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Favorite Golf Course Designers: Gene Bates

By: Tony Dear


Editor's Note: In each of the past 12 months Cybergolf correspondent Tony Dear has featured one of his favorite course designers and explains why he rates them so highly. Here's the final profile in his series: Gene Bates.

Gene Bates at Salish Cliffs

When this architect series was first mentioned a year ago, it didn't take long to come up with the first 11 subjects. Alister Mackenzie, Harry Colt, Stanley Thompson, Tom Doak, David Kidd and Bill Coore were no-brainers. Old Tom Morris and James Braid were added after a moment's thought. Chandler Egan earned his place largely because I've been fortunate to play so many of his courses in the Pacific Northwest in a relatively short period of time. And it was hard to ignore the very impressive, but largely undervalued, work of contemporary American architects John Fought and Keith Foster.

The final spot remained up for grabs though, and there was no shortage of candidates. Eddie Hackett was the initial frontrunner but, despite being familiar with his amazing inventory of Irish courses thanks to having seen hundreds of photographs and reading numerous books and magazine articles, I hadn't played or seen first-hand a sufficient number of them to get the full picture.

Herbert Fowler was equally well-qualified but, again, a few rounds on the superb Old Course at Walton Heath south of London, 18 holes plus a few trips as a caddie on the Red Course at The Berkshire, and a single march up the 18th at Pebble Beach, which he transformed in 1921 from a shortish par-4 into the brilliant par-5 it is now, just wasn't enough.

A.W. Tillinghast, Seth Raynor, Donald Ross and George Thomas would have made it onto most American golfers' lists, but I'd never played a Tillinghast course and the only Raynor original I'd seen up close was Waialae in Honolulu, which I've long suspected wasn't his best effort. I had scant experience of Ross's handiwork, and the lone Thomas layout I'd taken on was the Harding Course at Griffith Park in Los Angeles which, though still very enjoyable, had become woefully disfigured due to years of neglect and mismanagement by the city's parks superintendents who didn't realize the damage they were doing.

And if I'd ever played Merion or Pine Valley, it's probable I'd have been tempted to insert Hugh Wilson and George Crump, but I hadn't . . . so I didn't.

No. 12 at Circling Raven in Northern Idaho

Others considered for the 12th man position, but discounted for one reason or another (primarily a lack of direct exposure to their courses), included Donald Steel and his associate Martin Ebert, A.V. Macan, Mike Stranz, Willie Park Jr., Gil Hanse, Charles Alison, John Harbottle, Baxter Spann - almost entirely because he created my favorite course in the U.S., Black Mesa - and even Dan Hixson, whose very promising design career has been halted, though hopefully only temporarily, by this blasted recession.

Gene Bates didn't really figure in the mix. Though certainly aware of what he was capable, having played the superb Circling Raven GC in Worley, Idaho, several times, and Collingtree Park in England, which he designed alongside Johnny Miller back in the late '80s, I just didn't know enough about Bates to justify his inclusion. This summer though, I saw the changes he had made in 2008 to the Bayonet and Black Horse courses on the Monterey Peninsula, changes that had as big and as positive an impact on an aging layout as any renovation I'd ever seen.

I also swung by Carmel Valley Ranch where he updated Pete Dye's original, and had my first look at the excellent San Juan Oaks in Hollister, Calif. Friends in Utah told me how much they looked forward to every round at Soldier Hollow, and added that Talons Cove in Saratoga Springs might be their favorite course in the state were it not for the houses that obscured the views of Utah Lake. I had a conversation with a guy who said Southwood in Tallahassee, one of 15 Bates/Fred Couples collaborations, was surely among the best dozen or so public courses in Florida, and another with a man who absolutely knows what he's talking about who told me Carolina National in Bolivia, NC. - another Bates/Couples course - was truly exceptional.

Then, in September, I played Salish Cliffs.

Six long years passed between the moment leaders of the Squaxin Island Tribe on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula decided to build the course and the day Bates and director of golf David Kass welcomed a gaggle of eager golf writers for the unofficial opening ceremony. During that time, most of the writers - those based in Washington at least - had maintained an interest in the project knowing that if, and when, it ever did get finished it would likely turn out pretty special.

Did it ever. Golf Magazine opted for Rope Rider, also in Washington, as its top new course of the year, but worthy though the Peter Jacobsen/Jim Hardy design in the north-central part of the state surely is, most golfers in the region who have played both seem to favor Salish Cliffs near the town of Shelton in Mason County.

15th Green at Salish Cliffs
(Photo by Brian Oar-www.fairwaysphotography.com)

Because it's tribal-owned, the assumption was that Bates had gotten the job by virtue of Circling Raven's success. Circling Raven, opened in 2003, is owned by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and has been ranked as Idaho's best course and the best tribal course in the U.S., as well as one of the top-100 public courses in the country by both Golf Magazine and Golf Digest.

In fact, Circling Raven's reputation had little to do with the Squaxin's choice. "I only found this out recently," says Bates. "Like everyone else, I thought their decision was based on what had happened at Circling Raven, but the tribe's president, Bobby Whitener, told me otherwise."

Some of the Squaxin Island tribe's council members were attending a conference in Myrtle Beach some years back and happened to play Carolina National. "They were so impressed apparently," says Bates, "they agreed that if they ever did add a golf course to their Little Creek Casino Resort, about 10 miles from the state capital in Olympia, they would hire the guy that designed that course."

Whitener says he really liked how the course felt like part of the environment. "It wasn't fighting against it," he adds. "This is what I thought our course should do; adapt to the land we have and preserve or improve the area for golfers and wildlife."

Whitener invited Bates to take a look at the property and asked him to complete a master plan, which Bates worked on for a year. "I looked at three potential sites," he says. "The two I decided against were on the other side of State Route 108 and had none of the drama of the site we picked. Plus, they were situated too far away from the casino."

After spending a considerable amount of time walking the land, Bates devised a brilliant routing and construction began in June of '06. Just six months later, however, Bates got a call from Whitener instructing him to stop work. "Bobby told me that the tribe had a number of other costly projects it had to take care of - a hotel expansion, a new wastewater treatment facility - and that the golf course would just have to wait. It made perfect sense really, and I was never concerned the course wouldn't get built because Bobby gave me his word the tribe wouldn't give up on it."

Sure enough, in May 2009 Bates returned to Shelton but found little evidence of the work he had completed two and a half years previously. "The site was largely overgrown," he says. "We had a new contractor, Golf Works, and because we had to clear all the vegetation, it really felt like we were starting over."

As he looks back on the process now, Bates says the time he had taken to walk the site proved invaluable. Like Bill Coore (see http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/favorite_designers_bill_coore) who prefers to scout the ground on foot rather than by looking at a topo map, Bates had explored Salish Cliffs by himself for weeks. If he hadn't, he says the course might have ended up looking very different. "I was really only able to find a way from the first green to the second tee, and the 11th green to the 12th tee, by walking through the woods," he says. "None of the maps or aerial photographs we had gave me a clear indication of how we might get from one to the other."

Despite the 600-foot elevation change from the 12th tee down to the second tee, Bates took advantage of it being a resort course on a huge acreage (400 all told) by letting the cart take the strain between holes. "You don't really feel the rise in elevation because it's relatively gradual, and besides, what steepness there is comes between the holes, which is what carts are for."

Salish Cliffs is the latest course in a 35-year career whose beginning was less than conventional. Bates had studied wildlife biology at Ohio University and then Colorado State and, after graduating in 1969, entered, what else?, the heavy construction and mining industry. Six years later, on a 20-minute flight from Atlanta to Chattanooga, he met a flight attendant named Faye with whom he struck up a relationship and eventually married. Faye was Faye Kirby, the daughter of golf course architect Ron Kirby, Gary Player's design partner.

