Thoughts on architects

I thought I would take the time to offer my thoughts and observations on the golf course architects whose work I’ve seen.  Now, I am of the mind-set that you can’t fully judge an architect by simply seeing their golf courses.  I think you really need to see what goes on behind the scenes.  You need to know what the owner wanted.  You need to know what the environmental limitations were.  You need to know a whole slew of things that you will never know from simply seeing and/or playing some of the golf courses they’ve built.  So, bear that in mind.  But, just for fun, here are some of my thoughts:

Tom Fazio

Courses of his played to date are:  Shadow Creek, Sage Valley, Black Diamond Ranch (Quarry), The Farm, Osprey Point, Pinehurst #4 and #8, St. Ives, White Columns, Crabapple, World Woods (Pine Barrens), Cherokee, Belfair East and West,  and his renovation work at the Sea Island Seaside course.

The most striking thing about Mr. Fazio’s work that I’ve seen is that it is all extremely varied.  I’ve seen his
stereotypical country club courses (St. Ives, White Columns) and they are beautiful, playable, and lack any real
tough decisions.  They seem to be built for Mr. and Mrs. Havecamp to go out and have a nice enjoyable time
golfing.  But if you are an avid golfer with a competitive streak and a low-handicap, these are not the courses for you.

However, he has a genre of golf courses for you.  The ones I’ve seen that fit this bill would be:  Shadow Creek, Sage Valley, Crabapple, and Pinehurst #4.  But I understand his most trying test of golf are:  Victoria National and Galloway National.  I am told they are extreme test of golfing ability.

But let’s say you want a unique resort style course that might have a bit more teeth than the country club courses he builds, but are not the ultra-testing championship courses he builds.  Well, he’s got a line of product for you as well.  I’ve seen a few of these courses first hand; Osprey Point, Pinehurst #8, and World Woods Pine Barrens.

And what I find interesting about the latest Top 100 lists is that his mountain courses seem to be regarded as his best (Wade Hampton, Diamond Creek, Mountain Top).  In fact, I wonder if this is the niche where he is fact the best in the world.

But no matter what genre of course you play in the Fazio line-up, I think you will be struck by the fact that most of his courses are a collection of golf holes rather than a flowing seemless golf course.  This, in my opinion, highlights his lack of routing ability for the walking golfer.  Now if you ride in a cart most of the time you play golf, this won't be as big of an issue.  But walkers, might be turned off by this aspect of his design work.  Heck, riders should be as well.  These long transitions from green to tee break the harmony of a round of golf and make it a jumbled mess in my mind.  You tee your ball off, move up the fairway, observe your approach shot, attack the green, study your putt, all in the presence of the golf hole and golf course.  You have a certain one-ness with your golf round.  Then hole out, jump in your cart and during that awkward transition that one-ness and unified sense with the course is lost.  But then you get to the next tee, tee your ball up and try to find it again.  Doing that once or twice is bad enough, but 17 or 18 times is not ideal in my book.

Despite these routing issues, I think Mr. Fazio delivers what his clients want.  And I have to believe that is how he markets himself.  In fact, I've enjoyed his golf courses very much.  But I have never played one that over-whelmed me with pleasure.

Jack Nicklaus

Course I’ve played to date: Dismal River, Sebonack, The Concession, Champions Retreat, Southshore, Achasta, Turtle Point, The Bear’s Club, Great Waters, Stonehenge, Harbour Town, Bear’s Best Las Vegas, and Bear’s Best Atlanta.

My opinion of Jack Nicklaus is based on observation and intuition.  You see, I think his entire mindset regarding golf course architecture was born out of his initial interaction with Pete Dye.

Pete Dye was building The Golf Club in Mr. Nicklaus’ home town of Columbus, Ohio.  Jack was asked his opinion about just a few holes and specifically on golf shots that might be played.  My understanding is that he did little else at The Golf  Club.  But then, BOOM!, The Golf Club was a smashing success in the golf world and, to this day, remains a unanimous gem.  Then Mr. Dye co-designs Harbour Town with Jack Nicklaus.  Again, it is said that all Jack did was advise here or there on elements related to specific golf shots…that is all.  Then KABOOM!!, Harbour Town opens to adulation and love and remains a unanimous gem in the golfing world.

It is my opinion that due to Jack’s limited involvement with two golf courses which immediately opened, and have endured, as some of the very best in the world of golf, he is of the opinion that his thoughts on the playing of golf are of incalculable value.  Whether this is true or not, is of course, unknowable…but I believe that is Mr. Nicklaus’ mindset.

Now having said that, I have enjoyed every single Jack Nicklaus course I’ve ever played.  Some may quibble with the fact I call them “Jack Nicklaus” golf course as it is a common belief that people under his employ are the actual golf course designers and Jack simply offers his limited input like he did with Pete Dye at The Golf Club and Harbour Town.  Frankly, I don’t know and I don’t care.  The end result is a golf course with Jack’s name on it, so that is how I judge it.

The bulk of his work is exciting, interesting, and thrilling from tee to green.  In fact, I think this is his calling
card…cool shots.  However, it seems his recent designs have added interesting and undulating greens to the mix.  In my mind there is zero doubt that this came from his work on the Sebonack golf course with Tom Doak and his team.

So, in summary...I am of the opinion that Jack’s work is thrilling tee to green, largely designed by others with Jack adding his invaluable ideas regarding the end design and shots, and his latest work has added in great greens.

Donald Ross

Courses I've played to date:  Seminole, Pinehurst #2, Inverness, Pine Needles, Mid-Pines, Augusta CC, Country Club of Columbus, Holston Hills, Southern Pines, Old Elm, and Gulph Mills.

Donald Ross is one of the very best golf course architects of all-time.  He emigrated to the United States from
Scotland in 1899 after a year apprenticeship with Old Tom Morris in St. Andrews.  As he made this trip, It was Mr. Ross' mindset that he would make his living off of golf in America.  And make a living off of golf, he did.  In fact, he designed more golf courses than any other man in the history of golf.  The exact number is debatable, but the Donald Ross Society pegs that number of 413.  Included in this massive number are his unanimous gems; Pinehurst #2, Seminole, Oak Hill East, Oakland Hills, and Inverness.  

The thing about playing a Donald Ross course, whether it be one of his gems or not, is that it will undoubtedly be quite good.  In fact, I've never played a Donald Ross course that I didn't enjoy whole-heartedly.  He has an
unbelievable knack for routing a golf course in manner that makes maximum use of the natural topography upon which the course sits.  He also uses the unique features of the land to make every course unique.  The apex of this concept just might his use of the dune at Seminole, but the swale at Inverness isn't too far behind.

He also loves to defend his courses at the green with undulations, bunkers, and/or angles.  But another wonderful aspect of Ross' work is his subtlety.  You see, you might play a Ross course; think it is easy; but put up a bigger score than you think you should have.  I've seen this happen frequently and I think this occurs due to this subtle architecture.  For example, a tee shot might be wide open with no apparent hazards in place.  So you have a false sense of security on the tee box, because if you try to approach his greens from the wrong side of the fairway par's are unattainable.  Pinehurst #2 is the best example regarding this aspect of his subtle brilliance.

I suppose all I can really say about Donald Ross is that he truly understood what made for great golf and he seemed to put together each and every course he ever built to embody these principles regarding great golf.

Arthur Hills

Courses played to date:  Olde Stone, Standard Club, Longaberger, Golf Club of Georgia Lakeside and Creekside, Olde Atlanta, Shaker Run, Palmetto Hall, University of Kentucky Blue, Country Club of Columbus (renovation work)

The thing that strikes me about Arthur Hills’ work is that there are very few, if any, defining characteristics related to the courses he builds.  But maybe the phrase, “courses he builds” is a misnomer.  I have been told that he allows/allowed his lead designers to have very near a free hand in regards to course design.  Whether that is true or not, I’ll never know for sure.  But in the end, his name is on the course; so they are his.

Given that I don’t see many defining characteristics of Mr. Hills work, I have to imagine he listen to his client’s wishes and delivers the course style they tell him they want.  I’ve played a laid back, easy, fun Hills design at Olde Atlanta.  I’ve played a small and quirky Hills at Palmetto Hall.  And I’ve played a wonderfully renovated Ross course that Hills did.  But I suppose above all else, I’ve played some absolutely relentless test of golf, which Arthur Hills built.  And, in the end, maybe that is his “go to” style.  Both course at the Golf Club of Georgia and Olde Stone fit this “ball busting test of golf” moniker.

To date, my favorite Hills design is Olde Stone.  The lead designer on that course was Drew Rogers and having seen some of Drew’s work and had many conversations with him, I know that he loves to employ strategic use of angles on a golf course to highlight risk/reward decisions.  And that is exactly what makes Olde Stone so good and such a test of golf.  Angled greens, angled fairways, and angled bunkers make proper analysis of the course and your game on each and every shot vital to the success of your round.

