1. What prompted you to write Wide Open Fairways? Very few golf architecture books have been published since 2008.
It’s pretty scary what’s happening to the golf book market. There’s been a quick turnover of viable publishers. Readers are shifting to Web-based information or cable TV. We all knew that the corps of dedicated architecture readers was small – but intense and devoted. Several thousand of them, but they are loyal. Or so we hope. And the University of Nebraska Press is looking to broaden its traditionally very small, academic reach with more commercially viable sports books. But that’s all on the marketing side.
The real driving force is that I’ve been traveling and taking notes and having thoughts and feelings about golf architecture for fifty years now and so as long as that continues I’ll be writing. And then the real work of writing these days, which is trying to get published. But the fact is I love sports, I love golf courses and I love the imagination that landscape inspires and so I thought I’d try my hand at a different approach. “Wide Open Fairways” isn’t about tournament courses and it’s not an account of routing or playing strategy. It’s about the beauty and character of interesting land – the land we’re lucky to be on when we play golf.
2. How would Herbert Warren Wind make a living today as a writer?
It took him ten years to get started, with lots of rejection notices and a whole book on Latin America that went nowhere in the early 1940s. So there’s a tradition there of struggling, but by the time he hit his stride at “The New Yorker” writers had a special standing and respect and they were an authority in matters of taste and judgment. Of course in the mid-1950s even Herb drove the editors at “Sports Illustrated” nuts with his inability to meet deadlines – which is why he went back to the more leisurely pace of “The New Yorker.”
In today’s world you have to be able to type faster than you can think, and you have to keep it quick and funny. But that’s because so much of media culture is defined by social media and by what editors think readers want. There are now some people who try to make a living by simply repeating gossip they hear on Tour – or in the case of more adept critics like Geoff Shackelford, weaving commentary with wide ranging surveys of existing news coverage. Yet there’s still a place for long form essay writing and for stories based on interesting character and substantive research – think ESPN’s “Grantland.com.” Readers have shown they’ll scroll through many long pages on a screen to get through a good story. I just wish editors today had more faith in readers. I get letters all the time from hopeful young golf writers who want to get into the business. The real problem is the decline of freelance budgets – that’s how we all got started, freelancing for every imaginable publication, from leisure magazines for dentists to the “New York Times.” Yet those rates are lower now than they were twenty years ago – if they’re available at all. But I think there’s a way for a few intrepid, imaginative and hard-working voices in the industry. Though you’d have to work harder and faster than Herb had to in his day. And you have to work multiple platforms simultaneously – print, radio, TV, video, Twitter and your own Web site.
3. What prompts your warm feelings toward Mountain Lake? How do you rate it within Raynor’s own galaxy of courses?
Raynor had a great formula that was easily transportable. What I love most about Mountain Lake is that it’s dead center in Florida and nobody 40 miles away in Orlando knows about it. It has elevation, space, and an elegant, confident, classical membership and management who quietly protect what they have. It’s like the old estates of Long Island but without the Great Gatsby excesses – very Midwest in its small town feel.
4. Does Sand Hills represent a turning point in modern architecture? Or is its influence more muted because the tumbling sandy terrain was so one-of-a-kind?
Definitely a turning point, which is why it’s the centerpiece of my chapter on the Nebraska prairie in “Wide Open Fairways.” I will never forget the feel of that opening weekend in June 1995, with Ben Crenshaw on hand, Masters champion, hanging out in jeans, playing with new members like he was just one of the guys. The excitement of that place was amazing; everyone knew right away it was totally different than all the flashy real estate and “championship” golf courses that were then being built at some crazy phenomenal rate, like one a day. And yet they weren’t all that easy to tell apart. This one was so at odds in style, culture, sensibility, and clubhouse. And even as you were traveling all day to get there, you realized pretty quickly once you got on that hour-long road north from North Platte that instead of being a pain to get to the journey was part of this transformative, cleansing experience. It was as if you started all over in golf, having left everything behind to embrace this rough-hewn, simple and yet fascinating design and needed the buffer of all that land and time to remove yourself from the rest of what was going on in golf.
Which doesn’t mean that it could be a business model for other developments. Sand Hills heralded a retro era in design, but it was not something others would be able to achieve so easily. People forget how smart and efficient owner Dock Youngscap was in building that place and how they kept their labor costs down by being open only about five months a year. Plus they had a lot of people early on from some pretty wealthy business towns like Austin and Kansas City who bought in as members even if they weren’t going to use the place a lot. So financially, Sand Hills had a lot going for it that others have found hard to emulate. But as a turning point in golf design – no doubt it flipped a switch.
5. Tell us about your involvement at Old Macdonald.
I had the best seat in the house to the course that Tom Doak and Jim Urbina designed and built. It was an honor to be asked by owner Mike Keiser to be involved on a consulting basis, along with Macdonald biographer George Bahto and agronomist Karl Olson. My magazine, “Golfweek,” insisted I not get paid, and so whatever fee I would have received was donated – and no, I didn’t even get a tax break for that. But that’s fine, I was able to participate, watch, voice some concerns.
As I write in the book, I found it a whole lot easier to talk to Urbina and Keiser than to Doak. He has his own amazing way of working, and while he’s not always the most sociable he certainly is focused. Bahto did a lot of the detailing of the old Macdonald/Raynor holes that inspired Old Macdonald. In some cases it meant accompanying Doak and Urbina to Great Britain to look at the originals. And Olson had input on turf selection issues and playability. My own input was that of an anticipatory critic. I wondered how certain holes would play, how they’d be perceived, how they would be seen by folks in the industry. There was the occasional feature that seemed out of sorts or too severe and I’d bring it to their attention. I never knew how much Doak and Urbina listened to me and I quickly learned not to worry about it, either. All told I think I was out there for five or six visits during the planning/design/construction, a total of about 15-20 days over several years. It’s their design, I was just honored to be an inside observer and offer some commentary and some advice. Like on the over-the-hill drive at the par-4 third hole, Sahara, where I set up one afternoon to hit test drives to make sure it could be easily cleared. They had already brought the hill down a bit. It ended up I could hit a 7-iron over it, and I’m a 13-handicap. So that passed the test of “retail golfer,” as Keiser likes to call his generic client out there.
There are some areas where I suggested a slope be softened – melted down, so to speak. Or a bail out area widened to be more forgiving. There was big discussion about a burn on the 17th and I just didn’t think it was a good idea to introduce something like that so late in the round. And when I finally got the guts to suggest a cross bunker, Doak and Urbina complied – it’s on the 18th hole, about three times larger than I thought necessary to fit the scale. But of course they were right. And I was touched that they put it in. So now I have to be careful to avoid it when I play that hole, but it’s in a place near enough to the tee whether even I can carry it.
6. Do you think consultants could/should be employed more often?
I think that members of clubs and officials at public courses are not always the best people to be making big, long-term decisions. I like to say that the learning curve of a golf course project is the project itself; in most cases, decision-makers won’t realize or know enough about what’s going on until the project is done. Sometime they get it right. Most of the time they spend too much money or too much time or don’t catch a mistake early enough or don’t have the courage to push the envelope (so-to-speak) to carry out what needs to be done. And there are very few folks inside a place who have a larger view of where the game is going and where the business is going. So I think it can be helpful to draw upon people with lots of experience who know architecture, or personnel, or business. But that doesn’t mean I’d entrust the whole enterprise to them. The key to a successful consultant is the ability to listen, to help the client do what they want to do but to help them do it better. It’s akin in my mind to an ideal editor. The really good editors don’t rewrite the book or article. They help the writer and try to help him achieve what he’s trying to do but in a different, more powerful way.
I see too many clubs where decisions about which architect to choose are based upon the green chairman having roomed with the guy in college. Or because they want to play golf with him in the opening day foursome and think it would be cool to have that name associated with the golf course. Or simply because a cabal of scratch golfers wants to make the course harder. Or worse, yet, because some member just won the state senior amateur and is held in awe by his fellow high-handicap members. None of that has anything to do with where the game is going and what it takes to enhance and revive a struggling club. And green committees are generally not equipped to make fully informed decisions about which designer would be right or which new superintendent to hire. Of course the consulting thing can get out of hand, too. The consultant shouldn’t be doing all the work himself; he should be helping the club members, empowering them and educating them so that they make smarter decisions and learn to value and protect what they have. So I think it’s helpful to have the occasional outsider with expertise come in and walk the club through the master plan process and help them educate the members and explore the real identity of the club so that they can enhance what they have rather than simply erase it or modernize it.
7. What areas might a course consultant address that a golf course architect might not?
First of all, you’d be crazy not to hire an architect when you’re dealing with anything structural, anything, that is, beyond maintenance, course set up or golf operations policy. But a consultant can help you decide what can be done in house with existing staff and resources and what can be done with the help of particular experts, whether arborists, irrigation specialists or financial planners. And a consultant can be helpful in advising a club as it starts to think about a master plan by identifying the history, design heritage and landscape identity of a particular site to see how it can be enhanced and how it fits into a regional market scheme. They can also help in archival retrieval and getting the club to display architecturally and historically relevant materials on the walls rather than faded paintings of fox hunts.
Moreover, a consultant can be very helpful as an independent educator for the membership and of the board to help them evaluate what needs to be done and – very importantly – what doesn’t need to be done. Given the costs of an architect’s fees and long term construction plans, the relatively modest fees of a consultant can buy reassurance to a membership. It can help the board or the long-term planning committee devise a strategy for gaining approval and support of the membership. Architects are great when it comes to plans, designs, dirt and the outdoors. Their expertise is generally not in the area of club politics and the diplomacy of the 19th hole – which is where a lot of the time and energy need to be spent if an architect’s plans are going to be understood and accepted by a membership.
A good consultant is like a psychiatrist doing family intervention. Sometimes it takes an outsider to cut through the clutter and what’s been taken for granted – whether it’s a superintendent who isn’t getting along with the pro or a clique of the membership that’s too powerful. It also can help overcome what I see is the basic problem of most clubs, namely that very few of them take mid- and high-handicappers seriously and few of them understand the growing role of women in decision-making about membership and spending time and money at a club.
8. What three courses in North America would most benefit from a restoration?
Tough question. I really like it when a course that people thought was good and thought they knew gets so much better when its goes back to its design roots. There’s so much of Donald Ross’ original bunkering and fairway width at Oakland Hills-South Course in Michigan that is just sitting there in the ground waiting to re-merge. We’ll soon start seeing the wild shaping of Walter Travis at Hollywood Golf Club in New Jersey come back to life again. In a strictly public, municipal setting, I’d have to go with Sharp Park Golf Course in California, where despite some re-routing of holes there’s this amazing array of Alister MacKenzie work along marsh edges, dunes and in terms of alternate shot paths that the public would find fascinating. If course managers or the charitable trust there could ever commit the needed funds to implement a master plan, it would be just stunning. Restoration isn’t just a matter of member pride; it’s about public pride and respect, too.
9. How would you rate the strengths and minuses of the restoration work accomplished at Paramount Country Club?
I never saw the previous incarnation of Dellwood Country Club but it’s obvious from a tour of the newly rebuilt Paramount compared to the photos I’ve seen that it’s now substantially roomier, lighter, more open and inventive in its bunkering and green contours. Like a lot of classic-era golf courses it had gradually deteriorated through neglect, overgrowth and a lack of budgets and imagination. The first part of the course remains a bit awkward due to the original routing – an opening drive over the road, and another odd drive across the road on the seventh hole. But in between, the holes are very solid; the greens draw your attention, and from the eighth hole in the holes are increasingly compelling. I really like the flow of that back nine, the shifting terms of the shots and angles, the way the bunkering positions vary. It still needs more tree management. And some of the rebuilt bunkers need a scruffier look so they fit in better. But the overall land plan, the various out buildings they have, the village feel of the grounds – it is very appealing. I’m not sure a more remote property would bear rescue on a scale like that. But given its proximity to NYC and the charm of the site, Paramount has a lot going for it.
10. You write, ‘Heritage sells.’ Please expand on that concept.
For all the aesthetic and emotional sensibilities of golf, it’s also part of a business market. If that doesn’t work the appeal to architecture falls hollow. The good thing about classical golf course design is that it has increasingly valuable cachet – like antique jewelry, or arts & craft furnishing and houses in the legendary design styles of Green & Green or Frank Lloyd Wright. Golf isn’t just a game; it’s also a recreational option that’s expensive. If people don’t think they are getting value they won’t engage it. For some golf courses, their value is in the service. Or in their family-friendly, country club atmosphere. In classical design, you’re presenting heritage, craft work, meticulous attention to detail and integrating native land with historically imagined design elements. Golf course restoration takes that heritage and presents it with a clarity and quality that it never could have enjoyed in its original form (given agronomy and construction techniques back then) and presents it with flair and confidence under modern terms of management. The value there is the uniqueness, the fun and challenge it provides golfers, and the fact that it is readily distinguishable from so many of its more modern competitor facilities in the region. So I think that a good argument for golf course restoration is that it makes business sense in an increasingly competitive golf market.
11. Is there an end in sight to the various headwinds that make writing a particularly tough profession at the moment?
I carry around this fantasy scenario whereby the pace of the media cycle and everything else will intensify at an accelerating rate and wind up in this kind of 3-D cyclotron until everything collapses or is destroyed and when the dust settles we’ll all settle back into a world using typewriters, pen and legal-size yellow writing pads. Until then, I’m forced to become increasingly facile with those multiple platforms you need to succeed, though I always feel like I’m just barely hanging on, and when I run into trouble I just email Tommy Naccarato and he does something technical to help me with an image. Or I text my local social media guru to help me figure out how LinkedIn works (I’m not sure it does).
My latest idol now is Nate Silver, who has crossed over from sports to politics and back and is such a valuable empire to ESPN that they paid him a fortune – all while writing a best-selling book on logical thinking (“The Signal and the Noise”) that doesn’t have a single photo in it. People are now actually reading more than ever. But they are reading fewer different book titles and fewer writers, and publishers don’t know what to do anymore since only about one-percent of their authors actually make money. The concentration of distribution through fewer and narrower channels of marketing is a real problem. E-books will actually help sustain writers. But the distribution system of books-in-hand is broken. So, too, is the old advertising-based revenue model of newspapers and magazines. So I’m afraid us old-fashioned writers will just have to ride out the storm and hope to survive the cyclotron ride. Meanwhile, we have to learn to post on Twitter, shoot video, Photoshop, be available everywhere and also find time to write. I drink a lot of coffee.
12. You toured the site of Trump International Scotland on two separate occasions well before its July 2012 opening. How has your thinking on the property evolved and what do you think of the golf course?
I toured the raw site in 2007 and again in 2009 when work was starting. My concern then, which I conveyed at the time to Mr. Trump, was that the land presented the threat of being too intense, without relief – as if every hole were going to be spectacular. I think a golf course has to have rhythm and pacing. All of the classic-era great links courses in GB&I are walkable – and walkable enough that golfers can go 36 on them in a day. I didn’t think that would be the case at Menie Estate. I also thought it unfortunate that a great natural asset like that massive mobile sand dune was going to be turfed over. I was surprised that Scottish authorities allowed it. But I underestimated how much they’d be in thrall to plans for an international resort and conference center in a region that needs jobs, needs housing and could really use a good hotel.
Down the middle the golf course turned out much better than I thought it would. I think Martin Hawtree has a very good understanding of how to make those dunes work and how to fit holes down in them. Visually the place is stunning. There’s a lot of interest in shots there, especially if you chose the right platforms to start from. I still have concerns for its playability in strong winds. And I still think that a vital element of links golf is recoverability from the side and from long; whether because of different paths to play the hole by design, or by virtue of a golfer’s imagination in recovery from a wayward shot. Here I think there’s some limitation at Trump International Scotland. Interestingly, it’s a golf course that is getting a lot of attention from foreign travelers but very little attention from locals. That might be attributable to price as well as to ambiance and the way in which Trump went about getting the course done. I think the really great golf courses feel like they are part of the local culture and landscape.
13. No surprise that a book titled “Wide Open Fairways” features chapters on golf in Nebraska, North Dakota and New Mexico. Though new course construction is paltry across the United States, will one of these three states likely see the largest upswing of new courses? Or might it be another state like Utah?
I don’t really think that Sand Hills or Bandon Dunes make good models for others to come in and fill up what is obviously a big void on the landscape. The appeal of remoteness is a romance of the road, but you better do it modestly, otherwise not enough people will come. The Field of Dreams baseball diamond in Iowa has been on sale for a reason. The golf growth in Utah – especially around the southwest town of St. George, is all real estate driven. But the market out there, however appealing the land, is still pretty slow. You’ll see some more golf growth in North Dakota – Jim Engh has just broken ground outside of Minot, which has a lot of people pouring in because of the gas fields out west. For all the golf growth in the Albuquerque-Taos corridor, including Black Mesa, which is a wonderful layout – there’s still a struggle to attract enough golfers to New Mexico to generate green fees to pay for things.
You’ll always find the occasional owner who doesn’t worry about what he pays to build a place. But it gets tiring to pay those bills. So I don’t see a movement, though I do see and support the lure of golfers going out there for a week or two to experience that sense of open skies and open fairways.
14. What can municipalities learn from Bloomfield & Wintonbury Hills?
Do it cheap. Keep it simple. Make it enjoyable from 6,200 yards. The clubhouse is irrelevant. The most important building is for maintenance. I do a PowerPoint presentation on “Lessons from a municipal golf project” about Wintonbury Hills Golf Course, the hometown course here in Bloomfield, Ct., we did. The last of the 14 lessons is “don’t try to build one.”
The only way it worked is we got Pete Dye to design it for $1. We got much of the land on a favorable long-term lease. Total costs of the golf course, clubhouse, maintenance building and equipment and an endless army of environmental consultants and lawyers was $11.4 million. That was back in 2004. Fees are $45-$55 for town residents, $69-$79 for non-residents, optional cart included. About one-third walk. We earn enough in green fees doing 31,000 rounds annually to meet operational costs and then some, but the town is paying off the bond issue. Without that there would be no chance. And we’re busy despite 91 acres of wetlands on site because Dye and his associate, Tim Liddy, whom we paid (modestly, well below market rate) managed a routing that avoids any forced carries into greens. So mid-handicappers can play it with one ball and never worry about a pond or wetland that you have to carry. The trouble is on the side, and the fairways are wide enough so that’s there’s room. And all of the challenge is in the greens, which anyone can play. We also kept the other stuff simple. We encountered some resistance by folks in town who wanted a banquet hall of a clubhouse. One mayor actually asked for a gymnastics center. We fended off all of that, refused even to allow for lockers or a shower in the bathrooms and we got the clubhouse down to 5,400 square feet. In public golf, anything else is wasted. It’s not the most efficient design, but we kept it small, have a decent enough grill and bar that seats about 50. For bigger events there’s a tent but it makes no sense to build a full scale kitchen for the occasional function.
Some people figured that a par-70 layout that maxed out at 6,600 yards was too short. In fact most of the play is at 6,200 yards. So I’d say keep it simple. Keep it walkable. And make sure it’s playable at 6,200 yards. We also separated the management from the Parks Department and created the equivalent of an enterprise fund. And we got a good management company involved, Billy Casper Golf, and we wrote the contract so they are required to keep it to 10-minute tee times, which helps us maintain a pace of play of 4 hours-20 minutes. You don’t want to maximize rounds. You want to maximize revenue. And the only way to do that is to give up tee times and maintain an attractive pace of play. If you do that and maintain it well – which we do on a budget of $550,000 a year – people will pay a little extra. But you’d be nuts to try doing that unless you had a lot of things lined up in your favor. The only opportunity that makes any sense for a town these days might be to be buy and operate a stressed private club. But remember, it’s stressed for a reason, and towns aren’t in the business of doing golf. So I’d advise “don’t”.
15. You wrote the club “history” book on Sebonack. How did Sebonack perform as the host of the 2013 U.S. Women’s Open?
It was presented brilliantly. I wish the weather had been drier. Superintendent Garrett Bodington had it in perfect shape going into the U.S. Women’s Open but it was a pretty wet week. And I was surprised the extent to which the USGA backed down on set up and played the course a little short and not quite as fast on the greens as they could have. But it played well, demanded a lot of the players on their second shots and with putting – especially on a few of the really tough greens like what most GCA readers will know as the member’s 2nd , 11th and 14th holes. The width of the fairways enabled everyone to have a fair shot at the course. It sure looked good on TV. The best player in the world at the time, Inbee Park, won it, and for all the low scores the first two days by week’s end only three players were under par. Overall, it was an impressive championship debut for Sebonack.
16. “Golf Digest” publishes the oldest US Top 100 rankings while “GOLF Magazine” does the same for world rankings. What position do the “Golfweek” Modern and Classic rankings occupy?
“Golfweek” is a lot smaller than the other two publications in circulation, but I think we’ve had a disproportionately large influence. By splitting our Top 100 lists into separate Classic (pre-1960) and Modern (1960+) “Golfweek” was immediately able to highlight a whole new generation of fine course work that the other lists ignored by virtue of their narrower focus on only 100. We’ve also diversified more, with subsequent lists focusing on real estate, resort, public access, and university courses – all in an effort to showcase contemporary work while adhering to the same standards of judgment and taste across the board.
I think our lists have had a tremendous impact on the whole restoration movement simply because we could quickly detect more courses that were reshaping themselves – such as Aronimink in Pennsylvania, California Golf Club of San Francisco, Old Town Club in North Carolina or Brookside in Canton, Ohio. We have more flexibility than the other lists because we have a team of raters that gets around more to everyday courses. It’s a group of raters that more accurately reflects the body of actual golfers in terms of skill level and gender and , and that is willing to go out of their way to play places like Black Mesa in New Mexico, Wine Valley in Washington, Lawsonia in Wisconsin, Cabot Links in Nova Scotia or Carne and Enniscrone in Ireland. I think the biggest difference in our various lists is that we have a spirited corps of highly mobile raters who attend events, who explore with a more open mind and who enjoy playing golf and seeing new places, not just the traditional classics.
17. Since starting them in 1997, have they lived up to your hopes of providing a different perspective? Any way to improve upon what you started?
Always. We vet the raters to make sure they are seeing new and lesser known courses and not just trying to beat down the door of the already-established classic layouts. We’re also broadening the scope of our lists and of our raters to include the Caribbean/Mexico region as well as Great Britain & Ireland, which we’ve already done. Soon we’ll be expanding to do separate lists for Australasia and Europe. Next year we’re taking a group of raters to South Africa for two weeks as a test of that region. We have to be careful not to overkill it in terms of categories of lists. But we also want to recognize editorially that in golf development, the international market has been rapidly outpacing any growth in the domestic market.
I’m really proud of the extent of our editorial commitment. I’ve been doing a “Rater’s Notebook” style of course review for over a decade — ten times a year. Plus columns and features on design trends. Between the magazine’s pages and the Golfweek.com Web site we devote far more space than does any other general golf publication to design, maintenance, course character, superintendents and what it all means for the everyday golfer. And our major championship coverage includes detailed accounts of the host course, what to expect and how it all played out.
18. How does your personal ballot differ the most from the end group results?
Like anyone on our rating team (or who plays golf) I have my preferences and likes and dislikes. Generally, I like the work of classic architects. I prefer courses where the bunkers intrude across the line of play, whether perpendicularly or diagonally, instead of lining it left and right. And I much prefer scruffy, open, fast and firm courses to parkland layouts, though I also appreciate the occasional tree-lined course in its natural context, such as Eugene Country Club in Oregon. I like courses that have a distinct sense of appropriate place – like Northland in Minnesota, Mountain Lake in Florida, Desert Forest in Arizona, Wild Horse in Nebraska, Prairie Dunes in Kansas or Highland Links in Nova Scotia. But I don’t have my own top-100, or my own favorite three or five. And my standard answer if I’m asked is that my favorite golf course is the next one I’m going to play that I’ve never played before.
19. Tell us about the Golfweek event in November at Pinehurst.
Nov. 10-12, on restoration, Pinehurst and Donald Ross. It’s quite the program, looking at the restoration of No.2, the pros and cons of restoration, what green chairmen, superintendents and golf directors can do and what they should not. We’ve got superintendents on the panel, a financial planner, golf pros. Ran Morrissett and I are doing a program together on the evolution of restoration and how it stacks up in the age of social media. Plus the highlight is a discussion/debate involving Tom Doak, Tom Fazio and Rees Jones on the past and future of restoration. We’ll be staying at the Carolina Hotel and playing No. 2. The whole point of this is to help decision makers at clubs get a sense of what they are in for and what to do and what not to do when addressing issues of course restoration.