Feature Interview No. 2 with Kyle Franz
August, 2016

Since his June 2011 GolfClubAtlas interview, Kyle Franz has worked for Gil Hanse on the Rio 2016 Olympic Golf Course and completed his first solo work as an architect at Mid Pines, where he restored the course to acclaim – and increased foot traffic. Mid Pines now receives as many rounds as its more famous sister course Pine Needles. Kyle is currently busy with solo work at the Country Club of Charleston, which will host the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open, and Pine Needles which will host the U.S. Senior Women’s Open that same year. Other work on the go includes Minikahda Club, home of the 2017 U.S. Senior Amateur Championship, and Woods Hole Golf Club on Cape Cod.

Let’s start with the Olympic Course. What are the key characteristics of the property? Which holes will be the most exciting from a viewing standpoint? And which elements of the design will have the greatest influence on who takes home the gold medals?

Before we get into details, I’d like to start by thanking Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner for giving me the opportunity to participate on the project. It was a tremendous honor to be involved in such an amazing and historic project with golf returning to the Games and ranks with Pinehurst #2, Pacific Dunes and Barnbougle as career highlights. I can’t offer enough accolades for Gil’s fantastic design, leadership and supreme talent for handling the sizable political complexities of the project. The entire project team deserves a standing ovation for the work on the ground. The bunker shaping by Neil Cameron evokes some of my personal favorites in Australia’s Sand Belt. The bunker finish work and native grass transplant by Ben Hillard from Melbourne and Benjamin Warren from North Berwick were crucial to dialing in the rugged Aussie look of the course so quickly. Jim Wagner’s (Gil’s partner and brilliant mad scientist) unique contributions on holes like #4 and others make them arguably the best on the course.

As for what to expect during the Olympics, the course is playable, exciting and memorable down the stretch. Several holes fit in the category I most value in architecture — they are fresh and intriguing concepts — instead of predictable repetitions even good architects fall into occasionally. The property itself is sweeping and sandy and reminiscent of the Australian Sand Belt. It also might remind some of how Lido felt when MacDonald and Raynor completed it.

Technically speaking, the landscape is a coastal deflation plain dunesland. It sits about 300 yards back from the frontal dune system and beach, buffered by the Marapendi Lagoon. A succession of smaller dune ridges runs back through the property. The smaller rippling elements we preserved and/or created were meant to bring out as much Old Course and North Berwick shot making as warm season grasses will allow. Pinehurst #2 style sandy native areas guard “one cut fairways” and gives the holes exciting width and strategy at margins. Many times the viewer will notice the grassing lines define the strategy of the hole.

After 40 years of sand mining, areas of the site were degraded with invasive species and illegal dumping. Our first task was to put it back together dune by dune over Gil’s excellent routing and grading plan. In doing so, we created a golf course that hopefully captures a little of the strengths of the aforementioned courses and the native landscape.

The low dunelands in the 1940’s that would eventually become the Rio Olympic Course (the exact middle of photo would be roughly the 15th green).

Overall the golf course has a really nice flow. The most interesting holes to watch are where we created some of the more unique architectural features and include the sporty holes down the stretch. The difficult 12th and 13th play through dense jungle. The 13th green complex is one of the course’s most demanding. The 14th is a long par three that would be completely at home at Kingston Heath or Royal Melbourne. It’s impossible to imagine the drivable 16th not having a defining impact on the events. It’s a hole where there is more than meets the eye thanks to multi-dimensional hole locations.

Also, eighteen is a very cool mid-length par five that’s green complex is a blend of the 18th holes at Dornoch, St Andrews and North Berwick. The prominent feature is a broad “Valley of Sin” style hollow front right of the green. A “Foxy” style mound further complicates shots for “Sinners.” However, the most exciting feature is the #18 at Dornoch inspired kicker front left of the green. This feature will curl balls around the hollow to right pins. The players that learn that there is a covert advantage by playing shots there will have the advantage – especially in windy conditions. It will be interesting to watch the ladies event since they are so accurate and more likely to play ground shots in competition than the aerial attack of the men.

Earlier in the round viewers should note:

Hole #1: The players must navigate a shortgrass dune ridge in front of this par 5 green that demands a perfectly controlled up-and-over running approach to a fallaway green. This is a type shot they are rarely asked to play at modern tournament venues.

Hole #2: This sweeping dogleg’s green is flanked by a lagoon. The tee shot has a classic speed-slot landing area for players that attack bunkers on the dogleg interior. The green has an array of high right and low left hole locations that give players ground and aerial shot options to avoid the lagoon. This is a hole I think will play very interesting for the ladies event for the reasons described above.

The second green is hard by the lagoon with oceans of short grass to the right.

