Feature Interview with Forrest Richardson
Forrest Richardson, now 45, first became interested in golf course architecture while he was still in grade school. He mentored under Arthur Jack Snyder who began his career in western Pennsylvania as a greenkeeper. Snyder’s father, Arthur A. Snyder, was Henry Fownes’ personal caddy shortly after starting at Oakmont in 1907; he later went to work on the grounds crew at Oakmont. Jack Snyder, Forrest’s mentor, became superintendent at Oakmont in the mid 1950s. He then headed west to pursue golf course design, eventually creating Wailea (Hawaii), Arroyo del Oso (Albuquerque), The Phoenician and around 60 other courses throughout Arizona and the west. Richardson has worked along side Snyder for the past 20 years. In 1988 he started his own firm. And, as Snyder began to slow down, business eventually went directly to Richardson.
1. What was your introduction to golf course architecture?
My father was in the film animation equipment business — Richardson Camera Company. In 1964 he and my Uncle Maurice had just moved their 120 employees and manufacturing plant to Phoenix, Arizona from Burbank, California. This was quite a bold move, as Phoenix was very remote back then.
One summer I was hanging around the plant with nothing to do and walked into my uncle’s office and announced, ‘I’m bored!’ My uncle had a great plan: He took me to a miniature golf course called Hono Lea. It was patterned after a Hawaiian village. I was 6-years old at the time. It was like being transported away to another world. Truly, that’s where I became obsessed with golf and its intrigue. From that time forward I drew golf holes, developed plans for ‘projects’ and eventually got a set of short clubs and began playing on real courses.
I continued with a passion for golf course design throughout school. In my backyard I built miniature golf courses and eventually a ragged 18-hole layout called Rolling Rocks. I charged green fees, printed scorecards and mowed the grass.
When I was about 12 I wrote the American Society of Golf Course Architects and got a membership application and a list of members. One of their members was in the same zip code: Arthur Jack Snyder. I called Jack and asked him if I might drop by and interview him. This began a long friendship. Jack worked out of his home and his wife Ruth would always call out to Jack, ‘It’s that crazy kid on the bicycle again’ whenever I would visit.
I managed to arrange an independent study program and spent four semesters taking blank topo maps and creating my own courses. Jack would critique them and I’d learn all sorts of things. Jack Snyder was kind enough to allow me to get credit for bugging him.
Even before high school I published a journal called ‘The Golf Course Designer’. It was a newsletter that ran from 1972 through 1976. I had subscribers throughout the world. Bill Amick, Bob Graves, Fred Hawtree, Ed Seay, Desmond Muirhead, Joe Finger, Ken Killian, Dick Nugent, and the list went on.
I assume these guys thought I was in college. I know Desmond did. In 1974 my mother drove me to Desmond’s Balboa Island home while we were visiting California. I can still recall his surprise seeing a 14-year old kid. But he was terrific. He introduced me to his staff and spent some great time talking with me about design and golf.
2. How did you have a career in television and graphic design before getting into golf architecture?
I guess I became too old to build golf courses in my backyard or publish my thoughts in a newsletter. I did play golf, but the career goals became less clear. The skills I learned laying out the newsletter landed me a job at a printer. And from there I got a referral to become the art director for a local television station. The next five years were spent designing sets, animation and advertising campaigns.
3. So, how did you return to golf?
I met Valerie. We’ve now been married for 24 years. One day she found a bunch of papers about golf design and I had to admit that it was once an obsession. She persuaded me to teach her how to golf and we began traveling and playing.
To underwrite our trips we developed a small business of building scale models of golf courses for clubs and resorts. This never brought in much money, but it got us a lot of free golf and we met some interesting people.
In 1984 we were asked to create a model for the Pointe at South Mountain Resort which was being developed by Bob Gosnell, a Phoenix-area developer. I asked for the golf course plans and there were none. I was shocked. How could these guys be planning a major resort and community with no plans? I kept asking but the deadline to finish the model was getting near. Finally, I told Valerie not to worry. I simply took the rough corridor routing they had sketched and I created a plan. We then brought it to life on the 1-inch = 100-foot scale model.
