Feature Interview

with

Todd Eckenrode

April 2018

How were you introduced to the game and architecture?

It’s interesting with all of the focus of late on par-3 or “short” golf courses that this was how I started in the game as well. My dad started me in lessons, around the age of 12 and I remember my early rounds on the course there, playing with him and assorted old-timers and just loving it. I also fondly remember “moving up” to an executive course, which was mostly par-3’s but had a few “big” holes, which were probably short par-4’s, but didn’t seem so at the time! So for me, it really was a progression onto courses larger and larger.

After a year or so, this meant my jump to the first full course I’d played, which is called Spring Hill Golf Course, in a very rural part of south Santa Cruz County, California. I was 13 or 14 years old at the time and I was pretty hooked on golf. Summer came around, and luckily I had a buddy who lived nearby interested as well, so our parents would drop us off at Spring Hills in the morning and pick us up at the end of the day. The Junior Golf rates were $5, I recall, which was all-you-can-play golf, with a hot dog and a coke at the turn. What a deal! We played 36 holes practically every day, and I remember that was the first summer I broke 90, then soon after broke 80, and that was it! I was all-in at that point.

The course was lovingly called a “farm” course, I recall, which was respective of its setting, and it had a mid-western feel to it. There was agriculture around it, and the conditions were probably not perfect, but it was a fun golf course, and laid on the land naturally.

As I moved on to play in high school, I began working and playing out of Pasatiempo Golf Club, and what a move that was. I remember realizing that this was a special golf course, but of course had no idea why. There was knowledge and slight promotion of the MacKenzie history there. But this was all before the discovery of the amazing Julian Graham photos by Bob Beck, and of course the great restoration of the course by Tom and Jim and their talented guys in the field. Needless to say, Pasatiempo would influence me greatly, mostly in ways unknown at the time.

Pasatiempo’s 1st and 9th holes originally, reminds one of The Old Course in some ways. Courtesy of Pasatiempo Golf Club.

I went on to play in college, walking on at the University of Arizona, where I played for two years, but never traveled to tournaments. It was a great experience of playing with tremendous players, though, including the reigning U.S. Am champion at the time. There was crazy talent there. But the writing was certainly on the wall that I was not going to travel, so I transferred to U.C. Santa Barbara, and what a move that turned out to be.

My coach for my last two years there, Walter “Topper” Owen, was an incredible man and teacher in life as much as golf. He was as much concerned with the experience we would get from this great moment in our lives as in the quality of golf we could play. We studied the mental side of the game, we had morning Yoga classes, and of course it didn’t hurt practicing weekly on The Valley Club as well.

Instead of playing the monotonous schedule of the Big West conference, in a van up and down California predominately, we traveled extensively to play in Hawaii, Utah, New Mexico, and other great locales and a smattering of standout courses, such as Yale. BYU also hosted a tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Augusta College hosted one the weekend before the Masters, giving out practice round tickets to the teams for the days after. The statewide tournaments we retained included the historic Western Intercollegiate at Pasatiempo, and USF’s tournament at The Olympic Club. As I was beginning to ponder a future in golf course design, I soaked up the moments at some of these wonderful courses, with an eye to the future. But most importantly, what an experience I had, all attributed to Topper, and we remain close friends to this day.

Intermixed in all of this, my deep family tree all had roots in Ohio, where we would take yearly summer trips. This was my introduction to Donald Ross, where he had numerous courses in the area we’d play with my Dad and Uncle, such as Mill Creek Park, Congress Lake Club, and the wonderful Brookside Country Club in Canton. Brookside had the most impact on me, with some fantastic holes, and a set of the most unique and bold greens I’d seen at the time. Brian Silva has completed a restoration since, which I hear is fantastic, but unfortunately I have not been back to see.

The 18th at Brookside CC in Canton, Ohio. One of Ross’ finest, featuring incredibly bold internal green contours. Courtesy of Brookside Country Club.

After college, I was lucky enough to play in a handful of state and national amateur events. The most impactful was when I played in the British Amateur, at Royal County Down Golf Club. This was a course unlike any I’d experienced. Incredibly rugged golfing terrain, with loads of blind shots over massive dunes, and the inherent uneasiness and deception that comes with this. The wild long grasses and gorse everywhere, and the famous “fringed” bunkers that captured way too many of my shots to allow me to comfortably miss “the cut”. These imposing hazards, accented with tufts of tall natural grasses of contrasting colors along the top, have the effect of vertically immense bunkers where escape seems quite difficult, and matches the scale of the landforms so well.

One significant takeaway of this golf course was that there really needn’t be any rules followed to have a great golf course, including the finest in the world. It remains in my personal “top 5” for many reasons, but mostly due to the fact that it is completely its own golf course, and possesses its own “sense of place” unlike any other. There is not another course even remotely like Royal County Down that I can think of.

Royal County Down Golf Club’s 3rd hole. Photo courtesy of Evan Schiller Photography.

Any particular hole at Royal County Down strike your fancy?

The 13th hole was particularly appealing to me, and I don’t think it’s one of the most frequently talked about holes there. I wrote about this in Paul Daley’s Golf Architecture Worldwide Perspective book (v. 3), in more detail, but will touch on what I love about it here.

The 13th is different than most of the holes at Royal County Down in its tee shot, with the driving area actually visible ahead of you, the fairway nestled into a valley two dunes ridges. Clumps of gorse were scattered about, but predominately the tall natural grasses covered the lower-lying ridge on the right side, immediately adjacent to the fairway.

What I really admire about the hole is how the right dunes affect the approach shot, both visually and mentally. At about 100 yards short of the green, scattered with a variety of nasty bunkers, tall grass clumps, and thick gorse, this ridge encroaches completely into the centerline of the shot. Visibility to the entire green is obscured, but with the flag generally visible and perhaps a glimpse of the left greenside bunker. Depending on your position, you may get a slight gauge on the green’s proximity and distance.

It appears as if this dune requires a full and hefty carry to the green. In reality, the approach into the green is open and rewards a running shot to bound up to the pin. This conflict of what the shot rewards, and what your mind tells you not to do is what I love and is so interesting to me.

A sketch of the 13th Hole at Royal County Down. Sketch by Todd Eckenrode.

The tendency to play towards what you can see, ultimately a more comfortable feeling, lures the golfer to play towards the left side of the green. Yet this very spot is where lies the lone bunker adjacent to the green. A psychologically placed hazard if ever there was one. The greatest holes in the world are those in which the golfer is challenged both physically and mentally, and the 13th at Royal County Down checks that box.

A sketch of the approach to the 13th over the intimidating dunes ridge and bunkering, and the lone bunker left of the green that seemingly calls for your shot. Sketch by Todd Eckenrode.

How did Pasatiempo influence you in architecture?

Similar to RCD, there are very few rules followed in the design of Pasatiempo. It’s probably the wildest MacKenzie course I know, at least in the greens and green complexes. There are extremely bold and big holes such as #3, short and intricate holes such as #15, and everything in between. What’s unique about it, however, is how it utilizes the unique ravines, or barrancas, as we call them in California, on the back nine, following the land and using this identifying natural feature to the utmost. Every hole “touches” these barrancas on the back, in a different way for each hole. Carries off the tee, diagonal carries on the approach, perpendicular carries in front of the green, and play alongside can all be seen.

The result of this is great variety in play, and a sense of naturalness, as the predominate hazard is just that, natural. This was probably the thing I learned most from Pasatiempo that I try to carry into our designs. Creating variety in how natural features are used. And then carrying on that principle into all of the other facets of design, such as bunkering, green contours, approach contours, surrounds, etc

I am also very conscious of the aesthetics of design, and one of the most powerful ways in which to do that is through bunkering. MacKenzie was not shy about using bunkering quite liberally, and Pasatiempo is no exception, creating drama and a sense of artistry. Often times he would utilize bunkers on a distant background hole as part of the composition of the foreground hole, or vice versa. The original ground photos of Pasatiempo show a really open canvas, with much longer and wider views than can be achieved today.

Out of my incredibly fortunate exposure to this course came a passion and thirst for knowledge in golf course design. It was the one golf course that got me thinking… Why is it so good? What makes it so fun to play? Why aren’t other courses like this?

Pasatiempo’s 16th, featuring one of my favorite bunkers in terms of artistry. Photo by Julian Graham, courtesy of Pasatiempo Golf Club.

