Feature Interview with Mark K. Fine
December 2005

Mark Fine has been hooked on golf course architecture since the early 1980’s. A business colleague took him to play a round of golf on what Mark first described as ‘a browned out lunar landscape’. He was told he was playing the famous championship layout named Royal Liverpool. By the end of the round he had fallen in love with links golf and golf architecture in general and his perception of courses was never the same. Since then, Mark has played and studied over 1,000 courses around the world and assembled an extensive collection of golf architecture books. Backed by a successful career as part owner/President of a global electronics materials firm, he decided to focus his efforts on the design field. He had done course consulting over the years but felt it was time to establish Fine Golf Design, Inc. in 2003, based in Allentown, PA. He has been a frequent speaker on Golden Age course design and enjoys writing a monthly golf architecture column with Tom Ferrell for Golf Tips Magazine. His consulting firm has been fortunate to have led master plan and restoration and/or renovation projects on a number of prestigious golf courses including Cherry Hills CC in Denver, CO. His latest endeavor has been co-authoring the book ‘Bunkers, Pits and Other Hazards,’ with Forrest Richardson (see Forrest’s March 2004 Feature Interview on this site), which will be released this month by the publisher John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

1. How did you decide to make the jump into golf course design?

Throughout my career, I’ve always been involved in some form of business development. Either I was helping set up a new business or running an existing one. I led acquisitions as well as helped negotiate strategic partnerships and was always taking some idea from the research lab to commercial introduction. I also oversaw sales and marketing functions and over time gained a pretty good idea of what was required to make a business successful. One of the advantages I had was being involved in businesses that were global. This allowed me to travel around the country and around the world (always with golf clubs in tow). I learned early on that golf was a great way to do business and at the same time to fulfill my passion for playing and studying great golf courses. I did some consulting with various courses for many years. However, I finally felt the time was right to combine by business background with my passion and I set up Fine Golf Design, Inc. A good friend and very successful businessman suggested that, ‘If I didn’t give it a shot, I would probably always wonder what could have been.’ With the support of my wife (you need to have that) I made a decision to give it a go.

2. Most architects struggle to be awarded their first several projects. How has that gone for you?

I’ve been a bit lucky and fortunate so far. You give it your best shot and see what happens. I’m sure most people don’t enter the design business the way I have. You can’t get a ‘golf architecture degree’ from a college or university. Most aspiring architects generally train under an established architect/design firm and then eventually branch out on their own. It’s sometimes hard for them to ‘break away’ from the style of the architect/firm that they’ve been training under. I remember hearing Kelly Blake Moran talking about that during one of his presentations. That was one issue that I didn’t have to deal with and contractors that I’ve since worked with suggested this was an advantage. I learned what I know from field study of hundreds of the top courses designed by all the great architects and from lots of reading and research. I’ll never be an expert at everything for sure, so part of my approach is to rely on collaboration and partnering with others more knowledgeable in certain areas when and where I need them. This team approach has worked for me in the past and it is working in this business as well. Back when I first set up my business, there was (and still is) a slow down in new course construction. At the same time there was a growing interest in ‘restoration’ and a focus on improving older courses. I saw this as opportunity to capitalize on what I had been studying all those years. I also realized that many of the older classic designs didn’t necessarily need a new creative architect. They mainly needed someone to help them understand what they once had and to oversee the process to refresh and/or restore aspects of their original design. I’ve been fortunate to find that this approach has been very successful.

Master Plan Rendering for Bucknell Golf Club

3. Please talk about your First Tee project that you have under construction.

This is an exciting project and one that I am very proud to be a part of. We will impact the lives of many many kids that would otherwise never be exposed to golf and/or the life skills that will be taught as part of our organized programs. This past spring, I was asked to design and oversee construction of a safe, low cost, multiple hole golf facility on small plot of land near a high density residential community. Fortunately for me and for the project, I was introduced to the founders of Birdieball, Inc. and of Sindelar Golf, Inc. I developed a cooperative relationship with each of them and together we helped make the project a reality. I ended up utilizing Birdieball’s unique limited flight ball called the ‘Birdieball’. With this innovation, I was able to design a three-hole course on just over an acre of land. You can hit anything from a driver to a sand wedge on the various holes from the different teeing locations. Working with Sindelar Golf (the father of tour pro Joey Sindelar is the founder), we also designed a novel pitching course using their special turf as well as a series of chipping and putting stations that they have developed. The grand opening will be this spring and everyone including The First Tee and the USGA is excited about the potential. Both generously offered their backing and financial support to the project.

