Sunday, October 31, 2010

Golf Course Setup and Major Championships

Golf's governing bodies continue to struggle with setting up the venues for Major Championships. At times this is an embarrassment to our sport and in 2010  it was more of the same, with questionable setups at three of the four Majors.

After the 2010 US Open, people were talking about how the USGA had gotten better at setting up Championships. Well isn't that a left handed compliment? It has gotten better but is it good? The 14th hole at Pebble was certainly interesting. And the players seemed to be just fine with St. Andrews, even if, according to Frank Nobilo, of the Golf Channel, the R&A didn't mow the greens on Saturday. And then we certainly had an interesting PGA Championship.

Conversely, Augusta seems to be able to come up with a pretty good setup year after year. Augusta has an advantage. Augusta's Committee knows their golf course better than any organization knows any of the venues that they visit once a decade or so. Can you imagine Augusta having a poor setup like some of the other majors?

Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing mystical about setting up a golf course, there is no crystal ball, no mind altering drugs required or sports psychologists to consult. It just is not that difficult. Golf is different than other sports, in that the playing field is different from venue to venue and for that matter from day to day and therein lies the problem. Variables that influence the setup include; architecture, slopes, soils, grass species, climate, sand, thatch, etc. Officials of golf's governing bodies have a challenge that is unique in sports; preparing a field of play that has the potential for infinite variability. I don't envy their charge but I do question their process, and their personnel's experience/expertise. How can that be? Perhaps these people do setups for several lesser events each year. That really is not much experience considering that the Assistant Superintendent at your favorite golf course does setup every day and hundreds of times a year.

To setup a golf course for a Championship, one must determine the pin positions, tee locations, green speed, rough height, fairway widths, and irrigation. That's about it, yes there is more but understanding the basics can lead to a successful Major Championship setup. Architecture, grasses, weather, and intended playability are to be reflected in the setup, yes, but they can't be adjusted by man or committee the week of the event.

Haven't we all played in a tournament where the Pro, Superintendent, Committee Chair, or someone from a golf organization did a setup that was inappropriate, usually with every tough pin placement and green speeds that were just too much. Many newcomers to course setup don't have an understanding of setup or a feel for it and just look for difficult pin positions without regards to the ebb and flow of the golf course. In a four day event, a golf course can have similar levels of challenge while being very different each day or dare I say, provide a variable level of challenge from day to day. During a Championship, could that help identify the best player?

How is it that the PGA Tour, week in and week out, has great setups on their events? Slugger White, the PGA Tour's Tournament Director and Rules Official, seems to be able to figure things out pretty well every week and yet the governing bodies of golf have struggled at an alarming rate. Maybe the Majors should bring in Slugger to teach them how to do setup. When is the last time that we saw a PGA Tour event choose pin positions that were inappropriate for the green's speed or have greens that were bumpy because the week before an event a well intentioned official decided to turn the water off causing greens to get so bad that the the TV broadcast tried to minimize their close ups of the balls rolling on the greens? I can't remember one.

Golf's Championships, its Majors, have  course setups dictated by people that do setup a few times a year and really have little experience doing setup. You've got to love these organizations. When I was a young man, the stimpmeter was being touted by the USGA as the tool to achieve consistency from green to green on a particular golf course. And now, they are routinely talking about and possibly creating different speeds from green to green and maybe even on the same green. One green is softer and slower than another. Is that consistency or is that a flaw in the setup of the golf course? Green speed should be based upon the the most severe green or desired pin placement on the golf course on that day of play. Pick that one pin placement that you really want to use and determine the speed that works. That should be the speed for the rest of the greens. This can be determined years in advance of an event. This panic management of the USGA, R&A, and PGA of America rolling into town the week before a Championship and making these decisions on the fly is just bizarre.

You may now be asking yourself, how I can say these things. Good question. The answer is that I was a Superintendent for 6 PGA Tour events, one PGA Championship, an Assistant Superintendent for a US Open, and on the greens crew for an Amateur. I have done golf course set up literally hundreds of times on Top 100 golf courses and overseen it thousands of times. I half kidded with a friend of mine recently who has been closely affiliated with golf's governing body that while I was still in my teens, that I had done more setup than anyone in any of these organizations. It may have been a little bit of a stretch or worse yet, maybe not.

But let's not stop with greens. What about the fairway narrowing and straightening? I don't know about the R&A but I do know that the PGA of America and the USGA routinely narrow fairways down and straighten them for their Championships. In doing so, they do make the golf courses tougher. But they also create less strategic options for the golfer and less to think about on tee shots. Does this identify the best golfer? It seems to minimize strategic options and dictate one way to play each hole. This could just be a philosophical approach to identifying the best golfer that I disagree with. I believe that the player can be challenged both with accuracy and options to more fully and completely test their mind and mettle.

