Feature Interview with Jeffrey Stein
December, 2019

 

1.How did you become interested in golf course architecture?

My interest took shape early in my childhood and stems from the influence of family, my high school years as a caddie, and a persistent curiosity about golf. As an 8-year-old my brother took me to the golf course for the first time.  It just so happened to be–Whippoorwill, a golf course larger than life.  On a clear day from the 9th green, you can see midtown Manhattan far in the distance beyond Charles Banks’ spectacular design, laid over a tumbling rocky landscape. If that setting didn’t inspire my young mind, I’m not sure what else could have.  Conversely, in the wintertime my father used to take us sledding on that same 9th hole.  We spent hours skimming down the fairway shrouded in snow, and I would listen to my brother talk about his experiences on the golf course over the past summer.  Ironically, that wintertime activity drove my curiosity about golf courses just as much as walking the course in the summer.

My many summers as a caddie at the Bedford Golf Club through high school and college helped me learn about architecture by spending so much time at just one golf course.  With every loop I was internalizing Devereux Emmet’s classic style, born in the roots of the game, while studying golfers’ habits and tendencies.  When I wasn’t caddying, on slow summer days I would be practicing my game, preparing for junior tournaments, or getting in my car to find another golf course I had never seen before.

I have always been thrilled by the sensation of discovering an interesting golf course. It’s the type of feeling that compelled me to sleep in my car to play Bethpage Black, or walk up to the line at 4:00am to play The Old Course, or to drive the entire coast of New Zealand’s South Island, looking for the most obscure links. Each time I followed my curiosity to learn more about golf architecture, I was rewarded with unforgettable experiences that have helped me achieve my goals as a design professional.

2. What lessons did you learn about golf architecture through caddying?

In one respect caddying afforded me lots of time to sit and read architecture books while I was waiting for players to arrive.  In another respect I’ve learned almost as much about golf strategy from seasoned architects as I have from watching ordinary golfers and listening to their preferences.  Golf is an extremely difficult game and most people don’t play or practice very much.  As I watched golfers more closely, I realized just how much room they needed off the tee to enjoy the game.  This observation translated into a preference for designing wide enough playing corridors and managing peripheral areas so golfers could find their ball and reasonably advance it toward the hole.

Among the trends in golf today, I’m happy to see much more emphasis on width and enjoyment rather than length and difficulty.  However, if you ask a golfer (men in particular) if they like hard golf courses, they will likely reply in the affirmative.  The real truth is that most golfers actually like golf courses that appear more difficult than they actually are!  Obscuring sight lines with the seemingly random placement of hazards at a variety of lengths off the tee and around the green can work to accomplish this very goal.

3. Do you recall a specific ‘a ha’ moment?

The “ah-ha” moment I will never forget occurred as I made my way to the 17th tee at Crystal Downs in Northern Michigan.  The topography is tsunami-like and so completely uninviting to a potential golf shot that I didn’t even know one could design a hole like that and get away with it!  It felt as if I were staring at a Salvador Dali painting.  I ended up being sucked into an alternate reality and couldn’t quite figure out on which club I should hit off the tee.  Iron or driver?  How hard is the wind blowing off Crystal Lake?  Would I rather see the flag on my second shot or take my chances near the green?

Jeff took this picture of the 17th at Crystal Downs in 2008 and the hole’s one-off nature has always stayed with him.

It’s just such a unique and polarizing golf hole and one of my favorites in the world. The whole experience at Crystal Downs just showed me how far Mackenzie could push the envelope of design.  After that visit, I realized I wanted to build golf courses like that too.

4. Define great architecture.

The thing about great golf architecture that sometimes gets gets passed over in discussion is the quality of the routing.  Great architecture is inextricably tied to a great routing on an exceptional property.  One of the best modern examples is the routing of Dismal River Red.  There Tom Doak and his associates built some of the most minimally constructed green sites I have personally ever seen.  Tom has also notably written on this forum how many architects can miss a tee location, landing area, and/or green location by 20 or 30 yards which can make all the difference in the flow and playability of the golf course.  We couldn’t have built those green sites more minimally – and by that I mean strip, till and sand pro – had Tom not unlocked the routing puzzle to perfection.

I asked Renaissance Design associate Brian Slawnik the same question years ago while standing on the back nine at Dismal River Red, as we were getting ready to start construction.  All he said was,  “You’ll know it when you see it.”  I agreed with him at the time, but I also think one can feel it.  Great architecture is a heightening of the senses and a calming of the mind.  Great architecture is intuitive; it’s the sensation when mind, body, and nature all melt into one.  Great architecture can bring people together, create community, and bring a spiritual connection to the ground on which we walk.

5. How did you get into golf course architecture as a profession?

My professional journey into golf architecture began with an introduction to Tom Doak in the fall of 2008.  Despite my academic focus in economics and business at Brandeis University, I still knew that I wanted to be a golf architect and applied to Tom’s internship program while I was a senior in college.  Although unsuccessful on my first attempt, I was undeterred and took up an offer to meet at his office in Traverse City, MI.  I was so excited to make the trip that I took a late flight from New York, connected from Atlanta to Flint, and drove through the night so I could arrive early enough to play High Pointe (Tom’s first solo design)!  I arrived before dawn and waited in the parking lot for the sun to come up.

On that day Tom was very gracious about entertaining my curiosity, and even sent me to Crystal Downs later that afternoon.  I presented him with a resume of my academic history, athletic achievements in golf, and a portfolio which included landscape photographs and some sculptures I had made from my elective art classes.  I never asked, but I have to believe my background stood out from the typical group of landscape architecture applicants he was used to seeing.  I’m also sure it didn’t hurt that I was willing to travel to a small town in Northern Michigan just to put a name with a face.

Sometime after the interview and several polite emails and phone calls, Jim Urbina offered me the opportunity to work alongside the Renaissance Design team while they were shaping Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort (Oregon).  In early December 2008, I packed up my station wagon and drove across the country from New York City to begin an exciting career in golf design.

To my surprise, the experience did not begin with sketching golf holes or flagging bunkers with Tom and Jim.  After getting oriented, CJ Kreusher, The Old Macdonald Assistant Superintendent, handed me a shovel and bucket and told me to pick rocks on the double wide fairway for holes 3 and 14.  Someone had dug a little too deep in the sand pit and scooped pea sized gravel which was not meant for top dressing the fairways.  In hindsight what seemed like a menial and endless task taught me a lesson about the process of design and my ability to work with a team.  Through that experience, I was quickly able to recognize that there was no job too small in the pursuit of achieving truly great results.

Ken Nice (Bandon Dunes Director of Agronomy) also must have seen how hard I was working and how much I wanted to learn about golf architecture.  Both he and Renaissance Golf Design really looked after me during that time, and ensured that I would be able to continue on my path. They gave me another opportunity in 2011 to work on the Bandon Preserve construction, Dismal River Red (where I was named a Renaissance Intern), then later with Jim Urbina on an A.W. Tillinghast restoration at the Paramount Golf Club near my home in NY.

I have so much gratitude toward Tom and his associates for giving me such a tremendous opportunity to learn architecture in the field.  Working with Renaissance early on opened so many doors for me, and I certainly would not be as far along as I am today without their support.

6. You have worked for people like Doak, Coore, Hanse, Urbina, Phillips and DeVries at so many of my favorite places including Dismal River (Red), Ohoopee Match Club, Garden City GC, Quaker Ridge, Mid Pines, California Golf Club of San Francisco, Merion, Rockaway Hunting Club, and on and on. Along the way, what have you learned from such mentors? 

I’m lucky to say that I consider each one of these talented architects as a mentor.  Part of my goal as a professional has been to work with different people and learn a little something from everyone.

  • Routing – My most recent and lasting impression on routing a golf course comes from working with Gil Hanse at the Ohoopee Match Club.  There, Gil designed two golf courses in one!  Like the composite routing at Royal Melbourne or Brookline Country Club, Ohoopee takes the same idea but puts it in miniature form.  The alternate route, known as the “whiskey loop” is an 18 hole routing that is significantly shorter than the standard 18 and incorporates 4 alternate holes, designated for afternoon play.  The beauty of Ohoopee’s routing innovation is how it is in-tune with golf’s growing focus on fun while still delivering all the strategic intrigue.  The big course is no slouch either as it has debuted on the GOLF Magazine World Top 100 list at #98!  It was an honor for me to play a role in the construction of the golf course and a big congratulations are due to Gil, Jim Wagner,  Rhett Baker (Superintendent) and all the Cavemen.
  • Drainage – Mike DeVries understands and works with drainage better than anyone in the business.  I know that he would take that as a compliment because it speaks to his attention to detail and willingness to take on challenging problems.  I have worked with Mike on several occasions draining artificial ponds, restoring creeks, and wholly improving the surrounding architecture of several golf courses.  Just this past Summer Joe Hancock and I assisted Mike in a total redesign of 5 holes at Pelham Country Club, just outside of New York City.  We were part of an incredible transformation driven by an urgent need to improve storm water drainage and create irrigation retention for the golf course.  Listening to the way Mike thinks through a project everyday is truly a master class and is an experience that can’t be learned anywhere else but in the field.
  •  Shaping- There are a lot of great shapers out there but few have the ability to create like Jim Wagner, Vice President of Hanse Golf Design.  Jim can look at a benign lump of ground and turn it into the most spectacular looking hazard imaginable.  He also has the ability to create beautifully refined shapes and lines much of which are inspired by the work of William Flynn from his hometown of Philadelphia. Jim has edited my work countless times, breaking it down, building it back up and pushing for the best possible result.  Just when you think you’re done, he taught me to go back and take it to the next level.
  • Restoration-  Jim Urbina has an uncanny ability to choose restoration projects that seem to exceed everyone’s expectations but his own.  He is a true restorer of classic architecture and is not afraid to put his foot down in order to do it right. I have worked with Jim on Mackenzie, Tillinghast, Alison, and Emmet, and no one is better at peeling back the layers to reveal the treasures of golf’s great architects.

 7. Tell us some work of which you are particularly proud.

After working at Old Macdonald for nine months in 2009, I spent a year abroad working, golfing, and travelling in New Zealand and Australia.  It was an up and down year, as I had to find a lot of odd jobs and had several working opportunities in golf fall through, similar to the state of the economy.  The funny thing is the work I’m most proud of has nothing to do with golf.  It’s actually the volunteering I sought at the Cardrona Ski Resort in Wanaka, NZ.  There, I took to training as an adaptive ski instructor, assisting people with a variety of physical and mental disabilities.  I cannot express enough how these experiences have enriched my life, despite what was seemingly a career detour for an aspiring golf architect.  Had I not met these wonderful people and their families, I’m not sure I would have gained the same appreciation for my opportunities and the sense of urgency to seize the moment I had before me.

It is my determination, grit and desire to help others that I am most proud.  For any young person who wants to get into the golf business, the whole thing is all about hard work and treating people with respect.  It’s taken a decade to accumulate these experiences in work and life, and well over 10,000 hours of practice in my craft to be sharing these thoughts with you all.  I hope my story is somewhat inspirational to others who wish to follow their dreams as well.

8. 10,000 hours? Good for you for staying in demand! Tell us about your experience working on Bandon Preserve early in your career. What was it like working with Coore & Crenshaw?

I was on-site from the early days of clearing to the last days of hydro-seeding. Throughout the project I assisted Bill Coore, helping him fine tune the finish work on the greens and surrounds.  Bill’s eye is as good as any when it comes to the finishing details in the sand and working together meant that I had the opportunity to pick his brain about architecture and ask advice about how to move forward with my career.  We spent countless hours shaving the sand, one tenth of foot here, and a tenth of an foot there, just to create the micro contour he wanted to see in the finished product. Working in that wonderful dune setting, overlooking the Pacific Ocean was a dream come true and a unique learning experience.  While Dave Zinkand shaped the entire golf course, Bill and Ben put the fine touches on everything.  Listening to them converse was at times, both fascinating and hilarious.  They would all talk in depth about the shapes and angles of play, while at the same time gently needling one another to see each other’s point of view.  I was more of a fly on the wall at that point but could see that there was always a healthy debate happening during the creative process.  No one was immune from a good natured ribbing and Bill’s light humor seemed to bring out the best in everyone’s talents.

9. What do you think of 9 hole golf courses? Should we build more of them or just play less golf?

I like 9 hole golf courses and sometimes playing 9 is just the right amount.  Sometimes a quick 3 is all you can get after work, before sunset.  When I’m really busy working on the golf course, I’ll settle for a few putts.  My point is that if we make golf more accessible with options to play shorter sequences, more people will play!  However, I’m not convinced we need to build more 9 hole courses as a remedy across the board.  It would really depend on the specific market and demand for golf.   There are plenty of opportunities to play less golf, it just all depends if your local golf course will let you!

10. Name a few favorite 9-holers.

Hopson Hills – Utica, NY

Hopson Hills is a 9-holer built on an old dairy farm 40 min outside of Utica, NY.  With a full time crew of just 2 men, Hopson Hills should be commended for its really good greens, simple, lay of the land character, and dedication to the principles of pure golf.  Hopson is a true country course, like those found off the beaten path in Scotland.  Only the greens receive sparing irrigation, and you will be more than pleased to watch your ball bound and bounce over the springy fairways.  The owner, Bill Fox, is an extraordinary person who decided he wanted to build a golf course by any means necessary.  I admire the fact that he saw the project through and managed to create a public amenity that serves the local high school and surrounding community.  Hopson could be a case study in proving that inexpensive constructions can also lead to really good golf, if the right property is chosen.  For those reasons, I reached out to Bill in 2016 to see if I could get involved with his project.  I ended up living on the property in a small house next to the maintenance barn for just over one month, helping him with the final preparations in opening the 9-hole routing for the first time.  It was a rewarding experience, and I hope the golf course gets a little more attention in the future.

This view from the future 15th green at Hopson Hills captures the property’s wonderful undulations.

Highlands Links- North Truro, MA

Highlands Links is accessible to the public, inexpensive, and should be cherished as living history of early American links golf.  It’s a favorite of mine that flies under the radar, but it is truly one of the best golf experiences you can find.  The only catch is that you must go nearly all the way out to the tip of Cape Cod to see it.  Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on a high bluff there is a small shack of a pro shop and a traditional cape white lighthouse to guide you.  The opening tee shot takes you away from home on a short par 4 nestled among a sea of perfectly sparse golden grasses.  What you see is what you get at Highlands Links, a true seaside golf course, preserved in its simplicity, blowing in the wind, hopefully until the end of time.

Mosholu- Bronx, NY

On the other end of the spectrum we have Mosholu in New York City.  It is a 2,312-yard tree lined 9-hole course, rated as a par 64!  It’s the perfect urban oasis–a flagship for the First Tee Program.  I have always enjoyed playing a quick round here and especially look forward to the uphill par 3 Biarritz on the final green.

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