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A WIN-WIN-WIN SOLUTION AT SAN GERONIMO

This installment of the GeekedOnGolf Community Golf series looks at the fight to save and reinvent San Geronimo Golf Course in Marin County, CA

For centuries, a story has been unfolding in the San Geronimo Valley, highlighting the relationships between people and the land, and each other. Important questions about stewardship, land use, ecology and community have been raised over the years, with complex and ambiguous answers. The fight to save the San Geronimo Golf Course is just the most recent chapter in the history of an area where tensions between competing interests make finding win-win solutions to problems more challenging. The question about the immediate future of this community course will soon be answered, and the next phase of the relationship between the people and this land will begin. What remains to be seen thereafter is what will become of the relationships among the residents of the valley and Marin County at large.

An Evolving Landscape

The San Geronimo Valley is in the heart of Marin County, over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It is home to several small towns surrounded by open space preserves. Creeks meander down from the hillsides and combine to form the ecologically important Lagunitas Creek Watershed that is habitat for endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Native American tribal territories – Credit: Drake Navigators Guild

The oldest known stewards of this land were the Coast Miwok people. Evidence suggests that going back more than 4,000 years, these indigenous hunter-gatherers used controlled burns to manage vegetation, promoting the growth of oaks that provided them acorns. They also caught fish in the creeks and hunted deer. Among their first contacts with European explorers was Sir Francis Drake, who reached the coast in 1579. Other settlers and fortune hunters followed, reducing the Miwok population from thousands to the low hundreds when their lifestyle and stewardship gave way to ranchers and farmers in the mid-19th century.

By the 1950s, Valley leadership recognized the need for a plan to better organize resources for the growing community. Recreation was a part of that plan, including a golf course.

The San Geronimo Valley in 1952 – Credit: Josh Pettit

A Scot and an Irishman came to America long after the Englishman Drake, each making their own mark on the West Coast. The one that most golfers have heard of is Dr. Alister MacKenzie, designer of Meadow Club, Cypress Point, Sharp Park and Pasatiempo. The other is Arthur Vernon Macan Jr.—a top amateur golfer who spent his days in the company of luminaries such as Bernard Darwin and Charles Alison, competing on and discussing the storied courses of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1908, he emigrated to British Columbia in Canada and earned his first commission as a course designer at Royal Collwood, which opened for play in 1913.

“Royal Collwood set the standard for West Coast architecture before Pebble Beach or Cypress Point,” said Jeff Mingay, golf course architect and student of Macan. “He was brilliant at routing, was a master green builder, and his courses drained really well—he pioneered golf course architecture in the west.” Macan made his way south to the Bay Area, working at high profile clubs like California Golf Club of San Francisco. His decades-long career would end in the San Geronimo Valley, with the opening of the community course in 1965. It would include his trademark, solid routing and challenging green contours, in a lovely natural setting. “Macan made clay models of his greens,” explained Mingay. “The only surviving model, which is now at the British Columbia Golf Museum, is from San Geronimo.” The course, which would be enjoyed by the community for generations to come, was an important piece of the history of golf architecture in America.

The San Geronimo Golf Course in 2017 – Credit: Josh Pettit

Of course, most of the players and other visitors to San Geronimo Golf Course could have cared less about the design pedigree of their local gem. For adults of all ages and skill levels, it was a place to get outside, connect with friends and nature, and have a go at capturing the magic of a few well-struck shots and holed putts. For boys and girls, it was a welcoming spot to learn the game and perhaps graduate to playing on one of the high school teams that used the course for matches. For non-golfers, it was an open space to walk the dog or take a stroll while good-naturedly pondering why on earth a sane person would ever become obsessed with trying to get a little white ball into a hole in the ground. San Geronimo was ground for recreation, and it was beloved by its community.

The facility had notably overcome two of the major issues plaguing courses across the country—financial and ecological sustainability. The Lee family, which owned and operated San Geronimo from 2009 through 2017, turned solid profits, in spite of the ebbs and flows of golf participation during that period. They emanated an inclusive spirit and embraced a multi-use approach to event hosting, activity offerings and tending of a community garden.