The 'Birdieball' used at our First Tee of the Lehigh Valley at Marvine.

Portion of our Birdieball Course under construction.

4. What made you decide to write Bunkers, Pits & Other Hazards?

I was fortunate to meet Forrest Richardson interestingly enough through communications on this website. He turned out to be a really great guy (as I’m sure everyone here already knows). I told him I enjoyed his book titled, Routing the Golf Course and asked him if he’d be interested in working with me to write another one. I had always been interested in hazards and felt that they were the most essential and exciting elements of great golf course designs. The only book I was aware of that focused on hazards was Aleck Bauer’s book first published in 1913. It was reprinted by Grant Books of England 80 years later with a shortened title: Hazards. The original title of that book was much more meaningful. It was called: Hazards, Those Essential Elements In A Golf Course Without Which The Game Would Be Tame And Uninteresting. Forrest and I talked, and we both saw an opportunity to publish something on a topic critical to golf that hadn’t been focused on for nearly a century. We thought our backgrounds would compliment each other nicely and together we had the chance to develop something pretty special. We prepared an outline for the book, met in Atlanta during the National GCSAA Conference to discuss it, arranged a meeting with Margaret Cummins from Wiley Publishing while we there and she gave us a very positive response. We then put together an expanded outline and proposal that Wiley sent out for review. The feedback from their reviewers (people like Brad Klein and Ron Whitten) was a thumbs up to go forward. A few weeks later, we were under contract with Wiley and the pressure was on to deliver!

Bunkers, Pits & Other Hazards

5. Can the importance of hazards in good golf design be overstated?

No. Think about how exciting (or should I say dull) #13 at Augusta National would be on Sunday afternoon at the Masters with no Rae’s Creek to tempt and torment a player contemplating the rewards and consequences of going for the green in two. What would create the anticipation and anxiety for a golfer waiting to play their tee shot to the island green at the TPC of Sawgrass if there was no water surrounding the target? Even better, just think about one of your favorite golf holes. In all likelihood, a picture of some form of a hazard on that hole is clear in your mind. Hazards are essential and the more interesting the hazards, the more interesting the golf. Robert Hunter summed it up best in his famous book The Links, ‘There can be no real golf without hazards.’

6. Who better than Pete Dye to write your Foreword – how did that come to pass?

We were thrilled when Pete offered to lend his backing and thoughts to our book. What an amazing architect and individual. He was very excited to see a book written specifically about hazards, and hoped it would bring about a better appreciation for their importance in golf course design. When I think about Pete Dye, I always think about his famous quote, ‘When you get those dudes thinking, they’re in trouble.’ Nobody gets golfers thinking like Pete Dye and he does it with all kinds of interesting and creative hazards.

7. Please comment on how hazards became ‘hazards’.

They originally were not a defined feature. When the game of golf was first played, a hazard was not an actual thing or object. It was a concept, a situation a player got himself into. If your ball got into trouble, the outcome was not known until you performed. Only as time progressed did such perilous situations become know as hazards. The definition of a hazard has varied over the years, but the term was mostly used for bunkers and water. In the game of many generations ago, a hazard could be any obstacle that impeded play, making progress impossible without some relief. Today many such features are not hazards, but are instead called obstacles, impediments, and ground under repair. It wasn’t until 1744 when the first 13 Rules of Golf were established by the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers that two rules were created that addressed what was considered a hazard:

  • If your Ball comes among watter, or any wattery filth, you are at liberty to take out your Ball & bringing it behind the hazard and Teeing it, you may play it with any Club and allow your Adversary a Stroke for so getting out your Ball.
  • Neither Trench, Ditch, or Dyke, made for the preservation of the Links, nor the Scholar’s Holes, or the Soldier’s Lines, Shall be accounted a Hazard; But the Ball is to be taken out teed and play’d with any Iron Club.

