Feature Interview with Mark Love
Mark Love and his older brother, PGA touring professional Davis Love III, started in the golf course design business in 1994. Their company, Love Golf Design, currently has twelve golf courses open for play through out the Southeast, including the Love Course at Myrtle Beach’s Barefoot Resort & Golf, Anderson Creek Golf Club near Fayetteville, N.C., Shell Landing Golf Club in Gautier, Miss., and The Preserve at Jordan Lake on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, N.C. In addition, the company has performed two high-profile renovation jobs, the Retreat course at Sea Island (Ga.) Golf Club, and Forest Oaks in Greensboro, N.C., site of the PGA Tour’s Chrysler Classic.
This past year has been one of the busiest yet for Love Golf Design, with the unveiling of Kinderlou Forest in Valdosta, Georgia, and The Patriot in Greenwood, South Carolina.
Davis Love III contributed his thoughtson severalof the questions and his responses are in blue type.
Your brother Davis and you formed Love Golf Design in 1994. What have been your impressions of the golf course design business over your first decade?
First of all, let me say that I in no way consider myself an expert on the golf course design business. But I do feel I’ve learned a lot in the 10 years we’ve been at it now. I have been around golf all my life, as has Davis, of course, and we learned the game from our father who was a golf pro, and who really epitomized what it means to make a life of golf. He loved it and taught us the love of the game, and we’ve always had that. Now, to have the chance to design golf courses, after all the courses we’ve seen and played and talked about over the years, and to be able to give back to the game, it is really a tremendous opportunity for us.
When I say I’m no expert, I’m trying to make the point that I don’t believe there are any real absolutes, conceptually speaking, in golf course design. There’s no real right or wrong. That’s what Davis and I keep saying to each other throughout the design process, it’s all more personal opinion. You find so many golf courses that certain people love and other people don’t like at all. We realize you’re never going to do something that everyone is going to like. What we’re trying to do is be true to ourselves. I look at St. Andrew’s as a perfect example, and I pull that one out because it is the home of the game and most people perceive it to epitomize strategic design and the strategic nature of the game and the way the game is supposed to be played, and yet you can go out and find other people who will criticize it and say, ‘it’s goofy golf’ and ‘it doesn’t do this, it doesn’t do that,’ or ‘there’s too many blind shots and too many strange bounces.’ We look at the golf courses that we’ve liked over the years and find out what it is that makes those golf courses special to us -and, we think, special to other people -and then try to incorporate these things into the designs that we do. There is no right or wrong. The hardest thing that we’ve had to handle, and to be thick-skinned about, is that people are going to criticize you no matter what. You’re never going to make everyone happy, so all we can do is our best. We have to be true to what we think a good golf course should be.
You’ve been around golf your entire life. How did your upbringing eventually get you and your brother into the business of golf course design?
Growing up in the game, we used to sit around the dinner table in the evening and recount our rounds for the day. The general conversation centered on things like greens hit, fairways hit and the number of putts out of me and out of Davis. Some days we would have matches with my dad or my mom, so everything sort of revolved around golf, which was great. It was something we all had in common. My mother is still a wonderful player. I’m not giving out any numbers, but she shot her age not too long ago, and I’m not aware of too many ladies that have done that.
Anyway, we talked a lot about how to play the game, which taught us the importance of course management – the way you work your way around the golf course. Being able to walk a golf course, and understand the requirements that it has, led us to get to know more about why certain holes were designed the way they were, and about the design of golf courses in general. Dad was also very interested in design. He was involved in re-design work at Atlanta Country Club while he was the first golf pro there and he did the same thing for Sea Island when they took over the Island Club, now called the Retreat Course. We’ve got a wonderful old letter hanging on the wall in our office that he wrote about a nine-hole golf course in Korea that he designed when he was over there during the Korean war. He laid out a nine-hole golf course for use by the troops, and the letter talks about the yardages, the greens, and which way they cant or tilt and all these things. So, starting from that we’ve always had a love and interest in that part of the game.
By the time we started in this business, Davis had been approached a number of times to associate himself with a given architect just so his name could be put on the golf course. But Davis decided he didn’t want to do it that way. He and I had always talked about getting into course design and we wanted to do it on our own terms, where we could be involved with every aspect of it. Now, I don’t have a problem with the guys that do it the other way and I kind of think it’s unfair to criticize players for wanting to have a hand in it. There’s a lot of things a player can add, even if he’s just looking at the routing and making a couple of visits and adding some insights from a professional’s point of view. With a good architect he can add something to the overall value of that golf course. Designing a golf course is not a one-man show; it’s never a one-man show. There are a lot of people involved and if somebody thinks that they’re doing every bit of the whole deal then I would be a little skeptical.