The Lees were also sensitive to the ecological impact of their golf operation. In 2014, the comprehensive Coho-Friendly Habitat and Operations Plan for the San Geronimo Golf Course was created in partnership with the community, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN). It set out to provide analysis and actionable recommendations for enhancement of riparian habitat, stormwater management, water use, integrated pest management and invasive species management (click here to see the Coho-Friendly plan). The document is thorough, holistic, well-conceived and a credit to the collaborative process of those involved.

It is worth highlighting that the Lees voluntarily participated in that process, and followed up by taking action on the recommendations for pest management, water use and invasive species management. Community volunteers also began pilot projects to enhance salmon and trout habitat in the creeks. “The previous owners of the golf course did a good job of not modifying the creek,” said Eric Ettinger, aquatic ecologist with the Marin Municipal Water District, in an interview. “I don’t think the golf course was ever the problem for salmon in the watershed.” The Lees and their partners in the community were taking action not because they had caused the problem, but rather because they saw an opportunity to be a part of the solution.

A Shift in Direction

In the midst of community-driven progress, San Geronimo was sold 2017, setting off a regrettable chain of events that has left the course in limbo. Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni led an effort to entice the Trust for Public Land to purchase the golf course at a premium, presumably to ensure that it would not fall prey to developers. Once the TPL ownership had been secured, Marin County would step in, purchase the land and “rewild” it into parkland. From the perspective of a single-minded champion of conservation, this plan likely seemed like a stroke of genius, justifying the lack of public consultation and transparency. The community had a different reaction.

The residents of Marin lean activist, to say the least, and when they got wind of the Rodoni-TPL deal, they got active. When attempts to get their voices heard by County Supervisors and TPL representatives failed, the San Geronimo Advocates group filed a lawsuit to block the resale of the golf course to Marin County, ironically on environmental protection grounds. The Advocates won, causing the county to walk away from the deal. The Trust for Public Land continued operations at the course for a time, but it now lays fallow. The community did not confine its advocacy to the courts, however. They organized and collected more than 12,000 signatures to qualify a ballot measure for March of 2020 that would protect the existing designation of golf as the primary use of the San Geronimo land, unless a future public vote determines otherwise.

The faces of San Geronimo – Credit: SaveSanGeronimo.com

Reading through the letters-to-the-editor and local news stories regarding the fight to save San Geronimo, two things become abundantly clear. First, the battle is over more than a golf course. It is about the right of the people to participate in the process of determining how land in their community will get used. Second, this fight has become emotionally charged, with trust diminished and nerves raw. In violating its publicly stated principle to “work with communities to ensure that development happens for them, and not to them,” the Trust for Public Land has done damage that will take some time and effort to repair.

The Path Ahead

Why should valuable public land be used for the benefit of a few rich, white guys? This hackneyed question that the game of golf’s detractors love to trot out when debating public resource allocation is particularly misplaced at San Geronimo. The broad spectrum of players at the course, and the thousands of local ballot initiative supporters make this point emphatically. Golf provides recreational benefits to its players, and San Geronimo’s value as an open, green space and managed fire break extend well beyond golfers.

Further, the logic inherent in the question is fundamentally flawed. It implies that one kind of outdoor recreation (e.g. hiking, playing on a playground) is better than another (golf), and therefore more worthy of taxpayer support. The goal of any process of public land use planning should be to maximize recreational value to as many stakeholders as possible, ideally touching on aspects of ecology and community as well. It should not be to impose the values of the few on the many.

Josh Pettit has heard the “Why golf?” question while making the rounds to evangelize and pitch a new vision for the course. He grew up in Fairfax and learned to play the game at San Geronimo. Pettit went on to obtain a degree in Landscape Architecture and start his own business, Pacific Golf Design. He has been involved with the effort to save San Geronimo, offering his design services pro-bono. “San Geronimo always had a great reputation,” he recounted. “People from all over the area would come to play it. Given the overwhelming local support, the residents clearly still see the value in this golf course.” Pettit has sketched out a long-range plan that delivers wins to numerous stakeholder groups, and stands ready to jump in if given the chance by TPL, or a future owner.

