Feature Interview No. 2 with Kyle Franz
Your success at Mid Pines led to a second commission from the Miller/Bell/McGowan family—restoring style and subtleties into the greens and bunkering at Pine Needles. What is the scope of the project?
Like Mid Pines, the goal is to restore and add variety, beauty, strategy, playability, and original charm of Ross’s course. However another key goal for the project was to add some cool character points to Needles while trying to reinforce the differences between it and Mid Pines. In other words, continue to give the resort two distinct though well preserved Ross courses — the raw rugged authentic feel of Mid Pines and a slightly more manicured Pine Needles.
Needles has already undergone some excellent restoration over the past 20 years in terms of repositioning greens and bunkers to their original locations. So our work includes further improving strategy with bunkering reshaping. In the 40’s, Ross was building more grass faced bunkers. Needles starts with the nice foundation of having more grass faced bunkers and a manicured look. We’ll improve the look and visual impact by showing a little bit more sand while remaining grass faced and naturalizing them a bit. The goal would be to give it a slightly different look within Ross’s Sandhills style from Mid Pines and Pinehurst #2.
We’ll also reinforce the core concepts on a few holes by adding bunkers. The 18th will receive a little bit more visual styling, as it was originally used as the 1st hole in Ross’s design. We’re also trying to restore a lot of interest in the grassing patterns. Needles will have less of the raw sandy areas. Like Mid Pines, we’ll be widening and adjusting out the fairways in certain places to recreate playing angles.
How did Ross differentiate Pine Needles from Mid Pines and Pinehurst #2?
It really only takes one trip through Needles to uncover the big differences in Ross’s approach to routing the course. Whereas Pinehurst #2 expertly meanders its way across flattish ground using a few key features to absolute perfection, Mid Pines plays up to its strengths of side sloping landforms described above. Needles feels almost like a Philadelphia School architecture with its varying uses of ridge line tee shots — where you’re trying to reach the top of the hill to get a big speed slot bounce forwards. You really see that on the 2nd, 6th, 7th, 11th, and 12th.
But the difference that is maybe most pronounced for all skill sets of players is the course’s propensity for fall-away greens. Greens like the 2nd or the 9th. It reminds me of something that you might see at Oakmont. I am sure that Ross’s friendship with Fownes in Pinehurst impacted his work at Needles.
The greens are also being subtly massaged as you add some contour. Please provide some technical insight into the restoration of green surface subtleties during the transition from Bentgrass to Ultra-dwarf Bermuda.
The renovation work from 10 years or so ago had restored a lot of the macro green contours. So we are looking to add finer details and more of the “horse and blade” shapes to the surfaces. Also we would like to add some key contours and new hole locations. Ultimately, it’s the last 10 percent of fine tuning work that takes greens from good to great. For example, we’re enlarging or adding features to improve strategy on approach play like at the 6th green where we raised the back and added a back left kicker ridge to allow the thinking golfer to work his ball right across the green and avoid that deep front right bunker. At the 8th, we have reclaimed some right front hole locations which puts the appropriate emphasis on finding the left side of the fairway off the tee.
You’re now restoring the work of other Golden Age Architects including Seth Raynor. Tell us about your work to prepare Country Club of Charleston for the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open.
Seth Raynor designed the course in 1923 and built it in 1925 and it is right up there with other well preserved Raynor courses in the country. It is a great old club with phenomenal views of Charleston Harbor and two of my favorite Raynor holes — the reverse “Redan” 11th and the “Lion’s Mouth” dominated 16th.As for the Club, they have a rare commitment to competitive amateur golf. Annually, it hosts the Azalea Invitational (a premier southern amateur event) and they just hosted the 102nd Carolina Amateur Championship. They also recently hosted the 2013 US Women’s Amateur in addition to the upcoming Women’s Open. This will not be the Club’s first foray into professional golf either. Henry Picard and Walter Hagen are included in its roster of champions.
As for our project, Country Club of Charleston began to look at the periphery of the course — natural areas, vistas, etc two years ago to consider improvements. Based on our work at Mid Pines, they reached out to me. While the club’s green committee was working on improving the periphery, their Heritage Committee had spent countless hours researching the history of the club and course. Then in the summer of 2015, the Club came across an October 1923 plan for the course and hundreds of letters and photographs in the Olmsted Archives. As it turns out, the Olmsted Bros. landscape architecture firm was brought in by the Club to lead the original construction project for the clubhouse and course. With this discovery, the Club was able to combine the historical documents, plans and photographs with a high resolution scan of a 1938 aerial to give a much clearer picture of the original design and construction of the course.