Hole #3: The first of two drivable par fours, the third stands out as arguably the most original hole on the golf course. I really can’t think of a comparison. It plays alongside a pond that we created amongst the low dunes. The green is a massive rendition of a double plateau. The strategy of this hole has the potential to change dramatically day to day depending on the varying hole locations.

Hole #4: There’s no hole that is more Melbourne on steroids than the fourth. Jim Wagner sited a bold green on one of the bigger dune ridges on the site, which he then proceeded to build even higher and front with a  menacing Royal Melbourne style bunker. Really great stuff.

The approach to the elevated fourth green.

Hole #9: The quirky and entertaining 13th at Fraserburgh contributed to the design of this green complex. It will encourage cool ground game shots from the Olympic competitors off two large front mounds if the course is extremely windy and firm. However in calm conditions it is a respite similar to the 9th at St Andrews – an exciting break between more difficult holes. In calm conditions players can use the interior green contours to spin shots to hole locations behind the mounds – making it a definite birdie hole.

Controversy is never far from the development of Olympic venues and the Rio golf course project was no different. What was it like working in such a media fish bowl?

I don’t know what everyone was talking about— this was the easiest project ever! Joking aside, many projects are complicated by factors out of our control. It just happened this time it was under the media spotlight. So for a long time I’ve been ready for the focus to shift to how well the golf course turned out.

I’ll say something that would shock people who aren’t involved in golf design and construction day to day. While challenging at times, the delays in Rio benefitted the course and project because we had something that is a rarity in modern golf architecture: virtually unlimited time during the shaping phase. Of the 18 holes, roughly 14 of them went through some kind of positive metamorphosis and editorial because we had that extra time. And of that list, many of them are among the best holes with the aforementioned 3rd being a prime example. As I have heard Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw say many times “there is simply no substitute for time in architecture.”

Certainly the pressure was like no other on this project. Some days the fastest way to find out what cockamamie saga was going on out of our control was getting on NBCSports.com or yahoosports.com. I can’t give Gil enough credit for how he handled all that and took all the pressure off of us, thus freeing us to focus on the task at hand.

Does the final product stack up with your personal hopes prior to the project? Beyond the Games, what type of legacy will the course create?

The final product exceeds my expectations. The extra time was invaluable in creating something special. As for the course’s legacy, for me it was important to be able to contribute to something that transcends Rio 2016.  I think we did that – it is a very playable course with lots of short grass. It was equally about the opportunity to do something that might help grow the game in South America – as Brazil’s first public course. Obviously being a part of the Olympics was exciting, but long-term hopefully the course will be a springboard for the growth of the game in South America, which possesses incredible landscapes – from Brazil to Chile and Argentina- and amazing coastlines. For sure, the course sends the right message that the golf can be fun and rewarding. Any impact our work might have to help spur thoughtful architecture and development down there would be humbling.

With warm season grasses, how firm and fast will conditions be in Rio in August (their winter)? Fast enough to where the ground game options will flourish? How much will the wind be a factor?

The golf course is going to play as firm and fast as possible for warm season grasses for the event. The sandy soils couldn’t be more well-suited to it. It’s probably the best draining sand I’ve ever work with. Gil and Jim specifically chose Zoysia fairways and Paspalum for the greens to ensure the surfaces are at their firmest and fastest during the Olympic period. Superintendent Neil Cleverly has been preparing for just that.

There’s potential for some notable wind during the Olympic events. Like on any seaside course, two or three club winds are common. The property has occasional calm days but it can also be a lot windier in August. We did a wind chart during the project and found August to be the windiest month. It shifts often during the month as well. As I was building the 18th green in August 2013, the hole played into a British Open quality headwind. As I was finishing and preparing the green for grassing a year later, we had one of the biggest wind storms of the project from the dead opposite direction. As a result we tried to get all the details to play well in both winds.

As mentioned several of the holes have ground game features that were inspired by the great UK links. I am especially excited to see some wind during the ladies tournament. Holes like the 2nd, 9th, 10th, 13th, 14th, and 18th will be particular interesting for them from the ground game perspective if the winds are up.

Overall the 10th green has a 12th at St Andrews-feeling front left hole location. Wedging in there is very challenging and I fully expect to see even men consider skipping it up. The kicker options on the 2nd hole will come into play for ladies, especially if there’s a wind off the right.

The 13th fairway is inspired by “The Kitchen” at Royal St George’s. If players make it to the right section they’ll get the keys to the kingdom in being able to attack a tricky green from a level lie. On the bail side of the tee shot, players will have to deal with a rat’s nest of hanging lies from long range – likely requiring a running shot for even top caliber men if the lie is awkward enough.

These flyovers offer a nice look at the holes for prepping to watch the event: http://www.golfdigest.com/sto…/the-olympic-course-experience .

Let’s talk about your work at Mid Pines, a course you fell in love with during the Coore & Crenshaw Pinehurst #2 restoration. How did you tackle the project? And what sources did you reference when creating your restoration plan?

Well it certainly was a dream come true! My interest in the course was initially stirred by Pinehurst superintendent Kevin Robinson, who informed me that Donald Ross’s greens at Mid Pines had never really been changed over the decades. I fell in love with the course for that very reason throughout the winter of 2011. For Coore & Crenshaw’s Pinehurst #2 project, I spent many days researching and studying historic photos in the Tufts Archives. I kept coming across pictures of the other area courses that I thought would be valuable for our work at #2. The shots of Mid Pines in particular were impressive. I would take pictures out on the course and visualize the original holes. That was really where the idea was seeded in my mind. I did some photoshops for Kelly Miller, President/Owner of the resort to illustrate what the golf course would look like if we embarked on the same process as #2.

The photo-shopped 9th hole that helped get the owners excited to proceed with restoring Mid Pines.

Having gone through a restoration at Pine Needles, they’d already acquired a 1939 Mid Pines aerial. In terms of sources a lot of the project was also improvisation from what I had learned at #2 and the unique style of the Mid Pines Ross intended. I will explain that in detail below. That experience at #2 meant I didn’t have the type of learning curve that most other architects would have had when trying to get into a Ross mindset and implementation.

Mid Pines now looks like a course built in the Sandhills of North Carolina.

The project scope covered these key areas: recovering the artistry of Ross’s original bunkering and sandy wiregrass areas, expanding/modifying green edges to restore lost pin positions, widening fairways, recreating shortgrass green surrounds and finally, tree clearing. All those categories had the effect of reinstating playing angles. I also hoped in the process we could explore some of the more avant-garde quirks of Ross’s unique Pinehurst style that we never found the right spot to implement at Pinehurst #2. After the #2 project I had a strong vision for doing the extremely sand flashed face bunkers Ross built in the 1930’s at Mid Pines. At our Pinehurst #2 project we had specifically mimicked his more 40’s era style bunkers – half grass faced and half sand flashes. At Mid Pines we went all out to mimic the highest 30’s flashes.  I felt it would be unique between the two courses and visually impressive with the course’s vistas.

We had an excellent team over the course of the project that comprised of George Waters, Kye Goalby, Zach Varty, Jonathan Reisetter, Jaeger Kovich, Dan Proctor, Bryan Ceasar, Norbert Painter and Jeff Stein to achieve this. Last but not least Jose Avila — one of our key assets on the #2 project – served as lead foreman restoring the native grass in the sandy hardpan areas and bunkers.

What are some of your favorite holes/shots now at Mid Pines?

As for holes to note, the first hole is an opening hole Donald Ross standout with its sweeping vista.  It has subtle strategy from the tee and deft shots around the green, that capture the ambience of the course and property from the start.

On the drive and pitch 4th, a tree on the right edge of the fairway demands that the golfer hold their tee shot up on the left side to have the premium attack angle. This hole has been stirring controversy since we started the restoration project. It’s right in the wheelhouse of Ross’s design style – a blood pumping tee shot combined with tempting ground game options. Great architecture should  stir the emotions and provoke discussion and as you know Ran, this hole has had no shortage!

The par five 6th is a classic example of Ross par 5 bunker placement – carefully dictating various contrasting strategic routes to reach a tiny, false fronted green.

Ross’s sweeping ground game shot options are best exemplified when attacking the front right pins on the 7th. You can play all the way out to the left and swing down to the hole – wisely taking the front right bunker out of play.

The tough, uphill two shot 7th ends at a green with fierce back left to front right pitch.

The par four twelfth I believe is pound for pound the best hole out there. It has an enormous fairway but you really need to hit the left side next to the litany of hazards we restored. It probably puts more of a premium on placement that any other hole. The long par three thirteenth is a brutal hole with a semi-redanish green concept. If you get the ball chasing right to left in front of the green it will continue to do so on the putting surface. But there are also some pins that prefer a fade.

Mid Pines’ closing stretch of par 4s is outstanding. #16 and #17 have cool options and tricky greens. The 18th probably best exemplifies Ross’s Mid Pines concept of a huge fairway in a tight corridor.

What are the key differences between Ross’s design work at Pinhurst No.2 and Mid Pines?

The main difference in Pinehurst #2 and Mid Pines is that Ross was designing a player’s club at Mid Pines. Pinehurst was supposed to be a brutal and demanding course from the back tees but playable for the average guest. Mid Pines was supposed to be a much harder course than the other courses in the area, and was the first the Tufts family developed away from the resort. Ross and Oakmont’s William Fownes — who was obviously a very good player and loved a good hard golf course — were looking to create a more challenging private club experience.

Here was Ross’s main tactic to achieve this at Mid Pines. While the fairways at Mid Pines are as wide as Pinehurst #2’s, the clearing corridors are considerably tighter. Pinehurst #2’s fairway corridors average about 65 to 80 yards. Mid Pines has the same width fairways but the clearing corridors are often 15 or 30 yards narrower than that. In many cases at Mid Pines there was no buffer between fairway and the pine trees, wisteria and dense thickets of wiregrass. While Pinehurst #2 had its iconic large expanses of sandy hardpan and wiregrass, there’s was little margin for error at Mid Pines. Ross even transplanted trees from the center of the corridors to thicken things up at the edge of the fairways.

The greenside bunker arrangements require careful strategic play from the tee – and demand that players hit sides of fairways. The photo of the restored 5th with its 15 to 20 foot deep bunker illustrates that nicely. There was also a notable increase in bunkers closely flanking both sides of the green. Bail out room was scarce at Mid Pines. The net result was there was just a little bit more of a premium on hitting tee shots to the proper sides of the fairway for a good angle of approach. However hitting to the sides of the fairways meant you had to get close to these dense stands of pine trees, wiregrass and wisteria …. Strategizing by hitting these sides of fairways meant taking your life in your hands! The narrower corridors simply made for a far more harrowing experience when trying to strategize off the tee. I suspect this is why the likes of Bobby Cruickshank and others insisted Mid Pines was right up there with Myopia and Oakmont as the toughest courses in country for a period.

Mid Pines was meant to be a blood pumping tee shot course with enjoyably wide fairways for average players and thoughtful around the greens – one of Ross’s best sets of greens. But a blood pumping course. A lot of that original dense underbrush has been cleared out over the decades making it more enjoyable for guests. So thanks to the wide fairways guarded by the same old tight pine corridors Ross created 90 years ago, the original concept still remains enormously successful today. Our restoration of bunkers, additional bunkers, and sandy wiregrass areas was meant to capitalize on that. The course has become far more playable for the average player with the underbrush removed. But the course still has a diabolical streak for good players looking to score low.

That was the challenge of the project as the designer. What was the right balance of restoring hazards, adding new hazards for modern play to re-establish the exciting shots Ross intended? It was important not to over do it for a resort course with an enthusiastic membership and annual guests. Every hole in the design demanded that constant question. Several holes are easy and there are several that are edgy and demanding.

Mid Pines also has a lot more elevation change than #2, so it lends itself to more interesting side-hill ground game shots. Holes like 4, 6, 7, 9, 13, 16, and 17 are all in that category. You can throw the ball out and use the contours to access tucked pins – or try some fun shots through the false fronts. No wonder Mid Pines has a large contingent of hickory players!

The 12th at Mid Pines as it sweeps left to a green that is angled from front left to back right.

The 12th at Mid Pines as it sweeps left to a green that is angled from front left to back right.

The need for golfers to deal with side slopes adds another distinct layer of challenge. On a hole like #17, Ross was challenging the golfer to curl their tee ball into position using a fade. The same goes for #12 – only with a draw. Both holes immediately demand the opposite ball flight on the approach shot. There’s also holes where the ground is working against you like #4. There the golfer who can hold their tee shot up against the side slope unlocks a great angle for an aerial shot and the opportunity for a running approach. While most modern players reach for a wedge, observant players recognize there is a covert advantage to playing a ground shot that curls the ball down from the left avoiding the menacing front bunker. This lost art reduces the chances for it coming into play and is a hickory player’s dream.

Ross was just so good at anchoring the strategy of the hole on the natural pitches and rolls of the site. The above collection of holes reveals how he chose to stylistically approach the property. When you consider all of the above its easy to understand why Mid Pines has retained such a degree of challenge. The strategically-minded golfer who can work their ball into position can level the playing field vs a bomber.  But the course is eminently playable for the average player.

Mid Pines won resort renovation of year in 2013 by GOLF Magazine, yet cost under half the price of many  restorations. How was this accomplished? 

It was a combination of craftiness, being opportunistic, and avoiding the need to buy any materials. After the #2 project I had so much experience working in this style that I knew we could do what we needed to do without the need for a contractor. It was a completely in-house show and I was fortunate to be able to recruit many of the same finish guys and shapers who worked on #2.

We also managed to quarry enough sand on site that we avoided sand import cost. The 1939 aerial shows a huge hole in the ground which proved to us that Ross had been pinching sand from there during the original project. Any time we had a slow down in the project for weather events etc., I just sent the guys into the woods with excavators to get this sand mined up and running again.

Also, we just harvested all the wire grass plants from the surrounding woods that are part of the Mid Pines property – that represented significant savings relative to the #2 project where the same option did not exist.