Like the residents who wrote letters and collected signatures, Josh Pettit is both frustrated and determined. “The people at TPL initially expressed interest in my ideas, but it became clear that the conversation wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. The new owners seem not to have learned their lesson regarding connecting with the community as well. They have one website set up to gather public comments, with an air of open-mindedness. Another is dedicated to defeating the Advocates’ ballot measure. Given that the Trust for Public Land already has golf course properties in Colorado and New Jersey in their portfolio, their anti-golf stance at San Geronimo is curious. “One of the project managers who was not a golfer told me that he got emotional watching Tiger Woods win The Masters this year,” shared Pettit. Golf can have that effect. There is still hope.

For those in positions of authority and power who are convinced that their way is the right way, there will always be a temptation to bypass the messy democratic process and impose their will. This is a recipe for suboptimal outcomes and backlash. A vastly superior outcome for San Geronimo can be achieved if the various stakeholders work together, as they have in the past. The risk of refusing to do so is that one group gets their way with the land, but the fabric of the community is torn in the process. What point is there in winning the battle, if both sides ultimately lose the war?

The sun has not yet set – Credit: SaveSanGeronimo.com

It has been thousands of years since the San Geronimo Valley was wilderness. In the eras since, people have called the area home, managed the land, and used it for food, commerce and recreation, including golf. At the very least, for fire safety and ecological responsibility, generations to come will need to carry on that stewardship. In spite of missteps and conflict to this point, the opportunity still exists at San Geronimo to evolve the land once again to create an outstanding community asset that delivers immense recreational and ecological value. Here’s hoping that all parties involved take a step back, take a breath, and find that win-win-win.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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Upholding Golf’s Ideals – An Interview with Architect Jeff Mingay

“Difficult golf courses are simple to make. Narrow fairways bordered by rough, and corridors of play constricted by trees is all it takes. The problem is such courses inevitably become a chore to play. Sheer difficulty is not the measure of quality golf course design. In fact, as golf course architects, we’re not trying to design difficult courses at all. We’re trying to build interesting ones, which golfers want to return to, time and time again.”

JeffMingay-RodWhitmanOne could easily imagine the above quote coming from a Golden Era architect – MacKenzie, Macdonald or Ross.  Instead, it is Canadian golf course architect Jeff Mingay who not only used those words, but is applying them in the field day after day.

Thinker, traveler, student, writer, historian, enthusiast, commentator, and most of all builder – each of these descriptors apply to Jeff, which is why he is so interesting.  He is a must follow on Twitter (@jeff_mingay) for golf geeks, especially those who want to better understand the game’s fields of play.  Jeff was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule of work and travel to share his thoughts – many thanks to him.


THE INTERVIEW

How did you get into the business?

Rod Whitman.  After I pestered him for a bit, it was Rod who let me come to work for him, with very little experience, back in about 2000.  He was starting construction of Blackhawk Golf Club at the time.  Over a couple summers there, in Edmonton, I learned how to operate bulldozers, excavators and other equipment, thanks to the opportunity Rod gave me.  But, most important, I started to learn how to effectively implement design ideas, on the ground, at Blackhawk.  That’s where it all started for me.  I helped Rod finish that job then moved on to supervise the construction of Sagebrush, in British Columbia, for him.  From there it was on to Cabot Links, in Nova Scotia, with a few other smaller jobs mixed in over about a decade hanging around with Rod, and guys like Dave Axland, before I started moving on to my own projects, beginning in 2009 and ’10.

Who has influenced you the most in your work, both within and outside of golf?

Well, Rod’s definitely been a big influence in many ways.  I have great respect for his understanding of golf, his creativity and abilities to put his ideas on the ground very effectively.  To this day, I’ll often think about what Rod’s opinion of what I’m designing or building might be … which I think is good thing.  It keeps me on my toes!  I’d have to say Donald Ross, too.  I was fortunate to grow-up playing and learning the game at Essex Golf and Country Club, in Windsor, Ontario.  Essex was designed by Mr. Ross during the late 1920s.  Just hanging around that great old course as much as I have over the years definitely shaped my views on what a golf course should be.  I’m really interested in building architecture, too.  Some of the thoughts, philosophies, and experiences of my favorite building architects are very applicable to golf architecture.  In certain ways, Frank Lloyd Wright’s been an influence.