We formed the company with an old family friend, Bob Spence, a friend of my father’s who learned the trade from George Cobb, and was, at the time, with Kemper Sports out of Chicago. He had a lot of experience in the construction and in the field design of golf courses and we knew that we could trust him to get the technical side right. We also knew that he would listen to us and listen to what we were trying to accomplish and then get that translated into what finally got built in the field. It’s definitely been a learning process. I mean, with the first one, we had to feel our way around, learn the right terminology to get our ideas across. But 10 years later we’ve got a pretty good handle on what we’re doing and we continue to get better.
Davis and you had a very successful relationship when you were working with him on tour. How has this translated into the design business?
Davis and I compliment each other very well and we share a passion for designing golf courses. Fortunately for this business, our tastes in architecture are pretty similar. We had a lot of time out there on tour to talk about things and a lot of what we talked about was what we liked or didn’t like about the golf courses we’ve seen and played around the world. It helped to bring us to a point where I feel I have a good handle on what we’re trying to achieve in the design of a golf course. I have the opportunity to spend more time on site with one of our projects than Davis, obviously with the schedule he has, and it’s nice to know that he now feels confident that I can go out there and get things done. Then when I call him and say, ‘Hey, number 2, 3, and 4 are rough shaped and they look fabulous and I love them and here’s what they look like,’ he doesn’t feel like he has to jump on a plane to come see them before they get final approval. He knows that if I’m telling him that, then he’s going to like it when he comes in. Davis can’t be there all the time, we’re very upfront about that, and I think that’s OK. I look at the Donald Ross example – out of the vast number of courses that he did, there had to be some he never even really saw. Yet, there’s still a very distinctive ‘Ross’ aspect to those old courses. So it can be done that way.
I know there are guys out there that are on site all the time and they’re devoted to it and that’s great too. We try to do the same thing and believe in being very hands-on with our design guys, Bob Spence and Paul Cowley. They are on site as much as possible during construction. We feel that when you’ve got a team of people working with you who understand what you’re trying to achieve and who are on board with your design concept, then it is possible for somebody like Davis, or any of the other guys out there doing golf courses who can’t be on site constantly, to have a great influence on what that final product looks like and plays like.
We are very pleased with what we’re achieving as a unit, as a team of guys that we have assembled and through Davis’ and my relationship that’s been nurtured through our lifetime in the game.
Relative to your architecture business, what are the pros and cons of Davis Love III being such a well-known name in golf?
It can be an advantage in that we get our foot in the door with a lot of people because of the name recognition, but on the flip side, a lot of our projects tend to be more about marketing as opposed to purely the golf. I think we have a body of work that is awfully good, that’s getting better every time out, but we still have yet to get the kind of sites that the really well-known architects have gotten. Typically, what we find are developers who want to use the name for marketing, and golf is important, but it’s not what’s driving their deal – it’s about selling real estate. So we have to deal with the real estate part of the project and getting the lots out there, and we don’t necessarily get the best land. So sometimes it’s a drawback. We’re not getting the great sites that are pure golf sites. To be considered a great design firm, you need some great sites. That’s one of the most important things.
When you think of a classic golf course, what is it? It’s the setting, it’s the aesthetics, it’s certainly the strategy of the golf course and the dramatic part of the golf course, yet a lot of those things come directly from the site. I think the thing you’re dealing with from a signature type of golf course versus the classic golf course is that there are compromises involved. If you’re given a great site and told to go and build your best 18 holes, there is no compromise. You can do whatever you want to do. And I think that’s the difference in some of the older stuff. Those guys didn’t have to compromise as much. They went out and found the best sites, the best green locations and the best tee locations, and built it that way.
Thankfully, there are still opportunities to do this and there are some guys building wonderful golf courses right now on fabulous sites. Like Tom Doak out in Oregon; Crenshaw and Coore with Sand Hills and Friars Head on Long Island. We are even starting to see more and more real estate developments that are dedicating at least some of their better property for golf.
Barefoot Landing, Anderson Creek and Shell Landing havereceived great reviews. Doesn’t this mean you’ve gotten some good sites?
