Feature Interview with Jeffrey Stein pg ii

11.You started Stein Golf Design (www.steingolf.com) in 2011 and you are based in Port Chester, New York. Why and what did you hope to accomplish? What value do you bring to a project? 

I decided to base myself in Port Chester, NY because it is well situated in Westchester County with ease of access to places in Northern New Jersey, Long Island, and New England.  I grew up close by and it doesn’t hurt to have a little local knowledge when you need to ramp up for a job.

The value that I bring to a given project is my personal attention.  Whether my client is seeking creative direction in the master planning process or needing help with contracting work, my experience in the construction of golf courses allows me to assure clients that the design, build, and finish of any golf course renovation project will be executed beyond the highest standard.  Many of the best architects in the business have put their trust in me to execute their vision, so it is my hope that potential clients see the value in hiring a knowledgeable, dedicated, and energetic person like myself to guide their next project as well.

12. What do you know that you don’t know?

The area of design which I would like to know more is irrigation and water management.  I’m always picking the brain of the irrigation designers and asking how and why they design their systems as they do.  Water management is so important to the overall design and playability of the golf course; it would be foolish not to take advantage of their expertise.  Basically, I don’t pretend to know everything, and each time I walk onto a new project there is something I’m going to try to learn.  My willingness to ask “dumb questions” is always a smart move and it gets me caught up quickly so I can get the information I need to know.

13. What are your strengths?

I’m good at visualizing scale and “reading the dirt,” knowing when something looks right.  I’ve learned to visually scale and frame golf landscapes from my practice in photography and by working in the dirt with hand tools and heavy machinery.

I’ve been shooting film since I was a teenager, and it was about the same time I started playing more golf.  Shooting film, developing, and printing my own work is a labor-intensive process, but I take great satisfaction in the handcrafted nature of making an image much the same way I have learned to build a golf course.  To me, the only way to achieve a high-level product is by taking ownership and putting your hands on the work. Collaboration and teamwork is key to the success of any project, but you have to put yourself into the work as well.

14. How do clubs allocate their resources with Stein Golf Design?

We can be an asset to clubs in several different ways, particularly if they decide to create a renovation or restoration master plan with us.  In this scenario we can act like a general contractor, handling the design and construction process from start to finish.  After speaking with club leaders and the superintendent, we can begin to create a design program based on the client’s needs and the specific characteristics of the golf course.  Our initial site visit will include a report with our observations and recommendations.  If the club decides to undertake our recommendations, we can further explore a framework to begin regular consulting visits to further crystallize a master plan for the club.  As part of our consulting, we can produce detailed drawings, budgets, and sequencing of work as needed.  If plans are approved, Stein Golf Design can either directly contract the demolition and set-up work or provide advisory services during the bid process.  Regardless of how your club chooses to proceed, when you hire Stein Golf Design, we will always be performing the most sensitive finish work for your restoration or renovation.  It is the final and most important part of the process, and we want to ensure it is done right.

Another option for clubs is to do work purely “in-house” with Stein Golf Design.  In this scenario clubs should expect to keep extra labor on hand, utilize their existing resources, and perhaps rent other key equipment.  I bill only for my time, acting as Project Manager and shaper while in construction.  The combination of these roles represents an immediate savings to the client and allows the superintendent to focus on the golf course.

Our recent work at Watchung Valley Golf Club is a great example of how effective the design and build method can be for in-house work.  We have implemented the same process described above and have continued to make small improvements each Spring and Fall.  There is little disruption for the members at this time of year, and it helps the superintendent get a head start on problematic areas.  My familiarity with the property makes budgeting and planning a very simple process, as I maintain an open line of communication with ownership and the superintendent throughout the year.

Below is diagram from my Watchung Valley Golf Club 2020 Improvement Proposal.

15. Show us a ‘Before Jeff’ and ‘After Jeff’ bunker and take us through the steps. How much did that bunker cost? How long did it take?

Case Study

In-House Bunker Renovation on Sandy Soil

  • 1,000 sq/ft sand (no liner/ no drainage)
  • 2,300 sq/ft new sod
  • Time: 1.5 days / Total Cost: $2.50 sq/ft

“Economy in course construction consists in obtaining the best possible results at a minimum of cost.” – Dr. Alistair Mackenzie, Golf Architecture, Economy in Course Construction and Green Keeping, 1920

These bunkers were built by Tom Doak’s early Renaissance Golf Design team in 1996-97 and had not been altered for 20+ years.  While some of the bunkers aged really well, others had not and were in need of some serious TLC.  When the club approached me to do a renovation of their work, I first contacted Tom and Brian Slawnik so that we could all get on the same page.  Brian still regularly consults with the club, and my familiarity with their style made it a perfect fit to go ahead with the project.  After a couple of site visits, email exchanges with Brian and club leadership, we decided on a “fringed” fine-fescue bunker edge and some minor alterations to the bunkers to improve their playability and maintainability.

The state of the bunkers was such that over time, the floors had been scoured by mechanical sand rakes, the front edges had built up, creating a sand dam which did not allow golf balls to actually get into the bunkers.  The process was to save the existing sand, use it as a drainage medium and completely reshape the floors to restore their original depth and classic flat bottom style.  We will come back in the Spring to set the floors and install the new sand against the rooted grass lips.

For Inwood’s 8th hole, we were able to strip the grass (2,300 sq/ft), haul away excess material, shape the bunker (1,000 sq/ft), and regrass the entire area in 1.5 days.  We also worked in a very small zone, putting fine-fescue in the lip of the bunker as well as the outside perimeter.  For the mowable area adjacent to the fairway and rough, there is a narrow strip of blue grass that was mainly chosen by the superintendent to handle golfer/maintenance vehicle traffic in the summer months.

Before, the tongue that protruded into this bunker right of 8th fairway at Inwood was modern in appearance and created a disjointed bunker floor.

After, more sand is visible from the tee and the flat bottom bunker is in keeping with a course built in the Golden Age.

Inwood CC is blessed with some areas that drain extremely well, and the club did not find it useful or necessary to install bunker liners or additional drainage on their 8th hole.  Other areas on the golf course will certainly require drainage, but in this case the project was accomplished with minimal inputs in a short amount of time.

It is also important to account how widely costs can vary based on the location of the work site, existing soils, and the club’s desire to add additional drainage, liner, or expensive sand.  However, in-house projects like these can be even more affordable for clubs if they own a few pieces of key equipment (namely, a sod cutter, skid loader, mini excavator, and dump truck) and are willing to be a part of the construction process.

16. What five golf courses would you like to restore or renovate?

Militia Hill Golf Course, PA (Hurdzan/Fry) – I would like to see a more subdued presentation of the bunkering.  The many high sand faces throughout the golf course seem starkly overdone and incongruous with the surrounding woodland on this beautiful property.

Bedford Golf and Tennis Club, NY (Devereux Emmet) –  Some modern construction has crept its way onto this classic layout over the years.  A light and creative touch could take Bedford to the next level for this low-key town club.

Metacomet, RI (Donald Ross)-  This is a fun and under-the-radar Ross course just outside Providence, RI.  The golf course has a fantastic set of greens and some genius half-par holes.  I think it would be a blast to study and work with the Ross architecture here.

Tumblebrook, CT (Willie Park Jr.) –  There probably isn’t much pure Willie Park Jr. left in the United States, but it would be incredible to bring back his architectural style at Tumblebrook.

Belleport, NY (Raynor)– They have a historical affiliation with Raynor, but only minimal evidence exists that any template principles were implemented.  The setting is beautiful and the golf course has a lot of potential if the club decides to invigorate an otherwise featureless design.

17. Suffice to say, I doubt you think Devereux Emmet gets the respect he deserves among Golden Age architects? What intrigues you about his work?

I’m most intrigued by the variety and progression of Emmet’s golf courses throughout his career.  It would be an impossible task to pin Emmet to one particular style, which is something I admire in his work.  Emmet produced high-quality golf courses across a variety of landscapes; from the rocky outcroppings of Bonnie Briar in Westchester to the Hempstead Plain at Rockville Links.  Generally speaking Emmet employed mounding and built-up greensites to add difficulty, as well as a variety of bunkering schemes that could easily be defined as “quirky” or unusual.  St. George’s, on the eastern half of Nassau County, has some of the more interesting collection of pits and trenches I have come across in his work.

We should also consider the fact that Emmet built dozens of golf courses, competing against Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast, Walter Travis, William Flynn, C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, is doubly impressive.  If you were to look at Emmet’s resume and 40-year career, there is no question he should be considered along with all the greats.  There just isn’t a conversation about Golden Age architecture without Emmet being included as a central figure.  While there are a few Emmett courses which have long since closed, there are still many great examples of his work, some of which have been thoughtfully restored by Gil Hanse at St. George’s Country Club, Jim Urbina at Rockville Links, and Ian Andrew at Huntington CC.

The 16th green at St. George’s is in the foreground and the evil short one shot 17th is in the distance.

Several years ago Mark Chalfant (a leading expert on Devereux Emmet) asked me to contribute an illustration to his book “Devereux Emmet’s Inspiring Architecture”, to which I happily obliged.  My conversations with Mark and reading his book gave me a much greater appreciation of Emmet’s work.

No matter how we rank the great architects of the Golden Age, the fact remains Emmet was a pioneer of early American golf and is one of a handful of architects that we rightly revere for their ingenuity and advancement of the artform.

18. You don’t get to choose when you are born nor that you got into architecture when the bottom dropped out of new course construction in 2008/2009. In order to progress your career, is restoration work the best path forward?

Creative thinking is always the best path forward, and in order to be successful one has to cut one’s own path in whatever one does.  While I’m hopeful to create a new design, the renovation of more modern golf courses will likely emerge as a greater opportunity to implement my ideas about golf architecture.  I would still welcome the opportunity to restore some of the venerable old classics, but I believe the renovation work of the future will be just as  design heavy. As golf course infrastructure ages and tastes in the market transform from the boom years, those property owners are going to take a hard look at what they have and decide if it should continue to exist in its current form.  The “new” work we might see is the redevelopment of 18-hole golf courses and/or short courses with better practice facilities on existing golf properties.  With the emergence of Top Golf and Drive Shack, owners are starting to look at their golf courses and are beginning to consider whether they should add one of these trendy amenities.  It doesn’t work everywhere, but if we think about it, you will likely see better utilization and a reduction in overhead from a smaller course footprint with practice-type amenities that would be attractive to a broader demographic of people.

19. Hanse Design’s Cavemen recently gathered at the new Pinehurst No. 4 course. What were your impressions?

That’s right!  We just finished the 5th annual Caveman Cup, an annual event graciously hosted by Gil and Jim every year.  I worked only 3 weeks during the construction of course No. 4 so when I came back to play this past November I was able to put fresh eyes on the new course.  I can honestly say without shading any bias that it is a blast to play and a wonderful complement to course No.2 and the rest of the resort.

Knowing Gil, he obviously realized that there was no sense in trying to outshine Ross’s masterpiece and we got a golf course with a distinctly different flavor.  There are many heroic shots and even some of those challenges that I mentioned earlier, which are easier than they appear.  A great example is the par-4 8th, with a crossing hazard to obscure the view to the green.  To get the best angle of approach you must challenge the hazard, but risk a blind shot.  The blindness is compensated with ample chipping area short and right of the green to have a chance at par.

Part of the appeal of the revamped Pinehurst No. 4 is how well it rests on the ground.

The greens are fun and have a great variety to them with a mix of push ups and others more on grade.  While the greens were a real challenge for a first time player and even severe in places, the real question is who wants to come to Pinehurst and putt on flat greens anyway?  Hats off for a job well done.

20. Switching gears, how do clubs routinely waste money?

For my money, good design goes hand-in-hand with efficient maintenance practices and can look good too!  All clubs value design aesthetics differently, but if a club were looking to trim the fat in their maintenance practices as it relates to the presentation of its design, I would certainly recommend that they focus on eliminating secondary mowing heights around the fairways and greens. Not only can clubs can save hundreds of labor hours throughout the year, but they also save on a reduction in equipment maintenance and spraying of chemicals in these secondary areas.  All inputs included, a secondary cut might cost $100k throughout the year to maintain.  All golf clubs should ask themselves if they really need 5 or 6 heights of cut on their golf course or if that same money would be better allocated to other high priority areas.

My job as a golf architect is to present clubs and superintendents with different options that hopefully will save them time and money while presenting really interesting golf strategies.  Simplifying mowing heights around the fairways is a no brainer and easy to do.  When we reduce heights of cut, we also continue to reduce visual clutter.  The golf course can become more a part of the landscape rather than a mowing pattern etched into the turf.

21. Well said – ‘The golf course can become more a part of the landscape rather than a mowing pattern etched into the turf.’ In conclusion, why should a club give you, a 34 year old, a chance?

 If you are looking for a talented golf architect who pays attention to detail, clubs and owners should absolutely talk to Bill Coore, Gil Hanse, Tom Doak, Jim Urbina, or Mike DeVries.  Clubs should hire these guys because they are extremely talented craftsmen and have proven track records.  However, if these architects are not available to your club, for whatever reason, one might consider hiring those who have worked alongside them.

As the second Golden Age of golf has played out over the last decade, I’ve spent those years working on award-winning projects like Old Macdonald, Dismal River Red and Ohoopee Match Club while collaborating with these great architects.  Combined, I’ve spent thousands of hours on bulldozers and excavators, traveling to architecturally significant golf courses around the world and learning from these modern masters.  I would welcome the opportunity to bring my knowledge and professional expertise to your club as well.

For inquiries please refer to my website www.steingolf.com and contact me directly: jeffrey@steingolf.com or follow me on instagram @steingolfdesign .

Thank you Ran!