Geeked on Golf

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


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Old Sandwich Tour by Jon Cavalier

OLD SANDWICH GOLF CLUB – A COURSE TOUR & APPRECIATION

Plymouth, MA – Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw

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After a recent round at Old Sandwich at the peak of fall, I thought that the many fans of the work of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and fans of New England golf in general, might like a look at this terrific course.  All of the photos in this tour were taken by me on October 20, 2016, with the club’s permission to shoot and share.  I hope you enjoy the tour.

OLD SANDWICH GOLF CLUB

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Boston is rightly regarded as one of the five best metropolitan areas in the United States for quality golf.  Despite the relatively short season, the greater Boston area is blessed with more than a dozen bucket list golf courses, including classic gems like Myopia Hunt Club, The Country Club at Brookline, Essex County Club, Salem Country Club, Eastward Ho Country Club, Charles River Country Club, and Kittansett Club among others.

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Any modern architect working in the Boston area faces the challenge of designing a course that will inevitably be measured and compared to these venerable courses, which were built by Golden Age titans with names like Donald Ross, William Flynn, Herbert Fowler and Herbert Leeds.  Such is the tall task that faced Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in the early 2000s.  Suffice it to say, these two gentleman, as they have so often done, rose to the occasion with gusto.

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The result is a masterpiece incorporating the best traditions of the game — huge, undulating fairways; natural hazards affording all manner of heroic recoveries; greens and green complexes that hold interest in round after round; and firm, fast conditioning permitting players to play the type of shots they choose.  Soon after completing their work, Coore and Crenshaw said about the course, “Through time, we hope that Old Sandwich will be viewed as a compliment to its beautiful surroundings, to golf in general, and to the long and storied tradition of golf course architecture in Massachusetts.”  Twelve years later, it’s clear they succeeded.

THE GOLF COURSE

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A round at Old Sandwich begins with a walk out of the gorgeous clubhouse, nicely attired in stone and wood, and along a sandy path across a bridge spanning a serene pond.

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From the clubhouse, nearly the entire course is hidden from view, but as one makes his way across the pond, the first tee comes into view.

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Notably, there are no water hazards on the course at Old Sandwich.  How many architects working today would have routed a course on this site to finish with a “heroic” carry over this pond to a green in the shadow of the clubhouse, perhaps while sacrificing the flow and playability of the golf course?  Credit to Coore & Crenshaw for putting quality golf first.

Hole 1 – 531 yards – Par 5

The round begins with a true gentle handshake – on his first shot of the day, the player is greeted with a massive fairway and an uphill par-5 of reasonable length.

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Although the fairway is quite large, the player must nevertheless pay attention to positioning, as a tee shot which strays too far left may be bunkered (hidden by shadow in the photo below) or out of position for a layup.

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For the player’s second shot, the two fairway bunkers to the right draw the eye and focus, but the cant of the fairway will direct indifferent shots into the less-prominent but no less dangerous bunkers running the left of the fairway.

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The green at the first is a true work of art.  Open across the entire width of its mouth, running approaches are welcomed at this green, but care must be taken to account for the steep false front on the left…

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… as well as the bunkering bordering the left side and left rear.  Note the many appealing pin positions on this large green.

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This bunker on the right side of the green is hidden from view on most approaches, while the green itself blends wonderfully into its surroundings.

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Hole 2 – 403 yards – Par 4

At this par-4, the primary objective off the tee is avoiding the center-fairway bunker complex.  The more aggressive right hand side leaves a shorter approach, but forces the player to confront the right-hand fairway bunkers.  Left is easier, but leaves a longer approach.  Finally, the player may elect to lay up short of the bunkers, but faces a long and difficult approach.  Choices like this are ever present at Old Sandwich.

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Regardless of the route chosen, execution is key.  Anything in the center traps is essentially a one-stroke penalty.

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The elevated green, tightly mown surrounds, and firm conditions make this approach particularly interesting.  This bunker sits some 20 feet below and to the left of the putting surface, but an approach that comes up just inches short of the green is in real danger of rolling back into it, leaving an extremely tough third.

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This view of the second green from the third fairway affords perspective and shows the movement of the landscape.

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Putting from beyond the pin at the second is a frightening proposition; chipping from behind the green is even worse.  A stout hole.

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Hole 3 – 450 yards – Par 4

This long par-4 plays shorter than its yardage on the card due to the fact that it is typically downwind, but it is nevertheless a challenging hole.

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As the hole doglegs left, the best line is down the right side, but the right is guarded by several menacing bunkers.  Any ball finding these pits will also find it nearly impossible to reach the green.

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Once past the bunkers, the fairway opens considerably and falls off into a depression short and right of the green.  The green itself is one of the best at Old Sandwich — its many elements include a false front short right followed by a large, slightly-domed area, followed by a swale cutting across the surface horizontally, followed finally by a back right tier on which that day’s pin was placed.

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A bunker wraps around behind the green from the left.  Given the slope of the green, this bunker is a common destination for approaches when the pin is back.

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The hazards protecting the left side of the green make an approach favoring the safer right side attractive, but beware the pot-like bunker long right, as it is a truly brutal hazard.  An excellent golf hole where options abound.

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Hole 4 – 209 yards – Par 3

The first one-shot hole at Old Sandwich, and a beauty.  As is often the case at Old Sandwich, looks here can be deceiving, as the view from the tee leads the golfer to believe that he has less room and more carry than he actually does due to the slight rise in the landscape and the framing bunker left, which prevent a perfect view.

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However, as this elevated view shows, there is ample room on this hole to land short of the green and bounce a ball on to the putting surface, as well as room to play left away from the deep greenside bunkers.

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In following the natural contour of the landscape, the huge green feeds gently from front to back, while the high left shoulder allows players to use the ground to feed shots into pins on the right side.

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Hole 5 – 336 yards – Par 4

Generally considered the signature hole at Old Sandwich, the fifth is a stunner and a unique hole in American golf.

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A short, cape-style par-4, the hole presents the golfer with an incredibly rumpled, elevated fairway moving left to right.  The sight of this fairway is one that a golfer does not soon forget.

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The fairway on this hole will direct well-hit, aggressive tee shots toward the green, with the potential to reach the green in one.  However, as is always the case with a well-designed cape, the higher the reward sought, the greater the risk taken.  Any shot that fails to carry the chosen line is dead.

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As noted above, the fairway mounding can both redirect ideal shots to the green while also presenting a difficult, uneven lie on approach for more conservative tee shots.

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Looking back toward the fairway, the elegance of the transition to putting surface is revealed, as the fairway bleeds seamlessly into the green.

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The tee-to-green theme of contour is carried through to the green itself, creating putting adventures for those whose approaches are imprecise.

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As this elevated view from behind the green reveals, there are plenty of ways to get yourself in trouble on this hole, but also plenty of ways to play the hole which will result in a good score.

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The key to scoring well on the fifth is knowing one’s own abilities and limitations, choosing a line that fits within those criteria, and executing one’s chosen strategy.  And isn’t that what golf is supposed to be?

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A brilliant rendition of a modern risk-reward hole.

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Hole 6 – 562 yards – Par 5

The second three-shot hole at Old Sandwich is the longest on the course, and requires an uphill tee shot and carry over gunch to an elevated fairway turning right to left.  This corner of the course is one of the prettiest spots on the property.

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The fairway is guarded on both sides by deep bunkering.  The right bunkers (out of frame) catch tee shots on an overly conservative line, while a pot bunker in the middle of the fairway complicates the second shot.

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The green is tiered from front to back, and contains ridges running both vertically and horizontally, which effectively quarter the putting surface.

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When looking back at the fairway, the golfer is likely to be surprised at just how much elevation he has scaled while playing the hole.

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Hole 7 – 391 yards – Par 4

The seventh is yet another standout hole at Old Sandwich renowned for its uniqueness.  From the tee, most of this dogleg left par-4 is visible, including the green and the pin, although much of the interest surrounding the green remains hidden.

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From the fairway, the incredible greensite is revealed in full.

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Sitting elevated in a lake of sand, the green functions as an island, repelling poorly struck approaches into the surrounding sand.

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The green is deeper than it appears from the fairway, offering ample room for shots struck on the appropriate line.

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Easily one of the prettiest greensites in golf.

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And in full fall color…breathtaking.

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Hole 8 – 379 yards – Par 4

The eighth is a transition hole, transporting the golfer from the seventh green to the ninth tee, where a run of spectacular golf begins anew.  The canted fairway tilting opposite of the hole’s direction adds an element of difficulty here.

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Mounding to the left protects and obscures the left side of this green and makes judging distance difficult.

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The bunkerless green appears to have been mowed directly from the fairway, so perfectly does it blend with its surroundings.

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Hole 9 – 131 yards – Par 3

This gorgeous little one-shotter plays to a large but multi-tiered green isolated in a sandy basin.  Bunkers guard on all sides.

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While hitting this green is no easy feat, neither is doing so any guarantee of a two-putt par.

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The back portion of this green shunts balls into this nasty bunker, or to a tightly mown area adjacent to the green.  Neither is an ideal spot for recovery.

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A birdie is a possibility here, but any player should be pleased to escape this little beauty with a par.

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Hole 10 – 516 yards – Par 5

The back nine begins with with a Coore & Crenshaw homage to Hell’s Half Acre.

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The Hell’s Half Acre bunker divides the fairway in two and requires a second-shot carry.  In addition to being an intimidating hazard, the feature also obscures a large portion of the fairway landing area.

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Three center-cut bunkers dot the fairway in the landing zone for second shots which, along with the slope of the fairway, add interest to what is often one of the more boring shots in golf — the second on a par 5.

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Looking back from the elevated green reveals the gorgeous movement of the landscape.

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Hole 11 – 244 yards – Par 3

A monster from the back tees, this par-3 is the longest on the course, the most difficult and perhaps the prettiest.

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A sandy ridge cutting in from the left side of the hole adds visual interest and hides the fact that the landing area for shots unable to make the carry is larger than it appears from the tee.

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The green is open in front to accommodate the longer approaches, but danger lurks to all sides.  A hole as tough as it is beautiful.

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Hole 12 – 455 yards – Par 4

From the tee on this par-4 running left to right, the golfer is tempted to shun the safer right side and play down the left to shorten the hole.

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This cluster of bunkers, largely hidden from view from the tee, play much larger than their actual footprint, and will exact a stiff penalty on any stray shots attempting this more aggressive line.

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Yet again, the green sits naturally as an extension of the fairway, open across the full width of its mouth.

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As a result, the hole appears as natural as they come.

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Hole 13 – 560 yards – Par 5

The last of the four par-5s at Old Sandwich, and this author’s favorite of the bunch, the thirteenth asks for a carry over a sandy waste area to the crest of a fairway rolling downhill and from left to right.

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Upon reaching the fairway, the player is confronted with the gorgeous sight of a wide, downhill fairway dotted on both sides with bunkering.  The closer one gets to the green, the more the short grass seems to narrow.

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The green itself is benched into the side of a sandy ridgeline, creating an amphitheater effect.  Once more, the green is open to running shots.

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The putting surface is protected on three sides by trench-like bunkers and a sharp fallaway to the front left.

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The surrounding bunkers present a difficult recovery, as the green slopes toward the front left fallaway.

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An exceptional par-5.

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Hole 14 – 369 yards – Par 4

The fourteenth plays back up the hill toward the 6th tee and the highest point on the property.  Here, the left-sloping fairway aids the player in positioning his ball on the proper side.

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Players taking the more aggressive right-side line may find themselves blocked out (your author has experience with this scenario).

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Even from the fairway, the elevated green presents an elusive target, as balls left short (where deep bunkers await), right or long will be repelled.

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Accuracy is at a premium on this deceptively difficult par-4.

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Hole 15 – 168 yards – Par 3

The artfully sloped and bunkered fifteenth, tucked into a corner of the property, is a favorite par-3 of the group at Old Sandwich.

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The bunker to the right cuts deeply into the green, and a high right shelf beyond this bunker can be used to funnel balls down to most pin positions.

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The green itself is moderately narrow but very deep, providing a safe landing area for shots struck on the intended line.

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An aerial view of the uniquely heart-shaped fifteenth green.

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One of a superb quintet of one-shot holes.

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Hole 16 – 486 yards – Par 4

The finishing stretch at Old Sandwich is a challenging test and ideally suited for determining matches that reach this point.  The sixteenth begins with a tee shot over a crested fairway to a blind landing area and, although the fairway is wide, the shot is one of the toughest on the course.

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The fairway tumbles down on the approach to a green running front to back, affording the golfer the opportunity to hit a shot landing some 50 feet short and to watch the ball bound and run on to the putting surface.

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Given the slope, a player may choose to hit as many as three or even four clubs less than standard for a given yardage.  Care must be taken to avoid the collection area that will gobble shots offline right.

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The beautiful sixteenth is one of the most strategic and fun holes (of the many strategic and fun holes) at Old Sandwich.

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Hole 17 – 191 yards – Par 3

The final one-shot hole at Old Sandwich is all carry to a slightly elevated green ringed with bunkers.

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Golfers must remain focused to avoid being distracted by the stunning natural surrounds.

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Balls left short will be shunted back toward the tee, while shots tempting the edges of the putting surface will likely be redirected into bunkers.  There is no cheating this hole – a well-struck shot is required.

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A look back from behind the green.

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And one from above.

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Hole 18 – 498 yards – Par 4

The longest par-4 on the course, the eighteenth presents the player with a fairway that is quite wide and quite blind from the tee — he must pick his line and trust that he has chosen wisely.

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Cresting the rise in the fairway, the player is afforded a view of the remainder of the hole, which is divided by long grass and bunkers.

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The gentle downhill slope, open front of the green and generous short grass surrounding the green all mitigate the length of this hole and provide opportunities for the creative shorter player to match the advantage of his competitor’s distance.

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An excellent finishing hole, as befits an exceptional golf course.

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BONUS – Hole 19 – Par 3

For those matches (and wagers) left unsettled after 18 holes, Coore & Crenshaw thoughtfully provided an extra hole to ensure everything is settled up properly.

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This final green is a hit-it-or-else proposition and contains significant internal undulation, ensuring that matches needing extra holes will be won by the player able to hit this green and lag it close or make his putt.

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Like many of Coore & Crenshaw’s other courses, a round at Old Sandwich leaves a golfer with no doubt that they have just been afforded the chance to play a course built in the mold of the great classics.  As with other modern gems like Sand Hills, Ballyneal, Stonewall, Kingsley, Friar’s Head and Pacific Dunes, Old Sandwich was built and is maintained with one goal in mind — providing its members with the best and most enjoyable golf possible.  And when golf architects and clubs find themselves on the same page in that regard, modern masterpieces which can stand proudly next to their classic sisters can often result.  Old Sandwich does her neighbors proud.

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I hope you enjoyed the tour.

 

 

Copyright 2017 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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Exploring America’s Great Golf Clubs

As the pre-season comes to an end, and the rainy days in Chicago delay the start of the peak season, I find myself reflecting on the year-to-date, which has already been filled with great golf adventures.  My favorite experience thus far was my visit to Calusa Pines.  The course at Calusa Pines, created by the design team of Hurdzan & Fry, is a marvel of architecture, engineering and natural beauty – my photos from the day are below.  The Calusa Pines Golf Club is much more than the course though, and that is what makes it so special.

What makes a golf club great?  Certainly, in order to be great, a club must have an outstanding golf course.  A top-notch course is not enough to make a club truly great though, especially for the discerning golf geek.  Great clubs resonate at a deeper level – they evoke the spirit of the game.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of visiting several modern golf clubs in addition to Calusa Pines that have stood out to me for their all-around greatness – The Kingsley Club, Boston Golf Club, and Ballyneal Golf & Hunt Club.  They have common characteristics, which can be linked back to the progenitors of the modern golf club.

Exploring the lineage and elements of greatness begins in the early-1990s at two clubs with the dreams of two men – Dick Youngscap and Mike Keiser.  At Sand Hills Golf Club and The Dunes Club, respectively, each man realized his vision of being able to get away from the demands of the workaday world to play the kind of golf they wanted to play, among kindred spirits.

Architecturally, Sand Hills and The Dunes Club were rejections of the chest-thumping “championship” golf of the Fazio-Nicklaus-Jones era that was prevalent at that time.  The courses were built on sandy land and inspired by the best of the architecture of the British Isles, as well as the American golden age.  These courses were the spark that lit the fire of modern minimalism.

Culturally, the clubs are a reflection of their benevolent dictator founders.  They are exclusive, but not exclusionary.  Those members and guests who “get it” are welcomed and encouraged to get lost on fields of play that delight the senses, challenge the skills, and fill the heart with golf geeky joy.  Days of play are complemented with relaxed times of camaraderie around patio tables and fire pits.  Ego and pretense have no place, and those seeking opulence are happily pointed in other directions.

Sand Hills and The Dunes Club feel both polished and personal at the same time. The love that has been poured into them by their founders, architects, and staff is palpable.  It is that love of the game and fellow players that inspired the follow-on generation of club founders and members.

THE KINGSLEY CLUB

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On my first visit to Kingsley, a long-time member named John joined our group as a fifth for four holes.  He shared stories of the club’s founding by Ed Walker and Art Preston, and its connections to Crystal Downs.  John’s pride in the course and its history enriched my experience that day, and it wasn’t long before I joined.

On my first visit to Kingsley this season, I was reminded of this pride when Mr. Walker took close to an hour to walk me through his plans for our new clubhouse.  He is a busy man, and I am newish member.  He didn’t need to do that, but he did because he has poured his heart and resources into the club and he knows that I share his love for it.

BOSTON GOLF CLUB

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My first time at Boston GC, I was on a buddies trip to Boston, and I fell in love with the course.  On my second visit to BGC, I was hosted by a member, John C.  Walking the fairways with John was like being at Kingsley.  His depth of feeling for his club was infectious.  Knowing the story of founder John Mineck’s labor of love, and his tragic death on site, it is no surprise that members feel a special connection to this place.

As we sat and relaxed in the dining room after sunset, we shared the joy that permeates the memberships of these great clubs.  Part of fitting in to these cultures is realizing how lucky we are to get to spend our hours playing this game, among friends, on such wonderful courses.  That off-putting sense of entitlement is absent, and in its place, gratitude.

BALLYNEAL

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Ballyneal is the golfiest place I have ever been.  The members there love the game and they love their club, which now includes 18 holes by Tom Doak, the Mulligan short course, and The Commons putting course.  It is a golf geek’s fantasyland, a decade’s long dream in the making for founder Jim O’Neal, now come to fruition in the Chop Hills.

My buddies and I arrived the evening before we were scheduled to play with our host, Stephen.  We met another member while hanging out on the driving range and after chatting us up for a bit, he insisted that we go play.  His love of the game and welcoming spirit is the norm at Ballyneal, and I am counting the days until I can head back to enjoy it again.


CALUSA PINES GOLF CLUB

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A view from the highest point on the property

My day at Calusa Pines was generously set up by a member, Eric.  In our correspondence prior to that day, Eric expressed a sentiment that I have experienced at every one of these clubs.  The members love hosting for two reasons: they are proud of their clubs and like to share them with others who can appreciate them, and they prefer not to play anywhere else when they are in town.  Before Eric said it, I had never heard it put that way, but I know exactly how he feels.

I was joined by the General Manager Walt Kozlowsky, Head Professional Mike Balliet, and a member, Rob.  They are good players and people, and tremendously knowledgeable about the club.  As a bonus, I cannot recall ever laughing more during 18 holes of golf.  They embody the culture of Calusa Pines – a love of the game coupled with a commitment to keeping it fun.

THE COURSE

Dr. Michael Hurzdan & Dana Fry wrote a Vision piece that is on the club’s website.  This statement stood out for me in summing up the experience of playing the course:

“Calusa Pines will be a golfer’s golf course meaning that you will never tire of playing it, there are an endless variety of golf shots required each time you play it, and every hole will be distinct and memorable.”

Several months later and I am still amazed at the description of the construction process that Walt, who has been at Calusa since ground was broken, shared with me as we walked.  The land started as basically flat.  The top layer of sand was removed from the entire property and stored.  The bedrock beneath was then dynamited.  After blasting through the rock, the system of lakes was excavated and that material along with the rock was used to build hills, rough contours and some features.  Smaller rock was then used for additional form shaping.  The original top layer of sand was then brought back to sandcap the land and do finished shaping.  The result is a course that seems natural, even though it is entirely engineered.

Calusa Pines impresses with its broad strokes, but it is even more impressive at the detail level.  Obviously, great care was taken with the bunkering and greens.  They are both visually striking and a blast to play.  The naturalization of the site is also outstanding.  As we walked along Rob and Walt explained to me that the founder Gary Chensoff insisted that the system of lakes be designed such that a player can never see all shores at once – they disappear around corners and out of view, giving the player a feel of wandering around in a river valley.  Large trees were preserved or planted to create a sense of maturity, and a wide variety of vegetation creates interest in color and texture throughout.

Throw in one of the cooler clubhouses you’ll ever see – beautiful with just the right level of comfort and amenity – and Calusa Pines qualifies as the total package.  On to the course…

(click on circle images to enlarge) 

Hole 1 – Par 4 – 389 Yards

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The opening hole is a slight dogleg left that plays to an elevated green.  It introduces the player to Calusa’s stunning bunkering that makes the player feel as though they have been transported to the Melbourne Sandbelt.

Hole 2 – Par 5 – 551 yards

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The first of Calusa’s three-shotters gently bends right and demands precise positioning of the second.  Leave yourself short-sided, and you’re in trouble.

Hole 3 – Par 3 – 135 yards

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A great little three par with an all-or-nothing character to it.  Hit the green and birdie putts are makable.  There is no bailout on this hole though.  Miss the green, and kiss your par goodbye.

Hole 4 – Par 4 – 379 yards

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The fourth is the first hole to encounter the course’s system of lakes.  The cape design allows the player to be as aggressive as the wind and their nerves will allow.

Hole 5 – Par 4 – 378 yards

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The fifth doglegs right with a tee shot up over a rise.  The green is elevated and guarded by deep bunkers right and a steep runoff left.

Hole 6 – Par 5 – 513 yards

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The challenge of the sixth is a function of width.  There isn’t that much to begin with, and the hole feels even narrower as it winds along the lake.  Blocking out the borders and confidently focusing on the target for each shot is a requirement.

Hole 7 – Par 3 – 186 yards

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A terrific and tough par three, the seventh plays through the goal posts created by the trees to a green guarded left by a massive bunker.

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Hole 8 – Par 4 – 280 yards

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The eighth is a wonderfully creative short four with sand along the entire left side and a green benched into a hillside.  Longer hitters can drive the green, but failed attempts can find all manner of nasty fates.

Hole 9 – Par 4 – 421 yards

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The ninth plays from an elevated tee, with an approach over the lake to a green set just below the clubhouse.  A visually stunning hole that provides one last stiff test on the outward nine.

Hole 10 – Par 4 – 376 yards

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The par four tenth features artful bunkering up the right and a sculpted sandy hillside that creates one of the coolest looks on the whole property.

Hole 11 – Par 3 – 171 yards

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Another stellar three par, the eleventh green is set at a slight angle.  With the swirling wind, judging the line and distance is no simple matter.

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Hole 12 – Par 4 – 419 yards

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Climbing the hill to the twelfth tee provides one of Calusa’s best reveals.  This beauty is a beast though that demands two well struck shots to find a subtly contoured green surrounded by runoffs.

Hole 13 – Par 5 – 554 yards

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The thirteenth turns hard right and allows for a daring attempt to carry the large bunkers on the inside of the dogleg.  Success gives the player a chance at reaching the small elevated green in two.

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Hole 14 – Par 4 – 293 yards

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The fourteenth is the second of Calusa’s risk-reward par fours.  The deep fronting bunker and firm elevated green add plenty of challenge to this shortie.

Hole 15 – Par 4 – 374 yards

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Otherworldly bunkers line the right side of the fifteenth, all the way up to the bunkerless green.  A brilliantly imbalanced and contrasting design.

Hole 16 – Par 3 – 161 yards

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The final one-shotter is the most visually intimidating, playing downhill to a peninsula green.  A breathtaking spot on the beautiful property.

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Hole 17 – Par 4 – 390 yards

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The seventeenth works around the lake from left to right with the main challenge on the approach.  The large greens is one of the most creative on the course.

Hole 18 – Par 5 – 487 yards

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The closer turns hard left off the tee, giving the player a chance to cut the corner and get home in two.  The green sits up above one last large bunker, in the shadow of the clubhouse.  A thrilling finish that is perfect for dramatic conclusions to matches.


IN CONCLUSION

Whether it is in golf architecture, or the experience of a golf club, greatness will always be subjective to some degree.  From my personal perspective, there are two final elements of the greatness of Calusa Pines and the other great modern clubs.

First, a key difference between these places and others for me is that I walked off the 18th green wanting to go right back to the 1st tee.  There is a depth of strategy and thoughtfulness to the design that makes repeat play exciting and enjoyable.  Beyond wanting a replay, I also wanted to ask for an application.  The combination of course and culture is that appealing.

Second, these clubs are deeply about love of the shared experience of this wonderful game.  It is built into their DNA, but it is not necessarily a love that takes itself too seriously.  There is a heavy dose of fun, and that is why I love the game of golf.  For some it is the challenge or the competition.  For me, it is the fun of experiencing those aspects in the company of my fellow geeks.

What do you think makes a club great?  Feel free to brag on your club or share your personal experiences in the comments here.


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Creative Range – An Interview with Architect Mike Benkusky

MikeBenkusky-ALPlansIn 2015, when I heard about the innovative planned changes to the Arlington Lakes community golf course, my interest was piqued.  When I found out that the architect responsible was also involved in the creation of one of the highest end private courses in the midwest, I was downright intrigued.

In June 2015, Mike Benkusky was kind enough to take me on a walk around Arlington Lakes to discuss his philosophy and vision.  He hit all of the high notes for me as he shared his plans for this cool, little course which is deeply embedded in its community.  I realized that Mike isn’t just another talking head giving interviews about the troubled state of the game.  He is on the front lines of restoring golf to its roots of interest, fun, and natural beauty.

We agreed to circle back when Arlington Lakes reopened to talk more, in light of player reaction to experiencing his ideas on the ground.  Mike graciously answered my questions, but first, a bit more about the renovation.

(Special thanks to Joann Dost for use of her beautiful Canyata photos.)


ARLINGTON LAKES

Arlington Lakes is on a unique piece of property, located in Chicago’s north suburbs.  Like many older courses, the Lakes was tired and suffering from tree, turf, and drainage issues.  In renovating the course, the community could have simply addresses these problems and called it a day, but they chose a more innovative path when they bought into Mike’s plan for fast, fun, and flexible golf.

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The keys to Mike’s proposal were:

  • Making the green complexes interesting and fun.  They are the focal point of the design.
  • Removing “junk” trees and replacing them with oaks and other natives.
  • Removing 68 bunkers, and renovating the remaining bunkers to reduce maintenance and improve playability.
  • Downplaying distance, and playing up interest and fun for golfers of all ages and skill levels.
  • Adding actual forward tee boxes for juniors to give them a sense of ownership of the course.
  • Resigning from the “cult of par”.  It is just a number and breaking free of it unleashes creativity in design.

Central to Mike’s plan was a rerouting of the holes to allow golfers the option to play 3, 6, 9, or 18 holes loops.  The work has been a hit with players, and is now serving as a model for other course operators looking to breathe new life into tired, old facilities.  For even more on the renovation, read the USGA’s article – Loop of Faith.

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The par-3 11th

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The par-3 14th

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The par-4 15th

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The par-3 17th


THE INTERVIEW

How were you first introduced to golf?

My parents both played golf and got me started when I was five.  I have an older brother and both of us played.  We lived within walking distance of a nine hole course in Marion, IA, next to Cedar Rapids, where we were members.  It was a great way for our family to spend time together.

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

We spent our summers at this club.  They had certain hours where kids could play and we planned our day around those times.  Friday mornings were always kids day and they had events.  You started out in a five hole league and moved up to 9 and 18 as you got older.  I started winning the events and then entered local tournaments, doing well in them as well. I enjoyed the competition and playing against the course.

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Canyata Golf Club #2

How did you get into the business?

In 1975, when I was 10, my parents went to the US Open at Medinah. They brought back the program that included a layout of the golf course.  I began to redraw the golf holes and later would begin to draw my own golf holes.  I had teachers remark that I was the only kid who doodled golf holes.

After some research I knew I wanted to go into Landscape Architecture and Iowa State has a great program.  I played on the golf team my first year and also got a job on the grounds crew at Cedar Rapids Country Club.

CRCC was THE club in town and is a Donald Ross design.  It’s unknown if he spent much time on the course, but he provided the layout on one of his trips around the country.  I enjoyed working there and got to play the course often.  It is here where I met Bob Lohmann, who was doing a Master Plan for the club.  I mentioned I wanted to get into golf design and he had just started his firm.  The next summer I went to work for him as an intern.  After graduation I worked there for 17 years before starting my own firm in 2005.

Who are your favorite Golden Age architects and why? 

It’s always easy to say the best known ones, Ross or Mackenzie and for me those still are two of my favorites.  Ross is easy since I knew Cedar Rapids was a Ross design.  But I really didn’t get exposed to his courses until I moved to Chicago.

Bendelow was another one I got to know early on as he designed Medinah and I read about that in the US Open program.  I think he may have completed more courses than Ross but doesn’t get as much credit since Ross and others remodeled much of his work.  I work on a couple of his courses now and they contain a lot of interest.

I got to know about Mackenzie through Perry Maxwell’s work.  Maxwell designed the University course at Iowa State, Veenker Memorial Golf Course.  Arnold Palmer won the NCAA Title at Veenker in 1949.  When you think of Maxwell’s rolls, Veenker has them.  Some of the greens are still intact and I still get out to see them if I get back to Ames.  When I studied more about Maxwell it lead me to Mackenzie.  I’ve read a lot more about Mackenzie throughout the years.

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Canyata Golf Club #4

What should every Green Committee member study/learn before undertaking a golf course project? 

One of the first things they should realize is that we do this work for a living.  Golf design is not just placing bunkers or greens, but involves a long, thoughtful process.  Just because I know math doesn’t mean that I can do finance, and just because you play golf doesn’t mean you can design a golf course.

If I was going to tell them one thing, it is that everything relates together on the golf course, especially the land.  Many times someone will say a bunker would look good in a certain spot.  Then you explain to them that the land doesn’t work due to drainage or other issues.  One thing they never think about is drainage, which is probably the most important thing to consider.

It is fun to go through months of planning for a Master Plan and educating the members.  They begin to gain an appreciation for what we do and realize that is why they brought in a professional.  Once you have their trust the project and final result is very rewarding.

Who has influenced you the most, in your work and your life?

My father was easily my biggest influence and still is.  He worked hard in life and played hard as well.  He knew how to balance his time between work and family life.  He was also smart when it came to competition.  He taught us how to handle pressure during a round of golf and to realize everyone feels it.  Those who handled it the best are the ones who succeeded.  You carry that with you the rest of your life.

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Canyata Golf Club #8

What is your favorite element of a golf hole to work on?

Too many to list.  Every element of a golf hole is important.  A proper teeing ground sets up the golf hole.  When you look at fairways you look at how it follows the land.  Bunkers set up the strategy and give the golf hole, and course, its identity.  I could go on about bunkers but I’m beginning to feel they are starting to lose their appeal as a hazard to the better golfer.  We could talk about that for hours.

We always say that greens are the face of the golf course and designing a good green may be the most rewarding.  A good green design can impact the approach shot in many ways.  From bunker placement, runoffs and chipping areas, to green contours dictating where you need to place your shot.  That is what makes Augusta National so great.

Finally, tree management is something that we are constantly working on.  Golfers are becoming more aware that trees and turf don’t always mix.  Educating them that the loss of a tree will make the turf better, (i.e. better, thicker rough), and will even make the golf hole more difficult takes years of work.  Once you get there you don’t hear many complaints about necessary tree removal.

What were some of the highlights of working on Canyata?

I worked for Bob Lohman when we designed Canyata.  It was one of those dream-come-true designs.  First off, you had an owner who wanted the best and would spend the money to get the best.  Second, he had a piece of property that had many desirable traits.  Deep ravines with large Oak trees were great to work around.  The most difficult part was that, except for the ravines, the rest of the site was very flat.  When you talk about drainage, we needed to build that in.  Therefore, we needed to create many ponds throughout the course and create elevation change on the golf holes. I get a kick out of showing guests the non-golf course land and explain that the rest of the site was this flat before construction.  The par 3 12th is a great example.  The site was flat except a ravine that cut in front of the proposed green site.  We lowered the green site 20 feet and elevated the tees 20 feet to create the 40 foot change.  We also extended the ravine up to the tees to make it appear that the hole was placed along the ravine, when in fact it was all built together.  The same thing was done on the par 5 15th.

Lastly, the owner trusted us to do what we do best, design golf courses.  He never questioned anything and I took it upon myself to look at the project as if it was my own golf course.  It gave me a great sense of pride.  When we started the back nine I told him it would be better than the front, which he found hard to believe.  When we finished he said I was right.  It’s fun working for people like that.

Ever since 2005 the owner has continued to have me make visits to the golf course.  He wants to make sure it keeps current with today’s golf market.  We’ve added some tees and bunkers to improve playability and strategy.  As with all golf courses it continues to evolve.

Canyata Golf Club - Hole #12

Canyata Golf Club #12

Did the remoteness or uniqueness of that site present particular challenges?

There were a few challenges but the remoteness was also a blessing.  The owner knew a lot of people in the area and when we needed something he knew who to call.  We had a local earthmover move the dirt which was a great help.  It made it easy because the owner paid them direct and we never had to worry about change orders or anything else.  If we wanted to move something or make changes we just did it.  It’s a fun way to build a course.

Since we had nothing around we didn’t have to worry about neighbors or any complaints about what was being completed.  We ended up moving enough dirt to line the property with mounds.  Nobody can really see into the golf course and when you are playing you never see out.  It creates a surreal feeling when you are out there.

