Feature Interview with Mike Cirba
Walk us through the steps that led to your fascination in golf course architecture.
If there is such a thing as love at first sight, it occurred for me July 13th, 1971 when I stepped onto the first green of Scott View Golf Course in Montdale, PA , nine days before my 13th birthday.
I grew up in a lower-middle class town in northeastern PA near Scranton. My sports-loving father had interested us in baseball and football but I missed pitching another year of Little League by eight days and now at age 12 advanced to the “Teener League” of kids 13 to 15, many of whom were already shaving. In football, I quickly had grown tall and skinny and was getting my head handed to me and spending a lot of time riding the bench in both sports. I also tried basketball around that time but I ran like a truck and had a 2-inch vertical leap so that wasn’t going particularly well.
A few of my older friends went to play golf one day at the urging of the “rich kid” up the street whose dad actually had a white collar job processing claims in the unemployment office and I was mystified. “Why would you want to play an “old man sport””, I teased them. At the time, I truly hadn’t the slightest idea how the game was played and considered it something like croquet.
One of them patiently pulled out the scorecard and on the front was a hand-drawn map of the course. He began explaining, “On this hole you have to hit it over a pond and on this one it turns around the woods”, and so forth. “You get a bunch of different clubs to try to hit the ball with depending on what you’re trying to do and you just keep hitting it until it goes in the hole.” I was intrigued enough that the next time they went to play I came along.
We rented clubs and bought a few balls from the lady in the little shack that served as the clubhouse and set off. I had little idea what I was doing but by the time I reached the 1st green 385 yards in eight swings I was enthralled. Also…what was THIS? I couldn’t believe the rolling, pitching surface on which I now stood was actually GRASS! I rolled it a few times with the flat club and walked off my first hole ever with an 11, and proceeded gleefully to the 2nd tee.
And wow, this was an entirely different hole with different requirements and challenges…and so it went hole after hole across the rough-hewn landscape that had been a former farm. Now, seemingly without much effort except to cut some grass, dig some holes, and pop in a few flagsticks it was a 2,200 yard, par 34 golf course where an annual membership cost the exorbitant sum of $35. Better yet from my perspective, I didn’t need a coach to put me in the game, I could play with my friends or by myself, and within a few weeks I was hooked. My dad would drive us to the course at daybreak before going to work and stop to pick us up afterwards. Looking back, it probably added a good 30 minutes each way to his daily commute.
He worked filling orders in a “Harper & Row” book warehouse, had never played but during the early 1950s he supervised prisoners doing maintenance on the golf course of the Officer’s Club at Fort Meade, MD. One day upon arriving he came over near the first tee where we were waiting and asked to see one of my left-handed rental clubs and tried hitting a few balls. That was the beginning of his new love, as well, and it gave us something to share and commiserate over the next forty-some years of his life until he passed at age 85.
My friends and I (and two brothers) would go around and around the nine holes of Scott View, and once my dad started playing he’d join us after work. One day we played 81 holes, stopping between rounds in the little clubhouse to get a Coke and if it was near lunchtime, to get a Stewart Sandwich heated in the convection oven. At the time they tasted like the best thing I’d ever eaten. There were also some magazines strewn across the one table and one day I picked up a Sports Illustrated with the racehorse Canonero II on the cover (who had lost the Belmont Stakes trying for the Triple Crown) and inside came across a preview article for the 1971 U.S. Open titled “The Ghosts of Merion”.
The article included color photos of holes on the Merion course with black-and-white historical images superimposed atop them, indicating where famous golf events had taken place on that course. I was captivated. Merion to me looked like Heaven, and started my life-long sentimental journey although I couldn’t know that at the time.
Sometime that late fall I played my second course called Wemberly Hills, another makeshift farmland course that was considerably longer than my first and we must have gone there because it was open despite having patches of unmelted snow throughout. (As an aside, the owner/architect was a self-professed psychic and warlock, practicing the dark arts. Most architects are not so unabashedly honest!)
It seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time I remember being surprised that every single hole on this course was somehow different than every single hole on the first course I played. Wemberly Hills even had a few sand pits scattered about!
Then we played another, an 18 hole course called Shadowbrook and a nine-holer called Wiscasset and I soon found I loved the discovery process of seeing, experiencing (smells, sounds) and playing a different golf course. Probably because we’d try to play in all types of weather (as long as the course was open) it also was formative in my thinking that golf should be an adventure, a man v. nature type of deal where you had to try and overcome whatever each day presented to the best of your abilities.
