Feature Interview with Jim Urbina, Part I
1. What impresses you most about Seth Raynor?
I admire Seth Raynor for a couple of reasons.
1) He was a Civil Engineer by trade and he never played golf prior to his association with C.B. Macdonald.
2) He was a man that was defined by his hard work and determination to his each and every job. He was truth full to a fault and usually had the task of telling clients the truth about construction costs when others usually gleamed over that very crucial part.
Seth Raynor was the perfect complement to Macdonald; he often used his math skills and ability to read a map as the cornerstone of his work. When Macdonald was thinking up ideas, Raynor was busy figuring out how to implement those ideas. Of course The National Golf Links was the pinnacle of Macdonaldâ€™s career but without the services of Raynor and many other advisors that golf course would have never been as successful and considered one of the finest golf courses ever constructed. Raynor proved that you didnâ€™t have to play golf to understand the concepts. He took a plan and executed it numerous times on sometimes very difficult landforms.
His crowning glory was perhaps the best golf course that ever existed maybe even better than the National. The Lido club was by all accounts a masterpiece in design and engineering. Seth spent considerable time planning, budgeting and formulating the ideas of how to create such a course and by pictures alone you could tell it was quite and undertaking. I once traveled down to the site of the NLE Lido club a few years back and walked around the area and thought what it must have been like to create such a course.
I was given some pictures of construction at the Fishers Island golf club by Donny Beck. I was floored by the amount of rock he and the crew had to blast through to build the golf course and create features like the Eden.
Fishers Island was another marvelous job creating a golf course in a beautiful setting when soils and rock were not very conducive to good growing conditions. Raynor through his perseverance created golf courses like Yale and Fishers Island when others may have thrown in the towel.
As we look back in history every great golf course designer had an associate and labor crew that gave every waking moment of their time to create wonderful and thoughtful designs envisioned by the Icons of golf.
There is much more to write but maybe for another time.
2. Talk about the process of restoring the 12,000 sq.ft. plus first green at Yeamans Hall (both the first and second time!).
The #1 green at Yeamans Hall was the last green we redid. The club had a designer come in and redesign the first hole back in the 80s. The famous Double Plateau green was flattened and the bunkers reconfigured. Many years before that they had also removed a few of the bunkers and the most obvious deletion was a version of the principles nose just pass the entrance road about 80 yards from the green.
A few years ago the club decided to go ahead and redo the controversial green and bunkers. Working with Jim Yonce we laid out the green to scale based on some maps that Yonce had uncovered years ago. We also had a very good black and white ground photo that was taken somewhere by the principalâ€™s nose bunker so I used that for reference. I shaped the green in and rebuilt the bunkers. The most obvious part of the green that was in the picture was the fairway that had been mowed tight all the way up the left side and tied into the green. I floated out the green and got the clubs approval. It looked very close to the picture and matched the scale of the green that was shown on the map.
Jim grassed the green and bunkers and that winter it was open for play. Anyone that has been around new green construction knows that the first few years the greens tend to be rock hard and not very receptive. After the first couple seasons of play the club decided that the front left pin was too small and would not hold a shot into that green. The club also found out that balls were rolling off the front of the green and back down the fairway because of the firm tight conditions that Yonce keeps the turf at Yeamans.
After some deliberation the club asked if the green could be softened and the pinning area made slightly larger so I came back last year. Got on a small bulldozer and reshaped part of the green and modified the front left pin. Jim also took out the front mowed fairway so that he balls would not roll off if a ball was struck thin and didnâ€™t make it to the top. This year I was back to play in December and everyone seems to like it. Once the green matures and the turf builds some thatch that pin location will seem very tame as compared to the first rendition.
This green is very distinct and used many times in different configurations by Raynor. This one you get to play and experience on the very first hole at Yeamans Hall, So much for warm up holes.
I have discussed with Jim Yonce and others how at Yeamans Hall the entrance road takes you by three famous ideal holes. The entrance road crosses the first hole and then passes by the
Hole # 1 The Double Plateau hole.
Hole # 6 The Redan
Hole # 7 The Road hole.
If you exit out on the loop you then see,
Hole # 10 The Knoll
Hole # 17 Punch Bowl
Hole # 18 Home
That was no coincidence. This display of holes occurs at Mid Ocean Golf Club in the same fashion.
