Feature Interview with Todd Eckenrode (Part 2)
May, 2018

Is there more activity in restorations and renovations than new course designs these days?

The bulk of our work is in restorations and renovations of courses of the Golden Era of Golf Design. Though we love new course design, those opportunities in the last ten years or so are few and far between.  We feel very fortunate to have completed the new courses we have of late but working on courses of this older era is of immense interest and brings genuine enjoyment.  As mentioned in my April Interview, this began with the love and impact of Pasatiempo on me, and the respect and value I place in those courses continues to this day.  It’s an honor to be consulted and work with these courses and we take their value in the game quite seriously.

We also greatly enjoy working on courses of a more modern era where we think we can produce significant improvements through renovation or re-design.

 What is the basis for restoration work?

Research is the basis, without a doubt.  Luckily, the fascination with the origins and history of these clubs has taken off dramatically in the last decade or two.  Oftentimes, most or all of the research is pretty complete, really.  I’ve run into this recently at a Club where I looked into all of our typical sources, and the Club had already done the same, there was really nowhere else I could think to look.  Other clubs have surprisingly little information, and that’s where we have to dive in.

Tom Naccarato is a valued friend and resource for me, both because of his indepth knowledge, but also with both of us being from California (and the bulk of our work in this regard being in California).  If he doesn’t already have the aerials, or ground photos, or newspaper clippings, he knows where to look, and has been an immense help many times over. Tommy is not just a resource, his combination of knowledge and passion is unsurpassed in my opinion.

I have truly enjoyed the times where I’ve been able to lock myself in the club’s history room, or collection of archives, though, and can just spend the time going through what they have myself.  It’s fascinating, reading the “minutes” from the 1920’s, for example, and the early marketing pieces when the courses were new.  Orinda and Lakeside come to mind in this regard.  I spent a day and a half in the archive collections room at Orinda when we first started there, and found some great information on the club and course itself, but also interesting correspondence with Cypress Point and other peer clubs that was fascinating.

Tell us about the recent work at Max Behr’s Lakeside Golf Club.

At Lakeside Golf Club, established in 1924 but opened for play in 1925, it was green perimeter restoration, bunker locations, holes like the short par-3 15th, and a general feeling of more openness and exposure to the great contours of the course that we strove to restore.  The greens had shrunk into tiny semblances of themselves, but the lost perimeters weren’t hard to see in the ground.  Though we were limited in how much could be restored, based on available Poa sod, we did recapture over 20,000 sq. ft., which proved very significant. Bunkering was largely restored in location based on the old aerials, but the style of flashed sand and naturally wavy lines was not literal.  Otherwise, fairways and short-cut areas around greens have been expanded greatly since we’ve started consulting here, and many hundreds of trees removed as well, opening up the vistas and a feeling of place.

A great characteristic example is the par-3 3rd hole.  A moderate length hole, tree plantings had closed in and isolated it from the nearby 2nd hole and distant views.  The tall pine behind had replaced an original back bunker.  And the bunkering left and right had become overly built up.  In the original aerials, the left bunker was actually the bold, larger scaled bunker, with the right bunker a smaller scale and set into the slope.  The bunkering was restored to this characteristic, with the back bunker returned to play, and with the green roughly doubling in size, this restored the outer “wing” hole locations set up against or behind the new front bunkering.   All trees but one on the right were removed, as well as numerous taller trees behind to bring back the wider and longer views.

The par-3 3rd hole at Lakeside “before”, had seen the green shrink substantially and its bunkering built up and morph out of scale of the original.

Lakeside’s 3rd “after”, with the green roughly doubling in size, restored the outer “wing” hole
locations set up against or behind bunkering.

The most fun hole to work on was undoubtedly the short par-3 15th. This was an original hole (though the 9’s were reversed from today’s numbering). There is an adjacent longer par-3 15th that the members play as well, but that was added in the 1960’s or 70’s, I believe. That only goes to show how much the value in this short par-3 had eroded over the years.

