As a member of GolfClubAtlas.com, I was fortunate to be able to attend a dinner with my fellow GCA geeks this week at which Jim Urbina gave an insightful talk that he themed, The Evolution of a Golf Course. From his original collaborations with Tom Doak on courses such as Pacific Dunes, Old Macdonald and Sebonack, to his restorations of classics such as Pasatiempo and Valley Club of Montecito, Jim continues to make his mark and connect us to the soul of the game.
There were a few nuggets that Jim shared that I found particularly interesting – I happily pass them along to you.
“Pete Dye never looked at plans.”
Jim’s first job in the business was working for Pete Dye. His first day was spent digging a drainage ditch. He quit after that first day. An offer from Mr. Dye to operate a bulldozer if he came back for a second day worked, and the rest is history. Jim was brought up in the school of GCA that considers designing a course and building it to be inseparable aspects of one, unified job. He learned his craft by studying great courses, and then coming back to his projects to apply those learnings while walking the land and digging in the dirt. The pride and joy of creation is evident in the way that Jim talks about projects like Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald.
“Evolution of the course starts from the day you plant the seed.”
Having worked on many restorations of Golden Age golf courses, Jim has seen how far some of those courses have strayed from the original designers’ intent. Beyond the painstaking work of returning these courses to their original greatness, Jim shared an interesting insight about how courses evolve over time. That evolution doesn’t happen only because of misguided redesigns or decisions by Greens Committees. Evolution is happening every day on a golf course because it is a living, breathing thing. He reminded us, “You become a part of the golf course.” Blast sand out of a bunker, you are subtly changing the contours of the green. Take a divot and repair it in the fairway, you are changing that fairway forever. Walk a well worn path, from a green to the next tee, you are participating in the evolution of the course.
Even with a restoration, the course will never be quite the same as it was on the first day it opened. Our job as stewards of our courses is to guard the spirit of the design while allowing the evolution to happen as it will. Courses evolve, whether we like it or not.
“There are seasons of golf. You shouldn’t try and make every season the same season.”
Jim fielded a question about expectations for course conditioning, specifically in the spring. His answer went in a different direction than the questioner had anticipated. He pointed out that the turf, soil, and sand of a golf course go naturally through the changes of the seasons. The course looks different, and it plays differently during those seasons if we leave it alone. We as golfers often ask our Superintendents to make the golf course look and play the same throughout the year, and this is something that Jim has never understood. From his perspective, why not enjoy the changing of the seasons and the variety that those seasons add to your golf course, especially in temperate climates? Well, when you put it that way…
His answer to this question got to the larger issue of player expectations, and how many of those expectations are out of whack. Firmess, green speeds, rough height…these are debates that are ongoing and are worthy of their own pages. I believe Jim would say, as a rule, the more natural a course can be maintained, the better. When in doubt, go with what Nature would do.
Beyond being incredibly gracious, Jim’s experience around the globe and over the decades has clearly resulted in wisdom about this game we love. The years and the miles have not dampened his enthusiasm, however. As he told us, “Everything I do is about passion.” Passion for the work of creation, passion to learn, and passion to continue spreading his gospel of what the game is all about. This quote from his website sums it up: “Golf is supposed to be fun, spread the word.”
For more from Jim Urbina: