Feature Interview with Todd Eckenrode, pg ii

This was also was the first golf course I’d worked on where using water responsibly was a real focus. As such, the turf allocated was essentially designed at what was then considered “Arizona” standards, of under 90 acres of turf. And again, firm and fast was the concept in how it was to be maintained and presented for play, which superintendent Sandy Clark, who has been there since the beginning, does a great job with.

Toward the end of the project, I finished it on my own basically, at no cost to the owners, as I just had to see it to the end and was so vested in the project and its success at that point. At that time, my partner Charlie Davison and I formed our current firm, Todd Eckenrode-Origins Golf Design, and I’m thankful that we are still going strong, nearly 20 years later.

An alternate view of Barona’s 7th, a redan-like hole with the green falling off the back-left. Photo courtesy of Todd Eckenrode.

We led a couple of renovations on a small scale over the years. The first was prior to the course hosting the Nationwide Tour Championship, where some bunkering was added, the course was lengthened a bit for those young guns, and other small tweaks were made. The second renovation was to remove an additional 10-15% of turf.

Overall, Barona Creek Golf Club has been a great success, and I still have a fondness for it like it’s a first-born. It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly 20 years old now. Frankly it’s in need of a touch up at this point, as most any course needs in that type of timeframe. But I think the unique concepts we introduced, the inherent playability and strategy that can come from that, and an embracing of openness have been a true success and remain very relevant.

Fairways are going wide and wider now in America and yet water is at a particular premium in California. How do you balance the two for your clients in California?

The second renovation to reduce more water use at Barona is a good example of that conundrum. As I didn’t want to lose any of the width of the course, feeling this was just too vital to the overall playability, strategies and alternate ways to play the holes, it was a challenging to find turf I realty felt good about removing. For the bulk of the reduction, we decided to remove the majority of the turf between the tees and fairways, and to move any tees up to mitigate any added challenge due to more forced carry. Also, rather than just remove the turf and have the native grasses take over, we introduced waste bunkering into these foreground zones, so that if a golfer ends up there, he’s more likely to have a playable shot and be able to recover.

Barona Creek’s 10th hole tee shot, before the turf reduction renovation. Photo courtesy of Todd Eckenrode.

Barona Creek’s 10th hole tee shot, after the turf reduction renovation, highlighting the addition of the foreground waste bunkering. Photo courtesy of Todd Eckenrode.

On other projects, we are certainly cognizant of this opposing direction you mention. While I love the integration of the surrounding landscape into the golf, and feel we have to be absolutely responsible in the water use of any golf course, new or old, width is one important factor in creating playable and interesting golf, perhaps the most important. So we aim to limit the turf and water use in other less critical areas, such as around tees, behind greens, etc., where fewer golf balls go.

Tell us about some of your newer courses of note.

The Links at Terranea was a unique project due to its limited acreage and incredibly scenic site, on the bluffs of coastal Palos Verdes in Southern California. An interesting past use, it was a Marineland that had closed decades before, and also a site for shooting many films and television shows over the subsequent years. How many golf courses occupy land once housing killer whales!

The owners were proposing a high-end hotel, some residential components, and there was a “golf” envelope in the middle that was tentatively planned for a driving range or other similar use essentially. Fortunately, we were successful in ultimately convincing them to build a short course, consisting of nine par-3’s and some practice areas. Who would want to come to this beautiful site, turn there back to the ocean, and pound balls for hours on end? Not me! I’d much rather grab a few clubs, go play some shots with the whole family or some buddies and have a great time.

There was purposeful intent to not dumb it down, to keep it challenging yet playable, as well as dramatic and engaging, much as the site itself. The approximately 30 acre golf site is approximately half playable turf, and half drought tolerant natural grasses and native, coastal landscaping. The bunkering is flashed and of a natural appearance. Borrowing from the Barona concept, the bunkering is often used in playable areas, as a means to reduce the turf footprint, but still keeps the golfer playing golf, and not lost in the landscape, so to speak.

The Links at Terranea’s 3rd hole, a dynamic 175 yard hole from the back tees, but offering a playable forward tee as seen to the right, allowing easy access into the green utilizing the slopes. Photo courtesy of Todd Eckenrode.

