Feature Interview with Bob Cupp
Bob Cupp grew up with the game. Though he played college baseball at Miami because there were no golf scholarships, he did continue to play competitively. He obtained an AB in Illustration and Graphics and an MA in Fine Arts and lived (poorly he says) as a portraitist. Bob served three years in the Army after which he returned to Florida, worked for a short time in advertising, continued to play competitive amateur golf and finally took a job as a golf professional. With his interest in golf and his training in art, he soon found himself assisting in the rebuilding of portions of golf courses. When other clubs in the area requested his services, Cupp returned to school and obtained an Associate Degree in Agronomy from Broward Jr. College before joining Jack Nicklaus. He served as senior designer for Jack Nicklaus for 15 years prior to forming Cupp Design, Inc. in 1984. Bob serves on The Board of Directors of the American Society of Golf Course Architects.
1) How did you get into the golf architecture business?
I was the assistant professional at a private club in South Miami in the South Florida Section in 1967. I thought I could play. By this time I was also overeducated in art, with a BA in Illustration and an MA in Fine Art. I was playing in a one-day section event at Redlands Country Club (near Homestead AFB) and the wind was blowing 25-30 mph. I was very happy with a 72, being what I thought, a reasonably good wind player. I hurried to the scoreboard to turn in my score and approaching it I saw two 70’s. ‘Well, third’s not that bad.’ But then I saw some scores in the 60’s and far down at the bottom I came to what surely must be an error, a 62! I followed the numbers back to the left where I found a name I had never seen, Gibby Gilbert. ‘Who is this guy?!’
I had one of those Epiphanies…. I thought I had played my best, and I just got beat by ten shots. It was at that moment the thought occurred to me that I should either face mediocrity full time, or search out another way to enjoy life.
I had already made some suggestions to the owner of the club concerning some improvements to the course, and my head professional encouraged me. I drew what I thought would be good solutions for situations that were clearly unsatisfactory. He liked them and told me to get some prices. It was at that moment that my life as a designer began. I surely understood how to draw what I wanted, and I knew enough about the realities of the game (having played all my life), but I knew totally zero about how to get it done. Perhaps I was fortunate that my shortcoming was so obvious to me (my boss was sure I could do it, but he had no idea what horrors ran through my head). I immediately embarked on another education. Through some friends, I found someone who had done considerable work in the area as a golf contractor. I also enrolled myself in turf school at Broward Junior College where I learned about warm season grasses under Dr. Granville ‘Granny’ Horn and Dr. Ralph White. I was finished with my revision before that associates degree was complete, and following that work, there were other projects on our course. Then I was asked to do a green for another course, three holes for the Air Force Base (and they liked those well enough they gave me the other six!). I did a number of courses in the Miami area and planned two in North Carolina. That was about the time I received a call from Nicklaus and for the next sixteen years my days were taken up with the most amazing projects – with the most amazing person in Jack, still a friend, and a person to whom I owe much of my success.
2)Do you have an overall guidingdesign philosophy?
This is not a simple question. The easiest answer is that I subscribe to the theory that a good shot must be rewarded. This is clouded in confusion I believe because I often hear members, and often good players suggest that a bunker should be placed on the edge of a fall-off or some other place where the player is not supposed to go. This is contrary to pure strategic design. A bunker, or any hazard (including that slope) should be an invitation. Please understand this concept is not my own. The problem is that it is not a widely accepted precept. It also leads certain players to believe (and some to say) that I design difficult courses. Well, I did not accept this idea academically. I learned it as a player, knowing that If I overcame a hazard to get a better angle to the green, or less distance, or even to secure a better stance, the idea occurred to me that the enjoyment of the game was greatly enhanced on a course that offered many of these situations. In fact, the idea has been with me my entire life. I have since learned through numerous new courses and revisions projects that all players enjoy a challenge. Sometimes that challenge is just getting the ball airborne, but aside from them (and for whom you must always provide a lane of play), even the meanest talent is thrilled pulling off the unlikely master-stroke.
James Balfour was a member at St. Andrews from before Old Tom Morris made it into what it is today (1850’s – an epic achievement which deserves more space), until well after (1880’s). He wrote a wonderful little book about his reminiscences, but the crowning quote was a seven-word masterpiece in the description of golf ‘Hazards are the essence of the game.’
The only things I might add is that the stance is definitely a hazard, and hazards have degrees of difficulty. Like art, there is seldom anything that it solid black and white. And not only is the slope important from where the shot is struck. It is, in fact, even more important at the target itself. The slope of a putting surface can and does affect the shape of the incoming shot. If the green slopes to the left, the shot required is best a fade and vice-versa. If the shot from the fairway is a fade lie (feet above the ball) to a green which slopes to the right (a draw), the player is faced with a greater challenge.
But, at the risk of ‘over verbalization’, strategic design is not the totality of my design philosophy. There are two other issues, aesthetics and turf (and they are totally different subjects as well – as different as a harp is to a fire hydrant). I assign something akin to fifty percent of my attention to Strategy. However, players who understand golf shots are not always well versed in matters of color, texture, shadow, composition and the like. How a course looks is basically a subject from a different planet than that of strategic concepts. Strategy is the way a course feels when played. Aesthetics is straightforward visual – it is what you see. With my education, I cannot help but be attentive to this, and, it is crucial that this be a primary concern because, as I mentioned, there are so many who don’t really care about strategy (though I agree with Balfour). A golf course is, in fact, a giant sculpture, and I would be remiss in not admitting that carving in this grand scale as an artist is a great thrill. There are so many things to say about this, but I fear for the length of this thing. So I will leave it that aesthetics are a far more cranial issue than strategy, which tends to be more pure. It is not black and white surely, but the shades of grey are certainly more definable.
The last issue, and then I’ll shut up about this question, is conditioning, or turf quality. A minority understands strategic nuance, even fewer have knowingly experienced it. A much larger segment understands aesthetics. But in general, nearly everyone who walks on the face of the earth (not just golfers) appreciates nice turf. What is interesting is that as much as ninety percent of the cost of a project is attributed to this item, not strategy or aesthetics. Basically (sadly in many cases), it costs the same to build a great bunker as it does a crappy bunker. The strategic value of a bunker is not in its shape, it is more about its location (and likely the height of its exit lip). But that bunker should be well kept, as should the fairway or green beside it, and the rough, etc. That means the turf must enjoy correct soils, drainage, irrigation and a shape that can be mowed. The line items in a golf course contractor’s contract have more to do with turf quality and site management that either aesthetics or strategy.
3) You’ve worked with a lot of PGA players over the years (Jack Nicklaus, Tom Kite, Jerry Pate, John Fought etc). How does the process differ when you design a course with a professional player vs. doing a course by yourself?
Well, I suppose the easiest thing is to just publish the list, and here it is:
I have worked with the following players since 1970, a grand total of 248 wins on the regular PGA Tour plus no less than 46 major championships.
Jack Nicklaus – All time major championships title-holder (20)
Completed over eighty courses, The Memorial, Glen Abbey (permanent site of the Canadian Open since 1977), the 1979 Ryder Cup (The Greenbrier), Shoal Creek, two PGA Championships, one United States Amateur, revisions at Augusta National.
Sam Snead – Winner of no less than 74 PGA Tour events and seven Major Championships over six decades.
On-going relationship with Sam until his death in 2002, revisions at The Greenbrier, the restoration of America’s oldest golf course at Oakhurst Links in West Virginia and Savannah Harbor, in Savannah, Georgia..
Tom Kite – All-time leading money winner on the Tour (until summer of ’95)
Completed three courses, working on three more. Permanent site of the Tennessee Open Championship and the 1997 USGA National Girls Junior Championship.
Craig Stadler – A Masters and US Amateur Champion, and ten other Tour wins.
Completed Starr Pass in Tucson for Deane Beaman; a TPC, site of the Tucson Open, 1985 – 1996.
Jerry Pate – Winner of two Major Championships and six other Tour wins, now on the Champion’s Tour
Completed three courses, one now in the Golf Digest Top 100 (Old Waverly) and Indianwood near Detroit, a runner up in the Best New Course competition in 1988.
Fuzzy Zoeller – Two Major Championships, a Masters and a U.S Open and winner of eight other Tour Championships.
Completed one course with Fuzzy at Reynolds Plantation on Lake Oconee, voted by Golf Magazine as one of the top ten resort courses in the United States in 1987.
Hubert Green – Winner of a U.S.Open and a PGA Championship and no less than eighteen other Tour wins.
Completed three courses with Hubert, Greystone, site of the Bruno Memorial Classic Senior PGA Championship, Reynolds Plantation and Royal Kenfield Country Club in Las Vegas.
Freddie Couples – Masters and Players Championships and ten other Tour victories.
Worked with Fred on a thirty-six hole facility in his hometown of Seattle for a member of the ‘Bill Gates Five’ at Microsoft, Scott Oki (Seattle Sounders).
Gardner Dickinson – Winner of seven PGA Tour events and many Senior events.
Completed 36 holes with Gardner at Frenchman’s Creek in Palm Beach and eighteen in Orlando.
For the record, John Fought was an employee of Cupp Design for ten years, though he did win the US Amateur.
The main thing I have learned in working with players has been that they are as different as anyone else. There are a few conventions they hold dear as a group, but they can be as different as night and day in how they would approach any design commission. There is no doubt, however, that I have been the major benefactor. Being inside the heads of this many of the game’s greatest players has been educational and reassuring.
When I am working with a player, I want them to be expressive, not just show up, as is often the knock on them lending their name to a project. No one on the above list has ever matched that example. I could go on about each of them, but there is not room, nor should you have that much patience in this ‘immediate’ medium called The Web. That’s probably book material.
4) You were the architect for some of the changes at Augusta National in the mid-1980s. What did you do there? What do you think of the course today vs. then?
I began work there with Jack for about four years, changing thirteen green, bunkers on three fairway and many other smaller items. On my own, I worked there for a number of years (5 or 6), adding the left pin at fourteen, completely reorganizing the final holes and so on.
There have been a number of people who complained that the revisions over the past few years have taken away the old golf course, the one that could see great swings in score, fabulous charges, incomprehensible collapses. That’s what happens on a golf course like the old Augusta, where those hazards are final in some places, but they happen to be where a player can succeed and pick up as many as four shots. or making an eagle to their opponents double (back nine par fives, 13 and 15). Making the course longer and tighter has thinned out the field of potential victors.
But, I believe the club heard those concerns (criticisms), and perhaps you noticed that they put out a different set of hole-locations on Sunday this past year compared to the year before. In fact, they set holes that could be described as inviting. The finish in 2004 was as exciting in any tournament in the past, and especially gratifying to see Phil win.
5) What can an architect with a limited amount of land do to counteract the length that the best modern players hit the ball today?
As long as the hazards are meaningful, the amount of land is irrelevant. If an owner needs a regulation track, or (shudder), an event course, there will be a major sticker shock in the land volume.
With minimal land, the only missing element is length for the longer hitters. For many of the players, there will be no difference. The challenge in this case is for the marketing department, how to position the course honestly. We all know the terms ‘Championship Golf Course’ and ‘A great course for all levels of player’ are usually gross misrepresentations. A championship course needs a, well, a championship of some sort. As to a great course for all level’s of players; Putting Grandma Moses on the same track on the same day with Tiger – well now, will either of them have any fun?
6) You’ve done a lot of work at many of the great old courses in the country including Colonial, Scioto, Augusta National, the Greenbrier and Preston Trail. What is your philosophy on doing work on these type of courses?
The course was there before me, and one of my predecessors sweated to make it right. Just because the ball manufacturers are reducing so many of our older tracks to non-event status is no reason to bulldoze the whole place, unless that is the owner’s instruction. Often, when this is the order, there is always, even on the meanest tracks, some redeeming holes or shots which only need revitalization. For courses like those mentioned above, the great old ones withstood the test of time pretty well and letting it go forward just seems like the right thing to do. I have noticed that if I improve the strategic quality and keep the motif (the aesthetics) and then improve the conditions, the project is always a success.
7) You recently completed a redesign of the Druid Hills Country Club in Atlanta. Can you give us a feel for what you did there and why it was necessary?
Druid Hills was a clinical study in correctness. That doesn’t mean what I did, but that the club, being in the shadow of one of America’s great academic centers (Emory University) approached the situation with uncommon brilliance. Relevant to several of the questions above regarding space and style, the club fell in love with the era during which the course was founded, the period in the early 20th century from the mid-teens to perhaps 1930. Also, over the years, three things had taken place, which are so common in today’s world. First, the course was changed slowly but surely by a series of well meaning chairmen of the greens committees and golf course superintendents (sometimes out of pure necessity, physical damage, etc.). Second, trees grow. Many of America’s great older courses are finally beginning to deal with this issue. It is a difficult situation, since many of those courses are well within city limits and one of the most favorite political games or activististic crusades is to save trees. I love trees. Don’t mistake me. But when the green was in place long before the tree was ever planted in honor of beloved old so and so, it has now grown up to full size and shades the putting surface so thoroughly that it is no longer able to sustain any kind of turf, much less a respectable putting surface. The tree usually must go because there is no longer any freedom to move the green. This is because of the third issue, the ball. As courses like Druid Hills or Oakmont or Winged Foot or Oak Hill are revitalized within their original motif, the trees fall into harm’s way. True, it is painful, but there are almost always three or four behind it, which are noble replacements. I also use the advanced flight of the ball as a reason to move the green out into the sunlight, though that is almost always behind the tree, and, if the members are to continue to play the hole, the tree must be removed. I have great faith in this process because as the newly cleared courses age, and the collective knowledge of turf and shade pervades the thinking of modern greens chair people and superintendents, new trees will never be placed in locations where the above scenario will repeat. It is my sincere hope that the phenomenon of tree removal on American courses will not have to be repeated (this only if the golf ball attains some sort of stability).
8) In the locker room at Pumpkin Ridge, there are a large number of possible routing plans for the site. Some of them are for 18 holes and some for 36. Were there significant compromises you had to make when it was finally decided to go with 36 holes there?
I suggested 36 holes because on that property there were perhaps thousands of golf holes and it became a matter of pure volume of space. There was enough space and enough good options to make two very strong courses. It was an easy decision.
9) In 1992 you built a course at Palmetto Hall Plantation where all the features were geometrically shaped with square greens, triangular bunkers, pyramid shaped mounds and the like. What was your thought process when you decided to do that? Was it a tough sell to the owners? How do you feel about it today?
Since I stay in touch with my courses, particularly one like Palmetto Hall, I have found that defense of that motif was unnecessary. In fact, it seems that members there are ready to kill anybody who suggests a change. The late editorial genius Dick Taylor, the Editor and Founder of Golf Week Magazine wrote a wonderful bit of supposition about Palmetto Hall after he and I spent many hours talking about it. The bottom line was that in my career, I had nursed the medium of eighteen pieces of turf until it was beginning to lose its appeal to me as an artist. Dick said that I was angry at the medium, that it didn’t have enough flexibility for me anymore. I couldn’t really tell you what I thought as I was in the design process except that what I was drawing felt so good! I wonder what Seurat thought as he dabbed away at his first ventures into pointillism, or the Dutch Masters first unearthed the concept of tenebrism. Both were in stark contrast to the accepted conventions of the day. What about Dali or the music of Aaron Copeland or Benjamin Britten. One thing is for certain, none of them ever went back to adjust – to come away from their original efforts. That is How I feel about Palmetto Hall. Obviously, no course is perfect, and indeed, I am going there in a few weeks to assist them in questions about (of all things) how to deal with some shade problems. I would also say that not every member believes there are not some shots that could be improved (considering the flight of the ball). But what they do not want to change is the motif. They like it. It is unique. It was fun to do and the owner, Greenwood Development, a very astute organization which has done many, many courses, feels there is no crying need to take away that geometric idea. I hope it remains in place for many years.
10) You worked with Jack Nicklaus on many projects. Have you seen his more recent work? How has he evolved as an architect over the years?
Jack has indeed evolved. He went through a series of phases over the fifteen years I was there – and each of them was fun and remain today. When we started out, just Jack and Jay Morrish and myself, we dug into every project, tooth and nail, and it was fun beyond the wildest imagination. Like so many of these questions, there is a book full of memories, of laughs, of trials, leaving in their wake courses that have rightfully gone on to prominence, mostly because Jack immersed himself.
I have seen and played his work since my departure in the mid eighties. Not much has changed. The highest design ethic prevails. At the end of the day, Jack Nicklaus will provide his clients with the highest quality courses, tailored to a specific need. The primary difference between then and now is that Jack is the sheer power of his organization. Jack can do more work in more places (the entire globe) with better results that anyone in our industry. Over the years, the people who have worked in positions like mine for Jack have been and are outstanding. There is also little doubt that, like me, they would have a very difficult time deciding whether or not to leave. Jack is a loyal creature, loyal to his clients, to his people and, especially, to his family. Had not there been the premonition of Nicklaus Design becoming a complete family affair (which has been the case) I would likely still be there. This fact alone bodes well for Jack as a person.
11) What changes would you like to see in golf?
I would love to see some understanding of what the flight characteristics of the ball are actually doing to the game. I will be as direct about this as I can, and it is a very difficult situation. The golf ball, from perhaps as far back as Roman times in Scotland (79 – 400 AD) when they introduced the leather pouch ball (sewn like our baseball) was left on Hadrian’s wall when the Scots finally sent them packing for good. That ball was stuffed with Roman hair. There were large ones for football and smaller ones for stick-and-ball games. Somewhere along the tattered seams of history that little ball was stuffed with feathers, not because they didn’t have any hair, forsooth, but because one of those people figured out that it went further. The same was true when gutta rubber came along, and then they kept it in the air longer by hammering dents into it, then molding it and finally the Haskell ball of wound rubber bands, which propelled us well into the modern era.
In every case, the quest was for length. In fact, the only sales pitch for golf balls sold round the world use one solitary pitch – the longest!
So, it’s not likely that anyone will halt the advance of the golf ball if left to the human psyche. I am 64. I can hit the ball as far as I could when I was 34. That is not right. Though I am an opponent of allowing the ball to continue to advance, when I peg it on the first tee, I want my Pro V or whatever because otherwise I might have to hit a nine iron at the green rather than a wedge! But what I forget is that when I was younger, I was one of those guys who was longer than others. As I aged, that should have faded, as did my other various sordid amateur athletic careers.
I liken the present genre of golf ball to drugs. The ball manufacturers are selling drugs to the players. Can you blame them? I do not. They are making plenty of money, so it is difficult in our capitalistic society to fault them. But the effect that their genius is having on our game is not the same as when they pulled out the hair and put in the feathers, or when they hammered the gutta or produced the wound ball. In those days, there were not 75 million players scattered around the globe, playing over courses with a combined estimated value of 30 0r 40 billion dollars (some of which are actually priceless).
Dick Rugge of the USGA, using the PGA Tour’s data calculated that the driving distances increased 12% from 1996 to 2001, and more since then. The yardage is only a part of it. If one measures the sides of a square (property for a new golf course) by that same 12%, the increase in area is not 12% but 25%! Therefore, if in 1996 I could build a nice course on 200 acres, in 2001 I need….. yep, 250 acres. The owner must buy or commit more land to the golf, we must clear more trees, move more earth, install more irrigation, larger playing surfaces, longer paths, plant more turf (read higher maintenance budgets) use more water, more fertilizer and more chemicals. What are we doing to ourselves?
People are leaving the game. The departed are saying it is because it takes too long. I submit that this is not the entire reason. It also costs too much. Bigger courses to accommodate the longer ball cost more than the American public is willing to spend, and the longer distances take longer to traverse.
Now, you say, what kind of dodo am I? Would I not be ecstatic that all of this can do nothing but bring me more work. Well, not if the entirety of American society decides that golf is a lost cause. And, you know as well as me that we can be as fickle as anybody about what we like or don’t like. This web site, my practice, hundreds and hundreds of manufacturers, operators, clubs will be so much static if we don’t react.
I don’t like the implications of any of this. The USGA and the R&A (throw in the RCGA too) have not been able to stem the increases in spite of various agendas. The fact is that no one can contest the sovereignty of the ball makers, and they are driven by corporate America to produce higher profits. It seems only anti-trust legislation would make it possible to bring the inordinate expansion under control. It is not about taking away length. Someone will always be longer than the others. In fact, the players are better trained, bigger, stronger, faster, etc., but the continuing advances skews the perception, and our own search for immortality seems to be the underlying force. I’m as guilty as the next guy. But this is just one of the troubling issues in today’s golf climate.
Ultimately, and probably what troubles me more than anything, is this:
Today in America, if you are twelve years old, it is cool to play golf and except for some very wonderful First Tee program courses generated through the genius of The PGA of America, plus all too few very low-end public courses, and those kids lucky enough to grow up in a private club family, there is nowhere for these dreamers to play. There was a great and heroic press ten years ago to produce one new golf course a day for some unknown number of years to meet the needs of the growing golf market. Not enough of these projects were affordable. Too many of them were replicas of the poster child of this boom, the now infamous High-End-Daily-Fee. They happened when yuppies of the late eighties discovered they could manufacture their MBA and suspenders into a pro-forma that literally guaranteed lenders and investors that they would have money running out of their shag bags if they used the yuppy’s financial model. Unfortunately, the pro-formas were created by people whose primary goal was to be in the golf business so they wouldn’t have to sit around in their paneled offices writing pro-formas for anything anymore. They could be out on their courses, playing golf everyday! Yippee! What we did not know at that time was that we needed more vision. I was again guilty as anybody, but when work walks in the door and it is well funded (especially that it was public), I was rarin’ to go.