4. What was the reaction to your design?
Everyone loved it. The sales team started explaining the holes and how the course was taking advantage of the desert and creating all sorts of great views and settings. I was amazed. Here I was, still working in television and moonlighting as a model maker with my wife. I had just designed an 18-hole golf course. But it hadn’t set-in yet.
I was still thinking that they would hire an architect. In fact, I even persuaded Bob Gosnell to call Jack Snyder. I hadn’t talked with Jack for about a year, but I alerted him he would be getting a call.
5. So, did Snyder get the assignment?
I’ll never forget the call. Jack called and thanked me for the referral. He then spoke the words which changed my life: ‘I guess we’ll be designing this course together.’
6. Jack Snyder became your mentor?
Jack was mentoring me even before this opportunity came along. But, yes, it was at the Pointe project [now called Phantom Horse Golf Club] that I learned how it really happens.
When I look back it was Bob Gosnell who took the largest leap of faith. I can’t thank Bob enough for the believing in me and my design. Jack probably told Bob how this would be a great opportunity for me and how he would see to it that it went as smoothly as possible.
7. Tell us about your first project, Phantom Horse.
It was quirky and I made a lot of mistakes. But the original design had its good points, too. Probably most essential was that every hole was different and the golfer had no trouble recalling any of the holes.
I was criticized for some of the holes..and still am. We had extreme environmental battles. Not many people realize it, but the course took five years to build because it became stalled in the courts. It went all the way to the Arizona State Supreme Court. Imagine that for your first project. Eventually we won. But the loser was several of the back nine holes. The opposition simply got their way with respect to minimizing turf areas avoiding certain rock outcrops. Even so, we created holes that could never be duplicated and we did our very best. Personally, I enjoy some of these quirky holes.
8. What changes have been made at Phantom Horse?
When the original developer, Bob Gosnell, became a minority partner I became somewhat removed from the client. Although we assisted with a few remodeling efforts — which went great — we have not been invited to work on the course for several years now.
The latest changes reversed the opening hole so it now plays as the 18th, a par-4 to an island green. This has created a new 1st hole which is actually similar to my original 2nd. It’s also changed what was originally the par-3 18th. Many of the changes were to make room for a new parkway.
9. What do you think of the changes?
No comment. Oh, what the heck. It’s just disappointing that we weren’t involved. Golf courses change, and there was probably no better candidate for some change based on our tight site and the original challenges we encountered with all the legal battles.
I really think that our opinions could have been used to adjust these holes and make things better. I regret not being more proactive to find a way into the process. I owed that to the course and myself.
All golf courses are special to the designer — at least they should be. I’m sure that Phantom Horse will undergo even more changes. I hope to be there the next time. It would mean a lot to me because the course is so special in many ways.
10. What have been your greatest influences?
Jack Snyder taught me the balance between creativity and function. His work at Wailea in Hawaii still stands the test. It is both engaging and yet it only takes a handful of people to maintain. They make money there. It’s not a landscape on steroids created on a drawing board. It’s the epitome of how a golf course should nestle into the land.
Desmond Muirhead was an influence. He encouraged me to pursue dreams and never give up. I also learned from Desmond about looking further than golf itself. To cultures, history and psychology. Before Desmond walked onto a site he knew more about the region than those who lived there. He was a scholar, probably much like the early scholars of St. Andrews who parlayed their knowledge of the arts over to the golf course. This is lacking today. Many golf course architects could care less about the history or culture of a site.
In terms of courses it has been my time across the British Isles. I spent time in Scotland doing independent study and had the chance to see courses, both famous and obscure. I love many American courses, but I tend to enjoy the rawness of Scottish, English and Irish courses.
11. What is your approach to design? Any traits?
I believe golf holes, while connected, should also be separate. Each one should live alone and present a different question to the golfer. This is one of the ingredients which makes for fun golf.
I enjoy the partially hidden flagstick. I’m not a fan of length at all. But I do like to inject a couple of long holes. Today, however, these are probably not long in the strictest sense. I like holes that perplex the player.
I spend a lot of time working on the routing and the rhythm of the course. These are things you can’t ever change unless you start over. I’m a writer, so I tend to think of a round of golf as a story. The book unfolds, the cast appears and off we go. The worst result is a story which is boring and lacks characters you want to spend time with. The poster child for this is the lame course without controversy, where all the holes are themed into a single landscape and where you can plop a golfer down after the round and he or she will have no idea which hole you’ve set them on.