Courses like Canyata are quite the contrast to a project such as your renovation of Arlington Lakes.  Is your approach different?

Really your approach is different on every project.  You take certain design concepts and mold them into each golf course.  At Canyata the goal was to create a top 100 golf course.  The owner did want a certain length and we achieved that.  The site also had a large scale so we needed everything to balance.  Wide fairways, big bunkers, and large greens were needed to tie it all together.  Canyata is destination golf and if it takes 5 hours to play you don’t mind.  It is similar to what golfers say about Augusta National.  You can’t wait to get to Amen Corner.  But once you are there you realize the round is almost over.

Arlington Lakes is community golf.  In this case you design for the broadest range of golfers possible.  We placed minimal sand bunkers to add interest.  We eliminated carry hazards to speed play and increase enjoyment.  Each of these projects are important and provide a role in the golf market.  Understanding each role and designing towards those strengths helps to make the project successful.

Canyata Golf Club - Hole #15

Canyata Golf Club #15

Why do you believe that community golf is important?

Because that is where the masses of golfers play.  We have far more public golf courses than private courses.  This is where most learn the game and is an added amenity to any community.  The first goal of a community golf course is to make it fun.  If someone doesn’t enjoy a course, they won’t return to play it again.  A strong golf market will include a variety of golf courses.  In Chicago, we have many golf courses that will challenge every part of your game.  These courses are too difficult for many and that is where we need courses such as Arlington Lakes and your Canal Shores project.  Every golf course has a niche and when you realize that, and make changes to embrace that niche you continue to prosper.

What role does sustainability play in your plan for Arlington Lakes?

As a Park District golf course it needs to be sustainable.  To do that we first needed to start with the operations of the course.  When you start with that aspect the rest will start to fall in place.  Arlington Lakes has its niche as a short, fun golf course.  The changes we made enhanced those aspects.  Even though it is short, we added more tees to make it even shorter.  We knew that this would help attract more beginning golfers, junior golfers, and appeal to families.  As I said, there are many golf courses that will beat you up – Arlington Lakes is for pure enjoyment.

The other thing that attracts golfers to Arlington Lakes is the time it takes to play.  In today’s time strapped world, golfers don’t want to spend 5 hours on the golf course.  Golfers come to play Arlington Lakes because they can play in 31/2 hours.  Our design changes highlighted that by removing unnecessary bunkers, going from 106 bunkers down to 38.  This still kept strategy in play and aided in enjoyment.

To further help with time constraints we reworked the golf course to have the 3rd, 6th, and 9th holes return to the clubhouse.  This helps with the junior program, as you can get young golfers on and off the course before they become bored or frustrated.  Accepting their short attention spans is important in growing the game.  We can also use this layout for families that want to golf together in the evening.  You can get home from work, have dinner, and then get 3 holes of golf in before dark.  That is a large draw for a community golf course.

The renovation of Arlington Lakes has been very well received. What were the keys to success?

Understanding where they stood in the golf market and not looking to reinvent that.  The worst thing you can do as a designer is take a golf course that meets a need and try to change it into something it is not.  Sometimes as architects we let our ego get in the way and try to force a design concept on a course where it doesn’t fit.  At Arlington Lakes we wanted to keep things playable and maintainable.  If I had built greens with big slopes and bunkers ten feet deep that course would now struggle.  It is not what the golfers wanted and that is not something the Park District could maintain.  When you talk about sustainable golf that is what it is all about.  Golf courses and golfers are similar to cars.  Some people want to drive a Chevy and some want to drive a Cadillac.

Which courses are on the top of your hit list to play or see next?

Through the ASGCA I’ve been fortunate to play many top 100 courses.  In the US I’ve played Pebble Beach and Cypress Point.  I’ve been to Augusta National three times, though I would love to play it.  I have not seen Pine Valley so that would be on the list. And a buddy’s trip to Bandon Dunes is in the works.

Outside the US I’ve played in Australia, England, and Ireland.  It may sound sacrilegious as an architect, but I have not been to Scotland.  I’ve had the chance but at the time it conflicted with too many other things, and home life always comes first.  It is still on the radar and I will get there sometime.

What do you love about practicing your craft?

Every course and every day is different.  They say if you do what you love to will never spend a day working.  That is how I feel.  When you tell people you design golf courses they have two comments.  First is that they didn’t know people did that.  The second is that they can’t believe you get spend a day on the golf course and call that your job.  I’ve been very blessed with being in this industry.  You get to meet so many great people and some of my fellow architects are my best friends.  Our ASGCA family is just that.  A family of brothers and sisters that help each other whenever we can.  My best week every year is the week we spend together during our annual meeting.

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

Most of it involves spending time with my wife and dog.  We don’t have children so we cherish our time together hiking and biking.  We love to travel and always look to go to a new place each year.  Our goal is to visit every continent and gives us something to work towards.


Additional Geeked On Golf Interviews:

 

 

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