Feature Interview with Kye Goalby, Part I
April, 2010

1. How did you get into golf course architecture?

My dad, Bob Goalby, was a Tour pro, as were a couple of my cousins, Jay and Jerry Haas, who grew up a block away. So, I was around golf, and some pretty good golfers, my whole life. I was an ok player and played a good bit of junior golf and amateur golf through college. I was on the golf team at Wake Forest, but golf was not something I had found on my own and I never really loved it. As college went on I got burned out on golf, and by my senior year I basically quit playing (my not playing really hurt our team too, as we won the NCAA golf championship that year!).

Following college I thought I would utilize my economics degree and went to work with Fidelity Investments in Boston. After a while, I realized I needed to get out of the office tower and be outside. I was thinking about what I could do that would get me outside more and thought of calling a person I knew who had a construction company that did golf courses. A couple of days later I was talking to my dad, who was playing the Senior Tour at the time, and out of the blue he told me some people in our hometown wanted him to design a course for them. Well, I told him I wanted to help and right then I decided to trade the suit and tie for some work boots and move back there to help on that project. I had no idea what I would be doing, but was young and stupid enough to believe I could design a golf course.

My dad had a bit of experience in this. He was involved with a few golf course developments, and he built his own course, Yorktown, back in 1961. Yorktown actually has bit of an interesting architectural slant:

Yorktown, near Belleville, Illinois an 18-hole par three course my dad built soon after starting on the tour. He was an assistant pro at Wee Burn CC in Connecticut one summer in the mid 1950’s and when the season ended he went to Florida to work on his game. I guess there were quite a few others down there doing the same, which led to a bit of gambling. My dad knew one of the guys he played with in those money games had recently decided to try his hand at designing courses, so he called him to provide some help with his new course. He had this guy, who ended up being pretty good at course design (Pete Dye!) come over from Indiana to design his course. You would never in a million years guess Pete Dye had anything to do with it, but it was a great place to play as a kid and Jay Haas pretty much learned to play golf there as well as at St. Clair CC, the Langford course where we were members.

Anyway, I got involved in the new course and was on site every day. I made 5 bucks an hour doing all sorts of things from coming up with greens designs to trailblazing through woods to flag holes for clearing and even attempting to explain golf to the union road building guys that were building the golf course. It was a great experience and I was really fortunate to get an opportunity to have way more input than I had any right to on my first project. I really loved the work and was blessed as more opportunities soon came up. I have been doing it since, and the best consequence of this was I actually found my own love of golf through course design as the years went on.

Kye caddying for his father at the 1995 Masters

2. Did you learn to shape on that course?

No, as I said it was a union job, with very draconian rules and I was not allowed on a machine. So I was drawing a bit and trying to explain the concepts we were after on that job. It is actually quite funny to think about how much I thought I knew then. Ignorance is bliss!

On the next few jobs I was on site every day and sometimes things just were not coming out exactly like I was imagining. Since something was getting lost in my translations, it seemed like it would be more efficient, and fun, if I could just do it myself. So I started messing around on the machines when I could, shoving dirt etc. It seemed to click pretty quickly for me and I started shaping more and more. In 1993 I shaped basically all of Indian Springs, a course I designed in rural Illinois.

3. With your Dad being a tour pro you must have seen quite a few courses as a kid. Are there any travels with your dad that stood out to you?

One thing, sort of golf architecture related, that I clearly remember was getting in trouble with my mom when I was about 12 and being sent away with my dad as punishment (more like getting me out of her hair). We were living in Palm Springs then and I had to drive up with my dad to Carmel and hang around with him for the week of the Bing Crosby Pro-Am! So my ingenious punishment had me skipping school and having to walk inside the ropes at Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and Spyglass with my dad and his partner Jim Garner!

I vividly recall coming out of the woods at Spyglass Hill and being blown away that you could have golf holes in those amazing dunes. It was so different from the parkland type courses I was used to seeing that it truly seemed like another planet to me at age 12.

