Thursday, July 05, 2007

Architect #5 George Thomas

(courtesy of Geoff Shackelford)

Best Course: Riviera

Other notable work: Los Angeles, Ojai Valley, Bel Air

Overview: George Thomas was bound to be an architect long before he actually began to design courses. He was on the course committee for two new Ross courses and also the Philadelphia Cricket Club designed by Tillinghast. He spent time observing the progress of his friend Hugh Wilson at Merion and also went to meet with George Crump and watch the emergence of Pine Valley. It was no surprise when he did such a great job on Whitemarsh Valley (was Mount Airy) at his families estate since he had already had a long education on golf course architecture from watching the work going on around Philadelphia.

Thomas moved to California in 1919 to grow roses, but ended up building nearly 25 courses with partner Billy Bell. Unfortunately much of his legacy has disappeared due to urbanization in California or ill advised alteration by clubs – no architect has lost as much of their history as Thomas.

The 3rd at Riviera, a draw tee shot followed by a fade approach

Praise for the work:
George Thomas combines strategy and flair as good as any architect that ever practiced. His landmark course at Riviera is a testament to his skill, not only in creating a spectacular course out of a congested box canyon, but how to create incredibly strategic holes with the use of slope and bunker placement. There is no course that I can name that asks a player to work the ball for position. His greens are largely underestimated since they are not as bold as other architects, but there are so many great examples of complicated pin positions made by swale or by slope that you begin to realize that his greens are not as subtle as you first think.

The bunkering may be the most memorable feature with the wonderful shapes and edges that really have tremendous character. But you can’t talk about those bunkers without talking about the placement; he had a knack for pushing the bunkers into the landings to create angles, opportunities and generate the risk that made his courses so fun to play. You always felt compelled to gamble since he gave you enough room and opportunity, when in reality he was really drawing you in to trouble. Where he really showed all architects a thing or two was at the 10th hole at Riviera. He used deception and an unusual green pitch to make the most interesting, enticing and dangerous hole I know. As Norm said, “I’ve played here all my life and yet I still have a go at that green even though I know the smart play is well left.”

The 10th at Riviera, the best "designed" hole in golf

Criticisms: There is little to criticize in his work other than most of it is gone. For many people the lack of work is enough to suggest that his legacy is largely one built out of nostalgia, but all you have to do is read his book on Golf Course Architecture In America and you know he was one of the greatest of all time.

Great Quotes: “Hazards should be arranged to tempt and challenge, but laid out so all classes of players have optional routes to the hole. Hazards should not unduly penalize from which there is no chance of recovery.”

Favourite Course: Riviera
The first hole is an easily reachable par five, followed by a nasty uphill and difficult par four – Thomas has intentionally designed two four and a halves to open.

The third hole asks for a draw from the tee for position and then a fade into the green for best results. The fourth asks you to hit a draw up into the hill and use the big slope to run the ball down onto the green. The 5th insists upon a fade from the tee to hold the fairway and then a fade from a draw lie to play into the green. Each hole serves a purpose and is part of a larger examination of your abilities as a player.

Riviera rewards a player who can think and work the ball – that in my assessment is the basis for a truly great course

LACC 11th hole Redan, one of the best threes I have played

What I take from him:
While there is so many other things to take, from Thomas it is the strategies that he tried so very hard to pass on in his book. I love the way he uses deception on one hole, uses enticement on the next and has the talent to leave you to choose you path on the one that follows. His use of trees, bunkers and slopes to make you work the ball for position is worthy of high praise.

There are few architects who provide so much strategy in their courses with so much freedom to try alternate routes.

Next Architect:

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Architect #6 Donald Ross

Best Course: Pinehurst #2

Other notable work: Seminole, Oakland Hills, Scioto, Pine Needles, Inverness, Oak Hill

Overview: Under advisement of John Sutherland, Ross went to study club making with Old Tom Morris and eventually returned to Royal Dornoch becoming greenskeeper and head professional. Ross was later convinced to come to Boston to take the same position with Oakley GC where he would eventually meet the Turfs family who were members. Ross was soon asked to become the winter professional at Pinehurst which lead to a long and storied history with the resort.

The work at Pinehurst drew a great deal of attention and made him sought out for his designs services. His contacts throughout the north-east meant he was always added to the demand for his services. Despite this he managed to stay on with Pinehurst as the manager throughout his entire career.

