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Community Links Champion – An Interview with Architect Andy Staples

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Hobbs, NM is on my bucket list for golf adventure.  I’ll explain.  That is where Andy Staples created a source of inspiration for anyone associated with the Community Golf Revival in America at a course called Rockwind Community Links.  I became aware of Andy’s work while doing research for Canal Shores.  On a brief phone conversation last year, it was clear that we have the same paradigm about the spirit of the game, and I asked Andy to share some of his thoughts here – he graciously agreed.

Then, I dropped the ball.  Life intervened and I did not follow up.   A recent trip to Sand Hollow got me off my butt though.  Seeing Andy’s amazing work at that special course (as evidenced by Jon Cavalier’s photos below) motivated me to circle back and get the interview done.  I wanted to know more about a guy who puts an equally high level of thought and care into his work, whether it is for a championship resort course, or a community links.

As is the case with his courses, Andy did not disappoint.  Hope you enjoy.

Click on any photo to enlarge.


THE INTERVIEW 

How did you get introduced to golf?

I believe I was 7 or 8 years old when my dad brought home a set of clubs for me and my younger brother Tim.  It was your classic 5, 7, 9, driver and putter in a canvas carry bag.  I’m from suburban Milwaukee, and we were members of West Bend Country Club, a mid-tier blue collar club about 45 minutes from my house.  My dad enrolled my brother and me into the 3-holer beginner golf program, and we took lessons from the pro at the time, Don Hill.  Interestingly, the front nine at WBCC was designed by Langford and Moreau, and consisted of some fairly aggressive features, deep bunkers and sharp green fall offs – incredibly difficult for a 7 year old!  I can still remember hitting a tee shot on the 3rd hole into a large grassy bunker about 75-100 yards off the tee on the right every single time I played the hole.  This feature was so deep that all I could do was hit my 9 iron over and over until I finally was able to ricochet the ball out sideways.  I just remember thinking, “Man, I have got to get better at this game! I stink!”  I soon progressed to 5-holers, then 9, and finally 18.  I’m not sure it was the best way to learn the game, but it sure got me hooked.  I’m guessing it was the personal competition and being outdoors.

WestBendCC3-FairwayBunker.jpg

The dreaded bunker on West Bend’s 3rd hole

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

I played a lot of baseball as a kid, and my dad always told me that the baseball swing and the golf swing competed against each other (not sure this is true, but I believed it).  So I felt if I gave one up, I would get better at the other just by way of mechanics.  That decision came to a head when I went to high school, because both baseball and golf were played in the same season.  I chose golf.  At that point I went all in trying to be as good as I could be. Skip Kendall and Steve Stricker were playing amateur golf at the time but were older than me, and then my buddy growing up, Mark Wilson, who’s a few years younger than me, came along. I soon realized the bar was pretty high. In any case, I was dead set on practicing every day to hopefully play golf in college. There’s a lot of other stories about how I really wasn’t as good as I thought, and that golf is a really hard game, but I knew I was in for the long haul. Golf was something I really, really enjoyed and found a great deal of passion in.

How did you get into the business?

Well, around the time I was making the decision to play golf or baseball, I can remember getting into practicing my sand shots on a sandy beach lake house in northern Wisconsin (near Rome WI, as a matter of fact) that our family frequented when I was a kid.  These sand shots were aimed at random targets, which turned into playing to a stick in the ground, which turned to me flattening out an area for a green, then finding 9 tees playing to one green, then 18 (very small) holes carved around the sandy hills, pines and lake water.  I even played a hole off the boat pier.  They all could be played with a sand wedge.  I found great passion in making sure my course was as well-kept as possible, watering the green, and tamping it down.  I even transplanted trees and built retaining walls.  Funny thing is, I never named the course.  I can remember playing in the Staples Pro-Am on a fairly regular basis though.  In any event, one day, my dad came to me and asked me if I knew that people design golf courses for a living, and they’re called golf course architects.  I stopped and pondered that for a moment.  I had no idea there could be such a job.  I think I was 11 or 12 years old.  From that point on, I knew what I wanted to do for a living.

