Multimedia, Multitalented – An Interview with Architect Brett Hochstein

Pasatiempo.  It doesn’t get much better than a trip around Dr. Mac’s home course.   That is, unless you receive an invite to visit another course later that same day where talented architects, shapers and supers are working their magic.  A golf geek’s dream day come true.

I was fortunate enough to have just such a day earlier this year, and the invite came from Brett Hochstein.  He and George Waters were working with Architect Todd Eckenrode and Superintendent Josh Smith at Orinda Country Club.  Given that I had been following Brett on Twitter (@HochsteinDesign) and Instagram (@hochsteindesign), and truly enjoying the glimpses into the creative process that he shares, I was thrilled for the opportunity.


After playing Pasatiempo, I made my way up through the East Bay traffic to Orinda.  Brett and George were wrapping up their work day, but they were kind enough to share their perspectives on the project, and give me a tour.  Brett also agreed to do an interview.  We decided that it would be best to wait until he could compile the full range of photos from his work at Orinda.

The interview and photos follow, as well as a special bonus from Brett.


Brett collaborated on this renovation with Todd Eckenrode, George Waters, and Josh Smith.  Below is a sampling of images from Brett’s work.

Orinda CC #4 – Before and after featuring new, more interesting and natural looking bunkers.
Orinda CC #8 – Evolution through time, restoring green complex to original look and feel.
Orinda CC #13 – Before and after of opened teeing area and modified bunkering that creates additional shot options off the tee.
Orinda CC #18 – Approach and green back views of the finisher, now with far more character and interest from 100 yards in.


How did you get introduced to golf?

My parents bought me a set of toy clubs at a very young age—perhaps 2 or 3.  At age 4, I was given a more complete set of plastic clubs (and a plastic golf bag!), and my dad snuck me out on a local public course, Harley’s, which is now the Union Lake Golf Course.  This is where I finally got to hit some real shots and experience the real thing, minus the real clubs of course.

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

Right away that day.  The architecture and the land were by no means inspirational, but the concept of playing a game through different features—greens, bunkers, water, trees, and the hole in the ground itself—had an immediate grasp on me.  I even threw/hit my ball directly into the sand because I thought it was so cool.

I kept the scorecard from that round, which started a habit of collecting scorecards, especially ones with routings printed on them.  I would take those to study and then come up with routings and holes of my own, something I continued throughout my entire childhood.  My parents might have thought it strange that their 5 year old spent most of his free time drawing golf courses, but it was all normal to me.  I knew at that young age I wanted to design golf courses when I grew up.

How did you get into the business?

This is going to be hard to keep short…

As mentioned above, I knew I wanted to be in this business right away.  I prepped myself through drawing, playing, and watching on tv, but a book loan of Tom Doak’s The Anatomy of a Golf Course from my high school senior English teacher really was a reawakening of sorts.  It was the antithesis of the sterile brand of public golf development all over Michigan at the time, and it brought me back to that spirit and energy I had when first discovering the game and playing it over burned out hard-pan on modest courses sitting on former farm fields.  Four main things were gathered right away from reading: knowing about and being involved in course construction is vital, spending time in the British Isles would open the palette to what is possible in golf, Cornell would be a very good place to attend college for its history of flexible study and development of golf architects, and reading more about these “Golden Age” guys would be a pretty good idea too.  I immediately began to focus on all four.

Getting into Cornell and gathering books by Ross, MacKenzie, and Thomas turned out to be the easy part.  After missing out on the Dreer grant that Doak and others used to travel the British Isles and graduating in 2008 with all financial fallout that occurred, getting to Scotland and getting construction experience turned out to be the hard parts.  I eventually got to Scotland late in 2009 through a year of turfgrass study at Elmwood College near St Andrews, but work continued to be all but impossible to find.

After my time there ran out, I ended up moving out to the San Francisco Bay Area where my girlfriend (now wife) resided and briefly took a job installing artificial putting greens.  That didn’t fully satisfy the palate, and after another round of reaching out to architects, Forrest Richardson mentioned he had a project upcoming at Mira Vista, the old Berkeley CC designed by Robert Hunter.  He let me tag along with him on some planning visits and eventually helped me get a job as a laborer on the construction crew, which featured Kye Goalby doing the shaping for the first part of the project.  Speaking with Kye and his different experiences, it revitalized my interest in working with the Doaks of the world.

When Tom D sent out an email titled “Opportunity Knocks” that summer to a bunch of people asking their interest in shaping on a new project in China, I jumped all over it.  A few weeks later, I got the great news that they wanted me to be the first guy they sent over and that I could help them out at Streamsong or Dismal River in the meantime.  This was the big break that I had been looking for since finishing school.

I worked with Renaissance for two and a half awesome years, becoming fully fluent with the bulldozer and excavator before going independent in 2014, which is where I am at today with Hochstein Design.

Who is your favorite Golden Era architect, and why?

Anyone who has seen my work would probably guess Alister MacKenzie, and they may very well be right.  I love undulating greens, artistic bunkering, and making the course blend as seamlessly as possible with the surrounds through form and texture.  Those are the surface-level hallmarks of his best designs, but he also knew a thing or two about routing and strategy, which are the necessary bones of any great course.

