Feature Interview with Kris Spence
August, 2017

1. How does your background in golf course maintenance and construction help you compete for projects?

Both backgrounds compliment my approach and understanding of golf architecture in multiple ways and the best way to answer the question is with a recent example. I interviewed at Sara Bay Country Club in Sarasota, Florida along with other architects for a possible restoration of the greens and bunkers to what was shown on the 1926 Ross drawings. The greens are severely domed from a previous renovation rendering 50 to 60% of the putting surfaces unusable for hole locations. The slopes radiating out from the center of the greens and down toward the edges range from 5 to 10%. With some investigative work, we discovered the root zone depth to be 24″ deep when only 10 to 12″ is needed. We took physical property samples of the root zone mix 12″ below the surface and found it to be perfectly suitable for the new Tifeagle greens. The value in this discovery will allow us to restore the greens without reconstructing them, saving the club over a half million dollars.

At the same time, reducing the center elevation 12 inches will restore a suitable slope range for hole locations between 1 and 3.2%. The Ross plans show rolling spines, tiers, small plateaus, swales and ridges, none of which exist today. We will reclaim those wonderful old Ross greens and features for a modest price compared to rebuilding them. The savings will be redirected to a more thorough restoration of the Ross bunkering shown on the drawings.

My background and experience played a vital role in my getting the project and also in developing practical and economic solutions to help Sara Bay restore its Ross course. Bob Gwodz, the GCS at Sara Bay, has been at the club for 32 years, I think. Not only will we work together on the restoration project, but I will consult with him going forward on better defined mowing patterns, improved bunker performance, tree management and approach firmness, all issues that I bring to the table from my background as a Green Keeper.

2. What are the pros and cons of owning and operating both the design and construction components of your business?

Let me say it was not always my intention to become a design – build architect, it came about through my frustration trying to get some contractors and shapers to put what I wanted on the ground. I had a pretty extensive background building and maintaining golf courses prior to hanging out my shingle. It seemed like the first 4 or 5 projects I did, I spent a great deal of time training or trying to convince the shaper how to implement my ideas.

After a while, I realized I was doing the selling, overseeing, training and they were making 2 or 3 times more money off my efforts than I was. Around the same time, my old boss, the former golf course superintendent at the Atlanta Athletic Club and Pinehurst Resort, Jim Ganley, was looking to step back from his design/construction company and agreed to help me get established with my own. Our first project together was Mimosa Hills, an original Ross course in here in North Carolina. That was 15 years and 50 projects ago.

The ‘pros’ start with having control over the finished product and being able to spend more time on the job. I’m hands on with design and construction, and like to get in the dirt, shape a little bit, look at the rough shaping from the golfer’s view and pass it through my visual filter. Plans are great but nothing beats getting out in the dirt during construction. At times I shape some of my own stuff, however, most of that falls on my Associate Jim Harbin. He is way more talented than I will ever be and has shaped golf courses all over the world.

The ‘con’ of owning both is the increased work load which is only a problem when I get busy. I like having a full plate and generally do, but at times, the added role of construction company owner can get overwhelming. I am slowly handing over more responsibilities to key employees.

As an aside, I enjoy ‘design only’ gigs too. Mooresville Golf Club was a project where we designed and shaped the job, Southeastern Golf followed us with construction and it was refreshing.

3. Given the paucity of new 18 hole designs, today’s opportunities largely lie in either restoration or renovation. What are the crucial ingredients for a successful restoration? I assume a key club member as champion of the project and a talented Green Keeper who buys into the work are two cornerstones? 

In my opinion, renovation and restoration are more restrictive and require more problem solving than building a course from scratch. Without question having a key member willing to be the point of the arrow is vital in a restoration. Someone on the team with a clear understanding of the club’s pulse is vital. Restoration is not as cut and dry as some want or think it should be. There are clubs that want the course put back just because it once was and others that want to make sure the course is adaptive to the current game and suitable to the current state of their membership.

Key members are a great source of information, as are digging into club archives and communicating with older members for information. At times, the architect doesn’t have access to that information and it can be missed. I have always felt that the members know where the nuisance lies, they play the course on a regular basis, they find the odd spots and experience the problem areas and can help bring them to light.

I haven’t experienced a successful restoration without a talented and dedicated Green Keeper. The GCS and his staff are the people who take my work and make it shine, quite honestly they make me look better than I probably am. The Green Keeper who has a strong interest in the architecture, the look, the character, how his course plays and how it should be maintained and preserved is the most valuable component to the longevity and success of any restorative effort.

4. Please provide an example whereby an influential member helped you get the absolute most out of the scope of a project.

Without question, Dunlop White III at Roaring Gap Club. Without D as I call him, that project doesn’t happen. We first met at the Gap to discuss some drainage and tie-in issues around the green edges and from that meeting, the seeds of a fantastic restoration were sown.

