Feature Interview with Jim Urbina, Part II
10. How did the co-design title at Old Macdonald come to be bestowed upon you?
Mike Keiser has been quoted a few times in magazines that he asked Tom and I to design the fourth course at the Bandon Dunes resort. Our goal was to build Old Macdonald in the spirit of C.B Macdonald and Seth Raynor, while creating the ideals holes on property reminiscent of links land golf in the U.K.
I owe Mike Keiser a debt of gratitude for his idea to build Old Macdonald and for choosing me to help design and build the golf course. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would get the opportunity to create two golf courses, Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald on such a special piece of property.
11. How does Old Mac compare to Pacific Dunes?
I believe that Old Mac and Pacific Dunes are really very different.
Whereas Pacific Dunes is very intimate and the design changes with its surrounding topography, Old Mac carries the boldness of its features throughout the golf course.
Pacific Dunes is totally new with every hole a different concept with fresh ideas applied to each individual hole. Old Macdonald required that we think like Macdonald and Raynor. Many times I asked myself where the Alps would fit on the property. Where would the Eden hole fit in the routing and how was short going to compare to many of Macdonaldâ€™s short holes that he created? I never had to think about those design decisions at Pacific.
Pacific Dunes-I characterize as a friendly course that loops in and out of the dunes with a nice flow. You start in the dunes and wander out to the flats and the ocean. You return into the dunes and then back out again. I was quoted in a magazine years ago that Pacific Dunes was a series of loops intertwined throughout the round. In retrospect I believe that to be the essence of the routing at Pacific Dunes.
Old Mac starts inland and then moves over the spine dune on the third hole. You spend most of the round out by the ocean with views of the Pacific on almost every hole until you move back over the spine dune to finish the last two holes. Having played the last two holes a few times I donâ€™t miss the ocean when I see it for the last time on 16. I find 17 and 18 at Old Mac to be really fun and exciting holes to play.
Tom and I worked on many versions of the routing for Pacific Dunes. We didnâ€™t even have the 13th and 14th holes in the original routing. Mike didnâ€™t own the property at the time. A few of the holes for Pac Dunes were on the David Kidd golf course. Many of the routing changes were done in the first visit but various small changes were done throughout a year of playing with the concepts. The finishing holes for Pacific Dunes were going to be a short four headed north almost touching the fifth green at Old Macdonald and then two long par fours headed south down the valley where 17 and 18 sit today. There were many variations before a consensus was reached.
Old Macdonald didnâ€™t change much from the first version except for holes seven and eight where Mike had suggested we consider using the land where seven green sits today. I sent a revised routing to Tom that proposed changes to where 14-16 would be. After walking the northern property on one of my preconstruction meetings I saw where the location of the Alps holes sits today. I convinced Tom that this property was spectacular and should be used. It was also easier to cross the spine dune without much effort the farther north the routing went. Other than that most of the routing stayed the same.
The greens at Pacific Dunes had very subtle green surfaces and in most case smaller then the greens next door at Bandon Dunes. Almost every green was built within inches of its original grade. The bunkers were very ragged looking and were usually tied into blowouts that were already in the locations that you see today. The bunkers around hole seven at Pac Dunes were just as they appear today with a few exceptions. You couldnâ€™t create a bunker like you see at the right of the 13th green site. So we just left what was there. The Pine trees and gorse were left as is and in some places we planted more pines and native plants around the site.
The greens at Old Macdonald were created in almost every case except for three and nine. Bruce Hepner shaped a really cool green where three sits today and most of the green complex was sitting as it appears today. Bruce did a nice job of creating the bunkers just short of the green and tied into the hillside on the playerâ€™s left of the green. Well done.
The ninth green was flagged out and Tony Russell took the exact topography and cored out the green to a depth of 24 inches. We imported a special sand back into the cored out green and I floated the green and tied into its surroundings. These two greens were the only greens kept at grade.
All of the other greens were massaged to their present configurations, just as C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor would have done.
Mike Keiser and Ken Nice on more than one occasion teamed up against me to remove as much gorse as possible. At Pacific Dunes we tried to keep the pines and gorse to give some color contrast to the off color Fescue grass. Every time I even hinted about keeping some gorse in between the holes I would get the Mike and Ken stare. After much deliberation I understand where they are coming from. We estimated that the gorse grows about two feet a year until it matures at about ten to twelve feet in height. Even when you try to cut it down it just grows back with vigor. I now agree with them. In out of play areas let it grow but where it buts up to golf we have removed it. I like the look of open golf with no boundaries at Old Mac much different then Pacific Dunes.
I started playing with the uni-tee concept on the fifth tee at Pacific Dunes. The concept was used at a few of the other golf courses I was involved with. Sebonack has a nice flow to the teeing grounds. Old Macdonald was the really where they started to blend in and I really liked the way the greens and tees were tied together. Very natural looking and like I have said before, Old Macdonald is a golf course with no visible mowing lines and boundaries. Thanks to Ken Nice and his creative flare with fescue grasses.
Pacific Dunes is bordered by trees, gorse and dune ridges. Old Mac is much more open. And the playing widths are almost doubled at Old Macdonald.
Pacific Dunes has a blend of fescue and bent in the seed mix.
Old Macdonald has a blend of four types of fescue with no bents blended in.
Last but not the least Ken Nice and C.J have the pure fescue turf running as firm and fast as any links land turf I have ever played.
Old Mac’s turf looks like itâ€™s been around for ten years. They had a nice grow in and the small crew did an excellent job bringing the turf to maturation. The last 6 months they have really put the finishing touches on the course.
I poured my heart and soul into the creation at Old Mac as well as many of the others guys. But without the efforts that the maintenance crew puts in everyday the end product would have not turned out the way it has. My hat is off to the grass guys for that extra effort.
12. What was the greatest surprise in building Old Macdonald?
How it started and what we ended up with.
The first holes that were shaped in were very big in scale but I couldnâ€™t get a feel for how big they really were. We started on 3rd green and worked our way south down to 4th and 5th greens we then turned the corner and headed north where I shaped the 6th green in with an excavator. I stood back and wandered what we were getting into. A little hesitant on what Mikes reaction would be.
Ken and I walked the first few holes with Mike on his first visit. Got to #5 green and Mike asked the both of us what the square footage of the greens was. Ken and I shrugged our shoulders and said we didnâ€™t know. It fit the landform and with the Pacific Ocean for a background it didnâ€™t look that big. So Ken and I walked it off and came up with approximately 18,000 sq ft. Mike reaction was, â€œJim, this green is boldâ€. We then walked over to the 6th green and he just stared at it for a while. He liked what he was seeing. By nodding his approval he gave me the green light without saying a word.
Wood Sabol, the resorts photographer, was out documenting the construction and walked up to 6th green and said, â€œJim, I have never seen a green that looks like thatâ€. My reply was great we were on the right track. I poured on the afterburners it was time to push on and really give it a GO.
Once Tom and the others saw what we started with I knew it was going to be a really different golf course. Brian Slawnik created some really cool bunkers on #6 and Bruce shaped a few unconventional bunkers on #4. It was starting to gel. I got goose bumps, we were on a roll.
You never know when you start what will work but things were quickly starting to fall in place. A very pleasant surprise.
13. Of the template holes that you built at Old Macdonald, which original versions are your favourite?
I like to refer to the template holes as the Ideal holes as C. B Macdonald often said.
My favorite was The Alps. I first visited Scotland in 1986 and my first course was Prestwick. I fell in love with the Alps. If you told me then that 24 years later I would be using the Alps at Prestwick as inspiration for the Alps at Old Macdonald I would have laughed in your face. I would have never bet on this scenario.
Our Alps hole uses the topography to its fullest extent. We give different options to navigate the dune ridge and the large dunes surrounding the green site were really towering. A feeling of isolation in a location befitting the scale of Old Macdonald.
