Feature Interview with Tyler Rae
1. Tell us about your early exposure to golf.
My early exposure to golf came from my father and both of my grandfathers. My father and I would play local northern Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania public courses when I was young. I started tagging along with my father for afternoon or twilight summer rounds when I was five or six. He would hide two Spaulding Johnny Pott irons in his golf bag that were cut halfway down the shaft so I could try and give them about as mighty a rip a young guy could! They were blade irons circa 1962 with a dime of a sweet spot and he duct-taped the cut-down shaft handle to resemble some sort of a grip. He would pay for his round and just tell the starter that I was walking along to keep him company. Once we got out to the second or third hole he would throw me a ball and pull out one of the clubs from his bag and let me swing away, trickling my ball down the fairway 20-30 yards at a time. As long I kept pace and didn’t bother other golfers, it never was an issue. We would primarily play later in the afternoons so there was hardly ever anyone with us. He would play two balls and we would sneak in a nice little nine, just father, and son. I quickly fell in love with the game of golf; the surroundings of nature, the bliss of learning and watching my father, and the competitive sport and honor of the game. Most everything in our house revolved around golf. With that said, both of my grandfathers were rabid players who fell in love golf after WWII. Both played frequently at Ross courses over the years (Myers Park GC, NC, and New Smyrna Beach GC, FL). Both were very passionate about me taking up the game. Anytime I played with one of them, there was a certain code and ethics I had to follow. They instilled in me the proper manners and gentlemen’s code of the game that I still hold very strongly to this day.
2. What prompted you to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture from the University of Kentucky?
I received some attention from a few colleges following the summer of my junior year in high school. I had a fair number of tournament wins and thought I could play well. Little did I know how good everyone else was outside the Philadelphia area. I went to the University of Kentucky thinking I could play for the golf team. J.B. Holmes was a junior my freshman year, and I quickly and wisely decided that playing golf for a living or being a golf professional at a private club was not my life’s passion; it was golf architecture and I found that out at the age of eighteen. As a side note, ironically J.B. Holmes just secured the win at Riviera in LA while answering this question. I think I knew then that there was “another level” out there.
3. You worked as a Design Assistant for Keith Foster from 2006 to 2008. With which projects were you involved?
Keith Foster was hired by Wilmington Country Club, in Wilmington, DE in 2003 or 2004. I was working there at the time and luckily knew the President of the Club, Bob Hackett. As a favor, he asked Keith if he possibly had a job opening for a younger guy on his team. Keith told Bob that he would generously set me up on the construction crew for the entirety of the project, but I had to work my tail off in order to show my appreciation for the opportunity. The construction crew was really talented and featured some great shapers and foremen. Every day I gained valuable knowledge working with a different crew, from drainage to building tees to irrigation to seeding. Near the end of the project, Keith offered me a job Monday to Friday as a design assistant in his office. This was before the economic downturn and jobs were still plentiful. While in Keith’s office under the guidance of his sole Design Associate, Kevin Hargrave, I was able to participate in about twenty different projects. Colonial CC (TX) was just getting into the construction phase, Southern Hills CC (OK) was in need of a few detailed plans, and Orchard Lake CC (MI), Philadelphia Cricket Club (PA) and Moraine GC (OH) were all just beginning the Master Plan process. We also produced plans for Baltimore CC Five Farms (MD), Eastward Ho! (MA), Garden City CC (NY), Fresh Meadow CC (NY), CC of Detroit (MI), Hermitage CC (VA), Knollwood Club (IL), Bent Tree CC (TX), Ballen Isles CC (FL), River Bend CC (VA), Louisville CC (KY), Hurstbourne CC (KY) and St. Clair CC (PA). It was wonderful tutelage as I gained immense knowledge and insight into the business.
4. What was your takeaway(s) working for Coore & Crenshaw?
Working for Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw was also a very unique opportunity. The process was drastically different from the Wilmington CC job. With Keith, we had distinct disturbance areas and fixed points we were tying into. Time was of the essence and the project moved along swiftly. There was a distinguishable 10 to 12 step process we followed regimentally. Nothing was sodded until it had the feel and character Keith envisioned.
At Dormie Club in Pinehurst, NC, we worked at a gentler pace where we constantly tried to step back from our current work zone with our “third eye” and see if what we were producing fit into the terrain and blended with nature while also feeling architecturally significant and worthy of intrigue while playing. Both processes were successful, but I learned two totally different methods of building inspiring architecture. It also took a highly trained golf architecture eye, and I learned quickly that was the number one asset I needed to develop to be successful golf architect. I then began to seek out every course I could on the days off to help better train my eye and see examples of inspiring architecture.
