Feature Interview with Geoff Shackelford Pt. II
Geoff Shackelford is the author of five golf books, not the least of which is the Definitive History of Riviera, which must rival Chicago GC’s as the finest club history book. He has long held an appreciation for the innovative style employed by the old master architects like George Thomas. Geoff’s new book entitled The Golden Age of Golf Design was released this month and is the most revealing golf book published in recent memory. Geoff lives in Santa Monica, California and longs for the day when the 8th hole at Riviera is restored.
13.If the Augusta National Board permitted three restorative projects to be carried out to their course (and only three!), which would you do?
- Eliminate all summer of 1998 changes by Fazio and Hootie. This means take out the filler Christmas trees on 13 and 18 (installed to cut down on the dreaded recovery shot). More importantly, the new trees on 15 and 17 must go. Eliminate the ‘second cut’ of rough too. None of the golf writers talked about it this year because it went right over their heads, but the 1999 Masters just died when Greg Norman hit what used to be a great drive on 15 on Sunday, and he had to pitch out because of the new pines. In the past, Norman would have gone for the green and who knows what would have happened to Olazabal had Norman put his ball in position for birdie or eagle. Olazabal would most likely not have laid up since the wedge shot on fifteen has become as freakish as the four-iron shot! Instead though, both players laid up and the tournament basically ended right there because of the committee’s need to control what should be the perceived ‘right’ score by tricking up the course. The lengthening of seventeen is another disaster. As Ben Crenshaw explained to me, that hole used to be such a great chance to make three or, just as easily, to make a quick five, depending on how you executed your attack at the hole. Now it’s just a hold-on-for-dear-life-par-4, which the committee evidently thinks is neat. However, the chance for birdie is all but gone, and bogey isn’t such a damaging mental blow like it used to be. And Crenshaw also told me that seventeen played downwind everyday this year. He says that if it ever gets into the wind, it will be impossible for most of the field to reach in two. Amazingly, Nicklaus endorsed the change to 17 even though one of his greatest moments in golf, and maybe the greatest of our lifetimes as viewers, came on that green when he made birdie in 1986. How they can’t see the beauty of that hole at it’s old yardage and it’s old playing characteristics, just amazes me. I mean, ten yards additional might have been okay, but twenty-five?
- Rebuild the twelfth green to MacKenzie’s specified size and contours. This hole has just become a hit and hope shot. The wind is so goofy there and the margin for error seems non-existent, which I doubt is what Jones or MacKenzie would want. I love how Bobby Clampett and Ken Venturi ramble on every year about how the players aren’t going at this pin or that pin and are playing for certain quadrants of the green. What a bunch of garbage. You ask anyone who has played in that event, and they are just trying to get the ball on short grass, anywhere. You can see it in their faces – they are just hoping to keep it dry, or keep the ball from flying into the fifth fairway at Augusta Country Club. That is not good strategy nor is it interesting to watch. And it is not revealing who the best player is. If the green was larger and had a couple of the old pin placements and contours, you might see some more interesting shots carved into that hole.
- Eliminate the ditch behind thirteen green and soften the back tier pin, both added in 1985. Nicklaus is going to have to be the one that declares that his concept for drainage and protecting the integrity of the hole hasn’t worked out and that it’s time to eliminate the canal. Or at least soften it considerably.
14. You have read our write-up of the mythological Carthage Club. What are your thoughts? Do you think a course that short could fully challenge a low marker without the aid of thick rough and/or wind?
First of all, any course that welcomes dogs is in my top tier already, regardless of design! The idea for Carthage is wonderful. I’m so tired of long courses with no interesting short holes that take too long to play. The time it takes to play golf, the lack of thought-provoking holes and the lack of room to play the game is taking the fun out of it. Carthage sounds like my dream course. You can never have enough of those reachable three-shotters as far as I’m concerned. No hole is more interesting to play, except maybe a well designed 280 yard par-4. As for Carthage challenging a ‘low marker without the aid of thick rough and/or wind,’ I’m not sure what you mean. If there is no par and this is not a course for big events, then it should be a joy to play and a fun challenge for everyone if designed with plenty of decision-making, risk-reward opportunities. I think this idea that architects have to make it a priority to address low-handicappers and somehow create special standards for them to be tested properly, is killing good architecture. Trent Jones started this whole scare tactic mentality, and it’s a product of the stroke play, ‘protecting par’ mentality. More recently, it’s the influence of the Golf Digest ‘Resistance to Scoring’ criteria. Sadly, the tough-is-good, par-is-the-ultimate-achievement mentality is rampant in the game thanks to certain governing bodies preaching it at the majors and in the rule book. But now that technology is out of control, par is not the standard for perfect play anymore, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing by any means. But look at Golf Digest’s ranking. It’s primarily ‘publicity-shy, low handicappers who travel’ on that panel, and all they do is look at conditioning, resistance to scoring and the mysterious, ‘shot values.’ Have you ever seen the Golf Digest Top 100 before Ron Whitten and the Editors fix it with the Tradition score? It’s frightening. 650 low-handicap panelists find that Wade Hampton and Shadow Creek are among the Top 10 courses in the U.S., and Sanctuary is #17? Meanwhile, Cherry Hills, Riviera, Inverness, Baltimore, Baltusrol Lower, Chicago Golf Club, all land in the second fifty before the editors straighten things out. That tells you how much a group of low handicappers knows.
I also wonder about this belief that if a low handicapper shoots a good score somewhere, that this means the course is no good because par was susceptible. Do we look down on other athletic venues when records are broken? Of course not. And why has the well-earned birdie become less prestigious than a hard-earned par? I have little doubt that it takes more skill to make a birdie than a par, no matter how hard or how easy the hole. I’ve made many pars in my life without hitting any good shots. I have never made a birdie without hitting at least one really good shot. Most low handicappers I know like to make birdies, and they appreciate courses that give them a chance to make a birdie if they have approached a hole properly and executed their shots soundly. In fact, I’ve never heard a good player bemoan a course because he posted a good score on it!
Carthage Club sounds like it will be the kind of course where on every hole your mind will be busy figuring out how to position yourself to make birdies and eagles, and most good players I know who have even a slight appreciation for good architecture will love that. And mid-range handicappers will love it too, because birdie will be within reach for them too. However, there will be fewer low scores at Carthage than you might think, because the more you get good players thinking, the less able they are to pull off fine shots. Look at Atlanta Braves pitcher Greg Maddux. He doesn’t throw very hard, but he gets hitters thinking and they can’t hit him. It’s the same with golf architecture. I don’t know when architects are going to figure out the significance of decision making and temptation and all of the other things that go into great strategy. Probably never. They’ll just keep making their courses longer and more bland, and the scores won’t get higher but the game will get less interesting to play and watch. Make the good players think, and then you will not only satisfy those who need to see ‘par protected,’ but also make the game more fun to play and watch for everyone else.
15.Tell us all about your new book. What gave you the idea in the first place? What surprised you the most during your research?
The book, as proposed, was going to be ‘The Philadelphia School of Design.’ But Brian Lewis at Sleeping Bear Press thought it would be even better covering the entire Golden Age in North America, and so that’s what we did. It’s 210 pages of mostly photos (all pre-1940 shots), a few architectural drawings, some old advertisements and a little text about the old architects. There are also ten impressionistic style paintings by Mike Miller to add some color and style to the book. The text does not go into great depth, but is just meant to give a nice overview and step out of the way of the photos, which really do the talking. Many old quotes were inserted in the captions to make the book fun to browse from time to time, and to give people a flavor of what great thinkers were designing courses back then.
But the book was also created because many of us have gotten so tired of certain architects, committeemen and superintendents referring incorrectly to what the old architects did or didn’t do, and even how they were overrated or lacked vision. Well, if someone can look at these photos and still say those things, I will be amazed. I tried my best to find old photos of all the great architects work, and some are better represented than others. The Philadelphian’s, Dr. MacKenzie and Chandler Egan’s redo at Pebble Beach are represented extensively, while Maxwell, Langford and Macdonald/Raynor courses were the toughest to locate archival photos of. But they are still in the book and given sufficient space, particularly Macdonald’s Lido design. A few architects just didn’t make it because of a lack of photos or interesting work. Willie Watson is probably the most prominent example who I’d like to know more about who isn’t in the book. Tom Bendelow was another, though I don’t know how much he really left us that was worth studying. I also don’t have a photo of the old seventh at San Francisco Golf Club, which is disappointing. But in every old photo I found of it, the green looked completely different than the last photo I had seen of it! I do not know what has happened with that hole, but the green was changed many times in the early days.
What surprised me the most, and continues to as I peruse the book, is the level of deterioration in some of the big name courses. Pine Valley is the most stunning in terms of trees and loss of sandy barrens. To look at the 1925 aerials and see where the trees were planted originally by George Crump is quite shocking compared to what they have today, which is a whole lot of grass and trees, and not enough sand and open vistas. And in the old photos, to see the old alternate fairway on 17 is really fun. That was the most exciting thing to find in my research.
Most of all though, I’m just amazed how incredible the work was of these architects and the men who built their courses. And it’s even more shocking how little of their work is left. Especially in terms of the great public courses we’ve lost here in the U.S. It’s a travesty. People in art and architecture would understandably be devastated over lost or altered Van Gogh paintings, or mostly deteriorated Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Imagine if most of the existing Van Gogh’s had been modernized by Leroy Neiman to keep up with some undefined contemporary standards? Or if all the Wright buildings in the world were updated with aluminum siding and cottage cheese ceilings? But that’s the kind of situation we have with classic golf architecture. And no, it can’t just be chalked up to the excuse that golf courses are ‘living, breathing, changing’ things, as some will say in justifying the damage done. That’s ridiculous. We are talking about widespread and inexcusable tinkering with their canvas’s.
16.In researching your book, you found evidence that the 17th hole at Pine Valley originally had a split fairway, with another fairway to the right of the existing one. Should Crump be credited with that design feature and did it serve as Thomas’s inspiration for the Riviera’s 8th hole? Any idea when or why this innovative feature was lost?
It was, without question, a George Crump feature. Actually the whole original design is largely Crump, and the club has plenty of information and drawings indicating that Colt’s name was used initially more than his input was (probably to comfort investors that a pro was in charge, which shows how times haven’t changed. Although Colt did make many suggestions that were used, this was basically Crump’s design.). Even the four holes finished by the Wilson’s seem to have already been envisioned and started by Crump when he died in January, 1918 (those holes were completed later that year, so it’s hard to imagine they improvised too much). But the seventeenth was completed and opened for play in 1915. It was a simple alternate option hole, and the proof of its existence was mentioned in passing in Warner Shelley’s classic book on the club, and in the Short History of Pine Valley. Though both texts referred to it as merely additional fairway space, not an alternate route. But the aerials show it was definitely an alternate avenue, with more risk involved. When this right side option actually disappeared is not as concrete.
For me, the old option takes the least interesting hole strategically and makes it an incredible match play hole, particularly at that point in the round. And everything Mr. Crump did was with match play in mind. I wonder if he would have made the course as difficult had he known that stroke play would become such an obsession with Americans. I’d like to think he would have just done his own thing and ignored the obsession with scores and fairness. But the old seventeenth gave you the option from the tee to place your tee shot on the upper right to have a full view of the green. The risk was great, as out of bounds was immediately to the right (the train tracks are just down the hill on the right and it was initially wide open, which had to be visually scary from the tee, especially with a little wind). But that kind of strategy, where a better view of the flag is the reward, is so rare these days, and it’s wonderful. Good players love to have a full view of the green and flagstick, and I’m sure many would take the risk if it were afforded today. Because frankly, it’s the one hole on the course that lacks a truly memorable feature or purpose. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice hole and would be memorable on all any other course. But Mr. Crump created such a perfect blend of distinctive holes at Pine Valley, that it stands out as one that lacks something truly unique, particularly considering it’s the second to last hole. When I told Ben Crenshaw about the photo showing the old fairway, he had just been to Pine Valley and had speculated on the possibility of an old fairway to his playing partners. They probably thought he had spent a few too many days in the hot Texas sun, because he was just reckoning that something used to be there, but Ben has an amazing eye for what the old architects did, better than anyone in the world. So he was very excited to hear that there was an old fairway in the photos. Because the photos never lie.
As for Thomas being influenced by the hole, it’s hard to say but it sure seems likely. His old eighth at Riviera was more complex in that the options and rewards involved varying pin placements and improving your angle of attack at the green. On the other hand, so much of what he did came from Merion and Pine Valley that it surely was something he picked up there, or perhaps even encouraged Crump to do. Thomas, more than any of the Philadelphians, loved alternate fairways and built several (especially at Stanford and two beauties at Bel-Air!), and he must have adored the old seventeenth at Pine Valley.
17.What is the most successful restoration project with which you are familiar?
Baltimore Country Club’s East Course. Brian Silva was the architect, with Doug Petersan the course superintendent carrying out bunker the work and the green expansion. They had a supportive green chairman as I understand it, and most of all, a great set of photos that they emulated to astonishing perfection. Literally, you walk out there and look at the old photos and the details they recaptured are remarkable. Now that Doug is gone from there, I hope the next super can maintain what he did. Baltimore is probably not Tillinghast’s most eccentric design, but maybe his most solid, interesting, shrewd and underrated. Wonderful and large set of greens. The bunkering style is somewhere between Baltusrol and Somerset in style, and there are two incredible par-5’s.
Renaissance Golf Design’s bunker work at Valley Club and Pasatiempo is excellent too, and it totally changes the look and feel of those courses.
18.What five courses are ‘must-sees’ for a student of golf course design?
- Royal Dornoch
- Merion – East
- The National Golf Links
- Cypress Point
- The Old Course
19.Is there one course that you would particularly like to see how the U.S. Open for the first time?
Baltimore Country Club East. But the USGA will deem it way too short, which it is since the ball is out of control. But they would change the two great par-5’s anyway, so I don’t mind the USGA staying away. If they could fix the West course just enough to make it acceptable, Baltimore would definitely be a perfect U.S. Amateur site, if they wanted it.
20.Who is the most underrated architect of all time?
Herbert Strong did some of the most eccentric stuff ever seen at Engineers, Inwood, Saucon Valley and Canterbury, but it’s hard to say for sure how well it worked. So little of his work remains. William Flynn still doesn’t get enough credit either. Redesiging Shinnecock, The Country Club (which he is largely responsible for fine tuning) and Cherry Hills are pretty special courses. And he did so much work at Merion during the 1924 redo when Hugh Wilson was largely bedridden. Yet, people always talk about his other Philadelphia courses, which are mostly just difficult and in pretty settings but lack the character of the big name designs and redesigns he and Toomey did. Chandler Egan doesn’t get any credit either, and I suspect there is a lot of his work we should be preserving, besides what he did at Pebble Beach, which is excellent and well documented in my book. Egan really went out on a limb there in redesigning it in 1928. Other than the routing, he made Pebble Beach what it is.
21.How many present day golf course architects’ work do you admire and make the effort to see?
Admire: Three to four
Make the effort to see: Between five and ten
22.If George Thomas’s body of work remained fully in tact today, how do you think he would be viewed when compared against MacKenzie, Colt, Ross and Tillinghast?
As good as any of them, and I really don’t think that is a mere bias of mine. I think many who have studied his remaining work and the old photos would agree. Whitemarsh Valley, if restored properly, would be one of the more interesting in Philadelphia despite its yardage, which too many view as its big negative. Bel-Air was the West Coast version of Somerset Hills until Dick Wilson got his hands on it. Riviera, before kikuyu and ‘before the flood’ (as Hogan referred to the design pre-1939), was nearly as perfect a design as you could dream up. LACC North was going to be Thomas’s most intriguing in terms of having his many ‘courses within a course,’ with all the different sets of tees and pin placements and daily setup possibilities that he envisioned. Stanford, which I only confirmed was a Thomas/Bell weeks before The Captain went to press, was outstanding. It had many option fairway holes and some phenomenal bunkering. The Fox Hills public complex here in Southern California wasn’t Bethpage Black, but it was awfully good and is sorely missed. Ojai and La Cumbre had some of the greatest holes ever created, and would easily be ‘Top 100’ courses if they existed as he designed them. Even Spring Lake in New Jersey looks great in the old aerials. So my point is, he did a little of everything in his short time, and almost all of it was strong. When he and Bell worked together, they created courses on a very special level. Strategically, he was as good as anyone, maybe the ultimate strategist. The bunkering by he and Bell and their crew was as good as the work of anyone who ever built bunkers. He did it all, and did it so soundly.
23.Which five courses possess the most fascinating green complexes?