The original hole was such a standout, about 90 yards in length and originally surrounded by bunkers. When we first started consulting here over a decade ago, there was so little regard for the hole that a 40’ Cypress tree was in front of the green, rendering the hole unplayable from the original tee area! Needless to say, we had that removed, and with this last project, were able to restore the greenside bunkering to its original concept of surrounding the green. Modifications in the flash of the sand, and breaking up one bunker into two, for example, to provide grass walk-ups for the golfers are not literal, but the idea is there and the drama and thrill of the hole is back. The green had shrunk into a tiny circle, but the “wing” hole locations that made the hole so interesting were there in the ground (or rough).

The green was originally very wide, but shallow. There was one “backstop” to play to if you needed such to stop your ball, which we restored as well. This is such a fun hole to play now, and the members feel this way as well. It was a feature of their first big invitational since re-opening, where they played the “short” 15th over the “long” 15th two out of the three days, and in the Derby as well. I’m so happy with how this turned out and that it’s truly one of the best and most fun holes at Lakeside once again.

Lakeside Golf Club’s #15 “Short” (to the left) had become so irrelevant a tree had been planted in front of it!

#15 “Short” revealed, with the surrounding bunkering restored and exciting “wing” hole
locations and small backstop restored as well. Photos by Todd Eckenrode.

There was so much more at Lakeside that was accomplished that is significant, especially about the ground contours.  Lakeside’s fairway contours are some of the best in all of California, and we did all we could to showcase these by widening fairways, removing the tree-lined look that had evolved there, and oftentimes joining fairways as well.  Holes like the long par-5 5th hole, which used to play across the once natural LA River, but was moved across to the north side of the river long ago, has some of the most dramatic, rolling contouring to be seen.

When you play Lakeside now, you no longer feel constrained, you are much more aware of this unique land Behr created, even if the faux-dunes and old riverbank cannot be restored, both for their own reasons, philosophically and physically.  It’s a wonderfully special course, very different than LACC, Riviera or Bel Air, and I’m so glad for this. Nonetheless, its quality is comparable with these clubs in every sense, in my opinion.

Shapers included Jonathon Reisetter on his farewell before going back to school, Andrew Littlefield, and some late relief work from Blake Conant on the last few holes.  Robert Hertzing is superintendent, and it could be argued that this is the best presented golf course in California.  Those old Poa greens are as good as they get.

Very neat, hopefully Max Behr will start to get more credit than just for his writings. Moving on, describe the variety of holes on William Watson’s Orinda CC in Northern California and your work there.

Orinda CC was opened in 1924 and designed by William Watson. Watson is best known for his work at Minikahda, Belvedere and Interlachen in the Midwest but over the past decade, it has come to light that he completed numerous fantastic layouts throughout the Golden State too.  To the south, you have San Diego CC, La Jolla CC, early San Gabriel CC, Hacienda CC, the original Virginia CC, and Hillcrest CC to name a few. In the north, besides Orinda, he completed a redesign of the original Jack Neville course at Diablo CC, where we also consult, that is a fantastic layout.  And of course his design at The Olympic Club.

At Orinda, there are so many unique holes, which is why the routing and original design is a cut above, in my opinion.  The 1st hole, with a ridgetop drive, leading to a blind short 2nd shot, though I wouldn’t characterize as one of the standout holes, is nonetheless a preview of what’s to come on a quirky and sometimes hilly layout.  The 5th, named Mousetrap, is a moderate length par-4, featuring a drive across a creek and valley, to a side-sloped fairway, then an uphill approach to a reversed boomerang green.  The green wraps around a prominent ridge off the back slope, bisecting the left and right sides quite strongly.

The uphill approach to the 5th.

The 5th green at Orinda looking back. Playing to the appropriate side is highly advised, but recovery is great fun as well, playing the ball off the ridge behind the green.

The 8th, named Deadhorse, is a fantastic drop-shot par-3 of originally 123 yards. Poorly advised redwoods had been planted behind the green, which were controversial to remove until the view beyond was exposed. Otherwise, we rebuilt the green to remove much of the sand buildup that had occurred over time, making it just too small and crowned. The bunkering is restored, and bunkers that had been added to the left and rear were removed, with short-cut surrounds replacing them. This provides the golfer the ability to play the ball up the hill in a variety of ways, but it is still quite a challenging hole if the green is missed to either side. What a beautiful but dangerous little par-3 Watson built, and it was a thrill to restore.