5. Traveling is something that you greatly enjoy. When we had lunch at Pine Needles last year, you told me that you had seen ~ 2,000 courses! What is a specific example where something you saw at Course A later influenced what you did at Course B?
Good question Ran. A specific example would be visiting and walking as many Flynn courses I could this year while studying to restore Plymouth CC (PA), [now called 1912 Club], a William Flynn and Howard Toomey design dating back to 1926. 1912 was the year they formed the club and built a small nine-hole course and fourteen years later they hired Flynn to expand it to eighteen holes, hence the new name “1912 Club”.
After walking most of his body of work, I realized there was a common theme where Flynn and his construction crews would almost build his putting surfaces and green fill pads in a half-pipe fashion; where if you missed, short and directly in front of the green was paramount. If you missed left or right, you had to chip upwards to a green sloping downhill [away from you] on the first ten feet or so of the putting surface. If not hit with precision, the ball would then race by the flagstick. Luckily, on the other side, his reverse slope would catch your ball and feed you back a bit towards the center of the green again, at least keeping you on the green in general. I observed this repetitive feature while traveling to view his work and with this element in mind, it allowed me to build two new greens at 1912 Club in the Flynn style when a new practice facility altered the routing and eliminated their two weakest holes.
In conclusion, a typical question I receive is, “why are you so bent on traveling and seeing all these courses all over the world? Does it really help you with your design business?” My answer to that question is threefold; when walking a course, I’m not just looking for something I can later use, but I’m working relentlessly to continually refine my golf architectural eye, which is the most valuable asset of a golf architect. With that said, it is also paramount when walking these courses I get a complete sense of the exact time frame the construction work on the course was accomplished, who had the heaviest hand completing the work, and what outside influences were affecting the work. I then can piece together a certain golf architect’s project timeline and understand their maturation process throughout their career and how they were continually evolving. A few times during every great old golden age architect’s career there are the odd projects out there that failed to be built correctly due to war, money or lack of project supervision and those have to be taken for what they are and noted for the circumstances.
6. What are some of the best courses you saw on your recent trip through Central Europe?
1) Utrect (De Pan) GC stole my heart. It is a lovely club and as good as it gets in Central Europe. It is very difficult to label a poor hole on this 1928 Harry Colt layout. Each green and its setting was filled with subtle natural contouring.
2) Hamburger (Falkenstein) GC was the first course I visited after hopping off the plane in Hamburg, Germany. The Swinley Forest vibe had me giggling like a schoolboy while walking up and down the hilly landscape. It was better than anything I had imagined seeing in Germany, a country most people do not associate with golf. Falkenstein is another H.S. Colt gem from 1930, this time with help from C.H. Alison and J.S.F. Morrison.
3) Royal Hague GC was also a showstopper. Your friend, Dick Gommer, was kind enough to walk around the property with me while they had a winter tournament. What a great set of holes there in the dunes. There were some real standouts from Colt, Alison, and Morrison in 1938. As a side note: it was stated that Colt never saw the property and actually routed the course from England, sending Alison and Morrison to carry out the work. Nonetheless, Hole #3 has kept me thinking a lot lately, and Holes #2, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15, and 17 were very bold and beautiful!
4) Morfontaine GC (1927) was sublime and really fit into the land. Tom Simpson loved greens falling away from the player and doglegged holes. Great place to go for a walk with nature and the Valliere (1913) nine is some of the most fun golf in the World. I could play that everyday.
7. Hidden gems?
A few hidden gems were:
1) Royal Guernsey GC: Holes #8-18 showcase a superb stretch with some strong green contours by Philip Mackenzie Ross with a few nostalgic WWII fortresses sprinkled in along the coastline holes. I’m thinking the first seven holes weren’t destroyed by the German occupation of the Isle of Guernsey in 1944, as they were very flat and had uninspiring putting surfaces, while the closing stretch felt drastically reworked and oozed strategy and movement within the putting surfaces.
2) Royal Zoute GC: the back nine here is as strong as any I have seen. It just doesn’t stop. Harry Colt again was the maestro who steadily built the drama from holes 1-18, with the crescendo being the home green.
3) Hardelot (Les Pins) GC was shockingly good as well. Tom Simpson masterfully routed the course in 1931 and lent each putting surface its own unique character. I’m thinking Philip Mackenzie Ross aided TS here. This was the also the best restoration/renovation construction work I’ve seen in Continental Europe during my tour and kudos go to French architect Patrice Boissonnas and Dutch architect Frank Pont.
8. You have been with Ron Prichard for seven years. Tell us something we don’t know about him.
A few items come to mind:
1. He is a connoisseur of Vincent Van Gogh’s famous artwork, American Western art and intricately made clay pottery.
2. I have never stumped him when visiting a far-flung Donald Ross course. His typical response is somewhere along the lines of “oh yes Tyler, I visited there about 10 to 15 years ago and I looked at this hole with the committee.” It is really incredible when you think about his nearly 50-year career and how many clubs he has worked with or visited.
3. In the late 1970’s or early 80’s, Ron Prichard studied the Old Course at St. Andrews for a Client in Japan. His task was to replicate the course in its entirety in Japan. He spent months at St. Andrews studying the course and has an amazingly detailed contour map of the course. This topography, obviously much more detailed than MacKenzie’s hand drawn version from 1924, is one of the most incredible items in golf architecture I’ve ever seen. He gave me a copy and I think it is invaluable.
9. How did Foster’s approach differ from Ron Prichard’s?
Keith Foster simply grinds the greatest product out of the construction crew. It’s a wonderful skill and talent, and guys work their life away for Keith to achieve the detailed results. Ron Prichard is simply an artist. He works as he pleases and takes an entirely different viewpoint on a restoration or renovation. Keith would sometimes have to work the hell out of a shaper or labor crew to get what he envisioned in the ground. Ron would intricately hand sketch each feature on paper in order to give the shaper an exact three-dimensional look at what he wanted accomplished, very similar to how Tom Simpson sketched his holes and green sites before being built in the 1920’s and 30’s. As we’ve seen, both approaches garner results; it’s just a different pathway leading you there.
10. The work you two did at Cedar Rapids CC belongs on a pedestal as the greatest outcome per dollar spent that I have seen in this country. What three factors led to such an outstanding result?
Thank you for your kind words Ran. The process was actually much simpler than many other restorations or renovations I’ve been apart of or led.
The overview is that Cedar Rapids had the benefit, or disadvantage, of being terribly in debt. That forced their hand, which in turn led to a keen group of passionate members taking charge and treating the club more like the small business that it is. The leaders then trusted the consultants and employees they hired: Ron Prichard, Tom Feller (Superintendent), Tim Salazar (Assistant Superintendent) and myself. Three factors that led to the results were:
1) Hiring strong leaders in each department is extremely critical to a successful project and continued enhancements years after the restoration or renovation is wrapped up. It helped having Dustin Toner as the new Golf Professional in 2015, Travis Hall as the new General Manager in 2016, and Tom Feller and Tim Salazar treating the property as if it were their own.
2) Phasing the project out into an “in-house” effort over a 3-5 year window. This essentially allowed the membership to view the enhanced product each Spring (after the work was accomplished the prior Fall) and see dramatic results for their monetary expenditure. A bonus side effect is the positivism in attitude and culture change at the club. This then accelerates the debt pay off cycle and more members begin to join.
3) The group involved was steadfast in their belief that the quality of the product was the highest priority, not speed or inconvenience of golfers between their October and December golfing season. The membership was extremely patient while we tore into a set amount of holes each October 15th. This allowed us great freedom to work at our own pace and make sure we interjected classic architecture back into the property.
11. A club is overspending if any of these three things are occurring: ….. . Please complete the sentence.
1) There is no solid vision, Master Plan or 10 to 15-year pathway to success. Ultimately, the club ends up spending more money constantly fixing the next issue versus long-term planning.
2) They are worried about dark green, lush tees, fairways and greens. Brown is the new gold standard. The members of your website Ran have been in tune with this concept for 15+ years and this is nothing new. I’d much rather play a firm, bouncy, dry course where I catch some skinny lies here and there. Soft and wet creates a much harder walk and isn’t consistent with the ethos of the game. Having a course built on sand helps this of course!
3) Haphazardly adding or repaving cart paths versus removing them and spending logical money on rerouting the golfer or cart circulation routes. This has become a big part of my daily job; figuring out how to best route circulation and spread wear and tear throughout the playing corridors and around greens and at continual pinch points.
12. When do you recommend a club with a Golden Age design go through a renovation versus a restoration?
Wow, excellent question Ran. I would recommend a club renovate its current layout versus restore when the current physical course is so melted down and bland that it needs a major injection of character. If the course is seeing less and less play and is on the brink of closing, this is sometimes the only route. Many older, Golden Age classics have been destroyed beyond recognition and are need a full renovation to bring them fully back to life.
Otherwise, if there are solid bones; i.e. character found within the original putting surfaces, a strong routing, incredible terrain, or old aerials or plans showing architecturally significant bunkering, then it would be logical to try to restore the course to its former glory.
‘Restoring a designer’s intent’ is a little bit of a tricky game. After all, the architect might have been dead for over half a century, rendering it unlikely that you had a conversation with him! So … what are your guidelines?
This is all very true. I try my best not to get into that scenario and will usually work with what exists in the present day. If I know for a fact that the feature [green or bunker or tee] has been altered in the past and aerials can confirm that it has changed, then I feel obligated to revise it back to more of the original intent and character. Old irrigation and topography maps, historic photos, aerials, newspaper articles help immensely. Usually, a shaper who works in the dirt a lot can tell you when cutting into the ground if it has been altered in the past. The topsoil layers don’t lie. You can find the old bunkers that have been filled-in and can always see what was added or deleted from and around an old push-up green. Work carried out between 1900-1930 was meticulous and topsoil was gold. They utilized the topsoil and manure really well. From WWII onward, the fruition of the rudimentary bulldozer became a factor and golf construction quality deteriorated. When I peel into a feature that was built between WWII and 1980, there’s usually buried topsoil in one spot and poorer mixed material on top or spread around. Any historic course that has been altered for the worse will have some sort of poor construction that can be peeled back and fixed.
With that said, the advancements in hydraulic technology within heavy equipment have been incredible; now we have 8-way blades and rapid hydraulic flow which allows us to build the smallest contour or tickle something just right until it looks like it has been there for ages. The equipment they used in the 1950’s – 80’s was impossible to run with the lever system [I’ve run some old, old ‘dozers], had basic up and down blade control and were incredibly rough and violent. Operators, not actually shapers, were more like highway graders.
Moreover, when I dig into an area that was reshaped in the past at Northland CC in Duluth, MN, I can literally peel away the clay layers that were haphazardly bulldozed on top and find the old topsoil layer beneath. Once I reach the topsoil layer, the clay then seamlessly slides off of the topsoil and I’m back to virgin grades. Some days are fascinating, where I feel like an archaeologist.
In conclusion, I try not to get into the “tricky game” of playing “what would Ross, or Flynn or Raynor do here”, and try to stick with what was drawn on the old plans, shown in the aerials or described in the newspapers. If the course has no identity or has no record of being designed by a famous architect from the Golden Age, I then can utilize my own theories and try to build something that is aesthetically pleasing, fits with the land, has strategic merit and gives the player the sense of wanting to play it over and over.
As a current example, I have this dilemma at Green Spring Valley Hunt Club in Baltimore, MD, where I just finished a Renovation Master Plan. There are nine holes built by former members from 1914 and nine holes added by RTJ, Sr. in 1957. The RTJ holes have a very penal essence that was en vogue in the 1950’s and the 1914 work exhibits a time when very basic architecture was all golfer knew. As a result, there is no cohesion between the two contrasting styles. I have planned to re-bunker it in an simpler fashion, while still honoring RTJ’s contribution, but don’t plan to rebuild any greens. The greens somehow actually blend together pretty well and have subtle contours that make them interesting. The goal will be to interject more of a seamless, older feel to the course and let the property shine. It’s a sublime walk and that’s what I want the members to feel when they play it, holes 1-18. The course will still have RTJ’s name on the scorecard and you’ll see his holes, just not have such a disparity between styles.
Am I restoring the designer’s intent? We’ll see, it’s a tricky game! ☺
13. Share with us some examples of restorations gone bad. You don’t have to name specific clubs, just highlight in general terms mistakes that led to the poor outcome.
When a “restoration” actually isn’t a restoration and the said architect imprints his style by building two or three new USGA greens on an old classic layout that currently has topsoil push up greens with lots of original character. The new greens will stand out for all the wrong reasons; they’ll need to be maintained differently, after a hard rain the greens will flush themselves of all their nutrients and become harder, the greens will look different than the other fifteen or sixteen, they’ll have different grass, and they’ll make you cringe and wonder what the old push up greens looked like and why they spent $60k/per rebuilding them. One of the greatest compliments an architect can receive after a restoration, where some greens were rebuilt or reworked, is when the raters or golf architecture gurus come through and cannot discern which green you rebuilt since it blends seamlessly and plays consistently with the other remaining greens. There are a handful of other mistakes I could list but I’d rather keep it positive than harp on the negative.
14. You were the featured speaker at the GolfClubAtlas gathering at Northland Country Club in Duluth in August 2018. People who have played there know what ‘the clock’ means. For those who haven’t, please describe the greens at Northland, which are certainly among the most distinctive set of putting surfaces that I have ever encountered.
What you’re referring to is how the putting surfaces at Northland CC are affected by Lake Superior and in general, the steep lake bluff. The clock means you should always have a clock in your head when putting at Northland and have a feel for where the Lake is located – i.e. 1:00pm on the dial on #1 green or 5:00pm on the dial on #2 green, etc. The clock is facing the player coming into the front of the green or the line of play from the fairway.
The greens have an extraordinary amount of tilt at Northland, and although they look bland and boring, with no noticeable rises, humps or shelves, the tilt is what is so hard to figure out and account for. Some twenty-foot putts break 4, 5 or 6 feet, while others stay eerily straight, even though it looks like the green is tilted 7-10%, back to front of left to right. The land is so steep so it takes many rounds to figure out ‘the clock’! I have a newfound appreciation for the putting surfaces at Northland and it takes time to appreciate what was built on that rugged land.
15. Ross greens have erroneously been stereotyped as “upturned saucers” when in fact such creations only dominate in the sandy soils of Pinehurst. For diversity and challenge, what are your five favorite sets of Ross greens that a) you have worked on and b) that you have ever seen?
A) Mountain Ridge GC (NJ) are highly detailed and entertain a liberal of internal contour
A) Barton Hills CC (MI) are unbelievable as well, each has its own identity
A) Monroe GC (NY) has a set that is so bold yet sophisticated and restrained
A) Skokie CC (IL) even though some greens are Langford & Moreau (7 of them)
A) Evanston GC (IL) very bold with big corner “wings” which are fun to see on an early 1918 Ross. Very flat property, I think he was making a statement!
B) CC of Rhode Island (RI) Early Ross as well (1911) and intriguing
B) Essex GC (MA) Bold and has Ross’ own hands on them. Maybe the most original left
B) Wannamoisett GC (RI) Possibly my favorite. So many wrinkles, humps and bumps
B) Seaview GC (NJ) Sneaky and subtle in the wind (built w/ Hugh Wilson)
B) Salem GC (MA) Bold along with the topography (Brother Aeneas built them before heading back to Scotland for good)
16. Name ten Ross gems that fly under the radar but that any student of architecture would delight in seeing.
1. Teugega GC (NY): All there untouched as D. Ross wanted it
2. Plymouth CC (MA): Par 69 with some really unique holes of all flavors
3. Kenosha CC (WI): The Bunkers are just sitting in the woods! Stepping back in time
4. Roaring Gap GC (NC): Just a great place with views for days
5. Glens Falls GC (NY): Walter B. Hatch’s coming out party early in his career
6. Franklin Hills CC (MI): Maybe the best short 4 other than Riviera at hole #13
7. Hyde Park CC (OH): Typical wild terrain found in Cincy and a lovely routing
8. Grosse Ile G&CC (MI): Who knew great rolling land was on an island in a river?
9. Thendara GC (NY): Ross went chasing after Raynor and did his best impression!
10. Memphis CC (TN): Some really strong Holes and one of Ross’ best in the South
17. Where do you put Ross’ body of work versus all the other golden age greats?
1. H.S. Colt (w/ C.H. Alison & J.S.F. Morrison in the US & Continental Europe)
2. Alister MacKenzie (w/ Mick Morcum/Alex Russell in Australia & New Zealand)
3. William Flynn & Howard Toomey
4. Donald Ross
5. Perry Maxwell
6. Walter Travis
7. C.B. MacDonald & Seth Raynor
8. A.W. Tillinghast
9. Stanley Thompson
10. (tie) George Thomas/Tom Simpson
18. What factors go into a dream project?
2) Bones of existing course
3) Is it built on sand/silty loam
4) Size of property and surroundings
5) Client/membership passion/pride
6) Proximity to airport/home
I honestly don’t believe I’ll ever get the chance to build a new golf course as a solo golf architect. It feels like such a long distance goal down the pipeline. And I quite enjoy renovations and restorations and the quiet satisfaction I derive from club members and their guests after the work is completed and enjoyed by all. – TR