I also still remember much of the day at Cypress Point, and not surprisingly, especially 15, 16 and 17. On 16, my dad’s tee shot ricocheted off the cliff down to the water. When we got up near the green, his ball had come to rest on the small beach that is down there. The group built a sort of human chain and lowered him down the cliff. I wanted to go down there so badly when I saw there were a couple of seals near the ball and I started trying to climb down myself. My dad was yelling up at me to stay there as I was making my way down, but I pretended I could not hear him over the din of the ocean. I did not make it though, as Rockford (for you youngsters, “Rockford” was the Firebird driving, private eye Jim Garner played in The Rockford Files) grabbed me and made me stay up there.

I remember standing there with him watching my dad hit this huge swing sand shot off the beach that ended up about three feet from the hole. I thought that was about the coolest thing I had ever seen – playing golf off the beach next to a bunch of seals. Unfortunately, he missed the par putt, but to this day I still have a great affinity for rugged and natural elements on the golf course, so maybe that trip and the “punishment” did some good!

One other story that I was telling some guys at the Masters this year is also pretty funny. In 1978, I was 14 and with my dad at the Masters. On Monday I was on the practice tee with him while he was hitting balls when Sam Snead strolls out. My dad tells me to let Sam watch me hit a few. I was kind of hemming and hawing as there were a few people in the bleachers with a few more coming to watch Sam.

Well Sam, who was a good friend of my dad’s and had been to our house quite a few times, gets this devious little grin on his face and drawls “come on boy let me see what you got”. So I have to show him, right?

In those days you actually had to hit your own shag bag to caddies standing in the range. So as I proceeded to hit a few, my dad’s caddie is getting pissed because I, unlike the Masters contestants, was not dropping each shot at his feet and he in turn had dodge other player’s shots and their caddies to gather in mine.

About this time I hear some rather loud rumblings behind me in the stands. I turned around and see mobs filling the stands and then I see Jack Nicklaus walking across the tee towards us. Jack stops, and joins in the swing critique. I am about to crap my pants, as the grandstands have gone from basically empty to full in about 30 seconds and all eyes, including those of a couple of the greatest golfers in history are on me!

Somehow I hit a couple ok and they tell me to release my hips a bit more, so I try, and of course, with my hips open, dead shank one that rattles into the namesake trees of Magnolia Lane! The caddy is now glaring at me while storming into the lane to find the ball. I try to give the club back to my dad but he tells me to hit another. The next one again laterals into the Magnolias! I am now probably as red as Sam’s Wilson golf bag, so I take a huge breath; try to relax my arms and swing. Shank! Right into bleepin’ Magnolia Lane again! I was so embarrassed I wanted to run off the range, but fortunately they had mercy and yanked me before I took out a windshield!

Thirty years later, I am probably the only guy in the world who, when driving down Magnolia Lane, thinks only of shanks!

4. How did you end up working at Apache Stronghold?

In the mid 90’s I did a few solo design/build projects and then another project with my dad near St. Louis.  As that project proceeded, I knew I had some very different ideas than he did and wanted to explore them.

Over the years I had become aware of, and bought, books like Golf Architecture in America, The Architectural Side of Golf, and Anatomy of a Golf Course that really impacted me. Then I remember in January of 1997 reading The Spirit of St Andrews and The Captain and literally jumping in my car and driving cross country to California to check out all the courses I was reading about. When I got back I knew I had to do something different.

By this time I had been shaping a lot of my own designs and I was a big believer in the results that were achieved by creating the course in the field rather than from plans and stakes. I wanted to try to work with guys that did it that way.

I had tried contacting Pete Dye, a few years back, but Alice told me “Pete worked alone.”  So this time I skipped Pete and sent letters and a resume to Bill Coore and Tom Doak. A bit later I got a call from Tom Doak saying he had been carrying my letter in his briefcase for a while and had been meaning to call me. He asked if I would be interested in working with them. Of course I said yes.

In December of 1997, Jim Urbina called and asked if I wanted to work on a project “east of Phoenix”. I was like, “hmm, golf course project with Tom Doak…. winter…. east of Phoenix…. I am pretty good a geography, must be the Scottsdale area. Awesome.” I told him I was in.

Well a few days later, Jim gets back to me and tells me the project is outside of Globe, Arizona, and even with my self-proclaimed geography skills, I have no idea where that is until I get a hold of a map. Looking at a map I realized Globe was not near Scottsdale, and when I arrived there on my birthday in February of 1998 it took about 3 seconds to know it was absolutely not Scottsdale!