I have such fond memories, and am thrilled they’ve made such a concerted effort to respect and restore the MacKenzie design there. Renaissance Design has done a fantastic job there, and I’m hoping the club continues to carry on with this further.

What are your favorite holes or shots to play at Pasatiempo and why?

The obvious favorites most would state would be of #16 or perhaps #11. Those are wonderful holes, of course and interestingly have diagonal carries in varied ways. But a lesser known shot or feature that I’ve always loved is the approach shot and greensite of hole #2. The green is such, sloping away from the golfer at the front part of the green, and sweeping off strongly to the left, that you really have to play a ball that bounds in short and from this right side of the approach to have any chance at some of the hole locations in that area. The land feeds in strongly from the right, so getting the right weight on this “hold” shot is the trick and such a fun shot to try.

The 2nd at Pasatiempo Golf Club, featuring green contours that reward play bounding into the approach. Photo by Rob Babcock, courtesy of Pasatiempo Golf Club.

I’ve also always loved the greensite of #4 as well, with a unique use of a swale tucked and disguised behind the right bunker, but which really affects anything played to the right hole locations and causes a lot of deception as well.

The tee shot at #10 is a lot of fun, and probably more relevant when we were hitting persimmon woods back then! Nowadays, the kids are probably too long to play the shot over the crest of the hill as we used to, trying to gain the advantage of a ball played on the ground, down the middle, catching the downslope and gaining a much needed shortened approach to this really difficult hole.

Pasatiempo’s 10th tee shot, from Opening Day. Photo by Julian Graham, Courtesy of Pasatiempo Golf Club.

I have seen a good bit of talk of late on the swale on #14 and its understated but significant effect on play. I believe this is simply a grassed over arm of the same barranca that plays between the holes in this part of the course, but retaining it as this subtle feature was brilliant, and would have been perhaps too penal as a rugged barranca.

I’ve always had a love affair with #15, and think it’s one of the most underrated par-3’s that I can think of. It’s a hole you feel you can make up a stroke in the round here, perhaps managing a birdie, simply due to the short iron in your hand. But you’d better strike it well, and you’d better keep it below the hole. Danger surrounds most everywhere and the front and back hole locations in particular really narrow. It’s hard psychologically to get conservative with such a short shot, and perhaps you’re thinking ahead to the danger of #16, visible just to your right. You can find yourself feeling conflicted on the shot, and then…well…we know how those shots typically turn out.

Barona Creek Golf Club in San Diego was your coming out party it seems, tell us more about that project.

We started construction on Barona Creek in the late 1990’s, which was a boom time in golf development. I was working for Gary Baird at the time, running our west coast projects out of his Tennessee office, to which Barona was one. It was a really interesting project, being the first time we’d had a Native American tribe as our client, the Barona Band of Mission Indians. Also because the land was so different from what we were used to in many ways, working predominately in the Southeast United States. A wide-open and vast site, but with great internal features and beautiful vistas.

The tribe had a deep reverence for the land and this fit right into what we wanted to accomplish, which was to showcase the land, and to incorporate any and all unique and identifying aspects of the land into the routing and design. Mature California Oaks, great rock features, and things as minute as simple swales filled with cobble were throughout the site. We realized that San Diego in general was pretty void of quality golf course architecture, on the public side particularly, and wanted to do something completely different for the area. Everything else was narrow, tree lined, heavy with rough and overwatered. An open, wide, firm and fast golf course hadn’t really been tried. So we took off with those simple concepts, to present a different playing experience, and to showcase the natural features of the land in the utmost, and went from there.

With the expansiveness of the site, width and alternate routes of play were possible, and we could build strategy into the play. Bunkering was of the vast, large scale of the land, with detailed edging to mimic erosion, and integrated into the native grasses instead of being lined with turf.

Barona Creek’s 3rd Hole, a stout par-3 that rewards play over the left bunkering, bounding the ball into the green and avoiding the trouble right. Photo courtesy of Todd Eckenrode.

Another overriding theme was to create great variety. I was hung up on that at the time, I recall …. how can we change direction in the routing, how can we make this one hole unlike any other on the course, and have the play go from hole to hole in an interesting and varied way.

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