Oh sure, I think they’ve all been good sites, just not great sites. I don’t mean that in a negative way, because there are only so many great sites out there. However, I think great golf courses come from great sites, and we’ve done some really good golf courses on good sites, but they still have some drawbacks. There have always been restrictions with the real estate and in today’s world, considering all the environmental issues that you have to deal with, you’re not getting the prime pieces of ground to do your golf courses on. So what we’re attempting to do is to use traditional design elements to make the very best strategically interesting golf courses that we can: Learning from all the greats in the past, but doing it on sites that are not as conducive to those things as the sites that those classic architects had. The Retreat course we did here at Sea Island is a great example. It was a renovation. Well, really it was a complete redesign of a real estate-based golf course. We went in and tried to incorporate classic design elements into the course strategy and green complexes – we drew a lot off of Donald Ross and Pine Needles – and we put those things in a setting that is quite different from the sand hills of North Carolina. Yet, when people come and play the golf course, they are going to walk away and say it was fun and it was interesting because those elements were there. It’s not going to jump into the top 100 in the country, because it’s bordered by homes on both sides and you cross the road six times. But, it’s still fun and interesting to play and you’re going to get a glimpse of that old style. We think they’re going to enjoy that and come away from it having had a good time and been challenged by the golf course.
You mentioned Ross and I know you also admire the work of Raynor and other classic architects. What is it that made those guys so special?
Everyone talks about the Golden Age of Architecture, and a time when so many of these wonderful architects were out building great golf courses. Davis and I talk about this a lot, it seems every time the tour plays a major event on one of the older, classic golf courses, everyone loves the golf course. But generally, when they play a tour event on a course that’s new, it doesn’t quite get the same response. There has to be a reason for that. Some of it, again, is the setting. But also, there was a beauty to the way they designed those golf courses – the routings. So much time and effort was spent on it.
I recently played two Raynor courses, Yeamans Hall and Chicago Golf Club. Davis and I both think Chicago Golf Club is the way golf ought to be. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful layout. They did some neat things as far as pulling design elements from the great holes in Europe and bringing them to America. That’s the key: You’re not trying to copy golf holes. You’re trying to take the things that made those holes stand the test of time, that made them great challenges, then find where those elements can fit into whatever particular piece of ground you’re working on. Ross is also one of our all-time favorites. If I had to play one golf course probably for the rest of my life, it would be Pinehurst No. 2. There’s just no end to the variations and the way you can play it and the challenges you get going into and around the greens. I grew up playing at Brunswick Country Club, an old Ross golf course that Ross hardly even saw. But it’s got those key Ross elements, with the bunkering and the shape of the greens and the run-offs that just make such a great challenge for the low-handicap player, yet are always playable for middle – and higher-handicap players. I think that’s why they have stood the test of time, because they can be adapted for major championships with just a little bit of tweaking to where some of the best players of the world have to really work to shoot good scores. But yet, the average player can go out there and have fun day-in and day-out and that’s important. We’re trying our best to get some of those elements into the golf courses that we’re doing and trying to do it in our own style, because we don’t want to be accused of simply copying other holes.
Describe a hole at Chicago Golf Club and what you like so much about it and what specific design feature you might like to incorporate into a future project.
There isn’t really one hole that stands out because they are all good, but I could tell from standing on the first tee the course was going to be something special. The way the first fairway slopes one way and the location of the fairway bunkers, I knew it was a golf course that would make you think. It’s the subtle strategies; you know there are places you can hit it to gain advantage and places where it is safe to miss. But you also know the places not to go, where you are just dead. It’s all right out there in front of you, if you’re looking for it.
We are trying to do the same thing with our designs, creating the subtleties that make a golf course interesting and fun to play over and over. For example, we like to give a lot of room off the tee, but there is usually one side of the fairway that provides a better angle of approach into the green than the other. The same thing with our greens, there is usually a bail out area for the conservative play, yet trouble for the aggressive shot that isn’t well executed. – Davis Love III
You say you don’t want to copy holes, yet doesn’t there have to be some imitation when it comes to designing classic golf holes?
When we look at a piece of property for a golf course, a lot of times it reminds us of another course or element of a course we like. It might be Ross. It might be Raynor. It might be Tillinghast. It might be Maxwell. It might be anyone of those guys. That style gives us an idea of what we want to try to do. A great example – we had a wonderful piece of ground in Valdosta, Georgia. Davis had just played Chicago Golf Club for the first time, and I had recently played in an event at The Country Club of Charleston, so, we had a lot of that Raynor mode going on. We decided we would incorporate some of his design elements, like squared-off greens and steep, grass-faced bunkers into the design of the course. But as we walked the property, surprisingly, some of the land also had a look and feel similar to the hills at Shinnecock. So aesthetically, we treated the grassing of the course to give us the feeling of Shinnecock. Finally, four or five holes on the back nine flow through this rolling terrain and mature pines and, of course, that reminded us of Pinehurst, so we had to include a little Ross.
This doesn’t mean we are literally copying holes contour for contour like you would see at one of these replica courses. When we say Ross or Raynor or MacKenzie or whoever, it’s more a term we are using to communicate a look and feel we are trying to achieve or an interpretation of a certain design element. We are trying to make it fun and we like to use all those things that we’ve seen on courses that we’ve liked and incorporate them where they make sense. Another good example would be the renovation we completed last year of Forest Oaks up in Greensboro, N.C., where the PGA Tour plays the Greensboro Open. Again, it has a lot of ‘Raynor-esque’ design features, yet most of the players said during the tournament that it reminded them of Pinehurst. I think we are on the right track because I know what we did was well received by the tour, which is gratifying. But even more gratifying than that, is how it has been received by the club membership.
You referred earlier to the playability of Pinehurst No. 2. In your opinion, what gives a golf course the characteristic of playability?
In order to build a golf course that’s going to be playable on a day-in and day-out basis for the average player, the people who are going to be playing it 90 percent of the time, but also challenge the low handicap player and the tournament player, we feel you’ve really got to work backwards from the green complex to the tees. It’s easy to build a golf hole that’s 450 yards long and then pop some tees forward of that, stick them where they make sense, and then make it the right length for everybody. But the right length for everybody doesn’t make it interesting and fun for everybody, and it doesn’t necessarily challenge the good player. We’re trying our best to start at the greens complex, then work our way backwards with the strategy, and give people multiple options of play. What’s more important for the high-handicapper or the mid-handicapper is not that the hole is only 400 yards long as a par 4, but that they have two or three ways to play it. Let’s say you’ve got four guys in a group that are all 18-handicappers, yet they all play a completely different game. Everybody needs to find a way to play the golf hole that best suits them. And that starts with the strategy of the golf course. I think that’s what sets apart the great, classic golf courses from most of what’s being built today – it’s the amount of strategy that is involved in working your way around the golf course, thinking your way around. Finding the best way to play it for you requires having multiple options, and that’s where the idea of limited land, real estate developments, is hindering our ability to do that, because a lot of times you don’t have the width to give multiple options. It’s tough to find sites where you’re able to do that, that allow for great risk/reward shots, but also give a very safe avenue for someone to play. But that’s what the old classic golf courses gave, and I think that’s why they stood the test of time. We’re trying our best to recreate that when we can.
It’s funny, but Davis and I have noticed from many years of Wednesday pro-ams that it seems higher handicap players move faster the closer they get to the green. They’ll start at the tee and they’ll be slow, but as they get closer to the green they’ll begin to move faster and faster, and then – boom, next thing you know they are off the green and on to the next hole. But then you look at a group of good players and they’re a lot faster from the tee on their way to the green, and then once they get around the green everything seems to slow down. Good players are concerned with where they’re going to place their shots off the tee to get the best angle to the green, but they know their ball is going in a certain direction most of time, so the key to scoring for them is around the greens. The greens and the shot values into the greens are where you’re going to challenge the good players. And those are subtle things. And then multiple options and room to play is where you’re going to help the average player get from tee to green and then move on.
The Pinehurst No. 2 green complexes are both world class and totally unique. Why hasn’t another architect (including Ross!) ever built something in a similar vien for 18 holes? Can you forsee yourfirm ever building such green complexes?
Some things are just too good or unique to try to replicate, even by the person who did it in the first place. There is only one original, everything else is just a copy. And Pinehurst #2 is the original or the standard in everybody’s mind in terms of ‘Ross design’.
Now that’s not to say that you can’t take certain elements from #2, or from Ross in general, and incorporate them into modern design. We’ve probably done it on just about every project, sometimes without even thinking about it. Some of it is obvious, some of it is a little more subtle, a lot depends on the property. I believe the greens we built at The Patriot, a course that just opened near Greenwood, S.C., may resemble the green complexes at #2 more than any we’ve done so far. It’s not necessarily in the overall look of the greens, but in the way they play – the boldness of certain contours or the way a one side of the green is crowned to create stronger shot values.
What about the Love course at Barefoot? Didn’t your design team have some extra width there?
Yes. Barefoot Landing in Myrtle Beach is a course where we actually did have a lot of room. It allowed us to design holes with multiple options. We have a short par-4, hole No. 4, that’s driveable, yet offers a number of different ways to play it. We’ve got cross bunkering and places where long hitters can try to drive it to a smaller target that gets them a little closer to the green, but they’re left with a little more challenging second shot into the green. The shorter hitters have a less direct route, but it’s wider, so that they can plot their way around to give themselves an easier approach, if they’ve managed themselves properly. There’s probably six holes on that golf course that you can choose your route of play, and those are fun. It allows people’s personalities to come out. The more aggressive risk takers can play the course that way and the less aggressive, more methodical players can work their way around in a more thoughtful way and take different paths to play the golf course. That’s a lot of fun. It’s not always an option given the land that you have to deal with, but it does make the game more interesting.
Describe a hole that you have designed and what you like so much aboutit.
We’ve designed a couple of short par-4’s that offer a lot of options and are really fun to play, one is the fourth hole at Barefoot and the other is the seventh hole at one of our newer courses, Kinderlou Forest. The seventh hole at Kinderlou is an L-shaped dogleg right, around 350 yards long, that is situated in what used to be an old clear-cut timber tract. It plays downhill from the tee to a fairly wide fairway that slopes from right to left and then narrows and levels out as it nears the end of the dogleg. Bunkers frame the landing area, one left, one long, and two cross bunkers on the right, cut into the hill, guarding the dogleg. A single oak tree, one of the few trees remaining in this field, also protects the inside of the dogleg. From the tee, a drive ranging from 200 yards to 280 yards can be played to the fairway, leaving a short iron or wedge approach into the green. The second shot is uphill and blind, unless a more aggressive play is made to reach the end of the fairway, challenging the fairway bunkers. From the end of the fairway, just the top of the flag and the horizon line of the green are visible through a small saddle cut into the crest of the hill, and it’s probably one of the most fun 80-90 yard wedge shots you will hit all day. The green is fairly small, less than 5,500 sq. ft. in size, and has greenside bunkers both short and long.Of course, the longer hitters can go straight at the green, but it’s all carry over native grasses and a tough par if not hit well.
I like this hole because it forces you to make a decision, it can be played in different ways, and even though it’s short- par is a good score. It’s also a very natural looking hole because we did very little during construction to create it.’ – Davis Love III
Donald Ross oversaw Pinehurst No.2 evolve into a wonderful course over four decades. Do modern architects have the same opportunity to continually tweak their designs until they are just right?
I think it’s possible given the right set of circumstances- an architect that has close ties to a particular course and an owner willing to make the improvements. I could see that happening here at Sea Island if we had the opportunity to design a new course for them. It’s not exactly the same as Ross at Pinehurst, but Mr. Nicklaus at Muirfield and Pete Dye at the Ocean Course could be modern examples. – Davis Love III
What are your thoughts on Pete Dye’s design at Harbour Town? What are some favorite features/holes? Certainly Davis seems to love it!
The thing about Harbour Town is that there is a correct way to play each hole. The course looks hard, but Pete has designed a conservative way to play it. Where you get in trouble is when you try to do too much, like challenging the doglegs or shooting at certain pins where there is no room to miss. Similar to Chicago Golf Club, it’s a course that makes you think.
Whistling Straits is the same way. It looks like it’s impossible to play, but it’s just a matter of figuring out the best place to hit it.- Davis Love III
Any final thoughts about golf course architecture?
Davis and I are very proud of all the work that we’ve done. I think the key thing to remember is that golf course design is a learning process. It will always be a learning process. I think we’re getting better every time out and gaining a confidence that is allowing us to think a little more outside the box. I, for one, think there is too much emphasis placed on par – making sure that you have the right number of par fours, par threes and par fives, so that the golf course comes out to a par of 72, with ‘X’ number of holes a certain length, as opposed to the emphasis on the sporting aspect of it. A lot of times, it’s easy to think in terms of what’s fair – can you see the green surface, does the hole read to you, and all those things. While those things are important, it’s also part of the game to have some unknowns, which is a lot like life. You’re going to have some things come up that you don’t expect and you have to deal with them. It brings out your character and part of your personality, and it forces you to overcome obstacles.
Many people don’t agree with that philosophy when applied to course design. I think some new courses are a little too straightforward, because we want them to be fair all the time. Anyone who has ever hit a blind shot into a green and not known where their ball was and gotten up there and it’s two feet from the hole knows the thrill and the enjoyment of that surprise and that element. You don’t want that on every hole in a round of golf, but it sure is nice occasionally to have that little bit of unknown. People talk about hazards that you don’t see, and how that’s not fair. Well, life’s not fair and golf’s not fair and golf’s not meant to be fair. It’s meant to challenge. You’re supposed to figure out the best way to try to play that hole and the best way to handle the situation, and that’s part of the challenge of the game.