Feature Interview

with

Keith Foster

April 2014

Keith Foster has had the privilege to work on some of the finest courses in America including Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Keith Foster has had the privilege to work on some of the finest courses in America including Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What was the genesis for your trip to the United Kingdom in 1999?

My first trip to the UK was with the ASGCA when we toured some of the great courses within England back in 91′ when I was part of Art Hills firm. That trip exposed me for the first time to a wonderful quirkiness of features and holes as well as seeing first hand, a softer placement of the game within the land. In 93′ , I established my own firm and from 92′ through 98′ , each year I would commit and travel to either Scotland, Ireland or England for 2 weeks and immersed myself there. I visited and played so many golf courses and really fell back in love with the game of Golf. Those 2 week sojourns were so important to me as I learned and saw that the US  production golf (going on in the 90’s) was not the direction that I wanted my work to reflect. My trips served to ignite within me a desire to be part of work that endures.

 You have worked on a wide range of Golden Age designs, from Herbert Fowler to Tillinghast to Ross to Maxwell to Alison. What similarities do you find in the work of the master architects from the Golden Age?

I have been very fortunate to work on some wonderful classic golf courses, designed by many of the notable Golden Age names. We all love to pay tribute to those that have preceded us in our chosen fields. Like many, I am quick to praise early work and the known Master Architects. But let’s face it, all of us are given credit at times for things that sometimes work out in our favor. The level of maintenance that is now attainable has in my mind greatly improved the appeal of many early designs. It is also true that in, far too many instances, wonderful courses have been ruined by Club members and golf architects….well intended but poorly conceived and executed.

In terms of the Golden Age Master Architects similarities, there was a boldness to the features they built. Simply said, they built features and holes that were meant to be played and seemed not to be afraid of putting their work out there rather than building what is acceptable.There was also a thoughtfulness to it as well as an element of charm. Both of these qualities are and should be highly prized.

Any subtle differences you see between these great designers?

In terms of differences, I believe that each of the Master Architects had specific strengths relative to how they personally saw and played the game. That principal still applies today. Specifically, I think that Maxwell as well as Travis really spent a lot of time on green surfaces. They were gifted in this area and their work reflects this fact. Counter that to the less intricate Alison green contours yet his body of work should still be considered excellent.

Prior to my working on say an Alison or a Tillinghast program, I look at examples of only their best work and features. And with that, I attempt to produce work that honors them and the Club at which I am working. I only focus on their best work which serves as my guide and inspiration.

Your love of Harry Colt is well documented, but what are your thoughts on Hugh Alison?

Okay, I’m a huge fan of Colt. Always have been after playing my first round at Sunningdale (Old). As for Alison, he has been under the radar for far too long with the reason being is that so many of his courses here in the States have been incorrectly touched or worse yet, altered beyond recognition. CH Alison was a huge talent. Consider,  CH Alison approached Colt and that Colt took him under his wing, personally teaching and mentoring him. Alison loved the game and was quite a player and a quick study. Colt trusted him and allowed Alison to set up their US office. Colt’s endorsement of Alison should say all that needs to be said about the talent of Alison. Alison’s work was bold and confident. Fantastic scale with beautiful features that were well executed.

Tell us about the Orchard Lake project.

Ran , your course review of Orchard Lake was excellent. It can be read here: http://www.golfclubatlas.com/orchard-lake-country-club/

Personally, I prefer to allow my work to speak for itself. I simply try to do the best I can and remind myself what is at stake. At Orchard Lake, I had a very gracious and trusting membership that allowed me the privilege to work at their club.

CH Alison did a remarkable job with his routing and he maximized the fantastic existing ground contours that the site had to offer. Combine this with bold bunkering, dramatic green pads with the powerful scale of wide and sweeping fairways. That is what I saw as I spent my first day on the course! However…..Hiding the true Alison course was a property having over the years being greatly reduced to:

*Straight , narrow and boring fairways.
*1500-2000 surplus planted trees.
*A flat and uninspiring bunker style.
*Loss of all of the natural cut in fairway bunkers , originally intended.
*Greatly  reduced green surfaces.
*4 of the 18 greens that were rebuild and devoid of Alison character.
*Poorly positioned and Elevated tees on wrong angles.
*A total loss of the grand scale once there.