It was Bob Lohman who my dad called (as he was consulting at WBCC at the time) to see what his son should study in college if he wanted to be a golf architect.  Bob told him that I should study Landscape Architecture.  Again, I had no idea there was such a thing as a landscape architect – all I knew was from that point forward if I wanted to be a golf architect, I needed to study landscape architecture.  In thinking about it now, I sure did put a lot of trust in my dad, and Bob Lohman!  So, I searched schools across the country that had Landscape Architecture programs, and settled on the University of Arkansas.  It was during this time that I really tried to get into the business in some way, ideally in an office during the summer.  I called as many people as possible – a whole slew of people.  The one piece of feedback I remember getting was that I was crazy for trying to get into the business, and that I would never find a job.  Ha!  The classic story.

One of the people that I was able to get a hold of was Jerry Slack in Tulsa, OK.  He told me to go to work in construction, and to learn how courses were built.  Great advice.  So, I found out about Wadsworth Golf Construction, and applied for a laborer position during my summers.  The job evolved over a couple of summers from being a drainage guy, to pulling wire for irrigation, to programming irrigation controllers to finishing greens with a sand pro.  Once I graduated college, Jerry needed some help as a draftsman and compiling construction documents, and he hired me right away.  There it was- I was in.

Who is your favorite Golden Age architect, and why?

If I was to narrow it to one, I’d have to say Bill Langford, and Langford & Moreau. If you’ve ever been to Lawsonia Golf Links in Wisconsin, you know that it is such a grand exhibit of natural beauty contrasted against the engineered construction of bunker shapes and green pads.  It’s just awesome.  I’m not sure how much learning the game at an L&M course has anything to do with this decision, probably quite a bit; but of the courses I’ve seen of theirs are definitely a unique representation of the art of golf design.  These courses have had a definite impact on my view of golf architecture.

I also really admire Perry Maxwell for the work he was able to achieve during such meager times.  His nine holes at Prairie Dunes are fantastic, and I love the routing at Southern Hills.  I also appreciate his alliance with Dr. MacKenzie, and really respect that collaboration.  I really, really like MacKenzie’s work in California – Cypress, Pasatiempo, and The Meadow Club. They’re outstanding.

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

First of all, they need to realize that a lot of what is going on today in terms of equipment, agronomic advances, and even competition among architects, is nothing new.  These things have been heavily debated for over 100 years, and that what they’re doing isn’t something unique.

Second, I think, if at all possible, everyone should see links golf in Scotland or the UK, to understand first-hand how the game was originally intended to be played.  Each time I’ve been able to journey over the pond with clients, it’s been amazing how much of a connection happens when they compare their project to real links golf.  There are real benefits to experiencing what “the ground game” really means, and in understanding how the idea of fast and firm impacts so much of great design; it’s really cool to be able to get your team on the same page with what you’re trying to create.  Now, taking it from Scotland, to say, Utah, that’s where the interesting part of the design process lies.  But after an experience like that, there’s no doubt everyone lands on a much better level of understanding of how the end product will play.

SandHollowLinks6.jpg

Sand Hollow Links course is inspired by GB&I architecture.

Third, the business is getting more and more complex, and getting educated on the “business” seems to be more difficult than ever.  I always tell my prospective owners they need to dig into the people they are looking to hire and find out how they work, and if their philosophy matches the way they or their club works.  There’s a great TED Talk with Simon Sinek: It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it.  It’s a great listen.  I’m a big believer in a client making sure they are 100% convinced they match with their team, so education on the landscape of the business is incredibly important as anyone moves ahead with a project.

Speaking of the current golf business, what’s your take on where the design business is headed?

Overall, I think the largest change coming, and you’re already starting to see it, is the philosophy of collaboration and partnership.  One thing that is dramatically different today compared to when I was getting into the business, is the idea of apprenticeship or working under someone to learn the craft; that is pretty much disappearing.  The focus now seems to be on getting involved somehow with great golf course projects, with a variety of architects, and seeing how these projects are built.  I think this is an interesting evolution, and something I’m encouraged about for the future.  Because of this focus on collaboration, I think we will continue to see better and better golf courses being built, and on sites that won’t require sand dunes or ocean front property.  But I can also see the design business getting even more competitive.

What was the inspiration for your community golf concept?

It all began in Los Alamos county New Mexico when I was hired to develop a Master Plan for their golf course.  The project began innocently enough, addressing needs across the course, looking at ways to make the course better; in other words, the master planning process in the traditional sense.  One of the exciting parts of the design process was to find a way to integrate an underutilized piece of the property that just happened to have these fantastic rock ledges and incredible views of a dramatic river and old growth Ponderosa pines and Douglas fir.  It almost felt like you were in Lake Tahoe, or Aspen.  It was the piece of land a golf architect drools over the minute they find their way to that area of the property.