3. Would you have the courage to build such a green on your own?
We just did and ironically itâ€™s the first hole at Old Macdonald. It would be no different than building a large green with three distinct tiers in it. Itâ€™s quirkiness is due to the fact that it is was usually constructed with very uniform levels and in a geometrical shape. If I found that I liked it after it had been rough shaped I would defend it. Pete Dyeâ€™s island green at Sawgrass or the 16th green at Pasatiempo have three distinct levels.
Tough call but in general I like the concept.
4. Of all the Golden Age courses that you have seen, which five do you wish you could claim as a Jim Urbina original? What is it about each one that so impresses you?
I would start off with the National Golf Links of America.
I first saw that course in the middle 80s while working for Pete and his son Perry Dye. I was being programmed to build Dye looking features and had read and seen pictures in a book about The National. It looked awful close to what I was shaping for the Dyes and I was in a hurry to seek out and find this course. I was doing a remodel job for the Dyeâ€™s in Rivervale, New Jersey and we had a rain day so I set out to find the National. Karl Olson was the super at the time and he gave me a tour around the course. I was so moved by the contours and boldness of the golf course I was forever transformed into the art of big features. Remember, I had no preconceived notions of how a golf course should look. My only experience with golf courses designs was based on the Dye theme and seeing something as grand as The National began to shape my foundation of golf course architecture. The width of the golf course and the different angles of attack really showed me that width was a key component in the design of a great course. That course is very complicated and would take me many pages to describe what I learned from countless visits over the years. It was the first iconic golf course I had ever seen.
If on that very first day I stepped on to the property Karl Olson would have been able to read the future and tell me, Jim study it carefully someday you will draw inspiration from this course I would have called him nuts. I would have never dreamed that I would be given an opportunity 25 years later to create something in the spirit of Charles Blair Macdonald and The National.
Next on my list is Cypress Point.
Perry Dye had sent me to Monterey around 1987 to show a potential client from Germany, Carmel Valley Ranch. I did a little research before my trip and found out that Pebble Beach and Cypress Point were very close by. I asked the pro at Carmel to call over and see if we could get on. We saw Pebble and Cypress but only got to walk some of Cypress. I vowed to come back to Monterey and see it again.
Cypress point was the second leg on my journey to discover that not only a very good routing with cool greens and bunkers was important but that itâ€™s beautiful surroundings were a key factor in the foundation of a great golf course. Mackenzie writes in his book â€œThe chief objective of every architect or green-keeper worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itselfâ€. Cypress does that to perfection.
The layering of the bunkers, especially on holes like #5 and 11 really impressed on me that the term â€œMackenzie bunkersâ€ was more than just artsy capes and bays. It had to do with positioning and realizing these bunkers were not independent hazards but intricate puzzle pieces, one depending on the other to form a complex group of hazards. These features distorted the distance and hid fairways that would otherwise be visible from various parts of the golf course. Hard for me to describe in print but easy for me to show someone on a golf course. I also discovered that what was going on behind the green and distance features were as important to the design as what was in the foreground. I really started to understand how important the routing of a golf course was and after walking and playing Cypress, it all started to make sense to me
Last but not the least, I met a man that symbolized what a gentleman is, he was an ambassador to the game of golf. Never once did Jim Langley fail to make me feel welcome at Cypress Point. Sometimes I would stop in unannounced and he would always be willing to show me pictures or talk about Cypress Point until he was called away to tend to a member or other guests. Sometimes you learn more about the game of golf in a brief conversation with someone like Jim. I wish more people in the golf business could be like Jim Langley.
Third on my list would be Prairie Dunes.
Of all the inland courses that I have seen, Prairie Dunes still holds its own against some of the finest players today that includes some of the young guns in the Big 12 end of the year college tournament.
An entrance road, which is usually a negative for me, splits the property but what really stand out are the greens. What appeared to be simple sloping greens from back to front actually had a series of rolls that held balls in check depending on where your ball landed. Greens like #7 and #8 became models for how I would start to create greens surfaces. I referred to them as the Maxwell Rolls. The more I stared at the greens the more I became fascinated by the way they were built. When I was struggling with new ideas would tend to resort back to creating a Maxwell inspired green at least once or twice on every golf course I had worked on.