These two rules shed light on what was considered a hazard in 1744.

8. Hazards in modern course design seem far less varied and penal than in day’s gone by. How did things go awry in the design evolution of hazards?

Forrest and I feel four major factors played a role in the demise of the hazard:

  • Hazards are dumbed down. In the 1950’s, golf architects began taking hazards out of the way. Play that used to go over and/or around began to be dictated between.
  • Golf becomes an industry. The real-estate market, uniformity, and production plans took hold of hazards. Architects started copying and used quantity instead of quality. Hazards were placed not for strategy, but to protect residential lots, and for aesthetics and for ‘balance’. Water features were added as an amenity for home sales.
  • Nail-clipper precision. Following the lead of places like Augusta National and other courses prepared for television broadcast, hazards became manicured and edged so there were no scruffy bits. Sand was given a specification and grasses too high for comfort or areas too unkempt to tolerate were considered bad for the course’s image. In the past, they had been bad only for the golfer.
  • The game changes. Match play gave way to stroke play in the mid-1900’s. The American influence on golf has most of the world’s golfers playing a laborious game of count the shots. A hazard so dangerous that it sends chills up one’s spine has, in many cases, become a token appearance on modern golf courses. We now have such ridiculous sound bites as, ‘He’s better off in that bunker Johnny – it’s a much easier shot to the green from there.’

Fortunately today we are seeing a resurgence of naturalness, of discovering hazards, of selecting suitable sites for golf courses, of designing and constructing hazards that have soul and variation, of not overdoing bunkers, and of restraining water hazards. Trends come and go but personally I happen to like this one and hope it stays around for at least a little while.

9.Have hazards become more conventional overtime?

Very much so. A lot of the factors I just talked about have contributed to this. How many times do you see a rock wall or an old barn or even a road that are strategic hazards on a modern golf course? Unfortunately, not very often. Think about rock outcroppings, fences, railroad tracks, quarries, and ruins, etc. Today, most of these hazards are defined as ‘obstructions’ and there are rules available for the purposes of giving the player relief in order that the obstruction be avoided. We should recall that golf in its most ancient form ran through the streets and not just the open linksland. Such obstructions were not only a part of the game in these times, they were the game. It is a wonder that they are not considered more in the design of modern courses. Granted, safety of the golfer is paramount, however, both Forrest and I vote for more hazards in this category that are less conventional, provided they are thoughtful and have good reason for being.

10. How did you tackle the notion of hazards that aren’t ‘officially defined in the rules of golf’ as hazards?

We broke our definition of hazards down into formal vs. informal hazards. Of course a formal hazard is one defined by the Rules of Golf. A bunker, for example is defined by the USGA as: a hazard consisting of a prepared area of ground, often a hollow, from which turf or soil has been removed and replaced with sand or the like. The other formal hazard in golf is the water hazard. Again, according to the USGA, a water hazard is: any sea, lake, pond, river, ditch, surface drainage ditch or other open water course (whether or not containing water) and anything of a similar nature on the course. There are of course, plenty of other hazards in golf besides sand bunkers and water. These are what we called informal hazards. Some examples include, broken ground, hollows and undulations, green contours, trees, out-of-bounds, the elements such as wind and rain, and course conditions to name just a few. We explore all of these in the book as well as the psychological effects of hazards on the golfer.

11. In the book, how did you decide which hazards to include on your list of Twenty Famous Hazards?

First of all, we couldn’t write a book on hazards without having some kind of list citing many of the most famous ones out there (we know how much everyone on this site loves lists). As early as 1901, Golf Illustrated started such a trend listing what they viewed as the best and most famous hazards in golf. To compile our list, we invited 100 well traveled and seasoned ‘golf people’ to partake in a survey. Our group included officials from golf organizations across the world (30%), golf architecture enthusiasts and writers (25%), greenkeepers (20%), golf professionals (18%), and golf course architects (7%). Summaries of the responses to the various questions are scattered in charts throughout the book. One of the questions we asked was, ‘In your opinion, what are the five most famous hazards in golf?’ We did not ask about ‘best’ in this question as our intent was to focus on ‘famous’. In the end we received 75 responses from our pool of 100. We selected the 10 most popular choices from our panel and then selected ten of our own choices to round out the list. Our hope is that this chapter gets people excited about hazards and helps them to recognize just how important they are to the game of golf. The pictures and the sketches alone are interesting to just peruse through (if you don’t want to read all the detail that we’ve included along with them).

12. The information contained in the chapter on legendary architects serves as a concise summary of their views on hazards. How hard was that to research?

That chapter in the book is one of my favorites. Our objective here was to offer in one place, a look at some of the philosophies of the legends of our field, those golf architects who have used their language so eloquently and so creatively that their work continues to inspire us year after year. As you know, some architects wrote extensively about their design philosophies for hazards. Others recorded very few of their thoughts in writing and we were left to draw our own conclusions from the clues and patterns that they left behind in their work. The research effort to compile this section of the book was extensive but at the same time, very rewarding. When we came across something as simple as a single quote or a passing comment from a particular architect, it made the endeavor all worthwhile. Over the years, I came to learn that playing and studying a golf course is much more rewarding when you have some appreciation and understanding about the architect. We hope this chapter inspires that interest. As Bobby Jones once said, ‘Every golfer worthy of the name should have some acquaintance with the principles of golf course design, not only for the betterment of the game, but for his own selfish enjoyment. Let him know a good hole from a bad one and the reason for a bunker here and a bunker there, and he will be a long way towards pulling his score down to respectable limits. When he has taught himself to study a hole from the point of view of the man who laid it out, he will be much more likely to play it correctly.’

13. What about the psychological aspects of hazards?

The psychological aspect of hazards is fascinating and plays such a key role in the sport. Hazards produce a variety of psychological reactions, but the impact of the hazard is almost invariably related to the degree of confidence and control perceived by the golfer. If a golfer has sufficient confidence and a good command of his or her game, hazards on the course provide an interesting diversion, adding interest to a course in the same way that spices add interest to a recipe. However, because of the intrinsic unpredictability of the golf swing, that comfort level can change and hazards can quickly introduce an element of fear into the golfer’s experience. Forrest and I were very fortunate to have someone with the talent of Dr. Edward Sadalla who is an environmental psychologist and avid golfer, to assist us with this portion of the book. If one takes the time to read and digest this chapter, it should help improve their golf game.

14. Are the concepts of ‘the line of play’ and ‘the line of charm’ at the heart of interesting and stimulating golf?

Absolutely! The ‘line of play’ is thought of in two ways; First it is that line that a player ultimately takes. Second, to the golf architect, it is a line drawn on a plan (or multiple lines showing alternative paths) that a golfer would ideally follow to get from A to B. Whether the golfer follows through with this is another matter. ‘The line of charm’ is a provocative path. It is the line that attracts the golfer. It is often an instinctive route that shaves off distance and/or cuts the corner. It almost always falls close to hazards. It thwarts the line of play that the golf architect has in mind and puts the golfer in charge. The golf architect’s role is to create exciting possibilities that pit these two lines against one another. The goal is to use hazards to suggest a line of play, but to entice players toward a line of charm that will catch their fancy. Accuracy, of course, is at the heart of the idea of the line of charm. Also involved are carry and length. The interest of a golf hole is in sending a shot accurately. Risk and rewards are always most appreciated when they are left up to the golfer.

15. Please comment on the concept of ‘fairness’ when it comes to the design and placement of hazards.

The modern pursuit of fairness and equity has not necessarily been good for the game of golf. Ever since it was decided that ‘play it as it lies’ and ‘the rub of the green’ needed to be tweaked, the game seems to have suffered. Far too much time, too much money, and too much attention is now directed toward making sure every good shot is rewarded and that perfect playing conditions leave no one with an ‘unfair’ disadvantage. This mindset has led to expensive maintenance practices and less creative and more sterile playing grounds. Heaven forbid that two similar shots could potentially result in two distinct outcomes – one good and one bad. That would just not be fair – or would it? Those of us responsible for golf course design and course maintenance need to remember what golf is really all about. Hopefully this book will refresh their memories and understanding as well as provide some ammunition to back their cause (with their clients and golfers).

Mark doing some 'field study' at Royal County Down

16. The evolution of golf courses is fascinating as all courses change with time. You devote a chapter to the restoration and the maintenance of hazards. What do you hope people will learn about the importance of understanding and managing change to a design?

Author Sydney J. Harris once stated, ‘Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.’ A golf hole is nature reconditioned, but still nature. It lives and breathes. All golf holes evolve; some change for the better and some for the worse. I believe that not all golf courses should be ‘restored’, but all golf courses deserve at least a careful analysis of what has changed before bringing in the bulldozers and tearing them apart. Taking the time to do a little research might just determine that the changes and ‘improvements’ over the years aren’t quite as good as what was once there. The basic outline for such an analysis is a Master Plan. All courses new or old should have one. I often ask the members of golf course boards and committees how many of them run their own companies and businesses without some kind of Business Plan? The answer is always very few yet they often don’t have any such document or ‘road map’ for the golf courses they own or help manage. There is no better investment by a golf course than a well-thought-out master plan. It is far less costly than nearly any of the physical work done to a golf course, and it will last many, many years. It becomes the key to any and all potential changes.

17. Speaking with various architects about their opinions regarding hazards must have been fun. What were some of your favorite quotes from the interviews?

The interview process was fantastic. Forrest and I felt privileged to talk with many of the top architects in the profession today and to discuss their candid opinions about hazards. I loved Mike DeVries quote, ‘It’s a hazard. Deal with it.’ Bill Coore was adamant that, ‘Hazards are the most important factor on a course, even more so than the greens.’ Tom Doak suggested, ‘There is way too much grooming of hazards in modern golf’, and he said he, ‘tries to get away with as much as he can when it comes to making his hazards more rugged.’ Tom Fazio told us he designs his hazards differently depending on the client and whether the course is public or private. Gil Hanse said he has contemplated, ‘building a course where ‘centerline hazards are the rule’ rather than the exception.’ Rees Jones believes the American version of golf is stroke play and ‘U.S. golfers won’t tolerate hitting their ball into a bunker and not having any kind of recovery shot.’ The late Mike Strantz contributed his thoughts to us on hazards through a series of back and forth emails sent graciously to us by his wife Heidi. We loved Mike’s comments, particularly the one where he defended what some might term an ‘unfair’ hazard by restorting to the dictionary. He said one of the definitions of ‘unfair’ is ‘marked by injustice, partiality, or deception.’ Mike felt that sounded like it could be part of the definition for the game golf! For me, the interviews with these guys and the many others that are included in the book were invaluable. To be able to share what we learned with everyone else in one consolidated spot is quite exciting.

18. The detailed glossary describes breakneck greens, giggle bunkers, kettle holes … where did Forrest and you come up with all these terms?

I give much credit for the glossary to Forrest. He had previously collected a ton of entries for a book which will eventually be published in print form: On Course, A Dictionary of Golf Course Terms. At present he maintains it on his website. He had wanted to include it in Routing the Golf Course, but there simply wasn’t room. So he coerced me into putting it into this book. It came out great and people should have fun reading it. I should note that the resource section in the book is comprehensive as well and was developed as a convenience to the reader. You’ll note that the Golf Club Atlas website is mentioned and we referred to it in parts of the book.

19. Where is the best place to get a copy of Bunkers, Pits & Other Hazards?

The publisher is John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Their website is www.wiley.com Amazon has it as well as most book stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. Another option is to contact me through my website at www.finegolfdesign.com or just email me at mkfine@finegolfdesign.com

The End