This was also the first project we thought through providing forward tees that offered high playability, but also had the same “fun factor” as the back tees. These tees were assimilated into the fairway cut, essentially, so that a topped shot will often roll all the way to the green. And often the angle of the tee allows the greatest use of the run-in slopes, feeding the ball to the green. When we started our youngest child, Jack, in golf, we would go play Terranea with him…sometimes just a few holes in all. He couldn’t have been 5 or 6 years old, but he could somehow get enough force on a driver and the ball would bounce, bounce, bounce, and roll onto the green. What a thrill that is to witness, and I hope this has been the case for many families. But as I mentioned, if you step to the back tees, it’s presented more as a series of par-3’s you might find on a full course.

Jack Eckenrode (age 6 at the time), striping one onto the 8th from the forward tee, incorporated into the fairway cut. Photo courtesy of Todd Eckenrode.

Again, the focus on creating variety was great, which is especially difficult when the par is the same 9 times in a row! But with varied lengths of approx. 100-180 yards, and bunkering concepts that include a small, central pot bunker, a long diagonal of bunkers, and everything in between, I think we were successful in that aspect. We get back there with the family quite often, and it’s a blast to see my little ones playing those forward tees and enjoying it as much as my wife and I (who’s beat me once or twice, but let’s not talk about that…).

How about your recent project in Louisiana?

This was quite an experience for many reasons. The course was originally called Mojito Point when we first started the design, but is now named The County Club at the Golden Nugget due to the current ownership. It changed hands three or four times in the course of building it, and we were somehow retained throughout, which is probably no small feat! The site was exciting and held great potential in some ways, namely that it was a core site, and that it had quite a bit of river or bay frontage, on the Calcasieu River, part of that being a cove called Indian Bay. The downside of the site, however, is that it couldn’t have had 15 feet of elevation change throughout, and much of this was swamp. I began to channel Pete Dye, and think, what would Pete do….

What little soil present was mostly old dredged material from the river (many decades prior), and wasn’t stable at all. But there were two or three areas in the middle of the site that were native sandy hillocks, with the lone native pine trees interspersed throughout, offering some hope!

So the routing focused on a couple of things. How do we best use the riverfront to get the best holes possible on that unique edge. And how do we maximize the use of the sandy, pine-studded areas. In this sense, I thought back to MacKenzie’s use of the central hills across the road at The Valley Club, and how he played greens into them, played from atop them, and played from one to the other. We would try this, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Field testing is important! Knocking a drive down the future #10.

Ultimately, we were able to route nine or ten holes into these areas, and finish with five holes along the river, to which we were quite happy. The rest of the project focused on how to build something very fun, interesting and varied on dead flat swamp!

Another major concept we had was to not just put catch basins down the middle of each hole due to the flatness of the site. This was the solution at the Fazio course next door, and we desperately wanted to be different from that course. So in general terms, we would build up one side of a hole, slope it to the other to get positive surface drainage to the site, and place the storm drainage into waste bunkering areas or drain to remnant lakes that made up the “lows” of the site. A lot of material was brought in from off-site to accomplish this and to get the greens above flood levels as well, so credit the owners for this hefty investment.

Hole #7, a par-3 turned back into one of the pine-studded sandy areas, and pitched to the left to promote a shot in from the right.

Joe Hancock was our lead shaper there, built all of the greens and surrounds and did a great job. Working in the middle of summer in Louisiana is no picnic, and often we would drive around the site in the ATV’s just to generate our own breeze and get the bugs off!

What else do you learn from this project?

One lesson learned from this project was that once our work is done, if the owner doesn’t understand or agree with the design concepts, the ultimate potential of the golf course can never be reached.

I returned to play soon after and was really pleased with how well the superintendent Reid had it playing, but incredibly disappointed to find the changes dictated by ownership. Hundreds of ornamental plants placed at perfectly regimented spacing, often blocking views for the golfer into the hazards or the hole. Where it was meant to be open and vast, was now constrained and “framed”, but in the most unnatural way. Also, the great short-cut chipping areas and surrounds that we’d created with Joe around every green had been grown out, with the rough brought in to the front corners of every green, making the presentation much like a course out of the 80’s and not in touch with classic or current sensibilities.

The riverbank shore had also been allowed to grow out to such extremes that the really interesting cape-like hole at #15, where the green was visible from the tee, luring the golfer to give it a go, or at least bite off whatever you choose, was rendered as the most awkward layup-type hole. The golfer had no idea what was above and beyond the high reeds, and as such what was once one of the best holes, a true risk/reward short par-4 along the river, plays as potentially the worst hole on the course now due to this lack of visibility.

But what can you do? I only hope they realize how out of touch these changes are with what golfer’s want and what’s most engaging, fun, playable and interesting. It’s got great potential, if presented as it was designed, or meant to be.

The 16th hole plays along the river shoreline, and thankfully is mostly cleared on the left, allowing a full view to the water.

How frustrating and I am sorry to hear all that. On a more positive note, tell us about your upcoming project in Cabo, Twin Dolphin Golf Club.

There is a long history here, starting before the recession. We have completed probably over 20-30 routings over the years, due to various options of planning, road shifts, etc. I can’t tell you how many walks traversing the site we had, really getting into the details, using GPS to record features to note for retaining, and that type of thing. The goal being to preserve as much of the cool stuff found in the routing walks as possible. The owners eventually selected the last routing, which we were really happy with. This kept all of the holes on the uphill side of the land, away from the ocean directly, but with big, vast ocean views on nearly every hole. It was really the best thing that could have happened, as it freed up the golf to be more “core”, to utilize all of the amazing features of the land in this larger golf area, particularly the “arroyos”, which are dramatic, rugged, desert washes of a huge scale with sandy bottoms.

The staking for the 11th green can be seen on the plateau over the rugged arroyo. This hole, informally dubbed “GV”, has survived every routing option due to its quality and uniqueness.

The construction eventually came to fruition early last year, and the team reassembled, including Fred Couples, who’d been involved at the outset as well. Fred was brought on board to provide his valuable input to the golf course, so it will be a Fred Couples Signature Course, and we are the golf course architect of record. Fred was a pleasure to work with, and far more involved than I would have guessed at the outset. He really took a liking and special interest from the get-go, and there was a definite value in having him involved, as everyone felt this was going to be a unique design and really first-rate golf course. He took numerous visits to the site, and his input was excellent. It’s been great working together and I think the course is better for it, which is really what’s important in my mind.

The 3rd hole plays into a natural valley, seen here from the landing area of the tee shot. The 4th green sits above as a backdrop, with the ocean beyond. The juxtaposition of these holes and bunkering will make an interesting composition when complete.

The routing traverses the site with constant variety. There are ridge-top holes set above the arroyos, holes that play over the arroyos directly or diagonally and a few holes that run in the broadest valleys of the arroyos as well. The par-3’s are particularly strong and unique, and there’s a fun 19th par-3 as well, on the way home.

Rough shaping in progress on the fun, short 19th hole, or Gambler Hole, on the way home, with the future clubhouse above and to the right. The arroyo in front, to the left, and beyond makes anything to the left side of the green a daunting prospect.

We strove to provide a lot of contour to the holes as well, in the most natural way possible, mimicking the native surrounds. No artificial lakes, nothing unnatural. If you look off into the desert landscape, there is a lot of erosion that creates these great little ridges, knobs and such. So we tried to bring this feeling into the holes as well so that it would appear seamless.

I am truly more excited about this course than any project we’ve done, as I have no doubt now that it is going to be fantastic. The melding of the rugged nature of the site with the natural feature-work by the shapers is beautiful.

Andy Frank, our Senior Designer at Origins Golf Design, was integral to this project from the get-go. While I was on-site over 100 days to date, and handled the majority of the field work through the completion of shaping, Andy really took a lead role in the finish work and final field adjustments at the end of the project and was vital to the overall quality.

Shapers included Jonathon Reisetter, Blake Conant, Kye Goalby, Clyde Johnson and Cliff Hamilton, who has been invaluable and on for the duration. What a crew! Their impact to the project is profound, and in truth, it was great to have all these different eyes on the project as well.

The 4th hole, with input from Fred Couples and shaping by practically all the guys at some point!

We owe much of what you’ll see out there as far as features go to all of these guys. As anyone in the business knows, it really happens in the dirt, and not on plan, and this whole crew nailed it in that regard.

We are quite excited to see the Twin Dolphin Golf Club continue to finish well. Grassing is underway, and an opening is forecast toward the end of the year.

End of Part I

Part II follows in May, focusing on the restoration and renovation aspects of Todd Eckenrode’s work and ideology.