14. What advantage do you feel your construction experience offers against other golf course architects?
When you are involved with Design/ Build you better have knowledge of all aspects of the design and construction of the golf course. Understanding the routing and topography maps. Making decisions when the design needs to be tweaked.
When you are in charge of creating the budgets and construction timelines, molding the construction crew and finding each and everyoneâ€™s specialty. The responsibilities can be overwhelming. But by controlling all aspects of the design and construction you are not burdened by the wants and need of outside influences.
Itâ€™s all part of the process of a design that incorporates new and fresh ideas. The golf course you do today wonâ€™t be like the previous one you did a year ago. Many of the creative ideas come from having young energetic guys like Jonathan and Mike willing to try different ideas rather than the same ideas used over and over again. I remember telling Tony Russell on the 9th fairway at Pacific Dunes just before we got going on the shaping phase of Pac Dunes to forget how he learned to build bunkers at Bandon Dunes where he was on the construction crew. It wasnâ€™t that I didnâ€™t like the first course I just didnâ€™t want any ideas he learned from David to transfer to Pacific Dunes. It had to be different then the first course so using the same style wouldnâ€™t work.
I understand the construction side. You have to be careful how you go about the building of the course from the very first day you step onto the project. Knowing what to clear and what to save. Knowing the construction routes and how the traffic affects the sub soils. Understanding drainage and its effects on the design, how the irrigation and the routing alters the look of the native areas. Eliminating as much of the plastic as you can around the greens. Understanding the use of water and sometimes the over irrigation of the playing surfaces. Itâ€™s all relative to a golf course that looks manufactured and one that is very natural in its appearance. Controlling the traffic, understanding the people realizing that everything you do from the start affects the ending.
Pete Dye taught me many years ago, get the all the people on board so that they see your vision. Have no detractors and most of all control as many of the aspects of the construction as you can. I learned from Troy and Ken at Pacific Dunes that doing your own hydro-seeding vs. hiring a contractor is more convenient. You control when you want to seed not when they want to.
15. Given the spread of work you did for Renaissance of both new and restoration work, do you hope to continue to have that same balance in your own practice?
Itâ€™s the perfect balance. Working on new and fresh ideas designing 18 holes tempered by my ability to restore and preserve golden age designs. I have learned more about the creative works of Macdonald and Mackenzie by doing consulting work on these and many other architects of that era.
Really it is the inspiration of the masters of design and their work that has been my credo and the work I have been doing for the last 18 years. You can read all the books you want but until you work on the greens of Mackenzie, working with the bunkers that were influenced by Robert Hunter and restoring the boldness and angles of Macdonald and Raynor can you really appreciate the styles of these proven designs. Ross and Maxwell had styles that were consistent with the philosophies that I cherish.
Tillinghast and Emmet were visionaries who thought about the best use of the land that was handed to them, which is an idea that I find fascinating.
The writings of Macan taught me the bases for taking care of the golfer who pays for the course and reading about Egan proves to me that no idea is really a new idea.
At Pasatiempo for instance it’s understanding the reasons for Mackenzie’s flare working with the hillsides and how he ate up slope using bunkers. The tilt of the greens and the beauty he tried to blend into every hole. You can read about it and stare at pictures but until you try to restore his ideas in the dirt and understand the nuances of the slopes do you really understand what he was trying to do. Did I channel Mackenzie? No that would be a dumb statement. But I did learn by looking at the old cavities of the bunkers and stripping away sod that exposes sand build up on greens that you begin to piece the puzzles together.
All of the previously mentioned were influenced by golf courses that they had seen prior to their entry into golf design. I am only rethinking and digesting what they designed and passed on to me. You can learn a lot from studying golden age designs. Some people pass them off as old and tired ideas not relevant to todayâ€™s equipment advances. I find them to be fascinating and ingenious.
Built in an era when time was on their side and not trying to get done in a day. Standing back looking at their designs and seeking opinions from others. I am looking back at the visions of the masters and applying that to future designs.