At this point, the discussion shifted from the periphery of the course to some of the course’s bunkers. This closely mirrored my previous initial suggestions. In our discussions, the Club felt that there were several bunkers from the original 1923 plan that could be restored or reshaped on the course. They were very happy with Brian Silva’s previous restoration work 10 years earlier, which was based in large part upon that 1938 aerial, but they asked for me to help with further design advice and shaping bunkers based upon that 1923 plan and Raynor’s design concepts.
The Club recognizes that technology has changed the game. Their priority was to continue the restoration work on the course using the 1923 plan as our guide. But they understood that there were a couple of opportunities to improve play for the longer hitters without straying from Raynor’s original design or intent. For example, the club’s Road Hole is a short par 4 and was designed and built without any fairway bunkers. We decided to reshape the Road Hole Bunker to make it deeper and more consistent with other Raynor/Macdonald courses. However, the tee shot still left us with little to think about as there were no fairway bunkers – not ideal since most good players bailed out toward the left rough. As a result I suggested we add the “Scholar’s Bunker and Progressing Bunker” on the original Road Hole at the Old Course. They are also found on the Road Hole at the National Golf Links of America, Chicago Golf Club, Blue Mound Golf and Country Club and several other courses worked by Raynor with Road Holes. Through this work, we were was able to restore the Road Hole Bunker to its original appearance and add bunkers that take into account the playability of the modern game as well as the historical context of Raynor’s design efforts.
The USGA loved the course as it stood prior to our work. However, they are even more excited with our changes. The combination of the momentum generated by the discovery of the historic research, the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open, and member excitement for our work has brought on additional hole projects.
Tell us more about the bunker work and how it will affect the playability of the course for every day play, and for the U.S Women’s Open.
We had the opportunity to address the fairway bunker on Hole #4, which was the Club’s “Leven Hole.” As you know, The Leven is often a short to mid-range par 4 dominated by the long carry over a large bunker. Bailing out leaves a difficult, blind shot into the green for players. Over the years, this template hole was often lost due to the removal of hazards in the direct line of play as well as the narrowing of golf courses for ease of maintenance.
Comparing Charleston’s 4th with other holes like 17th at National Golf Links of America, and Raynor’s original 1923 Charleston plan, it was apparent the bunkers were not presently the original impressive scale. As a result we enlarged the bunker dramatically , and adjusted slightly for modern play to recreate the heroic aspects on the tee shot for good players – without increasing the carry for average players.
Hole #14 is a favorite among the members. You yourself mentioned the GCS article. This is Raynor’s “Double Plateau” green complex and typically home to the “Principal’s Nose Bunker.” The 1923 plan also showed this classic hazard bunker in the middle of the fairway 80 yards short of the green. However in modern play three bunkers now crossed the fairway preventing the multiple routes that make Principal’s Nose exciting. The longest hitters could carry them but not most players. As a result we restored a traditional Principal’s Nose to recreate this exciting multi-option tee shot.
The 1923 plan and 1938 aerial also had a large swath of sand just off the tee but that bunker had been filled in. We have since restored the bunker and mounding off the tee to recreate that blind, imposing tee shot.
On the 15th we dramatically restored the bold scale of the main bunker on the tee shot – making the par 5 much more intriguing.
You keep talking about Woods Hole Golf Club and its potential. The only thing I know about it is that my favorite artist (Arthur Weaver) once did a water colour from there and that you’re working there with Brad Faxon in a partnership brokered by Gil Hanse. Bring us up-to-date.
Well first it is great to work on a project with a player of Brad’s caliber that has a long running family history with the club. So I can’t thank Gil enough and for taking time from his busy schedule to stop in and contribute as well. It is a fun partnership across the board. And it is equally exciting to work with a club with an enthusiastic membership. They are already embarking with a large clubhouse project and some of our suggestions on the course. Woods Hole is a unique property with some great views out over the coastline of Cape Cod. The wild, glacial till landforms create some unique and quirky holes.
To me, Woods Hole is part classic northeast course, but also strongly reminiscent of a classic English countryside course. The routing is good and attacks the land in some eccentric ways. There’s more than a small dose of Painswick or other wild English countryside courses out there. Some holes are jammed up against a rock wall, on others a 30-50 foot chasm guards the fairway or green. On some holes you play through the chasms. In a couple places, our initial proposals try to make it a little more playable but in general, we are suggesting subtle improvements maximizing the quirky character of what is already a very good course.
Given the nature of the property it reminds me a lot of Mid Pines – it’s a short course with crafty intangibles that sneakily make it tougher than expected. In addition to the exterior rock walls and property lines, the wild topography makes it is one of the most difficult shorter courses I have encountered. In addition many holes are framed by fescues, making it feel like sections of The Country Club. The 17th hole falls right off the edge of the world leading down to the waterfront.
