Feature Interview with Jeff Mingay
Based in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, Jeff Mingay is a student of the history of golf course architecture.
Mingay most recently assisted fellow Canadian golf architect Rod Whitman with the design and construction of Blackhawk Golf Club in suburban Edmonton, scheduled to open for play in July 2003. Presently, Mingay is working with American golf architect Mike DeVries on the design and construction of a new 18-hole course at Marquette Country Club in the upper peninsula of Michigan.
As a writer, Mingay contributes articles and essays on the subjects of course design, construction, and maintenance to international publications, including Golfweek, Golfweek’s Superintendent News and LINKS in the United States, SCOREGolf and SCOREGolf.com in Canada, and the Society of Australian Golf Course Architect’s annual journal, Golf Architecture. He also contributes a regular golf course design-related column to GreenMaster, the official magazine of the Canadian Golf Superintendents Association. Recently, the Stanley Thompson Society commissioned Mingay to edit and contribute to a series of ‘technical manuals’ intended to encourage and assist clubs, golf architects, and course superintendents with the restoration and future preservation of Thompson designed courses throughout the world. Mingay is also at work on his second book tentatively titled The Fine Art of Classic Golf Course Restoration, which is scheduled to be published by John Wiley & Sons, New York in 2004.
Mingay’s first book, One Hundred Years, A History of Essex Golf & Country Club: 1902-2002, was published in November 2002.
1. How many excellent club history books are you aware of?
Not many, unfortunately. When I started work on the Essex book, I made a point to collect history books from other clubs, principally to help determine how to present our book best. As my collection grew, so did my disappointment in club history books as a genre. There are a few ‘stand outs’ though. Garden City’s book immediately comes to mind, along with Chicago Golf Club’s history by Ross Goodard, and of course, Geoff Shackelford’s Riviera Country Club history, which might be the best of the lot.
I also like the latest history of Pine Valley written by James Finegan. And George Bahto’s little, soft-cover booklet on the history of The Knoll Country Club in New Jersey, which features a neat set of sketches by the author that detail the design history and evolution of all 18 holes there, by Charles Banks. And, although it’s actually more of a ‘course history’ than a club history, Tom Paul’s booklet on the design evolution of Gulph Mills in suburban Philadelphia is very good, too. In fact, others interested in documenting the design evolution of their home course should endeavour to get a copy of Tom’s booklet.
I obviously don’t claim to have seen every club history book ever made andI’m sure there are others with which I’m unacquainted, like Werner Shelley’s earlier history of Pine Valley for example, that are at least comparable to the ones I’ve mentioned above. I will say though, without exception, the very best ones I’ve seen have been written by club members with a special place in their hearts for the subject at-hand. The club histories written by ‘outsiders’ tend to be comparatively bland, I think.
2. Why are thererelatively sofew good club histories?
Principally, I find too many club history books glorify the present when they should celebrate the past. In other words, there are far too many books that feature those ‘ego stroking’ photos of current members dancing with their wives at Christmas parties – photos that are completely insignificant to a club’s history. Yet, there they are, prominently featured in so many club history books for the sake of living members who get some sort of a ‘cheap thrill’ seeing their photo in a book. I had to fight to keep a few of those types of photos out of the Essex book. I lost a few battles, unfortunately. But I did win the war.
I’m also amazed that so few club history books shed adequate light on the design heritage, history and evolution of the golf course. The golf course, after all, is the life-blood of any golf-related club. I mean, if the golf course didn’t exist, the club wouldn’t either. And yet, the golf course takes a ‘back seat’ to social aspects in many of the club history books I’ve seen. In contrast, the Chicago, Garden City, and Riviera books all feature comprehensive sections on those respective courses, including biographies and analysis of their architects and builders, too. That’s what, at least in part, makes those particular club history books superior to others, in my view.
Granted, it takes a talented, dedicated individual, who truly understands golf and course architecture, to research the history of an old course, and then to effectively write about it. Which is, obviously, yet another reason we find so few ‘top notch’ club histories. The fact is, the Geoff Shackelford’s of the world are few and far between.
3. From the author’s point of view, why agree to undertake a club history book? After all, off setting hundreds of hours of research and writing with low-to-no paymay not sound like a great job description!
You’re absolutely right. I imagine that if I broke down the hours I spent working on the Essex book into dollars and cents, I’d confirm my suspicion that I lost money on the project. But that’s ok. As strange as it may seem to someone more business-minded, I didn’t take on the job for financial gain. I guess you could call it a ‘labour of love.’
Before the project actually took off in earnest, I had already researched the history of the golf course. I’d studied Donald Ross’ golf architecture, too, and tracked down his original plans for Essex at the Tufts Archive in Pinehurst, NC, along with a few old aerials of the course. That was easy for me, because of my interest in golf course design and the history of my home course. I had no idea how much work was going to be involved with putting together the entire book, though.
At the start, I innocently viewed the project as a ‘hobby’ that really suited my interests. It turned out to be much more than that. But the experience has served me well. I mean, who else, besides a golf club interested in putting together a history book for a relatively inexpensive price, was going to offer a 25-year-old ‘kid’ with limited writing experience at the time an opportunity to be published? It was a unique opportunity for me to prove I could tackle the job of completing a 200-page book that would exceed people’s expectations.
4. Does the importance of a club history book increase with time?
I think it should. But ultimately, it depends how the book is put together. Those club histories that glorify the present are immediately dated. They have no relevance once those present-day members featured inside for their ‘dancing prowess’ are gone. In other words, I don’t imagine someone picking up that type of book 50 years from now is going to be very interested to read about, and look at photos of a Christmas party held at the club in 1977. What does that have to do with the club’s history?
On the other hand, I do think that 100 years from now people will be interested to read about the details and circumstances surrounding the establishment of the club and the design heritage, history and evolution of the golf course. That type of club history book is timeless. It won’t lose its relevance, ever. And thus, it can be referenced by future generations of club members interested in preserving club traditions and the integrity of the original design of the course, and perhaps the original clubhouse architecture, too.
5. What is the value of a well-done club history book to a consulting golf architect?
I think a well-done club history book that includes comprehensive section on the golf course is definitely invaluable to a consulting architect. After all, part of the architect’s job is to trace and chronicle the design history and evolution of the course before devising a long-range plan, whether it be restorative-based or otherwise. If that work has already been completed and neatly organized, the golf architect is relived of spending a significant amount of time on historical research; which can prove to be very challenging, particularly in a foreign locale.
In fact, it usually takes a motivated and historically-inspired club member to instigate a restorative-based project. And, more importantly, to see that it’s carried through successfully. There are more than a few really good examples, throughout the United States, where consulting architects who have benefited from excellent historical research done by club members. Enough good examples in fact, I hesitate to cite only the few I’m aware of.
6. Vandalism and neglect hasn’t been exclusive to classic courses, have they?
No. Many classic clubhouses from the pre-World War II have also been under-appreciated, and either distastefully remodelled or altogether destroyed.
In many cases during the 1920s and ’30s, the clubhouse architect was more famous than Donald Ross or whoever might have designed the golf course. Many of those old, interwar period buildings were works of art themselves, equally worthy of reverence and preservation as the classic courses. The best clubhouses were planned to compliment the course as well. Sadly though, I can think of more than a few clubs with ‘Golden Age’ courses that have done all the wrong things to their clubhouse for all the right reasons. I feel those new and/or remodelled clubhouses almost always detract from the experience.
A wonderful old clubhouse with unique character is an irreplaceable asset. Think of Merion and Gulph Mills in Philadephia, the National Golf Links of America, Riviera, Country Club of Detroit, St. George’s in Toronto, and Essex too, where the original low-profile, English tutor style-clubhouse, designed by George Masson, is still intact. All of those clubhouses add measurably to the experience at those historic havens of golf. And each one is completely unique. Masson did some significant work in the Windsor-Detroit area in the pre-World War II era. His clubhouse at Essex is a wonderful compliment to Ross’ course. Without it, Essex wouldn’t be the same. Just like Winged Foot, for example, wouldn’t be the same without its magnificent clubhouse.
We were lucky to find historic, interior and exterior photos of the Essex clubhouse taken shortly after it opened in July 1929. They were, in a dusty envelope in a storage room in the basement of the Windsor Public Library! The photos are a compliment to the club, in terms of the outstanding job directors have done to preserve the integrity of its original design, both inside and out.
7. You’ve written extensively on the golf course in your book. Was promoting restoration of Ross’ original design at Essex motivating?
There’s no doubt that I imagined the book might serve well to encourage restoration of Ross’ original design. Sure. I think in any case, there’s no better tool to educate club members about the history of the golf course than a club history book.
While most Essex members have long been proud of the course’s heritage, and thus have adamantly opposed altering the fundamental nature of Ross’ original design, few people clearly understand how much the course has actually still changed over the years as a result of natural evolutionary processes and the adverse affects of everyday play and maintenance. Not to mention a few minor, ill-advised design alterations made. So, I attempted to make those parts of the book that deal with the golf course a clear and concise explanation of Ross’ original design concept, the subsequent evolution of the course, and also the plans that have been tabled by golf architect Bruce Hepner, of Renaissance Golf Design, to restore it.
The results of my efforts in that regard remain to be seen. But, I can say, I have spoken to a few potentially influential Essex members who are enthused about the prospects.
8. Was there a particularly unique, original architectural feature on the golf course at Essex that was misunderstood and eliminated?
The sixth is the only green at Essex that’s been physically altered since the course opened for play in July 1929. That green originally featured a large mound at front-left that rose some four feet above the body of the putting surface. As the story goes, a few influential Essex golfers thought it ‘unfair’ that what they perceived to be a ‘good shot’ to a back-left hole location would often carom off the down slope, over the green. Little did they realize they were simply pitching the ball in the wrong spot! So, the mound was removed in 1960, in-house on recommendation of the Green committee. As a result, what might have been the most unique and challenging green at Essex, is today, perhaps the most non-descript putting surface on the course.
The way I imagine it, trying to pitch the ball precisely, short of the putting surface in order to successfully negotiate that mound, from any distance, long or short, must have been one of the most exciting shots at Essex. In his book, Golf Has Never Failed Me, Ross wrote: ‘There are holes on some Scottish links where knowledge of these peculiarities is absolutely imperative in order to get the ball near the hole. The ball has to be pitched to about a certain spot where it will surely take the roll of the hillock and stop somewhere near the flag. Obviously, when such elements govern the approach to the green, the golfing merits of the course are infinitely superior to those on a course where every approach is over a flat surface.’ I love that quote. And I used it in my hole-by-hole account, telling the story of the sixth.
It seems to me, the strategy of the sixth hole, which is 455 yards long, was to drive down the extreme right side of the fairway when the hole was cut at back-left behind the mound, in order to avoid having to play over it. Of course, that type of heady play was particularly important in the day’s prior to fairway irrigation. Conversely, when the hole was cut at far right on the sixth green, next to a greenside bunker there, driving down the extreme left side of the fairway was advisable. This type of strategy is very typical of Donald Ross’ architecture: a green that necessitates a completely different strategy off the tee depending on the location of the hole, day-to-day.
9. You describe Essex’ transformation from a ‘second shot’ course into one that places a high premium on straight driving. Is there a particular hole on the course that illustrates that transformation?
That description of the sixth tells the story well. But the 388 yard sixteenth is probably an even better example. The sixteenth, in my opinion, was the most strategic hole at Essex in the early days. Today, it might the most one dimensional following seven decades of evolution and a bit of redesign.
Donald Ross rarely promoted defensive play off the tee. Thus, nearly all of the fairways at Essex were planned to be at least 40 yards wide. Such wide berths actually created a sense of false security, because simply driving into the short grass often wasn’t good enough. Like the Essex’ sixth, and so many other great Ross-designed holes, the strategy at sixteen was dictated by the hole location on any given day. There used to be a distinct lobe of green surface that jutted between greenside bunkers at right that was most easily approachable from the extreme left side of the fairway, particularly before they started watering the fairways regularly, when you really had to bounce the ball onto the greens. Holes cut atop a high shelf at back-left of the sixteenth green, on the other hand, are more accessible from the right side of the fairway. Again, the location of the hole necessitated a completely different line of play off the tee, day to day. Ross wanted golfers to think their way around the course, to play angles, tacking their way, strategically to the hole.
These days though, the only thought on Essex’ sixteenth tee is, ‘I better hit it straight!’ There’s nothing else to consider, because there’s really only one line to drive on. The fairway was shifted left and narrowed to about 22 yards across in 1980, when a group of three bunkers were installed some 255 yards out on the right. As per Ross’ original drawn plan, the sixteenth fairway was intended to be 56 yards wide! As a result, it’s a very awkward situation nowadays. Overhanging limbs on the left side of the fairway, a short distance off the tee that suggest a draw. But then, you look down the hole, toward the green, and the fairway pattern and bunkers make you think, fade. Then you give your head a shake, wise up, and see there’s only one shot – straight between the overhanging limbs on the left and the bunkers on the right. Don’t even think about trying to bend the ball!
Some golfers argue that such a situation adds to the challenge. The problem is, it’s very, very un-Ross-like to demand a specific shot trajectory and line off the tee.
10. For those who haven’t seen ‘A History of Essex Golf and Country Club’, howis the book organized?
Organizing the book was relatively simple, because the club has basically been through three distinct eras, on three different sites. It was established in 1902 as Oak Ridge Golf Club, then moved from its original site in 1910, when it became Essex County Golf & Country Club following an amalgamation with Walkerville Country Club. Nineteen years later, Essex moved to its present-day site. The first three main sections of the book detail those specific eras, individually.
Then, of course, there’s a comprehensive section on the golf course, which includes biographies on Donald Ross and John Gray, who supervised construction of the course and stayed on as the club’s green-keeper until his sudden death in 1958. There’s a hole-by-hole section as well, and a chapter titled, ‘The Evolution of the Golf Course’, which details all of the changes to the course since it opened for play in July 1929. And, Bruce Hepner was kind enough to contribute an interesting essay on Ross and the Essex course,, which concludes that section.
I also included a short chapter on Roseland: a city-owned course in Windsor that was laid-out by Ross in 1926. I’ve since been asked why I included a chapter on a municipal course in a book about the history of Essex Golf & Country Club? Well, for one, it’s always been interesting to me that, of the 399 courses throughout North America that Ross is credited with working on, only 11 or so are in Canada, and that of those 11, two are in Windsor. A lot of Essex members grew-up playing Roseland, too. And no one had documented any history of the course, which I feel is somewhat taken for granted. It’s a real gem, with a great variety of holes and some excellent greens. If it were ‘polished up’ a bit, I think Roseland might very well be the best muni in the country. I thought the Essex book provided a good opportunity to shed some light on its heritage, and genius.
Next, there’s section titled, ‘Champions & Championships’, which includes biographies of Essex’ most accomplished golfers and recaps of the major tournaments hosted by the club over the years, including the 1976 Canadian Open. Jerry Pate won that Open only a few weeks after his US Open victory at Atlanta Athletic Club. The sports writers dubbed him ‘King of the Continent’. Pate was nice enough to write a letter for the book recalling his experience at Essex, as were Ben Crenshaw, Jim Nelford, Brandie Burton, and Tom Jenkins, who won the Canadian Senior Open at Essex in 2002. Crenshaw played with Pate in the final group on Sunday in 1976. He still says Pate’s 63 that day was the best ball-striking round he’s ever witnessed.
The book concludes with biographies on the club’s 11 professionals, including the fascinating story of Jock Burns. While researching the book, I tracked down his son, Stan, who still lives in Windsor, and was shocked to learn that Burns came over from St. Andrews, Scotland in the spring of 1922, specifically to become the pro at Essex. Even more amazing though, is that his father, Jack Burns, won the 1888 Open Championship at the Old Course! Sadly, most people had forgotten about this fact. It was a thrill for me to include that story in the book.
I also have to express my gratitude to Lorne Rubenstein for contributing a Foreword to the book. Lorne’s an admirer of Essex, and probably the most well-respected Canadian golf writer, ever. His involvement lends significant credibility to my effort.
11. From an architectural point of view, what else is crucial to be included other than a hole by hole account?
I can’t believe how many books I’ve seen on the history of clubs with some pretty good golf courses that don’t even include a hole-by-hole account, which is unfortunate. And many others that do simply describe the holes as they look and play in the present. I used the hole-by-hole section in the Essex book to also explain Ross’ original strategies and to detail the evolution of the holes. That’s part of the club’s history, after all. And, as I mentioned above, there’s also a separate chapter titled, ‘The Evolution of the Golf Course’, too, that chronicles all of the changes to the course over the years and details the restorative-based plans devised by Bruce Hepner.
I think a comprehensive account of the golf course’s evolution is important to include, which takes a lot of time and research, and also a bit of gentleness. I mean, it’s very important that the text doesn’t come across as a blatant criticism of past committeemen, golf architects and course superintendents who made ill-advised changes to the course over the years. In order to avoid that, I used quotes from Donald Ross, Bruce Hepner and other authorities, like Ross’ biographer, Brad Klein, wherever I could, so that my writing couldn’t be deemed ‘Jeff’s opinion’ or accused of being ‘politically motivated’, as it easily could have in a case like mine, when a club member is writing the history.
Historic aerials are also crucial. We concluded the chapter on the evolution of the course with a two-page spread featuring a 1947 aerial of Essex at left and a 2000 aerial of the course at right. Fifty-eight pages of text on the history and evolution of the golf course don’t tell its story as well as a comparison between those two photos. Although there have been very few physical changes made to the course over the years, those two aerials illustrate just how much has changed nonetheless.
12. How helpful are overhead aerials?
Historic aerials are invaluable in regard to tracing the evolution of an old course, and also understanding its original design. After all, it wasn’t uncommon during the 1920s and ’30s for in-the-field alterations to be made to original concepts as construction progressed and previously unforeseen opportunities presented themselves. So, even if you have an architect’s drawn plans, you can’t be absolutely certain how the course was actually built without an early aerial. There are a number of fairway bunkers that appear in the 1947 aerial of Essex, for example, that don’t appear on Ross’ drawings, and vice versa. There are other bunkers on the drawings that don’t appear in the aerial. If you can track down one aerial from each decade in a course’s history, a chronological comparison between those photos will tell an interesting tale.
13. What have been the most common comments from those who have read Essex’s club history? Has anything in particular surprised even the oldest Essex members?
That 1947 aerial dispelled the widely held belief that Essex has always been a heavily treed course. I think more than a few members, who actually believe the brilliance of the golf course is attributable to its abundance of trees, were quite surprised to see the original, barren nature of the back nine in particular, as it appears in that photo. While it’s true, the front nine was cut through a forested area, the incoming holes were built on open farmland and remained that way for at least 40 years, until arbitrary planting started in the mid- to late-1960s, as it did elsewhere.
One of favourite stories from the book is about the area comprised of holes 10 through 13, which was so open that past club president, Walter Bartlet, landed his recreational airplane on the 11th fairway during the early 1950s! These days, the 11th fairway is about 25 yards wide, bordered by trees on the right and a pond, installed in 1969 as a means to increase irrigation water storage capacity, at left. You couldn’t land a plane there today, even if you were crazy enough to try!
14. What proved to be the principal sources for information as you began compiling the history?
I was lucky to have Dick Carr as a partner on the project. Dick’s been an Essex member since 1939, and is a past president of the club. He’s also a history buff who had been collecting anything and everything relative to Essex’ history since before I was born. He helped put together a small, soft-cover booklet on the history of the club back in 1983, which was sort of the foundation of our project.
Karen Hewson and Sarah Patton at the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s museum were also very helpful. The RCGA has back-issues of Canadian Golfer magazine from the 1920s and ’30s that were catalogued by my friend, Jim Barclay, while he was serving as the museum’s honorary curator during the mid-1980s. Jim made a wonderful book, Golf in Canada, A History, after going through all of that stuff. And his efforts in that regard have made it comparatively simple to research the history of golf in Canada these days. Canadian Golfer magazine provided comprehensive coverage of the goings-on in golf throughout Canada during the pre-World War II era.
Khristine Januzik at the Tufts Archive in Pinehurst, NC was always encouraging and more than willing to help me dig around down there, where we found Ross’ original plans for both Essex and Roseland.
And it was fascinating to meet and talk with people like Stan Burns and John Gray’s son, Lyle, about the lives their fathers lived through golf. I tracked down Lyle Gray in the San Francisco area a few years ago and subsequently came to learn that his father had worked briefly with golf architect Charles Alison in the Chicago area and at Country Club of Detroit, before settling down as Essex’ green-keeper. Gray was also the first Canadian green-keeper to serve as president of the National Green-keepers Association, which is the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America today. Gray’s was another story that I was thrilled to include in the book.
15. Was there something in particular that you weren’t able to uncover that would have beenespecially beneficial to the finished product?
I was anxious to find a routing plan for the Essex’ first course, on the club’s second site, or at least to try put one together based on the recollections of a few old-timers who had played their as young kids. But that proved to be impossible. That course was called ‘the Prince Farm course’, and it was laid-out by Ernest Way in 1916, shortly after he had finished supervising construction of Donald Ross’ two courses at Detroit Golf Club. Way was the pro/green-keeper there, at Detroit, for many years.
16. Anthing else?
We also couldn’t find a single historic, ground-level photo of Essex’ present-day course, either, which was very disappointing. The oldest photo we have is a shot of the 16th green taken just before the Canadian Open in 1976! There was a clubhouse fire during the mid-1980s that reportedly destroyed a lot of old records and photographs. Presumably, a few old shots of the golf course were victims of the fire.
And I was also hoping to find an earlier aerial of the course, too. Like something from the early 1930s. People at the National Air Photo Library in Ottawa told me very few aerial photos were taken in Canada prior to the Second World War, which explains why the earliest aerial of Essex we’ve been able to find is that one from 1947.
There’s another interesting story about a guy in the Toronto area who’s claimed he has a moving picture taken at Essex in 1928 or ’29, during construction of the course. Reportedly, he’s said the only way he’ll turn it over to the club is if a buddy of his, who lives in Windsor, is made an honorary member! Club directors declined that ‘deal’ a few years ago, so no one knows for sure if this movie actually exists. What a historical treasure it might be though, particularly if Donald Ross appears on film. I understand there’s only been one other movie found to-date that features Ross, taken during the construction of Aronimink near Philadelphia, about 1926.
Working on a history book of any kind, I think there’s always stuff you wish would have been uncovered. But it gets to the point when you have to go to print.
17. Did your research on the design history and evolution of Esseximpactyour new book on classic golf course restoration?
No doubt about it. Studying Essex’ history and evolution really sparked an interest in how golf courses evolve and the potential for restoration. Then, as I traveled more and more, visiting other courses of similar age, I was continually amazed that nearly every one of them had evolved negatively in similar fashion to Essex, principally through a proliferation of trees and a significant loss of fairway acreage and green surface area.
Moreover, it seemed most golfers were very proud of their home course’s design heritage. Yet, at the same time, few clearly realized how much those aged courses had changed over more than half a century. Evolutionary changes occur very slowly.
So, the basic intent of the new book is to help golfers understand how a golf course typically evolves, how to keep any negative evolution in-check, and also to explain how any unwanted changes that have already resulted from natural evolution, the adverse affects of everyday play and maintenance, or blatant redesign can be reversed. And, of course, why we all should want to do just that when it comes to the consistently brilliant work of Donald Ross and his contemporaries!
Please email Jeff at JeMingay@aol.com if you are interested in obtaining a copy of One Hundred Years, A History of Essex Golf & Country Club: 1902-2002.