Saturday, March 11, 2006

Too Many High End Public Courses - a day at the golf show

Copper Creek's success spawned a series of $150 green fee courses, but many overlooked its key ingredient, location.

I went down to the golf show at the Convention Centre in Toronto yesterday. The golf show is about selling equipment and promoting places to play. As an architect, I do not go down there to promote myself or look for work; it’s more of a chance to see good friends and hangout with a lot of people from the golf industry.
Three interesting things came up during the day.

The NGCOA is promoting Take a Kid to the Course Week from July 3rd to July 9th. Any paying adult can take a child, under the age of 16 to one of 500 participating golf courses, and the child can play for free. This also includes clinics, rentals, tournaments and a prize draw. I commend the National Golf Course Owners Association of Canada for doing something to promote the game. I, for one, will be participating to support the program.

The second thing that came up in conversation was the possibility of having the Canadian government recognize Stanley Thompson as a person of national significance. This would have a far reaching implication on preservation of his work.

Finally, the talk of the show was the number of high end courses around the greater Toronto area. There are definitely too many already, and more coming into the market. Many new ones are built in markets where the local population will not support the green fee. All the Niagara courses are competing for the “assumed” Casino traffic (and the Buffalo region which is in a horrible economic slump), yet the spin off golfers from the Casinos were not there to support the Legends complex in the first place. I’m not sure where they will attract the players from, since all are built on flat sites which traditionally don’t attract players from outside the community. A Hamilton area course wants a 150 dollar green fee from a community that is quite blue collar and a region that offers a lot of good options at less than half the price. If the parking lot is often nearly empty, that is not a good business model. Even more perplexing is a course in Bellville charging a very high green fee when you have courses like Timber Ridge near by offering excellent value. People will drive for a better value. I personally can not figure where these courses got their financial model from, beyond copying the existing high end courses of Toronto. How could they possibly assume they could export it to other smaller communities, with out some adjustment for local economics?

There is a market, and there is a price point that will work in each community. You must start with that price point and figure out what you can build first. If you can afford the land, the build and the amenities, you will have a business that will work. If the course is exceptional, then you will draw from further away and get a better return. But if the course was expensive to build, and is considered only average, you will have trouble carrying your costs. Even people with exceptionally deep pockets will only pay for so long before they have to walk away. They didn’t get their money in the first place from this style of investing.

It will be interesting to watch the year unfold. I was around for the last similar cycle and this high end public course build out matches the private course bloom of the late 80’s. Clublink was born from that period, will Clublink or a new entity be an accumulator once again. The smart money went to the sidelines a few years ago saying that it could just acquire these courses with a little patience. It will be interesting to see if that is the case.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Target Bunkers - are basicly useless

Walter Travis opinioned that “The primary idea of a hazard is to punish to the extent of one stroke, a poorly played shot, and to make the recovery exceedingly difficult, and even by the virtue of the following shot being extraordinarily good. If the end is not attained, the existing hazard fails to fill its functions.”

Donald Ross stated that “Hazards and bunkers are placed so as to force a man to use judgment and to exercise mental control in making the correct recovery."

It is clear that these men see the placement of hazards as the key to testing the abilities of the player and to add interest to the game. There is no mention of alignment or definition.

So how did we end up with target bunkers, since it certainly offers no strategic value and only penalizes the most wayward of player?

Robert Trent Jones began the practice of bunkering the inside and outside of a dogleg to require absolute precision of driving. Architects in turn were drawn to the definition that this created and set about using it within their own design philosophy. Architects adapted this to their own personal style, which was usually based on a more playable model than Jones. As the bunkers were moved further away from the landing zone we ended up with bunkers that were out of play and could be aimed at. Hence the target bunker was born. Players got used to this luxury and architects began to routinely add in the bunkers because of their popularity.

Is the target bunker good for architecture?

I would argue that they are not. I think this has lead to a style of architecture that has gone beyond providing challenge, interest and options - instead it has evolved to offering clearly laid out tasks defined by the hazards. The target bunkers are their to make direction and placement absolutely clear from the tee. There should be more mystery and discovery to finding the correct line on a hole. The bunkers on the inside of the hole are the ones that define the challenge and create the coveted risk and reward scenarios. The only real use for a target bunker is to provide a line when there is no other feature available for a player to focus on – with trees, long grass and landforms - this is a rare event on a modern course. Target bunkers are an unnecessary addition to the game that cost too much to build and too much maintain.

I believe architects should use fewer bunkers much more effectively. They can accomplish their strategic intent and still get the definition they crave with more careful placement in the field.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Stanley Thompson's Best 18

7th at Capilano

Stanley Thompson is being honoured by the RCGA this spring and it got me thinking about what are his best holes. I thought it best that we use his writings to determine what he felt was required for the best 18 holes and then go out and find the best examples of these holes.

“Every shot in the game should be planned and the holes should be so arranged that each one is different from the following one. There should be three or four short holes - five is perhaps one too many, as the remaining holes are apt to be unbalanced. They should be interspersed - not, however, near the beginning or the end. In the former case they tend to congest the course, while in the latter the player who happens to be down is discriminated against. There should be six or seven good two-shotters, with alternate tees for the lengthening or shortening of the holes as the ground is hard or soft or the direction of the wind, to preserve their values. The rest should be apportioned between pitch and iron shots. Beware of three-shotters, unless there is some special natural feature demanding them. The starting holes should be comparatively easy, so as not to congest the course; the finishing ones should be long and difficult, for they are often the deciding ones in a match and no one should win a game on an easy hole. The fewer the blind holes the better. The bunkers around the greens should always be visible when within striking distance. A wider margin will naturally be given for a brassie shot than a mashie, but in no case should the bunkers be unfair. One should be able to get out with one shot without Herculean effort. “ Stanley Thompson

The short par three – 15th at Jasper Park (The Bad Baby)
It looks so easy, till you play it, because the size of the green makes missing the green devastating.

The mid length par three – 8th at Banff Springs (Devil’s Cauldron)
Set on a glacial lake, hard up against the mountain, it's simply the finest single hole in Canada.

The long par three – 15th at Catarqui
This tough uphill par three was made an even greater test when Thompson created a 3' rise in front of the green, so that only the best shot was rewarded.

The very long par three – 8th at Uplands
Don't miss left, right, long or short because your dead, at 225 yards, the toughest great par three he ever built.

The short drivable par four – 4th at Highland Links
The green sits such a short distance from the tee on a tiny plateau, it just entices you to do the wrong thing....go for the green.

The drive and pitch par four – 11th at Thornhill Golf Club
This is the hole that gave Byron Nelson fits when he won the last of his historic 11 straight victories in 1940. The hole rewards precision rather than brawn, because of the way the hole and the green runs away from play.

The drive and mid iron par four - 12th at St. George’s
Stanley used the most intimidating bunkers he ever created to make you play the hole the way he wanted you to.

A comparatively easy starter – 1st at Banff Springs (original routing)
A nice wide open opener with a beautiful view and no bunkers invites the player onto Banff

A good two-shotter par four – 13th at Highland Links
Stanley's use of the incredible knob in front of the green has created a situation where the ground maybe the only prudent option for an approach.

A good two-shotter par four – 14th at St. George’s
The second shot to a green squeezed between the hillside and the creek makes this the hardest single shot a s St. George's

2nd green at Highland GL

A good two-shotter par four – 2nd at Highland Links
Arguable the best par four Thompson built. The risk and reward from the tee and the wonderful elevated approach into a green framed by the sea, pale in comparison to the a spectacular green contours that set this one off by itself.

A good two-shotter par four – 7th at Capilano
A very difficult drive skirting by one of Thompson’s greatest bunkers sets you up for a difficult approach to a small plateau green. Missing left looks like the best option but Thompson has fooled you, there is no recovery from the hollow left of the green.

A good two-shotter par four – 2nd at St. George’s
A difficult tee shot that requires taking an aggressive line for position, followed by a tough long iron into a deep but narrow green. Only the two best find this green in regulation.

A long difficult finisher – 18th at Jasper Park
Alister Mackenzie described the hole as one of the finest in golf.

The short par five – 8h at St. Thomas
The tee shot involves risking the tight fairway bunkering to find the slot in the fairway. The approach is to a plateau green that invites the gamble, but heavily penalizes any miss with an impossible recovery.

The mid length par five – 15th at Highland Links
The most interesting fairway contours in golf, they make the hole great. Add in a clever diagonal bunkering scheme and a view to the ocean; add it up and you have the best par five in Canada.

The strong par five – 18th at Capilano
A testing uphill tee shot between lots of bunkers, and then the choice of trying to play aggressively to the small upper fairway, or safe to the lower fairway. The pitch from below is semi-blind and full of danger, the upper pitch is wide open and without trouble. A classic risk reward second shot makes this hole special.

The unreachable par five “because of the land” – 7th at Highland Links
“Killer” is so hard that I know few that have even made par. A tight tee shot, followed by a second shot skirting bunkers, followed by a delicate pitch to a severely sloping green, all from rumpled stances. A great test of anyone’s ability.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Rustic Canyon – a great model for future public courses

A look at the course from the air, notice the width and use of central hazards.

Rustic Canyon in Moorpark California is a golf course so good that it draws people from around the country to come and seek it out. Many would assume that a course this popular must be a big budget course done by a large firm. The course was in fact built by a small team of dedicated young architects for a very modest budget.

What makes it so good?

The course echoes the strategies and spirit of St. Andrew’s better than almost any other course designed in recent times. The green’s are very complex and involve strict placement off the tee to ensure access to pin positions. The turf beyond the greens is kept intentionally short to make the ground game the game of choice. This brings in an element of chance and luck rarely seen on other modern courses. The bunkering is present, but like St. Andrew’s, the player feels they have lots of room to play safe away from most bunkering. The fairways are wide, with an immense amount of options, but often the most dangerous route is the one that opens up the green. Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner and Geoff Shackelford have managed to bring the spirit of Scottish golf into a California Canyon.

A great setting that follows the natural contour in the Canyon

Why is it such a good model?

The golf course design follows the land, with little shaping beyond the tees, bunkers and green sites. This means they were able to build it for a modest budget, and the course only needs a modest green fee to make a return. Since the course is well designed, it is popular with all types of players. From a beginner to scratch handicap, each player is given a different test to fit the limits of their skill. Because it is so well liked, the course is busy, which guarantees the course will generate income for the community or ownership.

There is a lot to learn from Rustic Canyon.

Questions and Answers with Geoff Shackelford about Rustic Canyon

I asked Geoff Shackelford to answer a few questions on how it was done. I wanted to post the comments as I got them – I thought you could learn and understand more with the complete set of questions unedited.

I.A.: What was your goal with the project?

GS: Well my personal goal was to learn everything I could about a project from start to finish and Gil Hanse was kind enough to let me get my feet wet.

I.A.: Do you think that Rustic Canyon best illustrates the future for golf development?

GS: For the most part yes. There are elements of the project that are not necessary (wall to wall cart paths), that could save a lot of money for someone. And the operation is by no means a model. The place survives in spite of the operation actually, which says a lot about the conditioning, environment and hopefully the design.

I.A.: What design ideas do you think are most important to making this model work

GS: Width, width and more width. That instilled the fun. And sandy soil. That helps on the construction end (saving money on drainage) and on the maintenance end, not to mention makes for fun golf if the course is setup properly.

I.A.: What would you like to have done differently?

GS: More smaller bunkers. We built a few little pits, a couple of blind ones and they get so much attention even though the odds of hitting in them are slim. They tantalize good players but rarely upset the average joe's thinking. I love that, and it's great from a playability standpoint. Heightens strategy,but reduces the number of penalties for the majority of players.

I.A.: What was your target green fee?

GS: 30 to 60 dollars.

I.A.: What was the target budget to make the model work?

GS: In an area with nine million people within 45 or so minutes of the course, there was room to spend a bit more and still make it because golf is year-round here. The golf course budget was $4 million, and we came in at $3 million, and it should have been less but the cart paths and the construction supervisor wasted hundreds of thousands.

I.A.: Could you explain the financial model for other regions to copy?

GS: I'm not the one to ask about models, all I can say it, find sandy soil and an architect that is sensible and you'll do fine.

I.A.: Was the width to help speed of play or for creating options?

GS: Both. But I can't see how the course would have been narrower in any scenario, say as an upscale daily fee or a private course. It was just what felt right for the land, and it's the type of golf Gil and Jim and I like.

I.A.: The greens are magnificent was that the plan from day one?

GS: Well of course the plan was to make them magnificent, but how they actually come out is a mystery. Gil did most of them and create the shell in remarkably little time (#13 was a day and a favorite). That said, a lot of thought and discussion and debate went into the concepts behind them. I don't know how Gil feels, but I believe the best ones out there are those where we really talked about the idea behind the hole and figured out the concept going in, so that when he got on the bulldozer, things just clicked. Of course, then there's #10, where I, a total hack on the bulldozer, just started making a hole that Gil refined into the green we have today. There was a concept there, but still, there was some fortune there too that it worked out.

I.A.: There are very few bunkers, was that due to the natural areas, playability or maintenance, or none of…?

GS: Looking back I wish we had even fewer. Mostly because the land was so good and there were so many natural hazards, that we chose to emphasize those features. As I said early, maybe more small pits would have added some fun and intrigue, but overall we really haven't wanted to do much to refine the strategy behind the holes.

I.A.: Any other thoughts about the project?

GS: Well it was great fun and eye opening for me in so many ways. Environmentally, we had a lot of issues to deal with and came out okay. I believe that stemmed from working to avoid the sensitive areas and being honest about what we were doing. I think a lot of projects get into trouble by trying to force holes into areas they just shouldn't go either because of impact on wildlife or because wetlands were really meant to be just that, places for water to go.

But ultimately the success of the place all goes back to fun. The operation is dreadful, but the super holds his end together and the golfers ultimately don't care that the carts are dirty or the place has no bathrooms on the course (well, that is embarrassing). The fun of playing the course keeps it attractive to most golfers and that's neat to see.