It is with great pleasure that I introduce our second Canadian golf course architect on our Q&A series, A Casual 9. Jeff Mingay has operated his own golf architecture firm, Mingay Golf Course Design, since 2009. Previous to that, Jeff worked under Rod Whitman for nearly a decade where he had a hand in the design and construction of three Canadian gems — Cabot Links, Blackhawk Golf Club, and Sagebrush (although Sagebrush is currently closed with ownership issues, it has nothing to do with Jeff’s work!). His first solo project was a master plan for Victoria Golf Club in late 2008, with restoration work beginning in 2009 and continuing over the past 10 years and counting with Jeff as the consulting architect. Jeff continues to compile an impressive list of successful projects as a golf course architect and has a tremendous outlook on the game. Please enjoy.
1. Tell us a bit about how you were introduced to the game of golf and what got you interested in becoming a golf course architect.
JM: About a year before I was born, my Dad joined Essex Golf & Country Club in Windsor, Ontario. He paid a $400 initial fee and his dues were something like $10 a month. This was the mid-1970s.
Essex is great. A classic 1929 low, Tudor-style clubhouse and an elegant Donald Ross-designed golf course which, thankfully, are still intact. I was fortunate to “automatically” become a member of Essex when I turned 10, just because I was Pete Mingay’s kid. As a result, I was fortunate to learn about golf and what a “real” golf course is, at Essex. I took serious interest in the course almost immediately. Eventually I found Ross’ original plans for Essex, studied them on the course and began trying to analyze how the place was built.
My Dad had a ton of golf books, too, including all of the classics on golf course architecture. Access to Essex and my Dad’s books ignited a passionate interest in golf course architecture at an unusually young age. By the time I was 14 or 15 years old, becoming a golf course architect seemed like a real possibility to me.
2. From working under Rod Whitman, to getting your first solo project at Victoria Golf Club, to where you are now with an array of projects on your plate and a growing business and brand – what has the journey been like?
JM: I’ve told a number of people who’ve asked for advice about pursuing a career in golf course architecture the same thing: If you don’t mind constantly traveling and, in turn, being away from family and friends, long days working in summer heat for comparatively little pay, and a ridiculous amount of competition for promising projects, golf course architecture is a great pursuit that’ll inevitably take you on an interesting journey!
3. I understand you pride yourself on being intimately involved with the execution of your work through field supervision and hands-on work. Why is this so important to you?
JM: Almost 20 years ago, Rod Whitman inadvertently gave me some great advice. He said, it’s the guys with dirt under their nails who will never build the worst courses and have a better chance to build the best. I’ve never forgot that, and never will.
4. As you know I’ve recently had the pleasure of seeing your work at Victoria Golf Club. The remodeling of the bunkers, in particular, blew me away. What is the anatomy of a great bunker and what factors influence how you want the bunker to look after it is built or remodeled?
JM: Thankfully I don’t think there’s an “anatomy of a great bunker”. The only important thing is that the bunker drains water. There are different types of sand bunkers that are equally great. Variety is most important. Those deep grass-face bunkers at the National Golf Links of America are just as cool as the relatively flat sandy waste areas at Pine Valley, for example. They’re all great bunkers.
In general, I think it’s the variety of bunkers at Victoria that catches people’s eyes. For the most part, the bunkers at Victoria are bold and rugged to fit the nature of the property. Just as important though, they have an interesting variety of sizes and shapes, too, with some cool humps and bumps in the surrounds and on the horizon lines. Those big, deep bunkers surrounding the 2nd green are very different from the clusters of sand pits separating the 1st and 18th, 11th and 12th fairways, for example. Different sites, different holes, different clients, different restorative-based goals, etc. tend to dictate different bunker styles … which is ideal. Again, there’s no template for a great bunker.
5. How challenging can it be to balance a golf club’s view of what they want or think they need versus what you think needs to be done?
JM: It’s always a challenge dealing with committee and Board members. In fear of the possible wrath of fellow club members, a lot of people in positions of power tend to be apprehensive about changing things. But that doesn’t mean dealing with clubs has to be frustrating.
Years ago, William Flynn — who designed Shinnecock Hills, Merion and dozens of other great courses — said that golf architects should never lose sight of their role as important educational factors in the game. This is great advice, too. It’s a golf architect’s job to teach golfers about golf course design and course maintenance. Educating committee and Board members, and club managers, is crucial to developing plans for golf course improvement that will be accepted by a membership-at-large, then successfully implemented.
Equally important is input from club golfers and superintendents who are around their respective courses a lot and, in turn, know a lot about the day-to-day functions of the course and specific problems that need to be resolved. Developing a golf course improvement plan that’s going to be a success is a team effort coordinated throughout the involvement of a golf course architect. Through this process, the best architects achieve the balance you’re referring to.
6. There is a lot of subjectivity in golf and golf course architecture, but what are some more objective things about golf course architecture?
JM: In my view, there are three objective things about golf course architecture that are indisputable.
First, the course has to function properly. It has to drain effectively, for example, and in general provide the golf course superintendent with the best circumstance to achieve optimum playing conditions. That’s most important.
Function also relates to playability. The golf course has to challenge the best golfers and at the same time allow the rest of us to enjoy the game. This is the ideal in golf course architecture.
Last, the course should be distinctive. This is the only common characteristic shared among the world’s truly great courses … they’re all very different.
If you have a course that functions properly, caters to the enjoyment of all golfers regardless of ability and is genuinely distinct — different than other courses — you’ve got a course that has a really good chance of being successful.
7. The ‘Golden Age’ golf course architecture movement has sparked a lot of positive and thoughtful discourse on social media, but has recently sparked some heated debate and even backlash towards strong opinions on the matter. How do you view the role social media has played in golf course architecture movements and education?
JM: Social media provides an effective platform to help educate golfers about course architecture, no doubt. But, most of the discourse on Twitter and other social media ends up being debates over relatively incidental elements of golf course architecture, like bunker style, template holes and stuff like that. The “Golden Age” was a remarkable era that raised the bar for golf course architecture worldwide, and set a standard we’re all still trying to achieve. But, equally great golf courses have been designed and constructed in other eras, too. What’s most important to realize is that the legacy of the “Golden Age” is exactly what I just described above: The course has to function, it has to cater to everyone, and it should be distinctive. After that, everything else is subjective.
8. Considering the state of the modern game and environmental challenges we face such as water usage, how sustainable is the game of golf as it currently stands?
JM: You need a stick and a ball, and maybe a hole in the ground, to play golf. That’ll never change. And, a select group of people will never stop being attracted to that sport, even if turf conditions on golf courses regress a bit in the future. History attests to this fact.
That’s overly simplistic, I know. And, figuring out ways to reduce inputs associated with agronomy and golf course maintenance, in general — i.e. water use, chemicals and fertilizer applications, fuel consumption etc. — while continuing to maintain optimum playing conditions is an exciting challenge if you look at things optimistically. It’s not easy to predict how this reality will play out. But, I’m confident that golf’s in good hands. There are a lot of intelligent, passionate and innovative thinkers — including superintendents, architects, agronomists, plant pathologists and other scientists — trying to figure things out that will likely make course maintenance and, in turn, the game of golf more sustainable moving forward, while also continuing to present courses in their current condition.
Again, I’m optimistic. It’s going to be very interesting to see what develops on this front in the near future.
9. Strictly from a golf course architecture point of view, if you could design and build a golf course from scratch on any piece of the land in the world, where would you want to do it?
JM: Do you know of piece of land in an environment where golf can be played year-round in a comfortable climate over sandy, rumpled ground with some elevation change that doesn’t require serious hill climbing?
That’s where I’d like to design and build a course from scratch!
A huge thanks to Jeff for taking the time out of his busy schedule to take part in our Q&A series and impart some of his knowledge with us. For more about Jeff or to get in touch with him, check out the Mingay Golf Course Design Website, or give Jeff a follow on social media:
On Twitter: @jeff_mingay
On Instagram: @jeff_mingay
On Facebook: Jeff Mingay, Golf Course Architect
To read previous episodes of A Casual 9, click here.