The 6th hole at Sebonack draws its inspiration from Maxwell and was the first green I shaped at Sebonack. It withstood all criticisms during the approval processes at Sebonack. I only shaped two greens at Sebonack, #6 and #14. #14 was modified this past fall. The others were shaped by Schneider, Slawnik and Iverson. Moral of the story, when in doubt draw your inspiration from Maxwell.
I also really liked the way the bunkers blended into the native surrounds with the back of almost every bunker touched by native plant material, with the most visual of the bunkers being on the 17th hole. Every year that I returned, the old golf pro used to ask me. â€œWhy do you keep coming back here, what do you learn when you are walking around out thereâ€. I hardly ever played even though I always was offered a round of golf. I was usually just passing through so I figured my time would be better spent walking instead of playing. I played it couple of times maybe itâ€™s time to make a return trip.
If the fourth course on my list had my name attached to it I would be grateful, that is Pinehurst #2.
Pete Dye told me in Arizona when we were doing the golf course at Arizona State University to spend some time walking around Pinehurst. He said it would be good for me to see it so off I went. Using Peteâ€™s name was like the Golden Key, when he would tell me whom to call to arrange a visit I was always treated like royalty and welcomed with open arms.
He told me to pay special attention to the greens and the way they reforested the whole golf course. For some reason Pete was fascinated by the way Pinehurst had planted all of the pine trees around course #2. I would come to find out later that Pete was influenced a lot by Donald Ross.
When I saw the golf course it had not gone through all of the greens revisions, so other then the topdressing of the green surfaces I was able to experience the way the greens were before the numerous changes. The green roll offs were something I had never seen before and thought what an effective way to make a green defensible. The way they mowed the green surrounds had an impact on the bunkers. Usually they were being mowed right up to the edge of every bunker, which was an impressive way to deter aiming for the edges of the greens. It was the first time I had seen such small greens and was convinced that is why Pete told me to pay a visit.
The crowns of the greens and the slopes that were built into the greens like holes #8 and #9 were terrifying. The 17th and 18th greens were something to behold and really the 18th green was a standout among the rest of them. I am glad I got to see the greens before they started to modify them. I went back several years later and I have visited Course #2 at least 5 times over my career. I was so intrigued by Ross that I spent several years seeing as many of his designs as possible. Roaring Gap, Highland Golf Club, Camden C.C in the Carolinas and many of his works in the North East. I wish I could make another fact-finding trip.
Last but not the least is St Andrews.
Although it wasnâ€™t my first course I visited on my initial trip to Scotland it had the most impact. Countless things have been written about St Andrews and every golf course designer in the golden age stopped into to take a look. Macdonald lived in St Andrews and Mackenzie wrote about the links course and referred to it many times in his book.
I first strolled around it on a Sunday afternoon in the early nineties and spent all afternoon on the course looking around and trying to figure out what all of the hoopla was about. I had a chance to meet Walter Woods and spend some time with him telling stories over a bowl of soup. Walter was a very interesting man with plenty of stories to go around. I played golf and walked away thinking why was this course so highly rated. After my second visit I started to understand itâ€™s nuances noticing every little bump and hollow, thatâ€™s what makes it so interesting. To me the little things stand out. The approaches and bumps around the greens and the little roll offs. The way the bunkers appear to be everywhere and at different angles to the greens. So much going on in such a small space.
I often tell people that it is the randomness that I really have fallen in love with. It rejects all modern golf ideological ideas. It has nothing to do with geometric design that we are so accustomed to.
Todayâ€™s golf course architecture relies on mathematical equations to decide where greens and bunkers should relate to one another. Every fairway has a standard width and all the tees are built up to define them from the existing topography. Greens are designed to varying sizes depending length of shot into the green and bunkers are placed so that only certain caliber of players are challenged. All of these modern design clichÃ©s are thrown out the window at the Old Course.
I began to understand why modern American golf courses designs started to all look alike. They used that same basic strategy. I coined the phrase corridor golf in a Renaissance meeting we had in Michigan at the home office several years ago. Tom hated the word I chose but it spoke of the problems with modern designs. Next time you watch your favorites golf tourney on TV, especially when they show an aerial view, look at what I am talking about. Itâ€™s all the concentric lines converging into one focal point-the green. We have so many lines or borders, homes, trees, bunkers, lake edges, rough cut, step cut, collar cuts forcing us to focus our attention on the greens. That is what corridor golf does. As you stand in the fairway the outside lines forces your eye to a focal point usually a green which is very unnatural, St Andrews taught me how to break up those lines of convergence
My goal was to start eliminating the lines. I started that process at Pacific Dunes. With the help of Ken Nice the superintendent we were able to mask those lines. I usually marked all of the fairway lines at Pacific Dunes with pin flags before seeding. I paid special attention to where the lines led you. I tried on almost every hole to mask that line. I used bunkers and bushes and hillocks and just about everything I could to hide the lines. Breaking up the corridor as I like to call it was my main focus. After Pacific Dunes every course I was involved with I would concentrate on breaking up the corridor lines. More often than not I was successful. The way Ken maintained the course was really the key. Jeff (Big Bird) Sutherland has taken over the reins and has made many marked improvements to the course.
One of the strangest days at Sebonack was the day Jack and I got into a discussion over grassing lines. It happened on the tenth hole in the fairway. I had marked out the fairway edges and Jack asked me to move the fairway line in about twenty feet closer to the center of the fairway. The reason I had it out so far was to give the golfer no sense of where the left edge of the fairway from the tee. So I moved it farther away from the centerline. I was hiding it behind a roll in the fairway but Jack didnâ€™t see it that way. He wanted you to roll into the rough if slightly hit off line. Our debate went on for a few minutes until he finally grabbed me in a BEAR hug and tried to wrestle me to the ground. Everybody stood in disbelief. It was all in FUN and from that day forward I had a different kind of relationship with Jack. Respectful on my part but realizing that Jack had a sense of humor.
I also began experimenting with hiding the teeing grounds, next time youâ€™re playing Pacific Dunes after you have hit your tee shot and you stand in the landing area take a look around and see if you can see another teeing ground. Pacific Dunes is really a culmination of ideas that I learned at The Old course. For me itâ€™s the randomness of St Andrews. I learned a lot and continue to find places to create little features I learned from hanging around the Old Course. Old Macdonald was the next course that I could implement many of things that I have learned from walking and playing St Andrews.
I was back at the Old Course this past summer working with Michael Robin. He was working on his film piece on the Journey of Old Macdonald. As we shot different video clips of the Eden and The Road hole I once again got to explore the grounds of the course. I was once again taking more pictures and storing ideas for future use. Part of my never-ending learning experience.
5. Much has been made about the improvements to 13-15 at San Francisco GC. Did you do work elsewhere on the course or was that it confined to those three?
Our affiliation with SFGC began when we were asked to redo the greens after they had suffered through the dreaded nematode problem. The greens were surveyed and then they were fumigated. I would then get on a sand pro and resurface the greens. Every time I started a new green I had a bit of apprehension realizing when I was done floating the green they would reseed it and then it would be subject to intense scrutiny by the members and the best core of caddies I have seen at a club. I had a sense of relief when it was all done that was a big undertaking.
Every green was redone as well as the green surrounds and any bunkers adjacent to the greens. We also redid some of the hunkers that had been shrunk or lost over time. After a successful resurfacing of the green we were asked to consider redoing the 3 holes that had been altered in the 40s by the over pass on John Daly Blvd. We undertook that operation several years ago now and the club is still adjusting to the change. The best hole out of the three we restored was the par 3 â€“ 13th, aptly named Little Tilly. Last year I went back and restored the bunker front right on the Duel Hole. That bunker restoration was widely accepted by the club.
They are contemplating restoring three bunkers on the 9th fairway that were removed in the late 40s. Will see if the club follows through with the restoration of the bunkers in the fairway. We will leave that one up to the club.
6. Please articulate how/why Tillinghast’s artistry at SFGC resonates so well with you.
The first time I saw SFGC I was taken aback by the scale of the golf course. I had not seen bunkers as big on any other golf course and when I walked down the 10th hole my first thought was who ever designed this course wasnâ€™t afraid to dot the landscape. I wanted to emulate this scale of bunkering on a future project but couldnâ€™t imagine the cost. Then after talking with Bob Klinesteker the super at SFGC I soon realized the cost in todayâ€™s standard of bunker construction might not be feasible. I am guessing that it may cost upwards of 500 to 750 thousand to construct and fill up these bunkers with sand material.
