many greens from preferred angles relative to the day's hole locations - great stuff.

While playing Essex (in Windsor, Ontario) last weekend, I was again reminded of the cool effect the angle of Donald Ross' 12th green can have on the tee shot at this neat, nearly 100-year old par 3 hole. Built over dead flat ground, the hole measures about 190 yards from the back tees on the scorecard. But its elevated green is set at a distinct left-to-right angle (and fronted by bunkers) which makes left hole locations play much shorter than shots to a back-right flag. With the hole cut left-centre last Sunday, two low-handicap players in our group pulled their tee shots ever so slightly and, because of the aforementioned angle of the green, ended up in the back-left bunker. Without those slight pulls, those tee shots (probably) would have been 'perfect'.

Angles at holes like Essex' 12th, and so many at TPC Sawgrass make thoughtful consideration of lines of play, proper ball-striking and immaculate distance control absolutely essential to a golfer's arsenal.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Fantastic day at Essex (Windsor ON), yesterday.

"It was moved by W.R. Campbell, seconded by Geo. Willoughby that the secretary be instructed to write Donald Ross (Golf Architect) and ascertain from him when the earliest date on which he could come here and consult re: laying out of the new course." - From the minutes of an Essex G&CC Directors meeting, February 23, 1928.

The short par 3 7th hole, where a drainage swale crossing between the tee and green provides some interesting topographic relief on an otherwise flat property. (Click to enlarge.)

"The original design at Essex is a perfect blend of complex putting surfaces matched with the varying lengths of tee and approach shots. It is a golf course that, throughout the years, has challenged every type of golfer from the greats of the game to your average 'Sunday afternoon' member." - Bruce Hepner, Golf Architect.

Looking over a beautiful cross-bunker short of the green at the par 4 16th hole.'s Ran Morrissett describes Essex' 16th as "one of Ross' best greens anywhere". (Click to enlarge.)
"Essex, for those of us old enough to play in that delightful 1976 Canadian Open, brings back warm and happy memories. The course was a fabulous and well cared for Donald Ross design.... the greens were superb and fascinating as well as 18 'interesting problems'." - Ben Crenshaw.

Golfweek magazine recently ranked Essex #10 on its list of the Best Canadian 'Classic' courses, built pre-1960.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Inspiration @ OGC.

New bunker short-right of the 3rd green, at Oakville.
(Click image to enlarge.)
The Oakville Golf Club - where we're in the midst of a comprehensive bunker renovation project - was originally designed by George Cumming. Mr. Cumming was head professional at The Toronto Golf Club for half a century. He also laid-out a number of the best early courses in Ontario beginning shortly after the First World War.

Mr. Cumming's course at OGC opened for play in 1921. Studying historic aerials from the 1930s - which roughly illustrate what was built under Mr. Cumming's direction - provided some inspiration for our plan but certainly didn't serve as a 'road map' to restoring the original design. So much has changed over the years at Oakville - mostly as a result of piecemeal redesign work by no less than three (other) golf architects over the past few decades and more.

In my opinion, there wasn't enough really 'good stuff'in aforementioned aerials to persue true restoration at Oakville. Still, I think the course's design pedigree is very important. You can't create history, which is very important in golf. So, thinking about what to do, 'my gut' told me that overall the course should aesthetically match that '1921' proudly displayed as part of the club's logo. Again, those old aerials didn't show much, but one thing stood out - the variety amongst bunkers throughout the course in the early days. Some were large and elaborately shaped, others were very simple and small, with the rest fit somewhere in the middle of this spectrum - great variety, which made me think of the distinctive work of another early 1920s golf architect: Devereaux Emmett.

While relatively unheralded these days, Mr. Emmett produced some fascinating golf architecture throughout his career at places like Garden City Golf Club (Garden City, New York), St. George's Golf and Country Club (Stony Brook, New York), and Huntington Country Club on Long Island's North Shore. I began studying photos of St. George's and Huntington, in particular, for further inspiration relative to the planned bunker(s) 'upgrade' at Oakville.

As per historic aerials, an overview of Mr. Emmett's bunker designs at Huntington reminded me a bit of the old bunkers at Oakville (NLE) - albeit on a much grander scale. Some were large and elaborately shaped, others were very simple and small, with the rest fit into the middle of this spectrum. Additionally, contemporary ground view images of St. George's (where architect Gil Hanse and course superintendent Adam Jessie have done a remarkable job at restoring Mr. Emmett's original design over recent years) showed some really cool (and clearly manufactured) mounds that factor prominently into the design.

It seemed to me that a loose interpretation of this pre-World War II era 'Emmett style' - featuring extreme variety amongst bunkers throughout the course and a (manufactured) 'bumpiness' - is exactly what Oakville needed to (re-)create a course that matches its own design pedigree and, more important, stands out as distinct amongst others in the Greater Toronto Area. So that's what we're doing; and, the results thus far are very interesting.