16. With Pete Dyeâ€™s body of work falling somewhat out of vogue, which characteristics of Dyeâ€™s do you feel will ultimately stand the test of time?
The T.P.C at Sawgrass is one course that comes to mind. They can change the greens and argue about the length and fairness of the bunkers but they will never mess with the angles that Pete put into that course. I believe Pete really perfected the lines at Sawgrass.
The design Line or X factor, as I like to refer to it really shows off well at the 18th at Sawgrass. Standing on the tee, he has you staring down the line of railroad ties and the waterâ€™s edge. It is really the opposite of the Cape Hole where you play across the line. Pete has you playing right down the line. He does it with lake edges the best on Par 3s but he also uses many forms to create his edge. Sometimes itâ€™s a waste bunker or many times a long grass edge. He does that same design line to perfection at P.G.A. West, classic and undeniably Pete.
17. Having worked with some of golf course architectâ€™s biggest names, what concepts would you most like to include in an original Jim Urbina design?
Donâ€™t know where to start with that but really it depends on the owner, topography and the soil that I would be working with.
A blending a little bit of all of them so well that you couldnâ€™t distinguish one idea from another.
The routing is first and foremost phase one of the design. I have learned from all of them the important parts of the routing.
But I most likely would be more influenced by Maxwell greens, Mackenzieâ€™s routings and bunkering and Macdonald and Raynorâ€™s boldness and angles.
The most important concept is having talented guys working around you.
Working with the biggest names in golf taught me one very valuable lesson. Pete, Tom and Jack surrounded themselves with very talented people. I met a lot of great people working with Pete. Tom has some of the finest talent working on his sites. Jack has a staff of guys creating some really good golf courses all around the world. I met two guys while working with Jack at Sebonack. Kurt Bowman and Chris Rule handled the design side for Jack Nicklaus. They really worked hard to represent Jacks design ideas while they were on site.
I have had the pleasure to work with young talented guys like George Waters, Jonathan Reisetter, Mike Macarten, Will Smith, Chris Hunt, Kyle Franz, Ryan Crago, Patrick, and many others I have forgotten but as important as the guys mentioned. Sometimes the best ideas come from the most unlikely guy.
Mackenzie, Macdonald, Maxwell, Ross and many others had the same talent. They are the key to any quality design.
How else could Alister Mackenzie build courses in Australia without him ever been on site for more than a week and never seeing them finished. I will tell you how; he had gifted people working on his projects.
18. Which course that you have been involved in do you feel is underrated and why?
Apache Strong hold is one I can think of and Beechtree another. Riverdale Dunes, when I was working for Pete and Perry Dye.
Apache Stronghold had all of the right design ideas thrown in at just the right time in the routing. It never had the chance to be exposed to a lot of the golfing public. Those who got to play it in the first year still talk about the fun experiences they had on this course. It had a channel hole and a punch bowl. The Redan was in a very unique setting. Long was complete with Hell Bunker and it even had a version of the Cape.
The desert setting was absolutely stunning and the topography was an 8 on a scale of 10.
Riverdale Dunes was so far ahead of its time in the Denver market. It was built in the middle 80â€™s and broke every conventional rule in golf design. It is still one of my favorite places to play. A few outstanding short par 4s, a couple of Par 3s that canâ€™t match up with the best in Colorado and a set of greens that were as fun to build and play on as any in Colorado.
19. Which five courses would you most like to see or play?
I have seen a lot of the ones that I have been interested in. I guess the few that still need to be dissected are: (The list is more than 5 but here it is)
Stanley Thompsonâ€™s Banff Springs Resort, Jasper Park and Cape Breton Highlands Links.
Moorpark and Swinley Forest along with a few others in the London area.
Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath and hang out for a couple weeks in the sand belt of Australia.
I have seen the Masters but never played Augusta. What a cool experience. I try to imagine the bunkers when they had the capes and bays shaped in.
The Lido course if I could travel back in time.