Orinda CC’s 8th hole, pre-restoration

Orinda CC’s 8th hole, 1931 (Golfdom)

Orinda CC’s 8th Hole restored, from slightly different angle.

The green complex for the par-4 11th, named Graveyard, references perhaps an old Indian Burial ground, or perhaps simply the style of mounding reminiscent of this. The drive favors use of the strong slope from the right to sling the ball farther down the hole of this right to left dogleg. Early work involved removing most of the trees between this and the adjacent 2nd hole (which dramatically naturalized and improved the 2nd hole as much or more than the 11th). Currently, the path between the two is being removed as well, so the fairways will join, as we did between #12 and #14, and #16 and #17 to great effect.

But the real interest of the hole is in the surrounds. A hole devoid of bunkering, instead Watson employed numerous mounds to create a bowl-like effect to the green, but if missed, the short-game variety is amazing. You’ll never have the same chip or pitch here, it seems, and you can use the slopes for more direct or indirect routes to the hole. The short-cut of the surrounds stretches all the way to the tees for #2/#12 as well, and with more path removed there and the tees joined together in places, naturalizing and softening the area further.

Who needs bunkers when you have an approach and surrounds such as at the 11th at Orinda and its unique mounding?

The 14th, named San Pablo, after the adjacent San Pablo Creek to the right, is a wonderful short par-4. The original Watson design had a long fairway bunker through the dogleg, and a shorter fairway bunker on the right, which we restored in concept. Prior to the project, numerous non-native trees were removed on the right as well, trying to engage the adjacent fall-off toward the creek. The Green complex for cart path was removed through the majority of the hole on this side as well.

The green was more standard-like in the 1928 aerial, but in 1936 and ’37 letters from A.W. Tillinghast, he suggested some changes to this green, into a “long ribbon-like green to take the chipped second shot”, which is essentially the character the green was to this day. Some slight restoration to the sides, and lowering of sand build-up was all that was needed on this unique green and hole.

The short-par-4 14th, view from the left side into the “long ribbon-like green” suggested by Tilly.

The 15th at Orinda, named “Despair”, is a beautiful but dangerous par-3, set hard against a creek. A bunker had been added to the left side long ago, but we removed it to re-establish the green’s close proximity to the creek edge, and also to maximize the space to the right for the “bail-out” shot, which I must admit to favoring! There is a mound set to the right of the green that we restored as well, which adds challenge and interest to chips from this right side, if you aren’t pin-high and thus need to navigate its slopes. What we couldn’t restore, however, was the great irregularity and naturalness of the creek itself. Decades ago, it had been channelized.

“The 173 yard fifteenth – “Despair” – offers a terrible mental hazard. However, it proves a favorite with all members.” as stated in The Fairway feature on Orinda, 1928. Photo from Orinda CC Clubhouse.

Shapers included George Waters, I believe his farewell project as well (makes me wonder if I force these guys into retirement), and Bret Hochstein. Bob Lapic was the superintendent when the project planning was started, but Josh Smith took over prior to construction, and is continuing to improve the course further to this day. Josh has a keen eye, and we value many of the same things in architecture how a course should play, namely firm, fast, and fun. The golf course should be presented as simply and naturally as possible, and should showcase the natural attributes of the land. I feel lucky to have worked with both of them on this great project, and in continuing to work with Josh into the future.

There have been significant small improvements every year after the project was completed, oftentimes just functional, such as to improve drainage. But other times carrying on some of the design changes we’d hoped to accomplish in the project but just weren’t able to originally, such as joining fairways on Holes #2 and #11, exposing the rock behind the green on Hole #4 (appropriately named Meteor by Watson), and other such subtleties. I’m very hopeful we can continue to improve Orinda even more, and with Josh at the helm I have little doubt this course will just get better and better and be considered in the upper echelon of Bay Area courses.