The course can’t really be considered a product of one architect or design team, but Stiles and Van Kleek did have superb impact on the course in the 1920s, and we’re certainly utilizing that framework in what we would like to suggest with the overall masterplan.
What’s the general plan there? Esteemed neighbors include Kittansett and Eastward Ho! so it’s in a tough neighbourhood!
Our suggestions play up on the randomness and English country side feel. We’ve also suggested setting up some connected “shared fairways,” which is the type of feature that you really don’t see at the classics courses you mentioned in New England. It will be cool to get some holes blending together in places. The bunker style we have tinkered with will remind people of Oakmont circa 1980-1995 in places, and a little more flashy in others like at Wannamoisett or The Country Club. But what gives uniqueness beyond that is the boulder strewn landscape. There are unique clusters of boulders in the native areas and we are trying to incorporate that into the bunker exteriors. It’s subtle but gives the course its own flavor. I’d also like to throw in an usual number of islands like Oakmont. For extra flavor we might throw in a few gnarly grassy pits reminiscent of English countryside courses like Huntercombe. The 7th has a huge chasm to the right of the green, which may develop into one of the aforementioned features—like a fescue and native grass filled pit.
So hopefully this utilization of a unique landscape and its quirky influences gives us the opportunity to do something fresh – while still appropriate for a happy membership. All the ideas above are subtle ways to maximize an already unique old course.
What have you focused on during the project’s initial phase?
We started work on the 354 yard par 4 18th hole, where the large clubhouse project has required us to implement some of the stylistic elements described above that ultimately we’ll apply to the rest of the course. The best comparison I can give for this hole is that it’s a little bit like something you would find at Sakonnet, where Ross used to have his summer office. The tees sit down at water level and play straight up hill away from the ocean — with a 40 foot fall off on the right hand side of the hole. We’ve implemented a split fairway arrangement somewhat reminiscent of the 18th at Yale. The low fairway successively falls downhill toward blind shots. On the high fairway the players can play unabated to the approach area for a perfect view. At the green we implemented improved kicker options, reminiscent of the 4th at Mid Pines.
The most historic course at which you are consulting is Minikahda, where its roster of national champions includes the only two men to win the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur in the same year, namely Bob Jones and Chick Evans. The course is the product of multiple architects: Willie Watson, Tom Bendelow, and a major overhaul by Donald Ross following the 1916 U.S. Open. In some ways, it reminds me of the California Golf Club of San Francisco, which is a hybrid of Alister MacKenzie’s work over A.V. Macan’s original underrated design. As Josh Smith jokes, it is a Macan-zie! You worked for Kyle Phillips at the Cal Club and saw first hand his approach there to tie the two styles together. Compare and contrast working on multi-architect courses versus a “pure” solo design like Mid Pines.
I really enjoyed the fact that Cal Club was the product of two talented architects that had different visions for the course. Macan’s and MacKenzie’s work shows that while distinct, the Good Doctor would bend his ideas to match Macan’s at times. When MacKenzie started there it was only a year and a half after the course opened. So he only did a couple of greens and all the bunkers. Inheriting Macan’s quirky shaping arrangements around the greens make the work unique. Overall I think it’s really cool to have two talented architects work on the same property. These hybrid designs stand out from their individual work. Cal Club is a very different design from Pasatiempo.
That uniqueness shows through at Minikahda. The course seems to benefit from its multiple designer pedigree. It’s impossible to cypher which architects built what, but several green sites appear much more pronounced than I suspect Ross would have done. Some of the wilder green sites seem inherited from Bendelow and Watson such as the 3rd and 17th for example. While the green sites on these holes are aggressive, the internal contours course-wide are a little softer than you would expect from Ross. At Minikahda you can expect to make a few more longer range birdie putts than you might at Plainfield or White Bear Yacht Club. The steep but gently contoured greens make for a good overall balance.
The bunkering schemes that give the course its consistent and superb character is clearly the genius of Ross. It’s already a well restored course, as Pritchard did some very nice work through the 2000’s. I’d seen the golf course after the work and was very impressed. So I’ve suggested working to reinstate some of the more unique Ross bunkering patterns that they might not have tackled in the first go round. And I was excited to see in their original aerial there are some fantastic opportunities in this category. The course’s original bunker compositions were impressive. A good example would be between the 2nd and 14th holes where there was a big array of bunkering right in front of the tees that is unique in all my travels.
What suggestions have you made to the club to further maximise the value of their multi-architect history?
