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Lollygaggers Need Not Apply
[Editor's Note: Tony Dear follows up his widely acclaimed 2011 "Favorite Architects" series on Cybergolf with a glimpse at some of the young, up-and-coming golf course designers working around the world today.]
This hole Macpherson built on his farm when he was
15. It's grown over now but the green was
over the depression where the sheep are grazing.
You've Got to Start Somewhere
How does one become a golf course architect? Not easily, that's for sure. And once there, how does a young designer survive in today's unfriendly financial climate?
Scott Macpherson was 15 when he built his first golf hole. The par-3, set in a corner of his family's sheep farm near the village of Waikanae, an hour north of Wellington, New Zealand, could play anywhere between 120 and 230 yards but, most of the time, the young Kiwi hit from the 160-yard tee. He seemed to lose fewer balls from there than he did from that back marker, and the hole was more exciting, playing across a deep basin from the top of a sandy ridge to a natural, sandy plateau.
"Hitting from the 160 tee required shots to carry all the way, which was fun," he says. "But I enjoyed playing it from the full distance too because the angle of the shot allowed you to run the ball in which made it more interesting and a little more forgiving."
It took the eager Macpherson one day to mow the green out. And he tended to it so devotedly, it was rolling at a smooth 7 on the Stimpmeter (not that he had a Stimpmeter, of course, he was just guessing) before long - not bad for a kid with few tools and less knowledge.
Macpherson was fortunate to live on a farm where he had the space to experiment. That the farm was built on sand didn't hurt either as it resulted in a firm, easily-maintained hole where drainage wasn't an issue. Perhaps the biggest factor behind his interest in golf and golf course design, however, was growing up so close to the Alex Russell-designed Paraparaumu Beach, the country's finest course before Tom Doak built Cape Kidnappers. Even in his teens, and without having read a word on the subject of golf architecture, Macpherson knew how good it was. "I remember wondering why all courses couldn't be as good as 'Pram,' " he says.
Scot Macpherson on the Old Course at St. Andrews
Sadly, not every golf course can be laid out on terrain so full of character and intrigue, and which drains as well, as that at Paraparaumu. So Macpherson went off to Massey University in Palmerston North to study horticulture, with a view to one day building golf courses on less than perfect Paraparaumu-type land if necessary.
From there, he moved to America and UC Davis, which had a reciprocal arrangement with Massey. He studied landscape architecture and environmental design on a scholarship. When he returned to New Zealand, he got the chance to design his first "real" green. "I worked at Waikanae GC thanks to an invite from the New Zealand Sports Turf Institute, which had been very supportive through the years awarding me two small scholarships during my time at Massey," Macpherson recalls. "It was good fun because Waikanae was really where I started to play the game. The green I created there still exists today."
In 1997, Macpherson got his big break when he joined Peter Thomson's firm - Thomson, Wolveridge and Perrett (TWP) - in Melbourne as an associate designer, a position he describes as "the lowest on the totem pole."
"I worked with a senior designer and did all I was asked to do," he says. "I did get a couple of trips away from the office, the most valuable being back to New Zealand to work with Bob Shearer at Wairakei. My grandfather had a house in nearby Taupo, and I had played Wairakei a lot as a kid. So working on the course was very special."
Macpherson remained at TWP for 18 months but felt the urge to move on, to Scotland in fact. His boss, winner of five Open Championships and an honorary member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A), wrote to the club's secretary, Sir Michael Bonallack, who was able to set Macpherson up at St. Andrews Bay where multi-billionaire American Don Panoz was building a 36-hole, five-star resort. The Torrance Course (2001) and Devlin Course (2002) were sold as designs by Sam Torrance and Bruce Devlin (and even a little Gene Sarazen), but the behind-the-scenes man who provided much of the technical expertise for both layouts was Atlanta-based architect Denis Griffiths. Macpherson worked on-site for four years, directing construction and ensuring Griffiths' instructions were implemented to the letter.
He worked well with Griffiths whom he describes as a hugely underrated and undervalued architect. "I don't think Denis has ever received his due as a designer," Macpherson says. "He is very skilled and knows exactly what he's doing." Macpherson thought so highly of Griffiths, in fact, he followed him all the way back to Georgia.
After three years in Atlanta, he felt the time was right to set up his own company and got his first commission from English developer Graham Wylie, who wanted to build a course dedicated to design great Harry Colt at Close House, just outside the northern city of Newcastle.