I am very fascinated with Colt, Simpson, Tillinghast, and Thomas as well and am most keen to see more of their works as I haven’t seen enough, in my opinion.  I did happen to walk Riviera last week though, and wow what an excellent piece of architecture it is.  This is why I always say flatness is no obstacle to great design. A few simple, well-executed design moves can make for highly compelling and enjoyable golf.

Who has had the most influence on you, both inside and outside of golf?

Tom Doak is an obvious one for his writing, his employing of me, and his work in general.  On a more day-to-day level though, I have to say Eric Iverson, who was the lead Renaissance associate on our two-year off-and-on project in China.  Beyond being a wise and capable designer himself, he is incredible on a machine.  His work always looks good, it is clean and easy to finish, and it is done twice as fast as the next guy.  That is the kind of shaper you want to learn from, and I owe whatever speed and efficiency I have to working/trying to keep up alongside him.  Eric is also a great manager and communicator, which, as a more quiet and reserved personality myself, was very helpful for me to observe and try to emulate.

I would also give an Honorable Mention to Mike DeVries for having a hands-on business and design model that serves as the inspiration for how I would like to operate.  He also taught me a few valuable techniques about old-school plan drawing when I worked with him in the office in summer 2008.

Outside of golf would probably be my dad.  As a small business owner himself, he taught me through example about hard work, taking ownership of any task big or small, and never complaining.  He’s also the one who introduced the game to me, and while he supported me and encouraged my involvement in tournaments and high school golf, it was always about the game and having fun.  You see too many dads and their juniors both now and then getting too into the competitive side of it.  I feel pretty lucky it was never that way.

What should every owner/Green Committee member study/learn before breaking ground on a golf course construction project?

They should understand who their potential designers are and what exactly they would get from them.

These projects involve a lot of money and should thus involve some careful thinking on whom they select.  That is not to say people take on a project without any thought; the reality is very far from that.  The reality is also that there are a lot of missed opportunities out there, unfortunately, both in new designs and renovations/restorations.  This is especially frustrating when you factor in how limited these opportunities are in this day and age.

A very big (too big in my opinion) part of this business is sales and the ability to engage a client with a story about what their course can be.  That ability to sell, though, does not necessarily correlate with the ability to deliver a great golf course.  The intentions of most sales pitches are honest, but it takes full commitment and passion to execute it.  If you don’t do the work yourself or have the proper talent in place, the work is doomed to fail or disappoint.  Success is as much in the details as in the big picture, and it is easy to see that if you just do some research on previous projects.

True quality work is not hard to come by and doesn’t necessarily cost more, just as I’ve seen firsthand at places like The Schoolhouse Nine, Dismal River, or a number of projects that have succeeded by making sound design moves sympathetic to the surrounds as opposed to engineering a grand lush landscape set amongst cart paths.  It’s a funny paradox these days where it seems the best work is done the most cheaply, and in a lot of cases it isn’t just the quality of land.

You are a shaper and photographer, in addition to being a designer.  How does your experience in those disciplines influence your design work?

To me shaping and designing are nearly one and the same.  As previously mentioned, my ultimate model is to operate much like the Gil Hanses, Jeff Mingays, Mike DeVrieses, etc. where you do as much of the shaping as you can yourself.

An essential ingredient for any great feature or design is spending time thinking about it, and the best way to spend time thinking about it is to actually work on it and gain a true feel for the space.  This is where ideas are either enhanced or generated.  As you interact with the ground, you notice things that you may not have at first, and you can apply that new information to make a more interesting design.

Occasionally, there are instances where I don’t completely know what I am going to do or how something will turn out, and I just figure it out as I go, most of the time with great success and always with satisfaction.  That may sound scary to a client, but the latter part of the statement is the important part—it gets figured out, and it does so with much better results than it would have gotten from an office desk.

Shaping yourself also cuts costs and saves time.  You know what is possible with a machine, and you know what sorts of marginal-upside design moves will take forever to do and thus be not worth the time and money of an equal alternative.  Machine and shaper time is costly, and I try to keep it as efficient as possible without compromising the quality of the work.

Photography is a hobby that’s evolved for me (and probably everyone).  I spend less time doing it, but I ultimately take more photos.  This is purely a product of the iPhone.  I just sorted my photos from the recent Orinda project, and it tallied over 2000 images, all of them quick snaps from my phone.  I do plan to go back out with a DSLR and polarizing filter to get some higher quality finished product images, but during the build it is just too easy to use that small all-in-one tool in your pocket, especially with improved HDR settings.  Also, Instagram is pretty fun.

That being said, the idea and spirit are just the same.  I love photography because it is a true medium to express how I see golf courses and the world itself.  As far as the connection to golf design goes, it’s all about composition.  By placing yourself in the correct spot and using calculated cropping, a nice balance can be achieved in composing your image.  In golf design, especially new builds, there is even more freedom to achieve that sort of “balance” and ideal composition.  Bunkers, greens, trees, landforms, and roughs are all place-able within a space, and having photographic experience or interest only helps develop your “eye” to get it right.

You collaborated with Mike McCartin on the Schoolhouse Nine. Why did you get involved in that project?

Mike asked me on short notice if I was interested, and I jumped all over it.  The main reason is that I believed in what he was doing and what the Schoolhouse Nine could be.  Golf should be affordable, accessible, fun, environmentally sympathetic, and not overly time consuming.  These basic tenets were all reachable goals at the Schoolhouse Nine, and from everything I have heard about this first season, those goals have indeed been reached.

The opportunity to work on a new-build and shape greens with another former Renaissance guy was also something I just knew would be very fun and creatively satisfying as well, and it was.  I had a blast living and working there, and it shows in the great variety of green complexes that we came up with.

What place do you see courses like the Schoolhouse Nine having in the future of the game?

I see them being pretty important.  With urbanization growing and available land shrinking, golf needs to think outside of the 18 hole “championship course” box if it’s going to retain players or gain new ones.

The core enjoyment found in golf is in attacking the hole—the thinking and execution that comes inside 200 yards—and you don’t need as much land for that.  6 hole executive courses, 9 hole par-3 courses, and pitch-and-putts are some examples of alternative courses that have the ability to offer fun, challenging, and compelling golf in more densely populated areas.  They would also take less time away from everyone’s increasingly busy schedules.

Should this be the top priority or first choice in golf development?  Not necessarily.  But it definitely should be embraced and considered as a viable alternative.  Shorter courses can still be proper golf; making the hole bigger, to cite one popular doomsday alternative, is not.

What is your favorite part of a golf course to design? To build?

To both those questions -green complexes and surrounds.  Greens are the “face of the portrait [golf hole],” and the strategy unfolds outward from there.  Coming up with that strategy while trying to make something look like it has always been there is a challenge that is both fun and fulfilling.


What do you love about practicing your craft?

I love putting on the headphones and diving into anything creative, whether it be roughing in a green on a dozer, sketching out a hole concept at my desk, finalizing a bunker edge with a shovel, or zipping around in a sandpro to add a bunch of microcontouring to a fairway.  I am really big into music, and beyond the inspiration it can provide, it also serves as a memory placeholder for what I did and when, which is big for a nostalgic person such as myself.

What courses are at the top of your hit list to see or play next?

My free time is pretty limited, so I tend to take a pragmatic approach to my “next-see” list and see what I can wherever I might happen to be.  For example, I was working at Sallandsche in the Netherlands last fall and a short stint in the spring.  This was a great chance to see De Pan, Royal Hague, Kennemer, Eindhoven, and Frank Pont’s Swinkelsche.

This winter, I will be in Northern France at Hardelot, so the “next-see” wish list contains Morfontaine, Chantilly, Le Touquet, and a whole boatload of stuff on the other side of the English Channel if I can make it over there.

For a destination “next-see,” I would have to say The Loop at Forest Dunes.  The concept is something I have always found fascinating, and I can’t wait to see how Doak and Brian Slawnik executed it.  I’m sure there’s a level of complexity to it that I haven’t even thought of yet, and I’ve thought about it a lot.  As a proud native Michigander, I can’t wait to see this great new addition to the “Up North” golfing scene, which even with the likes of Crystal Downs and the Kingsley Club, is underachieving in my opinion given the beautiful and sandy nature of the region.

When you are not working or playing golf, what are you doing?

I’m most likely with my wife hanging out, traveling, or relaxing.  Even though she has mostly worked remotely and tagged along with me on projects the past two years, I’m still out on site for 10-12 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week, which is a good amount of time.  With that and the realization that time away will always be a part of this job, I like to spend as much time with her as I can.

Beyond that, I’m an ardent supporter of University of Michigan Athletics, specifically football, and the Detroit Red Wings.  I’m also hoping on my next winter lull that I can find time to get back into playing drop-in hockey and going up to the mountains to snowboard.

Any exciting projects on the horizon for you?

I’ve just started at Hardelot in France to do some work on Les Pins course with Patrice Boissonnas and Frank Pont, the men responsible for the recent restoration of the Tom Simpson course that just broke a record for biggest jump in the Continental Europe rankings.  They think they can get a few more details even better though, and they have brought me on to help execute that.  It is really exciting working at a special place, in sand, and with people who are passionate and easy to work with.

Beyond that, nothing is certain yet.  There are a few more shaping opportunities, but the truth is I cannot wait to get the opportunity to design, renovate, or restore something on my own.  That final jump may ultimately prove the hardest to make.  I am ready for the opportunity though.


Brett worked with architect Frank Pont on breathing new life into this gem in the Netherlands.

Sallandsche course map, illustrated by Brett.
Sallandsche #2 – Bunker build through the process.
Sallandsche #14 and #16 – Green complexes with new bunkers and improved views.


Sallandsche #17 – Before
Sallandsche #17 – Brett’s design sketch
Sallandsche #17 – After Brett’s work, in sepia
Sallandsche #17 – After, in glorious color

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Copyright 2015 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

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