But, we all know that a very disturbing percentage of those projects have since changed hands or changed markets, taken their lumps and faced reality. Many of the original suspenders have gone back to their offices, now happy with their once a week golf games at the local muni, and that’s as it should be.
But we need some truly affordable tracks so the game can bring new players, old and new. If someone asked, I would be willing to create a golf course that was not as intense as those being built today. We, and my compatriots , have fallen victim to something as seductive as the longer golf ball, and that is the more expensive golf course. Any new product must have not only proper drainage, but continuous concrete paths, curbs, USGA greens, high tech tee tops, bunkers with complex liners and irrigations systems that cost more to install and put out less water than any in history. They are so automatic they can actually be turned on and off automatically through soil sensors and rain gauges. They will probably even start the coffee pot for you (I never asked that).
To give credit where it is due, Dr. Michael Hurzdan was for years the champion of the affordable course. Mike is an academician, a very bright turf specialist who preached under-expensive golf all the way until the boom, when he too, like all of us, fell prey to the big budget. But he is back, and Mike, if you’re listening, you were right. The only thing I would do differently would be to cut corners everywhere but in the shaping. If we shaped the shots, it wouldn’t matter if the grass (tiffstuff I like to call it – aka, weeds) can be mowed with a walking rotary rather than one of those $30,000 hydraulic chariots. Greens mowers are not that expensive, and though it might be a little nip and tuck keeping a golf course with two of them instead of twelve, there would be a lot of kids and beginners out there, not afraid to pay $20-$30 bucks for a day’s worth of fun.
Read Jim Dodson’s Dewsweepers to see how the game should effect our lives. Golf is about fun. Somehow, golf in America has become ego.
If we build a course like this in every town, golf will enjoy a boom that really has an effect. It’s not about $500 drivers, $200 greens fees or even $3 golf balls. Golf is about fun. Fun is leisure usually, not an automated digital warning in your golf cart that you are a half a hole behind. To get the kids comfortable with the game they can’t be part of a treadmill. The price can’t be that high. The game needs to come back to earth.
12) Crosswater is one of yourmost noteddesigns, but it had to be difficult to make a course that was playable by all levels of golfer over that piece of land with all the water in play. How did you go about doing that?
Please notice that at every opportunity I gave the forward tees a run at the green without a forced carry. There are only four places where forward tee places or obligated to fly the ball over a hazard. In thirty-six shots, that’s not terrible. But it is a difficult course, designed such because Sunriver already had two courses, and they wanted one that would put them on the map. It is such a wonderful place, fabulously sensitive property, great climate and so on that I was thrilled to have the opportunity.
But the further back one goes on the tees, the stiffer is the demand. If a player cannot get the ball airborne at all, perhaps it would be better for them at Crosswater to take advantage of the drop areas on those four shots. But for everybody else, they have a great time playing a course rather well that annually brings the best players in the region to their knees such that they have had to move the tees forward for competitions.
But even on this magnificent track, ‘A great course for all levels of ability’ is not conclusive.
I enjoy hearing from folks who have been there, and how they love to go there on vacation each summer and play the course, going back to ABC Country Club or wherever, a better player.
13) Please describea favorite hole that you’ve redesigned and what you like about it.
Well, probably because it is fresh in my mind, I really like the twelfth at Druid Hills. It is a very short par four, probably 310 to 320, and the green lies along a beautiful little creek, just above a rustic stone wall. It’s in the exact same location it has been for 80-something years. All I did was reposition some fairway bunkers and reshape the green. The flag, or, to be USGA proper, the hole location, dictates how the hole is played. The players get a good look at it as they play the third hole, and if the flag is on the back left section of the green, the player must be as far down the fairway as possible on the right side, either beside or over a bunker complex. If the hole is on the right side of the green, the play is down the left side of the fairway, definitely over the shorter left bunker and along the creek. The approach is obviously a wedge, certainly a short iron for all players. The green has some very subtle rolls so if the player doesn’t get into the section of the green where the hole is located, they face some very interesting breaks. So far, they have been having a lot of fun there. Short holes are the most difficult to do because the shot quality must be perfect. Length covers a multitude of mediocre strategy. Short holes are in your face – in everybody’s face. But in the case of Druid Hills’ twelfth, it’s only in your face if you’re on the wrong side of the fairway. It’s fair, different and fun to play.
14) Please describe one of your favorite holes that you designed from scratch and what you like about it.
This is like asking me to tell you which of my children I like the most, so with apologies to so many others, I would choose fifteen at Beacon Hall in Toronto (actually Aurora, Ontario). It is a par five though a wonderful area of sandy dunes. There are two routes off the tee, the left one being an appropriately sized carry, which would allow players to reach the green with a long iron. If the player takes the long route to the right, it is a drive and a fairly long shot just to get to the second landing area. Obviously, the hole is a hard dogleg left around one of the dunes. It is also impossible to carry the dune (400 plus) not to mention the player would end up in Sheep’s Fescue about butt-high. It’s one of those holes, late in the round where matches are finalized or turned around completely depending on the player’s courage or degree of desperation. A large depression fronts the green, and the putting surface, though large enough to be a proper target for the player coming in on the second shot, it is divided through some gentle contours that put demands on the incoming short irons trying to get it close enough to keep up with the long hitter who is looking for a two-putt birdie or an eagle. There is logic in either play, and a long hitter doesn’t necessarily have the advantage if the shorter player on the long route is a better short iron player.
This hole is one of those places where the game rises to a peak. It is beautiful property, very close to town, but isolated by some barns and trees from the bustle of Younge Street. It is one of my favorite children.
15) Please describe the second course at Indianwood and what your design thoughts were for it.
The second course at Indianwood was an exercise in heathland golf with Jerry Pate. A heath is described by the Oxford dictionary (the English don’t cater to Mr. Webster’s version much), is ‘an open space of sandy soils and dicotyledonous plants. It is, in essence, a links without the ocean and the pronounced dunes.
Jerry is one of those people who, if you were to see him in the field, one might think he was one of the dozer operators run amok. He knows the language, having built a number of courses now with his own firm, but when I was with Jack, he would follow us around, and everybody would talk strategy. Jerry is completely at home on a construction site and totally conversant about his subject. He also has an interesting design style, which is that it continues to move until somebody grasses it. Jerry is amazingly fluid, able to react to the slightest design stimuli. The New Course at Indianwood is a very pure design, and I feel, in spite of being the runner up in the best new Course competition in 1988, that it has never been given its due. True, it is across the street from the wonderful old Wilfrid Reed course from 1927, upon which two US Women’s Opens were played as well as some men’s Western Opens in the 30’s, I believe.
The new course is funky and perhaps as much like a real links or heath as anything that has been done in America. It not only has the look, but it has unique strategies, fabulous diversity, very linksy shapes and, in one spot, it has a hole-o-cross, where the centerlines of two holes cross each other. This is unheard of in American golf (most Americans are Links Impaired). Jerry and I always talk about doing more things together. Every one we have done, The Grasslands in Lakeland (a Nationwide Tourney site), Old Waverly for George Bryan in West Point, Mississippi, which hosted the US Women’s Open, and is ranked the top course in Mississippi, and Indianwood.
Indianwood is a bold thing for America. We shaped the dunes and then gouged them with the corners of the dozer blade (the entire site was commercially saleable USGA sand, if you can imagine that), then we backed the dozer tracks onto those shapes and threw out the fescue seed. That was it. Sure, we had it all on paper, but everybody had to move fast when Jerry was in town.
Jerry remains a good friend, and I am not ashamed to say that he is very underrated as a designer. I guess I’m a fan of anybody who can win a major championship and then dive into a lake. He’s one of a kind, but he should be taken seriously as a designer. The Champions Tour better strap up their chin straps for him too. His golf game may be as good now as it has ever been.
16) What courses would you put in the top 10 thatyou’ve seen?
Let’s assume America, since you didn’t ask. First of all, it would not be THE top ten, it would be MY top ten. As you can probably tell by now, I judge a course by how it plays. Also, to be completely fair, I would have to exclude my own work, though I would rather play them than any. I would include Pebble in that group, but maybe also San Francisco Golf Club. One of my all time favorites is Seminole. I also like Prairie Dunes, and, believe this, Chicago Golf Club. I think Pinehurst Number Two should be in that list. I would definitely include Muirfield in Ohio, and another in that area, The Golf Club. Call me crazy, but I would also vote for Sawgrass, The ocean Course and Harbortown. Pine Valley might be in the second ten, but I don’t spend a lot of time on this sort of thing. If you ask me tomorrow, it might be a different ten altogether. First of all, it’s ridiculous to compare Pebble with Pine Valley or Augusta. What’s to compare? Pine Valley and Augusta are antithetical. It makes no sense to say one is better than the other when it really doesn’t matter. I’m basically against anything that smacks of ego. Golf is about having fun, not showing off. That group of courses is fabulous, along with dozens of others. Just leave it at that.
17) What courses that you haven’t seen would you most like to see?
That’s a short list. I would rather hear the stories about the courses than see them. Have you read Mark Frost’s ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’, about Brookline (which I have played on numerous occasions). The book is about Harry Vardon and Ted Ray touring America and finally competing in the US Open, and had their heads handed to them by some young kid who lived across the street from the club named Francis Ouimet. I would suggest that reading about courses is far more important than playing them. First of all, no one is omniscient after one trip around a great course. A great course requires years to really understand. Isn’t it more about ‘look what I did!’ than truly coming to grips with why any course has withstood the test of time?
Balfour’s book on St. Andrews can be read in less than the time it takes Americans to play it, and while it is true that everyone who aspires to play the game at all should be subjected to the confusion, weather, disappointment and outright magic that happens every time anybody pegs it outside the old clubhouse.
Surely, the lesson of how far we have gone astray will be become crystal clear to some who care enough to look not only about the course, but within themselves and especially at the heritage of the game.
18) Gazing into your crystal ball, how robust do you see new course construction being in the next five years within the United States?
Gazing into my crystal ball…… I wish I had one!
Since we’ve already established that we are not building the right type of courses (more affordable), and that we, my compatriots and myself are seldom asked for that product, what is ahead of us?
Well, for starters, I’ll do it if asked. I might even do it if not asked – though I would have to have the owner’s commitment.
This is where the true growth of the game lies. Affordable courses will bring those fence-sitters (and some of the defectors) to the golf course. For the right money, they will have a good time and they will then go off to bring their friends. Parents will allow kids to play. Seniors will find it in their budgets. It seems it is just like the economy. When it is growing, it is a good thing, good for everybody. The exponentiality of golf in the middle class is almost mind-boggling. About one tenth of the nation now plays golf – sort of. Imagine what it would be like if twenty percent took up the game, thirty? Forty?. Woah!
Another thing is that golf for the middle class would be an easy sell in the permit process. It is recreation, it is green and it is good for society. If people other than the wealthy were playing, there wouldn’t be so many zealots against the game. People love to hate the rich, and though I can’t prove it, golf’s association with money has made many a difficult (if not failed) permit approval. Note that the USGA is promoting US Opens on public courses, Beth Page, Torrey Pines, and though it’s a bit of a stretch, Pebble Beach. There will be more.
The short stroke is that if Golf is to grow (read ‘survive’), it will be on nice-but-not-too-nice public tracks where you never know if your are teeing it up with the plumber or the mayor. That’s the way it has been in Scotland for centuries – a way of life for nearly everybody.
We seem to be rolling into another economic upturn. It will be interesting to see if the golf entrepreneurs and the real estate gurus can see it. I hope so.
I’m not proposing we just throw away all of the technological advances we have made, new turf types, irrigation, drainage and so on, but we should be using that knowledge to make courses easier to maintain – hence, less expensive. There is also a lot to be said for minimalism. I really like the idea, and my hat is eternally off to Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw for the Sand Hills project. As we move along, that will prove to be a landmark project for golf in America. At the moment, I am ripe to do one, maybe two, and I even have the site. The problem is believers, people with the money who are suffering from years and years of colossal budgets and marketing hype.
With regard to exclusivity, there is a place for elite courses, but they are far fewer in number than we have been building. There will always be a need for privacy, and, at the end of the day, so nobody thinks I am against exclusivity, it is a very healthy and necessary part of our society. There are places you just can’t get on unless you play with a member, and in my book, that is as it should be.
The problems arise when the marketers sell on the basis that some golf course in some nondescript place is indeed exclusive because it is expensive. Folks, exclusivity is earned, not purchased. If the golf course is worth its salt, it will flourish if properly handled.
Lets build some tracks for the truck drivers and the waitresses and the kids and the old folks – not separately, all together. Make them get along by shaping a golf course that is fun to play along the lines I mentioned earlier. Golf is about fun.
Crystal ball….. forsooth.