"Getting the Close House job meant a huge amount to me personally and professionally," says Macpherson. "It was my first solo project, and I'd been selected on my own merits to design a full-specification golf course. I got to run the tendering process, and was very hands-on during construction. I guess it validated the decision I had made years before to become a golf course architect. Of course, the pressure to design something special was huge, but I felt that kept me focused on the task."
Progress at Close House was very slow-going due largely to the economy, however, so Macpherson had an opportunity to team with countryman and four-time European Tour winner (now retired) Greg Turner, and work on a handful of projects in his native land: a renovation of the historic Russley GC in Christchurch; modification of the delightful links course at Oreti Sands near Invercargill; and the design of the Coronet Nine at the fabulous Millbrook Resort in Queenstown.
When the "Colt" course at Close House did finally open in May of last year, Macpherson's stock grew rapidly. The course attracted instant acclaim and Lee Westwood added to its reputation by agreeing to sign on as the official touring pro.
Another offer quickly appeared - to partner with two-time major champion Sandy Lyle in building a course at the Kersewell Resort midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, the city that Macpherson now calls home.
"It's a really wonderful piece of land," he says. "There are no houses or industrial estates nearby, and the views are amazing. There's plenty of natural fall, undulation and interesting features, so we will be able to build the course with a soft hand, which I like. And it's a dream to work with Sandy, especially in Scotland."
While Kersewell is in the works, Macpherson is currently back in New Zealand working with Turner on a total redesign of Royal Wellington, which was awarded its "Royal" status in 2004 and is seeking to own a course as impressive as the club's heritage. "Royal Wellington has been on the same site for over 100 years," says Macpherson. "And the club has always had a strong, active membership. But, though it's a lovely place to play the game, you could never describe the course as exceptional.
"We are going to lengthen it a bit, bring the streams more into play, rebuild all the greens, bunkers, and tees, and design seven brand new holes. It's a big job and a major responsibility."
Entrusting so historic a course to a relatively young architect - Macpherson just turned 40 - is not what usually happens. Clubs with Wellington's pedigree tend to favor long-established professionals with extensive portfolios that include renovation work at similarly prestigious courses, not guys whose inventory of new-build solo designs currently stands at one, and whose list of "re'" jobs on courses as significant as Royal Wellington starts and finishes with the redesign of Russley's 18th green.
But Macpherson has earned it. With wide-ranging, international experience and a work ethic as strong as his (plus authoring a superb book on the Old Course - "St. Andrews, The Evolution of the Old Course - The Impact on Golf of Time, Tradition & Technology"), it's little wonder he's beginning to make a name for himself and attract the sort of jobs he has always aspired to.
"I think it's the same in any profession, but it's especially true in golf course design; with desire, dedication, hard work and a bit of luck, you can reach your goal," he says. "It's like that line from Alice in Wonderland - 'If you know where you're going, there's no wrong road.' "
Actually, the line is "If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there." But it's clear what Macpherson means; without persevering through the crummy years and crummy jobs, and without the tenacity and unswerving resolve it takes to accept whatever happens for the sake of your long-term objective, the likelihood is you will not go far in golf course architecture.
Dave Zinkand & a 'Dozer at Shanqin Bay
Maintenance, Construction or Education...or All Three?
Dave Zinkand knows that lesson well, perhaps even better than Macpherson. The Ohio native, who has worked for Arthur Hills, Mike DeVries, Gil Hanse and, most recently, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw since graduating from the landscape architecture program at Cornell University, has certainly endured the less glamorous side of the business.
"I worked in maintenance for a while then got a job as a laborer for a construction firm," he says. "I helped install a lot of drainage, but learned a lot from just observing what was going on around me." In 1997, Zinkand went to the UK on the same Dreer Award that Doak and Gil Hanse had won, and it was Hanse for whom he worked on his return to the U.S. "Much of the advice I received early on made it clear you better know how to build a great golf course before you can design one," he says. "So when I got home, I went to work for Gil at South Fork CC on Long Island." There, Zinkand shaped bunkers and did much of the detail work.
Zinkand had written to Coore and Crenshaw seeking employment and, as luck would have it, the duo was working up the road on East Hampton GC. One evening, Coore came over to take a look at Hanse's course and meet his young shaper. "I was seeding the 10th fairway," Zinkand remembers. "I was completely covered in dust and dirt. I removed my sunglasses exposing the whites of my eyes, at which point Bill, in a way only he can deliver it, said I strongly resembled a raccoon."
Despite Zinkand's less than elegant appearance, the timing of the introduction couldn't have been better as Coore left knowing he wasn't afraid to get dirty. Coore found a spot for him on a dozer at Hidden Creek in New Jersey, where Zinkand built a lot of ridges, humps and mounds (for a while Coore called him "Mr. Mound"), as well as the eighth green.
More jobs followed: Lakewood CC in Dallas, Bandon Trails in Oregon, the Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa in Arizona, Colorado Golf Club outside Denver, Sugarloaf Mountain in Florida, Golf du Medoc in France, Clear Creek in Tahoe, Shanqin Bay on Hainan Island, China, and the Par-3 Bandon Preserve.
It's at the Preserve on Oregon's southern coast that Coore believes Zinkand has produced his best work to date. "When we first saw him at Hidden Creek, I assumed that here was another bright, knowledgeable, intelligent kid who knew all the theory but probably wasn't able to produce it in the field," says Coore.
"But he was clearly very talented and, importantly, willing to start at the bottom. He did lots of great work for us - artistic, functional and interesting. But if you really want to see how good he can be, go play the Preserve. You'll probably never see his name associated with the course, but it's no stretch to suggest Dave built it. Tony Russell, another great shaper was there, and the resort's director of agronomy Ken Nice contributed, but Dave had at least as much input there as I did. Not only did he organize the schedules and balance the budgets, he also created some of the finest bunkers and green complexes I've ever seen."
Coore knows Zinkand is ready to build a great golf course, but wonders if and when he'll get the chance. "He's done everything right in his career, and technically he's so far beyond where I was at his age. He has no weakness on the course, but I'm not sure yet if he has the salesmanship you need to get jobs in the first place. If there were more developers like Mike Keiser around he'd be fine. Mike knows the name that appears in magazines and on the scorecard isn't necessarily the guy who does the important stuff.
"He'll take time to research who else was involved. And in our case, he'd soon hear about Dave. And he'd hire him, and he'd be very pleased with the result."
Zinkand, like Macpherson, combined maintenance and construction with an education that, theoretically at least, would pave the way into golf course design.
Other Young Designers
And a handful of others have taken very similar steps. Jason Straka, who now works for Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, worked in maintenance for three years, and construction for two before heading to Cornell and the same landscape architecture classes that Zinkand took.
Nick Schaan, who was instrumental in the design of Huntsman Springs in Idaho with David Kidd, worked on the maintenance crew at Sumner Meadows GC near Tacoma, Wash., for two years and then studied landscape architecture at Washington State University. Paul Kimber, Kidd's chief designer before he set up his own firm when Kidd left for the U.S. at the end of 2009, was a greenkeeper in Sussex, England, for three years, earned a Master's degree in landscape architecture from the Edinburgh School of Art, and spent a year interning with Roy Case in Florida. He also worked as a freelance landscape architect/graphic designer for a brief period.
Brian Slawnik, an associate at Tom Doak's Renaissance Golf Design (RGD), worked on the maintenance crew at Glenmore CC in Charlottesville, Va., then Oakland Hills prior to the 1996 U.S. Open before enrolling in the turfgrass science program at Michigan State. And Bryce Swanson, now part of the design team at Rees Jones, Inc., graduated from Iowa State with a degree in landscape architecture before working a dozer for architect Jim Spear.
Straight out of School
Mixing construction and maintenance with a landscape or turf-related degree certainly isn't the only way to get into the business though. Others have excelled at college, earned the qualifications and then been hired without having spent years building or maintaining courses. Jay Blasi, who had a large hand in the design of the superb Patriot GC in Oklahoma and the even more impressive Chambers Bay in Washington State, studied landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin before being hired by Robert Trent Jones Jr. right out of school. "Had I not been lucky enough to join RTJ II so soon, I likely would have gone the construction route," he says.
"Whenever I talk to young people interested in design, I do recommend that they spend some time on a construction crew," Blasi added. "I also recommend working in course maintenance and course operations. Each of those roles will help a young designer understand all of the dynamics of the course, not just strategy."
Blasi joined RTJ II in 2001. His main role for the first couple of years was preparing drawings for projects where one of the more senior designers - Trent Jones himself or Bruce Charlton, now the president of the company - had done the creative work. "The senior designer would do a mark-up of a plan, and I would essentially trace that plan on the computer and then add title blocks and legends," says Blasi.
"It was a great way to study the designs of courses all over the world. When Bobby or Bruce drew a concept route plan for a potential project, I would prepare a fancy color rendering, and then work at night to prepare my own concept routing. After enough of those, the guys started to let me do some actual concept plans."
By the end of 2003 Blasi had made such an impression on his superiors at the company, he was given a huge role in the creation of what might conceivably be Robert Trent Jones II, LLC's most important project ever. On a former gravel pit along the shores of Puget Sound, he helped coordinate the creation of a natural-looking network of dunes out of 1.4 million cubic yards of sand that was bought in on dump trucks and that now give Chambers Bay the look and feel of a genuine links course - a course that in 2015 will host the U.S. Open.
Rising Stars Overseas
Likewise, Denmark's Philip Spogard, and Andrew Goosen from South Africa have little experience in construction and maintenance. Both took the two-year post-graduate diploma course at the European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA) in Surrey, England. Spogard also completed a landscape architecture degree and interned at Thomson, Perrett and Lobb (TPL) in Australia (he also earned a BSc in Law a year earlier!).
After a brief period working for TPL in London, Spogard left to set up his own company with Dutch business partner Michiel VanderVaart. Last December, the company won Golf Inc. Magazine's "Top Development of the Year" award for crafting the excellent heathland-style Stippelberg course from a once-bland agricultural site near Amsterdam.
Goosen, who had completed a Development and Project Management degree at the University of Stellenbosch, and a Higher Diploma in interior design in Cape Town prior to arriving in England, got his chance with Thomson's firm shortly after completing the EIGCA course. He is based in the company's Cape Town office and currently at work on three courses in Egypt and Qatar.
There are also architects active today who have the experience of working in either maintenance or construction, or both, but came out of college with degrees in subjects that don't exactly suggest a future in golf course design. Casey Krahenbuhl is perhaps the best example.
Now a senior associate with David Kidd's firm and based in Bend, Ore., Krahenbuhl went to college at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff where he studied criminal justice. He also spent a year at the Instituto Tecnologico y de Studios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM) in Monterrey, Mexico, where he took Spanish and sustainable tourism classes.
"I came out of college with no real interest or enthusiasm for golf design, to be honest," says Krahenbuhl. "I was on my way to law school. But, I decided to go out into the work force for a while to fatten my pockets. I had worked for Wadsworth Construction in college, and figured I could slide back in with them fairly easily. I wasn't thinking hard about architecture at the time. Within a few years I was a construction superintendent in charge of some pretty big projects."
Most of those projects involved following instructions from architects he rarely ever saw, however. And it wasn't until he did a few jobs for architects who made regular visits to the site - "in-the-field guys" - that he began to feel inspired and excited about the possibility of moving into design. "I realized that real golf courses were designed and built together," he says.
"And I didn't need to always build exactly what was on a set of plans." Krahenbuhl met Kidd in 2007, after 10 years at Wadsworth. "We just clicked," he says. "I had taught myself Autocad (3D Computer-Aided-Design software) and had also developed a real knack for designing in the field. I got hired just before the real financial meltdown, but have somehow managed to hang on with DMK."
Kidd says Krahenbuhl was the ideal fit for his firm. "Casey could build anything, and dream up even more," he says. "He was keen to join a team that got to build cool stuff; not a job as such, more like an out-of-control hobby."
Jeff Mingay & Rod Whitman at Cabot Links
Then there's Brian Schneider, a colleague of Slawnik's at RGD who also took a rather unique route to the job, graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology - "perfect for a future in the golf business," he jokes. He more than "made up" for his lack of a fitting qualification, however, by working on the grounds crew at nine of the best golf courses in the world, including the Old Course at St. Andrews, Augusta National, Pine Valley and Shinnecock Hills. He also gained valuable experience contributing to the construction of Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis.
Canadian Jeff Mingay is another who chose a college major that few would guess reflected his long-term career goals. The Windsor, Ontario-based designer studied history and politics at the University of Windsor, but says he was always mindful of what he wanted to end up doing. "I grew up playing Essex Golf & Country Club in Windsor, which was designed by Donald Ross in the 1920s," he says.
"My dad was a member so I was fortunate to play the course regularly. Dad was something of a golf nut who owned a pretty extensive library of golf books by people like CB Macdonald, Bernard Darwin and Alister Mackenzie. I was an avid reader, and by reading these books I became ever more interested in Essex's layout."
After college, Mingay began contacting people in the industry whom he admired. "I had read 'Anatomy of a Golf Course' by Tom Doak," he says. "It was a big inspiration, so I got in touch with Tom, who advised me to get involved with construction. He said, and I had heard it from others too, that a typical landscape architecture program might not necessarily be the best route into the business of building world-class courses."
About that time, Mingay was talking with Golfweek's architecture editor Brad Klein, who was writing a Donald Ross biography ("Discovering Donald Ross - The Architect and His Courses"). Mingay provided valuable insight into Essex GCC and was soon contributing to Golfweek's "Superintendent News," a gig that allowed him to travel and meet people in the design business.
"Everyone I spoke with said I should get into construction," he says. "So I got some experience running a dozer and then tracked down a Canadian designer called Rod Whitman, who had worked with Pete Dye and Coore & Crenshaw and who I'd heard a lot about. He was good enough to invite me out to Edmonton where he was designing a course called Blackhawk GC."
Mingay was "thrown onto a dozer" on his first day. And not only did Whitman let him shape a few features, he also welcomed Mingay's design input; Mingay likes to think he was responsible for the seventh and 14th holes and all the bunkers. Whitman was impressed and took Mingay on as a senior associate.
Mingay was part of Whitman's firm for 10 years during which they built six courses. Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club in Quilchena, B.C., where they collaborated with former PGA Tour player Richard Zokol, is perhaps the design for which they are best known, especially in Canada. But that will surely change later this year when Cabot Links opens.
Despite its remote location near the easternmost extremity of Nova Scotia, Cabot Links is already being reserved a spot in the country's to-p-10. And Mingay was there from Day 1, literally. Ben Cowan-Dewar, who co-founded the golf architecture website www.golfclubatlas.com and who provided most of the brains and energy behind Cabot's development, is a good friend and invited Mingay to go check the property out with him in December 2004.
"We were both pretty excited, so flew out there as soon as we could," says Mingay. "It was just him and me. We agreed pretty quickly that it was very special. Ben was a big fan of Blackhawk and knew Rod well, so decided to hire him. In the fall of 2008, Rod and I started building the course."
Mingay did a bit of everything, assisting with planning, construction, scheduling, budgets, hiring personnel and shaping the bunkers, and the results, as early reports have all agreed, are stunning.
At present, Mingay is back doing smaller, renovation jobs at the historic Victoria Golf Club in British Columbia and Overlake CC in Seattle. He still consults at Blackhawk and is about to begin a fairly major revamp of the Oakville Golf Club in Toronto. He's also working on a master plan for York Downs Golf and Country Club in Unionville, Ont.
Mingay appreciates how big a deal it was working on so highly anticipated a course as Cabot, and he recognizes the significance of his task at Victoria, a wonderful, 119-year-old seaside course at the southern tip of Vancouver Island.
He certainly knows how fortunate he was to get both jobs; Cowan-Dewar could have easily picked a higher-profile architect than Mingay's mentor for Cabot, and he only got the nod at Victoria after another designer, hired to make a few alterations, failed to complete his duties as requested. But one mustn't forget the long years' of dedication, diligence and single-mindedness that had to happen before these opportunities came along.
Doak, who came out of Cornell with a landscape architecture degree and then worked a dozer on Pete Dye projects for six years, says there is no right way into the profession and that it's important for each individual to find their own way. "It's a difficult and competitive business with more qualified people than the profession needs," he says. "And if there was a clear career path for it, there would be even more people wanting to do it."
Doak says he favors people who want to work on-site rather than in an office as he believes it takes more good people to build a great course than draw one, and because he insists construction is inseparable from design.
David Kidd is a little more specific in describing the preferred path into the business, but only slightly. "To a young guy now I'd suggest nothing different than I did when the golf world was booming," he says. "Get a great education and all the experience you can in design, construction and maintenance. Then, only after working for an established firm for a few years and building your resume, can you hope to even consider going solo. And when you do that, it is going to be incredibly tough staying afloat."
The path to becoming a course designer isn't clearly well-defined. You could study criminal justice, politics or molecular biology then spend five years on a dozer or mowing greens and cutting holes. Or you might go to Cornell, like so many before you, and earn the landscape architecture degree that has almost become synonymous with future success.
Whatever you do though, one thing is certain: no one gets a free pass into golf course architecture.
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.