Geeked on Golf

A Celebration of the People & Places that Make Golf the Greatest Game

Soul Man – An Interview with Architect Drew Rogers

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The call was supposed to just be a quick “hello” and “thank you” for some photos.  An hour later, I realized that I had found a kindred spirit in realm of golf geekdom.

Beyond sharing similar perspectives on the game, Drew and I are also fortunate to have spent significant time at the Old Elm Club – me as a caddie, and Drew as the architect who has recently worked to restore the course to the original design intent of Harry Colt.  In doing that restoration, along with David Zinkand and their crew, Drew has followed in the footsteps of Donald Ross, who built Old Elm.  The course was ideal to me as a kid, but somehow Drew has made it even better.

Whether it is his work on new courses like Oitavos Dunes in Portugal, or his loving restorations of the work of Colt, Ross, or Willie Park, Jr., Drew Rogers is a talented architect and a steward of the history and soul of the game.  Many thanks to him for taking the time to share his perspectives in this interview.


THE INTERVIEW

How did you get into the business?

Perseverance…. and a little luck!  As careers go, there was never any doubt in my mind, EVER, what I wanted to do.  So my path was pretty deliberate beginning as a teenager.  I’m from a small town in Southern Illinois, where we are fortunate to have a true country club and a damn good little golf course.  I worked there in many roles while growing up and played tons of competitive golf as well.  I studied Landscape Architecture at the University of Kentucky to build upon my appreciation of the natural beauty of a landscape and then combined that with my passion for the game.  Then I got a huge break through a friend and fellow UK grad to work with Arthur Hills.  The rest is history.

Who is your favorite Golden Age Era architect, and why?DrewRogers

Tough call there.  I have really enjoyed and been inspired by so much work from that era… to single out one seems impossible.  I’m a big fan of Harry Colt and am studying more of his work this year in England.  I have long appreciated work by Donald Ross and consulted on a fair number of his designs, but I also love the works of MacDonald and Raynor, Herbert Fowler, Willie Park, Jr.…. even Old Tom Morris and others.

Who has influenced you the most in your work, both within and outside of golf?

I’ve always been one to seek out information, visit courses and meet people.  As a result I think I’m influenced by all of what I see and experience and also by the many fine folks I’ve encountered.  Not one, but many… colleagues, superintendents, clients and golfers and friends.  I guess I tend to have an “eyes wide open” approach to my work, with every project being definitively unique and with its own set of opportunities and goals.  My philosophies are founded on what I’ve seen and the experiences I’ve had and continue to have.

Describe your process for a design project.

Since most of the work these days is with existing facilities, my first move is to learn as much about that property as I can… its history and evolution, how it works, its deficiencies, along with where things are at present and where they plan to go in the future.  Many of my clients already have some level of vintage architecture that seems worthy to retain or build from… but I also focus on how the course has evolved over time and what accommodations must be made moving forward for it to survive another 50 years. Today, we have golfers of all skills playing… on courses that were originally designed for a relative few – only the most avid players of the age.  Therefore, I work very closely with my clients; we make decisions together, assemble a team and then I’m very hands-on once the work is underway.

What is it like to renovate courses by Golden Age architects?

First of all, to work on these courses is a privilege, and it comes with great responsibility.  The responsibility is not just to honor the original architectural intent, but also to acknowledge 100 years or so of influence and evolution.  Golf courses must evolve and those Golden Age architects were all well aware that their courses would require some adaptation over time… what with the impacts of technology, irrigation, golf carts, turfgrasses, Mother Nature, golfers and certainly ever-changing player expectations.  Architecture from that era involves a lot more use of subtlety and was at the same time quite strategic – so being keenly aware of how and why they built what they did is very important.  My aim is to reinstate a course that will honor its past while also moving it into the future in a very practical sense.

What should every Green Committee member study/learn before undertaking course improvement initiatives?

Learn to trust the assembled expertise… whether it be the superintendent, the architect, irrigation consultant, agronomist, etc. – these people are the most knowledgeable about golf courses; it is their craft.  So trust them, learn from them and allow them to lead you.  Also learn and accept that you cannot satisfy or placate all of your fellow members.  You need tough skin to deal with member politics.  Just try to focus on the greater good and the continued health of the facility.

As for gaining some basic knowledge, one can attain the necessary elementary understanding of golf course essentials from classic books such as The Links by Robert Hunter, Golf Greens and Greenkeeping by Horace Hutchinson or Golf Architecture by Dr. Alistair Mackenzie, among a few others.  The roots of good design and greenkeeping, in a most basic format, can be found in these and other historical volumes.

What are the primary challenges you consistently face in trying to deliver results that are up to your standards?

The first thing you learn in working with existing private clubs is that you’re working for 300 self-proclaimed experts on everything!  The names change from project to project, but the personalities are always there and those egos and personal agendas can be challenging.  I don’t expect to win every battle – there must be some compromise, but I’m always trying to keep them on point with respect to their original goals and keep them from cutting corners.  As long as we agree on “what it should be” we’ll tend to find solutions that accomplish our objectives.

How do you know when you have hit the sweet spot in your work?

A lot of that has to do with client satisfaction.  I could be selfish and say I wanted this or that… but at the end of the day, the course is not mine, it’s theirs.  I want members to be proud of their course and understand the value of what we did.  You can’t make everyone completely happy – that is nearly impossible. But when the project is complete and you hear players debating over which hole is their favorite, the most improved, or that they were pleasantly surprised at what they see now versus what was there before… that is a pretty good indicator that we were successful.  Some measure success through ratings and rankings – or even tournaments… Over time, this all seems increasingly less relevant to me and with those whom I work. 

What course would you love to get your hands on for a renovation project?

Surprisingly, I would most like to go back to some of my earlier efforts and make some adjustments.  When you build a new course, you don’t get EVERYTHING right the first time and there are a number of courses where I would really like to make some refinements, adjust some green surfaces, some bunkering, etc.…. Newport National in Rhode Island is one… another is Olde Stone in Kentucky.  The one I most wish I could retouch is Oitavos Dunes in Portugal.  It’s somehow ranked #68 in the world by Golf Magazine, but I think its potential is much greater (given it’s seaside, links-like characteristics) – or at least requires more work to be so deserving.  Donald Ross had the opportunity to tinker with Pinehurst #2 in this manner… and I just think it would be great to go back and build on something that is already really good and make it even better.

What do you love most about practicing your craft?

Certainly, I have been fortunate to travel the world, visit amazing places and meet so many dynamic people.  But more than anything, I gain the greatest satisfaction from the enjoyment of those who see and play my work.  I like to see them have fun and be challenged and I want them to appreciate beauty and subtlety.  And… it is always satisfying to truly improve something that was struggling or was in need of attention – then make it into something very special.  I guess, ultimately, it’s about people and their enjoyment of this fine game.  If I can have a hand in that, what could be better?OldElm9

If you could only play one course for the rest of your life, what would it be, and why?

Just one?!!  You know, this might be surprising to some… but I could play Bandon Preserve every day for the rest or my life and be totally contented.  It’s a 13-hole par-three course at Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon… and probably the most beautiful and dynamic group of short holes I’ve ever seen (built by one of my good friends, Dave Zinkand).  Pure fun… maybe the most fun I’ve ever had playing golf.

If it has to be an 18-hole course… I guess I could narrow it to two: National Golf Links of America on Long Island and North Berwick in Scotland.  I love fast and firm links conditions, great natural beauty, tradition and… and the quirky design elements.  Those are two of the best I’ve seen and richly enjoyed playing.  The Old Course at St. Andrews lurks closely to those, as does Old Elm and Shoreacres in Chicago.  Then again, I wouldn’t be too disappointed to play every day again at my home course in Robinson, Illinois… Quail Creek. 

What are the top 3 new courses on your list to play next?

As far as NEW courses, I really want to get down to see the two courses at Streamsong in Florida.  While not really a new course anymore, I still need to go and see Sandhills in Nebraska.  I’m heading to England later this year and am looking forward to Sunningdale, Swinley Forest and a few others around Surrey and the southern coast.  Mountain Lake, Raynor’s course in Florida, and Sleepy Hollow are also among those I yearn to see.  My bucket list is pretty deep, frankly!

What is your take on the pro game, and what impact is it having on golf architecture?

I’m completely bored with professional golf.  I honestly don’t enjoy watching it.  I’m rarely impressed by the personalities and all the hoopla that surrounds them.  And really, it’s frustrating to see them play most of the golf courses they’re set up to play – they seem quite sterile.  The courses don’t tend to require much shot making – and they don’t challenge a player’s intellect as well as they should.  The PGA and USGA control much of that.  There are occasional exceptions, but tournaments these days are more like four-day putting contests.  I’ve often wondered what would be the result if they didn’t play so many long, narrow layouts and instead played much shorter, risk-reward courses where, through design, power is actually less of an advantage… instead, lots of options to consider.  Just look at the effect the 10th hole at Riviera has on those guys!

I’m also frustrated with the influence that the pro game (and television/commentary) has on the weekend or member player. I’m talking about course conditions, speed of play issues, green speeds and perfect lies in bunkers.  There is a perception perhaps exhibited by the pro golfer first (whether true or not), that everything in golf must be fair and perfect.  That makes for rather dull golf, in my opinion.  We experience the effects when those “viewers” come to the golf course.  It’s pretty eye opening to witness.

When you are not playing golf or building golf courses, what are you doing?

Actually doing or would like to be doing?!!  It seems I play less and less golf these days… and there’s less time for hobbies as well – I love to fish, but rare is that occasion too.  I guess that’s just where I am in life… my age, responsibilities, etc.  However, I am blessed with an incredibly supportive wife and three wonderful children.  So when I’m not on the road or working, I’m with them.  My son is into playing hockey and golf and is an active Boy Scout.  My girls love ice-skating and baton twirling.  The youngest might be getting an itch to play golf…we’ll see.  I’m trying not to push too hard!

Any interesting or challenging projects in process or on the horizon for you?

I’m really very fortunate to be busy these days and am involved with a number of really great projects.  Just a few of them: now finishing a major restoration of Old Elm Club in Chicago… just an amazing place – designed by Harry Colt and built by Donald Ross – one of a kind.  Also working on some Golden Age Era renovations, including A Donald Ross design in Kenosha, WI, two Willie Park, Jr. courses, in Sylvania, OH and West Bloomfield, MI.  Also busy in Florida, working at Royal Poinciana Golf Club and Quail West in Naples, among others.

I’m also ever hopeful to do more 18-hole new courses.  The climate of golf development has changed so much over the last ten years and opportunities are really scarce – not what they used to be.  I just hope to keep doing good work and will earn the chance to partner with someone who appreciates my talents enough to bring me into a new-build situation.  I would really enjoy employing that level of creativity on a project again.  The way I figure, they can’t keep giving those jobs to the same group of architects forever!

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Copyright 2015 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

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