Feature Interview with Adam Lawrence
Tell us the genesis of Golf Course Architecture.
I went to work for Tudor Rose, as their head of editorial, in 2004. At the time, TR was a technology publisher, with the overwhelming majority of its business being in the form of customer magazines for Microsoft, and I was a business journalist who had come to specialise in technology. Customer magazines are a good proposition, but they have one overwhelming flaw, which is that if your customer decides to stop doing the magazine, your business ceases to exist.
Toby Ingleton, one of the two brothers who owned and ran the company (they still do), had been thinking about this, and the need for new products that TR would own, for some time. He went to play golf at Le Touquet, and that got him thinking about course design, and what makes one course better than another (I mentioned this in my piece on Frank Pont and Patrice Boissonnas’ terrific restoration project at Le Touquet last year). So he started doing a bit of research into the golf design business, and concluded that (a) golf architecture was an interesting subject that wasn’t very well covered by the rest of the golfing press and (b) most of the golf business titles, in Britain and Europe at least, weren’t very good, and in particular didn’t look very good. If Tudor Rose has one core skill above all others, it is, imo, bringing consumer magazine production values to business titles. So Toby got to know some people in the golf design sector – Howard Swan was very important to us at this time, as an early supporter – and came to the conclusion that a magazine about golf architecture could work, if the quality was high enough, because you’d be a premium product in the golf trade press, and could charge top whack for your advertising.
That was about the time that I joined the company. I was the only member of my editorial team who was a golfer, and though I knew precious little detail about course design, as it happened I had always been interested in the subject since my teens (I used to sketch golf holes on my school books as I suspect many did). So it became my and Toby’s baby. We got support from the EIGCA pretty early on, and before we had been publishing for long, we started to field calls from American architects who wanted to get involved. And we found that, from a circulation point of view, we were attracting paid subs from people who were not in the golf business, but were keen golfers with an interest in design – the Golf Club Atlas brigade, if you like. We hooked up with the ASGCA, who have been good friends now for a decade, and they helped us put an American circulation together. So, over time, what had started off as a European trade magazine became a global title that straddled the divide between business and consumer press.
By the time the economic downturn really hit in 2008 we were pretty well established, and doing OK. The recession hit us hard, and business has been tough ever since, but I think a lot of our problems were self inflicted, due to staffing issues and other internal factors.
I lost both my parents within five months between July 2010 and new year’s day 2011, both at the age of 62. That didn’t do my mental health any good, but it did mean that, with what I inherited from them, my wife Lucy and I were left mortgage free, and I was left in a position where I was thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. So, in July 2012, I left Tudor Rose and became self-employed. I edit GCA on a contract with TR, and I spend the rest of my time trying to earn a living solely in golf – I do some marketing work, for golf architects and others, I write for other magazines (I have done a lot for Links over the past three years), I do some consulting work with golf clubs, usually in partnership with a golf architect, and I have a couple of book projects on the go. I don’t make as much money as I used to, or not yet at least, but I don’t have to commute to work, I do stuff I love and I don’t have to deal with the corporate crap that goes with even a smallish company.
What is its mission statement? Has it changed over the years?
We don’t have a formal mission statement as such. I understand their value, but I am with Dogbert, the only sensible mission statement for any business is ‘Have fun, satisfy customers, make money’. Over time, though, as we came to know the industry better, we have evolved a set of guiding principles. We believe over everything else, that golf must be sustainable. It must seek to identify, follow and improve best practices in environmental stewardship, in its social role and in its business management. We believe in the growth of the game, and want to be a part of spreading the message about great design to newer golfing countries. We believe that golf courses are designed by professional golf architects, not by signature names, and I try very, very hard to ensure that we always name the actual architect on any project, as well as the signature name if there is one (this is harder with some signature firms than others). We believe that golf is too expensive, and that, especially in emerging markets, there needs to be a lower cost offer to attract new players to the game. And we believe that links golf is the most natural, most sustainable and best form of the game!
Based on the feedback you receive, what have been some of the most popular articles/features?
I think the single most successful thing we ever did was the Architects’ Choice top 100 listing that we completed in 2013. To be honest, I find that a little bit sad, but I suppose it’s not too surprising. We released the results of the ranking over a period of two weeks on our website, and our numbers went through the roof for that period. I wasn’t entirely happy with that ranking; in retrospect the methodology was very flawed, and if/when we do it again we will change it pretty dramatically. But our resources are very skinny, and we did the best job we could, and I was very pleased to see that we highlighted a bunch of courses that are architecturally significant but don’t find their way into most top 100s – Tobacco Road and Woking were two that I remember best of all.
I really like the historical stuff. I was and remain very pleased with the profile of Hugh Alison I did about five years ago – I got on to the archivist of his college in Oxford and she dug up some great material, including the fact that he was ‘sent down’ (expelled) from the college after returning to college late at night, in a motor car (in about 1904!) ‘apparently drunk and incapable’.
Canadian golf designer Keith Cutten has done a piece for me about Horace Hutchinson, arguing that he was the key figure in the evolution of the golden age. We’ll publish it in our October edition and I think it’s a spectacularly brilliant piece of research and writing that pulls together a lot of strands that other people have posited in the past.
That’s exciting. I know Tom MacWood was a huge fan of Hutchinson as well. Moving on, is there a subject matter that generally falls flat?
A good question, and one that we are constantly asking ourselves when we think about future ideas. You have to remember that we still make the vast majority of our revenue from advertising, and that it’s necessary sometimes to create articles that give an opportunity for advertisers to get a plug. Pity, but that’s life in publishing, and if you don’t like it, just go buy twenty thousand subscriptions and we’ll ditch the ads. I suspect that a lot of the more technical stuff goes over the head of the non-industry audience – on irrigation, for example – but it’s too important for us to leave it out. And, to my regret, the answer to every irrigation question cannot be ‘Talk to Mahaffey’. Though perhaps it should be.
How is the health of the game in Europe? It is famously flat in North America, which is not always a bad thing.
Europe is a big place with a lot of different sub-markets in it, and so there’s no one size fits all answer. I did a piece in the July issue of the magazine with the Danish architect Philip Spogard, in which Phil talked about the different stages of maturity of European and other golfing markets. It’s his theory, and I think a pretty good one, that golf needs to be established in a country for a good length of time before you start to get a real demand for quality design. When there are only beginners, really all you want is a field where you can go hit a ball. But as you play more, and get more experience – and crucially, start to play golf away from home – you come to learn the difference between good and bad.
So, for example, Philip has found, since he moved back to Denmark and started his own business, about six years ago, that there is strong demand for better golf in that country, and he’s signed up a good number of interesting and substantial projects. My friend Christian Lundin, who is based in Sweden, is crazily busy right now, and that’s even before the impact of Henrik Stenson’s Open win (Christian is partnered with Henrik) starts to feed through. There is a lot of upgrading work going on in Germany too, and the Eastern European markets are doing ok, though obviously from a very low base. About five years ago, there was a mini-boom in the Netherlands, with several new courses being built and some of the old ones investing in their facilities. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the places I highlight are mostly in northern Europe and have basically strong economies. Whereas Spain, a traditionally strong golf tourism market, is struggling, but then, so is the Spanish economy.
Restorations have grabbed the headlines for nearly a decade in North America. What are the five best you have seen worldwide and why?
I don’t think I am particularly qualified to judge this, as, in general, the ones I’d probably nominate, I didn’t see the course before the restoration, and I haven’t studied their history and evolution. I think Gil Hanse’s project at LACC North and Bill Coore’s work at Pinehurst No. 2 (I did see that before, during and after its restoration) are the most obvious ones to name; I remember writing about the Pinehurst restoration and saying I thought it was the most important golf project I had seen, for its potential influence on the rest of the game.
I am very keen on Frank Pont and Patrice Boissonnas’s work at Le Touquet, because I think they are really transforming the course from what it had become, back into a classic Colt links. But it has a long way to go and I don’t know if they will ever truly be able to get it to where it should be. And then, there is a huge expanse of virgin linksland at Le Touquet that was not available to Colt. If you had the chance, should you take the golf course into that land, even though it’s totally non-restorative? Difficult one. I also love Frank’s work at Royal Hague, and I hear it has improved further in the years since I saw it, due to tree and scrub clearing.
Askernish isn’t really a restoration in any meaningful sense, but I’ve been involved there for ten years and it is home to part of my heart, so perhaps you’ll allow me that one too. There is precious little truly restorative work in the UK in all honesty. I hope we might see a trend develop over the next few years.
Let’s talk about Machrie. The word ‘conflicted’ was in the byline of your April article. Does it now play like Royal Birkdale in that all the fairways run through the dunes and ‘clean’ optics are provided? Or do some holes still go up and over the dunes?
I was and am conflicted about the Machrie work. But you should’t think they’re turning it into Birkdale, with flat fairways bulldozed through the dunes. There was only one really big piece of earthworks on the entire project, the removal of a very large dune to allow the new eighteenth hole to finish right in front of the hotel. But even on that, the tee shot (it will be a par five) made use of a spectacular natural feature.
I have talked extensively to the people involved in the project, from Gavyn Davies, the owner, to DJ Russell, the architect, and their hearts are absolutely in the right place. I’m certain the course will be well received, but I’m also certain that there will be people who loved the old Machrie who will mourn its loss. I don’t think there is one right answer here.
How is the Sand Valley course in Poland?
I don’t know; I haven’t been. Antti Pohjonen, the Finnish guy who is the CEO there, is forever on at me to go, and I really must. But I try to limit my travel to where there is a story for me, and Sand Valley has been around too long to be news right now.
In that region, though, I will call out Jonathan Davison’s Heritage course at the Penati resort in Slovakia. Jonny is an English guy who trained with Jeff Howes in Ireland and then went out to central Europe to work for Jeremy Ford. They built courses in Poland and the Czech Republic together before Jonny went off on his own and got the Penati job. It’s a truly magnificent piece of land, pure sand, pine trees, everything you want from a perfect golf site, and Jonny did a great job there, especially when you consider it was his first solo project. Unfortunately the routing was basically pre-set before he got there; the Nicklaus course that was the first one at Penati and Jonny’s Heritage were routed together, I think by some local land planning guy. If he’d had free rein there I think he’d have done something truly magnificent; I still think that area is waiting for a project to be put together that has the goal of building a genuinely world-class course. Pine Vallski, maybe?
What are your favourite five courses built in Europe/UK since 1990? What makes each special?
In no particular order, and noting that these are my favourites, not necessarily the courses I’d tag as the best:
Penati (Heritage), as discussed above.
Machrihanish Dunes, because it proved golf still could be developed on a proper links site and done sensitively, in harmony with nature and the planning authorities, unlike Trump Aberdeen, where the MO was conflict. I really believe that golf, properly managed, is a great steward of sensitive ecosystems like seaside sand dunes. Unfortunately every time a course like Trump Aberdeen gets in the headlines, it sets us back years. Mach Dunes is really a 1900-era development done in the 2000s. The criticism it received was fair, but also a bit unreasonable. Back in 1900, Old Tom or someone similar would have swung through and laid out the holes. They’d have been refined many times over the years – as Tom’s design at Machrihanish GC has been – before reaching their full potential eventually. Mach Dunes is the same; the constraints on the development mean it was unreasonable to expect them to get everything right first time out.
Budersand, because it’s just so unlikely, a true links built on what used to be an airbase on an island off the northern coast of Germany. It’s bloody good too.
Askernish, because if you’re a cap R Romantic like I am it’s the perfect golf course. And I found one of the green sites (and made a birdie on the hole the first time I played it)!
Yas Links. Cheating slightly, as it’s not really in Europe, but it was a game changer for golf in the Middle East. The first world class course in the region. Kyle at his visionary best.