With over 115 bunkers the landscape is filled with beautiful sculptures that are disguised as hazards. After many return visits I began to understand the scale and how the bunkers were just a part of the reason SFGC is so good. Green slopes that play tricks on the eye especially greens like #16. If you pay close attention to the green surrounds you would think that the green slopes from back to front but shooting the slopes I found out that a lot of the greens are actually sloping the opposite direction. I didnâ€™t catch it the first time and that goes for a lot of other greens on the property.
I have never understood how someone could make instant judgments on a golf course after walking or playing one time. Most golf courses are more complicated than that and careful observations must be made before making bold statements about the ability of the golf course designer and or the playability of the golf course itself.
SFGC has a character that changes with the weather. The golf course plays longer then the card shows and when the wind comes up the valley; holes like # 14 can play much longer then the yardage that is posted. Hole # 5 is a personal favorite and really itâ€™s the offset fairway both right and left that gives this hole some character. Having a long diagonal bunker is really the key to this hole and itâ€™s design. # 5 at SFGC reminds me of the Leven hole at Lundin Links. Drive the ball as far right as you can carry the right diagonal bunkers in order to get the maximum view of the green as possible. Play it straight to the green and away from the bunkers layered on the right side and you have to carry a second series of bunkers on the left that mask the green and the pin location.
The whole golf course has a sense of individuality. It starts at the front entrance and continues on towards the clubhouse and pro shop. Your first view is across the expansive golf course looking out over # 1 and 9 to the west. You stand on # 1 tee and you see the gentle roll in the topography and for just a moment you get a quick peek at hole # 10.with itâ€™s bunkers and windswept trees just waiting for you. Hard to copy the look of SFGC it really is pure artistry as you penned in your question.
I am happy to be a part of the restoration work and as long as they care to ask my opinion I am willing to protect it from outside meddling.
7. Talk about the green expansion at the Valley Club of Montecito and what that has meant for how certain holes play.
After years of debating on the reconstruction of the greens at the Valley Club we finally agreed to help the Valley Club convert the soil based greens to sand based. As you would suspect greens that had very irregular edges that followed the contours of the surrounding bunkers had morphed into almost round circles. It happens at almost every club across country.
In the beginning I made an initial visit to the club to paint out the edges of the greens that we would be expanding to. I based my information on aerial maps photos and ground shots taken over the course of several years. We did some probing prior to digging up the greens and in some cases expanding the green after digging into the core.
The greens that really benefited from the expansions were greens like # 13 and # 16. These greens really had two or three pin locations located right in the centers. The Par 3-4th hole had a lot of bunker splash build up and had reduced the size of putting surface. When we regraded the greens we took out the bunker splash and really expanded the green on this hole to the bunker lips. A marked improvement.
The lost contours that were associated with some of the bunker edges and in the coves between the bunkers have all been restored. Now you really have to decide where you are going to place your approach shot into the green. Putting has become a premium and pin locations have really become varied. The one hole that really benefited from the green resurfacing was hole # 11.
Now after many revisions to the par three 11th over the years including several washouts from the creek overflowing itâ€™s banks in the 1930s, this green once again enjoys several new pin locations and the bunkers faithfully restored behind the green.
All of this work could not have been done without the assistance of the golf course superintendent Roger Robarge and his staff. A special thanks to greens chairman Parker Anderson who checked in from time to time but his faith in our ability and his presence relaying information to the club was really the reason for the success of the greens expansion. On time and within budgets I am happy to report that the club is enjoying the efforts of all involved.
The core of the golf course is still the routing and the sheer beauty that is The Valley Club. The greens expansions have just added to the pleasures of playing in Montecito.
8. What are your five favorite sites (i.e. your five favorite pieces of property before any work occurred) that you have ever worked on and why?
Plum Creek Golf Club (Formerly known as the T.P.C at Plum Creek):
That was the first course I worked on and where I started shaping courses for Pete Dye. I was amazed how we were going to transform this rolling land in the foothills of the Rockies. Transforming the rocky landscape, dry washes and scrub oak hillsides into an 18-hole golf course that would hold a senior tour event. The land was really spectacular and provided a lot of different eco systems to work in. It even had a rail line running along 4 holes which when I started I never understood the coolness of that. Come to find out years later in my travels some of the finest links land golf courses had rail lines that ran along the golf property. I believe that is why Pete always liked that stretch of holes.