The 6th hole at Minikahda is a Ross original. There was a little more short grass wrapped around the green in the 1920-30s photography. I suggested that we try to restore a little more of that feeling around the green site and recapture some fun quirky shots and variety. It’s a really cool hole. There are rumors that it’s the hole that inspired Bobby Jones when he hired Robert Trent Jones to remodel the 16th at Augusta – remembering his battles with the course in the 1927 U.S. Amateur. It has the same sweeping pond arrangement that everyone is familiar with that encourages a draw in The Masters — and a contrasting front right pin that demands a fade. So last fall we expanded the front pond according to Ross’s original plan, to effect the front left hole locations. We’ve put in a swath of short grass around the back-left of the green where the famous Tiger Woods shot took place at Augusta. Now you have a chance to play bumps, flop shots, or to putt or chip – maximum variety that was not possible in the last decades. For me it’s very cool to do good subtle work on a hole that has such a far-reaching historical impact. And it is always fun to start working on the kinds of features that members will enjoy.
Otherwise we’ve discussed restoring some connected fairway arrangements. Willie Watson’s plans for the 18th and 1st had a connected fairway which he wrote was inspired by the Old Course. Several areas on the course have the opportunity for restoring these kinds of interesting features should the club decide to.
In addition to your solo pursuits, you have continued working for Gil Hanse on some interesting projects apart from Rio. What have been the highlights?
It has been a good run of diverse projects including brief stints at Quaker Ridge and Ross’s Sakonnet, Wianno, and Allegheny CC — as well as brief trips to work the newer stuff at Mossy Oak and Streamsong. We also completed a unique restoration of a Waverley Country Club in Oregon and overhaul of The Vineyard Golf Club. I also worked on one brief international project at Gavea Golf Club in Rio – which might have been the coolest course in the world in the 1930’s that no one knew about. My two favorite projects among them for Gil were Vineyards and Waverley:
Vineyard was a frustratingly un-walkable Donald Steel course which Gil overhauled entirely. The course is now the opposite with a visual mixture of Sand Hills, and early Garden City. We built some of the biggest bunkers I’ll probably ever build. However the design leaves an adequate amount of space to try play exciting ground shots – critical in summer winds of Martha’s Vineyard.
A really neat club in the heart of Portland, right along the Willamette River and West Hills. Personally, it was great to return to the course most responsible for getting me interested in architecture as a junior golfer. H. Chandler Egan did work on the course in the 1920’s and Gil did a superb restoration job. His plan introduced a fantastic array of grassed face bunkers and interesting grassing arrangements. The closing stretch of Egan’s routing is outstanding along the waterfront – further buoyed by A.V Macan’s phenomenal 17th green complex. It made for a great restoration at a club that may have the friendliest membership in America.
In your 2011 interview, and reflective of the lean times, you stated, “It should become a cornerstone priority of this business in the coming decades to improve the existing golf courses we already have.” You added, “Architects who can and are willing do the work themselves on a timetable and budget convenient to their business model make these projects viable. And when I say doing the work I mean all of it.” That has all come true at design-build projects like Mid Pines and Charleston. That now begs the question: what are the prospects for an original nine or eighteen hole design?
It’s hard to say but obviously the fact that the economy seems to be improving is opening a few more doors than it was five years ago.
I’d love to continue to work on the same kinds of projects, with great old golf courses like Pine Needles, Minikahda Club, or Charleston. These courses have had good restorations but still have amazing further potential for implementing the more edgy and unique aspects of the original design. Charleston is a prime example of this where we’ve just restored some of Raynor’s 8,000 square foot bunkers — big brush strokes on a good course and making great changes.
Projects where a given course has an incredibly high ceiling are very exciting to me. At Mid Pines we had that opportunity and we continue to improve it. If I was able to snap my fingers and make it happen, a completed Woods Hole master plan has the potential to be as good as anything I’ve worked on in my solo career. It’s a really cool place! As the economy improves I’m ready to take on a new phase in my career. If it’s on the right piece of land for the right client, I would love to do a Wild Horse type of model — a great course for great price with design/build ethos. I’m confident with my projects experience working on some of the best courses of the last decades that I’m ready to build a new course from scratch. Where and if that happens who knows. Obviously the US market is improving and it will be interesting to see if the South American market is viable. I would love to do a golf course on the right piece of land in Brazil or in the surrounding countries for a client committed to doing some special.
For guys who were in the business in the 2008 financial crash, it seemed like nothing was ever going to happen again. So it’s a great reversal in my career to be working on extremely rewarding projects moving my career forward—and getting firmly in position to capitalize when the chance comes to start putting my own ideas into the dirt. I would hope that in the next five years I get a shot at taking a piece of land from scratch and doing something really cool. I have spent plenty of time thinking of what my own style would be and trying to push the art form — not just copying everybody else’s work. Hopefully someday I get a chance to try it out and reward a client for taking a shot on someone young and new again.