Feature Interview with Sean Arble
1. Please share with us your background. How did an American come to live in England?
I was born and raised near Detroit (learned how to play golf at Grosse Ile G&CC) and after graduating from university decided to travel about Europe getting jobs here and there. Through an unlikely set of circumstances while working in the Netherlands, I ended up moving to Japan of all places. This would have been about 1988 when there was still a Marrakesh Express attitude about travelling in the Far East. Consequently I decided to take a circuitous 6 month route to Japan via Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia and most enjoyable it was too! While living in Japan, I met a lovely blonde Englishwoman from Sutton Coldfield (not far from Birmingham). After exchanging vows in 1990 and at the insistence of my new bride, we eventually settled in Ann Arbor. On several occasions over the next few years Julia hinted that she would eventually like to settle in England. As I had by now rediscovered the great game of golf through several trips to the UK (ostensibly to visit my in-laws) I didn’t mind terribly. It so happened that our daughter was born in 1996. We figured that if the move was ever going to happen this was the best time. We eventually sold up and moved to England in 1998.
2. You are Michigan born. Talk about the impression Lakewood Shores Gailes left upon you.
On my one and only visit I instantly had an overwhelming feeling that The Gailes was a game changer. Located in Oscoda on the “Sunrise Side of Michigan”, The Gailes was my first inland introduction to pot bunkers, waving knee high rough, meaningful mounding in the middle of fairways, centreline bunkers, irregular cut lines, double greens and of course the ever present wind off Lake Huron. By the time the course opened in 1993 I had played some world class links, but I never experienced a modern design where so many of the principles and idiosyncratic features of links were transplanted onto an inland site. I knew then and there that golf course architecture was moving in a different direction. Highly skilled and experienced architects have now had the opportunity to create a more authentic links experiences in North America, but in retrospect, The Gailes was in the vanguard of what many are now calling a renaissance in design.
3. Do you think the fact you are looking at UK courses through the ‘lense’ of an American impacts what you like/dislike?
You know, I have been living England so long that my perspective is that of a British person who admires and respects traditional courses designed with age old principles in mind. My “lens” most definitely has an impact on my likes and dislikes. This attitude has been forming since very first game on British soil at Royal Troon way back in 1991.
20 years ago, weather allowing, it seemed all courses were firm with burned out rough. I can still recall playing Brora many years ago when the greens were impossibly fast, crusty and firm. With the influx of visitor fees, many of the best known clubs altered their playing surfaces with too much water and fertilizer. Unknowingly, this change in maintenance practices mutated many courses into links/parkland or heathland/parkland hybrids. To some degree, I think courses are still suffering from this misguided practice and who knows, perhaps in the future we shall rarely experience the likes of what fast and firm really means on a top drawer course. Hoylake’s 2006 Open demonstrated that the best characteristics of links can be brought to bear if the powers that be maintain trust in the robustness of fescues and fine bents. However, often, it seems only courses which could not afford to over-water/feed have escaped unscathed. One notable example is Pennard. The course always plays as the weather dictates it should. Another course I recall being extremely keen is North Wales, famous for its back to back par 3s; O.L. and L.O. Much to my chagrin, just recently Rye has decided to succumb to an automatic watering system. All visitors to the UK should go out of their way to play a few courses which rely on Mother Nature for its water. It is only then that one gains an appreciation for how different courses can and should play depending on the season.
4. Please tell us about the genesis of your new travel guide company, Classic British Golf Tours, and what you hope to accomplish with it.
I long thought about starting a golf travel service, but didn’t have the time or inclination to do so. Recently, a few people convinced me that I am uniquely placed being an American living in the GB&I market with so much experience of the courses and with organizing trips. Accordingly, I decided to dip my toe in the water. My service will focus on working closely with clients to develop bespoke tours which best suit their aspirations and budget. I expect this business to be similar to my current business where building strong personal relationships and delivering a good product will generate further business. The jury will be out for a few a years so watch this space.
5. What are three important factors to you in determining the merit of a course?
1. An easy element to mention is routing, but I think for the purposes of a recreational golfer such as myself, the routing essentially refers to the quality of the walk, the views, green sites and use of natural features. Whether or not a better routing could have been devised isn’t a subject I feel confident opining on.
2. The site; which really boils down to terrain and quality of grasses/soil. So much of what makes traditional golf so enthralling is based on the quality of the types of grasses and the character of the land. A large part of what makes The Old Course at St Andrews ideal is due to the lovely low lying terrain which offers all manner of stances and awkward lies without the bother of hill climbing. The tight knit fescues and bents make it possible for the golfer to choose the aerial route or play shots along the floor. These grasses grow on sandy soil so the added benefit is good drainage.
3. The greens! When I say greens it is mostly about firm, true greens. I am not overly bothered about speedy greens or terribly bold contours and other elements which make golfers cry and laugh. Sure, I want greens with interest; some contour, some tilt with the odd crazy surface, but for the most part, variety, firmness and well draining are the elements I prize most.
4. And to cheat, I will add a fourth element; the man-made features of the course. This would include bunkering, bumps, hollows, water etc. The main aspects I look for are placement, economy in design and balance. It is usually the case that architects overly rely on bunkers. It would be wonderful if all designers had to justify the number and placement of their bunkers. If the same justification is used more than five times than other ideas should be explored.
6. Will you share with us your top fifty ranking of UK courses?
I assume you want me to include Irish courses and those which I most look forward to revisiting. A list such as this is inherently fluid. As of July 2013 and in alphabetical order:
Burnham & Berrow Championship
North Berwick West Links
Players Club – Stranahan Course
Royal Portrush Valley Links
Royal St Davids
Royal West Norfolk
Royal Worlington & Newmarket
Silloth on Solway
The Old Course only during the off-season – St Andrews and TOC is too crazy in the summer
7. Throughout all your writings, you have long stressed ‘value for money.’ What are five of the best bargains in the UK and Ireland?
One could schedule a trip to Cavendish, Kington, Lahinch, The Sacred Nine & St Enodoc and experience an incredible diversity of courses which combined would cost not much more than the high season green fee for Sunningdale’s Old Course. For me, golf is a game and I don’t think it should require a large budget to enjoy oneself.
8. What is your favorite course that costs more than 100 pounds to play? Why?
It’s a close run contest between Prestwick and Rye, but I think the funky holes and Championship history swing it in Prestwick’s favour. Whenever the topic of confounding holes comes up one of the first examples I think of is Sea Headrig and that is only one of the many outstanding and unusual holes Prestwick can boast of.
9. Where do you recommend tourists steer away from, either because of poor value for money or because the course doesn’t measure up?
Well, as we all travel for different reasons I wouldn’t steer tourists away from many courses. The most likely reasons for advising folks to avoid a course are conditioning oriented or logistical. The Open venues and complimentary couple dozen or so other courses make up the backbone of overseas golf tourism in GB&I. It is completely understandable that golfers would want to play these courses, however, the mistake many make is to rarely stray from the tourist trail to experience the incredible diversity and quality of the so-called 2nd and 3rd tier courses.
10. You have played many out of the way, out of the lime light courses. What are five favorite hidden gems?
It is difficult to discern what a hidden gem is in the age of the internet. It seems someone or some panel has heard of practically every course under the sun. Trying to avoid any ranked, or previously mentioned courses:
I recently played Edgbaston a few more times and walked away very impressed. Sometimes it can take a few plays to fully appreciate Colt’s often subtle style. It’s a great pity the course is shrouded in trees as the design on a small property is a marvel.
For some unknown reason, I only recently discovered Cleeve Cloud, just 30 minutes down the road from my home. The grand scale of the property for an old design is very unusual. The course seems to creep on forever over Cotswold common land. Of course, the stunning views of the surrounding countryside are an added bonus, but the course is a lesson in width with several outstanding green sites. If there ever was such a thing as a second shot course Cleeve Cloud is it. The course is a municipal owned by Tewkesbury Borough Council so the green fee is very reasonable.
Many years ago I got into the habit of playing Hockley when visiting relatives in Winchester. A chalk downland course, Braid’s design crawls up a valley for three or four holes, plays around the top then eventually, cascades toward the clubhouse using a long, but reachable in two par 5. Similar to Walton Heath, the motorway spoils the ambience somewhat, but only if the wind is blowing from the north. Needless to say, a 2 club wind is a calm day.
I will be selfish and pick a course which most wouldn’t be impressed by nor would I recommend for general consumption, the bunkerless Minchinhampton Old Course. Located on a glorious common some 600 feet above sea level, The Old Course shares the 580 acres with horse riders, children, ramblers, grazing animals and several roads. Along with nearby Painswick, Minchinhampton offers the visiting golfer a genuine 19th century adventure which all keen golf historians should experience.
My final choice is a modern design quite near Bristol. The architect, Adrian Stiff, designed an unusual par 68, 5500 yard course utilizing many classic principles of design including centreline features. The Stranahan Course at The Players Club is named after one of the great amateurs of the game who recently died at the age of 90, Mr Frank Stranahan. Featuring seven par 3s, this is a model of design which I think should be taken very seriously if one is concerned about sustainable architecture. Very much a project in motion, Mr Stiff has been slowly improving the course and I expect its popularity will rise in the coming years.
11. As you travel around these country courses, have you come across an architect that deserves more credit?
It is impossible to know who designed many of the country courses which I tend to gravitate towards. However, one David Brown was involved with two courses; Painswick and Cleeve Cloud. Famous as the teacher of Queen Victoria and winner of the 1886 Open at Musselburgh, perhaps Mr Brown missed his calling when he decided to move to the United States.
It may sound daft, but I don’t believe HS Colt is given his due. I don’t say this from the point of view of his greatest courses, we are all well aware of these accomplishments. My angle is more about the quantity and quality of his modest designs. Even after 75 years of neglect, many of Colt’s second tier designs clearly possess a large degree of merit. It isn’t the man-made architectural elements which relegate these gems to second class status for the quality of design is on par with the best. No, many of these unassuming courses are frankly on inferior sites which may mean the drainage isn’t top notch, the grasses are more of the poa/meadowy type and there is often a lack of grandeur which we associate with Colt’s best courses. No matter the site, Colt was essentially very economical in his design style, but he always managed to add a bit of flair here and there regardless of the club’s ambitions. For instance, at Mosely (Birmingham), perhaps not even a second tier Colt, he created a hole which plays over a pond. Not only that, but trees on the far bank block the direct line of play to the green! It is these sorts of surprises which remind golfers of Colt’s enduring skill as an architect.
One element of successful architecture which is often forgotten is the quality of the team. Like Alister MacKenzie, Colt was able to consistently work with great architects and builders. Indeed, for a short while Dr MacKenzie worked with Colt in some capacity which is unclear to this day, however, it is Colt’s long term relationship with Hugh Alison that will be most remembered. Alison is famous in his own right primarily for designs in Japan. Later, JF Morrison joined the firm and he was very much of the Colt school of design. It should be mentioned Colt moulded a team of builders from a construction firm, Frank Harris Bros. In fact, Colt convinced the company to hire a golf course construction foreman!
12. Restorations gained great momentum in the USA in the 1990s and that wave has continued ever since. Has something similar occurred in the UK for the likes of Colt, Fowler, etc.?
After the demise of Colt’s design firm and the end of WWII, there was little call for architectural work. By the mid 60s a significant percentage of work for existing courses was carried out by either Hawtree Ltd (under the leadership of Fredrick William then his son and current principal, Martin) or the firm of Cotton/Pennink & Lawrie from which D Steel emerged later as a separate entity in the late 80s. With Steel now retired, two of his associates, Mackenzie & Ebert, have carried on the legacy of the original Cotton/Pennink association. Traditionally, there has been little concern for protecting or preserving the great British architecture of the early 20 century. However, Mr Frank Pont arrived on the GB&I scene a few years ago with an agenda for renovating Colt courses. Time will tell if this trend expands, but I suspect other than for superficial bunker work and tree removal, the inclination toward preservation/restoration will be for a small niche market of clubs.
13. Is there an unsung hero in British architecture? Put another way, who deserves more credit than what he has perhaps received?
The two designers from the first half of the 20th century which stand out as most enigmatic are Tom Simpson and J F Abercromby. Both were highly distinctive architects during a period of unprecedented creativity, but if I had to choose one it would be Simpson. His use of artistic centreline bunkers and clever green complexes was magical. Simpson had the good fortune of witnessing the work Paton and Low carried out at Woking and eventually joined Herbert Fowler’s firm. After parting ways with Fowler in the late 20s, Simpson hired what is likely the first female in the golf architecture business, Molly Gourlay. I know precious little about Simpson and his work, but what smatterings I have experienced, most notably at New Zealand and Baltray, is very impressive. I hope to one day visit France to play what are meant to be Simpson’s best work.
14. Is there a section of the UK that features a remarkable high quality of courses that is off most tourists’ maps?
If such an area exists it surely must be the Midlands and apart from Lancashire, northern England. There aren’t many outstanding courses, but when Notts, Alwoodley, Ganton etc are combined with the plethora of gems such as Silloth, Goswick, Beau Desert etc this large swath of England is an untapped paradise for the discerning golfer.
15. Can you give us a photo tour of the five wackiest green complexes that you have come across in the UK?
As it would seem like cheating, I will not mention a green at North Berwick or The Old Course. Additionally, I will list only green complexes I admire.
First up has to the 7th from my beloved Pennard. This was the last bit of work Braid completed on the course. The 16th too is wild, but it doesn’t photograph as well as the 7th.
16. Many tourists head to the UK with one purpose: Play golf near a large body of water. What do links lovers miss out by eschewing inland golf?
Links is merely one terroir among GB&I’s arguably unmatched diversity of golf terrain. While links rightfully commands the most attention, heathland golf is possibly a more charming setting for a game of golf. On well-maintained heathland courses not much is sacrificed in terms of year round playability, drainage and firmness and yet there tends to be a certain feeling of gentility which one rarely experiences on other playing surfaces. Among the more affluent clubs there is currently a movement afoot to clear vegetation which competes with heather and the fine grasses associated with heather, but this will be a long and on-going process. Walton Heath is probably the best example of a pure heathland course playing today as it was intended when designed over 100 years ago.
Another excellent surface for golf is the downlands, usually of the chalk variety. Southern England is blessed with most of the downs in the UK. Perhaps because of the hilly nature of this terrain there haven’t been any courses which can compete with the quality of the best links and heathlands courses. However, there are a few very good designs which include Hockley, Southerndown (Wales) and Huntercombe. If only one chalk course is on the cards for a trip, Painswick is an experience that will not soon be forgotten!
Of course there is parkland golf, more so of this type than any other. Critics have downplayed the quality of GB&I parkland golf, but it is precisely this medium on which we find so many compelling Colt courses which barely make a dent in the rankings. Moorland golf is not all that different from heathland except that it tends to be in more elevated and virtually treeless areas. This is a type of golf I know little about, but Yelverton, a Herbert Fowler design on Dartmoor, is a lovely course punctuated with moments of eccentricity. While probably not technically moorland courses, from a playing perspective, both Kington and Church Stretton may as well be labelled moorland. Each displays a high degree of character, beauty and fun which is beyond compare.
17. How does living in the UK impact your views on American golf when you return to the States, if at all?
I do return to the US about once a year. Because I tend to play a limited number of games I try to access courses with pedigree. Compared to GB&I, generally, members in The States treat their club as an extension of their homes and therefore would like the amenities offered in their homes. For the visiting golfer unused to this sort of service and quality of food etc, it is a treat. On the course side of things, unfailingly (well almost!), the courses in the US play softer, the greens are quicker and generally speaking courses are more highly manicured than in the UK. There is a common belief in The States that quick greens equal good quality; that golfers should be able to hit the surfaces on the fly and hold. It is a different method of maintenance which seems to be successful with memberships so it is difficult to be overly critical. I did experience one notable exception a few years ago at Yeamans Hall. There were the familiar scruffy edges and greens which didn’t dent when struck with an approach. I recall thinking how very English the course played and looked.
18. People outside of the GB&I and Europe have no idea what it is like to be a battleground for a world war. In your experience, what course/design suffered the most because of WWII?
This is an impossible question to answer with any certainty. Some of the very best courses in the UK were damaged quite badly by defensive war-time efforts. A few of the more notable cases in point include Turnberry, Saunton and Princes. On the continent, Colt’s Le Touquet and Royal Zoute were virtually destroyed. Yet it is Princes that I long to see restored.
While several green sites and a few fairway corridors were incorporated into the current 27 hole configuration, by all accounts the original design was far more daring and expansive with blind shots and plenty of uneven lies requiring excellent ball flight control. Most unusual in its day, Sir Harry Mallaby-Deeley intended Princes to be a clear alternative to both Deal and Sandwich which were very exclusive clubs for the use of the male gentry. Mallaby-Deeley wanted to build a hotel and course which would allow female members and cater to families of golfers. While a very long course, Princes utilized forward tees to attract female members. After opening in 1907 and surviving the First World War, the course was deemed of sufficient quality to host the Ladies 1922 Open. It would be during the roaring 20s that Princes would become the club of the great and good. This air of exclusivity culminated with Princes being selected to host the 1932 Open. Just seven years later, as soon as war was declared on Germany, the course and clubhouse was requisitioned by the military. When hearing of the greens being used for mortar practice, Lord Brabazon suggested this was like “throwing darts at a Rembrandt”. Eventually the course was re-opened in 1952 to a design by Guy Campbell and John Morrison working separately on individual holes. The course and club, while very good, have failed to achieve anything close to the reputation Princes enjoyed in the first 30+ years of existence.
19. Lots of people have tried to make money from the sport in the USA. Lots of courses were founded and exist in the UK for the simple purpose of providing pleasure to their members and guests. Is it accurate to say that golf in the UK remains – mercifully – a much simpler affair than in the USA?
On the one hand, yes, it is undoubtedly true that the game is simpler and therefore far cheaper for club membership than in the US. On the other hand, it often doesn’t get any more basic than public/municipal golf and on this score the US far outstretches what GB&I have to offer. Most private clubs in GB&I can be treated as publics because visitors are not only allowed, but welcomed, however, visitors fees for good courses can often start at around £35 and rise to seemingly unlimited heights. I often visit Michigan and check on prices of the public courses I used to frequent and find that green fees haven’t increased in over 10 years! Sure, these aren’t the best of courses, but some are soundly designed and in good nick. It is churlish to be overly critical when the green fee is $25. Still, because I enjoy having access to and playing classic courses that aren’t overly crowded, I much prefer the GB&I model.