Feature Interview with Tom Paul

Part Two – Page 4

Private clubs in North America are under financial stress of the sort rarely seen other than world wars or depressions. Can they learn much from the maintenance practices of the clubs in the United Kingdom whose members embrace a more raw, natural (and less expensive) maintenance policy?  

I suppose if more North American clubs adopted some of the more raw, natural maintenance practices and policies akin to those throughout the United Kingdom it may help ease the financial stress somewhat. However, we must remember that agronomic and growing conditions for golf grasses in most of North America do not match the United Kingdom.

I would also caution those who believe the seemingly popular new push towards firmer and faster playing conditions will help to relieve economic stress at all clubs through reduced maintenance costs. The dirty little secret with some of the firm and fast programs at some of the more significant clubs is that it actually costs more and sometimes a lot more than what preceded those firm and fast programs. When you see golf courses these days that consistently have what I call the “light green sheen” throughout you can be fairly sure their maintenance programs are expensive. It is beautiful looking and it plays great but the reality is it costs a lot and is man-power intensive. One primary reason is syringing vs straight irrigating. Syringing to achieve that “light green sheen” consistently is very man-power intensive and that drives up man-hours and the over-all cost.

But if a maintenance program doesn’t get into that and just begins changing over to reducing irrigation and chemicals to achieve a more raw, natural and browned out look they better do it slowly and carefully to give the agronomy at least a few years to adjust and adapt. If they don’t, the chances will rise that they might wipe out the course one way or another.

What maintenance melds at what courses do you most admire?

AH-HA, a question on the “Maintenance Meld” or “Ideal Maintenance Meld” (IMM)! I think I will end up mentioning a number of interesting “Maintenance Melds” but the two or three I should mention first and foremost are HVGC, NGLA and probably Seminole. I pick those two or three because they came first for me and they were the primary ones that contributed to the formulation and improvement of my idea and concept of the Maintenance Meld or “Ideal Maintenance Meld” (IMM).

HVGC came first in the chronology. I think I was just done with the Ardrossan project and the next project on my horizon was the restoration of GMGC (with the Gil Hanse Co.). When the Ardrossan project ended my club decided to restore GMGC, a 1916 Ross design. We formed a committee that worked on that project for perhaps two years. As it was going on I was getting so involved in just researching anything and everything to do with architecture and maintenance practices that ideally conformed to or “melded” playability-wise with PARTICULAR types and style of golf architecture, and in those days I was still playing a lot of tournament golf. For some reason the idea of really firm and fast conditions and playability had gotten into my mind, maybe because of HVGC (or perhaps Seminole years before as will be mentioned below). In retrospect, (with a slightly failing memory these days), I think the only golf course I knew well in my area that had really firm and fast conditions and playability throughout on a regular basis was HVGC.

HVGC is a club that is unusually imbued with a tournament mentality and their players have exhibited that for many, many decades. HVGC was also unusually generous with hosting GAP and Pa Golf Association events and then there was the club’s premier invitational tournament, the Lynnewood Hall, one of the oldest in America. They had a field somewhat akin to the Crump Cup. So, I’d played a ton of tournaments at HVGC over the years and I knew it well. I also knew that an inordinate number of tournament players back then just hated the golf course. When I first began to get interested in golf architecture I began to really question them on the specific reasons they hated the golf course. The primary reasons were it was too firm and fast so they couldn’t control their golf ball and it had far too may uneven lies (it really is one big valley). I don’t think it took me too long to realize the reasons some, and perhaps most back then, said they hated it were the very reasons I was getting to love it. All through my competitive career I was unusually short with my driver even though my irons were normal. I also became very good with my short game and putting. So firm conditions “through the green” and on greens really appealed to me; it was in my interest with my lack of length off the tee (even with a medium amount of bounce and roll-out I couldn’t hit my driver much more than about 250 yards). Matter of fact, I was so short with my driver compared to some of my fellow competitors and opponents that rather than go one on one against them with a driver, I used my 1-iron off the tee most of the time because it was only about ten yards behind my driver.

So, I’d gotten to know HVGC well and I had gotten into architecture and all things related to it like maintenance practices and specifically firm and fast throughout. I began to make some calls to the supers I’d come to know to ask them how much and how often they could produce firm and fast conditions. All of them, including my super, were saying basically the same thing——eg “We can produce it for a week or so a few times a year but in the interim we need to take the course back out of it.” I made over forty of those calls and then I called Scott Anderson of HVGC. I asked him the same question and he asked me what I was talking about. I said; “How often can you do it and for how long?” He said: “Weather permitting, we can do it all the time.” So I asked him why his answer was so much different from everyone else’s. He said: “If you have a day, come on over here and I’ll explain it to you.” And so I went to see him and he explained it to me. He wasn’t the only one there with me that day—-there were a few others like Linc Roden, who was the first I’d ever heard of to call for firm and fast. At the end of the day I asked Scott if I could tell my super what I’d just learned from him and he said no! When I asked him why not, he said: “If you can’t get your whole membership behind something like this I don’t want to be seen as someone who thinks he has some better way than anyone else because that can put supers in a bad position with their clubs.” I did start asking my super (Mike Smith) about firm and fast on a consistent basis and he gave me all kinds of reasons why it was impractical or too costly. One day he said he could get the fairways firmer and faster if he mowed them twice as much but that would be more expensive. I said to him: “Then why does the ball bounce and roll about five times more in the rough than in our fairways?” (We’ve never had piped irrigation in our rough area). I’ll never forget the look on his face—it was like, “I can’t bullshit this guy anymore.”*

He was a great super; he’d been with us for almost twenty five years and was going to retire soon but in his last few years he got us prepped into a good firm and fast program.

So that was HVGC and Scott Anderson and for me they were the first step in the formulation of my “Maintenance Meld” theory and concept.

Seminole and the Coleman Tournament came next or even third after NGLA in the formulation of my “IMM” theory and concept, although it actually came first chronologically, probably in the late 1980s or the early 1990s at the first few Coleman Tournaments. Those days were sort of the middle of my tournament career and before I got interested in golf course architecture. When my father got off the board of Seminole I believe he asked that his position be taken by his young cousin Barry Van Gerbig. Barry went on to become the president of Seminole after the death of George Coleman who was one of his great friends and I believe one of his mentors. After George Coleman’s death, Barry created the Coleman Invitational Tournament in his honor.

At some point before the Coleman when Barry became Seminole’s president he decided to essentially restore Seminole in some ways and to apply to it different maintenance practices—-eg essentially more in the mode of tournament maintenance practices and tournament set up on a regular basis. I think part of Barry’s thinking was to get Seminole back up in the rankings where he felt it belonged. In a sense what he did with that maintenance mode and set up and with the Coleman Tournament was my “IMM” theory and concept in practice but perhaps ten or fifteen years before the term or the concept first occurred to me.

Seminole had been through that period in its evolution that so many of those old significant WASP clubs and courses had gone through as well that I refer to as their “sleepy period.” My term “sleepy period” is a description or term that’s an off-shoot of something from that WASP world that was often referred to back then as “Shabby Chic;” particularly in the fashion and interior decorating areas of that old WASP world. Apparently it also pertained to how they maintained their golf courses as well.

I would have to say Barry Van Gerbig must have taken his list for the Coleman from the Crump Cup because the first Coleman sure did have a ton of players I knew from Pine Valley’s Crump Cup. So I went down there to play in the first Coleman probably around 1990. As I mentioned previously I didn’t like playing tournaments in the south in the winter and early spring because I put my clubs away in the fall and I just was not in good practice that early in the year. I didn’t even play a practice round at the first Coleman because I figured I knew the course so well from all those past years. The course even looked basically the same to me although it had that look to it I would later call “the light green sheen.” In the first round I wasn’t hitting it great and I shot 90 basically because of that incredibly firm and fast maintenance mode and the set up which was intense—–Ex. they put the pins in the fronts of some of the most back to front sloping greens like #2 and #11 making a downhill putt from even five feet above the cup a lot harder than strategically putting an approach in front of the green and chipping or putting up at the cup from much farther away.

I had always had one of the tightest scoring bands or differentials on the circuits I played, essentially rarely going low into the 60s but even more rarely getting it out of the 70s, so a 90 was a real shock to my system and frankly very embarrassing. I even debated if I should continue in the tournament but I came back the next day and without hitting it any better I shot a two under par 70! That differential was so wide Barry Van Gerbig even mentioned it in his speech at the tournament dinner that night. I must say that shooting a 70 after shooting a 90 without hitting the ball any better probably had a lot to do with the caddy I had the second day. I cannot remember his name now but he was without question the best caddy by about two miles I ever had right out of a caddy pool (I have wondered if they gave him to me the second day because they felt sorry for me after I shot a 90 in the first round). He didn’t even read the greens for me because I’ve always done that myself but he did explain to me what to do with my approach shots and particularly my recovery shots with greens that firm and fast which I’d hardly ever experienced before. So that was Seminole and the Coleman that factored into my IMM theory and concept even though at the time I did not realize it. Again, in those days I was not interested in golf architecture or maintenance issues, at least nothing like the way I would be later; ironically I was on the GMGC Green Committee even back in those days when I had little interest in golf architecture and maintenance issues.

And then I went to NGLA to play in their National Singles Tournament maybe towards the end of the 1990s. I hadn’t been there in about thirty or more years. As I drove into the course I could see it had that same “Light Green Sheen” to it I’d seen maybe a decade before at the first few Colemans at Seminole. Just looking at the course it felt like I might shoot another 90 on it as I once did at the Coleman. And then I went out alone and played some holes. I did OK and the next day in qualifying I did great and I did well in the tournament too. The wonderful thing about it was how much more I had to mentally and visually engage with the architecture of the course and use my imagination in ways I was not used to. It was intense but it was just so much more interesting and frankly fun than most all the courses I’d played before with their softer and more receptive playing conditions.

On the way home to Philly I was at Exit 7A on the New Jersey Turnpike and the whole thing hit me like some “Blue Thunder Moment.” It hit me so hard I actually pulled off the road. The whole idea and structure of the “Maintenance Meld” or “Ideal Maintenance Meld” (IMM) had just occurred to me in toti! It was a conglomeration of some of the things Bill Coore and I had talked about over the years and also what I just explained regarding HVGC and NGLA or even Seminole years before. So I wrote it up on GOLFCLUBATLAS and it became a term of sorts. It also became roundly misunderstood by most on GOLFCLUBATLAS and elsewhere. First, most seemed to think I was just talking about the greens and after that even more thought I was just talking about the same degree of firm and fast on greens and “through the green” for all types and styles of golf architecture everywhere. I wasn’t!

What I was talking about is that there had been an accumulation of types and styles of golf architecture out there over the years and there are vastly different environments with all those types and styles of accumulated architecture over the years. What I was thinking about with the “Ideal Maintenance Meld” (IMM) theory is for any golf club anywhere to really analyze, and in specific architectural detail, the type and style of THEIR golf course ONLY and then create a maintenance program that would specifically highlight all the architectural and playability options of that PARTICULAR type and style of course and architecture. The fact that maintenance programs and playability might need to be quite different across the spectrum of various types and styles to create ideal playability for any PARTICULAR type or style of architecture or course never seemed to occur to most or to be understood.

It had become a sort of a “one size fits all” homogenous maintenance approach for about fifty years, at least in America, with over-irrigation and now people seemed to think an homogenous “one-size-fits-all” firm and fast program and playability was the ideal I was suggesting across the spectrum of types and styles of architecture. In other words, the same degree of firm and fast on greens or even “through the green” on some aerial requirement modern age courses simply doesn’t work as well or work the same way as it will on an old fashioned classic style course and architecture. The whole idea of my IMM concept was to first get away from homogeneous, “one-size-fits-all” maintenance practices across the spectrum of types and styles of golf course architecture. It was never just about firm and fast everywhere and to the same degree everywhere which some people seemed to think it was. And I also always made a big distinction with firm and fast between the greens and “through the green.” If you don’t make that distinction it seems most people tend to think you are only talking about greens.

Although a lot of courses are getting very close these days, the best maintenance melds I’ve seen in recent years and mostly in tournaments include HVGC, NGLA, Seminole, Fishers Island, Maidstone, Oakmont and Myopia, and my own course isn’t bad either. At the pro level, the best I’ve seen are St George’s in the British Open and Aronimink in the ATT. The latter might’ve been the most brilliant I’ve ever seen. The Tour and John Goesslin actually slowed down the green speed by a foot or so (from normal member play!! Can you believe it—-eg little old ladies and handicappers playing greens a foot faster than Tiger & Co?), firmed the greens up more and tucked the pins. Even with wedges the players had to be very cautious strategically about pin-hunting. The players loved the challenge and both years it was a wonderful tournament to watch because of that IMM for a course like Aronimink. And then of course there was that little course in Ireland, Mallow, I played for a week in 1999 every day alone at 6am. It was screaming fast throughout and it was designed for it. I never had more fun on a golf course. I couldn’t wait to get back to it the next morning to try something else with my shots and choices.

The idea with the older classic style architecture that I know the best is to produce through degrees of firm and fast, a form of balance or equilibrium amongst shot choices and options. When those shot options and choices begin to come into balance or equilibrium, even good players begin to struggle in deciding what to do before they even pull a club. To me that kind of shot choice and option balance and equilibrium through well thought out and well managed firm and fast programs is as good as it gets and as interesting and challenging as it gets.

I’ve never much thought through some ideal maintenance meld for the modern age style architecture that is generally heavy on aerial requirement into greens. I suppose since they are generally so aerial in requirement the greens should be receptive enough to allow a really good player with a good lie in the fairway to check his ball or even spin and filter it back off and around contours but only if he hits a real quality shot.

The IMM theory, course to course, needs to buy into that wide spectrum I’ve called “The Big World Theory”—-there are a lot of types and styles of golf course architecture out there and their inherent differences need different maintenance practices to highlight what those different types and styles offer best architecturally!  I say—-whatever you’ve got for type and style of architecture across that wide spectrum, analyze its architecture in detail first and then set up a maintenance program to make its playability work the best it can to highlight its unique architectural characteristics. The only real problem is you can never do it all across the spectrum or do it the same way across the spectrum on any single golf course, and, again, that is why the Big World theory exists and should exist!

That’s the Maintenance Meld, “Ideal Maintenance Meld” (IMM).

            So there it is Friends and Lovers of golf course architecture and its closely intertwined maintenance practices—-that’s Part Two of the Feature Interview with the highly loquacious and semi-eccentric Tom Paul. Ran had some other questions; he generally asks eighteen of them in his feature interviews to conform to the eighteen holes of a golf course. But because I’m so long-winded I didn’t get around to addressing more than one nine of them in Parts One and Two.

            Hit it straight, hit it long—-and always remember—–Keep the “Spirit.”


*Later, Mike and I used to laugh about what I called the language of Superintendency Agronomese. That was my term for supers who use technical terms and scientific-based words and names for grasses and diseases or anything else to do with maintenance and such, so members who make demands on them or even ask them questions that they don’t want to answer, will go away.