Leaving some of the features like the dry washes alone and shaping other landforms were part of the first time experiences working for Pete. When I look back at what we did shaping wise it seems very artificial in some places including the three finishing holes. All golf holes on the water shored up by railroad ties. Par 4, Par 3, Par 4.
This site was amazing, with so many features to work with, the Arizona desert was one of the most diverse that I had ever seen. Flowers, shrubs, trees, dry washes, and wonderful hillsides to tie into. Landforms that were easy to maneuver around and topography that allowed for the routing to move in and out of the canyons. It is a very walk able course despite the rugged looking terrain surrounding the golf site. Distant views that were easy to align the holes with and most of all the peace and quiet of 400 acres of unspoiled land. That course has the ability to expand to another 18 holes. Maybe even better then the first 18. When you get back to the holes like #5 and 6 you feel like you have been transformed in time. As good of a site as Desert Forest, Troon and The Boulders before development.
No need to say anything else. Great land, diverse landscape and a nice blend of dunes features big and small. I could go on and on.
Different looking dunes compared to most of the dunes in the sand hills region. Sharper looking with a mix of softer rolls in between. I knew the golf course would appear to be different looking then the Sand hills just based on the scale of the dunes. Sand Hills is still the king of the hill but Ballyneal has provided an alternate look and has a different feel when walking the course. I have seen other sites from Nebraska down to Texas all having similar sandy sites but for scale and style of dune Ballyneal is distinct.
This site was unbelievable the first time I walked out to the waterâ€™s edge. The sand and natural scrapes were a sight to behold. The key to this site was uncovering the small scale of dunes hidden under the trees. Clearing was going to be key to preserving the features, that is why I asked Mark and Garrett to clear with root rakes and excavators so that we wouldnâ€™t destroy the small features that would make holes like 11 and 12 at Sebonack so unique. Michael agreed to clear the golf course using my suggestion even though a few of the bigger golf course contractors bent his ear and told him that what I had suggested was a waste of time.
One day while walking the site Bill Coore said to me â€“ â€œJim, you got a fine site to work with here. I sure wish I could have my hands on it.â€ Contrary to Pacific Dunes, Old Macdonald had some of the choppiest land out in the flats. When you look at the land from afar it looks very soft but when people walk out and see each hole you will see nice little rolls and features that you wonâ€™t see on most links land. Hole 13 at Old Mac is a good example. I would take 200 acres of this kind of land it would be really fun to create 18 holes out of this type of dune formation. Looks flat compared to the surrounding dunes but far from it. I have always talked about the grand scale of Old Macdonald and most people will see why but in contrast itâ€™s the small contours that I appreciate the most.
I consider myself very lucky to have worked on sites like I have described. With that luck I have come to understand not to destroy the landforms during construction. I value every feature big or small. I realize from the very start it is important to evaluate what is worth preserving and what can be transformed into something more usable.
It starts from the very first day you step foot on the land. Recognize the landform, preserve when possible and restore when applicable. It is the key to maintaining that natural look.
9. What is an example of an okay site that was transformed into something much more special by the skill of the architect?
The first one that comes to mind is Garden City Golf Club. If you looked at the topo map of that land you may have passed it over for some land that was more interesting. Garden City has some subtle elevation changes but really the cross-bunkers and green sites change the way the golf course appears to the eye. You would swear that you were walking up and down all day but really it is just the way the cross-bunkers were used. The routing uses the natural features at just the right time and the one or two gouges in the land are used effectively on the shorter holes. You never want to burn up small elevation changes on a long hole. Try to maximize it on two or three shorter holes. If I counted all the holes routed along the flattest part of the land you would say B.S. But really holes like # 10 are almost dead flat with just enough slopes to get the water off the fairway. But Emmitt masked the hole with cross-bunkers and pot bunkers to give the hole a sense of elevation change.
A true masterpiece designed to perfection on land that many golf course designers would have passed over.
If I were to design a walking only golf course it would be on the model of Garden City. Well thought out green complexes, well placed bunkering not to severe but testing. A routing that could be interlooped and most of all, simple to maintain.
I could shuffle my feet around Garden City even if I were in my 90â€™s.