Feature Interview with Todd Eckenrode (Part 2), pg. ii

In California, natural drainage ways often times seemed to have been embraced and became a major part of the architecture.

Natural creeks, whether they be seasonally running with water, or predominately “dry creeks”, are fantastic features on a golf course. First off, they serve a very significant and needed purpose, to move storm water through the golf course efficiently. But their value as a hazard is paramount, especially if they have a level of recoverability, and they can be found on many older courses for just these reasons.

One of my favorite aspects of any project we’ve completed has been the restoration of the “barranca” or creekway at Brentwood Country Club in Los Angeles. It was designed by Watson and Macbeth originally and Behr later did some redesign work. Brentwood is a wonderful historic course, probably only a mile or two as the crow flies from Riviera CC, but not blessed with the scale or terrain of Riviera. The strongest natural feature it does have, however, is a large drainage course that runs right through the middle of it. It varies in depth from just a few feet to up to 25’ in depth, and varies in width similarly, but is not narrow by any means. The largest area is close to 100 yards wide.

The restored barranca at Brentwood CC is a natural and engaging hazard that defines the inner section of the course.

While I ordinarily prefer to use such hazards diagonally, this would have only allowed two or three holes to utilize it. Instead, it was brilliantly utilized in the routing in a perpendicular, or crossing manner, and in a tremendously varied way. By routing the holes in this manner, eight of them play over it, and it’s by far the most memorable part of the play now on the course.

All of this area was in turfgrass when we started work here, but with some of the steeper areas grown out to unplayable length. We cleared all areas of the turfgrass, and removed all trees from the area that didn’t lend themselves to a native California palette. Much of the creek bottom and slopes had been smoothed due to extensive drainage work over the years, so we took to reshaping the whole area as well to recreate eroded banks, terraces, and a meandering look to the creek bottom itself, basically restoring a sense of naturalness.

Lastly, the entire area was planted with dozens of native California Oak and Sycamore, as a natural barranca in this part of the country would have. And the ground plane was grassed in drought tolerant fescues.

The effect is one of a strong and natural identity. The aesthetics are beautiful, and a great contrast to the finely manicured course. As importantly, if you hit a ball into these areas, which I certainly have, there is a measure of recoverability. Sometimes you might be lucky and have a good lie and a simple shot. Other times, not so much. A level of luck when hitting into a hazard is expected. The excitement and reward from pulling off a recovery shot is one of the most rewarding aspects of golf, however, and is alive here.

Blake Conant and Kye Goalby were the main shapers at Brentwood, and I’m very proud of the rest of the work on the course as well, with a handful of great new greens by Kye, beautiful bunkering, lots of short-cut surrounds and vast tree clearing to open up the property. There were a few other cameo appearances here, notably Tony Russell, who flew down for a few weeks to finish up the important creek work.

Brentwood’s par-4 16th hole plays across the barranca to a green favoring a right to left play.

Very neat, a barranca certainly seems to be a major differentiator between East Coast and West Coast architecture. A prime example of its use is also found at your beloved Pasatiempo, which makes me ask: have you worked on many Dr. Alister MacKenzie courses to date? 

We’ve been fortunate to consult on a few. For a long time, we’ve consulted with Green Hills CC in Millbrae, CA, which opened in 1929, designed by MacKenzie and Hunter. This course was originally called Union League Golf and Country Club. Our work has been limited, such as a rebuilt 13th green and other small tweaks. We’ve completed a Restoration Plan for the Club, however, and are very hopeful more can be accomplished in the future. The course has some absolute standout holes potentially. The 4th and 5th notably, the 11th, and the finish 14th-18th could be outstanding if restored. The 15th was one of the most dramatic par 3’s in the SF Bay Area, and restored green perimeters, tied-in to restored bunkering would make for some fantastic hole locations and thrills. MacKenzie and Hunter traits can be seen throughout quite clearly.

The par-3 15th at Green Hills CC, in recent times and as existed in 1937. Note the significantly larger scale to the bunkering and expanded green, offering numerous interesting hole locations and increased variety.

It was also a pleasure and honor to work on The Valley Club of Montecito for a 2-year project in 2013-2014 and a bit of consulting after. Tom, Jim and the Renaissance crew had done such great work there beforehand restoring most of the MacKenzie & Hunter work, so this was predominately a fairway conversion project, aimed at reducing water usage. Proper fairways lines were set out, and we tried to join up as many fairways as possible, to maximize the shorter and more drought tolerant fairway grass, and present more of a “one cut” look. This was accomplished by joining four sets of holes together that previously had rough between them. We also took this opportunity to help the club in removing as many of the non-native or non-original trees as possible, predominately various species of Pine planted over the years. When looking at old pictures, nearly all that can be seen in trees are native California Oak and Sycamore, Monterey Cypress, and Eucalyptus (a naturalized species in CA). The removals also opened up a lot of short-range views into nearby holes as well.

With the goal to reduce water use, the club also worked on converting some turf areas to drought tolerant fescues, and this naturalized some out of play areas nicely. The approaches were also reworked, to get the ball to bound in better, and a few bumps reworked as well (such as that in the approach of hole 5). A handful of original bunkers were reworked to get more in line with the old ground photos and aerials, such as the fairway bunkers on Hole 2 and 18. Our goal was to walk lightly here, and with good reason. Valley Club is as good as it gets, and if I had one course to play every day for the rest of my life, this would probably be it.

Mike McCarten was the main shaper here, with help from Andrew Littlefield as well in year 2.

Lastly on the MacKenzie front is the long-range restoration of Redlands Country Club. Redlands was originally a nine-hole course, established in 1896, featuring oil-sanded greens and dirt fairways. There is documentation of Dr. MacKenzie’s redesign, opening in 1927, with descriptions of each new or re-designed hole.

The par-3 10th green at Redlands CC, to the left, featured flashed sand faces set into the hill and a steeply sloped green. Note the very limited irrigation.

Mike Devries beat us out for this project long ago, but was kind enough to refer us in a few years back when he wasn’t available for the first phase of recent construction. We’ve studied old aerials and photos, to adapt the design to the 1927 work as best we can, and much of it is visible in the ground.

The first work, in 2016, brought about a restoration of Hole 1 and 4. Hole 1 is a fun shortish par-4 with a green perched off the hill above and a fronting left bunker. We restored green area, and worked on getting the upper hillside properly “tied in” to the green, rewarding play off the slope. Hole 4 is a ridge-top hole where play into the green is rewarded by a drive that can stay atop the crowned ridge and not fall off to either far side. We restored green surface here again, bunkering and opened up the approach again to reward the ability to bound in the ball, particularly from the preferred angle.

The first green at Redlands, beautifully benched into the slope above, and rewarding a bounding ball in on the right.

The second year brought about a restoration of Hole 2 and 3. These were great fun to get into, as perhaps the two best holes on the course. Hole 2 is a strong par 4, with a semi-blind drive over the crest of a hill to a broad valley. The green is what makes this hole, however, with two bowls separated by a very strong ridge down the middle. Needless to say, playing to the correct side of the green is paramount. We worked off the old aerial to restore the left bunker to a long, diagonal feature, and removed a right bunker that had been added over the years, opening up the approach on this side to the ground game.

Redlands CC’s 3rd hole restored.

Hole 3 is a beautifully sited reverse-redan par-3 set atop a native canyon, with a grove of old California Oaks behind. We removed all of the non-native trees that had been planted along the canyon, which took away the natural effect of the land and blocked great mountain views. But the most fun aspect of this work was the restoration of a long diagonal bunker complex running from the centerline and up to the right side of the green. We also shifted a front-left bunker that had been added, and moved it off to the side, so that the proper option of running the ball in from the left could be played. This is a natural and stunning hole now, and we are very excited for the rest of the work in the coming years. Particularly the restoration of the boomerang 17th!

The par-4 17th at Redlands CC, featuring a boomerang green wrapped around a central bunker originally.

Brett Hochstein was the shaper for us in the first two years here.

If you could restore any course in California, which would it be?

Pebble Beach would be the obvious answer, considering its potential, its unusual early design, and its place in the game.

On a small scale, perhaps the 9-hole Northwood Golf Club, as anything MacKenzie is of interest to me of course, and the sense of place here is extraordinary.

What lesser known architects that have practiced in California would you consider to be worth studying?

Though not unknown by any means, the work of William P. Bell, both in collaboration with George Thomas and on his own, was superb.  Many of our client courses were redesigned by Bell into their most current form and this may tell you something.  Virginia CC is a limited edition of sorts, representing the brief partnership of Tillinghast and Bell.

Very little was attributed to William Watson until fairly recently so I am very glad to see that is changing.  Watson was quite prolific but the quality of his designs was notable and the variety in his work outstanding.

And of course, the small sample of outstanding work by Max Behr.  Lakeside and Rancho Santa Fe are without a doubt his finest, and must be seen by students of golf course architecture.  Victoria as well, though to be honest I don’t know this fine course well enough. Max’s  influence on others cannot be undersold.

What about renovations or work to more modern courses?

Well first off, if a course is not of the Golden Era, then we are much more bound to be looking at it from a fresh perspective, on how would we have designed it from scratch, and how can we maximize the property. How can we re-envision them perhaps? Two projects that come to mind are Quail Lodge Golf Club in Carmel Valley, CA and El Niguel CC in Orange County, CA.

Quail Lodge Golf Club’s par-3 #2 pictured here, where a grass swale was cut in front of the green, and diagonal bunkering added. Photo by Rob Perry.

At Quail Lodge, we found a tired golf course at the time, originally built in the 1960’s that had not had any real significant improvements or updating since. The lodge and clubhouse had recently undergone wonderful renovations, and it really is a great property. The question became, how could we elevate the quality of the golf course by adding interesting and relevant features?

