Feature Interview with Ron Whitten
Ron Whitten is the co-author with Geoffrey Cornish of The Golf Course and The Architects of Golf, two cornerstone reference books for any student of golf architecture. In addition, he is the architecture editor for Golf Digest. His candid answers are a reflection of the strong opinions that he has developed over the past several decades.
1. What are your five favourite books on golf course architecture?
I don’t play favorites and find it extremely annoying that everyone insists on presenting everything in lists these days. We have, I suspect, David Letterman to thank for this, although only he does it correctly, from number 10 to number 1. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, and set the stage for my refusal to answer the bunch of ‘what-are-you-favorite’ questions to follow, allow me to say that every book about golf course architecture is worth reading. There are so damn few of them, why would anyone need to have it narrowed down? (Why? Because America has become too self-absorbed, that’s why. Even this very format, of bite-sized questions and answers, falls into that description. And when somebody like Geoff Shackelford actually takes the time to write extended thoughtful answers, you break his interview up into two parts, on the assumption, I guess, that your readers couldn’t possibly handle the whole thing in a single reading. What nonsense.
(Hell, I’ve been guilty of that myself. When I ghost-authored the Donald Ross book Golf Has Never Failed Me, I took what was a very dry text and tried to make it palatable for the masses by giving it the ‘Little Red Book’ treatment. Biggest mistake I ever made. Even it such an abbreviated form, nobody reads it. All those Ross experts out there are too busy trying to get onto every Ross course they can, I guess.)
Back to architecture books: Most of them are outdated (Thomas’ book), overrated (Colt’s) or in desperate need of editing (See the Spirit of St. Andrews), but they still contain enough nuggets to make reading them worthwhile, if somebody really wants to learn about golf architecture. But the study of golf design is a lifelong study. Nobody ever achieves nirvana in this area. There’s always another viewpoint that gets you thinking. I’ve found more food for thought reading through Max Behr’s marvelous magazine articles than I’ve found from all of Tillinghast’s columns bound together. (Which are especially in need of editing. One Tillinghast column a month probably went down easy. I’ve not been able to stomach a bunch of them together in a book.)
2. The Golf Course is coming up on yet another anniversary. What have been the most important changes in architecture since its original publication?
Gosh, what changes in course architecture haven’t occurred since 1981? Back then, Tom Doak was still in high school, Coore & Crenshaw hadn’t met yet, Tom Fazio had just unveiled Wild Dunes (and most everybody was giving George Fazio credit for it), Nicklaus couldn’t meet his payroll and Pete Dye was trying to convince the world you could play the game on weeds. A lot of great personalities have come into the industry since then, but most of what’s happened since then isn’t, in my mind, for the better. Bottom line: the game has gotten incredibly expensive since then.
3. What five holes (from different courses) do you wish you could say you designed?
Since I pride myself on authorship and don’t engage in plagiarism, there aren’t any holes I wish I could say I designed. There are holes I’d like to design (including some on actual sites), but they haven’t been built yet.
I’m now going to prove just what an incredible hypocrite I can be. After ranting a few questions ago about how I don’t do lists and don’t play favorites, I’m going to share my Best 18 list with you. Last fall, when I worked with Dan Jenkins on a new version of his famous Best 18 in America (best 1st hole, best 2nd hole, etc.), I came up with my own choices. (Not favorites. Some of these holes I couldn’t par if you spotted me three mulligans.) These are holes whose architecture I admire. You’ll find very quickly that I prefer holes that can be played a variety of ways. (There really aren’t that many holes out there that can be played many different ways. Usually the architect dictates shots.) I’m mindful of something Crenshaw once told me: he likes holes that allow each player to play his own game tee to green. To do that, you need width. Width is the most precious commodity in golf course architecture today.
Here’s my list, with occasional comment:
1st at Dunmaglas G.C., Charlevoix, Mich. – 380 yds. par 4. Larry Mancour & Dean Refram (1991). – used to be the sixth hole on the course. Stream left, random bunkers scattered about to the right. Great risk & reward. If only the rest of the course offered what this hole does.
2nd at Royal New Kent G.C., Providence Forge, Va.. – 557 yds. par 5. Mike Strantz (1997). Basically just the 13th at The Dunes Golf & Beach Club with the lake drained, but it took balls to create this horseshoe par-5 around a man-made pit.
3rd – Bay Harbor G.C. (Links 9), Petosky, Mich. – 392 yds. par 4. Art Hills & Brian Yoder (1998). has two distinct fairways. Most alternate fairway holes are either/or propositions, so that everybody plays either one fairway or the other. But on this hole there are real advantages and disadvantages to driving onto either fairway.
4th at Spyglass Hill GC, Pebble Beach – 390 yds. par 4 – Robert Trent Jones (1966). The epitome of Jones’ hard par/easy bogey philosophy.
5th at PGA West GC (Stadium), La Quinta, Calif. – 533 yds. par 5 Pete Dye (1986). Classic example of Pete’s alternate-shot philosophy. He wants you to draw it off the tee, then fade it toward (or on the green). But you can also fade it off the tee, draw it on the second shot, and still make par or birdie. Great hole.
6th at King’s North at Myrtle Beach National, S.C. – 580 yds.. par 5. Arnold Palmer, Ed Seay & Vicki Martz (1996). Mirror image of the nearby 13th at The Dunes, but with the added wrinkle of an island alternate fairway. Palmer probably didn’t really have a thing to do with this hole, but it sure represents his go-for-broke playing philosophy. If the architecture done in his name more often represented that playing philosophy, I think his courses would have been better received by all us high falutin’ critics.
7th at Rio Secco G.C., Henderson, Nv. 417 yds. par 4. Rees Jones (1998).
Love this box canyon par 4 mainly because it’s so atypical of Rees, who likes to mold every hole into his own preconceived notion. The hole was there. His first routing had it as a par 3, but he was persuaded to change it into a par 4.
8th at The Dunes C, New Buffalo, Mich. -513 yds. par 5. Dick Nugent (1991). We used this one on Jenkins list.
9th at Shadow Creek G.C., Las Vegas, Nev. 426 yds. par 4 Tom Fazio (1990). If you’re going to manufacture a hole out of whole cloth, you could do a lot worst than this.
10th at Castle Pines G.C., Castle Rock, Colo. – 485 yds. par 4. Jack Nicklaus (1981). We also used this one on Jenkins list. I don’t care what the elevation is. It’s still a par 5 in my book.
11th at Annbriar G.C., Waterloo, Ill. 440 yds. par 4. Hurdzan & Fry (1990). One of Dana Fry’s earliest. Almost a perfect par 4.
12th at Sand Hills G.C., Mullen, Nebr. 417 yds. par 4. Coore & Crenshaw (1994). In my opinion, the most natural hole on the course. Looks wider than anything out there, but there’s actually a very small area of fairway that you really want to hit. Anywhere else, and you could be hitting blind.
13th at High Pointe GC, Williamsburg, Mich. – 434 yds. par 4 Tom Doak (1987). As natural a green setting, incorporating an existing ridgeline, as there is. When I first saw it, I knew Doak was up to something different.
14th at Waterwood National GC, Huntsville, Tx. – 230 yds. par 3 Roy Dye (1976). My pick as this generation’s 16th at Cypress Point.
15th at Victoria National GC, Newburgh, Ind. – 548 yds. par 5 Tom Fazio (1998). Tight off the tee, but then opens up to all sorts of shots.
16th at Elk Ridge G.C., Atlanta, Mich. – 381 yds. par 4. Jerry Matthews (1991). Natural Cape Hole around (or over) marshland to a rolling fairway that was already there.
17th at Quarry Oaks G.C., Ashland, Nebr. 394 yds. par 4. John Lafoy (1997). Sentimental favorite. My mom lives nearby. I walked this property back in 1987 with Youngscap. We found this hole and it turned out just about the way I envisioned it. Down in the basin of a rock quarry with a pond and cottonwoods. Blissful.
18th at Butler National G.C., Oak Brook, Ill. – 466 yds. par 4. George Fazio (1974). I’m not one that believes a finishing hole should be easy. This is the hardest s.o.b. in America. I can’t imagine how members play it. I do remember how tour pros used to lose the Western Open on it.
4. What course is a personal favourite with which perhaps the readers may not be familiar? What do you like about it so much?
As I said, I don’t play favorites. The thing I’ve learned, the more I’ve studied golf architecture, it is that I don’t have to play favorites. There are too many good courses and interesting architects to pigeon-hole myself. I can find something good about almost any course. (I can also find something lacking about almost any course.)
5. How do you think the period in course architecture (1985-1999) will be viewed in fifty years time?
The era of extreme excess, both in money charged, money spent and earth moved. One good recession will bankrupt most of what’s been built in this era, and one good drought will bankrupt the rest.
6. In evaluating an architect’s body of work, how important is it that he contribute something to the betterment of golf course architecture in general? If relevant, in one sentence or less, what lasting contribution(s) do you think Coore & Crenshaw will make? Tom Doak? Pete Dye? Rees Jones? and finally Tom Fazio?
Not important at all. No architect is competing with Mother Teresa for sainthood, for God’s sakes. If they produce something that somebody enjoys playing, they’ve done their job. If they’ve done it within a reasonable budget, so much the better. What I admire about a lot of golf architects, including those you’ve listed, is that each has tried to establish a particular style based upon a particular approach to the game. Which is great. Nobody’s right or wrong. Everybody’s just different. Doak started the trend of building inexpensive, take-what-the-land gives courses that let people bounce it around. Coore & Crenshaw added more options and wowser bunkering. Rees Jones (the whipping boy of this website) likes to pose mental games. Tom Fazio likes to please the eye so even the guy who shoots 120 goes home happy. Whose to say who is right or wrong. Each of us with our dollars.
7. Golf Digest’s panel has grown over the past 30 years from 25 golf ‘heavyweights’ to 600+ plus people. Is there such a thing as an ideal number of panelists? What qualifications make for a ‘good panelist’?
I don’t want to get into the whole Golf Digest course evaluation deal. There is no ideal number of panelists. The point is to get as many opinions about each course as you can. In that regard, the more the better. What qualifications make for a good panelist? Open-mindedness, plain and simple. No preconceived notions. No attitude that he’s figured out everything about golf architecture and is simply searching for the course that best fits his (or her) mold.
8. What was your best surprise as you compiled The Golf Course?
Unearthing 100 old Bill Langford blueprints in the cellar of a Chicago brownstone.
9. Your Architorture column in Golf Digest has received mixed reviews, in particular the piece on the Talking Stick bunkers. Any comments?
Too bad if they can’t take a joke.
10. Are there any features in course design today that you think are greatly overrated?
Five sets of tees. Nobody uses them.
Chipping areas mown tight. Those aren’t chipping areas, they’re putting areas. If you can’t get Phil Mickelson to hit a lob wedge off the stuff around Pinehurst’s greens, you’ve defeated the purpose. Raise the mowing heights and let people really chip, pitch or lob, instead of putting everything with a 3-wood.
All these new labor-intensive putting green grasses that exist under the guise of disease tolerance or drought tolerance when they really exist only so you can cut them even shorter.
11. How did you become interested in the study and history of golf courses enough to leave being a trial attorney?
You have it backwards. I started studying the history of golf design in high school I went to law school to support that habit. After the book came out, I practiced full time and continued to study architecture part-time (and write about it part-time). Then I was lucky enough to convert the hobby into a profession.
12. What was the origin for deciding to pursue The Golf Course? How long did it take Mr. Cornish and you to research and compile the information in it?
When I was a kid, I decided I’d write a book on golf design because I couldn’t find many books on the subject. After law school, I seriously began to gather all my research together. Somebody (I don’t remember who, and several have claimed to be that who) put me in touch with Geoff Cornish, who had been researching the history since 1950 (the year I was born) and was planning to write a book on it, too. We met, compared our research, discovered it dove-tailed nicely, and decided to collaborate on one big book. Geoff wanted to do the Top 10 Architects of all time. (Even then, lists sold.) I convinced him that we needed to include everybody, because nobody else would ever tackle such a project. He finally agreed. I wrote the text, he did the alphabetical index and we split the biographies. When we updated it as The Architects of Golf, I pretty much handled everything, including selection of every photo and the layout of the book.
13. What are the five most influential designs since WWII? In particular, what significance will Sand Hills hold on future designs?
Objection, leading question. Presumes I would include Sand Hills as one of the five most influential designs since WWII. In truth, Sand Hills may well stand alone (unless global warming turns Nebraska into a climatic paradise and 10 million golfers suddenly move there.) Granted, there are a lot of ‘prairie earth’ designs in the works these days, but none quite as bold, as natural and as isolated (which is an important factor in enjoying the game) as Sand Hills. But influential to design? I don’t think so. I’m not sure what designs will be deemed to be influential. It’s probably too early to tell, because it takes time for architects to see them, then go back and create holes inspired by what they’ve seen. Harbour Town was obviously influential for a time, but no longer. Pine Valley seems to be influential if you work for Fazio, and Augusta National if you’re a tour pro. But the only true influential course I can think of is the Old Course at St. Andrews. Everything in golf architecture is pretty much either a reaction to it, or a reaction against it.
14. What would Stanley Thompson think of Robert Trent Jones’ style of the 60s and 70s?
I suppose that he had gone commercial and wasn’t being outlandish enough. But the tone of your question implies that there’s something wrong with the Trent Jones style of the 60s and 70s. What’s wrong, I ask you, with the Jones style of that era? Too predictable? (Unlike Dye, Fazio or Nicklaus of today, who build their pet favorite holes ad nauseam?) Doesn’t demand shot-making? (Granted, it didn’t reward many bouncing balls, but it sure as hell did reward aerial shot making, especially high fades and draws. And it always rewarded a long straight ball. Given the sort of budgets Trent worked with, $100 grand for 18 holes, and the limited amount of earthmoving he could do with such budgets, I think Trent did some very nice stuff. It may be out of vogue these days, but so what. That’s what’s great about golf. You don’t like his stuff, go elsewhere! And he was so far ahead of the game with regard to the evolution of equipment and talent, we’re just now catching up. Long long tees (which he put in primarily for maintenance, by the way) are definitely needed if you want to make a course that some 20-year-old college bomber and I can both play. His multi-level greens still make sense to me. His use of water is still some of the best risk-reward stuff in the game. Don’t like his bunker left and right fairways? Hey, it certainly makes the long hitters think. (It’s fashionable these days for architects to sniff that such bunkering punishes long hitters, that length should be it’s own reward. Bullshit. Yes, if I hit it 3 degrees off line and Freddie Couples hits it 3 degrees off line, his ball will end up farther off line than mine. Why put trouble in such an area? Because Freddie Couples shouldn’t be hitting any shot three degrees off line. He’s a professional. We should expect him to be more accurate. We should demand that he be more accurate.)
I agree that Trent overdid such bunkering. But it depresses me that no architect bunkers both sides of any hole any more, out of fear, I guess, of being accused of living in the past. (The recent past, not the distant past. Living in the distant past is apparently okay.) If I ever design a course, it’ll have one hole where the absolute middle of the fairway will be the only safe spot. And it’ll have another hole where the middle is the worst position to be in. Trent’s only problem is that, in his assembly-line business, he got lazy and quit being inventive. Or, more accurately, the guys who designed for him got lazy and uninventive. Or Trent wouldn’t let them be inventive. Or the clients wanted no surprises. Whatever. But I look back fondly at Trent’s work, and Dick Wilson’s too. For its time, it made sense. Some of it still does today.
15. When Mr. Cornish and you compiled the material for The Golf Course, what proved to be your best source of information? The clubs themselves? The Ralph Miller library? Personal contacts? Historians?
There was no single source. I never visited the Ralph Miller library until the book was in its third printing. Most of it was digging through newspaper files, and clubhouses and contacting relatives of dead architects. Sad truth is most of golf history has ended up in dumpsters.
16. If you took a friend who had never played golf in the United States to five courses, what would they be?
I’d take him first to Bethpage, so he can experience what it’s like to wait all day before you get on a course as well as once you get on it. Then I’d take him to Bob Cupp’s computer glitch course at Palmetto Hall Plantation, just to see his reaction. Then to The Dunes Club in Michigan, to remind him that great golf can be had in just 9 holes. Then the Renegade Course at Desert Mountain in Arizona, so he could design his own course as he played. We’d finish up at Shadow Creek, so he can tell me if it was truly worth a thousand bucks.
17. How do you personally evaluate and rate a golf course?
As I’ve preached many times before, there’s no need to evaluate each course, or rate it, if you’re not trying to sell magazines. Just enjoy it. If you find something you like or dislike, file it away for future reference. But the study of architecture shouldn’t be what I’d do if I were a designer (although that’s what it’s devolved into these days.) It ought to be what do I find enjoyable about this course? What tests my game? What makes me play over my head? What parts fit my comfort level? How long has that been there and why haven’t I ever noticed it before?
I’m a firm believer that the best architects have a purpose for every feature on the course. Sometimes I can’t figure them out and have to have them explained to me. Sometimes I figure them out and don’t agree with them. But good architecture has a purpose. That’s why I haven’t fully embraced this notion of ‘random bunkering’. Yeah, it looks good (which is to say, it’ looks natural), but Mother Nature never was and never will be the best golf course architect. And if you think she is, you’re fooling yourself. Mother Nature is not the architect of Sand Hills. She’s the architect of the land on which the course sits. There’s a big difference.
From time to time, I’ve grown weary of architects who throw in a lot of features for cosmetics, or esthetics or impact or cover shots or whatever. They’re great to write about, and they sure help sell magazines, but I’m not sure esthetic purposes should be the primary focus of a golf architect. Having said that, I’m still open to the suggestion that, in this day and age, considering the prices being charged, esthetics must be first and foremost.
18. What course that you have never seen fascinates you the most? Why?
Do you mean, is there a course I’m just burning to see? Nope. Most times, overly hyped courses fail to live up to expectations. I’m cocky enough to think I can discover interesting new courses myself, without anybody’s help whatsoever. That ain’t true, of course. But I tend to discount most of the hard sell that architects give their own work and all of the crap most writers pen about courses. About the only time I get mildly curious is when one architect has something good to say about a competitor’s work. And lately even that has become suspect.