Feature Interview with Robert Price
Born in Cardiff, Wales and educated at the University of Wales, University of British Columbia and University of Edinburgh: BSc, PhD and DSc degrees in the fields of physical geography, Quaternary geology and geomorphology and Quaternary environments.
Appointments: Lecturing and research appointments in eight universities in Scotland, Canada and the USA. Principal employer: Glasgow University (1963-88), Reader in Physical Geography. Thirty years of lecturing experience, wide ranging administrative experience at Departmental, Faculty, University and National levels. Consultant to government agencies and commercial companies.
Honours: Member of Council, Institute of British Geographers; President, British Geomorphological Research Group; President, Section E of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Glasgow University.
Publications; Eighty-five papers in journals and four books:
Glacial and Fluvioglacial Landforms, Oliver & Boyd, 1973, 242pp
Highland Landforms, Collins & HIDB, 1976, 109pp
Scotland’s Environment During the Last 30,000 Years, Scottish Academic Press, 1983, 224pp
Scotland’s Golf Courses, Aberdeen University Press, 1989, 235pp, reprinted James Thin 1992
2nd Edition (enlarged and revised), 2002, The Mercat Press, Edinburgh.
1988-Present: Self-employed golf consultant. Research and consultancy work on the following topics: the demand for and supply of golf facilities, analysis of existing and potential golf markets, the design of fee structures for ‘Pay and Play’ golf facilities, the design of golf courses, feasibility studies for new golf facilities, the design of college courses in golf management. Publication of 25 papers and reports on various aspects of the golf industry. The completion of 40 consultancy reports. The creation of a Scottish golf industry database of 20,000 items. The presentation of 20 lectures at golf conferences in Scotland, England, Ulster, USA, Canada and Japan.
Consultancy Clients (selected)
Strathmore Golf Centre Ltd, Gullane Golf Club, Gleneagles Hotel, Kingsbarns Golf Links, Meldrum House Golf Club Ltd, Cardrona Development Ltd, Cruden Investment Ltd, Glen Andrews (Golf Construction) Ltd, Sateras Resources (Malaysia), Wemyss Estates Ltd, Cawdor Estates Ltd, Scottish Agricultural College, Thurso College, University of The Highland and Islands, Queen Margaret University College, University of Dundee, visitscotland, sportscotland.
Director, Strathmore Golf Centre Ltd. (1994-97).
Glen Andrews Ltd (Golf Course Construction), Consultant to the Board (1996-99).
Member of the Organising & Scientific Committees of the Second and Third World Scientific Congress of Golf, St. Andrews, 1994, 1998
What prompted you to write ‘Scotland’s Golf Courses’, in which you describe and explain the landscapes of Scotland’s golf courses?
The first edition of Scotland’s Golf Courses (1989) was written because I had worked as a research scientist in the fields of Quaternary geology and geomorphology for 30 years studying the origins and characteristics of Scotland’s landforms, while at the same time playing golf over those same landforms. All of Scotland was covered by glaciers 15,000 years ago and those glaciers were not only responsible for many distinctive landforms and surface materials, but also for causing sea levels to rise and fall 100 feet around Scotland’s coastline. The sea level has dropped in many areas by some 50 feet in the past 6,000 years thus exposing large areas of sand which were moved inland by wind action to form ridges (dunes) and sand spreads. The classic links lands of Fife (St. Andrews), Ayrshire (Turnberry), East Lothian (Muirfield) were indirect results of the last glaciation. It was on the links land – areas of short low-angle slopes with good drainage – where the modern game of golf was developed. The second edition of the book (2002) was written because 100 new golf courses have been opened for play in Scotland since 1988.
Having spent all my professional life doing fieldwork, not only in Scotland but in Alaska, Yukon and Iceland, I have always been interested in the origins of landscapes. As a keen amateur golfer I had played on many of Scotland’s golf courses and was always aware of when I was playing across a river terrace, along a raised beach, over a drumlin, between esker ridges (at Gleneagles) or between dune ridges at St. Andrews. Because so many (60%) of Scotland’s golf courses have been ‘laid out’ rather than ‘constructed’ prior to 1920, their character is largely determined by the landforms of each site. I visited each course and classified it according to its predominant landforms, surface materials and vegetation. I was surprised to find that there was no official list of Scotland’s golf courses and therefore over the past 20 years I have developed my own database which contains over 20,000 items on all aspects of the provision and operation of Scotland’s 538 golf courses.
What exactly is links land?
The characteristics of links land are described in detail in my book. Although the terms ‘links’ (from the old Scots word ‘lynkis’ meaning ridges and hummocks or open rough ground) is usually restricted to tracts of low-lying seaside land, it has often been incorrectly used to refer to any golf course, i.e. to play on the links. It should only be used to refer to land underlain by sand and gravel in the form of undulating plains, ridges, mounds and hollows immediately inland from the present coastline.
What is the present business environment in Scotland for new course constructions?
Scotland has seen an increase of 25% in the number of golf holes available for play over the period 1980-2000. Although the data is weak, it is probable that the number of golfers has remained static over the same period. The impacts of foot-and-mouth disease and of the tragedy of September 11, 2001 have also produced a decline in golf tourism. There are some major problems facing the Scottish golf industry. Seventy-five percent of facilities are operated as private members clubs. There are very few projects under construction and the location and market potential of any new development will require careful consideration. It is interesting that over the past decade most of the major new high-quality golf developments in Scotland have been undertaken by Japanese (St Andrews, Dukes Course) or American companies (Loch Lomond, Kingsbarns, St. Andrews Bay).
Renovative work on some of the Golden Age classic courses has gained momentum in the past decade. Is there much such work taking place in Scotland?
There is not a great deal of course renovation work being undertaken in Scotland. At some of the championship venues lengthening of holes and additional bunkering has been necessary as a defence against the new golf club/ball technology. At members clubs considerable work on reconstructing old greens and improving fairway drainage has been undertaken, and many clubhouses have either been replaced or modernised.
You havebeen described asa ‘Golf Researcher’, a job title that many world love! What does it mean, exactly?
Because I was involved in undertaking ‘feasibility studies’ for proposed new golf facilities and there was no equivalent of the US National Golf Foundation to provide me with research data, I had to collect information about the operational costs, sources of revenue and levels of use of existing golf facilities. Golf market analysis was a prerequisite to offering a consultancy service to golf developers. While golf facility operation is still dominantly in the hands of members clubs (amateurs in management and marketing) golf in Scotland has become increasingly commercialised. Whereas a members club (700 members) had an annual budget of $75,000 twenty years ago, it now may have an annual budget of $600,000. Some of the new commercial golf facilities have much larger annual budgets.
John Muir came from Scotland to America and became instrumental through his prose in the idea of land preservation and cherishing the gifts of nature. Have you received feedback that indicates that your book is acting as a gateway for golfers to see courses a bit more than the esthetics?
I am very familiar with the work of John Muir. I worked in Glacier Bay National Monument for two summers (1961-2) on a research project funded by the National Science Foundation. At that time I read many of Muir’s publications and it was in Glacier Bay that I learned a great deal about the fluvioglacial sediments which underly some of Scotland’s best inland golf courses (e.g. Gleneagles). Because golf in Scotland has had such a long history and is regarded as a part of Scottish culture, there has been very little friction between golfers and conservationists. The present Scottish landscape is the product of thousands of years of human modification, e.g. the heather moorland of upland areas and the close cropped grasses of links land are the product of human activity, i.e. woodland and scrubland removal for grazing. Many urban and suburban golf courses are considered as valuable ‘green’ spaces and many golf course superintendents have become actively involved in conservation measures.
What was your role with Kyle Phillips at Kingsbarns?
I was invited by Mark Parsinnan, the principal developer of Kingsbarns Golf Links, to meet him on site, after he had read my book. He had previously developed Granite Bay GC in California and was not only very knowledgeable about course construction but was a keen student of links golf. The original Kingsbarns Golf Club course of nine holes occupied a narrow strip of rather uninteresting links land behind a low dune ridge only 5-10 feet high. The course was abandoned in 1939. Inland of this narrow area of wind-blown sand was an abandoned cliff-line (20-30 feet high) behind which was a gently undulating surface underlain by sand, silts and clays. This was not a classic links land site as it had none of the characteristic dune ridges, interdune elongated hollows, blowout depressions and low mounds. However, the site did have large quantities of easily shaped soft material so desired by modern golf course designers and constructors. Having walked the site at Kingsbarns with Mark Parsinnan, and listened to his description of the landscape he wished to create, I went with him to the Pilmour Links in St. Andrews. We traversed the Old Course, New Course and Jubilee Course examining the micro-forms that constitute this famous piece of links land. The length and frequent change in direction of slopes, the size and orientation of dune ridges, blowouts, hummocks and hollows were discussed at length.
Kingsbarns enjoys sweeping views across the Firth and a romantic setting near St. Andrews. What are some of the not so obvious factors that have contributed to Kingsbarns’ immediate success?
It was Mark Parsinnan’s eye for detail and his ability to communicate the characteristics of the natural links to his course architect, Kyle Phillips and to the construction workers on site, which produced a links course of such high quality. I visited the site on several occasions during the construction of the 18-hole course. The fact that few professional geologists would question the authenticity of the landforms as anything other than a ‘natural’ piece of links land is a high compliment to the developers of Kingsbarns. At an early stage in the development of the project Mark Parsinnan stated that he was aware that on many links courses the golfers only rarely have glimpses of the adjacent beach and sea. He aimed to have at least one view of the sea on each hole at Kingsbarns. However, the protection that dune ridges provide to golfers from onshore winds has been lost in favour of some fine views. There will be some days at Kingsbarns when golfers might wish they had some protection from a cold wind off the North Sea.
Kingsbarns is the first high quality ($160 per round) daily fee course to be developed in Scotland. Since the average green fee in Scotland is $30, it is obvious that the course will not prove attractive to local golfers when they already have such a wide choice of cheaper, good quality courses. The developers, however, had thoroughly researched their potential market and with demand far in excess of supply on the St. Andrews links, Kingsbarns provided an added attraction for golf tourists visiting Fife. The course is regarded as an excellent challenge and has already hosted a professional tour event ( The Dunhill Cup).
Have you ever thought of doing your own course? If so, what kind of property would be of the most interest?
I do not have any qualifications to be a golf course architect like Mike Hurdzan and Pete Dye. They construct golf courses. I have attempted to produce several routing plans and have worked with course constructors on several sites. My ideal site is one which requires minimal earth movement.
What are the laws (environmental and other) regarding building on links land in Scotland?
Every new golf course has to apply for planning permission to the local authority. This usually requires an environmental impact assessment. Links land would probably receive specific attention if it had any important wildlife or vegetation characteristics. However, unless there are any unusual circumstances the planning application will be dealt with within 6 to 12 months.
Whatis your favourite inland course in Scotland? What makesit special?
My favourite inland course is the Kings Course at Gleneagles. I first played it 30 years ago when the green fee was $3, it is now $150. The course is laid out between esker ridges (ridges of sand and gravel deposited in tunnels under the last ice sheet ) so that most fairways are separated by 30 foot high heather or whin covered banks. Each hole is played almost in isolation.
What are your thoughts on James Braid the Architect?
He designed some 40 courses in Scotland and 60 courses in England. Many of his designs were simply routing plans. He designed my own club’s course at Kirkintilloch in 1923 for a fee of $12! Many of Braid’s designs have been much altered since their construction and I believe it is something of a myth to assign the present character of a course, laid out 80 years ago, to the original designer.
What are favourite examples where an architect incorporated unique landforms into holes in Scotland?
Excluding the work of Nicklaus at Gleneagles (The Monarchs/Centennial Course), Weiskopf at Loch Lomond and Phillips at Kingsbarns, because they have had the advantages of modern machinery, I would refer to the design work of James Braid and others prior to 1930. There are many examples where a shot from a high raised beach down to a green set amongst sand mounds, or from a gravel plateau between esker ridges to a basin green represent the art of the pioneer course designers. If you are a low handicap golfer and require a course of 7,000 yards and wish to take five hours to play a round of golf, there are numerous expensive courses to challenge your skills. However, if you struggle to shoot 90 then there are dozens of good golf courses, often set in fine scenery, where a round can be played in three hours for a green fee of $30, allowing time to sample a good malt whisky in the bar.
How would you describe the land upon which Muirfield sits?
Muirfield is laid out across a raised beach covered by wind-blown sand. It has few strong linear forms and is mainly an undulating sand plain with mounds and depressions.
How would you describe the landscapes that the Old and New Course at St. Andrews occupy?
The landscapes are very similar and some would argue that the New is a better challenge than the Old. It is the micro forms – frequent changes of slope direction (i.e. frequent minor undulations) which provide the challenge to the golfer both on the fairways and the greens. Smooth (flat) horizontal surfaces should not be the dominant characteristic of a modern golf course!
You have seen hundreds of courses across Scotland. Have you ever created an eclectic course of 18 favorite holes?
I do not like this concept. A good design produces good ‘flow’ for the golfer from hole to hole and individual ‘great’ holes should not be defined in isolation. We play a game over 9 or 18 holes originally intended to be walked. Modern safety constraints and the use of carts have tended to destroy the flow of the game. Outside of the main tourist season you can play a 2-ball around the Old Course in three hours without the aid of a cart.
The second edition of Scotland’s Golf Courses was published last month by Mercat Press inEdinburgh and is available from:
Book Source, Customer Services
32 Finlas Street
Glasgow G22 5DU
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Theprice isÃ‚£14.99 plus postage and packing.