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THE MIDWEST MACKENZIE – CRYSTAL DOWNS

An in-depth look at the collaboration of Dr. Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell at Crystal Downs C.C.

Crystal Downs is not Dr. Alister MacKenzie’s only Midwest design, but it is certainly his most highly regarded work in the region. The greatness of the course can be linked to the interest and variety inherent in the land, and MacKenzie’s visionary ability to embrace what a site offered. He was fortunate to have as his collaborator Perry Maxwell who expertly translated ideas into reality on the ground, adding his own touches and creative flourishes as he went. For nearly a century, Crystal Downs has been challenging, delighting and inspiring its members, including architects Tom Doak and Mike DeVries. More recently and in spite of its remote location, pilgrims have eagerly followed in the footsteps of a young Ben Crenshaw, making the journey to little Frankfort, Michigan to get a taste of MacKenzie and Maxwell’s genius.

A Connection of Like Minds

It was a pilgrimage of sorts that led to the initial connection between Perry Maxwell and Dr. Alister MacKenzie. In his biography The Midwest Associate, author Christopher Clouser chronicles the journey that Maxwell took to his ancestral home in Scotland to explore his family roots. Additionally, he aimed to study the finest links in the home of golf, much as C.B. Macdonald had done before him. Naturally, he made his way to St. Andrews and it was there that he first met MacKenzie, a man who struck Maxwell as a kindred spirit. They had each entered golf course design as a second career. They both drew inspiration from the great courses they saw, most notably The Old Course. They shared a common belief that the best courses were not forcibly made—they were found on suitable land by making use of and accentuating natural features to present players with a series of strategic questions to answer. Upon Maxwell’s departure for the States, they agreed that a design partnership would be desirable were MacKenzie to ever make his way to America.

Although the collaboration of MacKenzie and Maxwell was not as prolific as that which The Good Doctor had with Robert Hunter in California, or Russell and Morcom in Australia, the pair did work together on several courses during the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. The mutual affinity felt in St. Andrews grew during their time working together, as evidenced by the letter that MacKenzie penned after visiting their first course collaboration, Melrose Country Club outside of Philadelphia. It read in part:

“My Dear Maxwell, When I originally asked you to come into partnership with me, I did so because I thought your work more closely harmonized with nature than any other American Golf Course Architect. The design and construction of the Melrose Golf Course has confirmed my previous impression. I feel that I cannot leave America without expressing my admiration for the excellence of your work…Few if any golfers will realize that Melrose has been constructed by the hand of man and not nature. This is the greatest tribute that can be paid to the work of a golf course architect.”

Crystal Downs Collaboration

Through Robert Hunter, the founders of Crystal Downs were able to convince MacKenzie and Maxwell to take a detour north on their cross-country trip east. Being unfamiliar with the Northern Michigan duneland topography, the architects did not bring high expectations for the project. What they did bring was a proven approach to creating compelling greens and beautiful bunkering, and a desire to find interesting land on which to practice their craft. Upon arriving at Crystal Downs, the men were immediately impressed. The site seemed to manifestation of the sentiment from MacKenzie’s writing found in The Spirit of St. Andrews:

“…there are few things more monotonous than playing every shot from a dead flat fairway. The unobservant player never seems to fully realize that one of the chief charms of the best seaside links is the undulating fairways such as those near the clubhouse at Deal, Sandwich, and, most of all, at the The Old Course at St. Andrews, where the ground is a continual roll from the first tee to the last green and where one never has the same shot to play twice over. On these fairways one hardly ever has a level stance or lie. It is this that makes the variety of the seaside course, and variety in golf is everything.”

The duo set to work laying out the course, and designing the greens and features. MacKenzie spent ten intensive days finalizing his vision and Maxwell worked diligently over the following three years to bring it to life. Stories of the course’s creation have become mythologized: MacKenzie getting intoxicated and only routing eight holes on the front nine; Maxwell having a lady friend in town; which of the two came up with the idea for a particular green site or feature. The veracity of these tales might be questionable, but this much is certain—the final product is a masterpiece of wildly varied strategic design and the collaboration clearly had a synergistic effect.

Although he is firmly in the camp of those who consider Crystal Downs to be an Alister MacKenzie design, Mike DeVries does not minimize Maxwell’s contributions. In the foreward to The Midwest Associate, he wrote:

“Maxwell’s respect for a landscape’s inherent qualities and use of those features in it is one of the great aspects of the golf course at Crystal Downs…he made the course better due to his recognition of the intricacies of the land.”

DeVries has spent decades at The Downs. He grew up playing the course with his grandfather, worked on the grounds crew, and now as a member, continues to study it for inspiration in his own design work. When asked what makes Crystal Downs so special, his answer was a chuckle and a question. “How much time do you have?” He continued, “The rhythm and flow are as good as any course in existence. It has a cadence, like a piece of music or drama.”