- Pinehurst #2
- Somerset Hills
- The Old Course
- Crystal Downs
- Royal Dornoch
24.What course is a personal favorite with which perhaps the readers may not be familiar? What do you like most about it so much?
Well, even the obscure ones I like have been seen by the knowledgeable folk reading your web site, or have been reviewed by you, so no use in repeating how much I admire something like Somerset Hills or Baltimore. So I’ll have to go with the Armand Hammer Golf Course here in Los Angeles. Bear with me here. It’s 18 holes, on about two acres. The holes average about fifty yards. The shortest is about twenty-five yards, the longest about 70. It’s in the most beautiful public park imaginable, in the Holmby Hills area where the homes start at $4 million dollars. The park is right behind the LA Country Club driving range, and right underneath TV producer Aaron Spelling’s 56,000 square foot mansion. The park and golf course are filled with many rare trees from around the world, some of which you have to hit low bump and run wedges under, perhaps more than most of us traditionalists would like, but that’s the fun of it! There is also a man-made creek that comes into play on a few holes, and the course appears to have been designed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s son, John, back in about 1927. ‘Holmby’ as locals call it, costs $2 to play, and a whopping $3 on weekends. The greens average about a hundred square feet, and there are no bunkers! It’s great for your wedge game and wonderful fun to contest spirited matches on. Sort of ‘backyard golf’ I suppose. My Pepperdine teammates and I used to come here after playing Bel-Air early in the morning. At first they thought I was nuts, then they fell in love with it. But don’t come here with the shanks. Very expensive German cars tend to park on the street around the course and come very close to a few of the holes, and there is no protective fencing. Many wealthy locals and stars walk around the park, and they won’t hesitate to call their speed-dial-programmed personal injury attorney if you accidentally shank one into them. I’ve seen Ronald Reagan, Michael Eisner, Garth Brooks (playing catch with his limo driver), Rene Russo, and many others walking, jogging or playing with their kids at Holmby. Corey Pavin practiced here with the UCLA guys (and we know how his short game turned out). Mac O’Grady loves it so much he now lists it as his home course on his US Open application (only Mac!). Every city and every club should have a ‘pony’ course like this. It’s great fun for everyone, excellent practice, and wonderful for kids. And you can play 36 holes in an hour!
25.How do you think this period in course architecture (1985-1999) will be viewed in fifty years time?
Not well. Although I’d like to hope we are on an upswing that has just begun in certain areas (restoration, the so-called ‘minimalist’ movement). Recognition of the classic courses is becoming more commonplace and there has been some minor backlash to the penal and politically correct, landscape oriented styles, but not enough. Most people love the modern stuff because it is ‘pretty and fair,’ and when they grow bored with it in the coming years, they won’t know why. Widespread understanding of what constitutes the most interesting, timeless architecture is still not there because there are so few chances for people to be exposed to such courses. But in time I think it will come around to some extent. And in time, hopefully, we will see people look at the work of many of the so-called ‘modern masters’ from this era and say, ‘those courses are nice and pretty, but there is nothing of genuine, timeless interest there. I play it once or twice, and all of its secrets are revealed.’
So I think this era will likely be remembered as the ‘politically correct’ years, when golfers thought they were entitled to perfect visibility, entitled to nothing surprising or asked for tough decision-making. And most of all, it will be remembered for too many overly-balanced par 72, 7000 yard duds. It will be known as the era of people paying lots of extra money in green fees, dues or in golf course real estate frontage to have PGA Tour players associated as co-architects, with little or no value added other than imagined prestige. The nineties will be remembered as the era when bowl-shaped, ‘user-friendly,’ everything-must-be-in-front-of-you landscape architecture was the most popular golf course design style, and when many architects claimed they were restoration experts but were in fact implementing their own style on great old courses, a concept better known as Rees-toration.
I curious how Pete Dye’s work will be viewed fifty years from now. Most likely the courses he spent a lot of time on like Whistling Straits and The Golf Club will be revered, but there are many more that he hasn’t really designed and that just have the ‘Pete Dye look,’ but lack the originality, the strategy or the fun. And it will be interesting to see how his trend of having almost identical finishing stretches pans out in time. I mean, how many times do we have to see a long par-4 finishing hole around water? And that’s usually preceded by a par-5 sixteenth and a par-3 seventeenth? Or, perhaps I’m wrong and his stereotypical finish will be looked at like Raynor’s Biarritz’s, who knows. But Mr. and Mrs. Dye have been so important in restoring unusual looks and the rustic, irregular contouring to golf design that their courses have almost become secondary to the impact they’ve had in moving some of the architects in a better direction. That will be their biggest legacy, and it is huge accomplishment, though it is odd how so many modern architects learned that you could be more interesting visually from them, then took the profession back to this ultra clean, shabby landscape architecture look. Strategically, too many of the Dye’s holes just don’t inspire many return visits for me because they are a little to ‘in-your-face’ or they just don’t function as well as the classics. Many times, there just isn’t the subtlety that seems to hold up better over time. It’s one thing to present great looking, difficult holes, but it seems to be another thing to present something very attractive but that is still full of character and challenge. Crenshaw and Coore seem to have a better grasp on this ability to be interesting while still subtle than anyone in the business today. Designers like Tom Doak or Gil Hanse are seeing the value of this in Coore and Crenshaw’s most successful work, and I think in very short time their designs will be on par with the great master architects, if they aren’t already. Bobby Weed and his staff also will be doing good work in the coming years if they can find clients who trust them and who don’t stick them with player-architects. The Weed group appreciates great architecture, and they have the ability to communicate their ideas in a positive way, which seems to be the key. But I will use the analogy of films, since after all, I live in the heart of the lovely Tinsletown community that is churning out so many movies that remind us of modern golf courses! I think that the small group of Coore/Crenshaw’s/Doaks/Hanse’s will be viewed similarly to the thoughtful, old-fashioned filmmakers of today who are giving us meaningful, yet still entertaining movies like ‘L.A Confidential’ and ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ And the majority of modern golf architects will be remembered about as well as those who are giving us shallow, though not necessarily offensive movies like ‘Independence Day,’ ‘Godzilla’ or, dare I say, ‘Titanic.’ After all, a great golf course is like a great film. The best movies need to be watched many times to truly savor how brilliant they really are. ‘The Godfather’ is nice the first time around, but it gets even better the more times you watch it and absorb all of its subtleties. It never gets old, at least not for me. And ‘The Godfather’ doesn’t beat you over the head, it’s subtle and brilliant. And that’s the way the great courses are. Same with great music, art, great anything.
26.Which five links courses do you most enjoy playing?
- Royal Dornoch
- Royal Portrush
- The Old Course
27.Do you think George Thomas more admired his design work at Bel-Air or LA North?
That’s a tough call because of Thomas’s excitement over his redesign at LA North just a few years before his death. He wrote two articles about it, which he did not do when Riviera opened. At LACC North, he had created all sorts of options for the daily set-up of the course – like nothing anyone had ever seen before or since. He had a short, quirky, par 69 option, all the way up to a long, difficult par 73 course, all within the basic, ‘normal’ design of LA North. At least four possible courses within the primary design and setup. He had it so that tee locations and pin placements would dictate which course you were playing, but all offered slightly different strategic and visual problems. For him, this was the ultimate in variety, and he saw great variety as the ultimate in design. Can you imagine what a great test it would be for tournament golfers to face four completely different courses within that one same design? But it could never happen because the governing bodies are more consumed with controlling the players than finding who the best one is. And that concept of mixing things up is just lost on those setting up the courses. Variety, variety and more variety. That’s what separates the field, and tells you who the best player is.
I’m sure Thomas looked forward to refining this concept for LA North over the years, and probably doing a ‘Carthage Club’ type course on LACC’s South Course, but his health deteriorated quickly and he passed away just a couple of years after the North was redesigned. With that said, Thomas’s daughter has told me that Bel-Air was the one course she remembers her father saying he was ‘most proud of.’ The dilemmas he ran into there with the site and the developer called upon all of his talents, and like Riviera, he and Billy Bell delivered in a big way. To have created a course in the canyons of Bel-Air like Thomas did, with some of the holes and bunkers they crafted, was quite an accomplishment. Perhaps the best way to answer the question would be to say that Thomas would probably be a little disappointed to see LA North’s architecture today, but I think he would say that it still embodies many of his ideas and intentions. However, he would be heartbroken to see Bel-Air today. Absolutely heartbroken.