5. What impressed you during the building of Apache Stronghold?

Well I saw a matinee in Mesa on one of the few days we took off on that job and saw The Big Lebowski. The movie, and particularly Jeff Bridges as “The Dude”, were quite impressive!

To this day Apache Stronghold and The Big Lebowski are intertwined for me.

But I don’t think that’s what you are asking!

As far as the actual golf course goes, as I said that was the first time I worked for Doak and I actually met him for the first time about 10 days into that job.

What stood out the most to me at that time was Tom’s boldness. He utilized natural features in ways I was not used to. I had been doing some projects of my own before that and while I tried to find natural green sites when routing, I would still end up creating most of the green contours. I was really impressed by the green sites he found that hardly needed to be touched – and even more impressed by the fact that he wanted to leave them untouched!

The greens that especially come to mind are 1 and 5. Those greens were essentially natural contours that we just welled out, trying not to change the natural contours and surrounds. I really don’t think any of the architects I was familiar with then would even think about using those wild landforms as greens. Seeing him utilize those green sites had a big impact on me and helped me truly expand my thinking. The other thing that made an impression on me was how much he thought about chipping and recovery around the greens. That was something I had not heard people discussing or focusing on prior to Apache.

Apache Stronghold’s fifth green from behind

6. From an architect’s perspective, what do you admire about Saint Louis Country Club?

First off, just to make things clear for those who have not read your review of the course, the clubs consulting architect is Brian Silva not me.

I got involved through a bit of happenstance; I had recently moved back to St. Louis and was visiting the club with a friend. We stopped by the superintendent, Tim Burch’s office and saw a rough draft of a master plan on the wall. We asked about it and found out they were going to begin a “sympathetic restoration” that fall. I let him know I recently moved back to the area, absolutely loved the golf course and would gladly use my shaping skills and understanding of the design style to help them restore it in a way that looked “old” – if they thought they needed help. At the time I was pretty busy with Doak, but there was no way I was going to let someone else get on a place so special if I could help it.

Tim Burch is really passionate about STLCC as well as restoring the Macdonald elements, and I guess he appreciated my similar attitude as he called about 6 months later to see if I still wanted to be involved. We have done work a couple of times a year since – with his crew doing all the hard work. It has worked out well for me, and I hope for STLCC, to do a few weeks of work each year while actually sleeping in my own bed!

As for what I admire about the club, I think the first thing is how little has really been modified over the years and how much of MacDonald and Raynor’s work is still there. Fortunately, very few of the members or employees of the place thought they were smarter than MacDonald!

The other thing that really stands out to me is the routing. There is a great variety in the way the routing advantageously incorporates the valleys and ravines throughout the property. A quick illustration of that being holes 4, 5 and 6:

The fourth, the Road Hole, uses the valley in the landing area to give a benefit to a tee shot played right (but the green is a reverse of the real road hole, so it “favors” a shot from the left). The valley is not very pronounced on the right, but it deepens and angles away from the player as it moves left, so that most tee shots favoring the left probably don’t clear the face of it. The angle of the hillside also feeds tee-shots, especially those with hook spin, toward the left fairway bunker. It’s somewhat akin to hitting over the hotel but in reverse – and inverse as well. I think it is very indicative of how Macdonald and Raynor took the ideas of their template holes and utilized inherent natural features to create similar strategic characteristics without really copying the holes or forcing them upon the land.

One other little trick that showed up when we restored the cross bunkers in front of the fourth tees was the perfect tie-in of the bunker faces to the landing area on the right. (When excavating the bunkers I went down until I found the old clay drain tile and stopped. The dirt removed created the bunker faces, which tied in just right with a tiny bit of work to adjust for the newer tee elevations. Finding the clay tiles and old sand was always good sign you had correctly determined the original bunker locations! ) The bunker faces hide the beginning of the right side of the fairway, camouflages the fact that the right side is an easier play and less undulated, and creates an illusion that the hole, and the carry over the valley, is less daunting than it actually is.

At the fifth, Macdonald used a ravine for the location of the punchbowl green site (the funky creek that now unfortunately runs behind the green was piped originally), and they also perfectly placed a fairway bunker right of the landing area in a low area that effectively feeds balls in the right half of the fairway towards it.

The sixth green at St Louis CC

On the sixth, a short par four, McDonald chose a plateau landing area between two ravines, requiring a well struck accurate shot, in both direction and distance, to set up good view of the green for the approach. With #6 greens contouring, the tee shot is quite important, because that green is definitely worth seeing!

7. Clubs and their members now appreciate that certain design styles are more expensive to maintain going forward than others. What are three tell tale signs that a course will be expensive to maintain?

Three well dressed assistant superintendents riding around on carts. 🙂

Honestly, I do not have experience in maintenance, so I am really not the right person to ask this. One thing that relates to my earlier attempt to be funny is the how there seems to be such a difference between the expectations in the US compared to the UK.

As an example, I am sure I saw more maintenance staff in one round at Cherry Hills in Denver last June than I saw combined over 20 rounds at an array of great courses throughout the UK last August.

How this relates to your question is that labor is the primary expense in course maintenance, so eliminating features, practices and expectations that require additional labor would be the key to reducing costs.

8. Many people are only familiar with the name of the head architect. In terms of the people who actually move the dirt and build the courses, who are some of the most talented guys now?

Since I have spent most of the past 12 years working with Tom Doak and his guys my perspective is a quite myopic. As far as what it takes to move the dirt well, having technical proficiency of the machine is great, and experience in the dirt is very valuable, but unless you’re just painting by numbers, a lot more goes into it than mechanical skills. Operating the machine requires a bit of aptitude, but really I think anyone can become proficient with enough time in the seat. It does not take a genius to run heavy equipment.

What does require intelligence and talent, however, is being able to create features that are truly indistinguishable from their surrounds and are also integrated and cohesive with the strategy, challenge and beauty of the course, all while comprehending what is challenging, yet fun, for all golfers.

This seems to be a pretty unique skill set. To be really good takes a passion for the study of golf architecture, as well as a true understanding and firsthand knowledge of the classic courses, including being able to discern and understand the smallest details of why the great ones stand out. If you can grasp this and then have a real appreciation for nature and all the elements that are present and unique to each spot you are working, you are on your way to getting it, and maybe being able to build something really good.

There are probably three guys that really grasp all of this and stand out to me. In alphabetical order they are Eric Iverson, Brian Schneider and Brian Slawnik. They can build anything whether it’s greens, bunkers, tees, fairway contours or some quirky little random feature. If someone considers me in a group with them, that is a real honor.

All three of these guys work for Tom Doak, and while Tom gives the people working with him a lot of credit, I don’t think these guys contributions, and how good they are, is close to understood, or appreciated by most of the people within the golf industry or on GolfClubAtlas. Part of this is likely because they are not out to gain attention or credit for themselves, rather they are focused on teamwork and are dedicated and passionate about simply creating the best golf course possible when on site. They are each golf course architects with the rare ability to also expertly and directly craft either their or Tom’s ideas in the dirt. They also have the intelligence and skills to personally tweak on-the-fly when appropriate, adding or subtracting details without losing the important concepts that are the foundation of the hole or even the course.

From left Brian Schnieder, Kye Goalby, Brian Slawnik and Eric Iverson at Pacific Dunes in April 2010

9. What is fine example of each of their works?

Before expounding on that you have to understand that no matter which guys “work” it is, ultimately, to really get a great final product requires the input of more than just one guy. You obviously begin with the designer, and while one guy may be responsible for taking that idea and initially building it, to get it from dirt to a finished golf feature utilizes the skills and hard work of a lot of guys. Offhand I think of the contributions from people like Will Smith, Dan Proctor, Brian Caesar, Mike McCartin, Jonathon Reisetter, Chris Hunt, Patrick Montgomery, Ryan Crago, George Waters and Kyle Franz. All of these guys bust their butts, and one of the great things about working with a truly talented team to create something, is no matter whose idea something is, the final product usually improves with the input and thoughtful work of the guys. Putting it simply, the more depth of talent on site, the better the golf course.

As for the examples:

Eric Iverson
The first thing I think about with Eric Iverson is how well he plans out what he does, how efficient he is and also how the heck he stays so clean!

An example of this was a few of the greens at Stonewall (new) that he built. We had three dozers, two were smaller modern John Deere machines with 6 way blades (these move almost any direction seamlessly) and the other was some really old, monstrous piece of junk with an unresponsive four-way blade (up, down, tilt right tilt left). It should have been on a scrap heap, but the GM picked it up for a song and had it on site.

For some reason, no one ever wanted to get on that thing…. but when Eric showed up, that was what was available and he hopped on the beast without whining and built a couple of really cool greens (very quickly) that were also probably more meticulously finished than what the rest of us were doing with the “good” dozers. Watching him do that was a great lesson in what being diligent, thoughtful and imaginative, while at the same time thinking about how the dirt will balance out, can lead to real efficiency, and in his case also some really great greens contours.

Every move he made had purpose.

Eric always seems to have thought through what he is going to do before he starts (I, on the other hand, may start with an idea but tend to change focus or embellish and react to what I see from the seat). Eric also finishes everything he does with great accuracy and detail and does not leave a lot of clean-up work for others. Seeing him do this time in and time out pushed me, and I think others that work for Tom, to be much “cleaner” with our work.

Brian Schneider
Brian is a nut about seeing golf courses and has a great skill of quickly distilling what elements of certain holes and greens make them great (or not so great). Brian got his first shot running a dozer on a project of mine in Virginia, when he was working for me. He naturally took to it without any struggles and with very little explaining from me. I don’t know if that was from him watching others or what, but he did not need much time to get the machine to do what he was after.

Using Stonewall again as an example of his skills, Brian had been given his first opportunity to work for Renaissance there and Bruce Hepner just let him wing a couple of greens his first few days on site to see what he could do. I remember walking up to the first green he did, the fifteenth, and kind of going “whoa, that’s courageous”. After our project in VA, I had no work so I let him go and he spent about 6 months touring courses in the UK and then about 6 more months working on the maintenance crew at Pine Valley, before getting the opportunity to work for Doak at Stonewall. He definitely brought some ideas with him from the courses he saw and was not afraid to let it fly. Tom did tweak that green a small bit (and of course improved it) but a large majority of what is there is what Brian originally did.

What I learned from this green, and others he did on that job, was not to be afraid to use relatively large unpinnable areas of steep slope within a green to enhance strategy, a design features he quite possibly picked up working at places like Augusta National and Pine Valley, where that is so well done. I started on low budget courses and also had the lingering voice of a tour player dad in my ear and sometimes tended to think a bit conservatively. Seeing Brian’s daring and intelligent work at Stonewall reminded me to do what you believe and trust what you are doing. Tom obviously liked the work too, as he hired Brian full time a month or two after that.

Another example of Brian’s work that shows his grasp of the intricacies of great old stuff is the road hole green at Old Mac. I was not there at the time, but from what I understand the green that was originally put there was much higher and when Brian was on a visit with Tom he bugged him to let him rebuild it to get it right. Like I said, I don’t know what was there before, but what is there now is a truly awesome road hole green, probably the best take on the original I have ever seen.

Brian Slawnik
Brian had just finished his graduate turf program when I met him on the Atlantic City CC project, where he was running a tractor and box-blade finish grading fairways and other things for a few weeks. I don’t know if it was his early experience working on smaller equipment or just his nature, but he has a great eye and artistic focus for the smallest details. To me this first stood out when I saw Pacific Dunes. Brian was on site pretty much every day throughout that job and the level of detail and the superb finish work on that project is so far above the work that we had done on the previous jobs Apache Stronghold and Atlantic City. Being that Brian was the main addition to the Renaissance team, and knowing his work, I think it was his presence, eye for detail and pure hard work that pushed the envelope on the detail work at Pacific Dunes and also courses since (I was doing my own project in Virginia at the time, so maybe it actually was my absence that was the key!).

When we were working at The Renaissance Club, both Brian and I loved heading out for an evening round at North Berwick (of course followed by a pint or two). We both were fascinated with the incorporation of walls throughout that golf course, but he realized the walls we had built at TRC were looking a bit sterile. He was always checking out the windblown sand and how it had covered the walls at North Berwick and one day at TRC he started shoving dirt over and against the newly built walls there. I asked him what the heck he was doing. He explained, and I joined him and we took his idea and ran with it, trying to make a new wall across a flat carrot field look like it had been there for eons. While this is by no means the extent of his talent, it is a great example of how he sees things and how he combines little details to make the whole course appear to be one harmonious landscape.

18 at The Renaissance Club at Archerfield – with new stone walls in the process of being covered by” windblown dunes”

10. You have worked on quite a few of Tom Doak’s projects. Which are your favorites and why?

I am not really sure how many I have been part of, probably around 15 or 16 if you include restoration work, but from a favorite golf course perspective that would be Ballyneal. Just to have an opportunity to work on a site like that was a dream come true. Being there from groundbreaking to completion of seeding in such a fun environment and having the opportunity to build fairway contours, bunkers and greens and even tees of that nature made it even better. It was so much fun going out there every morning working in perfect sand, on an amazing landscape, and being given so much leeway to utilize our talents and really participate in so many elements of building and designing a golf course whose goal was to be fun and natural.

Reaching that goal is not as easy as it may seem. Like everything in life, there are always lots of stressful situations that come up during the building of a course, but, at Ballyneal, Bruce Hepner, who was the lead of that project, really kept that part completely away from the rest of us and just plain made every day fun and playful – while also getting things done. He made it incredibly easy for all of us to do our best work in an enjoyable environment with a free flow of ideas, which is nowhere near as simple as it sounds.

I absolutely believe that fun “vibe” (which started with the owner Rupert O’Neal’s attitude) that was so prevalent every day during the course’s creation, manifests itself in the golf course today. It is a dynamic I have tried hard to remember since.

Working on The Renaissance Club in Scotland was also dreamlike. The golf course was great fun to build, but it was even better getting to live in the town of North Berwick for a summer and having the opportunity to play golf at the West Links and hang in the town after work. I owe Don Placek, who ran that job, a huge debt of gratitude for expending as much effort ensuring our experience was great as he did making the course great.

I don’t know if anything will ever equal that experience, but I can sure hope.

Finally, having the opportunity to work at Pasatiempo, which had so much influence on me early in my career was extremely rewarding. I remember seeing the old photos of that greenside bunker on the sixteenth hole when I first started in the business and thinking how amazing it was. It was almost surreal at times to actually be in that bunker and getting to stare at the old photos, debate all the intricate details of how to get it back to its original appearance and then actually get to personally work on it. Very cool.

11. Having worked on so many different courses with Renaissance Design, is there a common theme to the work?

I have learned a ton working over the years with Renaissance, but probably what first comes to mind is freedom. First the freedom Tom allows those working with him and the confidence he has in himself to liberate others to be creative. That’s not to say he is not responsible for the design or others should get the credit. First of all, he is routing the courses so he is basically putting us at the plate with the bases loaded a majority of the time.

All we have to do is get a hit now and then!

The next freedom I associate with Tom is not being forced to follow any “rules” about how golf courses have to be. He is not afraid to break from convention in his routings, whether its distance, par or sequencing of holes. The same attitude holds true with how he allows us to work without boundaries and to push the envelope without fear of being reprimanded. Individuals are free to come up with interesting, creative and unique features – and even holes. Tom then takes these “envelopes” and decides how to use them. Maybe he leaves it as is, but more than likely he will identify and remove the not so good parts and/or enhance or add to the good parts. It is finding this balance that takes really thoughtful analysis and also a truly open mind. It’s how something goes from good to great and Tom is the best I have seen at it.

The final aspect of freedom is how Tom views strategy. He is not trying to dictate how a hole is played. He does not assume or desire that people will play a hole to his “turning point” drawn on a routing. (We often don’t even have those marked once construction has kicked in, so that turning point does not creep into your thinking.) Rather, he is ideally trying to create holes where the path from tee to green is not defined, obvious, or will even form a consensus among players. I can remember him talking about the favorite holes he has designed being ones that even he can’t figure out the best way to play. This seems to be the ultimate freedom in golf design.


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