So, being the golf architect, and always trying to put the golf first, I began to look for ways to integrate this area of the property into my routing plans for an option to present to the county.  Well, this part of the property already hosted a variety of other users such as hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers and even equestrian.  And, as you can imagine, since they were already using this area, they were quite interested to find their trails may be relocated due to the new golf course.  Residents described these trails as “commuter” trails as a way to get to work in the morning, and some of them were upset (even furious) with the proposed changes.  A sleepy golf course master plan turned into the classic “them vs. us” shoot out.

I began to hear the arguments against the course, and how only 10% of the community plays golf, where quite possibly well over 50% of the community used the trail system.  The nature conservationists emerged as well.  Soon, it became obvious that the golf course plan was not only going to change, it may indeed be cancelled!  The team and I went back to the drawing board, began discussing the community’s needs, looking for ways to find some middle ground.  It was during a standing room only town-hall meeting that the concept of “community links” was born.  I saw the passion for the outdoor uses, for the trails, and, of course, for the golf course.  It became clear that all the Los Alamos residents were hungry for a way in which everyone was free to use the golf course, since they were all going to pay for it (through their taxes).

It was at this meeting where I expressed the desire to look at their golf course differently and find a way to “link” this course to all the residents of Los Alamos.  From that point forward, the golf course became known as the stimulus to a “north county park plan,” and the golf course would therefore be the central figure in these plans.  The golf course clubhouse would now be called a community building where residents could check in to play golf and rent mountain bikes.  In the winter, they would be able to rent cross-country skis or shoe shoes.  It wasn’t going to be just a golf course – it was now going to be a true “link” to a place that expressed the commitment of showing value to 100% of the community.  Thus, a Community Links – linking their golf course to the community.  What was a very contentious situation turned into a real rally cry for the community and all revolved around the game of golf.

I’ve held onto that experience, and used it as fuel for how I feel many municipalities should approach their golf course.  I look for ways to break the mold of how a golf course and its property can and should be used by their residents. And besides, based on the give and take of the master plan, I was able to hold on to one of the most dramatic par-3s anywhere in New Mexico.  I can’t wait to build it!

LosAlamos16-Proposed.jpg

Proposed new par-3 at Los Alamos

Have you encountered challenges in educating players or course managers on the value of your approach?

Most definitely.  I tend to focus my Community Links concept on municipally owned facilities so I work through city administrators and public officials.  There is a challenge in translating the terms we in golf are used to dealing with.  I’ve found many of the solutions I’m presenting come from the perspective of providing a service rather than running a business.  That said, golf is still an incredibly conservative industry, and the fact that so many municipal golf courses are losing money while their infrastructure continues to deteriorate, focuses many of the initial conversations strictly related to money issues and return on investment.

The other discussion revolves around this idea that golf is dying and that nobody is playing golf.  It’s incredible what kind of role the media has played in propagating this story.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked about the Bryant Gumbel HBO special about the struggles the game of golf is currently encountering.  So, I spend a lot of effort discussing the values of the game of golf, and how communities have successfully used golf and a golf course as a centerpiece to their city.  There’s a small groundswell happening, and I love seeing the passion for the game grow just by reminding others why we love the game so much, and how impactful the game can be.  It sounds sort of corny, I know, but it’s a small way for me to give back to a game that’s been so good to me.

You successfully demonstrated your concept at Rockwind.  Why did you get involved in that project?

Right, Rockwind Community Links in Hobbs, NM is my first concept to be built and opened, and we are beginning to see some good results.  There are many reasons I got involved with Hobbs.  For starters, the city had a real interest initially in adding a beginner course to their current 18-hole golf course.  I also had previously worked with their current golf course superintendent, Matt Hughes, so there was some familiarity there.  It also didn’t hurt that oil was trading at $110 a barrel around that time.

Rockwind-RenderingFINAL.jpg

As we progressed through the process to assess what kind of changes the city was willing to undertake, it became clear the golf course was in serious need of improvement.  But moving forward with a project of this size, there was significant concern about putting resources towards an asset that, on the surface, showed little signs of being able to provide sufficient payback.  So, when we presented the Community Links philosophy, they immediately became connected.  As it turned out, many of the administrators were golfers, and understood potentially what the game could mean to the community.  They began to promote the project as a community related project, not just a golf course project. And, they all said numerous times that they believed in the game of golf, and wanted to use the sport as a centerpiece in how they promoted their community to others.

Rockwind-AerialSept2015.jpg

I’m proud that each time we came in front of council, we received a 7-0 vote in favor of the golf course.  We continued to receive feedback that the concepts behind investing into an asset that 100% of their residents could use was the determining factor in why it was so heavily favored.  So now, we just need to keep proving the hypothesis out.  What is it they say?  One project is an interest – two projects become a destination?  I like that analogy.

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

If there is one thing I hope to have a small part in, it’s showing people who aren’t necessarily interested in the game or don’t see the value in golf, that the game has existed for over 500 years for a reason – and that there are really good things that come from golf.  A golf course naturally has many benefits to the environment, but I also feel the benefits one receives from playing the game are even greater.  If the values of the game of golf could be better documented and promoted, I feel society as a whole would then start to see golf differently.  I think that’s pretty cool, and who knows – maybe more people will take up the game because of it.

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

Routing a course is by far my favorite aspect to golf architecture, and the area I feel a course can be made or broken.  The flow and rhythm are hard things to quantify, and it certainly falls into the “you know it when you see it” category.  Also, taking a user through a piece of property and giving them insight into that particular piece of land – the diversity, the views, the highs and lows is, I think, the most important responsibility of the golf architect.

My favorite part of a golf course to build would be the creation of the composition of an individual golf hole, and thinking about the way a player will navigate the challenge.  Finding the line of charm, as Max Behr would say, and then looking for ways to break it up with hazards and landforms that are interesting and fun to play while providing balance and proportion with contrasts in textures.  The artist in me looks through this lens every time, and that is the best example of why field adjustments are so incredibly important to the final product.

What do you love about practicing your craft?

I’m one that sees golf architecture as the world’s largest form of sculpture.  Having a say on how to adjust a piece of property (or sometimes not touching it all) to fit the standards and tendencies of a game, played by all skill levels, is an incredible honor and is what I love doing for a living.  I love the comradery that comes with a construction site, and the sense of accomplishment when a job is completed.  There is no better occupation, and I’m humbled to be a part of it.

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

I need to see Pine Valley.  That’s the Big Miss so far in my career.  I also am looking forward to a trip to the sand belt in Australia.  So much to see, so little time!

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

StaplesFamily.jpgI’m a dad to 3 young boys (ages 8, 6, and 2), and a husband to an amazing wife.  So, first and foremost, when I’m back from a trip, I’m at home, or at a ball game or at some function with them.  I’m a developing home brewer, and if I wasn’t in the golf business, I might try my hand in some part of the beer making business.  I enjoy a good IPA or Saison on any day.  I have a 1976 Ford Bronco, so when I’m not doing either of the above, I’m working to keep the ‘ol girl running.  Living in Arizona, that’s not that hard to do.

Any exciting projects on the horizon for you?

I’m working in Utah for the City of South Jordan on perhaps my next Community Links.  I’ve got a number of small jobs designing practice areas or reducing turf, but by far the largest, most visible job of my career is the renovation of Meadowbrook Country Club outside of Detroit.  It’s an original 6 hole Willie Park Jr. course built in 1916.  We’re currently under construction and should be finished by the end of this summer.  It’s an awesome property with some really good golf holes, and I’m working to take it up a few clicks in terms of overall routing and Willie Park Jr. look and feel.  Our design team made a trip to the heathland in South West London, including Park Jr.’s Sunningdale Old and Huntercombe, and I want to bring some of that flavor to southeast Michigan.  It’s an awesome opportunity for me, and one I’m not taking lightly.  Feel free to come by if you’re in the area this summer, as there will be a pretty good chance I’ll be on site!

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See more from Andy Staples on the GeekedOnGolf GCA video archive (in architects section).

Hear from Andy on Dave Wilber’s Turfnet Radio podcast:


Additional Geeked On Golf Interviews:

 

 

2016 Copyright – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

16 thoughts on “Community Links Champion – An Interview with Architect Andy Staples

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  12. Great interview, Jason. Thanks for taking the time, Andy. Really enjoy reading this one.

    And thanks for using my photos of Sand Hollow. I’m such a huge fan of that golf course – it’s fantastic in every respect, and every visitor to Las Vegas should add it to their list of courses to play (it’s easily worth the drive).

    Looking forward to playing more of your work in the near future, Andy. Thanks again.

    – Jon Cavalier

    Like

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