I am stoked to feature our first golf course architect on A Casual 9, Riley Johns. A fellow Canadian, Riley grew up in the Rocky Mountains near Banff Springs Golf Club and developed an appreciation for the game and the natural beauty within landscapes at a young age. Riley first started working on the course maintenance side of the golf business, then later worked for golf course construction contractors and architects where he developed many years of field experience building and shaping courses, then furthered his learning with a degree in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design. Riley has been fortunate to be mentored along the way by some of the great golf architects of our time – Tom Doak, Bill Coore, and Rod Whitman. Riley started his own golf architecture firm, Integrative Golf Design, back in 2013 and has not looked back. Please enjoy.
1. How were you introduced to the game and at what point did you take an earnest interest in golf architecture?
RJ: Other than messing around on the driving range as a small child, I was properly introduced to the game while playing in a junior league at the Canmore Golf & Curling Club with a crew of some close friends. We would spend hours on the golf course, at least 2-3 times a week. Half of the time we were getting into trouble, the other half we were actually golfing. It became one of our many stomping grounds during those long, school-less, summer days.
My interest in golf architecture began in earnest when I first started working on various golf course construction projects for summer work. The idea of combining strategy and challenge with the naturalness and beauty of the land was something I really found to be intriguing. The work was fun too, which is always a bonus!
Starting with Tom Doak’s Anatomy of a Golf Course, I started feeding my curiosity by consuming all the popular golf architecture books I could get my hands on. I fully immersed myself in building golf courses during the day, then reading about course design at night. It was from around that time forward that I decided to try and learn as much as possible about the craft and pursue golf design as a career.
2. Tell us a bit more about your golf architecture firm, Integrative Golf. What is your philosophy and what sort of projects have you been working on?
RJ: Integrative Golf is essentially a hands-on golf course architecture firm. We are very focused on creating interesting and entertaining golf. I currently have two talented and highly experienced individuals helping with the workload, Dan Philcox and Marc Lilly. We pride ourselves on staying small, almost boutique, and not spreading our schedules thin with too much work. This has allowed us to not only give clients and Clubs our fullest attention which they appreciate, but it also helps us focus on the quality aspects of our workmanship.
Our philosophy is rooted in classic architectural principles, as well as more traditional design characteristics. We cherish the ideas employed by the Golden Age Architects and have great admiration and respect for their achievements. We are believers in the ‘less is more’ philosophy and work hard to produce beautiful yet thoughtful architecture. Creating Fun, Beautiful and Interesting golf is what we ultimately strive for on each of our projects.
We are currently consulting at Point Grey Golf & Country Club in Vancouver where they are looking at upgrading both their aging infrastructure and enhancing the architectural interest of their course. Construction is slated to begin in 2019.
We also have recently been retained by Rolling Green Golf Club in Philadelphia, where we are joining up with Rhebb Golf Design to restore their beautiful 1926 William Flynn design. This is currently in the research and master planning stages.
Every other year, we also pick away at a Donald Ross restoration project north of Winnipeg for our friends at Elmhurst Golf & CC.
Other than a couple of other early-stage projects in the pipeline, these clients are pretty much our focus at the moment. Anything more on our plate and we wouldn’t have time for our own golf!
3. Along the way you’ve had the chance to work under some great golf architecture minds, including the likes of Tom Doak, Bill Coore, and Rod Whitman. What were you able to learn from them that would have been tough to learn from a book or classroom?
RJ: I have been extremely fortunate to have had amazing mentors help me along the way as I navigate this chosen career path. In terms of learning, nothing can compare to the wisdom of the more experienced; especially when it is those three gentlemen you mentioned! Getting the opportunity to learn from such remarkable, and influential, figures in this craft has truly been a learning opportunity that is without a doubt unmatched by any amount of book reading or classroom time.
More specifically, some of the most treasured pieces of advice I’ve been given over the years is not regarding golf design at all, but rather insight into how the professional side of this business actually operates. Having never worked in an office setting before, let alone for another golf design firm (except Mr. Doak’s office), this type of advice was always invaluable to me. It really helped me avoid some potential missteps early on as I established Integrative Golf Design.
4. How much do you think learning about and appreciating golf course architecture can enhance one’s enjoyment of the game, even for the average or casual golfer?
RJ: I think having an understanding of golf course architecture can certainly enhance a players’ golf experience, especially if it promotes the use of one’s imagination while playing.
That said, I also think you need to first learn how to play the game before diving into the deep-end of golf course design and architecture. Rather than solely learning about golf architecture through a book, I would also suggest playing and experiencing good architecture as a good first step.
When experiencing an architecturally revered golf course, I believe it is important to get rid of any modern frills and distractions. I would suggest foregoing the golf cart and instead walk the course. Throw away the pencil and scorecard, leave the range finder at home, forget about the notion of Par, and just simply play a fun version of match play while appreciating the architectural nuances. By doing so, I think people will once again rediscover the most enjoyable aspects of the game – the true spirit of the game.
5. What are some ways average golf courses or local munis can make meaningful improvements to their course without ripping up the entire thing or leveraging the farm?
RJ: The most important first step is to hire a golf architect – especially one that best fits your specific scenario. No matter what the perceived scope or budget, a one day visit by an architect can be the most valuable investment a Club makes.
The reason a golf architect can be so valuable is they can make an unbiased assessment of the current golf course situation and help prioritize potential capital improvements and enhancements. An architect can offer Clubs valuable perspective by looking at the big picture and add context for the long term.
If a muni (or any golf course for that matter) only has a small amount of money in their war chest every year for capital improvements, I would suggest saving those up for specific projects. Once the savings have had time to grow into something a little more substantial, then the time is right to take on more meaningful improvements and execute them properly.
The worst thing to do is to squander those limited funds yearly by throwing good bunker sand into defective bunkers, for example, or repaving a section of cart path that was in the wrong place in the first place! These types of decisions are very common and often lead to less than desirable results over the long term.
Like the renowned golf architect Alister Mackenzie so perfectly wrote:
“Above all, I realize that more golf courses are ruined by spending money on them than by refraining to do so.”
6. How often do you see “good” golf courses not living up to their full potential and what do you think are the biggest contributing factors to that?
RJ: I see them all the time. So many “okay” golf courses on amazing properties could do small, inexpensive, and subtle adjustments to their course to make a dramatic impact on the playing experience. Things as simple as moving some grass lines, removing some trees, improving the agronomy, expanding a few greens, or adjusting the bunkering could make a big difference to an average course.
Alternately, there are a lot of “bad” golf courses out there that just never had the potential in the first place. These are often tied to housing developments and built for reasons other than golf. Such courses should probably just be allowed to fade away, or get reincarnated into something more sustainable like a community park, or a fun short course.
A big contributing factor as of recently, (probably due to the vastness of information and imagery found nowadays on the internet/social media), is many Clubs are taking on in-house solutions to their perceived problems to save money. Although well-intentioned, many of these solutions are often misguided, purely functional, or just simply shortsighted. Unfortunately, this in-house approach usually falls short in accomplishing any real artistic potential. When the time inevitably comes, and the Club must seek professional advice to address all the quasi-fixed problems properly, the Club then finds itself in a tough position as it reluctantly has to explain to the membership why it needs to redo the work they recently spent a bunch of money on.
I unfortunately see this situation way too often, and it is sadly a big contributing factor on why many golf courses will never truly reach their fullest potential.
7. There are so many different types of golf courses in different settings that look completely different, that can all be considered great. What do the greatest golf courses in the world have in common?
RJ: Great golf courses all have a distinct sense of place, and are all very memorable.
Like a beautiful landscape, or a grand theater, they excite your senses in ways that are hard to explain. They are gracefully reflective of their natural surroundings yet make a profound statement. The history, the folklore, the curiosity, the timeless brilliance of their form, and the enduring thrills they provide day-in and day-out are all hallmarks of a great golf course.
Like an amazing plate of food, it’s not only about the sum of the individual ingredients, it’s how those ingredients are used and work together that takes everything to the next level. Golf architects, like chefs, put all the ingredients together in a certain way. Great golf courses happen when the recipe is perfected.
8. What are some of your favorite and/or underrated golf courses that you’ve had the chance to play?
RJ: Lahinch in Ireland is probably one of my favorite places I’ve played thus far. I could loop that course for the rest of my life and not get bored of it — playing some kind of quirky Irish 4-ball game of course!
Back in 2014, I was lucky to play golf in Iceland during the summer solstice and played an amazing island links course off the mainland called Vestmannaeyjar Golf Course. Traversing around a collapsed volcanic crater, the routing navigates amongst volcanic rock outcroppings and along rugged cliffs above the ocean. The only way to get to the golf course is by boat and the whole journey was certainly one of the more memorable golf experiences I’ve had.
One of the most ‘underrated’ or under-the-radar courses I’ve recently played was at Wailua Golf Course in Kauai. This public muni has amazing architectural bones; it plays amongst coastal seaside dunes and amongst forested pockets inland. The course’s routing reminded me of Seminole in Florida. With some sympathetic bunker work and selective tree removal, this place could be one of the best courses in Hawaii.
9. What sort of influence do you hope to leave behind in the game for future generations to enjoy?
RJ: I hope I can inspire other young people to become interested in the craft and get involved. Golf needs more young, passionate, and creative minds to help keep the game strong, relevant, and robust for future generations.
I hope my interpretation of golf being a ‘fun and interesting game’, rather than a ‘mundane and difficult sport’, inspires more places to take a closer look at their facilities and rethink their current offerings.
Golf, and golf course architecture, is entering some exciting times and I’m just thrilled to be a part of it all.
A huge thanks to Riley for taking time out of his busy schedule to impart some of his wisdom and let us get to know him and his golf architecture design business a little better.
I highly recommend checking out the Integrative Golf Design website to learn more about Riley’s business and recent projects. The “journal” section of his site also contains some annual photo journals as well as other interesting entries, including this epic piece on the history of one of Stanley Thompson’s greatest holes – Divine Service in the Devil’s Cauldron.
You can check out previous episodes of A Casual 9 here.