Why is it important to study the history of golf and golf courses?

I think golf architects today are more fortunate than our predecessors because we have so much to look back on and learn from … a century of what’s already been done, what’s worked well and what hasn’t.  If you don’t understand this history, you’re not going to have a chance to be the best.  It’s really as simple as that in my mind.

Describe your process for a design project.

I prefer designing on-site rather than working from maps, and making a lot of drawings.  I find I’m more creative when I’m walking a property to figure out initial concepts, and when I’m shaping golf course features myself … the way I learned from Rod.  Obviously I’ll have the basic concepts set in mind when we start building, but most of the details are worked out during the shaping and construction process as things evolve in the field and new opportunities present themselves.  It’s inevitable that certain ideas I’ve thought about in Toronto aren’t going to translate exactly right onto a site in Edmonton or Victoria or Seattle, which is why I insist on being on-site a lot during all of my projects.  The day I’m not shaping anymore, I’ll need to re-question my ambitions.

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

The green.  After the routing, the design of the putting surface and its surrounds is the most important element in golf architecture.  The green means most to the playing interest of any hole.  When designed properly, the green dictates everything, including the strategy of a hole.  Really great greens make a course interesting and adequately challenging for better golfers, and at the same time allow for width, which is essential to the enjoyment of everyone else.  The Old Course, and the original designs of Augusta National and Pinehurst are great examples.  On those great courses, it’s really important to drive the ball into the correct spots relative to the day’s pin position, otherwise getting close to the hole becomes very difficult.  While it’s tough to get close to the hole, it’s not difficult to get on the green.  This is that ideal balance between presenting interest and an adequate challenge to better golfers and enjoyment for everyone else, simultaneously.  It’s got everything to do with the green.

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

That they’re going to be in the way of progress unless they come into the process of developing an improvement plan with an open-mind!  Really, the committee needs to decide on a golf architect with consensus and then let him do his work without interference.  This might sound biased to some, but there really are too many poor examples of golf courses designed by committee to suggest otherwise.  Don’t get me wrong, I want and appreciate input from committee members, they know the course.  But, if you don’t let the architect make the final call, things don’t end up being cohesive and the course in question has no chance to truly reach its full potential.

What are the primary challenges you consistently face in trying to deliver results that are up to your standards?

See above!  I’d have to say interference from committees and Boards.  Budget constraints, too.  I mean, economy in golf architecture is very important but it’s frustrating when important elements of an improvement plan are pulled just to keep a project under a specific number.  It’s a reality that presents challenges relative to delivering the highest standard.

JeffMingay-YorkDowns

Jeff at York Downs – Photo courtesy of Frank Mastroianni, Canadian Golf Magazine

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

I recently re-read parts of John Low’s 1903 book, Concerning Golf.  He was first guy to codify a set of architectural principles in that book.  One of his principles talks about how the great holes teeter on the Heretical Precipice.  I love that term.  Heresy is an opinion that’s profoundly at odds with what’s generally accepted.  So, in other words, Mr. Low’s saying that the best holes are those that are just about unacceptable, polarizing.  Polarizing holes and polarizing golf courses are usually the most interesting, so I feel that sweet spot when holes I’ve designed or restored create a love/hate thing from golfers.

You travel extensively to see and play courses – why is that important to you?

Studying design theory in the old architecture books is one thing.  It’s as important … well, more important, to visit the great courses of the world to get a sense of scale, locations, relationships between holes, relationships between the golf course and the clubhouse, etc.  Having a real sense of the look and feel of the best courses, and understanding how everything involved fits together in the best fashion, is very important.  You can’t get that sense from a book or photos.  I also enjoy talking with the golf course superintendents who take care of those places, to learn more about what they do, what challenges they may face with certain features or situations, etc.  At the end of the day, it’s the superintendent who makes the architect look good, without exception.

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

A few years ago, I would have said A.V. Macan’s Fircrest in Tacoma, Washington.  But I’m fortunate to be working on a restorative-based plan there, now.  Another Macan design at Shaughnessy, in Vancouver, would be fun to restore, too.  It was one of Mr. Macan’s last courses, and biggest projects, over a career spanning six decades. He did his first course at Royal Colwood, in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1913.  Remarkably, Shaughnessy was finished about 1960, four years before he died.  Mr. Macan was a very interesting, very thoughtful guy who put a wealth of knowledge into what he called “the course I want to be remembered by”, at Shaughnessy.  His notes on Shaughnessy are fascinating, and the thought he put into some of the micro elements of that design is very admirable.  Sadly, not much of his work is left there, today.  And, it’s unlikely the course will ever be restored.  Shaughnessy’s on leased land, and the story is that lease will not be renewed in the near future.

What do you love most about practicing your craft?

Definitely being involved with the shaping and construction work.  Staying on the equipment keeps me fresh, alert, and more creative I think.  I love being involved with the guys who are most important to the realization of my ideas.   It’s extremely satisfying to have a long day on-site, with all of the guys, then have few beers afterward, talking about what we’re trying to do, and what happened that day.  This type of comradery is very important to a successful result.  I never want to be, and never will be, the guy who flies in for a few hours in a nice golf shirt, tells everyone what to do then leaves for a few weeks.  That’s not why I came to do what I’m fortunate to do.  Again, the day I’m not intimately involved with the construction process is the day I’ll need to re-question my ambitions.

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

I’d like to use the word distinctive.  The only common characteristic shared by the world’s best courses is distinctiveness.  The uniqueness of the best courses is one of golf’s great attractions.  So, I try to do something genuinely different on every project that’s either inspired by inherent site characteristics, the design pedigree of an existing course, or a clients’ needs and desires … or a combination of these types of factors.

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

It sounds cliche, but probably the Old Course at St. Andrews.  The Old Course is wide enough, the greens there are big enough, the ground is usually firm enough, and there’s enough interesting contour and variance of wind on that site that the Old Course really plays like a different course, day to day, more often than any other in the world that I’m aware of.  This type of variety is ideal.  Too many other courses are relatively tight and have comparatively small greens, and are located in areas where there’s not much wind, so they more often play the same, rather than different, every day.  A course that’s many courses in one depending where the pins are located on any given day, and which direction and how fast the wind’s blowing is the ideal.

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

I can’t believe I haven’t played Oakmont yet.  I’ve admired that great old course from afar, forever.  I also need to get to Royal Melbourne.  That’s a huge missing link in my architectural education.  And, having been involved with Cabot Links, I’m really looking forward to getting back to Cape Breton some time this year to see and play Cabot Cliffs.  I’m a bit familiar with that site, and the course looks stunning in photos.  What else would you expect from Coore and Crenshaw and company though, right?

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

Hmmm … admittedly, I do need a few more hobbies!  I’m a big music fan.  I’m always listening to music, trying to find new music, and going to see shows when I’m at home, or when I run into the right bands during my travels.  Baseball, too.  In the summer, I love going to baseball games, especially at ballparks I haven’t seen.

Any interesting or challenging projects in process or on the horizon for you?

We’ve just started restorative-based projects at two classic A.V. Macan designs in the Seattle area that I’ve been thinking about, and dreaming about putting back together for a long time.  I’m pretty excited about these projects, at Fircrest and Inglewood Golf Clubs.  We completed five holes at Fircrest back in November last year and will be starting at Inglewood in a few weeks.  These are really interesting, unique and trailblazing designs by Mr. Macan, dating back to the early 1920s, that not only set a standard for golf architecture in the Pacific Northwest but are still relevant today.  It’s humbling to have these opportunities to showcase what Mr. Macan did for golf and course architecture, particularly in the Northwest.  This type of work also helps with my continuing education in golf architecture, which is an added benefit.


Additional Geeked On Golf Interviews:

 

 

Copyright 2015 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf