Feature Interview with Johnson Wagner
1. Tell us how you came to have an interest in golf course architecture, as distinct from your interest in playing golf.
As a kid I loved playing golf but I didn’t pay attention to design. There were courses that I liked more than others but I wouldn’t have been able to express why. My first year as a pro, playing on the Nationwide Tour in Chattanooga, we had an event at Black Creek Club. That was the first time I started to pay attention. Brian Silva designed, inspired by Seth Raynor and I was hooked. I was noticing similar holes to a course that I loved on Long Island (Piping Rock) and for the first time played a ridiculous Biarritz (17th Black Creek). Since that first time around Black Creek, I have been infatuated with C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor.
2. What have been the primary influences on your interest in architecture? Was it exposure to playing a great course like Piping Rock?
We moved to Garrison, NY when I was a freshman in high school, growing up playing junior and amateur events in the Metropolitan New York area really spoiled me. My first favorite architect was A.W. Tillinghast. He has so many amazing courses in that area. Now playing on tour I’ve been able to play so many cool courses in my travels. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m a little picky when I get a chance to go and have a fun round.
3. Relative to other PGA Tour players, what are the strengths of your game?
I have always believed in my ability to hole putts. There’s no better feeling for me than being in contention in a tournament and knowing a putt is going to go in. I love making putts late on Sundays. I only wish I found myself in that position more often. I also consider myself a very good ball striker. I hit a lot of greens and I drive the ball fairly straight. As I’ve gotten older I’ve grown to appreciate being in play off the tee. Makes life a whole lot easier.
4. Based on those answers, what course set-up do you most like to see (i.e. the one that is most conducive to you doing well relative to the field)?
I really enjoy playing courses that make players think. When my game is on I really like to play in the wind as windy, firm conditions require a player to think so much more. You can have 175 hole but you’re only trying to land the ball at 165. The Old White course at the Greenbrier is possibly my favorite that we play. It requires a player to think the whole way around. My favorite part about it is all the angles you try and create. To a back right pin on certain holes you would actually prefer to be in the left rough as opposed to right side of fairway.
Possibly my favorite tour course is the one I’ve had the most success and that is Golf Club of Houston formerly know as Redstone. My rookie year on tour was 2007 and when I got to the Houston Open I was presented with the most immaculate conditions I had ever seen. Houston was the week before the Masters and they tried to mimic Augusta National’s conditions as much as they could. With all the shaved banks and water hazards presented it is truly a course that makes you think as you make your way around the course.
Another favorite is Waialae CC in Honolulu, home of the Sony Open and a Seth Raynor original. This course has always been a puzzle to me. Starting my year out a course like that in early January, I’ve learned over the years that I better have had good preparation leading in. It has eaten my lunch many a time. It is possibly the hardest course I’ve ever played when out of position off the tee. Extremely jumpy Bermuda rough coming into tiny pitched greens. You better miss your tee shots and approach shots on the correct side or you’re in for a long day.
5. Please share with us your favorite five courses and why.
Chicago Golf Club – Seth Raynor is my all time favorite architect and CGC is hands down my favorite course of all time. I love everything about it. I have never wanted a round to end out there. Number 2 (road) may be my favorite hole I’ve ever played. The property itself seems basic and is surrounded by neighborhoods with no real view beyond the property. Yet, it shows the incredible vision that Macdonald and Raynor had when routing a course to a property. I’ve heard stories of Ben Crenshaw sitting on certain greens for hours taking notes.
Muirfield (Scotland) – I was fortunate to play Muirfield in the 2013 Open Championship and that particular week was my favorite tournament I have ever played. The weather was hot and dry and it was the fastest course I had ever seen. It was beautifully brown. On the first hole down wind, we were hitting 4 iron off the tee and wedge into the green. When the wind turned in the opposite direction, it became driver/5 iron. I had never played a course that changed so much with a wind direction change. Truly amazing.
California Golf Club of San Francisco – The first time I played I was absolutely blown away by this place. The trees, location, undulation of the property and most importantly the vibe of the place. I have never felt so welcome as a guest anywhere I’ve ever played. In particular, I’m a fan of its routing. When playing the course, everything just feels right. I may never have played a course with more impressive bunkering as it is both visually intimidating and beautiful. Some of the most impressive trees I have ever seen on a course as well.
Pine Valley – Pine Valley has to be the most impressive placement course I have ever played. Unlike Chicago Golf club where you can hit the ball anywhere off the tee and still play the holes, Pine Valley demands that you place the ball with precision. Missing shots in the wrong places at PV come with great consequence.It’s number 1 in the world for a reason. It’s as beautiful as it is hard. One of my favorite things about PV is the par 3 course. The shots on the short course were designed to mimic some of the holes on the main course. I have had an absolute blast every time I have been.
Fisher’s Island Club – I have only played it once and it was an incredible day. I really liked how there was no irrigation and the weather dictated how firm or soft the playing conditions were. I remember standing on the tee of the Biarritz par 3 thinking how in the world am I going to get this ball on the green.
Other notables would include National Golf Links of America, Friar’s Head, Ohoopee Match Club and Augusta National.
6. Let’s talk about the Ohoopee Match Club. What were your impressions, both of the course itself as well as the philosophy behind the club?
I am a huge fan of Ohoopee. The course is spectacular. Built on sand and all the bunkers have that native sand in them. The green complexes are so much fun. You could play that course everyday and never get sick of it. The 4 extra greens on the property that help make up the Whiskey Loop are some of the most out-there, modern greens that I’ve ever seen with huge banks and swales. I found the greens as a whole allow for tons of imagination.
From the moment I was on the grounds I had a huge smile on my face. The accommodations were second to none. The group I was with consisted of all single digit handicaps so we mostly played the course from the back tees. I felt like the course offered ample birdie opportunities with certain pin locations having a bowl or funneling effect. That being said, don’t hit the tee ball off line as you could be in for a long day playing out of native areas.
The Himalayas putting green was a blast and was a great place to settle any halved matches from the big course. I can’t wait to go back.
7. What about your five favorite courses on the PGA Tour?
Greenbrier Old White
Waialae CC Honolulu
TPC River Highlands CT
8. TPC River Highlands seems a bit different architecturally to the other four. What do you like so much about it – that it is a placement course?
TPC River Highlands has been special to me since my brother and I went there as spectators in 1994. We had just moved to Garrison NY and we drove over to watch Saturday play. I was blown away by the crowds and the excitement that the golf course delivered, especially from 13 on. After playing numerous events there, I’ve seen first hand how a player can rip up the back 9 or be ripped up by the same stretch of holes.
Number 17 tee shot has often been kept me up at night when I’ve been in contention. It’s a fairly simple layup tee shot if you can work a 3wood/hybrid left to right but that hasn’t ever been my favorite shot shape. The hole plays around a lake that is along the entire right side of the hole. I usually find myself with an 8 iron from the left rough playing across water.
9. Let’s talk about a clear favorite – The Old White, where in fact you just played a few weeks ago. Did your knowledge of Macdonald/Raynor give you an edge? For instance, take its Redan hole. Being a student of Macdonald/Raynor, you appreciate that a sensible way to play it is to hit the prescribed draw and let the kicker greenside slope work the ball toward the hole. Yet, how quickly can the average tour pro discern that is the correct way to play the hole? Did you see fellow players take dead aim at the flag, fly it too deep into the green and go over? Or can pros determine after just one or two practice rounds what is the best route to take?
I feel that my knowledge of Macdonald/ Raynor helps me a ton at Old White. It has always amazed me when I see players on the Redan par 3 8th taking dead aim at a left flag. Regardless of hole location, I never intentionally finish a ball over the left greenside bunker. It is very deep and the green runs toward the back of the green in that location. The green is quite difficult to hold when your ball lands anywhere but the right side using the slope to not only slow the ball down but also feed it to the left.
10. What do you think of the most recent round of changes to The Old White?
In the most recent redesign, a lot of the green complexes were changed dramatically. Some of the severity in the greens were taken out, most noticeable at the 18th where a distinct huge slope in the middle of the green was removed for a smaller thumbprint feature and to the 7th where a couple of hole defining gigantic slopes were softened dramatically. The softening of the green contours as a whole has made the course play easier.
I really like the new fairway bunkering on the 14th where a lot of sand was removed but the character of the hole remains the same.
11. Overall, do you think your interest in architecture has positively impacted your ability to score well?
Yes and no. It helps me with my strategy when moving around a course that I enjoy. Unfortunately, I have to play courses that I’m not in love with. On those tracks, sometimes I find myself questioning certain decisions made by the architect instead of focusing on making birdies.
12. During the PGA season, players move from Hawaii to California to Florida to Texas and on and on. How often, if at all, do you change the composition of the 14 clubs that you carry? For instance, might you add a wedge with more bounce for certain grasses or course set-ups?
Once I’m confident with my set I don’t change very often. I have recently found a new 60 degree wedge with a slightly different bounce which has proven to be excellent out of most sand and fairway conditions. I have used the same putter forever and once I find a 3-wood I like, I keep it in play until the head cracks.
13. You are based in Charlotte, North Carolina. What are your five favorite courses in the Tar Heel state?
Grandfather Golf and CC
I haven’t played Wade Hampton but I have a feeling it would bump something out.
14. How often do you shape a tee ball, even if it is just slightly? Or is your focus to hit it straight?
I used to play a big draw off the tee. For the last several years I have been focusing on hitting it straight. There aren’t too many tee shots that a high straight ball doesn’t work. If it doesn’t fit I’ll find a different club to hit.
15. What is your least favorite shot to play under pressure and what ^&*% hole asks you to hit that very shot?
I don’t move the ball left to right with any real consistency. Tee shots that force that shot shape have always been tough and the 5th at Colonial CC in Fort Worth is a prime example of a hole that is difficult for me. The Trinity River flows down the entire right side of the hole and if your tee ball doesn’t fall to the right then you’re probably not hitting the fairway. I usually play from the left rough and hack something toward the front of the green.
16. What do you make of the proliferation of 340 yard drivable par 4s? Do you have any favorites? Some lament that their popularity has seemingly come at the expense of 380 yard placement holes, where everyone hits an iron and then a wedge.
I have always been a fan of drivable par 4’s and think that every course should have one. At my home course Quail Hollow, its 14th is one of the best in the world and represents the ultimate risk/reward. A perfect drive can often setup an eagle putt while a poor drive leads to disaster. The option is always there to take an iron off the tee and play a wedge into a very narrow green.
Staying at Quail Hollow, the often redesigned 8th hole is intended to be drivable but in my opinion it would be a great 380 layup par 4. With the tee box moved 40 yards to the right only a couple players in the world would ever even consider ripping driver. Redesigning the green, raising it up 5 feet or so and making it smaller would set up a really exciting second shot similar to the 3rd hole at the Ocean Course at Kiawah.
17. Miguel Ángel Jiménez recently said words to the effect that if you want to see who can really play, limit the amount of clubs to 10 and force players to invent shots and be more creative. Do you support that sentiment?
I think especially around the greens the modern game has changed. I see young guys pull the 60 out from everywhere. I wish the bump and run shot would come back into play a little more. To that point the tour has done a good job creating more chipping areas that bring options back into play.
18. It seems to the outside observer (or at least to me) that many of your peers on the PGA Tour only have a passing interest in course design. Do you feel that’s a fair statement, and if so, why do you think that is the case?
I feel that is a fair statement for sure. I think professional golf has changed so much in the last few decades. In my opinion, it’s become more of a business. We play for so much money these days (thank you Tiger) that a lot of players treat golf as work. For me, it has always been a passion so I have interest to play social golf with my friends when home. A lot of guys when they have a week off would rather practice and hit the gym. Maybe I should change my philosophy a bit.
19. There’s much discussion these days about how increasing length among professional players is rendering various classic courses “obsolete.” Do you agree with that sentiment?
There’s certainly some old courses that the best in the world would chew to pieces but that doesn’t make them obsolete as they are still incredibly fun to play. Also, firm fast conditions with tucked pins is plenty defense for any track.
20. In addition to firm playing surfaces, any other suggestions as to how to maintain the relevance of older courses (while steering clear of the downside that comes from five-inch rough, tree-choked fairways, or greens that stimp at 14)?
I am a fan of adding tee boxes where appropriate. The work that Crenshaw & Coore have done at Seminole has been fantastic. The new tees added there have truly kept the originally intended shot values. I do have a problem with courses that add ridiculous new tees just to give the guy that carries the ball 320 a hard time. There aren’t that many guys that have that capability to hit the ball that far and those new tees ruin the courses for the rest of us.
21. Is the Redan 8th at Old White an example of where an extended tee helps a hole play as it was intended? The Redan in the age of hickories was meant for something like a 3 or 4 iron at 185 yards and with the 8th now measuring 234 yards, is that about the club that you hit (thin air assisted)?
The tee box is a little too far back for me. There is a very narrow opening in the front of the green and I’m hitting anywhere from 5 iron to 3 iron. Usually I have an awkward birdie putt and I’m happy to walk away with par.
22. Any other suggestion of how to keep Golden Age courses relevant for hosting big events?
Smart fairway bunkering is a great way to make courses play harder. The 7th tee shot at Old White is a great example. The first bunker on the left is 230 to cover while the first bunker on the right is 260 to reach. Then there’s another bunker on the left that’s 300 to reach. No matter what club you choose you have to take on risk. Lay back off the tee and you’re faced with a longer second. Rip driver and you have to contend with the possibility of an 85 yard bunker shot.