Saturday, February 25, 2006

Golf is too expensive, but it doesn't have to be!

What would happen if nobody new wanted to play because they had decided that golf takes too long and is far too expensive?

Public golf in Toronto has gone from an average of $40 a round in the mid 90's to an average of $80 today. The construction budget of the first course I worked on with Carrick was 3 million, and the last one was 10 million (please note this was a much tougher build). I've watched the guys I play hockey with go from avid golfers playing 20-30 times a year to becoming occasional players in the last 5 years. Why? "Too expensive and I've found a new hobby that takes less time away from home" Golf needs to realize that the massive build out of strictly high end courses that occurred in Toronto over the last 5 years is not good for the game. It drove the prices up - and they players away.

But if the course is built for a reasonable budget and is well designed - it will become a very successful project. If the course was built for a large budget and fails to attract players - someone loses their whole investment.

In future posts I will detail one alternative model for building an affordable golf course. I will discuss this using a project called Rustic Canyon, which is both affordable and outstanding.

“It is generally agreed that intense importance should be attached to utilizing every feature in the ground, so far as it is compatible with a satisfactory framework. To depend to the maximum extent upon nature, and to the minimum upon art, makes for interesting golf and moderate expenditure.”

H.S. Colt, Some Essays on Golf-Architecture, 1920

Friday, February 24, 2006

Is faster really better?

Or............How Johnny Miller ruined golf.

The greens at Country Club of Scranton are some of the finest in golf, if the greens get any faster, they will lose many of the great pin positions that make the club special.

In 1980, the Metropolitan Golf Association did a stimpmeter survey of the local courses to determine the speed of the greens. A fast green measured 8.5 feet, medium was 7.5, and 6.6 was considered slow. Today, the average fast speed is approximately 10.5 feet, an increase of approximately 2 feet in the last twenty years. In the world of income taxes, this type of increase is called “bracket creep”. In golf, I would call it “speed creep.”

My question is: Do faster green speeds automatically result in better golf? We live in an age where golfers throw around green speed numbers as if they were weather forecasts. Every self-appointed Carnac has a real or imagined number that they freely throw out to impress their friends. My beef is that the majority of “experts” who so freely share their “wisdom” are not truly aware of how green speed is measured and how easily it can be done incorrectly. Recently I played in a club tournament, and one member proudly boasted that “his” greens were “14 today.” Were they recently paved, perhaps?

So, what do these numbers really mean? In the movie Spinal Tap, guitarist Nigel Tuffel explains why his band is the loudest in the world, “Our speakers go to 11, that’s much louder than 10.” Of course, the joke is that band members painted the eleven onto their Marshall speakers; the volume could not measure any higher than the original ten. The point I’m trying to make here is that eventually, numbers lose their relevance. Getting back to green speed, I was once asked by a greens chairman what was the difference between ten and eleven . My response? “All I know is that eleven is a larger number.”

Unfortunately, a phenomenon has taken over North American golf called “the trickle- down effect”. The club with the fastest greens becomes the standard for what all clubs consider the “correct” green speed. While large flat greens can handle speed, courses with rolling greens become unplayable under the same conditions. Often, the course that becomes known for its faster greens actually has major back to front slope. The misconception is that the turf , not the slope, is creating the speed. Despite this, the club with the perceived fastest greens has set the bar, and now all other clubs strive to hit this maniacal target. The problem is that most clubs usually ignore the true speed limit of their own course. Remember, every time you raise the speed, you lose area which can be fairly pinned.

How do we know what the speed limit is? If the pin is almost always in the same locations and the turf is under stress, your greens are too fast. Also, fun and challenging pin locations, that make a particular green unique, are now unusable. The speed limit of a green is determined by selecting the most severe pinning location and determining a fair speed for that location. One single pin location cannot set the standard, but a consensus of the most difficult pins will lead to a speed threshold for the greens. This threshold, not comparisons with other golf courses with faster greens, should be how a club decides how fast it can go. Please note that the club’s primary “event” is not my focus, the day to day speed is my concern.

Fast green speeds are said to identify the elite player by putting a premium on focus and skill. The question I ask is: Do we need to do this on a day to day basis? In my experience, excessively fast greens can identify a superintendent who is pushing the envelope. Hugh Kirkpatrick, a respected golf superintendent from Westmount Golf & Country Club in Kitchener had my favourite line on green speed: “They always run fastest just before they die.” In the movie Top Gun, the pilot Maverick says to his navigator, Goose, “I feel the need for speed.” To me, Maverick is like a greens chairman who is cocky and out of control and Goose represents the superintendent -- more experienced but with less influence. We all know what happens in the movie when Maverick makes an error. Goose pays the concequences.

Where am I going with this little soap box rant, and what’s the connection with Johnny Miller?

In my experience over the last year, which includes dealing with 50 courses and 100 greens chairmen, I have been constantly questioned about why the greens are so slow. My answer to them is another question: Are the greens healthy.? The answer is usually yes. When I explain that you need firm, dry greens to have fast greens, most chairmen quickly realise that often the last season has been one of the wettest years in a long time. This, obviously, could have hindered the superintendents’ ability to deliver healthy and fast greens. However, one greens chairman required further convincing, so we went out to the putting green for a test. Stealing an idea from Ian Bowen, I asked the amateur agronomist to putt 3 balls at a cup 10 feet away. I then poured a bucket of water in between the him and the cup, and waited for the green to absorb the water. He hit his next putt well short and the point was clearly made.

Most greens that I have renovated have pinning areas too small to handle the traffic. Occasionally, a green with dramatic contouring becomes almost unpinnable with a change in green speed. I don’t like to rebuild greens with great contours; I would rather preserve them. Greens that have more contour may need to be slower but they require more creativity and challenge a golfer’s skill. Conversely, greens that have more speed may need to be flatter, which demands less imagination from the player. I want the push for speed to stop before putting gets boring.

One club, notorious for its fast greens, maintained their speed most of last year. The greens were fast, but became thin and weak during stressful periods. Before you blame the superintendent, he had suggested that they need to ease off. The majority of membership finally overruled those who were demanding fast greens and told the club that healthy greens were more important; if the greens had to be slower to recapture the turf, so be it. I hope this is a coming trend, but I can’t say I’m confident.

In my experience, members who are obsessed with green speed are junkies who can never get enough speed. I suggest they be banished to putt in the parking lot. After all, it is currently stimping at 14.

You’re still waiting to see what Johnny Miller has to do with all this, aren’t you. Well, Johnny Miller has a reputation as a bit of a know-it-all. He loves to throw around statistics and numbers all the time. He loves to tells us the greens are stimping at 14 in the latest PGA tournament. The average golfer would not know what stimpmeter was without him. So what’s my beef with Johnny? People assume that everything they hear on TV must be true. The result is that Johnny Miller has helped to create a legion of misinformed greens committee members. Thanks, Johnny.

Why the Caddy logo?

I assume many of you who that have visited my web site are wondering, what's up with the logo? Well it's nearly 20 years old now and it was inspired by another illustration of a caddy. At the time I was looking for a "clever" logo to go on my thesis at Guelph - I think I was trying to be funny at the time. The thesis was about recovering a landfill for a golf course - and idea that is wonderful in theory - but carries so many serious complications.

Well I guess I grew attached to the logo, so when I was looking for a logo for my new company that somehow described me, I realized I already had what I wanted. With a quick revision to the face the caddy became me. So why the caddy?

The caddy represents my start, which was originally caddying for my father, a long time ago. It also represents my belief that the greatness of the game is rooted in its past , and finally the logo is supposed to be fun - a golf course design element that I feel is greatly overlooked.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Our Last Father and Son Trip (a tribute to my father)

At dinner in Portrush, my dad offered the simple statement, "This will be my last golf trip"
My father is the reason I play golf, and more importantly the reason I became a golf course architect. As early as age 13, (which he confirmed again this week) I wanted to be a golf course architect. My father taught me how to play – not easy for a man who averaged 150 days away from home each year. More importantly, he taught me about the game itself. His passion became my passion, a gift from father to son.

My father and I together at the 5th green at Royal Portrush in Ireland.

When he realized that my obsession with golf design was more than a passing interest, he bought me architecture books to begin my education. But that still was not enough for me. So he began to plan family vacations around particular golf courses. Mom never figured out that a family trip to Nova Scotia was planned so that Dad and I could see Thompson’s great Highland Links. But she caught on to us when we went to Pinehurst. She realized that golf would become an intricate part of family holidays in the future.

What she did not realize was that Dad and I were about venture out on our own, leaving her behind (well in London with her sister, actually) as we toured the great links of England and Scotland. For my father, this trip was a return to see old favorites. For me, it was a pilgrimage. And a logical next step in Dad’s plans to educate me about great golf design.
In Scotland, I fell in love with a version of golf that was far superior to anything I had seen before. I personally don’t feel an architect is completely educated without seeing those great links. This was also the trip where I insisted on paying my own way and discovered that golf travel is expensive.

A few years later, it was my turn to treat Dad. We headed off to Pebble Beach, where I surprised him with a round at Cypress Point (still his favorite day of golf ever – must have been that O’Meara fellow that joined us). It was then when we hatched the idea of heading to Ireland. Ireland was to be our next golf journey, and the final leg of our series of trips together.
When I began working with architect Doug Carrick in 1989, Dad and I began to talk seriously of going to Ireland, but then I got married and bought a house. I decided to take a few years to get established. We talked about it again, but soon Cindy was pregnant, and I was too afraid to go before Cameron was born.

We were finally planning the trip in the late 90’s when my Dad got skin cancer for the first time. He had to have a large skin graft that restricted his movement and was unable to play for a full year. Fine, I thought, we’ll go next year. Dad was treated and was fine, but strangely (to me) chose not to play. It was the first year we had not played together since I was 14 years old.
The following year he had a second brush with skin cancer that required more surgery. I waited for him to recover, and get a clean bill of health. He didn’t play that year either.
I mentioned to him that I had an offer for him to play Cypress Point the next year. I thought that would entice him, but he told me he was not interested. He thought I should go without him. I was stunned about how uninterested he was with golf, and couldn’t bring myself to go there without him. (I wrote a thread on his disinterest in golf many years ago to which a couple of you sent wonderful responses). The trips had always been about us being together, with golf as the perfect backdrop. I waited another year before he began to play again – much to my great relief. We played at a series of courses that Carrick Design had built or had done renovations on, with a late season round at the first course that I could say that I built. He immediately recognized homage to Pinehurst #2 (public course with wide fairways and heavily contoured greens), and it amused him to know that the trip we had made those years ago had that much effect on me. It was a wonderful moment for both of us.

I have recently started teaching my oldest son the game because he has asked to play. I always feared introducing him to golf, afraid that my own desires to experience a similar father and son relationship based around golf would pressure him. Carrying that expectation would be an unfair burden upon him, I believed. But once he asked, I arranged for Cameron’s first game of golf to be with his grandfather and I. We were in Florida at a small public course. It was fun for my father to realize that the game was being passing down through three generations – that golf was something he shared not only with me, but also with his grandson. My father gave my son the same basic lessons he had given to me, and got Cameron to strike the ball surprisingly well. I just watched with a large smile on my face.

Recently, I brought up Ireland again with Dad, and the planning began years after we were supposed to go. There were times during those years that I was filled with regret, afraid we had lost our last chance to go, especially after reading Dodson’s wonderful book "Final Rounds."
Then, after weeks of planning and scheduling, the time had come for me to leave. My parents were in London visiting family, and Dad and I were to connect at the airport in Dublin. Dad was 77 and I was 3 days past my 40th birthday. We had 10 rounds arranged over 7 days - it was up to him how much we played. I left for the Toronto airport on a Friday evening with tickets I had purchased over the internet (off the Air Canada website) months before, only to be told that the plane was oversold my 43 seats and that my ticket – being an internet sale – was valued at less than other tickets. I was number 34 on the stand by list. It was the last plane to Dublin for 2 days.

Devastated, I explained to the attendant about my plans and how my elderly father would be waiting for me at the airport in Dublin, and how I had no way to reach him. The attendant, though sympathetic, could not do anything to help me.
To this day I am not certain what happened, but somehow the stars aligned and I was permitted to board even though only 20 people of those 43 who were waiting were seated.
I won’t give details about anyone’s golf because ultimately, that didn’t really matter. It was the experience of spending that time with my Dad that made the trip special. But I will say with pride that my father had the lowest final round at Royal County Down (a perfect end to our travels), and had more deliberation in his stride than I had seen in years. He played 9 of the 10 rounds too!

A week together in Ireland allowed us to reflect on all our trips together, his life, and the game of golf itself. There is no other game that can be enjoyed through the generations like golf.
Ireland will be our last golf trip together. I thought writing that would make me sad, but it does not, because we made it! We made it to Ireland.