12. You mentioned writing earlier — how did you come to write Routing the Golf Course?
I’ve always enjoyed writing. I got a call one day from a woman who claimed to be a publisher. She said that Bill Amick and Bob Graves had referred her to me as being someone who could write a book on routing. I thought it was a practical joke. And a good one at that. The area code of the caller was from New York. I was impressed. Fortunately I didn’t hang up. I got her number and name and said I’d call back. When I called back I got the receptionist at John Wiley & Sons!
I got a lot of help. It wasn’t easy. I don’t recommend it for people who might be inclined to writer’s block. Fortunately I found a way to interject personal experiences throughout the text.
13. Describe a particular routing and what you like so much about it.
I have written extensively about Cypress Point. It ebbs and flows. The clubhouse teases with views to the ocean, but it takes off 180-degress away. It touches the dunes and then leaps into the forest. Then it plows into the dunes and — finally — across and along the ocean. Although it has been criticized, I enjoy the way it finished back into the forest. Overall a lot can be learned from Cypress. It lures one into a round and it surprises. Its routing would be good even it is were somewhere in Kansas and the ocean was nothing more a lowland bog.
14. In Routing the Golf Course, in addition to penal and herioc classifications, you list detour holes as well. Please describe what you mean by that expression.
A detour shot is one which poses distinct routes to overcome a hazard or place the golfer in a more favorable position.
I grew up reading about ‘Penal, Strategic and Heroic’. Isn’t it odd how we never question stuff we are told over and over? Pluto is a great example. Planet or not? I was always taught it was a planet, but now we find there numerous such piles of rock floating around space. It appears Pluto was made famous by textbooks and writing.
I feel the same with ‘Penal, Strategic and Heroic’ — all holes are strategic in my view. Some more than others. Strategic is a weak definition in my view. These three categories are only there because America fell in love with the sound of the words. Penal and heroic mean something. Strategic doesn’t.
My definitions include five: Penal, Heroic, Lay-up, Detour and Open. These account for all possible shots in golf which are driven by the design of the hole. There are no others — just these five. The golfer faces any one of the five depending on his or her ability, the conditions on a given day, and, of course, the design of the hole.
The design of golf holes should be thought of by shot — not by the whole hole. I can show you a heroic tee shot and a penal second shot. Or a detour tee shot which produces any one of several subsequent shots.
15. Describe a favorite hole that you have designed and what you like so much about it.
The 9th hole at Phantom Horse was pretty bold for a kid with little experience. I’m as proud of being able to get the client to build it as I am the design itself. The hole now has homes all around it, so the look has changed.
We built the green around an old ironwood tree and a desert ravine. The fairway movement was driven by the natural land and we kept a natural ravine all along the left. Play left and the ravine comes into play. Play safe and the tree and a swale come into play. I suppose the most interesting feature is the stone wall which holds up the green at the back. I had that idea to keep the natural sandy area behind and all along the left. It’s a neat little par-4 that can play easy or tough as nails.
16. Numerous public/resort and private golf clubs are struggling financially. How do you think the current recession has/will affect golf course architecture?
Hopefully it will make both client and golf architect smarter. Way too much emphasis and energy has been spent on equating spending with success or the ideal of good. Excellence and creativity has very little to do with spending extra dollars. In fact, when you have less money to spend it very often results in being more creative.
17. You have been in the golf architecture business for over twenty years. What impresses you the most about courses that are opening today vs those that opened in the mid-1980s?
The 70s and 80s were obsessed with technique and the newfound riches associated with residential housing and golf. You know: The more golf frontage the better. Today we are seeing developers step back and build golf courses for other reasons. To make money — sure. But also to create expansive open spaces, solve drainage issues and thankfully, because they love golf and want to leave something neat behind for people to enjoy.
I think many projects of the 70s and 80s were built by people who looked at golf as a necessity for their projects. And that’s where it ended. Today, we have golf courses opening that are obviously created out of passion for the game. This shows. I wish there was more of this going on. It does seem to be catching momentum. But we still have people who develop courses teaming up with people to design them and 95% of the meetings these people have are about anything and everything except the game. That’s a shame.
18. You are a frequent traveler to the United Kingdom and an admirer of those courses. Is there an architecture lesson from over there that you think is lost upon many modern architects?
Until America suggested it, the term ‘golf industry’ was not known in the U.K. The best lesson I can think of is for everyone who thinks of themselves as being part of the ‘golf industry’ to imagine all of their decisions being made in Scotland before artificial irrigation and golf carts. Golf needs a dose of simpler, not more complicated.
19. What have been your favorite projects?
The Hideout in Utah has been my most rewarding project. We built it for just $2.7 million and were able to do that because the land was so great. It was a labor of love and the people up there saw that. Jack Snyder had built a short 9-hole course there about the time I was born, so to come back and transform the site to an 18-hole course was very special. We were really fortunate to have such a great site and it has yielded some really interesting holes. Many of which will never be duplicated because they are dependent on land which is dramatic and rugged — it’s one-of-a-kind terrain that makes for a course which is fun and interesting.
What we’re doing at the Arizona Biltmore’s Adobe Course has been fun. We’re taking a 1928 Billy Bell course which had some great style in its heyday and returning as much as we can through an extensive remodel. What could have been a complete blow-up and rebuild has turned into a faithful restoration of many of Mr. Bell’s ideals and values. I’m looking forward to being a part of returning one of the few remaining classic courses in Phoenix to its days of grandeur.
For a residential course, I’ve always been proud of our work outside of Phoenix at Coyote Lakes. We managed to create a course which winds below housing, but looks like it fits. In fact, just yesterday I was at a graduation party and a retired fellow there was talking golf with me. When he found out I had designed Coyote Lakes he got a big smile and told me how it always makes him think and how his rounds there are always enjoyable.
Very long ago I did a course called Grande Valley between Phoenix and Tucson. I became so worried that the dead flat land and lack of budget would render a terrible golf course that I created some of the wackiest greens imaginable. No. 6, ‘X Marks the Spot’ is bisected by two perpendicular swales which meet right in the center of the green. But people love it. It just proves that budgets can be overcome.
20. What are you working on now?
We’re finishing Las Palomas in Puerto PeÃƒ±asco, Mexico. It’s a dunes site right on the Sea of Cortez in Sonora. My associate, Patrick Burton has been very involved in this design. Patrick is a turf science graduate and also has a landscape architecture degree. He is getting very involved in the paspalum grass selection and the shaping of the holes which are set into the sand dunes.
The idea at Las Palomas is to create two zones on the course. The course plays off a 40-foot sand dune into a low area where we have a series of lagoons. They were necessary to store our water — this area gets less than 2-inches of annual rainfall! At Hole No. 4 the course rises back up into the dunes and then back at Hole No. 9. Then once more at No. 17 to a dramatic finish with the ocean in the background.
21. What other work can we expect in the next few years?
We are rebuilding two courses in Ventura, California. The first is an old Billy Bell, Sr. course called Buenaventura. It’s stately with mature trees and a classic look. It was so dangerous due to modifications over the years that there was no choice but to re-route about six holes. We have managed to preserve the best of the bunch. We’ve removed about 350 trees and have rebuilt all of the greens and bunkers. Buenaventura will remain a smart little course of about 6,000 yards. But, by reducing par to 70 we have created a tough assignment for the golfer.
The second is Olivas Links. It is located next to the Ventura Harbor and along the estuary of the Santa Clara River. It will begin in late 2004 and will be done in about a year. The courses that is there currently was ripped away by a food in the 1960s. It was put back with little or no regard to the plan – just put back. So, here we are starting from scratch. We’ve created a wonderful experience that will be links-ish, which is appropriate considering the site and its setting. I would have loved to see the land right after the river blew through, but it was all bulldozed back so the course could open for play.
We have several other projects on the boards and in planing. We’re always busy with long range evaluations. One of the most exciting is in the Pacific, but I can’t discuss it other than to say that it will be the greatest site I’ve ever been involved with. I just hope it happens before my 9-year-old daughter takes over the business.
That’s the biggest obstacle to golf course architects – it usually takes so long to get projects moving that your creativity and energy can be diluted by all of the business aspects and logistics. You have to keep enthusiasm. For me it’s through writing, playing and traveling.