Roughs for Championships are another area that the Majors just seem to struggle with. Different grasses and different weather conditions require different heights of cuts to provide a proper challenge. The typical problem that we see with roughs is when Bluegrass or other cool season grasses are allowed to grow too high. The roughs quite often are trimmed up on Tuesday and Wednesday to about 4 inches and then left to grow for the remainder of the Championship. What happens is that bluegrass starts to fall over when it gets much longer than 4 inches. So we end up with roughs where some balls are in grass that is laying over against the grain and other balls are laying on top of grass that is laying down in the direction of play. Two bad shots, one player chunks their ball out with a short iron and the other has a hot lie that they can hit any club they want. If the grass had been trimmed to whatever that "right" height is, both players and most of the rest of the field that day would have had similar conditions when in the rough. This happens every time that the roughs gets too long. The key is that there is a height that can be determined and managed to provide really good rough for championships.

Once a venue is picked, it is incumbent on the Association holding the Championship to plan for course setup. A digital level, available for $75 at hardware stores, and a couple of days on site could alleviate the embarrassment of poor pin placements and speed setup of Championships. Measure the slope of each pin placement that is desired and determine which is the steepest. Then mow that green and measure the speed. Is the pin accessible? If so mow it again and see if it still works. If it does roll the green and repeat. At some point the pin won't work. The last speed that worked is the speed the greens can be on the day that that pin placement is used. On other days another pin placement on the same green or another green will determine what the "right" speed for that day can be. And heaven forbid that we can look at the % slope of the green with a digital level and know what speeds work for what slopes. As far as adjusting greens speeds, it really isn't tough. Most Superintendents have a pretty good handle on that and can provide any desired speed. Perhaps these organizations could let the Superintendent know what speed the greens should be a year in advance instead of on Wednesday afternoon of the Championship or worse yet on Saturday or Sunday morning of the Championship.

I have measured the slopes of iffy pin placements and have a pretty good idea of what speeds work on different slopes. Perhaps these Organizations that run major championships could do a little research and know that a pin placement on a 4%, 3.5%, 3%, 2.5% slopes can have maximum green speeds of x feet on the stimpmeter. Nope, I'm not telling, I've done my work, but for $75 and an afternoon, anybody that works for one of these Organizations that is involved in course setup can figure it out. It doesn't seem like something that you discover during a Major Championship after your mistakes have marred the competition.

Let me suggest something that I have done before. A year before the event, the golf course should do a run-through of course setup. This can be a special treat for golfers at these Championship venues and allow all parties to get comfortable with the setup. This will help everyone work out the little things or at least identify the issues with plenty of time to address them.

Perhaps some of our friends that control Golf's Major Championships will read this and use some of these ideas to minimize the risk of further embarrassment for golf. Or maybe, just maybe they don't care as long as revenues aren't affected.

Suny's Philosophy of Golf Course Architecture

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Golf Architecture's 18 Commandments

  1. Thou shall build golf courses that are enjoyable for average golfers and intriguing to better golfers
  2. You shall not force every golf course to be a par 72
  3. Thou shall not make every Par 3 hole play downhill
  4. Thou shall avoid using the same percent slope on every feature, it's unnatural and nature isn't perfect
  5. You shall not move more soil than necessary
  6. Thou shall not copy golf holes or template holes
  7. Thou shall foster and accommodate the ground game
  8. Thou shall consider desired green speeds when designing green contours
  9. You shall not make all of your golf courses look alike
  10. Thou shall not force the same strategy on every hole
  11. Thou shall embrace originality in design
  12. Thou shall not use water features excessively and artificially
  13. Remember, forward tees need better angles and more elevation, back tees don't have to be elevated
  14. Honor the owner by being on site more and spending money as if it were your own
  15. Thou shall consider green construction methods that work better and cost less than USGA specs
  16. Remember that man made features should appear natural and reflect the surroundings
  17. Thou shall not worship Big Name Architects
  18. Thou shalt not worship Golden Era Architects

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Golf Architecture- Majors and The R&A, USGA, and PGA of America

The best golf courses in the world are routinely asked to make architectural changes to their courses in order to get a Major Championship. It isn't hard to see why a club would succumb to this pressure. After all, golf history and tradition are driving factors in hosting a Major and then of course there are the revenues and prestige for the clubs and courses.

What gives the R&A, USGA, and PGA of America standing, from a Golf Course Architectural standpoint, to change great golf courses? Is anyone in any of these august or semi-august organizations any more qualified to make changes to great golf courses than any group of golfers in the grille or bar after a round of golf? I don't think so. Are these organizations so arrogant as to think that they know how to make the greatest golf courses in the world better than they are?

Today, the most common reason for the architectural changes demanded by these associations is because the golf ball travels much further than it did in the past. So in order to balance their inability and lack of intestinal fortitude to control the distance the golf ball travels in Championships, the great protectors of the game of golf, demand that changes be made to the great golf courses. Shame on them. Maybe St. Andrews should make a local rule for the The Open and tell the R&A how far the ball can go. Maybe Pebble Beach and St Andrew's should have accepted their Opens with the caveat that the distance the ball travels will be the same as it was in say 1972 or 1982. Is that asking too much? Don't these great golf courses have the right to have their golf courses protected from the latest Wham-O Super Ball?

But it's worse than that, even before these organizations lost control of the distance the ball travels, they were making changes to great golf courses. I don't know how far back it goes but I know that it goes back at least to the 1960s with Joe Dey at the USGA making changes for US Opens at two golf courses I know pretty well. Changes were made, that in my opinion did not make the golf holes or courses better, just more one dimensional. What, other than potential revenues to host courses, gives these organizations the right to make architectural changes to great golf courses?

What will it take for the World's Greatest Golf Courses to say enough; if you want to play our golf courses, you'll play it as it is? If you, the governing bodies of golf, have allowed technology to get out of hand, deal with it yourselves and leave our golf courses alone.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Runoff Areas- Rewriting Golf Course Architecture History

In the last couple of weeks we have seen runoff areas featured at Pebble Beach during the US Open and at Aronimink for a PGA Tour event. Some modern golf course architects and so called restoration experts have convinced golf's oligarchy that runoff areas are historically accurate and were prevalent features for some golf course designers of the "Golden Era" of architecture.

In the 1920s and the 1930s there were no runoff areas on golf courses. It's just that simple, the revisionist golf course architecture history is purely a fabrication. How do I know this? Good question and the answer will appear self evident. Fairway mowing heights in the 20s and 30s were generally between 1 and 1.5 inches or about the same as today's intermediate rough height. Does a ball roll very far in intermediate rough? No, it settles down very quickly. It really is that simple, the great designers of the 20s and 30s could have wanted to have runoff areas but the mowing heights didn't allow it to happen. Greens in the 20s and 30s were maintained at 3/16 to 1/4 of an inch or about the same as the most closely cropped runoff areas of today.

Now mind you, I really like short grass around putting surfaces, although I have difficulty understanding why most modern designers only utilize short grass to take the ball away from the green. It seems as if a balance of run-on areas and runoff areas would be more interesting golf architecture but that's another blog for another time.

Having worked at Aronimink some thirty plus years ago, I really enjoyed seeing the golf course on TV. I did golf course setup there for three years and knew the golf course fairly well. I thought the changes were an improvement to the golf course but to call them historically correct in regard to playability is just flat wrong.

Below are two articles from the 1930s that talk about fairway mowing heights. We might assume that in the 1920s the mowing heights were even higher.

1933. The Bulletin of the United States Golf Association Green Section. May. 13(3): p. 86-87.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Art and Golf Course Architecture


There is a relationship between art and golf course architecture that is unmistakable. What I have come to understand is that representations of golf course architecture in the form of drawings, sketches,  paintings, and clay models must take liberties with reality to convey the sense of what is or what will be.

This is my first solo effort at paint markers since my daughter taught me how to do it while we worked on a painting/drawing two days ago. Trust me, she still did plenty of coaching. I look at this medium as just one more method of conveying the message that we  (Suny, Zokol Golf Design) just do things differently. We are intuitive golf course designers.

Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club # 5


An amusing aside, this is where Rod Whitman taught me how to run a dozer. He took two minutes to show me the controls and sent me over the cliff, literally. Perhaps he thought that I wouldn't come back....I did.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Another Medium to Express Golf Course Architecture

My daughter is teaching me how to paint with markers. We worked on this together. I think I helped and she insisted that I also sign it. If you have been following the blog, you know that I started drawing this year after 40 years of not drawing. It's a way for Suny, Zokol Golf Design to convey our design ideas. And by the way, Zokol also can draw and sculpt. I don't see this as art in the sense that it isn't Josh Smith but it does work to convey a sense of the vision. We feel that drawings, clay models, and paintings convey our ideas better than Photoshop, CAD and topographical maps. Is this a sign of our Luddite tendencies? Maybe we are advocates of Neo-Luddist Golf Course Architecture.

#4 Green and Nicola Lake


Maren and Armen Suny

Friday, June 11, 2010

Intuitive Golf Course Architecture

Intuitive Golf Course Architecture is how the great courses of the Golden Age of Design were built. Intuitive Golf Architecture validated by logic, produces special golf courses. These golf courses "feel" better than the conventional, paint by numbers, formulaic courses that are driven by rigid strategic parameters.

Deepak Chopra stated that, "Logic relies on reasoning, it relies on cause and effect relationships, its more or less linear. Intuition goes into a deeper part of yourself, which is your soul. Therefore intuition is a form of intelligence that is contextual, it takes everything into account, it is nurturing, it doesn't have a win lose orientation. It literally eavesdrops on the mind of the universe."

Zokol and I (Suny, Zokol Golf Design) are, in our souls, Intuitive Golf Course Designers. We are "feel" guys that look at land and the golf course in context with the surroundings and postulate the potential playability of what feels right. Playability is a byproduct of this intuitive connection process and is never overlooked. Quirkiness is not a disqualification by any means and originality is absolutely a plus.

Recently, while working with a client on reno/restoration of a property, we were slightly perplexed over starting the project on arguably one of the more architecturally challenged holes. At the green we eliminated the symmetry of bunkering and created a green/surrounds that is dissimilar to anything either of us remembers seeing or hearing about. We believe that it may be original; originality was not the intent but the byproduct of our intuition. The design captured the overall sense, feel and historic era of the property. The design concept was hashed out on site with clay models and followed up with hand drawn sketches, a step back to the process of the Golden Age when plasticine models were often the norm. We believe in creative collaboration along with open, frank discourse and seek it from others. Creative discourse is critical to our design process and some ideas that seem to be just too extreme may have unique and interesting aspects that can and often do enhance the end results.

Does it seem as if the conventional/analytical designers who start with preconceived notions are open to creative input through discourse? Do their golf courses suffer for it? Are golfers slighted by the one-dimensional aspect of logic/fear/reason/linear based golf course design? Do their golf courses ever reach down into your soul? Are they compelling? Is it possible to apply intuition to a logic-based design? Is that why some designer's courses look the same no matter what the surroundings?

Zokol and I believe that Intuitive Golf Course Design validated by logic and reason produces golf courses that are superior in every way.

A sketch of a current project from the left side of the green complex.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

USGA Recognizes Sagebrush for "Firm and Fast"


In the video link above from the 2010 Golf Industry Show, the USGA identified Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club as an example of "Firm and Fast" golf course conditioning. Richard Zokol, PGA Tour player, club founder, and designer, had the foresight and vision to create Sagebrush five years ago. His goal was to create links playability in the mountains of British Columbia. The golf course was designed to be playable, engaging and aesthetically appealing, all while embracing the ground game. We are all proud of the golf course (Golf Digest's Best New Canadian Course for 2009) and the way that Superintendent or  rather, Keeper of the Green, Norley Calder has implemented the maintenance strategies to provide these conditions.

Contrary to popular belief, Firm and Fast conditions can be created on any soil type unless the region is subject to unusually high rainfall. Sagebrush is built on a silty soil. The construction was crafted based upon the maintenance regimes that were going to be required to provide the playability goals.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Golf Architecture's Uphill Battle

Has anyone noticed that there is a shortage of uphill Par 3s on modern Golf Courses? Today's designers will do just about anything while routing a golf course to avoid an uphill Par 3. Maybe you don't get to wear a plaid sport coat if you make uphill Par 3s or it could be that CAD programs used for golf design have a virus that is triggered by uphill 3s.

Modern designers venture onto level ground to design a Par 3 with little trepidation and literally salivate when they see that downhill ground for a lovely Par 3. And let's face it, really, how tough is it, to design a pretty downhill Par 3 and instill it with some kind of interesting strategy? Not exactly nuclear physics is it? But when it comes to the uphill Par 3, there just aren't many new ones out there. Of course, they can't be severely uphill but they can go up a moderate slope and create some real interest and a unique challenge.

Just look at the golf courses built in the last thirty years and at the plethora of downhill Par 3s. Some golf courses have 3 or 4 downhill Par 3s with another that may be level. At some point, the sameness of too many downhill Par 3s on these courses starts to become boring, no matter how good the architecture is and how aesthetically pleasing they are. It's just more of the same. Where are the great modern uphill Par 3s? Golf historians may look back at this era of architecture with disdain for its propensity to avoid uphill Par 3s.

In routing courses, designers often use the Par 3 as a "connector" between Par 4s and 5s. It's easy to use the Par 3 in those sticky parts of a routing and it is especially helpful when there is a significant sharp downhill grade change. These kinds of sharp downhill grade changes are much more difficult to deal with on Par 4s and 5s. Its easy and it makes sense to use a downhill Par 3 for continuity in the routing. Most modern golf architecture utilizes a golf car between holes to deal with uphill elevation changes and would never consider a Par 3 as a "connector" to go uphill, even when there may be a great opportunity for an interesting and original uphill Par 3.

Uphill Par 3s may be the most challenging design element in Golf Course Architecture and from a golfer's perspective; they are the most perplexing of holes and can really test one's mettle. We're dealing with a one shotter with much less visibility than we are used to or feel comfortable with. It is one of the more interesting challenges that one can have on a tee and maybe even a bit similar to the blind tee shot where you just know that there is fairway where you hit your ball, but you're really not positive.

Tackling the uphill Par 3 is perhaps one of the more, if not the most interesting and challenging aspects of golf course design. Creativity and a measure of intestinal fortitude are mandatory for those that venture into that uphill battle. Try explaining the benefits of the uphill Par 3 to a client sometime. But the end result is absolutely worth it. Think about those times that you've stood on the tee of an uphill Par 3 and what was going through your head before the shot and even as you approached the green after hitting what you believed to be the perfect tee shot.

Another Sketch

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Masters, My one and only trip to Augusta

In 1989 or maybe 1990, I was fortunate enough to get to go to Augusta for the Masters. I had a wonderful experience and was fortunate enough to do some things that the average fan wouldn't ever get to do. The golf course was far different than I had expected. It was an amazing piece of ground and in those years it was far more open than I had expected. And those greens had more slope than any greens I had ever seen.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Market Your Course Designer- Score Golf, Rick Young

Score Golf Market Your Course Designer by Rick Young

The Blog Post link above is an interesting article by Rick Young, which I have a different opinion on. Rick quotes Terry McAndrew's Web Street Golf Daily Pulse. Golf Daily Pulse cites marketing data from The Golf Research Group's research suggesting that Top 10 golf designer's projects are more successful than other designers based upon golf course valuation.  

Those of you that have been following this blog understand that I tend to do my own thinking. Below is my response to Rick Young's article.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Is Golf Business an Oxymoron or a Regular Moron in Golf Attire?

It's easy to look back at golf's build-up prior to the collapse and wonder what were they thinking. How did the golf business get to this point? Obviously, this recession has affected businesses across the board and there will be no bailouts for golf. But there is more to Golf's economic free fall than easy financing and a market downturn.

People got into the golf business because times were good and the golf business is sexy. Sexy, you may be shaking your head but think about this, you are at a cocktail party and there is one fellow that owns at mini-storage warehouse that is extremely profitable and another fellow that owns a golf course that loses a million a year, which fellow will get chatted up the most? A golf course and or development owner will really draw a crowd if he has used a "big name" to design the course. So, we have people that got into the business, that may have had only a cursory understanding of the golf business based upon playing the game and possibly having been on the board at their club and we wonder why our industry crashed.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Richard Zokol Interview- Toronto Golf Show on Golf Course Design

Zokol Interview

Richard Zokol, 2-time winner and 25 year PGA Tour veteran, has some prescient thoughts on what's wrong with golf and where Golf and Golf Course Design are headed. To view the Zokol interview, click on the link above.

 Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club

Golf Digest's Best New Course
Canada for 2009


Zokol is a partner in Suny Zokol Golf Design.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

40,000+ hours on Great Golf Courses

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called "Outliers". One of his contentions in the book is that to become competent in any given vocation or profession that you must spend 10,000 hours in your chosen field. I must be slower than most people because it took me over 40,000 hours spent on great golf courses before I became comfortable with my own instincts about Golf Course Design.

There are those in the Golf Design business that talk about how they have "studied" and are "students" of the great golf courses. Their studies have consisted of reading about the course, the architect, looking at pictures,  possibly plans, and a single or several trips to the hallowed ground to play golf. It has always struck me as sincere although incomplete and naive to assume that one can garner much more than the gross strategy and a general sense of a great course in such a short period of time and course of study.

Consider some additional methods to learn more about golf course architecture from a different angle. It takes time at great courses:

*Spend one week on the same course, a month, a year
*Do golf course setup, you may call it changing cups but when done well, its daily design
*Watch thousands of variously skilled golfers play the same course and holes
*Look at the golf course forward and backward day after day
*Look across golf holes and at areas between  and around holes and how they relate
*See the course before the sun comes up, at sunrise, sunset, or after dark, in the moonlight
*Look at contours from shadows created by headlights, you won't believe what's there
*Watch a downpour, where the water flows, and how fast
*See how the snow settles on the course and melts
*Watch the golf course during a wind storm, see what blows where
*See shadows at different times of the day and year
*Look at the golf course as the leaves fall from the trees and the how the shade changes
*Smell the dirt, good soils smell better than bad soils
*Look at the course when its completely dormant or browned off for over-seeding
*Shovel up bunker washouts, fix bunkers on the spot with hand tools and without a master-plan
*Watch tens of thousands of golf shots hit, land, and roll on every part of the course
*Roll balls on every green repeatedly every day and watch the ball roll, exposing all of the contours
*Learn from the people that were responsible for protecting the integrity of these courses, if any are left
*Playing shouldn't be ignored but if you are a skilled player try some shots from where less skilled players may have to play from


Hopefully, it won't take others the 40,000 hours at great golf courses that it took me to feel comfortable with golf course design. But surely, it takes more than a few rounds to learn about a great golf course. Spending significant time on great golf courses has exposed me to many of their subtleties and nuances, while developing a very different and varied perspective on golf course architecture.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Italian Grape Hoes


Quite a few people have asked me the significance of using Italian Grape Hoes to finish bunkers. It's a little bit like the old adage: if you have to ask how much something costs you can't afford it. With the Italian Grape Hoe, if you have to ask why its a better tool to finish bunkers with, then you have never used one.

The Italian Grape Hoe (IGH) has a heavy sharp blade 7-8 inches wide, depending on the manufacturer, and 10 inches high. It typically comes with a handle that is 5 feet long.

With the IGH, when finishing, renovating or edging bunkers, one always works from within the bunker. One simply chops down and pulls back a chunk of what ever material is being worked. It is at least twice as fast as using a shovel. As you can tell by the photo above, the IGH has a curved head, so it allows you to easily create the "right" angle on the edges of the bunkers, even when working on steep faces.

The first time that I saw or used an Italian Grape Hoe was at Merion Golf Club in 1980 when we did a lot of renovation/restoration work on the bunkers prior to the Open. Apparently, they had been using them since Flynn was the Head Greenkeeper and Joe Valentine was the Construction Foreman. When Flynn left, Joe Valentine took over as Head Greenkeeper and then Richie Valentine took over as Superintendent. I was Richie's Assistant in 1980 and 81.

In a future post, I'll describe "chunking" to make repairs and create features in bunkers, another original technique from the early days that was handed down to Valentine and from him to me.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Golf Architecture's Definition of Insanity

Is anyone other than me shocked and amazed at the number of and extent of changes made to new golf courses and renovations shortly after they open? Many golf course architects just keep making changes, trying to get things right. They appear to be practicing golf architecture. How many times does it take to get it right? As a golf course superintendent I spent a lot of time fixing suspect golf architecture. As a golf course architect I spend a lot of time making sure that we get it right the first time.

Perhaps owners and clubs should ask architects vying for design and renovation work, how many changes and how extensive those changes have been on completed projects. Recently I spent some time on a relatively new course by a "name" architect. After the golf course opened, numerous changes were made and more planned.

We've all heard the definition of insanity- Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Golf Architecture's definition of insanity is- Hiring the same Architects over and over again and expecting a different result- getting it "right" the first time.

Another Drawing

Friday, February 19, 2010

Great Golf Courses are a Derivative of Nature First and Man Second!

Great golf courses are a derivative of nature first and man second. That some may choose to study man first and nature secondly and possibly not at all is short sighted. Even courses that are entirely man-made should mimic nature first.

The Excerpt below is from Anarchist's Guide to Golf Course Architecture- Philosophy of Golf Course Architecture

Probably the most bizarre facet of the study of golf course design to me is that most people start with poor assumptions. The typical route for today’s designers and the budding new designers is to study all of the great Architects and golf courses or even perhaps write and comment about it. People spend years and lifetimes doing this. Maybe if you were designing buildings this would make sense, go look at the great buildings of the world. The buildings were all designed and built solely by man. But when it comes to golf courses, I consider it an inadequate course of study. The great golf courses of old were largely produced by nature and the great new ones emulate the great old ones, so whether or not the land was great, the golf holes are created to have that look, feel, and playability. This course of study, learning all there is to know about the great golf courses, is certainly understandable and it is viewed by virtually everyone but me as the proper course of action to “learn” about golf course design. You too can take the pilgrimage to the Mecca of golf and become enlightened. That’s all you need, a ticket and some time and you too can learn all there is to know.

What we are missing is that Mother Nature by and far built those great courses, not man. The only thing that I don’t like at those great old golf courses is the artificial edifice of man and that occurs mostly in unnatural looking man made fixes of bunker edges. If we want great golf courses, maybe we should go back to studying nature, natural landforms, and erosions caused by wind, water, and animals. At the heart of it all isn’t that what we seek to do? Aren’t we trying to find or create golf as it was discovered in nature? Studying great designers and courses as an adjunct to studying nature makes sense, but we need to spend more time studying nature first and then those designers that came before us. Otherwise the only thing that will have changed is that we will have a new “look” and “playability” that at some point becomes conventional. We have a chance to fight our inborn tendencies to go with the herd or I guess to put it in the Scottish golf vernacular the flock and if we can, then we will keep new golf courses less predictable and more natural than ever. If not, maybe we are sheople. Just say and do what the rest of the flock does.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Design Considerations- Greens' Contour Changes from Maintenance Practices

There is a common maintenance procedure that can and does significantly alter the putting surfaces' contours and raise the overall elevation in relation to the green surrounds. The frequent topdressing of greens to improve putting qualities was popularized in the 1980s and continues today. Frequent topdressing can easily add one quarter inch or more of sand to greens on an annual basis. So in 20 years, putting greens may be 5 inches higher. This significant build up is not noticed because it is fairly uniform over the entire green, applied gradually and therefore virtually undetectable. Any assumption that through core aeration, a lot of material is removed, would be inaccurate. In order for the greens to be acceptable putting surfaces and for agronomic considerations, after core aeration, the holes are completely filled and it takes a little extra sand to be insure that the holes are filled.

Topdressing Math, an old grass guy like me can still do the math!
  • 125 tons of topdressing sand annually = approximately 2,500 cubic feet of sand
  • 2.500 cubic feet divided by 120,000 square feet of greens = 0.02 feet of sand = 0.25 inches of sand annually.
  • 20 years of topdressing would add 5 inches of sand over the existing surface

This kind of accumulation is evident on many great old golf courses' push-up greens. Are we so cavalier with the great masters' works? Any thoughts about Pinehurst #2 greens...hmm.

What impact does this unintended altering of contours and raising of greens up 5 inches every 20 years have on the design and playability of the golf course? The tie-ins to the surrounds may not play as designed and intended. In order to protect the playability of the fairway/green and surrounds/green interfaces, it may be necessary to start topdressing out into the approaches and the surrounds. It may also be prudent to start cutting back our topdressing volume on an annual basis and use less nitrogen and more growth regulators to maintain the putting qualities.

Vigorous monitoring of this issue will be a requirement going forward in order to protect the integrity of the golf course. Changes in maintenance practices can minimize the effects of these changes and renovations can restore the intended design/playability the golf course.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

USGA Greens and The Emperor's New Clothes

USGA Greens and The Emperor's New Clothes
February 2010
Armen Suny


In Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale, two weavers promise the Emperor a set of clothes that only the privileged or enlightened can see. There is a child that cries out “But he isn’t wearing anything at all.”

For decades now the USGA with its naked greens construction method has bullied courses and Architects into the most expensive green construction method in common use with no empirical evidence that its method is better. We are supposed to blindly go along with their green construction method despite the fact that with their tens of millions of dollars spent on research that they have not adequately investigated alternative green construction methods. Yes, there have been studies but as we all know, research has become highly politicized and results can, unfortunately be based upon funding and future funding.

Typical USGA Greens construction can cost anywhere from three to six dollars per square foot more than other construction methods. If we use five dollars for the sake of our discussion and assume 120,000 square feet of greens, they will add $600,000 to the cost of construction. If we use typical “ball park” golf development/operations numbers, each $100,000 of construction cost equates to $1 of greens fees. So the USGA's pressure on Architects and the golfing public has caused an average increase in green fees of $6 per round. Is this good for golf? The USGA will put forth the suggestion that other green construction methods are unproven and more costly to maintain. It simply is untrue. If USGA greens are truly superior and the only way to insure success, why don't the USGA's favorite venues for US Opens all have USGA greens?

The USGA is just like the two weavers in Andersen’s tale. The USGA green is just like the Emperor’s new clothes and I am like the child, only my cry is, “But it makes no agronomic sense and cost too much to build.” The USGA has stood by its guns with each version of its latest recasting of the specifications. Let me ask the question, what percentage of USGA greens have been rebuilt? Is the IRS correct in letting us depreciate USGA greens over 30 years? They won’t let us depreciate a push-up green. Can one green construction method be right for the entire world? It may not be right for anything! The USGA keeps telling us that the Emperor’s clothes are beautiful and that furthermore, that if we disagree that we are heretics and bad for the monarchy of golf.

Dr. Michael Hurdzan and I have had discussions for years about his righteous attempts to look at other green construction methods. His has been a lone voice in the industry to challenge the USGA green. What Mike and I have disagreed on was sterile green mixes as a growing medium. He is an advocate of straight sand California type greens and I am an advocate of green construction methods tailored to the specific agronomic conditions and always adding life and nutrient reserves to soil mixes.

Let me explain to you, that I grew up growing grass on push up greens in the Philadelphia area at Aronimink, Merion, and Rolling Green. And that then I had push up greens at Cherry Hills, inferior USGA Greens at Castle Pines, and USGA greens at Shadow Creek. I’ve grown grass in lots of different places on lots of different soil and construction types. I generally found that if your water was good, adequate surface drainage, and you had lots of sun and air movement, that virtually any green construction method was acceptable.

As a turf consultant, I used to enjoy taking Superintendents to one of their better USGA greens and looking at the collar on the far side of the green that got very little traffic and then looking at the adjacent men’s tee that got a lot of traffic. Invariably the highly trafficked tee turf, that often had the same grass, mowing height, and schedule as the green collar was in far better condition even though it was typically built with less grade, often no drainage, and only 4-6 inches of sand. The tee construction cost 25% of the green construction and was in better shape. I used to ask Superintendents if maybe we should start building the greens like the tees so that they would be in better shape and cost less to build. They would usually pause and then start regurgitating what they had learned in school. Maybe we should teach deductive reasoning as a turf course.

What I am about to expound upon is part conjecture and all opinion on my part. The concept behind the USGA green was to build a green that could be saturated from a rain event or by over irrigation from man and still provided an acceptable putting surface. They also wanted a green that could be irrigated with low quality water and still support turf life.

So logically, they piled some sandy materials on top of gravel and assumed that things would drain. Well it didn’t work. The sand on top of the gravel created a false water table, later renamed a perched water table because it sounded better. So instead of going back to the drawing board, to create a construction method that would drain and not create a false water table, these scientists started touting the virtues of a “perched” water table and how this was the ideal method of growing grass.

Now, nowhere have I ever seen their proof for this statement that we have all come to regard as the “Holy Grail” of green construction. A false water table is not the ideal method of growing grass. In all of agriculture, other than rice patties, I am unaware of any other growth system in agriculture that relies on a false water table.

Many Superintendents have come to realize that in order for a USGA green to drain, that you have to fill up much of the big pore spaces of the sand with water until the weight of the water and gravity cause the false water table to be broken. At that time the green will start to drain and the pore spaces will be filled with atmosphere.

Now we have many courses hooking up vacuum systems to their USGA greens to break the perched water table and pull the water out of the green. So, we designed and constructed a green with a perched water table and then because we don’t want the water there, we vacuum it out. Does my earlier statement about a deductive reasoning class being a requirement in a turf education start sounding more reasonable? Ben Franklin is quoted as saying “Common sense is uncommon.” He spent his time in Philadelphia too…maybe its something in the water there.

The solution to this one construction method fits all, USGA green, is to utilize our agronomic skills and design site and condition specific green construction methods. The highest level of green construction would be utilized to grow bentgrass greens in the humid south with bad water. This is the most demanding situation that can be arrived at. What method would be utilized for this difficult situation? I would propose that the high performance push up green construction method be used.

High Performance Push Up Green Method

Core Out Green to 8-10 inches below grade
Rough up or rip subsurface
Install drainage, Herringbone and smile drains in all runoff areas
Fill Drainage trenches with pea gravel
Install green mix or sand, amendments can be tilled in.

This method of construction will perform very well under adverse conditions. The tighter the subsoil, the more rainfall received and the poorer the water quality, the closer the drainage spacing.

Lesser environmental demands will require less intensive construction methods. I have built green nurseries on native soils and then topdressed them. They always performed better than the USGA greens. I have seen greens built on native soils which were ripped and then capped with a few inches of sand that have out performed USGA greens in the same region. Every agronomic situation is different but in my opinion none of them need USGA greens.

Green mixes need to have life in them. The sterile environment that the USGA has dictated for too long is just bad agronomics. It is reductionism and the application of an engineering solution that is silent and even disdainful of the life that soil must have to be productive. It is hydroponics. We create a sterile soil with no nutritional reserves and then wonder why we have odd patch diseases for the first three years. If we add life and nutritional reserves to greens mixes through the incorporation of composts, natural organic fertilizers and inoculants, we will have healthier turf and need less pesticides.

Has anybody ever considered the pollutants in the leachates from USGA greens compared to pushup greens? We should voluntarily mandate that we won’t put this contaminated leachate into drainage ways.

Now that you’ve read this, shouldn’t the Emperor put on some clothes? Shouldn’t we as responsible professionals use our expertise and experience to design region and site specific green construction methods that perform better, cost less to build, and pollute less? Perhaps the USGA can worry about rules, square grooves,   anchored putters and the ball and leave the greens construction methods to us. We won’t cause the average golf round to cost $6 more per round.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Golf Sketches and Clay Models versus Photoshop and Topos


Digitally manipulated photos, to me appear to be emotionless and soulless representations of golf. It may be an indication of the left brain dominated thought process typical of engineers versus the right brain dominated thought process of the artist.

I have started sketching some concepts for a potential client and even some existing golf holes like the picture in the prior post of Sagebrush. Drawing is something that I haven't done in the last 40 years. I have been trying to draw 15 minutes or so each day for the last few weeks.


The clay model is another excellent tool to convey an idea of what the golf should or could look like. This can be accomplished quickly and everyone from the client to the shaper, if you aren't doing it yourself, will understand what the form will look like. This is also a tremendous tool for renovations so that the client fully understands the changes as they really will be, versus looking at pretty green grass Photshopped pictures that don't convey the entire concept or worse yet, lack thereof.

The image above is the model that the 13th at Sagebrush was built from. During the shaping when we went back to the tee, it was apparent that we should get rid of the pot bunker in front and make the right bunker larger to keep the front of the green open and encourage the golfer to try and drive this reachable par 4.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sketch of the 16th at Sagebrush





This is a sketch of the half acre green at Sagebrush. There are 5 greens at Sagebrush that are between 13,000 and 22,000 square feet in size. The 18 greens have a total of 198,500 square feet and may be the largest set of creeping bentgrass greens in North America. The  intended firm and fast playability of the golf course and the scale of the property was such that the land screamed for large greens in most areas.
The greens were constructed in an unorthodox method, what may be termed as high tech push up greens or high performance modified greens. Compost and other nutrients were tilled into the soils prior to the finish grade. The greens were all built to accommodate our daily green speeds of 11-11.5  feet and have all pin positions available. The large greens each have two sprinklers in the middles of the greens.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Robert Thompson on Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club

“It is rare to find a golf club with a vision as well defined as that of Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club. But at the heart of every great golf club is a remarkable golf course and what designer Rod Whitman, Richard Zokol and Armen Suny have created in the interior of British Columbia is, to my way of thinking, a step above anything built in Canada over the last thirty years.”
-          Robert Thompson, Golf Columnist

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Structural Bunkers

Many of you have never heard the term structural bunker. There apparently are no references to it in any golf writings.

The basic types of bunkers are directional, penal, and saving. Any of the bunker types could be strategic or structural. The strategic bunker is obvious and needs little discussion but the structural bunker is another story. Structural bunkers, which are virtually unknown and ignored are used to deal with elevation changes and to minimize earth moving. Any one bunker can be combinations of different bunker types. One bunker can tell you where to hit the ball, directional, save you from running away into trouble, saving, and then after you are in it penalize you with a difficult shot. It can also be structural in that it handled a change in elevation during the construction process instead of requiring more fill or a wall of some sort.


 This is a picture of Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club's 3rd hole. The big fairway bunker on the left was utilized strategically to cause the golfer to think about the dangers on the left side of the hole. It is also the support for a 15 foot fill. As natural looking as it is, its completely man made and allowed us to minimize the fill required to deal with the hole's significant right to left slope. If a structural bunker had not been used the required fill and tie-in would have been substantial and a bit of a force. The look and story from the tee would have been very different. This was a balanced cut and fill. The bunker generated the fill required to achieve the elevation change. This is an aesthetically appealing, golfer friendly, cost effective, solution to one of golf course architecture's challenges.