Feature Interview with Mark Brenneman
1. You were born in upstate New York, went to school in South Carolina, worked on Wall Street, lived on a boat in San Francisco, moved to Scotland, and divided time between Monterey Peninsula and your role as General Manager at Shadow Creek. That’s quite a life! Sometimes it has been golf-centric and many more times not. Tell us about becoming disenchanted with golf in your 20s and how the sport lured you back in your 30s.
It wasn’t disenchantment so much as becoming too one dimensional which has been an overriding theme in my life: one dimensional in golf as a teenager, then one dimensional in finance on Wall Street in my early – mid twenties, then one dimensional in art in my late twenties – early thirties. At that point. I was looking for something that combined all these interests and experiences, something that somehow tied together most of the things which were and continue to be of interest: family, social, physical and mental aspects, outdoors, history and architecture. Rounding back to golf seemed to make sense at that time. If I give myself any credit it’s listening to my intuition – everything else is luck, other people’s help and maybe most importantly my family who only supported me in the decisions I made.
In terms of luck, here’s one example. When I came back from Scotland knowing that I didn’t have the ability to play this game for a living, I was at a crossroads. I was kind of lost, felt like a failure, and didn’t know which direction my life would take. I’ve found this to be pretty common with people who have tried to play golf for their living by the way. So what to do? I decided to go to the PGA Merchandise show which was then in Anaheim, CA before it was moved to Las Vegas. I didn’t really know anybody but on my walk from the parking lot to the convention center a celebrity impersonator popped out of his car and came alongside me. He was dressed as W. C. Fields and in character said stuff like, “Whatdyasay? Whatdyaknow? Etc.”
I told him I had just returned from Scotland and was exploring the club professional side of golf or leaving it all together. He literally stopped cold, broke character, and in his non – W. C. Fields voice said, “If you remember one thing about today, remember this. I do 200 trade shows a year as a celebrity impersonator and by far the nicest people I ever come across every year will be the people I meet today. The people in that building. The people in the golf industry. Ok?” He then went back into character. We parted and I never saw him again. He was right. How I crossed paths for two minutes with W. C. Fields, I’ll never know.
I listened to him and my life changed because of it.
2. How was living near Machrihanish? What were the pros and cons?
I lived on the third floor in what was then the Ugadale hotel overlooking the first tee of Machrihanish. I remember drying my golf shoes daily on my window sill. It was only years later that I found out that wasn’t the most neighborly thing to do but the people in the village were too polite to tell me. I also remember late June sunsets, close to midnight. I made friends on the Mull of Kintyre that have lasted a lifetime. I guess I was kind of a novelty – this American guy living in a remote village on the West Coast of Scotland. They liked Americans as many older people had memories of WWII and there were visible scars of the War all over the place. You just had to know where to look. I would stay in the Ugadale during the week and drive my Ford Dolomite to tournaments on the weekends as far north as Dornoch, south to Inverness, and east to Fife. Sometimes I slept in the backseat of the car as I did with my first assistant job at Shoreline in Mountain View, CA.
3. North Americans tend to sniff at the last two holes at Macrihanish. They fantasize about combining them into some sort of par 5 and finding another hole elsewhere in the dunes. Do the Scots feel similar? Or does familiarity, match play and/or Stableford render a different opinion on those final two?
The last two holes are out of character with the severity of OB running down the left side of both. This wouldn’t be so bad except that the 16 holes preceding them wind in and out of dunes for the most part. I seem to recall very old pictures of the 18th green up on the bluff where the pro shop is now. Those images looked very interesting.
I’m not sure that any active thought was ever given to altering 17 and 18. Change comes slowly to that area of the world which I like that by the way. I’m generally not a fan of any 18th green being far away from the clubhouse. It seems when this happens that the walk from the green to clubhouse is anti-climatic, almost deflating in a way. I love standing on the 18th green of Pinehurst #2 where Donald Ross left us three choices: first, go left and practice; second, go right to the 1st tee and play again; or third, go straight and have a drink.
4. You battled the best over there in the 1980s in an attempt to get your European playing card. Were their games different? If so, how? And was that a product of where they grew up?
I think in general Americans tend to think we’re better than we are and Scots maybe think they’re worse than they are – at least that was the feeling then. So one side may be viewed as ungrounded cocky or arrogant and the other equally ungrounded humility. I also found the guys to be much more creative in their shotmaking and willing to take greater risks without overanalyzing. When the round is done, it’s done and then it’s time to sit at a bar or table, tell lies and laugh a lot – which I did.
5. What was your favorite hidden gem in the United Kingdom? What made it so?
You can almost feel the history when you walk the fairways. Nobody I know who has gone to Scotland comes back disappointed. While I like the Open courses, for me, more memories may be found on the lesser ones: Tain, Boat of Garten, Carradale, Machrie, Dunaverty, Haggs Castle, Levon Links, Lundin Links and Elie. There is an unexpected quirkiness to these courses which is difficult to describe. It’s tough not to like Royal Dornoch and impossible for me not to love Machrihanish. I have yet to play Machirhanish Dunes though. I was there the winter before it opened with my dad and brother. Ken Campbell, who is the long-time pro at Machrihanish likes the new course and I value his opinion. I can’t wait to get back to the West Coast of Scotland and try it.
6. Please share with us some random observations after having spent so much time around the Monterey area.
I got my start at Pebble Beach Company’s Links at Spanish Bay and the one observation I would make is that is a course where the ocean is visible on 17 out of 18 holes but I never really feel the Pacific there like I do on Pebble Beach which has fewer ocean-view holes and Spyglass Hill which is even farther away from the sea. Cypress Point, like St. Andrews, can be a little disappointing the initial time around because the first half is off the sea, the opening tee shot is over a road, there are back to back par fives on the front nine, back to back par threes on the back nine and 18 is the weakest hole on the course. So, on paper, you might ask some interesting questions. All I can say is when you are there, the vistas on a clear day are incredible (8 green, 9 tee and green, 10 tee, 14 tee, all of 15, all of 16, all of 17 and 18 tee) and you can feel the history.
Here’s a couple one/two sentence observations:
Pasadara/ Nicklaus Golf Club – Monterey – I wish more of the course were down closer to Highway 58 where the land is flatter and not way up on the hill. It seems too many holes are shoe-horned into land better suited to homes.
Tehama – Incredible clubhouse. Dramatic views. Like Nicklaus Golf Club – Monterey though, some head-scratching holes.
The Preserve – The drive up off Highway 68 is almost primal.
Ft. Ord – Black Horse greens are too severe (see below) and Bayonet lost some of its unique military grittiness post renovation a while back.
7. You came to Shadow Creek in 2000, a decade after it opened. For those unfamiliar with the story, please give us a sense of the construction that transformed a flat 320 acre parcel of desert into the rolling oasis of today.
Everyone knows it was a collaboration between Steve Wynn and Tom Fazio. Steve knows how to read people and Tom a topo map. While Steve has a lot of great qualities, patience isn’t one of them so at one time I am told there were hundreds of people working on Shadow Creek. What is interesting to me is their minds are so fluid they don’t hesitate to change direction if something else makes better sense. Like building a home, there are thousands of small decisions when building a golf course which are impossible to list unless you’ve been there. I was fortunate enough to have a small taste of this during our 2008 enhancement project.
8. Shadow Creek features fauna and flora that are not native to the area and climate. What measures are necessary for their maintenance? Is there significant replanting ?
We’ve learned by trial and error over 26 years what works and what doesn’t. Just because something grows well in Palm Springs or Phoenix doesn’t mean it will grow here. This also applies to the microclimates in Las Vegas. The role of a superintendent is crucial. I have been extremely lucky to have the privilege of working alongside some very talented men: Pete Bibber at Del Monte; Eric Johnson and Bob Yeo at Spyglass Hill; Dave Diver, Rick DeHolanda (now in Brazil) and Tim Cloninger at Shadow Creek. They do all the work and I come in for the photo op. It’s not fair to them. They are the offensive linemen of every golf operation. Without them, it makes no difference what play is drawn up or game plan is put in place. Sorry for the metaphor but my dad played college football at Syracuse University and I wanted to work him in!
9. Shadow Creek exists to entertain high end visitors. Please describe three architectural design elements utilized to achieve this purpose.
One: We were never meant to be a hard golf course but one that appeals to the senses. Candidly, visuals are the easier part when you don’t have homes to distract from the course or environmental concerns which may affect routing. The question then is how to involve the other senses? With sound, when greens and tees are brought closer to a running streams sound is heightened; for touch we have different layers of textures everywhere – bark chip walk-paths; pine needle borders on those walk-paths, mulch under trees, etc.; and taste, well that’s a harder one. How about we go with our specialty margarita called a Rhondarita named after our long-term server Rhonda. Since the only way here is by limo, it’s one of life’s great pleasures to leave Shadow Creek in the back seat of a limo with a Rhondarita in hand.
Two: The course builds to a crescendo in a way. The front nine tends to be harder but with water on five of the last six holes, matches can swing back and forth pretty quickly. We would be a great Ryder Cup venue for this reason. On a course of memorable holes, 17 and 18 really stand out. Anybody can finish birdie – birdie one day from a PGA TOUR pro to a high handicapper and these same two people can finish double – double the next day. I’ve seen it a lot. I like finishing holes which are par fives but play 4 and ½ ‘s or par fours which play 3 and ½’s. One of the last rounds of golf I ever played with my dad and brother was on the Old Course. While Dad wasn’t much of a golfer, he did have a birdie putt on 18 and that was meaningful to him and to my brother and me. That green, that setting is magic.
Three: It’s an emotional experience. We all beat ourselves up over a bad shot – it’s just a question of degree. But I’ve taken people on tours of Shadow Creek and after a while if we stop by a quiet glade under a shady tree alongside a running brook, they’ve cried. I don’t know why or how but I’ve seen it too many times to discount something real special here.
10. Tell us about three of the most clutch shots that you have seen there.
Mostly I’ve seen guys choking. By that I mean a real gambler will figure out a person’s choke point; set the bet above that point and then watch as that person throws up on themself – I’m speaking figuratively. It’s kind of old school Jack Nicklaus in that most people tend to beat themselves and the trick is to put yourself in a position where you benefit from watching this happen to someone else if you can. Like a lot of things in life, easier said than done. There’s a real art to it and, in a way, beautiful when it happens.
11. As much as any golf course Shadow Creek began with a blank canvas. Literally every inch of the property was disturbed/altered in construction. Most people are content to revel in the big picture of that accomplishment. Yet, what are some of the subtleties that might escape the first time visitor? What other playing advice do you offer the first time player?
Most people don’t play very well their first time out because they’re on sensory overload. I think a part of them is saying, “Hey, I’m expecting Las Vegas, over-the-top, never-seen-this before architecture: instead, I’m getting some pretty modest stuff here.” The clubhouse itself is unpretentious and unassuming given what has taken place within its walls and under its roof. There are no swimming pools or tennis courts, no hole signs, fancy tee markers, marshals, beverage carts, etc. What there is here is a lot of history (five presidents, countless Hall of Fame athletes and Academy Award-winning actors) compressed in a relatively short period of time – we opened in October, 1989.
As far as advice, since we aren’t rated or sloped, forget about score and handicap and get into it with the guys you are playing with. For some reason I’m reminded of an old Scottish folk song I heard sung by Archie a thousand times in the now-closed Beachcomber one hundred yards from the first tee of Machrihanish: Come by the Hills – “Where cares of tomorrow must wait til this day is done.” If you can play Shadow Creek with this attitude, you’ll be fine. If you can play any course anywhere with this attitude, you’ll be fine. Easy to say. Difficult to do.
12. Is it harder on the first tee to make a smooth swing when playing with the President of the United States or Michael Jordan?
Michael Jordan. He wants to get into your pocket and he does this by first getting into your head which is already swimming in a thousand thoughts – one of which is his pocket is a lot deeper than mine! On the other hand, a President of the United States wants to get out of his head which is impossible given the enormity of what he deals with on a daily basis. The thing is, for a few hours he can make a mistake, a bad swing, a pulled putt without the safety of millions of people being affected. It seems to me they almost welcome being able to make these mistakes on a golf course which are so inconsequential despite all appearances we non-presidential golfers tend to give them otherwise. Golf humanizes us all – even U.S. presidents and it’s been great to see that up close with so many of them.
13. Where is your favorite vantage point on the course?
It’s a pick-em. Maybe 9 tee, 15 tee, 17 tee and 18 tee if pressed. In my years here I’ve asked everyone what their one favorite hole is and gotten all 18. Usually, a course will have two or three, maybe twice that many at the highest end of the scale. To get all 18 is really quite remarkable. By the way, our second hole is the last hole I got. Comedian Norm MacDonald gave me that one as his favorite.
14. The par 3s are incredibly varied. Which is your favorite and why?
That’s right: Number 5 is a visually intimidating shot over a forest and can be seen on the limo ride in and out; number 8 is a mysterious Shangra- La where it can only be accessed via a tunnel; number 13 is a very long par three and the elevated back tee is the highest area on the course; and number 17 a very short and picturesque downhill hole. I like them all and have seen holes-in-one on each.
15. Which putting surface gives you the most fits?
While we have contour on our greens, the slopes are not ridiculous as I’ve seen on many modern courses. Slopes seem to make a lot of sense on the Old Course. I just wish they had stayed there and not migrated away from Fife. I understand architects have to use this as a tool given modern professional golf yet out of the 27 million golfers in the US today, how many play 4 days straight of stroke play for money? I heard that from Sandy Tatum and Charlie Seaver 20 years ago and it still rings true. 99.9 % of all golfers playing today don’t walk off a course and say, “the greens were too easy.” But many come off saying things like, “I was 15’ away from the hole and was happy with a 4-putt.” The same applies to bunkers. Nobody ever comes off a course saying “the bunkers were too easy.”
16. Tell us about the modifications that Fazio undertook in 2008. What drove them?
In 1988, Tom Fazio and his team were turning fairways, placing bunkers, etc. using a benchmark of 267 yards from the back tee. Twenty years later when we did our enhancements this number has climbed to 304 yards. Prior to 2008, our course record of 60 was held by Tiger Woods and Fred Couples. On every par four they hit sand wedge or wedge except for one 8 iron. They hit irons into all par fives for their second shots.
So we had the land (320 acres and only two homes) to lengthen the course. We removed trees which had tripled in size. Intimacy was being overrun by claustrophobia in certain areas and the trees created agronomic issues – shade and air circulation. We sand-capped the fairways both to provide a better medium for turf grass growth and to improve drainage because while we are in a desert, the soils are primarily clay or caleche, i.e., they don’t drain.
17. Much has changed in the golf architecture since 1990. Sand Hills, Pacific Dunes, and a slew of other minimalist designs have opened that adhere to nature. What is Shadow Creek’s place in the game?
Tom Fazio and Steve Wynn envisaged and created Shadow Creek. Bobby Baldwin was right alongside in this process and when Steve sold everything in 2000, Bobby made sure that standards since then would not be lessened because he knew once they are, they never come back. Never. All great facilities are more autocratic in nature and decisions are not made by committee. I don’t mean to offend anyone but this has been my experience when I look at places like Pine Valley or Augusta National. These places stand for something. Shadow Creek stands for something and in an ever increasing fluid world it’s nice to know sometimes you can go home again. I don’t mean to sound arrogant. This has been my experience after seeing the reaction of so many people who return back after having been away for a while. And these are some pretty high-profile individuals who are generally not easily impressed.
18. As of the compiling of this Feature Interview, the southeast is deluged by rain and California has ever tightening water restrictions. How are courses like Spanish Bay and Spyglass Hill dealing with the state water restrictions?
While counter-intuitive, the Monterey peninsula is an arid geographic setting. I can’t explain it scientifically and with all the summer fog and periodic El- Nino’s , you would think otherwise. I encourage anyone to watch Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf’s 1961 match between Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus. When you do, you’ll see center-line irrigation running down the middle of fairways and great expanses of brown rough areas. I adore that look for that area and like it when courses mirror the environments they are located in. I’m aware of the of the contradiction here. Most courses do mirror the environment they are in to some extent but there was no environment here to begin with except barren desert. So an environment was created and Shadow Creek dropped into it. As far as I know that has never been done before.
19. Your travels have allowed you to see the full spectrum that is golf. Presently, you are at the epicenter of high end golf while you have also seen the low key, cult classics in upstate New York and Scotland. Where does the game go from here?
While it’s true for the past 20+ years I’ve been at the epicenter of high-end golf, it’s equally true I love going home to Syracuse in the summer and playing with family and close friends on courses few have ever heard of such as Westvale, Camillus, Vesper Hills, West Hill and Tuscarora. They’ve probably never been mentioned in the same sentence with Pebble Beach and Shadow Creek but for me they are equally as important. Dunaverty or Carrodale may not be too noteworthy unless you live on the Kintyre peninsula in which case they could mean everything to you.
Where does the game go from here? I think the answer mostly lies in where the economy goes from here.
Like anything in nature, there are spurts of growth and dormancy but the overall trend is growth. There is tremendous growth now in operations such as TopGolf and simulator golf which are much more social in their approach. Critics will say this isn’t golf. I’m not so sure. It’s a ball and a club and hitting to a target. I believe once that seed is planted it never shrivels and dies. And so my hope is it will grow in newcomers like this and take them to green grass in time. Meanwhile, I think we will continue to see more music on golf cars and more uses of the course itself, e.g., Frisbee golf, footgolf, etc.
All of these things are first met with resistance but eventually they are accepted. Golf is a very accepting and forgiving game over time despite all immediate appearances to the contrary. Where else can you play from the exact same spot as Ben Hogan did 65 years ago? Where else can you play the game from a child to a grandfather? In fact, where else can you play the game with your child and grandfather? Words can’t begin to describe the game’s mysteries and so how can we even think of solving them? Still we try. As human beings we are wired in such a way that we need a reason to get up and out of bed in the morning. Otherwise, we get depressed. Golf is a great motivator in this regard. And even at the very end of our lives, the memories of the people we’ve shared time with and the courses we’ve played, these memories alone are so strong that they can sustain us. Work-related memories don’t sustain but somehow golf-related memories do. We watch golf then play golf and then remember golf in that order. That seems to be enough.
Consider this too: Why do the most powerful men in the world who have access to everything, say U.S. presidents, chose to spend a large part of their precious free down-time on a golf course when they could do anything, anywhere with pretty much anybody? Given the unlimited alternatives, why golf?
So, in closing, I can’t help but conclude the game itself is in good shape.