Golf Course Architecture: Traditional or Scary Carries?

By David R. Holland, Contributor

By now many of you have read all the millennium lists -- best golfers of the past century from Gilroy, best golf courses remodeled on a vacated U.S. Army post, best golf course built in a Central Coast artichoke field. (Naturally, all the tee markers are real artichokes).

It goes on and on.

Traditional golf or scary carries over sandstone rock monoliths and native grass? Of course there are many older courses that have scary carries. Pebble Beach No. 8 comes to mind.

Golf course architects are pushing the envelope and technology is allowing them to go where Donald Ross couldn't go. PBS recently showed a documentary on Pinehurst No. 2 which showed Ross' crew working with horse-drawn equipment.

And some years ago the staffs of golf architects had discussions that the best golf course land had already been developed. No way, Jose. Some time in the 1990s most of them changed their minds on that one.

Today one can play on historic California ranch land, the legendary seaside courses of the Monterey Peninsula, through a redwood forest in northern California, the waste-land desert of Las Vegas, among the red-rock beauty of Arizona's Sedona and Colorado's Arrowhead, Texas courses carved through old limestone rock quarries and rocky mountain beauties with sandstone monuments, towering Ponderosa pines and elevation drops you could ski down.

Many are visually beautiful, intimidating to the average golfer and play havoc with your depth perception. And while places like PGA West's Stadium Course can frustrate a pro or low-handicap player from the tips, it can be manageable from the forward tees for the guy who shoots 85. The most enjoyable new courses will give you many risk/reward situations and bailout options.

Signature holes? Most recently opened upscale-golf courses claim all 18 are worthy of that status.

Golf course architects are pushing the envelope and technology is allowing them to go where Donald Ross couldn't go.

The ones that will absolutely kill your idea of a stroll through the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains are those where all you can hear are hammering, skill saws and the beep-beep of heavy equipment backing up -- the dreaded golf-course community construction. But that's the nature of the business -- lots of new golf courses mean the builders have to make money.

So, what state has the most golf courses? Florida is No. 1 with about 1,190 and California totals second with 950. Surprisingly, Michigan, where you can't play year around, is third with 910 and Texas is fourth with around 850. Nowadays the totals change frequently. Since 1986 there has been a 20 percent increase in the number of golf courses in this country.

The boom is great for many talented golf architects. Trends are mind-boggling and the gifts these talented architects give is for our senses. I'm just waiting for an imaginative architect to build an award-winner in a flat San Joaquin Valley cotton patch.

Keith Foster, only 42, is one golf architect who isn't exactly thrilled with new trends. Foster, who grew up playing golf in Florida, created Keith Foster Golf Course Design in 1991 after a stint working for Arthur Hills. In fact, Foster turns down more jobs now than he accepts. He doesn't even have a web site -- a real testament today to someone not looking for work.

"When I first started playing golf it was a strategic game, but now I think it is viewed more as entertainment," Foster said. "I really yearn for the day when golf was a sport. When I first started out I had to please the client to get more jobs. But there comes a time when you start wanting to accomplish your own vision. So that's where I am now.

"I'm only taking a few projects a year and what I really like is working with the old private courses that want to maintain the tradition of the game. Every year I go to Scotland and Ireland and play golf the way it should be -- brave the weather elements, play the ball down and finish 18 holes in two and a half to three hours. The game here in the USA is just too Americanized and I'm discouraged by that," he said.

Foster recently finished renovations of two of the finest tradition-rich courses in the southwest -- Southern Hills in Tulsa, OK, a U.S. Open site, and The Colonial in Fort Worth, TX.

"Southern Hills and Colonial asked me to update the golf courses, but foremost was to maintain the integrity of the traditions," Foster said. "At Colonial we tightened fairways, took some bunkers out, put some in, and re-did all the greens. It wasn't my job to put my footprint on Colonial, just do the job I was asked to do."

In fact, at Colonial, Foster said: "We photographed elevations every five feet and ran a cross-section. We knew every contour of the greens, rebuilt them to today's specs and matched the contours exactly. We cleaned up the cavities and put the greens back like they were. We used a new strain of bentgrass and the all the new construction methods."

Colonial's new greens won't be used until April, and the PGA Tour's MasterCard Colonial is scheduled in May.

Even though Foster's style is deeply rooted in the traditional, his The Quarry Golf Club in San Antonio is one of the most unique you will ever see. Nine holes are built in the old Alamo Portland Cement limestone rock quarry and Head Pro Todd McCabe says even non-golfers come with camera in hand to snap shots of this gigantic hole filled with golf holes.

Foster's The Tradition at Cypresswood in Spring, TX is on Golf Magazine's Top 10 You Can Play list. He also designed Bighorn in Palm Desert, CA, Texas Star in Euless, TX, The Bandit in New Braunfels, TX, Harbour Pointe, Seattle, WA, Walking Stick, Pueblo, CO and Remington, Seattle, WA.

Current projects for Foster include The Harvester in Iowa, D'andrea Ranch Golf Club in Reno, NV, The Tennessean in Paris, TN, Shepherd's Crook in Chicago, The Hyatt on Chesapeake Bay and Coral Canyon in St. George, UT.

Next September Foster will be tackling Darkhorse, two daily-use fee courses outside Sacramento, CA, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. "It is a spectacular site," Foster said.

He'll also design Longhorn in San Antonio, a project with the owners of The Quarry. This property will be on another reclaimed site of the Longhorn Cement Plant, just outside Loop 410 in the north part of town. Foster was also hired by the Colorado Golf Association to develop a master and concept plan for the old Lowry AFB Mira Vista Golf Course in Denver. But the Air Force is holding up that project with lots of typical government red tape.

In Colorado, Jim Engh is making a name for himself in the world of golf architecture. His ultra-exclusive Sanctuary in Sedalia, CO, was named the USA's best new private golf course in 1997 by Golf Digest. (See "Redlands Mesa Next for Engh" for a complete profile.)

Although Engh likes to "push the envelope" he realizes even the newest trends were rooted in Scotland and Ireland.

"I think Sanctuary has lots of classic lines, but the property is so spectacular and unique," Engh said. "Perhaps the trends of golf architecture became less exciting at one point, but my hope for golf in the future is that people will look at something different with an open mind and appreciate it as a new golf experience. I think golf in Colorado is the most exciting in the world. You are hitting shots you can't hit any place else."

Engh, who also designed Red Hawk Ridge which opened last summer in Castle Rock, CO, has projects going at the moment from China to northern California.

Others include Hawtree Golf Club in North Dakota, Pullymore Golf Club near Grand Rapids, MI, Wild Pointe Golf Club near Elizabeth, CO, Redlands Mesa Golf Club near Grand Junction, CO and The Club at Black Rock in Idaho.

Engh is someone golf-course developers all over the USA need to take a look at.

One more word about the new trends in golf courses. The price you will pay for these four- to five-hour outings is also scary -- $100-plus can be the norm in California and Arizona. Should they rename the list? Say, The Top 100 Golf Courses You Can Play If You Can Afford It?

"I don't necessarily like the big fees," Foster said. "But then some golfers are paying $500 for a driver today. When I was growing up you would buy a set of woods or irons and that was it. Everything is so specialized now, everyone wants instant improvement in their game.

"Many clients I work for look for the maximum amount they can charge for green fees, but not all do that. At Texas Star in Euless, TX, they opened the course priced at $20 under the market price. The city said they wanted to create something that was perceived as a great value. So not everyone is asking such big fees. But you have to understand too, that today it costs $500,000 just for concrete cart paths. And many golf courses today have budgets of $2 million per year.

"Golfers today want a great scenic golf experience with the course in perfect condition," Foster said. "That costs money."

David R. HollandDavid R. Holland, Contributor

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

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