Feature Interview with Robin Nelson
1. Most of your work has been in Asia and Hawaii. For instance, in Hawaii, you have built eleven new courses and remodeled eleven others. How did you end up gaining such a foothold there?
I saw that Hawaii was overdue for some new courses back in the early 80’s and I contacted Belt Collins who were the leading resort planners and engineers there as well as for the South Pacific and Asia. They had just been involved with the planning of the Mauna Lani resort and I felt by teaming up and offering the whole package of planning, engineering, landscape architecture and golf course architecture we could offer a unique package to developers. So I took a chance and moved my operation there.
2. Discuss the challenges of working in Hawaii with its rocky soil, abrupt topography and windy environment.
It’s really no different than many places in the world. Each site has its own idiosyncrasies and we’ve worked in much tougher locales. The solid lava can be a challenge because once a piece of machinery touches it, it is destroyed forever. So it is important to carefully plan out construction routes, cart paths, etc. The wind can be an interesting element – for instance on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island≪/st1:place>, the wind will shift from an on-shore breeze to an off-shore breeze about 11 am every day. So you can get two different golf experiences depending on what time you play. And the wind can be pretty severe. The biggest challenge early on was to deal with the salty irrigation conditions and the salt breezes blowing onto the greens. In the late 80’s we experimented with seashore paspalum as a fairway surface and it was so happy there that we couldn’t keep it out of the greens. So we experimented with allowing it to invade instead of constantly battling it; the result being that today every new golf course over there is planted with paspalum. Some of the best greens in the world are paspalum and Hawaii is no exception. There have also been many advances in the hybrid bermudas, and Hawaii now has some of the best putting surfaces around, whether it be paspalum or surfaces like tifeagle or miniverde; a big change from when I first started working there.
3. One course that you rebuilt in Hawaii was Mid Pacific which was originally designed as a nine holer by Seth Raynor in1926. Bob Baldock did extensive work on the course in 1965 well before you got there. What was your mission statement for that project and does it play/feel like a Golden Age design or more of a modern one?
To be honest, when I first got involved, I wasn’t that impressed with the course other than it was a private course and was near the ocean in Hawaii. Over the years, the maintenance practices had made it a tired old humdrum course, and it really needed an overhaul. It had also been changed quite a bit from Raynor’s concepts. It is now surrounded by homes and the few holes that played over the canal are long gone due to state drainage improvements. My mission was to bring back the strategy into the design and give it some drama and make it a bit easier to maintain. They play the MidPac Open there every year and the pros were just hammering it on a windless day. So we did a program of changing out bunkers and replacing them with better drainage, bigger challenge, and making the hazards more formidable and visible. I hope Raynor would be happy.
4. You have also done some minor work at Waialae, which is another Raynor and site of the Sony Open. It appears that most of that routing is intact though Raynor’s features are no longer prominent. What do you think of Raynor as a designer and would you recommend restoring his green oomplexes to that course?
I like Raynor as a designer. Waialae isn’t what you’d call radical, say like what you might see at the Country Club of Charleston, but they are well done. It’s funny, I was asked to do a study for replacement value for the construction at Waialae for a tax case, and the recipients of the study were surprised at how little a green at Waialae would cost to replace at today’s prices. Waialae is built on sand and they were push-up greens; no drainage; just some minor earthmoving and some grass, a few sprinklers. Not at all what is being done nowadays. And they’ve held up. For all the changes all the greens committees and the PGA have done to try to toughen the course, the greens are pretty much intact.
5. Speaking of Raynor, he famously used template holes throughout his designs. Do you have any such particular type holes that you look to employ when possible?
No, we have no templates – it totally would limit my creative process if I did something like that.
6. Royal Kunia in Hawaii has an interesting story. After it was constructed, it was not permitted to open for eight (!) years because of unpaid taxes. What work was required by you once it finally was freed to open?
It was actually an unpaid ‘impact fee’ which is what the City of Honolulu placed on anyone wanting to build a course on Oahu in the late 80’s and 90’s. The Owner managed to pay half the impact fee to get the project under construction and kept the course alive for eight years until the City came to their senses and agreed to a one dollar per round stipend in perpetuity. The course was maintained in excellent condition by the Owner for eight years and no one played it, except a certain golf course architect and a few members of the construction team and local dignitaries. It was in perfect shape when it opened. Needless to say, the select few of us had bittersweet feelings when it opened.
7. Are there still good sites and opportunities in Hawaii for great golf courses? Or is land cost too high and/or are we getting near a saturation point?
I have a project there that is the best site I have ever seen. It is not on the ocean, but it has views to the ocean from every hole. It is in some of the most dramatic lava flows in the world, and there are a few areas of salt and pepper sands that will blow people’s minds. Exposed lava tubes, extremely unusual glass-like a’a lava, and tremendous elevation differences all add up. It’s stalled in permits, but our fingers are crossed that it will come to fruition soon. There will always be a market for quality golf and housing with Hawaii’s perfect weather, its views and its lifestyle found in that island paradise. But yes, the golf industry struggles there from time to time, but I believe there are a couple markets that haven’t been tapped. After all, they are dependent on everything from the outside there – it is an island chain in the middle of the ocean, some 2500 miles from anywhere. So they depend on tourism, global economies, and jet traffic. The local scene is holding its own but again, high priced golf courses don’t fare well for local folks.
8. As an architect, you openly discuss working with Wadsworth as the contractor of choice. Why do you prefer them (i.e. what do they do better than others)?
I have worked with many contractors, and Wadsworth did most of the work for me in Hawaii when the boom was on. They are good and they are honest. But I don’t work with them exclusively, and in fact have had to branch out to many different firms in the past few years. I liked Wadsworth, especially Tom Shapland because they made me a better architect.
9. In the continental United States, you built a highly regarded course in upstate New York called Ravenwood. The routing has been praised by Ron Whitten and others. How did you get that job and how did you go about routing it?
The Billy Casper Management group had the job of presenting different potential architects to the Owner; we were one of the groups and I guess they liked us. It was a great site and Neil and I studied the land, discussed ideas, slept on it, did a few routings, and combined the best ideas. It was a lot of fun.
In terms of the routing in general, we always scour the site for natural golf holes first and use that as our starting point. Other than that, the clubhouse location becomes a major focal point as well. Then it’s a lot of study with the topographic map to create golf holes that require the least amount of grading; finding natural lake locations; drainage patterns, sensitive eco-systems or wetlands; mature tree stands that need to be preserved, holes with vistas as focal points; relating holes to housing sites, roads, and each other. There is a lot more to routing than just going from high point to high point, although that would be a nice way to go if there were not the other parameters.
10. In California, you built the Dragon at Gold Mountain. The developer did not play golf and gave you specific instructions to build the hardest course possible. How did you go about meeting that request (i.e. what are some features that you employed that you might otherwise not have)?
I’ll give you the short answer. The long answer may be in my book someday. First off, the property is absolutely beautiful and lends itself to mountain golf that requires some in-depth planning and clever routing. The course was already routed by a planning firm when they brought me in, but I was able to use my influence to move things around a bit to use the natural contours a bit better. That was the first challenge. There are golf holes everywhere there, and even better home sites. Just by definition, the property was going to produce a challenging course. It was a constant battle to keep ‘playable’ in the vocabulary when dealing with this project. I don’t believe it played as difficult as people made it out to be, but it had its moments. The difficulty came mainly in the green speeds. The greens were designed for about 8 to 10 on the stimpmeter, but the speeds ended up well above that, which was unfortunate because golfers do not like to four putt or watch their balls roll off the green.
As most golf course architects know, once the Owner takes control, your influence can only go so far. And the Owner reveled in the fact that its off the chart slope rating and reputation made it a must-play course. (That’s where my book would reveal the truth behind the scene). The original Owner is gone, and only recently has the superintendent finally been able to obtain the materials and equipment to groom the putting surfaces properly to allow the course to play more like it was designed. It was in great shape last summer and was playing as I hope it would. We have numerous plans to do some tweaking like tree removal and revising a couple greens this year if all goes well.
11. How did the collaboration at the Dragon at Gold Mountain work out with LPGA great Patty Sheehan?
Great – I made a friend for life. Don’t forget that Patty Sheehan is one of the greatest players in the game and her input here was invaluable. In reality, our courses are generally very well received by women; Patty added great strategic value and helped to make it more playable for all levels of golfers. Her overall value, though, was to educate the Owner and convince him to tone it down a few notches. Working with Patty Sheehan was one of the best moments in my career.
12. Is there still a golf course boom in Asia? Where are the hot spots?
So far the boom in golf is Asia seems to be holding up, although there are signs of it softening recently. We have been working in Asia with an office in Singapore for about 18 years so we have long term ambitions in the area. We firmly believe that places like China and India will be building many more golf courses for the next 20 years or more – the Asia story is certainly not over yet. Of course, there will be peaks and troughs in development, sometimes related to the economy and other times the occasional bans or moratoriums common in command economies (China).
13. In Asia, your Kai Su Chua was voted best new course for 2008, thanks in part to ocean views from every hole. Some critics even compared it to Pebble Beach! So tell us: how does it stack up against the Californian icon?
Wow, asking to compare a new course against Pebble Beach – that’s quite an assignment. I asked Brett Mogg, the design architect for Kau Sai Chau, to answer this question, as he was there for the duration. Brett says, ‘The two sites are completely different, whereas Pebble is a perfect site for a golf course, Kau Sai Chau East course is a series of rocky ridges sitting high above the ocean. In many respects it was very difficult just to physically fit in a golf course in the space available, given the terrain, soil conditions, environmental constraints, etc. The fact that we won the award on such a difficult site goes to show how sophisticated the industry has become in Asia.’ And hats off to Brett.
14. Are environmental rules getting tougher for building and maintaining courses in Asia?
Yes – as economies and societies develop and grow they start to take more interest in the environment – this is a natural progression. We are starting to see more controls such as setbacks from streams and wetlands coming out of China. We are in favor of stronger environmental regulations generally where such regulations genuinely protect the environment while allowing prudent development. Sometimes they are politically driven and it can drive you nuts. We have seen quite a transformation in the environmental awareness aspect of development in Asia since we began working there in the 80’s. A lot of that has to do with some great American and Australian golf course architects insisting that the courses be built properly.
15. Given Asia’s humidity and monsoon seasons, are there any grasses now available that allow courses to play fast and firm?
The main thing that will help courses play firm and fast (year round) in places with monsoon rain is sand capping. Otherwise firm and fast is a seasonal thing. The grass choices in SE Asia are pretty much the same as Florida with improved grasses including paspalum, bermuda and zoysia species. All have their strong and weak points and there is no magic solution.
16. Please discuss your construction projects going on inside Morocco and Pakistan. Who is the target customer base there?
For Pakistan, locals are the main customer base – increasing salaries lead to a desire to take part in recreation activities. In Pakistan the project we are working on there is real estate based, selling to locals and expatriate Pakistanis. Unfortunately political risk is pretty high there and the project is undergoing its share of problems and has been held up by at least 6 months.
In Morocco, the project is very slow. However, it is in the dunes along the ocean and is a wonderful place to visit. The people there are magnificent and I’ve made many friends. Their market is European tourists who vacation and golf in traditional regions like Spain and the Canary Islands and North Africa.
17. Do the owners of courses in such faraway places want American style courses that are lush and over-watered? Or are you free to build a raw, rugged course in keeping with the natural landscape?
In places like China raw and natural are not what the clients or players are looking for – generally they are looking for courses that are highly maintained and green (if you can talk them out of the waterfalls and windmills that is a plus). Lush and over-watered is sometimes the result of this. In most places we have worked water availability is not an issue. Drainage (getting the water off quickly) is usually the focus. In Asia, wild and unkempt means the owner does not have enough money and would receive less prestige for the course. While we would like to do more raw and rugged style courses where it suits, it will take time for the locals tastes to develop. Over a number of years, the local golfers will appreciate a wider range of golf course styles, but it will take some time – after all they have only been playing golf for a little over 20 years (save for the courses that were built by the Brits that were usually related to military installations).
18. Do you enjoy more design freedom in such countries where there are few established golf traditions?
I would say less. Where there are no established golf traditions both clients and players look to certain ‘standards’ from the west when assessing the worth of a golf course. These standards unfortunately are minimums with regards to length, standards in par, conditioning standards from what they see on TV, Augusta and the like. Where the client or players do not have an understanding of golf, they are easily swayed by the many ‘experts’ that abound in such environments – and these experts are usually local golf professionals. It’s amazing what influence American television has in other cultures.
(Please note: all photographs in this Feature Interview are credited to Robin Moyer/Nelsonhaworth.com 2007)