Drilling into the dramatic theme, DeVries went on to describe the different acts, each of which brings the player to a climactic high point. The prologue begins at the clubhouse with a walk down the stairs to the jaw-dropping reveal from the 1st tee. Act 1 takes place across the hillside and valley of the front nine, peaking at the 8th green and the par-3 9th, which runs perilously across a high ridge. Act 2 begins with the 10th and takes the player away from the clubhouse along the dune ridge that separates Lake Michigan from Crystal Lake, ending with the long view north from the 14th green. Act 3 is the return journey home with one final thrill at the 17th green. The closing hole is an understated epilogue, giving the player an opportunity to reflect and absorb the entirety of the drama, as well as the holes and shots within it.

DeVries’s romantic language speaks to his love of Crystal Downs, but also to his recognition that it is a true work of art born out of the trust that the artists felt for one another. “Every day I am at The Downs,” concludes DeVries, “I learn something new about architecture.”

The Course Today

The spirit of collaboration continues in the preservation and presentation of Crystal Downs. Tom Doak plays the dual role of happy member and consulting architect, working with long-time Superintendent Michael Morris and his team to present the course such that the greatness of the design and features shine through. The turf is fast and firm, the fescue gorgeous and the tree management darn near perfect. If MacKenzie and Maxwell came back today, they would approve.

DeVries, Doak and Morris are proof of the gravitational pull of Crystal Downs, which has had the same effect on Head Professional Fred Muller for forty years. Muller wrote the course guide and sums up The Downs:

“Crystal Downs is a thinking person’s golf course, where long is good but not necessary…where the position you leave your ball is critical, and where the wind always blows. Crystal Downs is the coming together of golf’s greatest architect, Dr. Alister MacKenzie, at the zenith of his career (after designing Cypress Point and just before Augusta National), with a marvelous piece of property.”

The outward half is intimately routed over the rolling duneland below the clubhouse. An argument could be made that it is among the best nines in all of golf.

The inward half shifts gears, taking players on an out-and-back adventure through a wooded area along a dune ridge. The difference in the two nines further adds to the wondrous variety of The Downs.

That tour that follows features the photography of Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) as well as a few of my own, complemented by Mr. Muller’s hole descriptions (in quotes). One more time, collaboration revealing just how special Crystal Downs is.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

The opener is no gentle handshake, from the undulating fairway through the severely sloped green, it tells players everything about the holes to come. “Although downhill, this hole plays every bit as long as its 449 yards suggest. It is usually into the wind, and like many holes at Crystal Downs the tee shot lands into a rising fairway. Sneak up on a wildly undulating green with a shot that lands short and pitches on. A miss to the left is a bogie, a miss to the right is a disaster.”

The next three holes are subtly brilliant, working off the side of the hill and requiring both well conceived and executed shots. “Avoid the bunkers left and right of the fairway on the 2nd and you’ll face a medium iron or fairway wood to the green. Although generally downwind, the green is 25 feet above the tee. Take enough club.  Golfers have putted off every green at Crystal Downs, and the front pin here is one where it happens often. Downhill and into a swirling wind, the 3rd is a most difficult hole for club selection. Remember how much the wind was helping on #2, and that’s how much the wind is hurting here. The green sits on an angle to the tee, one more club to the left side than the right. Fade the drive on the 4th or risk running through the fairway into the left hand rough. The long second shot will run up into the green only from the right front, however, pitching from the left front of the green is no disaster.”

This set of three four-pars are incredibly creative and could be played on a continuous loop without ever getting remotely boring. Birdie is a real possibility on each, as is double. “The 5th is one of MacKenzie’s great holes and most complicated, and is rated by Golf Magazine as one of the best par fours in the world. Hit the tee shot over the left edge of the giant oak, leaving a hanging lie 7 or 8 iron to a green that slopes dramatically from left to right. Or ‘bite off’ some more of the ridge on your tee shot to leave a pitch. Don’t bite off too much. Always pitch to the left portion of the green or risk rolling into the right hand green side bunkers. The 6th hole is MacKenzie’s idea of a ‘forced carry’. If you make the crest of the hill, the short iron to the largest green on the course is fairly easy. If you fall short on the drive, a blind long iron or wood awaits. The famous ‘Scabs’ are the bunkers to the right off the tee. Don’t even think about that route. On the 7th, a 210 yard tee shot leaves a short iron to a most unusual green—a kidney shaped ‘MacKenzie green’ in a punch bowl. A 230 yard drive leaves a short pitch to the green, but it’s a blind shot. It’s your choice, but be sure to get your second shot on the proper lobe of the kidney.”

This outstanding par-5 is lay-of-the-land architecture and its finest. No need for fairway bunkers when nature has provided such heaving contours. “Crystal Downs’ first three-shot hole is rated as one of the world’s best par fives. Drive down the middle on the 8th, fairway wood up the right side and a medium iron into the green. No problem…except you will encounter all kinds of uneven lies. You are at the mercy of the fates. The 150 yard mark is one of the longest in golf, and the green’s not very big either with lots of undulation.”

The next three holes make the turn at the clubhouse hill, and then take the player out to the long dune ridge. Each requires precise judging of distance to avoid punishment. “The green on the 9th is over 30 feet above the tee, which slopes from back up to the front (yes, it’s an uphill tee). Do not attack this hole. Hit a low shot and bounce the ball onto the front center of the green. Be careful with your putter. A careless shot could send you back for a wedge. The perfect tee ball on the 10th from an elevated tee is something inside the 150 yard mark in the right fairway. This leaves a middle iron shot over a pot bunker and straight up the slope of the green. Hit an extra club to carry the bunker yet avoid going long and left. You’ve heard those wonderful words of wisdom ‘stay below the hole’. Do that on the 11th.  The green is some 20 feet above the tee so it plays long. With that in mind choose a club that will get you to the front level of this three level green. Putt or chip uphill to the pin. Now, change philosophy and get the ball to the hole or you’ll be stepping aside as the ball rolls back past you, and maybe off the green.”

This pair of par-4s illustrates how MacKenzie and Maxwell were comfortable demanding shot-making from players. Fades and draws are optimal to navigate the bends, side-slopes and greens. “The magnificent beech tree straight ahead is on the left side of the fairway on the 12th. Your tee shot must be to the right of the tree. The green slopes from front to back, and unless you hit a large drive leaving a short iron, you should hit a low running hook shot that will bounce up and onto the green. A pitch back to the green from behind is no problem. The 13th is the most difficult par at Crystal Downs. Hit a hard fade off the tee that will run with the contour of the fairway. The shot into the green is determined by the pin placement. The green is very small, with a tiny front portion, dropping off to a larger rear portion of the green. Choose a club for your second shot that reaches just short of the green and then pitch it at the pin if it is in front. Try to hit the ball deep into the green for the rear pin. The greenside bunkers are easy to roll into and difficult to recover from.”

The peace and beauty of being at this point on the property tend to distract from the task at hand—hitting a good shot with a short club to collect a safe par, rather than carding an other. In the vein of other great Golden Age short threes, the 14th adds an important component to the examination of a player’s game. “This beautiful little gem is a straightforward 139 yard shot. The green on the 14th slopes less from back to front than it looks. Enjoy the view of Sleeping Bear from the back of the green and stay out of the sand.”

The next two holes, a short four and long five, turn and head back toward the clubhouse. In keeping with the theme of variety, they present very different challenges. “We call the 15th ‘Little Poison’. The fairway is narrow, the green is tiny and elevated, and the wind is usually in your face. The key to this short par-4 is a long drive. It takes 225 yards to crest a hill that will leave a short pitch. Not cresting the hill can leave an uphill blind shot. This green repels shots, so hit for the center of the green. Hit your tee shot hard on the 16th. Hit it hard again. And if the wind is blowing, hit it hard again. This green slopes from back to front; don’t putt it too hard.”

The 17th is the wildest and most polarizing hole on the course and the 18th one of the most benign. The two combine to give players one last set of thrills before making the walk back up the hill to the clubhouse. “The 17th is three hundred and one of the most frightening yards in golf. A 200 yard tee shot leaves a 9 iron or wedge. A 180 yard tee shot leaves an unplayable lie. A 215 yard tee shot leaves a blind, uphill, difficult pitch to the green. Now, if the wind is helping, you could drive the green. The greenside bunkers mean bogey or worse, and you don’t want to putt off the front of this green, because it won’t stop rolling for 50 yards. Drive your tee ball straight on the 18th. Don’t cut the corner, it won’t work. Your target is the 150 yard mark. The beautifully bunkered green is well above the tee shot landing area. On your second shot, hit enough club and keep the shot to the right. Anything to the left will kick into the bunker.”

Crystal Downs cannot be muscled or overpowered. It not only encourages creative shot making, the course demands it. Players who like to have their minds engaged and who are willing to experiment will be hard pressed to find a more stimulating golf course in America. The Downs has its secrets, and those secrets must be teased out. That is what places it in such high favor, and what makes it a joy to revisit repeatedly. The like minds of MacKenzie and Maxwell, working with exceptional land, created a midwest masterpiece.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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The Sand Valley Story Continues…

After last year’s visit to Sand Valley to see and play the first course in the grow-in phase, I was bullish about its direction.  This year, my golf season in the Midwest was bookended by two more visits, and you can officially count me among those who are over the moon about the place.  Under Michael Keiser’s leadership, Sand Valley is already a must-visit (repeatedly).  If future plans comes to fruition, it is a legit contender for the title of best golf destination in North America.

Allow me to share evidence to support that assertion.


SPRING VISIT

My buddy Peter Korbakes (on Instagram @pgkorbs and @sugarloafsocialclub), his brother Telly, and I had plans to play Lawsonia Links.  At the last minute, we added Sand Valley to our itinerary.  (side note: If you ask them, they will happily tell you about how I overslept.)  At first, Peter was a bit bummed that we wouldn’t have time to play 36+ at Lawsonia.

Any potential disappointment evaporated the moment we pulled into the sandy main drive.  As we drove past the future site of the clubhouse, and the beginnings of David McLay Kidd’s course #2, I thought Peter might jump out of the window with joy.

We played the front nine twice, and then the staff was kind enough to let us sneak out to play holes 10, 16-18.  I already know that I will never get tired of playing this course.  There is so much to discover, and holes 7 and 17 are among my all-time Coore & Crenshaw favorites.

(click to enlarge photos)

#1 – Par 4 – 325 yards

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View from the tee

#2 – Par 4 – 416 yards

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View from the tee

#3 – Par 3 – 192 yards

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Short left of the green

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#4 – Par 5 – 557 yards

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View from behind the green back

#5 – Par 3 – 160 yards

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View from the right tee box

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#6 – Par 4 – 421 yards

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View from the fairway

#7 – Par 5 – 536 yards

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From back left of the green

#8 – Par 3 – 115 yards

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View from the forward tee

#9 – Par 4 – 273 yards

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View from the tee

#16 – Par 4 – 385 yards

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The approach from the fairway

#17 – Par 3 – 215 yards

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From behind the green back

#18 – Par 5 – 523 yards

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Short of the green

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As we were getting ready to head home, we were chatting with the Super Rob.  He shared that his favorite holes were the ones that we had not seen – #11-15.  Talk about a tease to prompt a return trip…


LATE FALL VISIT

My golf schedule was gloriously packed this season, which did not allow me a chance to get back to Sand Valley to play again.  However, I did go back in late November.

I was fortunate to be invited by Michael Keiser, along with my buddy Charlie James, to participate in a group walk led by Mike DeVries of a piece of the property at Sand Valley that has potential for development.  As a Kingsley guy, this opportunity was a real treat for me.  Mike was kind enough to do a GeekedOnGolf interview, but I had never met him.

Further, the routing of a golf course has always been the most mysterious and fascinating part of the process to me.  How can someone look at a piece of tree-covered land, and with a topographical map, determine where the best golf holes will be?  That aspect of creative vision is beyond me, and I couldn’t wait to see real pros in action.

We arrived after dark, and couldn’t see much of our surroundings.  I was immediately impressed, however, with how much progress had been made on the lodging around Lake Leopold.  The next morning, I got up early to catch the view off our back deck of sunrise over the lake.

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Not a bad way to start a day.  This particular day immediately got better after I captured this photo.

SandValley-BenCrenshaw1.jpegI turned around and saw a man standing at the coffee machine in the common area.  Who was that fellow early riser?  None other than Ben Crenshaw.  He could not have been more gracious in chatting with Charlie and me, as well as taking photos. Sharing a cup of coffee and talking GCA with Mr. Crenshaw was certainly a bucket list item for me. (Another side note: If you see me around, ask me to tell you the story about how Ben Crenshaw and Dan Lucas ate my party-sized Snickers).

If you make the trip to Sand Valley, will you get to hang with luminaries like Ben Crenshaw?  You never know.  That is part of what is so special about what is happening in Nekoosa.  It is abuzz with the creative energy that results from kindred golf spirits rubbing elbows, and there is no end in sight.

After geeking out with Gentle Ben for a bit, Charlie and I headed out to the Coore & Crenshaw course to see the holes that were not finished in the spring – #11-15.  Although the fairways were still growing in and the greens had a heavy topdressing of sand in prep for winter, it was still clear that these holes are going to be a challenging blast to play.

#11 – Par 4 – 405 yards

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The view from behind the green back

#12 – Par 5 – 487 yards

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Approaching the green from the left

#13 – Par 4 – 401 yards

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The waste area that cuts across the fairway

#14 – Par 3 – 175 yards

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The wrap-around bunker behind the green

#15 – Par 4 – 387 yards

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The fronting mounds short of the green

This stretch is stout.  It goes without saying that I can’t wait to come back in 2017 to play the entire course.

After this quick jaunt, we joined up with the group for the walk with Mike and Michael.  I did not take pictures, as they would not have made much sense.  However, I did snap two shots of particularly colorful lichens that stood out to me.

The photos I have posted, and others I have seen, do not do justice to just how rich and varied Sand Valley is in terms of color and texture.  As the remnants of the pine farm are cleared, and the restoration work of Jens Jensen and his team begins to take shape, a truly breathtaking ecology is emerging.  Players are in for a visual feast that will evolve through the seasons, and the years.  At some point soon, I will do a separate post specifically on the commitment to ecological restoration that the Keisers have made in Nekoosa – it is an incredible story in and of itself.

The walk with Mike DeVries was a GCA geek’s dream.  I played fly-on-the-wall as Mike, Michael, and their colleagues walked and talked.  Charlie asked Mike about designing holes and received a typically thoughtful DeVries answer in response.  Mike doesn’t think about holes, and he has a disdain for the idea of signature holes.  Instead, he thinks about and focuses on creating the course as a whole.  He would much rather make a great course with no standout holes, than a course with a few standouts that doesn’t function as a harmonious whole.

I am biased of course, but it is this kind of perspective that shines through in Mike’s work to date.  I know from previous conversations with Michael that the Keisers have great respect for Mike and his abilities, and it is great to see that he is now being considered among the craft’s elite practitioners.  Regardless of what ultimately happens with future courses at Sand Valley, I am grateful for the afternoon I got to spend walking and talking in the wind and rain.

After a quick lunch, Michael took Charlie and me over the check out the 20-hole short course that is being created near the main clubhouse.

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The heathland

The course is a hybrid of a pitch-and-putt and a par-3.  It winds through several zones (heathland, parkland, duneland) and features templates such as the biarritz and short.

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The duneland

Coming off the “big” courses, joyfully spending the remaining hours acting like a kid on this course and the putting course will be a perfect complement and conclusion to any day.

Michael had to run off for more walking with Mike et al, and so Charlie and I decided to take a quick spin around the 6 preview holes of the David McLay Kidd’s #2 course as the sun set.

Immediately, one is taken with the scale of what DMK’s crew is creating.  However, it is not only big and bold.  From what I saw, there has been an impressive attention to the details that give this course a character all its own.  As all great courses do, SVII infused me with a great desire to grab my clubs and play.

HOLE 1

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Zoomed from the tee

HOLE 2

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Centerline bunker in the fairway

HOLE 14 (Golf Digest Design Contest hole)

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The view from the green back

HOLE 15

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Approach from the fairway

HOLE 16 

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Zoomed view from the forward tee

HOLE 17 

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The approach from the fairway

HOLE 18

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Short left of the green

The word we heard was that the farther away one gets from the clubhouse, the bolder and cooler the holes get.  That is tough to imagine, but it sure is fun to try.

I’m greatly looking forward to preview play and more sneak-peek walks in 2017.


I have been effusive in my praise of what is being created at Sand Valley.  It is hard not to be enthusiastic when Michael, Craig, Glen, Rob and the team keep hitting every high note.  From the golf to the accommodations to the ecology to the ice cream sandwiches, they are doing it right.

An argument can be made that it is too early to make such an assessment.  Fair enough.  For the doubters, I say this – go and experience Sand Valley for yourself.  Regardless of its newness, if your golf geeky spirit is not stirred by the place, I’ll eat sand.

For even more on what is happening at Sand Valley, check out the recent interview with Michael Keiser by Mitch and Darin on Talking Golf Getaways.


MORE GEEKEDONGOLF ADVENTURES

 

 

 

Copyright 2016 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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Home Course Hero – An Interview with Architect Mike DeVries

Anyone who has played golf in Northern Michigan knows how truly special it is.  Not only is it home to one of the greatest golf courses in the world – Crystal Downs – it is also home to some of the best golf course architects working today.  Mike DeVries is one of those GCAs.

As evidenced by my previous post on the Kingsley Club, my love of Mike’s work is no secret.  After playing the first hole at Kingsley the first time, I knew I wanted to play the course over and over again.  My desire is just as great to play the rest of Mike’s courses, in Michigan and beyond.

That bucket list golf will remain on the list for now.  In the meantime though, enjoy the following interview with Mike, with gorgeous accompanying photos by Larry Lambrecht (note: click any photo to open slide show).


THE INTERVIEW

How did you get into the business?

I grew up learning the game from my grandfather and then working in the pro shop at Crystal Downs when I was 14.  At 16, I worked in the pro shop on weekends and on the grounds crew during the week.  Tom Mead became the Superintendent when I was 17 and wanted me full time on the grounds crew, so I did that through college.  After my undergrad, I worked for Herman’s Sporting Goods and figured out their mission and mine were not the same.  I was getting married in Frankfort and went back to the grounds crew at the Downs prior to the wedding, and in that time figured out I always came back to golf.  Tom Doak was finishing up High Pointe (sorry to see that wonderful course gone) and I met him and talked about my goals and desire to work in golf design and construction.  After helping them to finish High Pointe, I worked with Tom for 2.5-3 years on the Legends – Heathland GC in Myrtle Beach and then the Black Forest in Gaylord, MI.

What do you admire the most about Crystal Downs?

Of course, the Downs is very personal for me, but the whole place is magical and has so many wonderful attributes about it.  The rhythm and flow of the routing across the landscape, melding all these different, yet similar, landforms and vistas into one cohesive masterpiece is probably what I reflect on the most after thousands of days on the property.

CRYSTAL DOWNS 

 

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

Family, parents and grandparents, instilled in me a strong work ethic and desire to always do the best I can.  Certainly, my maternal grandfather taught me about golf and the respect for the game and the land.  In the business, Fred Muller taught me about the game and playing (still does) and Tom Mead was the first big influence on understanding agronomy and the care of a golf course – the two, combined with the Downs as a canvas, gave me a great understanding of what GREAT golf is about.  Tom Doak gave me the opportunity to learn in the dirt with him and we constantly talked about what this change or that change would do to the feature and golf course as a whole every day – that working style still impacts my methods today.  Tom Fazio and his associates gave me a thorough education in the design and construction of high end projects and showed me their desire to always give their clients the best of everything.  I have been fortunate to have had numerous, wonderful owners that have allowed me to try new things and push the envelope on projects.  Dan Lucas and Joe Hancock continue to teach me about agronomy.  Of the great architects, MacKenzie stands above all others due to my lifelong study of the Downs but Ross, Tillie, MacDonald, Raynor, Colt, Flynn, etc. all influence me to look at the ground we are working on.  I like to see all kinds of different golf courses by different designers.  Of the modern designers, I most like to see the works of Pete Dye, Doak, Coore & Crenshaw, and Gil Hanse, as they are always trying something and it is fun to try to figure out what they were trying to do here and there.

Describe your process for a design project.

First of all, you have to consider what the client is really asking you to do and make sure that is taken care of.  But, if you are talking about an open-ended look at the design process, then figuring out the routing of the course is the most critical and important aspect to me.  Without a good routing, even excellent holes and features can get lost in the process and then the course loses focus.  With a great routing, the course has a chance to be something really special every time you play it (assuming you get the details of the greens, bunkers, etc. correct!).

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

Each and every element of a course is inter-related to the other features of the course, and especially those that are adjacent to them.  I really like building the green complex, not just the putting surface, because it is the focus and culmination of a hole and what dictates the strategy a golfer takes as he stands on the tee.  With a great green complex, the hole has a chance to be something really intriguing every time a golfer steps on the tee.  But, importantly, the golf hole must be considered in relation to the other holes and features on the course and how this hole connects with the previous and following holes to create a flow that is invigorating and fun to play every day.

GREYWALLS (photos by Larry Lambrecht)

 

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

There are certainly some good books on the subject [MacKenzie’s Golf Architecture, Thomas’ Golf Architecture in America, Macdonald’s Scotland’s Gift – Golf, and numerous modern texts that summarize the classics listed (Geoff Shackelford has done this many times)].  But, they must listen to their design consultant and Superintendent, understanding that they, as lay people, do not have the training or experience to really make decisions on golf design elements and features.  They need to listen, ask questions, and provide input to the process but not direct it.

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

You often have decision-makers who cannot look beyond their own game with regard to features and playability.  Everyone has biases and prejudices, even designers, myself included, but those have to be put aside to make the best decision for the most players on an everyday basis.  I have not had the opportunity to design a course primarily for a championship venue, and those are rare indeed, so course design must be much more inclusive in its strategy and execution, not just for the low-handicap golfer.

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

When people tell me they keep seeing new things on the course every time they play it.  Personally, it is often something you feel creep into the finished product, not something that is always there at the beginning or planned.

THE MINES (photos by Larry Lambrecht)

 

When you finish a big project like Cape Wickham, do you need a little down time, or do you like to jump right in to the next project?

A very hard part of the job is trying to line up projects with a nice, even spacing.  It just doesn’t usually work out that way.  So, as much as you try to have one follow directly behind the current one, you work at new projects in pieces while completing one but often, there is time necessary to line up parts of the next project.  Busy is a good problem to have, so if we are ready to go, then we get right to it – definitely better than the alternative!

What are some of your takeaways from your time in Tasmania?

First of all, it was an incredible experience for my entire family, since they were there with me for 6 months (well, only 2 for my daughter, as she had to go back to college).  The chance to go to another part of the world for an extended period of time is really an amazing and wonderful chance that few get to do in their lifetime and that is something that we frequently talk about as a family.  We made lots of friends and really loved our time there.

From a work standpoint, Cape Wickham is the most incredible site I have ever seen for a golf course and it is an honor to have been given the opportunity to work on it.  It was also very challenging working on an island, where supplies and equipment are not easy to acquire or fix, so you have to be very creative in how you approach things and use all the good ideas of locals who know the conditions.  It is a very resourceful place and the conditions were very challenging at times, so perseverance and a dedication by all those involved in the project was really what made it successful.

CAPE WICKHAM (photos by Larry Lambrecht)

 

What do you love most about practicing your craft?

Being in the dirt and shaping features, feeling the ground beneath you, and then sitting back at the end of a long day looking at what everyone accomplished (hopefully with a cold beer in hand!).

How did you land the job designing the Kingsley Club?

Fred Muller introduced me to Ed Walker, a Traverse City businessman and the managing partner of the project.  Ed had found the property where the club is and he and Art Preston, his partner in the club, wanted to build a great course that could compare with the great courses in the country.  They had this land but weren’t sure if it would be good enough to satisfy their desire for a great course and that’s when they hired me.  I worked on the routing for several months and we discussed the merits of the project to make sure they were comfortable with the potential result – if it wasn’t going to meet their expectations, then we wouldn’t do it.  Ultimately, everyone was on board with the course, club concept, and we got started.

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

Reactionary.  They are the result of my reacting to what is in the land and creating a unique and fun golf course out of that ground.

KINGSLEY CLUB (photos by Larry Lambrecht)

 

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

Crystal Downs is home and so personal to me, so that is the easy answer.  Picking one of my own designs is like picking your favorite child and not really fair, but I might have to go with Cape Wickham, since it is so far away and I haven’t had enough plays on it yet, plus it is such an amazingly beautiful location, with such diverse climatic variances, that it is endlessly exciting and would be a candidate.

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

Royal County Down – it is disgraceful that I haven’t made it there yet . . . gotta find the time to do so, as I am certain this is one place that will not disappoint.

Cape Breton Highlands – I have been wanting to get there for some time. So, since I am in that vicinity, I will have to check out Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links, too!

Jasper and Banff – like Cape Breton, these are hard to get to, but they are excellent courses from all I have heard and prime examples of Stanley Thompson’s work, of which I am a big fan.

Why do you like to play with hickories?

Each club has a personality of its own and therefore you develop relationships with each club that highlights its strengths and weaknesses, forcing the golfer to find a way to make his shot.  When you execute what you are trying to do, with something not nearly as adequate as modern clubs, it is a great feeling of accomplishment.  You can play very good golf with them but it is like when you were learning the game as a kid and couldn’t count on every shot being well struck.  Also, hickory players have an appreciation for the history of the sport and its implements (they are gorgeous pieces of art to look at as well as play with) and show that enthusiasm through their spirit for the game.

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

Spending time with family and friends doing all the usual things, like card games, going to school functions, odd jobs around the house, skiing or sledding in the winter, etc.

What reaction have you experienced from your appearance on Architects Week?

All very positive about my comments and nice to see me on the show. Of course, the architecture fans want more time from the networks on golf architecture and I agree with them!

MikeDeVries-ArchitectsWeek

Click here to see Mike’s Architects Week segment in February, 2015

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

Lots of consulting work with older clubs in the States, particularly in the NY Met area at this time – Siwanoy CC is complete and Sunningdale CC has one more big phase in the fall or 2016.  Some other things are in the works but not confirmed for construction just yet, so you will have to wait on those.

Thanks for having me on Geeked on Golf!


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Copyright 2015 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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Golf Heaven on Earth – The Kingsley Club

KingsleyLogoMy discovery of the Kingsley Club was just dumb luck.  On a buddies trip to Arcadia Bluffs and Crystal Downs, we needed a third course to play.  I stumbled across the Kingsley Club review on GolfClubAtlas.com – it looked interesting, so it was added to our itinerary.

Turning into the property off a dirt road, it was apparent that we had found a hidden gem.  Beyond the modest clubhouse lay rolling hills covered in wild flowers and fescue grass, with beautiful undulating fairways cutting through them.  For me, it was love at first sight – a feeling of exhilaration that I find anew every time I pull into the parking lot, and every time I step onto the first tee.

The original intent of this post was to give a course tour.  Among the GolfClubAtlas.com review, the Club’s website, and KingsleyGolfer.com, that tour is thoroughly covered.  No need to redo what has already been well done.

Instead, this post is about why Kingsley has touched me so deeply.  Why I believe that it embodies everything that is great about golf.  (Thanks to fellow Kingsley member Tim B. for use of his photos)

Kingsley is certainly challenging and fun to play, and the laid-back culture of the club enhances the experience for me.  But the profound sense of joy it evokes in me goes beyond fun.  What makes Kingsley so special?  Three words hint at the answer: Interest, Variety, and Beauty.


KINGSLEY IS INTERESTING

A good golf course catches the player’s interest on the first hole and keeps it throughout the round.  A truly great golf course like Kingsley keeps the player’s interest round after round, ad infinitum.  Kingsley displays its greatness to me in how it keeps my interest.  It is like a puzzle to attempt to solve.  It provides challenges of strategy and execution, along with a mixed bag of good and bad luck.

After I have played a really good round at a course, I often lose interest.  My experience at Kingsley has been just the opposite.  I have played some of my best golf there, and yet I still want more.  It is simply impossible to imagine getting bored walking those fairways.

These specifics top the list of what makes Kingsley interesting:

  • Blind shots – The property is hilly and Mike DeVries’s routing takes advantage of the elevation changes to create numerous blind shots.  Blind shots quicken the pulse and provide interest.  There are few things quite as exciting in golf as hitting one’s shot, watching it disappear, and then taking the anticipatory walk to find out how it ended up.
  • Bouncing balls – The fairways and green complexes are gloriously undulating.  Coupled with fescue fairways and bent grass greens that drain well, the undulations provide bounces from tee to green that make the course unpredictable.  Superintendent Dan Lucas keeps the course in immaculate firm-and-fast condition, but it is not “manicured”.  Kingsley will hand players good and bad breaks according to its whim.  In golf, “fair” is another word for “predictable”.  Predictable gets boring quickly, and does not hold a player’s interest.  Kingsley is anything but predictable.
  • Distance and depth-perception – Elements of the course, in concert with the often windy Northern Michigan weather, make judging true distance and selecting clubs very challenging.  Even when playing repeatedly from the same spot, the shots are not the same.  One is never quite sure if the club is right.  Executing a confident shot in the face of that fundamental ambiguity is an interesting mental challenge indeed!

INTEREST IN IMAGES – Holes 1 and 2


KINGSLEY OFFERS VARIETY

Variety is the spice of life.  It is also the hallmark of a great golf course.  From tee to green, from front nine to back, Kingsley has tremendous variety.

The course has a wide variety of hole lengths and is routed to maximize directional changes.  Factor in time of day and weather conditions, and Kingsley can play like an entirely different course from round to round.

Kingsley puts its variety on display:

  • On the tees – Each hole offers several teeing grounds that often differ not just in length, but in direction.  The player can choose to play each hole from wherever they wish.  The best example of tee variety is on the par 3 9th, which can play from 106 to 240+ yards from two groups of tee boxes that are set at 90 degree angles to one another.
  • On the greens – Kingsley has incredible variety in its green complexes.  Some are heavily bunkered, some have few or no bunkers.  Some greens accept ground approaches and recoveries, others are elevated to encourage aerial shots.  There is a wide range of green sizes and shapes, some with subtle interior contours, and others more dramatic.  The course has punchbowls, table-tops, crowns, horseshoes, double plateaus, and multi-tiers.
  • In the feel of the nines – The outward nine is routed through sand hills.  It is open and largely treeless.  The inward nine has a much different feel, wandering through trees.  Both nines feel expansive, but each has a distinct feel.  Playing at Kingsley is like playing at Pacific Dunes and Bandon Trails in the same round.

VARIETY IN IMAGES – Holes 12 and 13


KINGSLEY IS BEAUTIFUL

Kingsley possesses a rugged, natural beauty that might not be appreciated by those accustomed only to manicured, parkland golf.  The minimalist first impression gives way as the course reveals contrasts of greens and browns, painted onto beautiful contours.

The grounds crew has painstakingly tended the native areas, planting fescue and wildflowers.  Players who visit frequently are treated throughout the year to an ever-changing show of colors that is at once visually arresting and appropriate to the overall look of the course.

From the minor details to the grand scheme, Kingsley’s wide open spaces further contrast sky and earth into one breathtaking view after another.  It is the perfect marriage of outstanding design, construction, and maintenance, with the natural beauty that makes people fall in love with Northern Michigan.

BEAUTY IN IMAGES – Holes 14, 15 and 16


Interest, variety, beauty, and much more – the founders, Mike DeVries and Dan Lucas have put together the total package in a way that resonates deep down in my soul.  It is my golf heaven on earth, and I look forward to walking those fairways hundreds of times, for the rest of my life.

It is my sincere hope that many others get to experience Kingsley’s greatness too.  In the meantime, enjoy this photo tour compiled from my Twitter (@jasonway1493) series 18 Days of @KingsleyClub.

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Copyright 2015 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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Architects Week II is in the books. Now for the show…

Once again, the folks at Golf Channel have put together a nice Architects week feature.  Matt Ginella continues to evolve as a voice for the good of the game, giving us a break from Tour & Tip coverage, to help us connect to the soul of the game – golf courses and the people who create them.

A WALK THROUGH THE WEEK

 

“The more I learn about architecture, the more I want to know.” – Matt Ginella

The week kicked off with a preview from Matt, Geoff Shackelford, and a panel.  Bill Coore was originally slated to start off the week, but dropped of the agenda at the last minute.  Such are the lives of successful men, perhaps.

“Think of golf holes as human. You are wrestling with another animate object.” – Robert Trent Jones, Jr.

After a visit with Tom Weiskopf and discussion of his recent updates to TPC Scottsdale, next up was Robert Trent Jones, Jr.  It was an interesting segment with the veteran architect that culminated with discussion of Chambers Bay, the 2015 U.S. Open venue which promises to be a strong follow-up to last year’s game-changing event at the renovated Pinehurst #2.  “It is both the aerial game and the ground game,” said Jones of Chambers.  Clearly, he is excited to the see the best golfers in the world take on his course.

“Let the land speak and lay golf holes out that were relatively straightforward.” – David McLay Kidd

The old guard gave way to members of the next generation of great architects – David McLay Kidd, Mike DeVries and Gil Hanse.  This trio has already produced a portfolio of amazing courses, including my home course the Kingsley Club.  They are also working on some of the most exciting projects in golf – Sand Valley #2, Cape Wickham, The Rio Olympic Course, and now Streamsong Black.

“He’s so creative. He’s a real sculptor with the Earth.” – Alice Dye on Pete

A full day was given to Pete & Alice Dye, perhaps the most influential duo in golf course architecture history, not to mention a heart-warming story of love and marriage partnership.  Geoff Shackelford said of Mr. Dye, “He was sort of a change agent; that will ultimately be his legacy.”  Hard to argue with that assessment.

“It’s something I’ve had on the back burner for 20 years.” – Tom Doak

The week wrapped up with Tom Doak sharing what might be the most exciting thing to happen to architecture since C.B. MacDonald realized his “ideal hole” architecture at National Golf Links of America.  The reversible course at Forest Dunes.

The architects segments were great, as was the commentary between Matt and Geoff, and I highly recommend combing through the clips as a means to find leads to take you on further explorations into the field of golf course architecture.

There are really only three things that disappointed me about this second Architects Week:

  1. The lack of new faces, other than Mike DeVries.  I understand the need for the big names to keep the ratings up and the momentum going for GCA coverage.  In spite of that reality, it would have been nice to have more international representation, and a no-less-talented, but lower-profile architect or two.
  2. The lack of “field time”.  The modern minimalists who are at the forefront of architecture today like Tom Doak, Mike DeVries and others consistently point to the field as the place where the rubber hits the road in GCA.  Driving a bulldozer, shaping the sandy earth, doing the finishing hand work – generally playing in the dirt – this is where architectural magic happens.  Although I love the interviews and the routing discussions, it would have been great to see Matt strolling and chatting with at least one architect on-site.
  3. The segments were just too darn short.  There was not a single segment on the show that didn’t leave me wanting more.  Much more.  At a certain level, good entertainment leaves you wanting more.  But golf architecture coverage goes beyond entertainment.  Given the time appropriate for a subject with the depth and breadth of GCA, it could be educational and inspirational.  It could truly expand the horizons of the audience, and connect them more deeply to the soul of the game.

 

I have made my argument for a regular GCA show on Golf Channel in this previous post.  Architects Week just reinforced my commitment to keep agitating until this gets done.

For now though, you can get your GCA fix on GolfClubAtlas.com, and here at the ever-expanding Geeked On Golf GCA Video Archive.