And yet with all this lost, Orchard Lake was still a very nice course. That’s the strength of CH Alison and his work.

At Orchard Lake, I had a wonderful Superintendent to work with in Aaron McMaster. Aaron was committed to being part of an awesome result. It is critical for a Club to have a very strong and talented Super during a substantial renovation. Without one, results are less than they should be. The contractor we selected was McCurrach Golf and they did a really good job for us although this was the first time I had worked with them. My hope at Orchard Lake and really at every program that I am fortunate to work at is to perform my work as strongly and flawlessly as I can yet not leave any visible trace that I was there. I wanted Orchard Lake to be about CH Alison as it should be.

Foster drove a sense of scale being returned to Orchard Lake. Now all can appreciate its rolling landforms and how Alison captured them so well for golf.

Foster drove a sense of scale being returned to Orchard Lake. All golfers now appreciate its rolling landforms and how Alison captured them so well for golf.

Alison was known for his bunkering. Tell us your thoughts on “Alison’s” as they are known in Japan.

There is an old Steely Dan song called Deacon Blue which says it all. The mark I think of great work is that it becomes known and in Japan, Alison’s bunkers were so strong , beautiful yet deadly they were simply called Alison’s. In Japan , CH Alison’s talent was greatly understood. His work remains today as strong as it was originally placed.

Properly restored a la Orchard Lake, Alison's bunkers are three dimensional works of beauty.

Properly restored a la Orchard Lake, Alison’s bunkers are three dimensional works of beauty.

Contrast this to what has happened to his work here in the States. I would love to work on every Alison course that has been tragically altered here in the States. With that,  I would have a very busy 5-7 years of work.

Let’s play word association. Which one (maybe two) architects do you associate with the following terms:

Routing……. Colt
Bunker schemes……. MacKenzie
Green surfaces/contours…….. Maxwell
Hard………. Fownes work at Oakmont
Fun…….. Tillinghast, Raynor and MacDonald, Colt

Eastward Ho! has a strong WOW factor yet it wasn’t terribly well known until recent times. What were your first impressions?

Eastward Ho!

After Eastward Ho! was decluttered and firm conditions restored, Fowlers’ North American gem became one of the most fun courses in the country to play.

I received a call from the Green Committee chair who invited me up to take a look at his course. Having played a lot of Fowler courses in England, I loved his work. So we set up a visit 6-7 weeks out as I was really busy working on 3 programs and had to finish them before the weather set in. 2 weeks prior to my visit I called him back and said I had to cancel as I couldn’t make it up there. Truthfully I was burnt out. And not wanting or needing any more work. Thankfully, he didn’t take NO for an answer. So we stayed with the original date. I arrived at midnight into this quaint New England village. At 5:30am, I’m up to be at the course for sunrise. I arrived at the club and the First tee at the break of dawn to start walking up the hole. I reached the 1st green and looked out thinking to myself……You have got to be kidding me, I HAVE to do this job. What a stunning piece of property! So after spending all day on the golf course, I returned at 4pm to meet with the selection committee and recite to them why their course is so special. In the end, I basically begged them to hire me!

Eastward Ho on my first visit was over watered, over planted, poorly bunkered with terribly placed tees and features yet its greatness quietly rested within its inspiring land. I am so very thankful to have had the honor to work there. WOW, what a special place!

No names but what’s an example where the needed ingredients weren’t there and you walked away? 

I am very much a relationship driven guy. First, it is important to like the people that I will be working with and to be able to trust them. To help me assess this, I spend 8-9 hours on the potential course (prior to taking a project ) sitting down with a group of board or committee members and we begin to talk. Thru this it becomes either very comfortable or simply not. If I’m not feeling it ……. I’m not going to work there. Relationships and Trust are key.

The second thing is that I have to see it. In other words , I must truly SEE AND FEEL what the course can and should be.  And with this vision,  I can and do become very passionate about working there. NO CLUB should hire someone that isn’t truly excited to work with them. Each club/course is a different situation. Do you adapt your approach? Or does that lead to a lesser product? It doesn’t vary. I want to do GREAT work that endures. And if I feel that I cannot do great work there, I’m not going to take the job.

I do not believe that I am the right guy for every program or club. It is critical for me to see the potential or more importantly, FEEL IT. I know that seems a bit flaky to say but this internalizes things for me. It is important for me to understand the course and be able to clearly know what it should be and this I must get, on my first full day visit before I even meet with the committee or staff.

Lastly …… Deep down, I am a field guy and will not quit until the work is seamless. Please forgive me for saying this but my goal is to try to execute better than the original architect would have done, back in the day. And I believe I can.

 What are the key ingredients for a successful restoration?

There are several.

*A Big name doesn’t transfer to a great effort. Many clubs have and continue to make this critical mistake.
*Clear vision is a must by the architect and it cannot be based on HIS ego. Too many are!
*The selected architect MUST really want the project and BE committed to achieving great results for the Club.
*The selected architect must always remember what is at stake. Anything less than great is a failure.
*A huge amount of time must be allotted and spent on site during the program. This is the only way to produce great results.
*Make sure the Architect and Superintendent will be and are working closely together. On my programs, I  expect the Superintendent to be with me, most of the time. Together with the contractor, we are all committed and focused.

Also, Accountability to the Club is crucial. Unlike a lot of Architects, I enjoy working closely with committee members during the field work portion. The close communication between concerned committee member, superintendent and myself create a close knit environment that encourages better work. Besides, if I cannot paint and defend the vision and direction throughout the program, why should I be leading the work??

Let’s talk about short grass around green complexes. The ability to have acres more in short grass around greens has come into vogue in recent years, in part due to huge advancements in agronomy and drainage. On the one hand, the ability to get a clean strike on the ball provides players of all levels more options. On the other, acres more of short grass can add to a club’s maintenance expense. How and when do you advocate short grass around greens?

Personally I think it’s a great look but not for all courses and here are some of the many considerations before adding this feature:

Does it fit?
Is it appropriate?
Type of course?
Type of shot?
Grass selection?

Members see tight cut areas and think it can and should transfer to their course. It may or may not. I have introduced tight cut areas at several Classic courses including Philly Cricket, Southern Hills, Colonial and Omaha CC. However I use this feature sparingly and where I feel it is appropriate to do so. I do not want to be so heavy handed and I tend to focus more on Green approaches. Personally I love the approaches at Oakmont.

Add to this, the wonderful front folds or entries into many Classic green complexes. That’s such a great feature that most old school greens already have. This allows the connection to the approaches to be seamless.

Tree cutting is a contentious subject to the point where clubs (and architects) elect to use the euphuism ‘tree management’ instead! How do you tackle this incendiary issue?

Everyone in our business has to address this and without fail, this subject is a real sticking point for so many clubs and members. With each year,  I have become stronger in my opinion that most if not ALL courses would benefit greatly from a tree removal program. So the question is……How to convey this? How to defend this position? And most importantly, how to achieve the desired goal?

I have a personal story that I use which helps people understand how trees first get planted. I then use old aerials as a guide to show how their golf course has been changed/altered. And then I show them how their golf course and its holes have been negatively affected. Lastly, I am confident in this position.

To implement a tree removal program, there are several ways to get it done. It can be accomplished in a more subtle approach…..which I prefer to use. Without fail, every course that I have worked on has greatly benefited from the tree removal work accomplished. I believe if a Club cannot move on tree removal program they either have the wrong Architect or using an ineffective method.

You have had great success at Southern Hills in limbing up tree branches. Tell us about it.

Southern Hills is a wonderful club with a very gracious membership and a fantastic GM in Nick Sidorakis. For years tree planting was a mainstay there. About 3 years ago, the Club brought in Kris Davis. KD is a star. We have been working to clean things up and part of that was lifting the tree canopy as well as tree removal. The combination is very good. KD is driving this and with the board  and committee support, great results are happening. It’s a very elegant look for a Club of their stature.

Looking down the sixteenth playing corridor at Southern Hills, the thirteenth green is now visible through the trees. As opposed to being densely treed, Southern Hills now exudes an idyllic  parkland charm.

Looking down the sixteenth playing corridor at Southern Hills, the thirteenth green is now visible on the left through the trees. As opposed to being densely treed, Southern Hills now exudes an idyllic parkland charm.

You built a number of original designs from 1994 to 1999 before immersing yourself heavily in restoration. How do you compare the skills needed to build a new course versus those required as a restorer?

Most if not all Golf Architects would prefer to be doing new work. I worked under Art Hills for 5 years who was wonderful to me.  I patterned my firm after his and at my start, focused solely on new work. However my trips to the UK along with a more personal journey took me another direction and into the field of working solely on existing golf courses, starting in 99′.

Original designs are based on what the Architect wants to get done, his vision or the owners. Existing course work should not be about the Golf Architect or the driving member but rather the club. Add to this, the fact that Original work commands a higher fee, fewer eyes are watching the work and the construction work tends to be more about production. Restoration work requires much more time on site, a focus on details, less pay, more communication with members and much more is at stake.

What I love about working on existing golf courses is:

*I know what is at Stake. If the renovation is not great, the club will suffer.
*The dollars really matter and it is critical the club receive great value for their money invested.
*It’s not about me but rather the Club.
*The ability to focus on executing and the details of getting it right.
*Relationships. I really enjoy working very closely with committee members , superintendents and the contracting team.
*I am given the opportunity to be part of something much bigger than myself.
*It’s not about the money but the results.

 Tell us about being an antique collector and some of your favorite golf paintings/painters.

In 94′ I became very interested in the history of the game and first started collecting Golf Architecture books…..the classics,  then a couple years later added golf balls and clubs as well as some Artwork. By 98′, my collection became quite serious and with that came the understanding that in my mind, my Golf Collection had become a Shrine of sorts. Too important for my good. I decided it was not healthy for me to have a shrine to the game and sold most of my golf collection in 1999 and only kept a few Golf Architecture books, a couple clubs and balls and 4/5 pieces of golf art. As for Golf Artwork……I appreciate more subtle work and really like the watercolours of Hodge, Shortspoon and Rountree.

I always try to challenge myself and over the last 7-8 years and have added 2 areas of interest to my life as a Golf Architect, namely mountain climbing and The Outpost. I joined my brother on a climb in 2006 and that started me becoming interested in mountaineering. I liken it to what I do on a renovation program. The training required is like the design component while the actual climb is much like the field element but in a more compressed timeline. My training also helps me stay positive, fit and ready to handle the required 14 -16 hour days during the long months of field work and heavy travel.

My wife much prefers my Outpost venture to climbing. The Outpost venture is another element of design….it just happens to be interiors. Anyone who visits my shop in Middleburg, Virginia would say its where Hemingway would hang out or as a few have said, it’s a purer Ralph Lauren look before he sold out. Either way, I love it and am very thankful to have this venture doing so well. Every January and February , my wife and I travel abroad to buy cool authentic stuff that we then ship back home to offer and sell.   I also design a line of fantastic club chairs and other pieces that are bench made in England exclusively for The Outpost.

The Outpost, Foster's store in Middleburg, Virginia.

The Outpost, Foster’s store in Middleburg, Virginia.

I return home in early March, get the shop ready to go and open in early April. At the same time I begin on my return to the game of golf. April through November, I work 6-7 days a week. Golf is my driver and The Outpost is my outlet.

It’s Masters Week. All eyes turn shortly to an invitational held in Georgia. As a master restorer of classic courses, is there one or two things in particular that jump out at you that you would suggest if that club was a client?

Personally,  I don’t really look at Augusta nor think about it. They are not my client and have never asked my opinion. So in my mind, there is no value in my suggesting anything. Your readers all know Augusta’s Mackenzie origins and its now very groomed environment. I have heard people comment about this or that however if they were offered a chance to watch the event in person or better yet, be invited to play there …. they would jump at the chance. So what does that say? Augusta is Augusta. And there is only one Augusta.

The End