Friday, September 15, 2006

Sandtrap Interview

The following is part of an interview I did with Alan Olson at The Sand The link to the web site and interview itself is below. I recently found out a number of friends who read the blog regularly missed this and asked if I could post the interview. I also thought it would provide people with lots to read while I’m gone.

The link to the full article:

What styles and architects have influenced the design work you do today? What have you taken from them an applied in your own work, and how well have some of the features of older courses migrated into the modern world of golf?

The Golden Age of architecture is without a doubt the high water mark of golf architecture. The work of architects like Alister Mackenzie, H.S. Colt, Charles Alison, George Thomas, A.W. Tillinghast, C.B. MacDonald, Seth Raynor and Stanley Thompson still remain the ultimate benchmark of greatness for golf architects. Even their quality of the writing has been a huge asset to understanding how great golf architecture is created. The courses that they have built have become the foundation of great golf course architecture. They have influenced me with the boldness of their architecture and how many of their courses feature a few holes that border on controversy. They never played it safe; they were always innovative in their approach and never afraid to push the boundaries of either the player’s ability or their art. They all certainly had a knack for finding the best holes in the landscape, even if it meant ignoring one stunning hole to find a better overall golf course. They most often found their greatest holes, but also had the ability to create them when the land was offering little assistance. Finally they all spent an inordinate amount of time on the smallest of details which is the most overlooked factor in creating a great course. I think it is also important to point out that architects like George Crump and Hugh Wilson were just as influential on architecture even with only one course.

I think it also important to recognize when peers have done some exceptional work too. If we ignore our peers, we limit what we can learn. I’m really enjoying the recent work of many of the so-called minimalists. Tom Doak and Bill Coore in particular, are creating exceptional courses and working in their own unique styles which I enjoy. I find their architecture is firmly routed in the principles of the architects from the Golden Age. I’ve had lots of opportunity to talk with both and I find that our principles are very similar which give me a lot of confidence going forward to build my own courses.

My philosophy is I’ll borrow from any architect at any time. Every site has an example we can draw from to find the best solution. I believe, like C.B. MacDonald, that there are likely no new ideas and that is our responsibility to identify the best of what has been done and find new and interesting ways to apply them. My first project makes a good example; it had no elevation change on the entire site so I borrowed the concepts from Pinehurst #2. I raised the green sites up onto plateaus to add interest and challenge to the course. I created some very dramatic contoured greens to make the second shot and putting very difficult. I also borrowed Ross’s technique of using the drainage swales to create the appearance of elevation change. People seem to enjoy the enormous amount of creative shots around the greens and don’t seem to notice that the site is still relatively flat. I believe you look to the best example you know that work and then try to improve upon this with you own ideas to add even more interest and fun.

Describe your style of design, your “signature” if you will.

I think the architect’s responsibility is to make the game interesting rather than just aspiring to make the game difficult. A player should face a round full of options where they can take multiple routes or even hit different shots into greens depending on wind or their own ability. I believe in little earth moving, designing shorter courses, multiple short fours, very contoured and complicated greens, fairway width, opportunity for chipping, and building dramatic hand sculpted bunkers. I don’t think I will ever have a “signature” or distinctive style because I want every course to be a response to the surroundings. From my point of view, anything else is an imposition on the land, and that doesn’t lead to great architecture.

Did the explosion of golf courses in the mid 1990’s harm golf as a whole with cookie – cutter designs created to cash in on a booming trend, or was the growth good for the game of golf? Why or why not?

Even bad architecture can’t really harm golf, but it certainly does make for a very weak business for the person who paid to build the course. That said I do think that some of the most important architectural work in the last 50 years has occurred at courses like Sand Hills, Pacific Dunes and Rustic Canyon. Golf architecture has once again made important strides in the right direction for golf. I do think the nineties will be another period where the most popular designers will have a legacy of quantity and not quality.

Where the build out of the nineties has hurt the game most is the cost of golf went up exponentially with each vanity driven dream trying to outspend the last one. There is a remarkable willingness to buy into the concept that that a golf course is only great if it’s expensive. The result is participation in the game dropped because it is affected by economics – golf became too expensive for the ‘average’ person. Again we will repeat the previous cycles, as prices drop with oversupply, the game will find it’s footing once again. As for architects, the oversupply means it will be harder for us to find new projects for the foreseeable future.

Are modern golf courses too difficult for the average golfer as opposed to the classic designs that featured different levels of risk/reward based on a golfer’s playing ability and if so what features should be “re-introduced” to modern golf course design to make the game of golf more enjoyable? Also, why is the short par four seemingly on the path to extinction?

Ninety percent of everything wrong with golf can be summed up by length. From the ball, to the additional cost of building new courses, the monotony of excessively long layouts, through to the loss of the short par four. Everything seems to be designed to host a PGA tournament; from the necessary length, perfect playing conditions, clearly indicated strategies, through to the gentle contours required for lightening-fast greens. It’s like every architect and owner somehow feels their new masterpiece is destined to hold a tour event and they design their courses accordingly. These courses are generally way too difficult, feature little or no options and have a high green fee. If architects would return to building courses for those who actually use them we would have much better courses.

So what should be re-introduced? Golf courses need to be shorter and wider. Width introduces options for a better player and playability for the vast majority of players. Options lead to interesting choices, which lead to a more enjoyable golf experience. If we enjoy the game, we will play more. If participation rises, the health of the game improves, it helps all of us who love this game. Before anyone suggests short and wide courses are too easy, just look at the scoring average for the tenth hole at Riviera during the Nissan Open. Difficulty and length are not a direct correlation. Just think of Merion and Pine Valley, two courses that are very difficult despite being short by modern standards

These are 4 of 17 question in the interview