The early courses I played didn’t have much in the way of irrigation systems so on most approach shots you had to figure out where to land the ball short of the greens to have a chance of staying on. There was no expectation that the ball should somehow just “stop” where it landed and that made sense to me because the ball was, in fact, quite round and solid.
I remember the time I saw a “real” golf course. We were out on a family drive and saw sign for “Wilkes-Barre Municipal Golf Course”, so of course my dad took the detour and parked the car. It was a Geoffrey Cornish design, mostly carved out of the woods, and featured 72 bunkers and several water hazards. We walked to the 10th tee and looked out at a 570 yard par five with multiple sets of tees and clover-shaped bunkers strewn across the landscape in the distance. We stood there jaws agape.
That same day we also drove a bit further south (In retrospect, I have to think my dad had this all planned out on his unsuspecting wife) and came to Le Chateau GC (today Mountain Laurel, also a Cornish design) and again got out of the car to see, astoundingly, that the short downhill 10th hole had wonder of wonders an island green! It was as if we had driven to Xanadu. We grabbed scorecards from each of these courses and I read them over and over as if they were Holy Writ.
Because I had collected baseball and football cards as a kid, it seemed natural to also collect a scorecard from each course I played, not the one I kept score on but a pristine one. To this day I’ve been able to collect a card from every course I’ve played, now totaling 1,103. I store them alphabetically but wish sometimes I had done so chronologically. Either way, they are a nice trip down memory lane.
Around this same time we started going on a week vacation to Brigantine, NJ, just outside of Atlantic City. There was a Stiles/Van Kleek course built in the 20s on the barrier island and the hotel we stayed at provided free passes. My dad would wake us while it was still dark so we could try to get in 36 holes before we overstayed our absence to my mom and grandmother at the beach. We’d wake up this poor hotel manager/owner who would come downstairs to his shop with his hair all disheveled to give us our passes and I recall he did not look happy. It was my first time playing what I’ll call “seaside golf” with no trees and a lot of natural sand underfoot, and almost always a healthy breeze by late morning. The advertising materials stated that Hagen & someone else used to play here before going to the British Open, which I guess is possible, but it’s a cool, understated course I enjoy to this day.
We would normally eat at the local diner during these vacations but each year we’d make one “special” trip to a fancy restaurant. My dad at that time was in his early 40s and likely having a bit of a midlife crisis because he had bought himself a brand new, solid orange 1972 Chevy Malibu (no air conditioning and black interior), into which he’d pack SIX (6) of us each year with four sets of clubs and a week’s worth of luggage somehow. We’d inevitably get lost driving to Brigantine each year, one year seeing all of the best parts of rough neighborhoods in Philadelphia with the windows rolled up.
Anyway, we’re driving to this fancy restaurant and suddenly on our left we see this palatial, amazing white building but our eyes quickly darted to our right where we see what appears to be an equally amazing golf course. Screeechhhh, went the brakes. My dad turns around the car over the protests of my mother and finds a little road and starts down it. Spotting a break in the hedgerow, my dad makes a left turn which I later learned that Clarence Geist had built so he could drive around and spy on his members at Seaview Country Club, at the time an exclusive enclave. My mom is now about apoplectic, but my dad has a question on his mind he needs answered. He drives the six of us through the fairway and we arrive at a very tall, Wilt Chamberlain-looking fellow in white coveralls carrying two bags. My dad rolls down the window and asks, “Is this a public course?” Wilt rolls his eyes, and responds firmly, “No sir.”
My mom is now flipping out. Me, I’m looking at the cool bunkering with my mouth watering. My dad backs the car up about 250 yards and we go to dinner.
As your knowledge of golf course architecture grew, did your scoring improve?
Hmmm…probably not in the way I’m assuming that the question is asked.
My dad often brought home books that had defects, and when he noticed my/our interest in golf he brought home a book by Jack Nicklaus titled, “The Greatest Game of All” published in 1969. The book chronicled his life and career replete with photos, and then included a lengthy instructional section, with the last section titled “Some Thoughts on Golf Architecture”.
I learned to play the game without any formal lessons, but simply through trial and error reading this book and I improved rapidly. Not that it came easy…I’d spend almost any moment of free time in my back yard swinging and chipping balls. By my sophomore year I was good enough to make our golf team and made the regional All-Star team my Junior and Senior years, finishing High School with an overall record of 26-4-4 and our team won over 60 straight league matches. In our Football crazy school, that achievement (and the fact we even had a golf team) went omitted in my High School Yearbook, but alas…
Looking back, it wasn’t the instruction in the book that had the biggest impact on me (although at times I do still have the “flying elbow”) but instead some of the golf course photographs inside. Most notably, there was a picture taken from above/behind the 18th green at Muirfield as Nicklaus closed out his 1966 British Open victory, and if I looked at that photo once, I looked at it 1,000 times. The clean, uncluttered landscape, the bunkers that started at ground level went down into what seemed to be shadowy graves; the green that seemed unfurled without pretense from the natural terrain was simply mown shorter. To me it was pure natural beauty; the equivalent of golf pornography. The architecture chapter included photos of the 18th at Pebble Beach, the 16th at Augusta National, and again, the puzzling angles of the 11th at Merion East. These and other photographs in the book stirred my imagination as to the art of the possible.
That book was followed in 1972 by “Golf Magazine’s Encyclopedia of Golf” which included maps and black-and-white photos of various great courses, and in 1974 my father brought home our first coffee-table golf course book, “Great Golf Courses of the World”, by William H. Davis and the Editors of Golf Digest” which was just chock-full of golf course photographs and profiles in vivid color. Over time, I literally wore the cover off that book, and almost knew its contents word for word.
One of the articles in the front of that book was a reprint of a Herbert Warren Wind article titled, “The Architect Makes a Golf Course Great”, which was probably my first foray into understanding the relationship and thinking between the creator of a golf course and a particular piece of Mother Nature. It was fascinating in my formative thinking about the process and options; it was also about the time I made the connection that of any and all games around the world, golf was the only one with a infinite variety based solely on the setting and particular environment of any particular course. Every other sport basically has to operate within certain pre-defined parameters but golf courses offered almost limitless possibilities.
My interest was solidified with subscriptions to Golf Magazine and Golf Digest. Like most of my generation, I would skip the (instruction) articles and focus solely and excitedly on the (golf course) pictures!
What was your favorite set of clubs from the last century? What was the composition of clubs?
It’s funny, but back in the late 1980s I knew I was going to buy one of those new metal headed Taylor-Made drivers with the dimples on them and I can recall my last round playing a wooden-headed driver I absolutely striped every tee shot I hit that day. Conversely, my first-round a week or so later with the metal-head was awful.
Perhaps that’s the reason that until recently I was somewhat of a Luddite regarding staying up with golf-club technology and it was until a couple of years back that I finally ditched my 1988 Taylor-Made blades (2 through PW) for some 1998 Mizuno Irons that fellow-Mollydooker Dr. Geoffrey Childs kindly gave me to try quite some time back.
However, as I approached age 60 about 18 months back I determined to treat myself and actually went to get a club fitting from professional Rick Kline at Sittler’s Golf Center in Kutztown, PA and picked up some sweet Titleist AP-3 irons (3-iron through Gap Wedge). I know they are slightly longer and have straighter faces but when I hit them right the ball never comes down and I don’t think I’ve been over as many greens in my life as I have these past 18 months or so, but it’s been rejuvenating to my game.
Somehow, I also won a Long-Drive contest in a scramble this past year with about 180 people in the field, with many less than half my age. My buddy Joe Bausch can vouch for that minor miracle. I credit daily workouts and my late life embrace of technology.
That being said, I have lots of old clubs from my mom’s basement including a number of them from my first “real set” of clubs, a 1972 Jack Nicklaus “Golden Bear” full-set including matching bag I got for Christmas late that same year. I brought the 3-iron with me to Scotland to play my 1000th course at Muirfield , figuring I might need to scuttle some balls along the ground in the wind, but also as a romantic tribute to my father who would have been simply delighted. The next day after Muirfield I hit that club from the tee just outside Mrs. Forman’s Inn on the par three 5th at Old Musselburgh Links to 15 feet and made birdie. Such is all of our connection to the centuries past and present playing this wonderful and timeless game.
What’s in the bag today and how do you use technology to fight back Father Time?
As much as I rail against how technology has made our great classic courses largely defenseless and too short against the best players in the game, I’m now officially a hypocrite in that regard and hit the ball further than I did in the 1970s and 1980s in my teens and twenties. Of course, due to lifestyle (diet and exercise) changes, I’m probably in better shape now at age 60 then I was then.
I have basically used the same putter, some version of Odyssey, for at least the past 15 or 20 years although I should probably upgrade there, as well, particularly with a wider grip. I just figure I’ve had great putting days with that club so if there’s a problem any given day, it’s likely between my ears.