The one Hills design in Golf Magazine’s World Top 100 list is Oitavos Dunes in Portugal, and Rogers was the lead designer on this one as well.  I haven’t played it yet, so I haven’t seen Arthur Hills’ best work.  Therefore, my analysis of his portfolio is lacking.  But for what it is worth, those are my thoughts related to his work as of right now.

Tom Doak

Courses played to date:  Ballyneal, Sebonack, Rock Creek, Pacific Dunes, Old MacDonald, Renaissance, and I've walked Commonground.

There is no doubt in my mind that Tom Doak is one of the most important figures in the history of golf course
architecture.  The time between World War II and the emergence of the Minimalist Movement in the 1990’s is known as “The Dark Ages.”  These Dark Ages were most remarkable for their lack any “Unanimous Gems” being created in the golf course world.  In the United States, this dearth of quality courses spanned from the creation of Prairie Dunes (1937) to opening of The Golf Club (1967).  During this gap, Robert Trent Jones and his heavy earth moving equipment/make the land fit your design ideas style ruled the day.  This type of golf may have been okay if you were only concerned with building neighborhoods or resorts and using golf as an amenity, but if you wanted truly great golf this was the wrong approach.

It is said from a very young age Mr. Doak fell in love with golf courses and his boyhood hero was Alister Mackenzie.  Tom toured Scotland as a college student and was given his first golf course architectural job by Pete Dye.  Before becoming the iconic golf course designer that he is today, Mr. Doak made waves with his writing.  His “Confidential Guide” is a no-holds barred golf course review book and with its first printing Tom Doak made a name for himself.  His other writings, “Anatomy of a Golf Course”, “The Life and Work of Dr. Alister Mackenzie”, are also of the highest quality…but much less controversial.

Regarding his designs of golf courses, Tom Doak is known as a minimalist designer.   And as such, he prides
himself on making the most of the land he is given and letting the land define how the course will be laid out.  His first solo design was High Pointe in Northern Michigan, but his breakthrough design was Pacific Dunes at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.  Pac Dunes is his most critically acclaimed course and is/was his first of four
“Unanimous Gems.”  The others being Cape Kidnappers, Barnbougle Dunes, and Ballyneal.

Most people associate Tom Doak with wild greens.  And like his childhood hero, Alister Mackenzie, his courses generally do have wonderfully contoured greens.  However, I would make a strong argument that his ability to route a golf course naturally across any given piece of land is where his ultimate genius lies.

The most intriguing thing about Mr. Doak’s career is that it isn’t over.  He is currently working on high profile projects in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, China, and Florida.  Before he hangs it up, I’m quite sure we will see more incredible golf courses built by his firm, Renaissance Golf Design.

Pete Dye

Courses played to date:  Kiawah Ocean, The Golf Club, Pete Dye Golf Club of West Virginia, Paiute (Wolf), Harbour Town, The Honors Course, and TPC Sawgrass.

Mr. Dye is another vitally important person in the golf course architectural world.  In fact, he will go down as one of the most important people ever to design a golf course.  His work is eclectic and varied, but recently his work has come to be characterized as testing for the PGA Tour players.  I do find this unfortunate because I think his work and impact on the world of golf course architecture is much deeper than that.

In fact, he and his wife, Alice, had a tour of the great courses of Great Britain and Ireland.  And after seeing these courses, they brought back a few tricks.  Most notably, the use of "sleepers" or wooden planks to line bunkers with.  However, naturalistic golf courses might have been the bigger take away for the Dye's.  This minimalist approach led them to the concept that laid the foundation for their breakthrough design in New Albany, Ohio...The Golf Club.  In fact, it is this course which I attribute to ushering in the minimalist era of golf design which Dye's protoge, Tom Doak, took to the next level.

After designing TPC Sawgrass on awful swampland and then hosting the best of the best annually at The Player's Championship, started Dye down the road of the go to architect for PGA courses and building golf courses from nothing.  His Kiawah Ocean course is notorious for its difficulty and has proven a worthy host for a Ryder Cup and major championships.  And much of the same can be said for his Straits course at Whistling Straits and, again, this course was completely constructed and built from nothing land.

Although as I type this Mr. Dye and his wife are getting on in age, their courses are still relevant in today's world of golf with 2012 seeing his courses host the PGA Championship and the BMW Championship.

In the coming weeks, I’ll roll out some more thoughts on different architects.  Chronologically, they will

Rees Jones
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw
Bob Cupp
Dennis Griffiths
Arnold Palmer
R.T. Jones
Old Tom Morris