Sunday, October 28, 2012

Skiing's Lesson for Golf's Governing Bodies

The International Ski Federation (FIS) has done the unthinkable...changed an equipment policy in the face of controversy. Maybe the USGA, PGA Tour and the R&A can learn something from the FIS.

To put this in simple terms, the FIS changed their Giant Slalom ski specifications, taking them back 20 or 25 years in technology. Does this sound like something the powers of golf should pay attention to? Now, the FIS did this to help reduce injuries and whether or not it's going to do that remains to be seen.  But the FIS did what they thought was right, period end of story, despite the fact that the world class competitive skiers and manufacturers in general may not have been pleased with the decision.

I suspect that the FIS could care less what equipment and technologies non competitive skiers use to pursue improvement in their sport. And the USGA and R&A shouldn't spend any time worrying about what technologies that the 99.99% of golfers utilize to increase their enjoyment of the game.

Golf and the challenges that technology have placed upon our sport aren't safety issues but they have caused the vast majority of our storied golf venues to become virtually obsolete and outdated for championship golf. Something needs to be done with the golf ball and the USGA and R&A need to show some intestinal fortitude and begin to protect the game at its highest level.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Golf's Ground Game versus Minimalist Aesthetics

Ground Attack Encouraged
A Suny Zokol Golf Design Master Plan Rendering

Faux links playability has taken over pop golf design culture. When you see some wild looking golf course with fescue waving in the air, you just believe that you will be getting a links experience. A true links experience is one that not only accepts the ground game but often calls for or even demands it to gain an advantage, while penalizing the air attack with some degree of regularity.

A Suny Zokol Golf Design Master Plan calling for the Aerial Attack

And it's always been interesting to me that a minimalist and or links looking golf course is generally assumed to be firm and fast and receptive to the ground game, purely on how it looks. Minimalist golf and the ground game are not necessarily mutually inclusive. There are many examples of great looking rugged golf courses that show all of the signs of being links like in playability but the design has greens perched up in the air and running approach shots simply cannot be played...these greens still require an aerial or conventional approach. Mind you, these course may be great but are they as receptive to the ground game as they could be or should be if they are purported to be links?

Every time you raise another green up to that dramatic site as you route the course you become less accommodating to the ground game. I don't think that we should avoid all elevated or "up" green sites but we shouldn't default to the easy drama every time either.

So the next time you play a purported links course, think about the courses receptiveness to running ground shots. Is it links golf or is it faux links?

Renderings by Maren Suny

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Golf Course Architects- Where do they come from?

Suny, Zokol Design's bunker top-line for a current renovation

Having spent my formative years listening to stories of the great golf course architects and later getting to know many of the modern golf architects and designers along with a lot of time spent on great golf courses, it's probably not a surprise that eventually I got into the design business. A great friend of mine that I consider to be the "best" golf course residential community developer in the US asked me a couple of simple questions when we were discussing my formally entering the golf course design business. His questions were-

How many world class sprinters have children that grow up to be world class sprinters?
How many golf course architects have children that grow up to be architects?

You can answer those questions yourself and draw your own conclusions.

It's interesting to me, how people have become golf course architects. In the classic era of golf in the Americas, there were the great first time amateur designers, along with those that were greenkeepers and or pros. There were standouts in each of these groups. Its tough to beat Hugh Wilson, George Crump, and William Flynn. It's not very difficult to figure out where I grew up and what I like.

Today's routes to become a golf course architect are to be born into the family business, be a PGA Tour player, like my partner Dick Zokol, study landscape and golf course architecture, there are even a couple of greenkeeper types like me, there are operator types that started in the golf construction business, and then there are today's amateurs...the golf writers and golf architecture historians.

In each of these groups there are those that just seem to have it and then the rest of them. I'm not talking about marketing ability, we all understand that there have been some brilliant marketers in the golf architecture business. But what sets the others apart? What sets them apart is the gift that they were born with. Golf course architecture is not a science or a math that can be learned solely from a book. The talent required to become a golf course architect/designer is based on the artistry that you are born with and develop and more than just a touch of common sense.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sagebrush- One of Canada's Best

Note: Courses built since 1960
Opened, Architect(s)
Avg. rating

1. Devil’s Paintbrush
Caledon, Ontario
1996 Dana Fry, Michael Hurdzan

2. The National GC of Canada
Woodbridge, Ontario
1979 George Fazio, Tom Fazio

3. Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club
Quilchena, British Columbia
2009, Rod Whitman, Richard Zokol and Armen Suny

I spoke today with Rod Whitman and Richard Zokol and we are all honored by this recognition. We built what we thought and believed was "good and right" for golf and hoped that golfers would appreciate it. We purposefully ducked some of the easy drama and focussed on providing golf that was immensely enjoyable for lesser golfers while providing both intellectual and physical challenges to the best of players.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Trees, Golf Course Architecture and Maintenance

Just Kidding, I really do like trees, just not when they interfere with good golf.

At just about any golf course in the world, golfers are apt to choose up sides when the talk turns to trees. A veritable Mason-Dixon line is drawn, with tree lovers on one side and so called tree haters on the other. Tree lovers is an accurate characterization of the those that will defend all trees' right to exist on the golf course regardless of the trees' negative impact on golf strategy and agronomics. On the other hand, there are those that are called many things but that are oft times referred to as the tree haters, who think that trees shouldn't ever interfere with golf strategy and agronomics. Both camps must understand that trees affect turf quality and golf strategy along with aesthetics and vistas.

I guess that you could put me somewhere smack in the middle of the tree debate and as anyone that has ever read my blog or spoken with me knows, I never straddle the fence (see my indictment on setup for Major Championships or my thoughts on golf organizations demanding architectural changes on great golf courses) or perhaps even my critical analysis of USGA greens.  But let me get back to the issue here, pragmatic tree lover is how I choose to think of myself. As a child, I owned every record for climbing highest in the trees in my neighborhood, even if no one else realized it was a competition. And then later on, I spent quite a bit of time trimming trees at Aronimink Golf Club in the off season when I had breaks from school. To me, the wholesale removal of trees on golf courses that would naturally revert to forest, seems irrational and aesthetically mistaken. And on the other hand, filling up every void of a golf course with trees is just as irrational. What is called for is an intelligent plan that evaluates where and how trees should be utilized on the golf course that will improve or not negatively impact turf quality while protecting or even enhancing the design's strategic options.

I started playing golf at eight years old and working at golf courses at fourteen years old and that's what I have done for the last forty years, this has led me to understand, all too well, the issues of trees on golf courses. Trust me, if you worked at Aronimink and Rolling Green in the 1970s and 80s you learned what shade meant to grass, especially the greens. Both courses have since had renovations that greatly reduced the negative impact of shade on the greens but also corrected silly tree plantings that adversely affected the strategic options and the playability of the golf course. Having spent a few years working at both courses, I have opinions about the resto/reno-vations and Suny, Zokol Golf Design would have done things differently but the these were great projects that significantly improved these great golf courses from a design and agronomic perspective.

The vast majority of golfers' opinions about specific trees will be based entirely on how a particular tree affects their game. If they end up behind a tree too often, it's a "bad" tree. If someone in their regular foursome ends up behind the tree to often, it's a "good" tree. As humans, we are really very predictable in our opinions. Most Superintendents see trees as a scourge and the enemy of fine turfs everywhere. Again, count me in the middle. I like trees but dislike that they cause shade problems on turf and the loss of strategic options on courses.

Shade's Affects on Turf, Greens

Greens, typically have the potential to be the most highly stressed turfs on any course. Anyone that can remember biology in grade school probably remembers that plants use sunlight through a process of photosynthesis to produce energy. We really don't need to discuss this much, it simply is a fact. Grasses that we use on golf courses will do better with full sun. Bentgrass greens need morning sun to get started in the mornings. When bentgrass doesn't have morning sun, it will invariably struggle. Turf 101 is over, you can learn about this in many places.

Trees planted or growing on the east and south side of greens are a problem. They cause shade- please look at these Apps that allow you to follow the sun's arc for any day of the year while you are standing on your greens.

Reality sometimes interferes with the perfect agronomic conditions for greens. So, when trees must be planted as screens on the east or south side of a green, consider the sun's arc along with the distance from the green and their mature height before selecting the tree species and planting locations. Consider choosing lower growing varieties that will not cause problems. If larger plants are needed immediately, use a "planned obsolescence" technique; plant the "wrong" trees in the "right" sizes and then under-plant them with the those lower growing species or varieties which are usually available only in smaller sizes. In ten or fifteen years, it will be necessary to cut down the "wrong" trees as they are getting too large and by then, the proper trees will have gained size and be ready to give decades of good service, providing screening without negatively impacting turf.

Trees' Affect on Design's Strategic Options

Well, now we have opened Pandora's Box, trees on the golf course can and do wreak havoc over the intended golf strategies. An excerpt from: The Anarchist's Guide to Golf Course Architecture

Trees on golf courses can cause Civil War type divides in clubs. People just don’t understand tree planting/removal strategies. First of all grass needs sunlight and air movement. That being settled we can move on to design issues and for that matter let’s go backwards and start with the latest craze of buzz cutting golf course popularized at Oakmont. Members can, I suppose do whatever they want to their course but a site that is surrounded by and if left fallow would become treed, should probably have some trees on it.

So let’s look at reasonable tree plantings that can create a sense of forests but accommodate and perhaps enhance golf and the golf experience. Linear tree plantings are never, ever good, period end of story. I suppose that there is one exception and that would be on those old golf courses that are just so tight that without trees they might not accommodate modern golf. What is good, is the use of clusters of trees that give a sense of forest but are positioned to achieve strategic and aesthetic goals. We don’t need to talk about the aesthetic goals of tree planting. We all know how pretty trees can be in a landscape and how they can help frame a golf hole and steer a golf shot. Just watch a player going through their pre-shot routine when there are a lot of trees or a big bunker on one side of a hole as they are wiggling and waggling you will see that inevitable shift of stance away from the visual hazard of the trees or bunker. So we know that just as bunkers can be strategic and directional and saving and penal, so can trees. The tree can steer your shot. It can knock an errant shot down and keep it in play. Or it can be a hazard when you are behind it.

So how do we plant or for that matter remove trees to better golf. First let’s agree that when possible that clusters of trees are always better than rows of trees. Let’s also agree that tree plantings and hazards that are penal can be placed in positions so that the better golfers may be more affected than lesser golfers. For instance a tree planting at 275 off of the regular tee on the left side of the fairway is going to affect more good golfers strategically than a tree planting 250 yards off of the regular tee on the right side of the fairway. So the distance of the planting from the regular tee is critical and the side of the planting to anyone that has ever seen me play golf is obvious as well. But what if we have a cluster of trees at 200 yards from the regular tee on the right side of a hole and there is OB on the right side of the hole. Have we helped the average golfer and done nothing that would typically affect the better golfer?
And by the way, every green doesn't have to have trees in back of it to give depth perception, it's just so predictable and cliche. Part of the game and challenge of golf is being able to adjust to different situations. When every green is framed and backed by trees, there is a sameness and an overt redundancy to the course.
That brief excerpt  gives you just a little taste of a very different way of thinking about existing trees as well as planning for future trees in golf course design.

As stewards of the golf course, it is incumbent upon us to review how time, tree growth, and misguided tree plantings have caused negative changes to our golf courses from both a design and grass quality/agronomic standpoint. The first step is to identify that there is an issue and to then call in someone with the technical skill to develop a plan to "correct" the issues and provide direction and guidance for future tree needs.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Gil Hanse beats the field...2016 Olympics Course


Mark this date on your calendar because this is the day that golf design changed and changed for the better. Talent, pure talent won out over big names. 

Gil Hanse's team is chosen to design the Rio 2016™ Olympics Golf Course

I am shocked that the committee was bold enough to make this kind of historic decision. When the committee postponed their decision, you just knew that something was up and that a lesser known might just have had the best concept, team, and presentation.

Hanse Design in my mind has been the most underrated design firm on the planet and now everyone from  Donald Trump to the rest of the civilized world seems to know it.
Check out this from Hanse Golf Design's website:

Hanse Golf Design chosen as a designer for the Rio 2016™ Olympics Golf Course
(Official Statement from Gilbert S. Hanse for publication)
We want to take this opportunity to say how honored and humbled we are to have been selected to design the golf course for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.  On behalf of everyone involved with the Hanse Golf Course Design presentation, thank you to the City of Rio de Janeiro, the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee, and the International Golf Federation for placing their trust in us to deliver a course that will become the first course to host golf in the Olympics since 1904.
It has always been our goal to produce pleasurable and interesting golf courses, so needless to say we are excited that our body of work has been deemed to be of a standard that will provide a great stage for the Olympic games while providing a long lasting legacy for the game of golf inBrazil.  We will strive to produce a course that will maximize the benefits of the site while creating an identity that is in keeping with the natural terrain, vegetation and wildlife indigenous to what we believe will be transformed into a “picturesque” landscape which will make the people of Rio proud. As the interest of any course is ultimately felt in the way it plays, we hope to construct something that will prove to be a fascinating study in the many faces it presents: options, recovery shots,  and a sense of whimsy are all critical components which we think will make the 2016 Olympic course fun to play.  The traditions of the game and of its most artful designs have taught us so much, and it is within these traditions that we will seek to provide a joyful design that will reinforce in future generations the unique character of the courses upon which golf is played can be a singular experience in the world of sports.
As you can imagine and as only such an once-in-a-lifetime design commission deserves, this was a comprehensive process and I need to first and foremost thank Jim Wagner, my incredibly talented design partner. His creativity makes all of our work better.  Also, a great debt of thanks to our partners on this project, Owen Larkin, head of The Larkin GroupMargie Larkin, David Fay along with Jeff Carlson and Frank Rossi, for creating an environmentally-sustainable golf course template that will set the standards for this emerging golf market.  Furthermore, we have benefited greatly from the support of Hall of Famer Amy Alcott, who unselfishly accepted a supporting role on this project and brought her great playing and teaching credentials to our team.  The technical support and advice of Tommy NaccaratoAndrea LynchIan Andrew,and Larry Rodgers helped us to prepare a solid presentation that would certainly have been lacking if not for their considerable help.  We also want to thank all of the clubs, co-workers, and friends who have supported us with work over these nearly 20 years, the sum of those experiences has put us in this position today.  And lastly my deepest thanks and gratitude to my wonderful wife Tracey and family, Chelsea, Tyler, and Caley. They have sacrificed much in the way of my time, I hope in some way that the enjoyment of this accomplishment will help to repay that sacrifice.

Gilbert S. Hanse
Hanse Golf Design

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Zokol...Sagebrush in the Rear View Mirror

All good things come to an end. The good thing this time is Richard (Dick) Zokol and Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club. Dick will no longer be affiliated with Sagebrush. Sagebrush was Dick's baby, he chased the dream of bringing great golf to Western Canada for over a decade before Sagebrush was hatched. His vision and astounding resolve were the only reasons that there is a Sagebrush and now, it's over.
Zokol Sketch of 17 and 18 at Sagebrush

This sketch by Dick was his first attempt at using charcoal and pencil.

Clay Model by Zokol

Dick also does clay models for our clients.

I spent the last couple of days with Dick and the future is bright. Anyone that knows Dick will know that he is always working on something...

Our design company, Suny, Zokol Golf Design continues on with active renovations and Master-plans.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Golf's Future Growth...Product Placement

Let's face it, kids just aren't that interested in playing golf and it appears as if we will lose an entire generation of golfers. Most kids, in all probability, think that golf is a game for old men. We, as an industry, need to find ways to make golf appealing to kids. Golf organizations have been spending tens of millions of dollars a year trying to attract kids to golf but have failed. The economy and rehashing the same old ideas for growing the game of golf do not bode well for our sport. We need to find new and innovative ways to make kids want to know more about or even, dare I say, play golf.

First Tee and Tiger Woods were going to save golf, remember. And now, The PGA of America is going to save golf with Golf 2.0. I hope that we get some more software updates for Golf 2.0 before it's too late. I'm just afraid that it's going to be more of the same bureaucracy driven mediocrity that ends up making us feel like we are doing something, even if it is the same old thing. It's time to try a entirely new 21st Century approach.

Let me propose a new idea, Product Placement or Embedded Marketing to promote golf. It has worked for everything from soft drinks to automobiles and more; it can and will work for golf.  Pay the  network, studios, Executive Producers or whomever to place golf and golf characters into their youth oriented sitcoms and movies. Expose tens of millions of children to golf through television shows and movies that they are already watching. This way we won't need to change kids' behaviors to expose them to golf, they'll get our message in their own family rooms. And then of course since we would be buying this Product Placement, we would dictate that the golf character be one of the more popular, hip, cool, dope characters on the show. If we can create mainstream youth culture characters that are golfers, kids will begin to think of golf as part of the norm for their peer group.

There are undoubtably many ways to attract young people to the game of golf; as an industry, we need to constantly reevaluate and better our efforts. If we don't start thinking about growing the game of golf in new youth oriented ways, it won't grow and it will truly become a game for old men.

Monday, January 2, 2012

More Einstein on Golf Course Architecture

Einstein, if he had played golf, would have ended up a designer...and what would he have thought of modern design?

My partner in the Golf Course Design business, Richard Zokol, sent me this Einstein quote after he had read my EINSTEIN and GOLF COURSE ARCHITECTURE post, "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." As it turns out we were both reading Einstein quotes at the same time. Zokol works hard to keep his intuitive side running roughshod over his logical side...and as for me, I live in both worlds.

The intuitive mind in golf course architecture has seen a rebirth in the last fifteen years or so. But let's be very clear, the sacred gift (intuitive mind) can use a healthy dose of the faithful servant (rational mind) if any design is going to be truly good. The problem with modern golf course architecture is that design and renovation have become far more rational and conventional than intuitive and original.

The intuitive mind should be the overwhelming force in any design with the rational mind reviewing the decisions and concepts to insure that they have captured the goals of the design. I have opined in my TREATISE ON GOLF COURSE ARCHITECTURE about this subject:

There is a difference between things, whether it be art, music, movies, man made landscapes, building architecture, and even golf course architecture that garner attention for short periods of time and others which become classics. What causes us to like something forever versus becoming enthralled for a short period of time and then losing interest? Why is it that some golf courses capture our attention to the point that we could play the same golf course over and over again and never tire of it, while other courses initially grab our attention but seem somewhat shallow in the long run? 
Perhaps it is a nature based originality that sets one golf course apart from another, that allows it to be considered a "classic". When those other courses, that are formulaic and impose preset artificial conditions and constraints upon any piece of ground that they are built upon, are considered in the long run as less than "classic", is it really any wonder? Can golf architecture avoid falling into formulaic convention? Through the Anarchy of nature it can.
We are all slaves to convention at some level. We constantly hear and talk about thinking out of the box. Golf architecture suffers from all of the same problems when it comes to shaking off convention and thinking out of the box.

To me the intuitive mind that Einstein talks about is the ultimate definition of being one with nature and all of its variability and anomalies. And the rational mind is all too often the convention that sneaks into our psyche and causes us to lose our creative fortitude to embrace our intuitive mind.

The lack of intuitive design in today's golf course architecture is mind numbing and the playability of modern golf continues to have a sameness to it, no matter what aesthetic treatment is utilized. It has become popular today to push some tees back, scallop bunker edges using native/fescues or to create maintained steep grass bunker banks and flat sand bottoms. Oh yeah, don't forget the runoff areas, it's considered cutting edge strategy to add short grass areas around greens that only take the ball away from the putting surfaces. And that's it, yep, no interest in enhanced and varied strategic options, just more of the same; the sacred gift of intuition is nowhere to be found and the faithful servant, rational mind, continues to be honored.

So, designers in general redo bunkers and push some tees back while improving aesthetics. Their rational minds won't even let them think about a paradigm shift in strategy through enhanced and varied playability options and strategies. The problem with this standard approach is that these courses continue to offer limited shot options and strategies which make golf less interesting and less playable. The "gift" is still missing, even when the courses look as if they should offer options in playability, they don't because they still require the air game on most approach shots and repetitive strategy off of the tee hole after hole and course after course...

Einstein believed that the intuitive or the right brain, was critical in achieving great things and that the rational or left brain, while necessary, had to be utilized in conjunction with intuition to avoid the mundane. Is today's golf course architecture more intuitive or rational?