Feature Interview with Daniel Wexler
June, 2010

1. Why a book on private clubs?

Several reasons. First, simply because nobody had done one previously. Traditional publishing wisdom has always been that 90% of America’s golfers are not members of private clubs, so why write something for only 10% of the marketplace? But if you do the math, that 10% still adds up to over 2 million people – and these are, by and large, the game’s most affluent, “serious” players, the ones most able to take advantage of a high-end, information-heavy guidebook.

Second, if you look at most published rankings, over 80% of the nation’s top facilities are private – which basically means that nobody has written a guidebook covering the overwhelming majority of America’s best golf courses.
But most importantly, I really, really wanted to produce a guidebook that would have some genuine value to the discerning golfer – a volume providing a detailed, candid picture of each course and not just the name, rank, serial number and trite P.R. flack that make up most golf guidebooks. That it would cover only private clubs is due to reasons one and two above – but I discovered I liked the concept enough that follow-up Resort and Public Course books are now in the works.

2. What exactly is the book’s content, and would it be of interest to golfers who are not private club members?

The book profiles 1,000 clubs in 48 states, with only Alaska and North Dakota being unrepresented. For each club, there is contact info (address/phone/web) and anywhere from 150-400 words describing the course’s history, design, surroundings, best (and occasionally worst) holes, and whatever else at a particular club might be of interest. Also listed are each club’s current positions in the national magazine rankings (where applicable) and, most uniquely, its Collectability Rating – a five-star measuring stick which we’ll explain momentarily. I’ve posted some samples, plus a state-by-state list of included clubs on my webstire (the creatively named www.danielwexler.com) for anyone who’se curious.

As far as its appeal to non-private club members, I would think it considerable for several reasons. First (and particularly in our present economy), one need not always be a member of a club to occasionally gain access to private facilities, so the book should hold a real appeal for any serious golfer who travels. But given the sort of information it contains, it will also appeal to those interested in course design and the game’s history, or to anyone simply looking to gather more information on so many great courses which, beyond hosting the occasional televised event, are seldom seen by the golfing masses. And, of course, the book was also designed with club professionals in mind, as it will be an ideal way for them to advise their traveling members on what courses to pursue in markets with which they are unfamiliar.

3. How were the 1,000 clubs selected?

My focus wasn’t on including the 1,000 “best” clubs (which, after the first 300-400, would devolve into little more than a matter of personal taste anyway) but rather the 1,000 that would most interest potential players. Therefore, clubs ranked highly (either nationally or statewide) are all included, but so are a large number that are noteworthy based on their histories, design pedigrees, overall significance to the game, etc. The other major selection criterion was geography; as mentioned above, 48 states are represented but major markets (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.) or popular golf travel destinations (e.g., Palm Springs, Hilton Head, etc.) receive a proportionally deeper level of coverage. Contrary to what I expected, narrowing the field down to the final 1,000 wasn’t all that difficult. Of course, I’m sure I’ll hear from readers unhappy about the exclusion of one club another – and in some cases, they might well be right.

4. You’ve chosen to publish the book on your own, making it available via print-on-demand through Amazon.com. Why this route instead of the more traditional model?

Yes, I’m definitely stepping off in a new direction here. Initially, the idea came about because publishers were nervous regarding a book written for 10% of the marketplace – and in the time it took me to complete the entire project, a lot changed with regard to the viability of print-on-demand publishing. One big factor was my plan to produce the Resort and Public course books as follow-ups, because it would be virtually impossible to get an advance commitment from a traditional publisher for multiple volumes. I don’t blame them, really. Given the expenses they incur throughout the creative and production processes, there’s only so much financial exposure they’re willing to lock themselves into. But doing it this way allows me to control the entire creative process, the publication schedule and pretty much everything else relative to the book.

Financially, it’s really a no-lose proposition. Given that a print-on-demand publisher incurs virtually no costs beyond printing each already-paid-for volume, the royalties paid to authors are much higher, generally running around 35% of the gross. But also, the author retains 100% ownership of the book’s contents, so if a traditional publisher comes along and wishes to acquire it on especially favorable terms, the author is free to shift gears at any time – or, for that matter, to do anything else they’d like with the book’s content which, for a project like this, could potentially include a range of other mediums.

5. Is the book available only through Amazon?

Essentially, yes. There are some extended distribution plans that might potentially get it onto the occasional bookstore shelf, but for the most part it’s Amazon. I’m personally not bothered by this (they are, after all, the largest retailer on the web) but again, should I ever feel like I’m missing out on some alternative means of publication, I’m free to move in that direction as well.

6. Is this the long-term direction of the publishing industry?

I’ll be better able to answer that question in six or eight months when I can assess how the entire process played out. But in some ways, it’s hard not to envision the mainstream business moving at least somewhat in this direction, if for no other reason than the higher royalties being very, very appealing to authors. But it’s equally hard to imagine the traditional publishing business falling into obsolescence simply because they offer promotional, editing and layout capabilities far beyond what the average author can deliver on their own. My guess is that as more authors utilize print-on-demand – as the software allows for more professional graphics, and when there are enough significantly successful projects to get the mainstream industry’s attention – we’ll see tradition publishers begin to offer some level of print-on-demand themselves. I’d imagine, for example, that many authors might avail themselves of some limited form of editing or layout help – perhaps even fee-based – through a traditional publisher, a circumstance which might be possible if the publisher isn’t carrying the overhead of 2,500 or 5,000 printed copies.

7. Would you recommend this method for other writers?

I think that depends on a particular writer’s skill set and creative resources, as well as what sort of book they are creating. Ultimately it comes down to three things. First, is the writer capable of providing clean, edited, professional copy without the help of the publisher? Second, is the writer able to lay out the entire volume themselves – an often painstaking process. Amazon requires that manuscripts be submitted via PDF files, meaning that however one lays it out is precisely how it’s going to print. This is great from a control-of-the-creative-process perspective, but if one is attempting something graphically intricate, it might be a tough hill to climb. But the third question is surely the biggest: Is the writer able to market the book on their own?

The one major downside to this sort of print-on-demand is the lack of marketing support from a publisher. My sense is that for a book like this one – where a specific audience is easily defined – there are a fair number of avenues (such as this website) where the message can be gotten out pretty effectively. For something broader, like a novel perhaps, that might be much harder to do. But therein also lies one of the beauties of this sort of publishing: Because it may be best suited to niche-oriented titles, it has the potential to spur the producton of interesting volumes that might never see the light of day in more traditional settings.

8. You obviously haven’t been to all 1,000 clubs, so how difficult was the book to research, and did it require the cooperation of the various clubs?

The degree of research difficulty varied a bit, first because I had a much greater familiarity with courses in the parts of the country where I’ve lived, but also because my past research into the evolution of classic courses gave me a big headstart on most anything built before World War II. But there is so much information out there today, in printed form, on the internet, and also through all the contacts I’ve made over the years – people whose opinions I respect enough to factor them into a book like this. As far as cooperation from the clubs, there really weren’t very many that I needed to approach for information. But that was largely by design as well, because while most of the profiled courses are of a stature high enough to draw primarily positive comments, I wanted the profiles to be as candid as necessary – and I’ve never liked the idea of asking someone for help and then writing something negative about them.

9. Your previous books have generally been written from a “traditionalist” perspective. Does that perspective work its way into the text here?

It does, but…

The purpose of the book is not to offer my opinion on all of these courses but rather a more general, objective picture of what golfers may find appealing, or historically or architecturally interesting about a particular facility. I do state my personal taste in the introduction because that only seems fair, but the text is built far more around clear, measurable things than stylistic opinion – and where that opinion does creep into play, I’ve attempted to clearly label it as such. Also, this is the major reason why I opted for a “Collectability Rating” instead of some type of measurement based upon a completely subjective sense of a course’s “quality.”

10. So what exactly does the “Collectability Rating” entail?

It’s based on the premise that avid golfers tend to “collect” courses – that is, to play as many great, good, important or famous courses as they can during their golfing lives. Obviously the Pine Valleys and Cypress Points are no-brainers, but this rating is designed to give a sense of how important so many lesser-known facilities might be to one’s personal portfolio. As such, it is based upon several factors, including the course’s generally perceived quality (as determined by a wide range of published rankings and commentaries), its historical importance (competitions held, architectural significance, etc.) and, where applicable, a special setting or ambience. The scale itself runs from one to five diamonds, so it’s pretty easily quantifiable, and it succeeds, I think, in giving the reader a sense of which courses are most desirable beyond either my personal opinion or how one or two magazines choose to rate them.

11. After grouping the courses under their various collectability ratings, were you surprised by how well some architects’ work fared? Did any architect fare worse than you would have imagined?

This is an interesting question in the sense that to some extent – and especially for stronger Golden Age tracks – the involvement of a particular architect often contributes directly to a course’s collectability. A layout built by MacKenzie, Tillinghast or Raynor, for example, often carries a certain cachet which clearly makes it more collectable. I was not, however, wedded to this too heavily (e.g. knowledgeable readers will note that many private course built by such men failed to make the cut) and it’s not as though there aren’t plenty of modern designers who benefit from their reputations similarly – though perhaps the effect is slightly smaller when a course is 20 years old as opposed to, say, 80.

But that said, there were one or two trends which, if not altogether surprising, did seem notable to me in their magnitude. On the positive side, I came into this project with a pretty high opinion of the work of Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw, but it proceeded to grow exponentially with each course profiled for the book. With most of their courses being contemporary, the historical component is obviously limited, but when one considers the level at which they dominate so many rankings and commentaries, and the often unique status these layouts enjoy in many markets, it becomes hard not to view their entire portfolio as being very highly collectible. To a lesser degree, Robert Trent Jones II also measured up a bit better than I might have guessed. My personal aesthetic leanings may not always love his modern styling but his work is almost always strategic in nature, and frequently holds a place of real significance in its golfing neighborhood.

On the negative side, there was the other Trent Jones offspring, brother Rees. Now I’ll admit up front that I wasn’t much of a fan of his work to begin with but in putting together the book, I found myself underwhelmed even further. Very few of his original designs garner much national acclaim, even fewer offer much history (competitive or otherwise) and not too many carry any huge cachet within their areas. And in the end – though this is just an estimate – I’m guessing that a higher percentage of his private club designs failed to merit inclusion in the book than any other high-profile architect.

12. What are three examples of courses/clubs that gained a significantly higher ranking by virtue of restoration work carried out within the past decade?

My first answer is Fenway (Scarsdale, NY) which Gil Hanse & Co. did a really wonderful restoration on. I had the chance to play there several times as a kid and, being relatively architecturally ignorant at the time, had little sense of the A.W. Tillinghast features that had been lost/removed over the years. But Gil’s work has really brought Fenway to life, lifting it from a course greatly overshadowed by near-neighbors Winged Foot and Quaker Ridge to a layout worthy of (and now receiving) national acclaim.

For my other two choices, however, I’m going to broaden “restoration” to “renovation,” because both have been altered a bit from their original forms. The first – which I must admit Golf’s Most Beloved drew my attention to – is the California Golf Club of San Francisco, an old William Locke/Vernon Macan design which was altered a bit by Dr. MacKenzie during his Northern California years. In its prewar form, it was a stylish track with a lot of MacKenzie aesthetic, but nothing really to compare with area stalwarts like San Francisco (which Golf’s Most Beloved definitely did not draw my attention to…), Olympic, or even the Meadow Club. But Kyle Phillips’ recent renovation changed everything, restoring numerous MacKenzie bunkers and greens but also adding several new holes which fit the layout both aesthetically and strategically. Today, this is certainly one of NoCal’s best.

And third, I’ll go with Sleepy Hollow, which Gil Hanse and our friend George Bahto have restored and renovated, resulting in a layout which is aesthetically far more appealing, truer to its Macdonald/Raynor roots) and stylistically more unified. And one for the future: when Gil and Geoff Shackelford get done with their ongoing work at the Los Angeles Country Club, it too should jump a bit on the national scene – if anyone ever gets in to see the place.

13. What is your overall sense of the direction that private golf clubs are heading in the United States? What works and what doesn’t in this new economic order?

In no expert on the business side of country clubs, but in the present economic climate a couple of things seem apparent. First, while nearly everyone’s business is down, we haven’t seen the cascade of closers and firesales that seemed almost certain, say, 18 months ago. That’s not to say that plenty of places aren’t struggling; we’ve all heard numerous stories. But if the economists are right and the worst of this is now behind us, I’m a little surprised at just how high a percentage of places have – though stressed – been able to ride it out.

The second thing that strikes me – and again, this is just a simple observation – is that beyond preferring a classic golf course from a playing perspective, I think the last couple of years have highlighted the advantages of clubs which have long ago paid off whatever initial debt they may have acrued. Just paying the operating bills has probably been enough of a challenge of late; dealing with unsold memberships, undeveloped real estate and servicing loans would represent a different level of trouble altogether.

As to whether the present economy serves as a catalyst for long-term changes in how private clubs operate, I’m a bit skeptical. Hopefully some of the austerity measures currently in place might find permanent favor (particularly with regard to maintenance standards/budgets) as the high-end American country club experience is, on the whole, at obvious odds with the game’s less gaudy roots. But my guess is that in three or four years, we’ll be back to a slightly scaled-down (perhaps) version of business as usual.

14. The only recent book which sounds similar to the Private Club Guide is Tom Doak’s famous Confidential Guide. Are the two books in any way comparable?

Distant cousins, perhaps, but not really comparable.

The Confidential Guide represents Tom’s opinions (often quite amusing) on its profiled courses. The Private Club Guide is more a general guidebook which strives to present an objective picture not rooted in my opinions. Obviously, unless one is simply going to regurgitate a list of glowing adjectives about every facility, there is no such thing as complete “objectivity.” But where negative comments are made here, they tend to be easily measurable (e.g. a course with two island greens in the middle of a desert is a bit contrived) and thus can be accepted or dismissed by the reader fairly easily.

I should say, however, that this book did draw a bit of inspiration from the Confidential Guide which, though often irreverent, is a volume I consider to be among the very best (and, not incidentally, most insightful) architecture-oriented books of the modern era. But the books only have about 300 courses in common, and since Tom was covering a list of all the facilities he had seen up to that point in his career, he included plenty of forgettable facilities. The Private Club Guide tends to be focused only on better (or, at least, more interesting) courses, so it really is a very different animal altogether.

15. Do you expect to hear any of the sort of criticism that Doak heard regarding The Confidential Guide?

I expect to hear criticism – informed or otherwise – on anything I write. But relative to the Confidential Guide specifically, I’d be surprised if the criticism was very similar because these really are very different books. But that said, we live in a modern golfing world where any comment about a course beyond the typical P.R. flack (“a gem,” “a masterpiece,” etc.) is often greeted with a raised eyebrow. As I’ve said, I consider the Private Club Guide to be neither overtly critical, nor bound by my tastes and opinions. It is, however, designed to provide accurate portrayals – and those are bound not to leave everybody 100% happy 100% of the time.

16. Will this be a one-time volume or will it be updated?

This is an interesting question because with the dynamics of print-on-demand publishing, a book can theoretically be updated as often as one likes, simply by emailing the printer an updated file to replace whatever version is currently in use. I feel strongly, however, that such frequent updating is both awkward and unfair to buyers of the book, as it creates the possibility that one might actually be purchasing a slightly different volume at any given moment. But that said, I do have the resort and public course books in the works and once those are done, the notion of doing a comprehensive update of each title in every third year seems a logical one.

17. Will these resort and public course books be done in a similar format? And how soon do you anticipate publishing them?

Definitely in the same format, though with a few minor changes. The resort book, for example, will be pretty much comprehensive in its coverage as there are far fewer resort courses nationwide than there are private or public ones. In fact, the plan right now is to include Caribbean resorts in order to bring the book up to necessary size. The public course book, on the other hand, will be just the opposite; there are at least 1,500 decent candidates for a likely 1,000 spots.

As far as dates of publication, the hope is for the resort book to be out by the end of the year, with the public volume ideally being ready by the late summer/early fall of 2011.

18. Lastly, and in a completely different direction, your first two books were The Missing Links and Lost Links. Are there any plans to do a third book on lost courses?

Not at the moment.

The concept for Missing Links pretty much spoke for itself, and Lost Links came about largely because my research continued to uncover enough significant lost courses to make a second volume almost a necessity. I’m certain that there are a handful of notable Golden Age NLEs that the first two books missed, but I doubt there are anywhere near enough to comprise a full volume. Of course, if we got into layouts that were built after the war, that might be a different story…

The End