At the time of his daughter's wedding, Kirby was engaged in a project in the Philippines, working on the Wack Wack Golf and Country Club for President Marcos. Wack Wack, in the Manila suburb of Mandayulong, had staged the World Cup in '77 (won by Spain's Seve Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido) but was in need of a few upgrades. Kirby, in his mid-40s at the time, suffered a heart attack, however, and obviously had to come home. He suggested Bates replace him while he recovered.

"Really, the work was just a patch job," says Kirby. "We put in some new drainage and did a few other things, but it wasn't a big deal. Gene obviously had plenty of experience on heavy machinery and working with the ground, so it made sense for him to go there and work with our associate Denis Griffiths."

Bates, who had been to Jamaica once and Canada a few times, was daunted by the prospect of traveling halfway around the world to work on a golf course of all things, but agreed to do it provided Kirby told him exactly what he needed to do.

"I really enjoyed it," says Bates, who not only completed the Wack Wack job but also worked on another Player/Kirby course called Puerto Azul on the Cavite Coast, an hour south of the capital. From the Philippines, Bates would go to South Africa, where he worked with Player at Kensington in Johannesburg and on the Gary Player Course at Sun City.

"I obviously learned so much from Gary and Ron during this period," says Bates. "Gary taught me primarily about strategy, green contours and the location and construction of bunkers. He likes to be able to see as much of the sand as possible from the tee or fairway, so he taught me how to expose a bunker."

Bates also got to meet Bobby Locke, about whom he knew very little. "Gary had told me a bit about Bobby before I went to South Africa, but I didn't really know how great a player he had been," says Bates. "So I wasn't totally overwhelmed when I met him. He was such a nice, easygoing man though, and we spent several days together at Park View in Sandton, his home course, where we were restoring the bunkers. Bobby was one of the best putters that ever played the game and told me how greens should have subtle contours rather than wild undulations. "

By now, Bates had decided a life in golf course architecture was for him. His degree in wildlife biology and a few years in mining might not have been the preferred route into the business, but he had traveled the world and absorbed so many lessons from his father-in-law, Player and Locke he was ready to commit himself fully.

Gene Bates & Ron Kirby at Castlemartyr

"By the time I got back to the States, I had decided I wanted to be a full-time course designer," says Bates. "I was based in Atlanta with Ron, who taught me how to route a course and draw up plans. And he basically taught me the business of golf course architecture."

Trouble was, there was next to no business available. "It was so slow," says Bates. "We did a couple of renovations in the Atlanta area but that was it for a couple of years. So when Jack Nicklaus called in 1983 asking if I'd like to join his team I was very interested."

Kirby encouraged Bates to accept the offer. "I told Gene it was too good an opportunity to pass up," Kirby says.

Bates had first met Nicklaus in Scotland five years previously. The Golden Bear's son Jackie and Player's son Wayne were both attempting to qualify for the Open Championship. Bates doesn't remember which course they were trying to qualify at, but got to walk a few holes with Nicklaus (who would go on to win his third Claret Jug on the Old Course a few days later).

"We got on well, but didn't have much communication after that," says Bates. "I'm sure Gary had mentioned me to Jack, but it was still a surprise when he called. My first job for Jack's company was the Britannia Course in the Cayman Islands, a short course for which the Cayman Ball was developed."

Bates worked for Nicklaus for five years and says he learned a great deal from his boss about quality and attention to detail during construction of a course. "Jack also taught me about routing," he adds, "but more importantly, I learned how to apply strategy to each hole."

Even so, Bates eventually became disillusioned at Nicklaus Design and remembers well the day he decided to leave. "It was January 3rd 1988," he says. "I thought the company had become too big and it felt like we were simply producing courses off a conveyor belt. It was extremely successful, of course, but I was no longer enjoying it as much as I had been."

Bates informed Nicklaus he wanted to leave and would, in fact, be setting up by himself. Nicklaus asked how many projects he had lined up. "None," said Bates. Nicklaus, who owned another company called Golf Force that was providing technical assistance and resources for a couple of Johnny Miller design projects, more or less donated that work to Bates, who developed a working relationship with Miller.

Together they would build six courses - Due Process Stables in Colt's Neck, N.J. and Binks Forest in Wellington, Fla., probably the pick of them, although Bates doesn't believe he learned anything about course design from Miller. "In fact, I believe Johnny learned volumes about design and construction from me and my staff," he says.

It was at Binks Forest in 1990 that Bates met Fred Couples for the first time. Couples had partnered with Mike Donald to victory in the Sazale Classic, the event previously known as the Chrysler Team Championship.

Shortly afterward, Bates was contacted by a developer named Bill Cordani, who planned a private course called Gardens Country Club in Palm Beach County. Cordani wanted Bates to design the course with a big-name tour star whose involvement would help him sell memberships. Cordani suggested Miller, but Bates advised against it. "I just didn't think Johnny was the man Cordani was looking for," he says. "He needed a high-profile player to yak it up with prospective members at various functions. Johnny's a clean-cut Mormon guy, so that wasn't really his scene."

Bates and Cordani also considered Ken Green and Mark Calcavecchia but rejected both, Calcavecchia because he was in the process of moving to Arizona, Green because he was a little too . . . er . . . eccentric. "Then I suggested Fred," says Bates. "He was becoming a top-10 player and was obviously an easygoing, good-looking guy. He was perfect for the role, so Cordani asked me to get in touch with him."

Bates asked Larry O'Brien, Jack Nicklaus's former publicist, if he had a number for Couples. "Larry basically said 'good luck with that,' " says Bates. "He said he did have a number but added that it would be Debbie (Couples's first wife) who answered as Fred never came to the phone."

Sure enough, Bates spoke with Debbie who handed the phone over to Fred. "This guy with a scratchy voice came on the line," Bates remembers. "He sounded really old and lethargic; I thought it was Fred's dad. Then I put the idea of designing a course to him and he suddenly came alive. He was very excited about it, but was scheduled to play in California for the next three weeks. He gave me (agent) Lynn Roach's number so we could keep in touch."

Designer Gene Bates, Superintendent Bob Pearsall,
Head Pro David Kass & Fred Couples at Salish Cliffs

Unfortunately the Gardens Country Club course would never be built because of numerous environmental and legal issues, but the opportunity for Bates and Couples to work together arose again the following year. Couples was still game, so the duo got to work on Hamilton Mill in suburban Atlanta, which is touted as Couples's first signature design and now regarded as one of Atlanta's top-10 public-access courses.

"That was pretty good timing because, of course, Fred won the Masters that year," Bates told WorldGolf.com in 2003. "Not surprisingly, soon after his win at Augusta we got an awful lot of calls from people wanting Fred Couples to build them a golf course."

The partnership survives to this day - the longest player/designer relationship in the industry. Asked how they have lasted so long, Bates is brief and to the point. "Because we're good friends and respect each other," he says simply. He adds, "Fred admitted when we first met that he knew nothing about designing a golf course. Initially, he was very passive in adding input about golf course routing and strategy, but as I encouraged him to comment and asked him to draw on his experience of playing so many of the great courses, he opened up and started applying his playing experience to our designs."

The pair is currently employed on their 16th course, at the Whiskey Jack Resort in Sparwood, British Columbia. Surrounded on all sides by the Kootenai Rockies and crisscrossed by glacier-fed streams, it promises to be an absolute stunner.

Though likely to impress the judges immediately after opening, it will do well to maintain a top position among North America's best public courses for as long as Bates's most celebrated course.

Bates and the Coeur d'Alene Tribe didn't need a golfing superstar to help promote Circling Raven in Idaho. A solo design effort that opened in 2003, it currently rests inside both Golf Digest's and Golf Magazine's list of the country's top-100 public-access courses. Bates was recommended for the job by Jim Conley, an agronomist from Spokane, who had done some work for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. The CDA's casino and resort operation had begun life as a small bingo hall about 10 years previously but was expanding rapidly, and the tribe had big plans for their course. David Kidd and Robert Trent Jones Jr. were among the other architects they were talking with, so Bates knew his pitch needed to be pretty special.

"I was given some aerial photographs at our first meeting and told to go away and brainstorm," says Bates. "I discovered the other companies were suggesting putting the course on what I thought was fairly uninteresting terrain south of Highway 95, but I envisaged the course on the north side."

Given the number of wetlands on that part of the property, plus the BNSF railroad tracks, it was a bold plan, and it was perhaps no surprise that at his presentation members of the decision-making committee gave Bates what he describes as a "strange" look. "I think Dave might have considered this option, but it was clear they now favored the alternative," Bates says. "I went away thinking I probably hadn't got the job."

How wrong could he be? Matheson called the following day to ask when he could start. "Gene had been the only bidder who actually walked the prospective sites," says Matheson. "And at one meeting he came in with some big, hand-drawn conceptual renderings of our course. He was not only very focused on getting the job but doing a great job. We put Gene's proposal to the other designers on the list and asked for their opinion. All of them said that part of the property should be reserved for a national park. I and the tribal chairman took a four-wheeler and toured the sites again, discussing our options and eventually concluding the north side would work best for the course and that Gene was the man to design it."

During the phone call Matheson expressed how much the committee had appreciated Bates's courage, commitment and vision, and asked him to send in a contract. Bates was very pleasantly surprised, of course, but told Matheson he'd rather negotiate terms face to face. "When I saw David again he offered to write me a check for the full fee upfront," says Bates. "I told him it didn't really work like that, and that he could pay me installments as work progressed."

Circling Raven GC

On top of his design fee, the tribe also ended up paying Bates for construction services after the contractor it had hired from Nebraska was declared bankrupt two days before work began and Bates suggested building the course himself . . . with some help, of course. He bought in his brother Gary as project manager and nephew Casey as lead shaper. He also brought in some construction associates.

As for his routing, Bates says that, despite the wetlands and railroad, locating the holes was actually fairly straightforward. "I had plenty of experience of working with wetlands so didn't really see them as a problem," he says. "The issue of the railroad was trickier to negotiate though. Even though so few trains went through there each day, the BNSF said we could not cross the tracks. David said we would just have to go underneath them so, while carefully adhering to the BNSF's guidelines, we built a tunnel."

Then there was the problem of crossing Rock Creek and the railroad between the 17th green and 18th tee, a problem Bates solved by having an impressive trestle bridge built to ensure safe passage of golfers between the two holes.

With regard to the holes themselves, Bates encountered few problems, although he was forced to consider blasting the sixth fairway to make the landing area visible. "Without blasting, that hole could have turned out very badly," says Bates. "But we were able to lower the fairway 25-30 feet and use the 20,000 cubic yards of stone that came out for the clubhouse, which actually saved us a lot of money."

Matheson was always happy to accommodate Bates's wishes, not only because of the money he'd save but because he knew the architect's motivation was invariably to create the best course he possibly could. "Gene was absolutely great to work with," says Matheson. "He always made sure we were absolutely comfortable with modifications, which we were because his plan was always to make something even more outstanding."

Circling Raven flows from one attractive and thoroughly exhilarating hole to the next. The only one I don't care for much is the long par-4 ninth, which runs close to the highway and is really the only one from which you can see a building - the clubhouse. All the rest are exciting and memorable in their own way, even flattish, straight holes like the fourth, 14th, 17th and 18th where Bates created the interest and challenge with cleverly-placed bunkers, and teasing contours on large greens. There's a wonderful mix of exposed holes and those where trees, wetlands or creeks come into play. And those cleverly-placed bunkers are simply terrific, not quite as beautiful as Mackenzie's Royal Melbourne bunkers perhaps, but sizeable, shapely, attention-grabbing impressions nonetheless.

His bunkers have actually become something of a Bates trademark. They meet Gary Player's requirement of visibility, but Bates insists the style is all his own. "At a resort course like Circling Raven, I understand the bunkers have got to have a certain 'wow' factor," he says. "But whether you're building bunkers at resort courses, municipals or private clubs they have to fit the land and be built in a way that facilitates maintenance."

Bates's portfolio includes a long list of courses from each ownership category. He is as adept at designing a narrow, idiosyncratic, quirky course for private club memberships as he is an attractive but user-friendly layout for high-handicappers and casual golfers.

That takes experience, knowledge and skill. Gene Bates has all three in spades.

Afterword

How fascinating it has been to look into the histories, philosophies and techniques of my favorite course architects over the past year. We, and by "we" I mean the poor deluded golf nuts who believe that designing a course would actually be pretty easy, don't really have any idea of the level of expertise necessary to become a great designer, or even a mediocre one. We all have an opinion, sometimes even a good opinion, on where a bunker should or shouldn't be positioned, or what might make a nice green site or par-3.

But would we be able to suggest the most appropriate choice of turfgrass based on the location of the course, the type of golfer that will play it, the soil types, the climate, the budget, etc.? Do we know much about drainage and irrigation beyond the fact water runs downhill? Do we know anything about operating heavy machinery, or even light machinery? Do we know how to keep a band of employees who spend much of their time moving dirt from one place to another, challenged and motivated? And do we know how to do all the above while remaining on budget, on schedule, and on good terms with the developer?

It's true, many of yesteryear's architects didn't have quite the range of skills that today's professionals do, many of them doing little more than arriving at the site in the morning, planting a few flags in the ground to show the position of the holes or bunkers, then leaving on the early evening train. But whichever era they worked in, the best designers had one gift in common: they all built the best possible course from the land and resources they had at their disposal.

If there was one aspect of the designer's job that I became increasingly conscious and admiring of as the year went on, it was routing. Had I ever played Merion, there's little doubt its designer Hugh Wilson would have been among the 12 as he crammed what most people contend is one of the world's top-10 or 15 courses into less than 130 acres of suburban Philadelphia. I often tried putting myself in Gene Bates, Bill Coore or Tom Doak's position at the outset of a new job, starting from the location of the clubhouse and having to find a way back to it via 18 challenging, entertaining, environmentally-conscious, and economically-sound chunks of land . . . and all with a lengthy list of instructions on where I could and couldn't go, and what I could and couldn't do, in my back pocket.

You and I might find a decent hole here and another over there, but how would we connect them?

I've no doubt a great many of us could have gone to a place like Sand Hills or Pacific Dunes and found a number of really good holes. But would we have been able to choose the 18 that not only produced a world-class course, cost just $ 1million to build, required very little earthwork and which also enabled golfers to walk? I doubt it very much.

If you've read the whole series, you might have noticed that six of the 12 are now playing the "Great Golf Course in the Sky" (probably a mix of Augusta National, Cypress Point, Sunningdale and St. Enodoc), while the other six are still very much alive and kicking. One or two of those still drawing breath have built a big-budget, modern-looking layout with all the bells and whistles but, far more often than not, they and the rest preferred to build courses that look like they could have been around for decades, even centuries.

When it comes to golf course design and golf course designers, I am very much old school. Old-school courses cost less to build, maintain and play (although it would be disingenuous to suggest some old-looking courses built by modern-day designers aren't pretty expensive to play too). They are usually more fun. And, with fewer man-made hazards around, I tend to lose a lot fewer balls. That's not to say big-budget productions designed by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, Pete Dye, Tom Fazio etc. aren't enjoyable. Far from it. I just don't think I could handle so much sensory stimulation every day.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.