In 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Ian Andrew – Golf Course Architect
- Justin Carlton – Golf Course Shaper
- Michael Clayton – Golf Course Architect
- Rob Collins – Golf Course Architect
- Mike DeVries – Golf Course Architect
- Brett Hochstein – Golf Course Architect
- Peter Imber – Quogue Field Club Member
- David McLay Kidd – Golf Course Architect
- Jeff Mingay – Golf Course Architect
- Jim Nagle – Golf Course Architect
- Brian Palmer – Golf Course Superintendent
- Keith Rhebb – Golf Course Shaper
- Drew Rogers – Golf Course Architect
- Evan Schiller – Golf Course Photographer
- Shawn Smith – Golf Course Architect
- Andy Staples – Golf Course Architect
- Dave Zinkand – Golf Course Architect
Copyright 2017 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf