The Past Brought Forward – An Interview with Architect Ian Andrew

From his design blog, to his articles on, to his Twitter posts, it is easy for a golf geek to lose oneself in the writings of Ian Andrew.  With his depth of knowledge, respect for tradition and pure love of the game of golf, wandering through Ian’s thoughts is like a trip around the greatest golf course you can imagine – interesting, challenging and fun.

As much as he writes, Ian has his boots on the ground and his hands in the dirt even more.  His original and restoration work can be found throughout North America, and represents the classic spirit of the game.  I was lucky enough to catch Ian while the winter snow has him on a momentary pause, and he kindly took the time to share his thoughts with us.



How did you get introduced to the game of golf?  

I used to watch tournament golf with my father.  It was while watching the Pebble Beach Pro Am that I fell in love with the golf courses.  The event and celebrities were not near as interesting as seeing these epic holes along the ocean.  I began to draw detailed plans of the course while watching TV.  By the end of the event I asked my father if you can actually work as a course designer.  Once he said yes, I set my sights and he responded by buying me books about golf architecture.  I was 13 at the time.

When did you know that game had a hold on you?

Ian teeing off at Highlands Links in 1981.
Ian teeing off at Highland Links in 1981.

My father signed me up at the local municipal course that same summer. He gave me the proper grip, some swing instruction and made me pass an etiquette test before I could play on my own. It only took a couple of games for me to become obsessed with the game.

What was the first great course you played?

My father took me to play Highlands Links when I was 16.  I was awestruck by this oceans and mountains golf course.  It was far better than anything else I had ever seen or played.  It began our habit of making yearly golf trips that frustrated my mother to no end.  We ended up playing at Pinehurst, New York, Monterrey and Scotland over the next six years.  I later took him to Ireland to say thank you.

How did you get into the business?

I actually did my first Master Plan and built my first green as a teenager, but I don’t consider that as “in the business”.  I contacted all the top Canadian architects and arranged to meet or interview with them whether they had a position available or not.  I had an offer and worked part time for Doug Carrick, but stayed to finish school.  I ended up waiting a few years, but he called once he had an opening and I started with him.  That put me in the business.

Ian with his father at Royal County Down.
Ian with his father at Royal County Down.

Who has influenced you the most?

My father, he was an excellent businessman whose specialty was turning around failing companies.  His approach was to understand the entire operation before making any decisions.  He believed success in business was simple: great service, an excellent product sold at a fair price.  That brought you loyalty from your customers when you needed them.  I believe the same today and I think that is why things have worked out fine for me.

What about someone in golf?

Within golf, there is no single person. I began to learn about architecture from the books written during the Golden Age and I have sought out the work of just about every significant designer.  My key influence has shifted multiple times as I’ve become exposed to more architects work and different thoughts of my own on design.

I have also spent time with all the top architects in this current era, looking at their key projects, and even working with some.  I’m a sponge, so will ask and learn from anyone I meet.  I consider everything I read or hear and then decide on what fits with my own personal philosophy of golf architecture.

I do have a couple of golf course architects with whom I talk regularly.  We have learned from each other, discussed and debated the more complex issues we face in our work and even tackled deeper philosophical questions about architecture.  They are an excellent resource.

You take the time to share photos and histories of classic courses with your audience. Why do you think that is important?

I want people to be aware of what is still out there and to become very protective over what is architecturally important.  I think too much of the great Golden Age architecture is being altered now and too much is at risk.  I am the culmination of all the great work that I have gone to see and study.  If we lose the great work of important architects, then we lose their lessons and contributions.

Pick an iconic golf hole and tell us about the features that make that hole great that we might not have noticed.

The 6th hole at The Creek Club

The set-up is important.  Raynor takes you across the flattest section of the property and through the trees for the opening five holes.  When you come out of the trees and onto the 6th tee a spectacular panorama is opened for you down over to the holes below and out to the ocean beyond.  This technique is called compression and release, and it increases your reaction through spatial change.

The tee shot appears fairly simple because there is plenty of room out on the right and the bunker barely comes into play.  The problem with playing to the right is from that angle you’re pretty much dead.  The forest along the left defends the ideal line off the tee.  Therefore you must hit a light draw around that tree line to gain the ideal position and find a small plateau ideal for playing your approach.

It’s on the approach where the architecture begins to take center stage.  The green is a reverse redan (falling hard from front left to back right) and Raynor has incredulously raised the surroundings in front to create a punchbowl setting for the green.  The audaciousness to add that front ridge to a very natural reverse redan setting is mind-boggling.  The shot is a delicately placed fade into the throat to access the front pins or a play to the front left to access the back pin positions.  A ball hit at any pin is a fool’s play.

It is my favourite hole in golf.

Describe your process for a design project.

I begin with a philosophical question: What experience do I want them to have?  There are so many options on style, set-up, approach, etc.  You also have to address what everyone’s expectations are and how you can reconcile their needs with your own philosophy in a way that works for both of you.  For example, when we built Laval, we had to plan for a Canadian Open and membership play.  We solved that riddle with our design approach, based very much on the Sandbelt Courses of Melbourne and how fun they were for day-to-day play, and how tough they could be made with a firm, tight turf and edge pin locations.

When it comes to routing, my personal methodology is to walk the property looking for vistas to borrow (or avoid), features that will make great ground for golf and natural places to end a hole.  I collect as many as I can without worrying about the routing.  I also like to accumulate options to naturally move uphill, since these are often the keys to an imaginative and walkable routing where no transitional holes are required.  Finally, I believe a great set of threes is a paramount, so I identify the most dramatic locations possible and try to incorporate them into the eventual routing.

The next step requires persistence and patience.  You find a few alternatives to walk through and you go test each one.  You’re looking for a continuous journey through the landscape without interruptions.  It should be a terrific walk long before it becomes holes.  So you discard sections that lack, add other locations that peak your interest and walk and walk.  You go through this process until you finally can walk eighteen holes and have it unfold like a story.

One of the great secrets to a routing and developing rhythm is the understanding that a break between dramatic locations will make the setting that follows far more impressive by comparison.  It’s like a rollercoaster where you don’t want a continuous run of thrills.  You need the spaces in between to lower the heart rate and let you prepare for the next thrill.  It’s not just about finding and designing holes, it’s all about how you want them to feel and part of that is how you develop the rhythm of the course.

Is there a particular element of a golf hole that you like working on the most?

IanAndrew-GilHanseThe grassing lines, they are the most underrated and important element on a course.

In the simplest terms, short grass emphasizes the importance of the undulations on the ground and long grass eliminates them.  The more the ball has the opportunity to react and move on the ground, the more interesting the architecture is.  The more short grass in play, the more options the player has to try a myriad of shots.  Where you place your grassing lines will either identify all the available architecture or mask it.

Greatness in architecture is most often found when the distance between success and failure is razor thin.  This is why Raynor’s work resonates so much.  Many people get stuck on the engineered nature of shapes, when the beauty is how it plays.  By having the green and collars come right out to the very edge of his plateaus, there is nothing to save a ball once it reaches an edge.  You’re either on or looking at a recovery shot, unless you have used a feeder slope and come up short.  One of the keys to this approach is having all the transition points slightly over the bank to make sure nothing is able to stop at the edge, and the fact that the greens and their contours are emphasized more through the infinity backdrop this creates.

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

I’m from the Northeast where Parkland courses rule the landscape, so my comment is based around those who I happen to serve.  So my advice would be to “truly understand photosynthesis”.  Greens need five hours of morning sun and nine hours of daily sun at a minimum to produce healthy, sustainable turfgrass.  Everything else is a long drawn out death spiral held off by science, money and extensive turf experience…but the end is always the same eventually.

If you could do a project with one Golden Era architect, who would it be and why?

Many of the greats would not be that much fun to work with.  And with a few I would never get paid.  So the easy answer is Harry Colt.  He is the foundation of golf course architecture as we know it today.  He played a critical role in the development of two of the greatest architects in history.  He corresponded and met with many others, influencing their careers.  He shared his thoughts willingly for others to learn, had great projects and remained a gentleman throughout.

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

As strange as it sounds, it’s when you leave your comfort zone and build something that tests the boundaries of what’s acceptable to the average player.  You immediately find yourself questioning whether people will accept that feature or that concept.  And you know there’s no guarantee that everything done in that context will work, but greatness lies in that uncomfortable place.  Playing it safe has never furthered any art form.

In Laval we built five greens that fell away from the line of play.  For many designers this is considered an antiquated idea or even unfair, and that should be avoided at all costs.  But it’s also a common feature found on almost every course that has influenced my design philosophy.  Admittedly, it was the idea that I worried the most about when we set out to build Laval, but it’s never been mentioned once by those who play the course because they all think the holes follow the natural flow of the land and there are alternative ways to approach those holes.  I guess the sweet spot is when you trust the knowledge that you have accumulated and build what you believe in.

What course would you love to restore?


I don’t think this is too complicated.  There are enough images, aerials and written information available to restore the course.  In the process I would properly detail the bunker work to deal with the serious playability issues, restore a few altered bunkers, fix some of the tie-ins from when they rebuilt the greens (by adding mix on top of the original greens).  I would also rebuild the Robinson green (current 18th) and restore it back to the original surface.

Let’s call it a labour of love.

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

There was a recent proposal put forward to the PEI government to buy and re-develop Crowbush Cove.  It involved not only a redesign, but the addition of more dunes land to replace some of the interior holes.  That’s a site and project that would be very high on my list.  There are not very many sand and dunes land opportunities in Canada.

What do you love most about practicing your craft?

Considering all the potential options, it’s the time when you are an artist.  It’s that feeling of self-expression that more than makes up for the more challenging, time consuming, process orientated aspects of this business.

What one word would you use to describe the courses you design, and why?


I believe a player should have the opportunity to set their own adventure.  They should be given plenty of space and opportunity to remove the hazards that they fear the most, but with this bargain they understand it will be difficult to shoot a low score.  As they improve, or as they want to score, I want them to understand that they will need to take on more risk.

I think the best players should find themselves facing multiple hazards that complicate their ideal line of play.  Those hazards must be severe enough to make them take pause and worry about finding their ball in one.  But they must have the clear knowledge that a risk successfully taken is a clear advantage gained.  Therefore each shot becomes about choice, or how much risk am I willing to take.

I want them to be able to play safe or aggressive anytime they want with the clear understanding that each shot will have implications on position or score.  It’s all up to them and that is what I want anyone playing my work to feel.

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

The National Golf Links of America.

I’m quite convinced that it would take at least a decade to see every pin location played in every wind.  The course has the right combination of quality architecture, playability and flexibility in set-up to make every day an exciting one.

What are the top 3 courses next on your list to play for the first time?

I’m off to play Burnham and Barrow, Royal North Devon and St Enodoc this spring…but if you mean what is the next three on my “Drop Everything List”…it’s Myopia Hunt, Golf de Morfontaine and Hirono.

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

I have approximately three to four months off every year because of winter.  I play hockey three times a week and ski about eight times a year.  I use the winter to research and write.  I’ve yet to find the right mindset to write an entire book, but that will come.

I don’t play much during the golf season, outside of traveling to play something special for a week in early spring and then a second week in late fall.  My shortened year is often excessively busy with lots of work to do, so time off is always “family time”.  If there’s a gap, we will go up north and relax by the lake when the time allows.  If there’s none, they go up without me.

What’s on the horizon for you?

More of the same I expect.  I work with fifty courses in Canada and the US now.  The largest part of my work is historical restoration and I don’t expect that to change.  It seems almost all my new clients are American.  Never set out to work in the States, but that’s how it worked out.  Every once in a while I end up with a Laval or Maple Downs looking to make a larger fundamental change, and that’s pretty exciting, but mostly it’s a continuous flow of smaller projects working slowly towards a long term plan.

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Copyright 2015 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

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