Friday, July 21, 2006

Where Maintenance Meets Architecture

Recently I went out to play a course I had designed. I had built the course with the intent of borrowing the concepts and ideas of Pinehurst #2. I was building a public golf course in a senior’s development and felt that playability was paramount to the success and enjoyment of the course. I made the course very wide off the tee and not overly long at 6,800 yards. Even the hazards were kept down with limited use of water and a liberal use of bunkering. Even the set up of the bunkering allowed for conservative play around the hazards. Most greens were set up defending one side and providing chipping areas on the other side to create a bail side to each green. I wanted players to have the ability to play within themselves and still make some pars along the way. The only place where I set up to make more difficult was the greens. The greens were intended to be the defense of the course and the defining feature.

I set out to make the greens dramatically contoured with lots of difficulty. I also borrowed from the Pinehurst concept and set all of the greens up in the air to place a further premium on the accuracy of the approach. I also used short grass intentionally around all of the greens to create short game opportunities and to even to further repel the ball away in some cases. My intention was to create a second shot golf course that was fun. All the soils were sandy loam which created a great opportunity to keeping the short grass fairly tight and fast. Originally the turf around the greens was kept tight enough that players could hit a flop shot, a chip shot, or most importantly could putt when they felt that was the best option. I wanted the best player to make choices and possibly make mistakes in judgment. I wanted the weaker player to always play to their strength so that they could enjoy the challenge around the greens. The key to what I had designed was the use of short grass around the greens

When I played that round I found myself in one of the green side chipping areas right away. I looked forward to the fun of creating a shot that used the slopes to find its way to the hole. I love to bump and run my way around those shots since I have a fairly good ground game. I also love to watch opponents (in a match) try the flop shot because it’s the most dangerous of all the shots. I hit my chip at the bank to use the slope to direct the ball up and at the hole and my ball hit the slope and literally stayed where it hit. What did I do wrong was my first thought? When I had a closer look at the bank and the turf in the chipping areas I found it was very thick which had eliminated the opportunity to use the ground. You now had to hit a flop shot everywhere and that was not what I intended. The playing conditions had compromised the most important feature of what I designed.

I got together with superintendent and we talked about it, to his credit he made immediate improvements to the chipping areas which brought back the options. It shows how important it is to communicate with the superintendent about what you are trying to do with your course to make sure you both understand what you are looking for as a designer. It can also confirm that your expectations are reasonable. I was grateful that he could and would make such an immediate change in the playing conditions to return the intent of the design. Architects are very dependent on superintendents to keep our vision intact, and often the best and the brightest ones make us look good with their ability and skill.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A.W. Tillinghast

Last week I was one of the three finalists to interview for the work at Scarboro Golf & Country Club. In preparation for my interview, and as part of the booklet I presented the club, I ended up writing a small overview about Tillinghast for the club. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Tillinghast this may offer some enjoyable reading.

A. W. Tillinghast was born in Philadelphia in 1874, the only child of a prosperous family. He became captivated by the game of golf in the 1890s, and made annual pilgrimages to Scotland where he took lessons from Old Tom Morris – one of golf’s greatest icons. Tillinghast was a good enough player to compete, playing in early US Amateurs and Opens. His golf architecture career began when he was asked to lay out a course for friends on their farm at Shawnee-on-the-Delaware. It was an instant success and he immediately went into the golf design business.

For nearly 20 years he ran a very successful and busy design business, until the bottom fell out of golf after the market crash of 1929. He designed approximately 60 courses and remodeled or expanded an equal number during this time. Because of his skills and social connections, he acquired more than his share of great projects and left behind a handful of courses that are considered among the finest in golf. Some of his best include 36 holes at Winged Foot, both Baltusrol layouts, the San Francisco Golf Club, the East Course of the Baltimore Country Club, Somerset Hills in New Jersey, 27 holes of Ridgewood (also in New Jersey), and the Black Course at Bethpage on Long Island. He had a great run of courses and success until the Great Depression ruined his business. He eventually had to work for the PGA of America to keep his head above water, but eventually became totally disenchanted with golf when he lost his house. He and his wife moved to California to set up an antiques shop, selling his collected possesions. With limited success, he attempted to re-establish himself with Billy Bell, but never achieved the same excellence. He died in 1942 in Toledo Ohio.

The enduring image of Tillinghast is that of the impeccably dressed architect poring over the plans for a golf course. He enjoyed being out “in the dirt” relying on inspiration to fine tune the details of each hole as it emerged from the landscape. There are great stories of Tillinghast sitting under the shade of a tree, bottle in hand, calling out directions to his workmen. He was undoubtedly was as colorful as he was talented, but there was more to him than the great stories. Tillinghast was the first designer who consciously set out to create golf holes that were visually attractive. He helped transform golf course architecture from its roots in nature to a greater art form. He drew on the principles of landscape design, engineering and art to transform a property into a spectacular playing field. To Tillinghast’s credit he also consistently changed style from one project to the next. The bunker and green complexes at Winged Foot and Baltusrol are not even remotely alike, yet both courses are a joy to look at and play despite their obvious differences. Variety was his greatest strength, all you need to do is look at his most famous works and marvel in how different each one looked.

In recent years the extent of his legacy to golf has become better appreciated as Winged Foot and Baltusrol have once again hosted major championships. His work has easily stood the test of time and he is easily included with the likes of Colt and Mackenzie in any conversations about the best architects in history.