Episode 11 of A Casual 9 with Canadian golf course architect Jeff Mingay sparked some interesting conversation and left people wanting more. It was suggested we keep it rolling and play an Emergency 9, and Jeff kindly obliged. Please enjoy more deep thoughts from one of golf’s insightful minds. If you haven’t checked out the “front nine” of the Q&A, definitely check that out here.
1. On the front nine of our Q&A you identified three objective things about golf course architecture, (1) function of the course, (2) playability, and (3) distinctiveness. In terms of function, you mentioned that a course must drain properly and provide the superintendent with the best circumstance to create good playing conditions. What are some other factors that influence or contribute to the function of a golf course?
JM: Aside from ensuring superintendents are provided with the best chance to present top-notch playing conditions, the flow of a golf course from the first tee to the home green is really important relative to function. The best routings not only comprise a good variety of holes that change pace and keep the golfer’s interest, green to tee walks are typically short, smooth transitions from one hole to the next. Whether they realize it or not, golfers feel comfortable making their way around a smartly routed course. And, pace of play usually benefits.
2. I’m always fascinated by the routing of golf courses. I love trying to picture what the native land looked like and the challenge the architect would have faced in selecting the routing of the holes. What are some of the biggest things an architect looks for when piecing together a routing for a golf course?
JM: The first thing to look for are pretty spots where greens can be built reasonably, economically, and efficiently. Those are typically flattish areas that are beautiful to look at. This is how most routings come together. You find the best eighteen green sites then link them together. In doing so, it’s also important to keep prevailing wind in mind. And, ideally, you don’t want the first couple holes to play east, into the rising sun, or finish heading due west.
3. The term “variety” gets tossed around a lot. What is variety to you and why is this essential in good golf course architecture?
JM: Oddly, it’s not essential to everyone. It’s amazing to me that there are golfers so concerned about course rating and slope, handicap, competitions and betting that they aren’t interested in variety, at all. Those types seem to want the tees and the pins to be in the same spots, everyday. Frankly, I’d rather play a different course every day.
St. Andrews is the best example of ultimate variety. Because it’s so wide, and the shared greens are so huge, and the strength and direction of the wind is so varied, day to day, the Old Course is actually many courses in one. How fun does that sound? George Thomas mimicked this concept at Los Angeles Country Club. Back in the 1920s, he designed the North course at LACC to feature multiple teeing areas and huge greens to create what he subsequently termed “courses within a course”. Holes can be set-up remarkably different, day to day. The seventh hole immediately comes to mind. It can play as a par 3 one day and a par 4 the next. The North course has multiple scorecards depending how it’s set up. Again, how fun does that sound? I’m surprised this concept hasn’t been tried more over the years.
A variety of courses, in general, is also very important to the game. We all have our favourites, but if every course was the same, golf would be too much like hockey and tennis. If you’re playing hockey or tennis in Calgary or Toronto, the rink and the court will be the same. The remarkable variety of golf courses throughout the world is one of golf’s great attractions.
4. It seems like everyone and their dog is a golf course architecture critic these days. It’s easy to toss up a plan view of an existing golf hole on Twitter and make suggestions on how one would change it. Does every golf hole out there need to make perfect sense from a strategic standpoint?
JM: Thankfully not. In fact, some of the most fascinating holes don’t make much sense at all. Take the Road hole for example. Or the Redan. Today, if you build a 460-yard par 4 that starts with a tee shot over a building, playing to a shallow green set on a plateau with a tiny sand pit in front and a road immediately behind, you might never design another course! Or, how about a super long par 3 with the green surface running away from the tee? Tom Simpson described many of the best holes — like the Road and the Redan — as being on the “heretical precipice”. In other words, they’re as close to being ridiculous as they are to being great.
Architecture shouldn’t dictate to golfers. It should provide reasonable yet exciting opportunities for golfers to figure out their own strategies and routes based on brains, physical ability and nerve.
5. Architects such as Robert Trent Jones, Tom Fazio, and even Jack Nicklaus take a lot flack these days for some of their more penal and/or unnatural looking designs. Is this criticism fair or is there room in the game for widely varied philosophies in golf architecture?
JM: I guess at times the criticisms might be fair. But, again, most important is variety. We should be thankful, regardless of our personal biases, that there’s a remarkable variety of courses featuring different architectural philosophies and styles available to play throughout the world.
6. I believe it was Alister Mackenzie who said that golf holes should be designed to look harder than they are. To what degree is golf course architecture an exercise in psychology?
JM: I was listening to a podcast recently and heard David Kidd say that he’s not interested in using psychological trickery. Kidd says he’s more interested in making golfers feel comfortable on his golf courses. Pete Dye famously took the opposite approach. He often tried to make golfers uncomfortable, particularly the Tour pros. I think some psychological trickery is interesting, whether it be making some holes look more difficult than they really are or, conversely, designing others to look easy but play hard. Again, variety is essential. You don’t want to use the same psychology on every hole.
Tom Simpson suggested that architects should design at least one, maybe two bad holes per course so that golfers can really appreciate the good ones! That’s interesting psychology.
7. What does the history of golf architecture help tell us about the future of golf architecture?
JM: At this point, golf architecture has really come full circle. The most successful architects these days — Coore and Crenshaw, Doak, Hanse, and Kidd — have resurrected a philosophy and style that was made popular prior during the so-called “Golden Age”, prior to the Second World War, when people were truly pioneering golf course design and construction. This has been a genuine, thoughtful response to certain unsuccessful things that were done in golf architecture between then and now. A majority of work that’s been done over the past two decades has been done to look natural, and those courses also aim to cater to all golfers, regardless of abilities. These are tried truisms that are difficult to dismiss. So, it will be interesting to see if we’ve returned to roots that will remain the future of golf architecture or if someone, like a Robert Trent Jones, brings new ideas to usher in a new era.
8. What are some of your favorite golf architecture books, and, for those who want to start getting their feet wet in the subject, what are some books you’d recommend as a starting point?
JM: Tom Doak’s “The Anatomy of a Golf Course” is the best starting point. It’s an excellent book that summarizes all of the classic writings in a modern context, and features great commentary on the great courses. It’s a relatively easy, enjoyable read, too.
Another favourite is “The Links” by Robert Hunter (1926). And, even though it’s technically not a book on golf architecture, there’s a lot to learn in Bernard Darwin’s “Golf Courses of the British Isles” (1910). Similarly, there’s two chapters on the development of Augusta in Bobby Jones’ 1959 autobiography that are great. Vernon Macan said everything anyone needs to know about golf architecture is in those two chapters.
9. Who have been the architects, past or present, who influence your work the most?
JM: Donald Ross is first to mind. Again, I was lucky to grow-up playing Essex and Roseland in Windsor, Ontario. I still think about those courses, and other Ross-designed courses in and around Detroit I was fortunate to see and play that really got me inquisitive about architecture at a relatively young age.
A trip to Harbour Town with my dad and brother, when I was about 16, was a watershed moment, too. I was fascinated with Harbour Town immediately, which lead me to look into more Pete Dye. Pete’s also been very influential with regard to how to most effectively build golf courses. One of the reasons I tracked down Rod Whitman was because I knew he worked for Pete. Like Pete, Rod was running bulldozers and building the courses he designed. I wanted to do that, too. Working for Rod on projects like Blackhawk, Sagebrush and Cabot Links over a decade has been invaluable. And, I can’t leave out Vernon Macan. Restoring a bunch of his pioneering golf course designs in recent years has provided me with a lot of good knowledge and positive influence as well.
Another big thanks to Jeff for taking more time out of his busy schedule to play an Emergency 9 with us. If you haven’t already, make sure to connect with Jeff on social media.
On Twitter: @jeff_mingay
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