As we discussed the drainage and tie-in problems, I pointed to the original green edges and rolling undulations that were separated from the putting surfaces. Dunlop immediately recognized that putting a band-aid on it to solve a minor problem was not the answer and convinced the club to commission a Master Plan. Dunlop gathered aerials, ground level photographs, letters from Ross, old maps and talked to some of the older members to ascertain what Ross’s original course was like. He lobbied for the monies and commitment from the committee to support a restoration plan.

We then developed a written list of recommendations followed by drawings and sketches and got to work. The project started out with tree removal, bunker restoration and adding some new tees. The sheer volume of tree removal and peeling back the layers to restore the width of the holes was tenfold any prior experience for me. Dunlop had a vision for tree removal and opening of long vistas unlike anything I had experienced. I learned a great deal from him in that regard.

Going forward, most of the committee members were not that excited about a large scale restoration, mostly they wanted to address the small issues with drainage and move on. Dunlop was the one who built a consensus among the key members that a full scale restoration was in order and pushed it over the finish line. Dunlop and I have remained friends and I value his opinion a great deal. We communicate often on issues relating to not only the Gap but my other projects as well.

5. Please walk us through the green restoration process at Roaring Gap. 

The greens at RG were about 90 years old when the restoration occurred in 2014. From the time Ross constructed the greens in 1924, approximately 8 to 10” of sand and organic build-up from topdressing and growth had occurred, but only on the area being maintained as green. In essence, the area representing about 60 to 65% of the original Ross greens had increased in elevation by that amount while the non-maintained areas of the Ross green did not. This resulted in a raised circular domed pancake in the center of what was once squarish Ross greens with strategic hole locations in the corners and wonderful rolling undulations along the edges, none of which had been in play or part of the putting surfaces for well over 50 years.

From day 1, I insisted that we remove the “pancake” first before rebuilding the greens. The pancake profile was convex while the original Ross green had more of a concave shape. We exposed the original Ross putting surface, cleaned it off, checked the slopes and grades prior to coring down to reconstruct the green. In this manner, we reset the original Ross green elevation back to the 1924 level, thus eliminating the blocked surface drainage that started the whole process and restoring all of those wonderful outer hole locations near the fall-offs, bunkers and undulations. In addition, removal of the build-up material revealed the irregular horizon lines along the back edges and sides of the greens that Ross so often mentioned in his notes. Such horizon lines had been previously blocked from the player’s view by the raised pancake.

In hindsight, had we left the build-up in place and graded the raised green to taper down to the outer edges, it would have produced a set of crowned greens similar to what exists on the Pinehurst #2 course. We performed a very similar process in restoring the greens last year at Memphis CC, a 1915 Ross and will follow suit in 2018 at Sara Bay CC in Sarasota FL, a 1926 Ross.

Below are a couple schematic sketches to illustrate the process at Roaring Gap.

Overhead Sketch showing green expansion of 13th green at Roaring Gap.

RGC Cross Section for Removal of Build-Up.

6. I know we talked about this in the GolfClubAtlas Roaring Gap profile but tell us about the grassing of the greens. I have never heard of another club doing the same yet I think they would if they only knew about it.

Another unique element of the green restoration involved the preservation of their turf compositions — a native blend of 70% poa annua, 20% bent-grass and 10% mutations — which evolved this way over time. Dunlop and club officials wanted to retain the look and texture of these putting surfaces — giving their greens an old-fashioned, seasoned appearance that could only be created by Nature over time. So I decided to “recycle” their native poa-dominant turf compositions rather than fighting its invasive nature on an unblemished, clean bent-grass surface.

As a result, we stripped the green surfaces and stockpiled the sod to the side for re-use after re-construction. Since the new green perimeters were expanded to their original footprints, large amounts of additional sod would be needed. Superintendent Erik Guinther and I made certain of its availability by creating a 20,000 s.f. green nursery, which we harvested from aerification plugs the prior spring. Because the nursery germinated from their native poa-dominant green compositions, the turf supplementations during green expansion theoretically resembled the age-old native sod used on the rest of the course.

But in order to prevent the newly germinated sod from “clashing” with the old native sod on the expanded perimeters, we devised the following strategy. The additional sod needed for green expansion on the first hole would be borrowed from the green sod cut from second hole. The additional sod needed for green expansion on second hole would be borrowed from the green sod cut from the third hole. We kept borrowing from the greens ahead, until eventually there wasn’t any turf left to borrow.

At that point, the amount of sod needed to cover the remaining greens at Hole 7 – 9 would be taken directly from the 20,000 s.f. nursery. The rationale being that I wanted to use sod with the same maturities on the same green. While it may be obvious to distinguish old native turf from newly germinated nursery turf when laid next to each other, any differences in color, texture or maturity proved to be unnoticeable when utilized on separate greens. We successfully executed this process nine holes at a time over a two year period.

See pic(s) below…

The 15th green before …

…during construction ….

…and the finished product with all the interesting hole locations restored and the greenside bunkering reconnected with the putting surface.

7. How do you work with the Green Keeper to preserve and maintain the design long after your spadework is complete?

During the plan development and project construction I spend a great deal of time building an understanding with the Green Keeper about the architecture. It is very important that they are on board and understand the importance of the shapes, look, feel, character, angles, philosophies and playing characteristics of a classic golf course etc. Once the project is complete, the Green Keeper can call me anytime with  questions or issues. I usually stop by at least once a year, sometimes more if I’m travelling through the area.

The two most common issues where an ongoing relationship is needed are mowing lines and bunker maintenance. Mowing lines tend to migrate over several seasons and bunker sand is in a constant state of motion. Therefore, it is important to keep an eye on both.

Tree issues are also a routinely discussed item. No matter how hard we try to get all the trees down during the project, more tree work is always needed.

8. It is hard enough to build great golf, sometimes environmental challenges can make it seemingly unobtainable. Describe a couple of your more challenging environmental hurdles to date, including that of the woodpecker in Moore County, and how you handled the situations.

We use environmental consultants on a regular basis that guide us through the regulatory process. Even with their help, obstacles can greatly influence the final outcome of the design process. I have to admit that I sometimes let my frustration get the best of me when dealing with the out-of-control regulations. Some areas are worse than others, it’s part of the process. I for one love meandering streams or creeks in my work, it is damn near impossible to use an existing stream feature in golf design today unless it’s an artificial recirculating stream. Amen Corner would look different if Mackenzie had to design and build it today.

Most of the time, wetland or sediment control are our biggest challenges, but in the case of the Country Club of North Carolina, the Red Cockaded Woodpecker (a federally protected bird) was the major obstacle. CCNC is considered the most successful site in the world for preserving the habitat for this small and elusive bird. While I applaud their efforts in preserving this endangered bird, their presence and the restrictive regulations were difficult to design around. Not only do you need to avoid the nest trees, but tree cover in their cluster groups greatly restricts tree removal for shade removal and/or relocating a green or bunker etc. Both came into play on the Dogwood Course renovation preventing the relocation of the 18th green where I wanted to add 25 yards to a 510 yard par 5 and shifting the 11th tees left for a better tee shot line. They also impacted the placement of several fairway bunkers and tree removal in widening playing corridors.

On the Lake Toxaway project, we were building a golf course along class 1 trout streams and lakes under heavy oversight and regulation. Sediment and erosion control were restrictive and limited us to clear, construct and grass 25 acres at a time. We could not proceed to the next 25 acres until the previous section was fully grassed and stabilized. Not only did it add a great deal of time to the construction schedule, but it added significant cost to the project. In the end, we didn’t have a single violation from start to finish which is something I’m proud of. My design of the 18th hole at Toxaway called for 2 fairway bunkers, filling in a pond and restoration of a creek. The last two months of the project it rained everyday just enough to prevent grading work due to the regulations. I was finally forced to give up and to this day (10 years later!), those two bunkers have not been built or the pond removed.

9. There is restoration and there is renovation and you renovated Lake Toxaway Country Club in 2008 to acclaim. What prompted you to essentially reverse the routing of the course?

In a nutshell, I couldn’t produce quality golf using the old routing. The owner’s father and golf professional routed the original course to maximize real estate value. Quality of the golf holes took somewhat of a back seat. Many of the holes turned at 600’ with an equal or greater distance from the landing area to the green sites. Several holes featured blind tee shots where the fairway turned forcing the player to dramatically cut the corner or end up in someone’s dining room through the dogleg.

One day while walking the course during plan development, I decided to play the front nine (now back) backward with a 4 iron to see if it would produce better golf. Before I teed off, I committed to change the direction if I made it back to the clubhouse in decent fashion. Obviously I made it back and knew that was the direction the course needed to go. I also flipped the first two holes on the other side for a total of 9 holes reversed. I ran it by the Director of Golf Lou Biago who loved it, we then pitched it to the owner Reg Heinish who loved the idea and gave us the go ahead.

10. Talk to us about the scope of your work at Cape Fear Country Club in Wilmington.

Cape Fear was a Ross course that had undergone several redesigns over its history including holes added, two holes eliminated for clubhouse expansion and parking lots. A remodel effort in the 80’s by George Cobb also altered several holes. The course was originally designed by Ross in 1926 and he (Ross/McGovern) later returned in 1946 to replace 5 holes eliminated by the construction of a major roadway. Ross / McGovern drew up a new set of plans for all 18 holes which we used as a guideline in restoring the remaining holes. The clubhouse had been placed in the middle of the old 18th fairway and 10th hole with two new Myrtle Beach style holes built on the far side of the property. They were using the old 17th as the finishing hole and driving in to the clubhouse from there.

My goal was to restore as much of the original Ross as possible and bring the course back to the clubhouse area. This required shifting the 2nd hole to the right about 70’ or so which allowed for a short drivable par 4 18th going back to the old 18th green site. I added a new 150 yard par 3 14th by filling a portion of irrigation pond. This provided just enough room for a new pedestal greensite and turned the golf course back toward the clubhouse completing the current routing.

We used the detailed Ross green plans and cross sections to restore most of the greens and bunkers.