All of that being said, I think George Crump was correct back in 1917 when he came out in favor of a standardized ball for competition, and I’m also in favor of other limitations on technology going forward (i.e. lengths, materials, etc). A game dependent on so much of the earth’s acreage on a shrinking planet with finite resources is inevitably going to be on the wrong side of history and a game where the balls and implements aren’t effectively controlled within certain parameters befitting the challenge is similarly going to become antiquated, much as that may seem counter-intuitive. The game is supposed to be HARD. It’s supposed to be an adventure of man versus nature as well as against oneself and any competition. It is supposed to reflect our weaknesses and limitations as a human species and our constant striving for perfection despite our mortal limitations. That’s where the FUN comes in, again, perhaps counter-intuitively.
What does Cobb’s Creek mean to you and to Philadelphia?
To everyone involved with the project, I’d say Love. Community. Obsession. Persistence. Legacy. Sport as a positive change agent. Giving back to the game that has given us so much.
I’m proud to think that this all began here on GolfClubAtlas back in the fall of 2007 with a simple attempt to learn more about the original routing of this storied course as well as trying to understand what if any role Hugh Wilson had in its genesis. I had reached out to the Hagley Museum in Delaware via email some weeks prior to see if they had anything in their “Dallin Collection” of aerial photography and one day, lo and behold, an email response with 8 aerial photos from the 1920s and 1930s appears in the my inbox. I start a thread and voila!, guys like Joe Bausch and Geoff Walsh, Steve Shaffer, and many others jump in emphatically and a few months later we’re sitting in City Hall naively suggesting to Fairmount Park officials that we want to restore Cobb’s Creek Golf Course because we have seen the absolute genius of the original routing and we know it could be restored. Joe Bausch set out on a one man mission to research all the early news articles on microfiche at Villanova University and proves not only the architectural and construction involvement of Hugh Wilson, but learns that he was part of a committee that included George Crump, Ab Smith (first Philly Amateur Champ and tour de force at Huntingdon Valley), Franklin Meehan, and George Klauder of Aronimink. These guys were all appointed by Robert Lesley, President of GAP, because they had prior experience in architecture and course construction at their own clubs and they offered to do it “for the love of the game”. William Flynn who was Superintendent at Merion at the time shaped the greens. Soon to be “Captain” George Thomas was hanging around learning and The Old Man Walter Travis came by to assist in the later stages. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
The link to the original collaborative GCA discussion can be found here: https://golfclubatlas.com/forum/index.php/topic,31872.0.html
The course was built with the same general philosophy prevalent in Philadelphia at the time that sprung forth Merion East and Pine Valley. Basically, the idea was that to create and foster champion-level golfers, the city needed Championship level golf courses. When we go out there today we still marvel at the audacity of the architects; how people played there with hickory is almost unimaginable. When the 1928 US Publinks was played there the Championship Medal score for two days was 8 over par. It was a ball buster and it relied almost entirely on the use of the existing terrain with very little artificial ever created.
I took Joe’s articles and put a chronological narrative around it and we published a free little book (that is now in its 12th Edition at over 400 pages!) to try and get the word out and generate interest in our vision. It got into the right hands with folks who could help get this thing funded and it’s a very exciting time for all of us.
As far as what this means to Philadelphia, I’d say that the restoration would be part of the sporting renaissance that’s been happening within the city these past few years. Heck, if the Eagles can win the Super Bowl then anything is possible. I can’t tell you the number of people in the area who have written us expressing interest in how they can help, and what the course meant to them, or their father, or uncle, and the stories are so rich and vibrant. And when you walk the golf course, I defy you to tell me you can’t feel the ghosts out there!
It is the course that fully expresses the idea of the “City of Brotherly Love” for unlike almost every other course in the country at the time it never had any restrictions in terms of race, religion, gender, and was always an inclusive melting pot of the residents of the city and its surrounding communities.
We’re fairly convinced that the founders located the land of the course via train ride, as the same train runs past the course from Philadelphia up to Merion Golf Club. When my wife and I went to the final round of the 2013 U.S. Open we parked down at the 69th Street Station and took that train ride past Cobb’s Creek to a station adjacent to the 12th green at Merion. I had goosebumps the whole ride.
I could go on all day on this topic but I’d just add that Gil Hanse & Jim Wagner generously put together a detailed Master Plan pro bono that we’re hoping becomes a reality.
Please update us about the Friends of Cobb’s Creek and where things stand on work to the course.
Last June Philadelphia City Council voted 17-0 approving a long-term lease of the golf course to the non-profit foundation that has been created for the purpose of restoring and maintaining the course in perpetuity. The model is more like East Lake than Bethpage, with the exception of Cobb’s Creek being a public course. The restoration of the golf course would simply be the attraction and the keystone for a set of educational and community programs that have the potential to directly benefit the city and surrounds. The restoration would have significant environmental benefits, as well.
Describe a favorite one shotter, two shotter and three shotter within a 100 mile drive of your house.
Well, I’m 1.5 hours to downtown Philadelphia and about 2 hours from Manhattan so that’s not a fair question in terms of architectural riches and almost impossible to narrow down. So to close off the Cobb’s Creek portion of this thread, I’ll describe three NLE holes on the golf course I hope to play some day.
For a par three, the 12th was a drop shot of a mere 130 yards to a heart-shaped green that was one of the first island greens in the country. The green was back-dropped by the railroad tracks and the hills of the Philadelphia Electric Company golf course just behind. The hole provided a balanced break between two long, testing par fives and the tee is still visible with a walk in the woods.
The par four 6th hole was cited by Joe Dey in a series of the 18 most challenging holes in the Philadelphia region. From a tee just behind Cobb’s Creek the first 150 yards rise 80 feet to a hilltop that gently swings to the right along a ridge falling away on that side. The hole was the architects’ brilliant solution to get from the low point of that section of the property to the high point in one bold stroke. The largest bunker on the course used to sit in an upslope about 50 yards short of the green that provided multiple options on the approach. When we first walked the original routing with Jim Wagner we got to the top of the hill and he stated, “This is sort of like the 18th at Riviera”, at which point we felt some validation that we weren’t completely nuts.
The original 11th was a par five of 510 yards with the second shot to an elevated, narrow, angled green sitting along a ledge steeply falling to the right. Today two holes are squeezed into what was the original fairway and you had the option of taking the low road or the high road on your second shot. It bears some resemblance to the 15th at Bethpage, only better with more options, and would likely be a par four in competitions and a five for everyday mortal play.
When did you first go to the United Kingdom? How did you plan your itinerary – what sources did you use? What resources will you use to plan your next trip?
My roommate in college became an expatriate American living in London. Actually, I stayed with him and a friend in Upper Darby in late 1981 which is the first time I played Cobb’s Creek just across the street from his apartment and even then I knew it was special. But anyhoo, he was bartending at a restaurant on the Main Line and I got a job as a valet parking attendant even though I didn’t know how to drive a stick. He was a natural comedian and had learned some magic in college, so he saved his tips to take a month long vacation in Ireland that turned into a lifetime abroad.
I went over to visit him a few years later and we went touring up to Liverpool and to Edinburgh without any real plan. He was a once in a great while golfer and he knew I was fairly obsessed so we did sort of plan to swing by St. Andrews and play at some point. On the drive we stopped at a place called Beacon County Park to play north of Liverpool and it was a low-key little public course in a village.
One lovely summer evening we were driving out from Edinburgh along the coast and without any idea of where I was I see a sign and driveway indicating the H.C.E.G. and I asked him to turn down that way. We parked the car and walked through an open gate and there it was…Muirfield…the green ribbons of fairway, the fescues blowing in the breeze, the sea glistening in the distance. Valhalla.
I had my camera and we began walking and taking pics down past the 18th green with the grass island in the right bunker, peering to our left down the impossibly long stretch of the 1st hole, the cross bunker on 10 in the distance…until our dream state was interrupted about 100 yards later with someone barking, “Hey, you can’t be out here!”
Sheepishly, we slunk away back to our car. The walk must have inspired my roommate, however, because a few miles up the road he turned to me and said, “It’s really nice out and I feel like playing golf. Let’s just stop at the next course we see.” It turned out to be North Berwick, which I knew little about at the time.
I still marvel at that. Of all of the courses in the world just to happen upon, can you imagine stumbling upon THAT??! Anyway, we had a lovely evening doing the magical out and back and discovering that incredible stretch of way more fun than humans should be allowed to have.
Two days later he stayed in the pub while I tried my luck as a single on The Old Course. It was about 50 degrees, raining sideways, two other Americans quit on the 10th tee and went back, and a fellow from San Francisco who was about as nuts as me and I continued on soaked to the bone, suffering from exposure and laughing at ourselves. Somehow I hit a head high 3-iron into a howling wind on 11 and sank a 30 foot uphill putt that jumped about a foot above the hole before falling back straight in and I let out a primal scream across the River Eden. The game does that to folks.
So much for planning.
You wrote glowingly of Gullane No. 1 after your most recent trip and like most Americans, you were clearly thrilled with your trip overall. You then come home to an area where you are surrounded by great golf BUT the game is played much slower and more expensive. Yet no one seems to do anything about either. Do you think Americans have just resigned themselves to that form of golf? If you were Czar of American Golf, what three things would you change?
If heaven isn’t like Gullane I won’t be going. Sure, Muirfield may be a better course architecturally in most people’s estimation and more of a challenge as vouched for by its tournament history but good lord, what more do you need than the glory of Gullane and it sure beats searching for balls in the knee-deep hay.
That trip actually did take a lot of planning. For a lot of sentimental reasons I had determined to play Muirfield for my 1000th course and since that took booking well in advance, when I made my reservation at my wife’s urging in July 2015 for October 22, 2015 I knew I had to be at precisely 999 courses played going into that day.
A thread I started on GCA led to a meeting with a fantastic fellow named Gordon who sometimes posts here and he traveled extensively and offered to join me and drive on the wrong side of the road for us. He arranged for us to fly into Manchester, play Alwoodley (brilliant) on the drive to Edinburgh for 999, and then join another local GCAer Michael Graham for lunch at Muirfield with 36 holes in 50mph winds sandwiched around it. The golf gods indeed have a wicked sense of humor but we had a blisteringly good time, despite their best efforts to discourage us.
The next day Gordon and I played Renaissance Club, Musselburgh Links, and Gullane #1 where Martin Bonnar met us for a glorious walk and dinner in the old clubhouse near the children’s course. Yes, I ate the Haggis. Could a day possibly be better than that? Hardly.
We drove back to England and stayed at the Dormie House in Lytham. The forecast called for some “weather” later that morning so we hoped to be first out at crack of dawn and prepared accordingly. When we arrived at the tee we were told that a fivesome of members had preference and our hearts sank a little bit imagining spending a lot of time waiting. We never saw them again after the 3rd hole. In fact, in the rounds we played over there the longest was the morning round at Muirfield that took 3 hours in those high winds. The par three 7th was the backup culprit as it was virtually unplayable into the teeth of the gale.
But to get to your question, Ran, the three things I’d change in American golf would be…
Slow Play, Slow Play, and Slow Play. I am in favor of the death penalty for any rounds over four hours and consider it a form of theft. Is there anything more precious than time, and anyone who carelessly or cavalierly does so steals time, enjoyment, interest, and the lifeblood of the game from others sharing the course? Architecture and Maintenance both play a key role here in both the problem and solution(s), I believe. At its heart, golf is a simple game, or at least it should be. But consider that we’ve taken the primitive idea of using a stick to hit a rock across a field towards a tiny target as efficiently as possible and think about what’s happened.
First, we need to squeeze every bit of technological advance into both the stick and the rock, annually if you believe the marketing. We wouldn’t want to tire at this pursuit, so we ride around in mechanized cars zooming from shot to shot, often along wide concrete cart paths that are better maintained than Pennsylvania highways. We have this perception that the entire golf course area needs to be watered almost continuously and maintained as if it were the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Oh yes…at different lengths as well, and like the old Reese’s Cup commercial, there’s hell to pay if you get your poa onto my bent grass. We need yardage markers, and GPS locators, and rangefinders and yardage books and most recently, green mapping to read putts on greens running 13.5 on the Stimpmeter.
All this technology and how far the ball flies of course demands bigger and bigger golf courses, across larger and larger plots of land. I’ve yet to see someone in a cart playing faster than a group walking unless it’s a single playing on an empty course. I’ve also yet to see yardage aids speed play. If you’re good enough to need to know it’s exactly 147 yards to cover the bunker and another 17 feet to the hole you should be playing on my television. And wall to wall soft maintenance of the golf course means the average guy is fixing ball marks in the fairways not getting sufficient roll to his or her shots that don’t have sufficient carry in the first place, despite this year’s latest model driver. And get this; because we can now make our greens putt so fast most of our members routinely 3-putt (if they actually putt out) so now we need to assess your dues because we need an architect to come in and “soften them”.
Further, I love Bunker Porn as much as the next guy, but c’mon. We’ve reached the point where the latest designs are almost expected to have “the look”, with ragged, torn minefields of “natural looking” bunkers trenched out in random, yet strategic patterns across the landscape. I agree…they are cool. But think of their playability for the average guy. By the time he takes a couple of swings and then rakes the 30 yards or so he’s traversed in the bunker his cart-partner is waiting on the path on the other side of the fairway and now browsing Facebook to post that they’re playing the latest great links course built in Indiana. Truly, I’m beginning to see the value in courses where bunkers are only used as the last strategic resort where the land doesn’t naturally hold much golfing interest.
Is this progress? Is this sustainable? Is this how young folks want to spend their free time? I think not.
I also think we need to encourage way more women to get in the game because like Alice Dye, they are way more intelligent and practical than we are. They also control the family purse and schedule in terms of where dollars and time are spent so if we aren’t appealing to them we’re just a bunch of old guys dying off playing an overcomplicated, overly – expensive game.
What aspects most please you about the American golf scene today?
What’s that? Did you say something?
Seriously, I’m not all Gloomy Gus. I actually believe there is another renaissance of golf coming and I can see it in some of the younger guys and younger architects. You’ll hear a lot about the term sustainability in coming decades and that will be economic, environmental, and engagement. Lots of new things will be tried and golf will come back to the major population centers because that’s where the people will migrate back to over time and they will demand it. The need for green spaces will dictate it as an option. The need for healthy enjoyment or whatever Doctor Mackenzie called it will make it a natural extension of our cities of the future. Golf will return to the cities and people will play it in droves. They will turn off and turn away from their insular electronic devices and their imaginary, virtual reality games and run from their offices and fast food joints and breath the fresh air and interact with nature again as only golf can best provide.
You are 60 years old. What role did television play in getting/maintaining your interest in the sport growing up?
I turned sixty last summer. Inexplicable, really. When I was younger I could have been voted most likely to be found dead in a hotel room before age 30. I firmly believe that it was the time I spent on the golf course that saved my life because when I wasn’t on the course I wasn’t my own best friend and spent a lot of time doing 1970s style-stuff that was not having a positive influence on my life.
Golf on television when I was a kid was a much more condensed product than what you have today with often just the last four holes televised and it was the era of Jack Nicklaus. He was my first golf hero and I recall watching Trevino stealing the Grand Slam from him (and Jacklin) at Muirfield in 1972. This was a month after his stoke of lightning one-iron hit the flagstick at Pebble Beach. Even then I loved seeing the courses and that was the preeminent thing to me…the competition just highlighted the golf courses.
Has that changed today?
I still watch to see the golf course, primarily. Sometimes the dramatics of the tournament get interesting, as well, particularly if the setting and contestants come together in a significant way but there are so many great players who just kill the ball and it’s tough to relate to guys hitting short irons into par fives. There was a time when you’d think, “I could hit that shot”, maybe not as consistently, but you understood the game they were playing. Those days are gone and more’s the pity.
I don’t watch nearly as much tournament golf as I used to on television, despite the 24 hour non-stop cycle on today’s Golf Channel. There is something artificial and antiseptic in way too much of it and so much of the programming is transparently hawking product or otherwise commercialized. Plus, “He’s putting for another birdie to go -24 and take solo 3rd place”, just doesn’t ring my bell but admittedly it can be a great nap inducer.
For those such as yourself that live above the Mason-Dixon line, you may have only just started playing golf again for the season by the second week of April. Tell us what the Master means to you.
That’s the case some wicked winters, but we like to play in the winter here when we’re able. I’ve been out this year six times already. Recall that most of the courses in southern New Jersey were built for Philadelphia golfers to be able to play on sandy loam that drains better than the clay around Philly, and the weather is generally more temperate.
Interestingly, of the six rounds I’ve played on 5 courses this past three months, I just realized that all were built before 1930 and include Cobb’s Creek (twice), Seaview, Atlantic City Country Club, Greate Bay (formerly Ocean City CC), and Ed Oliver (DE), formerly Wilmington CC. The architects involved include Hugh Wilson, George Crump, Donald Ross, William Flynn, Tom Doak, Wilfred Reid, Willie Park, et.al. Not a bad winter, all things considered.
I’d be lying if I denied that there is something special about the Masters and the renewal of spring. Back in 2005 my brother and I took my dad (who had a heart attack and quadruple bypass a year or so prior) to a practice round and considering his health thought we’d probably just get a bleacher seat somewhere and watch the players come through.
That day, my father seemed to lose 20 years and insisted on following Tiger, and Freddy, and so forth such that we saw every hole and must have walked ten miles. We saw Tiger make back to back eagles on 8 & 9 and Vijay Singh turn his club upside down and play a 150 yard approach on 18 left-handed to 10 feet and we saw contestants trying to skip the ball across the water on 16 and it was a day I’ll never forget.
We can all rightfully bemoan the wall to wall over-conditioning, the planting of trees, the loss of Mackenzie’s original course, the annual Frankensteinian lengthening and modifying of the course, and the “first cut”, but there’s no denying there is still something special there.
Just try to replay Jack’s back nine in 1986 without goosebumps and tears…
Has your enjoyment altered in watching it over the decades? If so, how/why?
Yes, and here’s where I’ll rightfully bemoan the wall to wall over-conditioning, the planting of trees, the loss of Mackenzie’s original course, the annual Frank…you get the idea. Strangely, all of those changes have led to an interesting cast of champions in recent years. It’s hard to argue that only bombers can win there now and the old guys still seem to have a chance so that balance is still nice to see.
You work in Allentown, PA and are surrounded by classic courses in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Which three restorations near-ish you do you most admire and why?
Philly Cricket for the amazing tree-clearing and bunker restoration, although I’m not a big proponent of USGA spec greens replacing their old pushup greens as they seem to lose subtleties. It’s a superb golf course and a great mix of fun and challenge and their membership is thriving.
Sleepy Hollow is a marvel. I played it this again this past fall and had no idea that the club had asked Gil to re-do the greens in the style of Macdonald/Raynor and they are splendiferous. If you can’t enjoy your round there you may as well quit the game.
Three others I really like off the beaten path are the work done at Schuylkill Country Club (nine by Willie Park, nine by Donald Ross), Valley Country Club (Tillinghast), and Lulu CC (Meehan & Ross). The first two are old coal town clubs that have been restored lovingly on very limited budgets, and everyone who plays Lulu loves it, although it tends to get lost in the wealth of Philadelphia golf choices.
Which course near you would most benefit from a restoration (excluding Cobb Creek)?
I’m a muni rat at heart and I think I’ve probably played more United States municipal courses than anyone. Most of them never had enough money to screw things up from their original Golden Age designs and just need some refurbished capital to improve infrastructure, conditioning, and clean up the clutter to shine again. They did a fantastic job up in Boston recently with restoration efforts at George Wright and Franklin Park and both of those courses are now civic assets and golfing gems.
One that jumps immediately to mind is Francis Byrne GC in West Orange, NJ, that was sold off many moons ago from Essex Country Club and has Tillinghast and Charley Banks bones. George Bahto used to go on and on about the Raynor’s Prized Dogleg whose remains are still there and that course could be really something with some TLC.
Timber Point on the south shore of Long Island is a restorable Charles Alison course I’d love to see restored and I’d like to see Tom Doak get the chance to restore Tillinghast’s Shawnee to its original routing because the old photos look astounding. My wife and I eat at an amazing Thai restaurant near there regularly so we’ve spent a lot of time on the property envisioning the original. Both of these courses were turned from 18 to 27 holes during the 1960s in ill-advised efforts to squeeze more golf into them.
Let’s conclude on the subject of William Flynn. From his most famous works to hidden gems like Springdale, Normandy Shores and Lehigh, what impresses you about his book of business?
I just went back and realized that I’ve played 37 courses where William Flynn had some hand in the design. In addition, most of the greens at Cobb’s Creek are untouched Flynn creations.
A lot has been said and written about his knack for making golf courses look naturally integrated into their surrounding environment and there is no question he strived hard to achieve that effect. However, what most strikes me about Flynn is his genius for routing. He certainly was not averse to using “crossovers” in his routing, which he probably learned at Merion, to get from one portion of the property to another and Lehigh CC near Allentown is a great case study in routing genius. There, he takes the golfer on a walk from the first green, crosses over past the 18th tee and the 17th green to get to the 2nd tee and that single downhill jaunt opens up an entire other section of the property, allowing the rest of the front nine to flow from there. It’s a property with steep sections but he solves those riddles with elegance, where his longer holes cascade downhill like the 10th and he ascends the steepest portions with short, rollicking par fours. Lancaster is another case study of routing excellence and it’s amazing how many green sites and tees Flynn was able to group seamlessly at the high points of the golf course.
I’ve never seen a poorly routed Flynn course. He had a wonderful mentor in Hugh Wilson but most don’t know that Flynn also would make trips to study the great American courses in New England like Myopia, Essex County, Brookline, etc., to gain ideas for his own design and construction efforts.
Flynn’s approach was ultimately practical and economical, with a touch of inspiration that managed to get the very best authentic golf out of a wide variety of sites. There aren’t many architects with such an extremely high percentage of exceptional and varied golf courses in their repertoire. I believe this was due to an approach that focused on maximizing the existing attributes of each individual site through the routing process, only moving earth when necessary to blend man-made features effectively into the terrain.
I think modern architects might benefit from studying Flynn’s restraint in use of man-made features. In general terms, he would only add features where none or few existed naturally, and because of the way he blended his construction with the existing terrain, his courses tend to wear well from a visual as well as playability aspect. In artistic terms, Flynn exhibited great taste and due to his keen sense of style his courses never seem to go out of fashion.