Two of the biggest negatives of the property were the fact that it was all turf essentially, so it lacked texture, depth, and visual interest. Also there were far too many water features built into the original design. This was an era where that was favored, but there was no compelling reason for it. The golf course plays along the Carmel River in many parts, a wonderful feature, and has great sandy soils that I’m sure are riverbed sands from when the river traveled a different course.

So we set off to greatly reduce the turf, particularly on the perimeters, along roads, etc. The plant palette is a mix of native and naturalized drought tolerant plants, offers a great buffer and contrast, and makes the golf course feel that it’s located in a more natural setting. This project removed over 20 acres of turf overall. The benefits to reduced water use are very relevant, and also achieved are similar reductions in inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. Wildlife now have more habitat and the aesthetics of the golf are highlighted.

We were able to convince ownership to eliminate or reduce about half of the lakes, but not all that we had hoped. Still, the improvement in the play is substantial for those that we did remove, and none more than the par-3 17th. The previous hole was a simple par-3 set against a lake, like thousands of other similar holes. We were able to cut in a deep grass swale in lieu of the water, which wraps around the front, left and back of the green. This offers a fun hazard, well below the green surface, from which to play a recovery shot back up. It’s eminently playable and the art of recovery is alive and well. This is now my favorite hole on the course, without a doubt.

Sketch for the par-3 17th at Quail Lodge Golf Club. A pond was removed on the left and a deep grass swale replaced it along the left side and behind the green. Sketch by Todd Eckenrode.

We carried on that concept of creating deep swales to create interest, variety, and strategy into other areas of the course as well. Most notable is that which was created on the front nine by carving in a deep swale left of #1, which crosses the fairway there and across #2 as well, before turning up the middle of #3 and ending past the driving zone of this hole on the left.

Otherwise, we focused on creating interesting bunkering of varied scale, and relocating them to be strategically placed. Rough used to surround every green, so we worked all green surrounds as well, and created large short-cut surrounds throughout, greatly enhancing the variety of outcomes and subsequent shots required to recover.

Shapers were Blake Conant and Jonathon Reisetter, who both created very interesting bunker forms that are probably the strongest memorable features of the course now. Ken Alperstein was the landscape architect, who we’ve collaborated with many times before on turf reduction projects.

The par-4 13th, with beautiful and strategic bunkering set into the inside of the dogleg on the left and 65 yards short of the green on the right providing deception. Photo by Rob Perry.

How about your current renovation project at El Niguel CC?

We just recently broke ground on a significant renovation at this club. What attracted us to this course was it had what we felt were really good bones, including an interesting creek feature that runs between most of the holes, lending it a mid-western feel.

The initial work we were able to accomplish was a large-scale turf reduction and tree removal project. We started with a turf reduction plan of over 10 acres, and the member response was so positive that we quickly added an additional similar amount. In lieu of turf were large tree mulch zones, and drought tolerant plantings in more out of play areas. These have matured nicely, and add a beauty to the property that it lacked before, besides the benefits of sustainability noted above. Ken Alperstein was again the landscape architect on the turf reduction project.

We’ve just begun the next phase of the renovation work, but started strong with a new green and green complex for the outermost par-3, the 14th. This is a drop shot hole, and we created a small green, defending strongly in front-left with a beautifully shaped bunker, and short-cut fall off surrounds in the front and right side as well.

The new drop-shot 14th at El Niguel CC is fronted by this bunker set on a diagonal, and features short-cut chipping surrounds throughout.

We intend to shift as many holes toward the creek as possible, and the work in this regard started this past winter, with tree removals in these zones. Many of the creekside holes had 30-40 yards of rough and trees between the fairways and the creek, completely detaching them from this feature. With the removals, and starting to mow the fairways out, we can now shift the fairway bunkering or other fairway features in a way to integrate the holes with the creek more directly, and utilize the hazard strategically. I’m really looking forward to getting into many of the front nine holes in this regard.

The more I work on this project, the more excited I get. This can be a fantastic club to be a member when all is said and done. It’s not pretentious, or trying to be something it isn’t. It’s going to be a course that’s really fun to play and now worthy of its beautiful setting.

Shapers are Blake Conant initially, with Kye Goalby flying in for middle relief soon, and Pete Zarlengo in from New Zealand for the duration. So we certainly have the talent, and I am very thankful for that this summer.

Lastly, what is in the future for Todd Eckenrode-Origins Golf Design?

We continue to consult at Palos Verdes Golf Club (Thomas/Bell Sr.), San Gabriel CC (Macbeth/Watson/Bell Sr.) and Virginia CC (Watson/Tillinghast/Bell Sr.), all wonderful and historic courses, in addition to the courses mentioned above. We are involved in Master Plans for a number of other courses as well. I’d be lying if I didn’t say we are most excited, however, for the opening of the Twin Dolphin Golf Club in Los Cabos, later this fall. In fact, Andy and I are heading down there this week to finish up the greens with Cliff and get the last details just right. Looking forward to seeing this exciting project grow-in and putting a peg in the ground in the future. Actually I look forward to seeing Freddie Couples put a peg in the ground more, and maybe I’ll loop!