His style was certainly influenced by the links and Royal Dornoch’s greens in particular, but too many have made the mistake of pointing to the similar greens at Pinehurst as typical rather than atypical of his work. Additionally too many people have simplified his work down to a style which is unfortunate since his work was more varied than most people realize. Just look at the early photos of a course like Seminole and you will realize he was more adventurous than given credit.

Seminle's 6th

Praise for the work: His courses are more subtle and understated than any other famous architects in history. The bunkering is often minimal and the flourishes are few, but his courses are just as strategic and just as interesting as any of the great architects in history. Where someone like Thompson found flamboyance, Ross discovered the value of restraint.

There are so much many areas to praise his work from the outstanding skill in routing courses through to his use of strategically placed bunkers. He seemed to revel in the placement of a key bunker in the position you most wanted to be, often leaving you with lots of room to go around, but the knowledge that you had to take on the bunker in order to take on the hole.

Pine Needle's 3rd

The lasting impression of Ross will be forever at the greens. His contours were some of the wildest I have encountered and many of the greens have burned a lasting impression in my head as the easiest way to defend a hole against length. The even greater legacy is his surrounds and the use of short grass as a defense. By keeping the areas around greens short he has opened up the ground options for players, but when the slope is sharp enough he has created the nastiest of all hazards. This one looks serene right up until your ball comes up short and turns around and heads back towards you - slowly enough to be agonizing and deflating. Where it gets worse is when an aggressive near miss hits the side slope careens the ball away further away and usually into a horrible predicament. The short grass slope is Ross’s greatest lesson to the rest of us.

Criticisms: There is little to criticize architecturally, although many of his greens have become way too difficult as the grass has become shorter. There are people that feel some of the courses like Pinehurst #2 are not good design because of the extreme nature of the slopes on and around the greens. Others have called his work dull and suggested that most of the holes look quite similar. The line between subtle and dull is so close that one person's boring is another person’s genius

Oakland Hill's 11th

Great Quotes: “Often the highest recommendation of a bunker is when it is criticized. There is no such thing as a misplaced bunker. Regardless of where a bunker may be, it is the business of the player to avoid it”

Favourite Course: Pinehurst #2
Where else can the professionals not shoot par and yet and average player can get around without losing a ball. The greens are the course and the slopes around them are the defense. Get aggressive and miss and you pay the price, manage your game and play short for position on occasion and you will win all bets. The course is an education in course management as well as design.

Pinehurst # 2 's 18th

What I take from him: Bill Coore praises him for “his simplicity and effectiveness for golf.” He teaches us all that one well placed hazard is often enough and that short grass is truly the architect’s best defense – not bunkers. Ross is more strategically effective in the smallest of contours than most modern architects are with the massive contours that they change.
He teaches me to simplify, to look for smaller and more effective details in design. He reminds me that the key attribute least used in current design is restraint.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Architect #7 Stanley Thompson

Best Course: St. George’s G&CC

Other notable work: Jasper Park, Banff, Highland GL, Capilano, Kawartha, Catarqui

Notable Renovations: Beaconsfield

Overview: Stanley Thompson began his career working for his brother Nicol Thompson and George Cumming. He quickly found himself on his own with a large busy business designing and building courses when Nicol and George decided that they had too much work to do and retreated to their positions at their respective golf clubs.

St. Georges 12th hole

Stanley’s business continued to grow between all the new contracts he had for courses and the number of construction projects he had for building courses for other famous architects like Charles Alison. Stanley’s business continued to expand from coast to coast leading to larger projects and wealthier clients - which culminated in his work for the two great Canadian railroad companies. The course at Jasper was his first prominent commission, but it was the work at Banff Springs that would cement his place as one of the preeminent architects of his time.

At Banff he was inspired by the shapes of the mountains and the valleys around the site and set out to use those forms in his bunkers. The bunkers began to take on a style that would become a trademark feature for many of Thompson’s greatest courses. This new style of bunkering was so awe-inspiring it managed to compete on equal footing with the surrounding mountains for golfer’s attention. The work was so good that Thompson was rushed back to Jasper to make those bunkers just as inspiring!

Banff's famous 8th

Praise for the work: Very few architects can match Thompson’s flair for the dramatic. Thompson certainly had a sense of humor and combined that with a great deal of talent to come up with some of the most artistic and interesting features golf architecture has seen. He was not opposed to creating the odd horseshoe, man’s head or octopus in order to create a memorable feature – but also managed to place these flourishes in with a series of great bunkers so that the feature just blended into the picture to be found only though close inspection.

His bunkering that was so varied that no two bunker ever looked alike on his courses. They were so intricate that they changed shape and forms as you walk by and are often as interesting seen backwards as they are from the front. He believed in borrowing the scenery around the hole and often cleared the holes extra wide so that you can see more of the landscape beyond. There are very few other architects that can match the aesthetic of a Thompson course – he is perhaps without peer in this area.

Thompson believed in playability and more than any other architect previously mentioned thought of the common man (“dub”) as a target in his designs. While he did create and plan holes for the finest players, he almost always created enough width for them to be comfortable, and often gave them an alternative way of avoiding the greatest of trouble. The only real exception to this was his occasional heroic hole where he asked the player to step up and hit there finest shot after a series of comfortable holes. The most common element of a Thompson course is they are fun.

Criticisms: While it pains me to say this, I think Stanley’s one weakness is that he often set up a hole for great dramatic effect but left the same holes with somewhat limited strategy. Thompson’s penchant for the dramatic often placed a bunker into a natural hillock because of the visual impact it made, but often left a key position largely undefended since it fell on lesser land. Some bunkers have become important through changes in equipment whereas many of his bunkers were never in play even for the wildest of players – but they look great.

Jasper's famous 18th, loved by Mackenzie

Great Quotes: "Nature must always be the architect's model. The golf course should fit the terrain. The lines of the bunkers or greens must not be sharp or harsh, but easy and rolling. Every now and then I get a mean streak and like to fool the boys a little. But, I never hide any danger. It's all out there for the golfer to see and study."

Favourite Course: Jasper Park
Give me one final round and I will pass on Cypress Point and Pine Valley to play Jasper Park. The golf course provides magnificent long views out to the mountains on every hole. The holes themselves give you plenty of room to enjoy the day, but Stanley also gives you a series of points in the round where you need to step up and make a great shot too. The par three’s are the best collection in Canada ranging from the long 4th to the tiny and diabolical “Bad Bay” at 15.

Highlands short 4th

What I take from him: He’s obviously my number one influence. I try to borrow from his artistry, his showmanship, his sense of humour, his ability to really mix things up, the occasional moment of restraint, the holes without bunkers, the opening up of views, the diagonal use of a hillside to climb a grade, the need for friendly courses, the use of the unusual as part of the design, and the desire to leave the fairways on native grade.
The biggest lesson is the playing experience; you enjoy playing his courses because he never set out to beat you – only to entertain you.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Architect #8 Seth Raynor

Best Course: Chicago GC

Other notable work: Shoreacres, The Creek Club, Fishers Island, Camargo, Fox Chapel, Yeaman’s Hall

Overview: Seth Raynor, an Engineer, was originally hired by Charles Blair MacDonald to help him lay out The National Golf Links of America. MacDonald was so impressed with Raynor that he hired him to supervise the construction of the National. MacDonald had brought back a series of ideal holes and hole concepts while traveling all over the United Kingdom preparing for the National. All of these concepts had to be adapted to suit the terrain at the National and Raynor quickly displayed the skill in figuring out what land that needed to be altered to achieve MacDonald’s vision. It was Raynor’s ability to understand the cut and fills required and organize the men to carry out the task that made him indispensable to MacDonald. Raynor had also found something that was really exciting and knew this is what he wanted to do.

Yeamans Hall (courtesy of GolfClubAtlas)

MacDonald and Raynor continued to work together in this arrangement at a series of other courses including Piping Rock and Lido. Raynor dutifully followed every direction that the overbearing MacDonald gave and used this opportunity to learn a great deal about golf architecture. Raynor’s role slowly grew as MacDonald grew less interested in golf architecture and he began to make more and more adaptations on his own. In 1915, at MacDonald’s encouragement Raynor set out on his own. Through MacDonald’s wealthy contacts and through his recommendation he was able to create a string of great courses working with wealthy clients throughout the United States.

Praise for the work: Raynor’s routing skills was outstanding the consistent quality of his courses is a testament to that skill. He had a knack for finding great natural holes and combined them with concept ideas to make even more interesting holes. He also managed to find great natural location for full template holes and weaved these into the routing to become a highlight of the course. His past experience with adapting MacDonald’s holes was put to great use adapting his own holes into the land. The main difference being that Raynor was often more subtle than MacDonald with many of the adaptations being a little more restrained. The one great exception to this was Raynor’s desire and ability to combine one or two additional concepts onto one hole creating many of his greatest holes.

A great example of this is The Creek Club’s 6th hole where the hole tumbles naturally down the great hill with the Ocean in the distance. The greatness of the hole comes from the green site that he not only found, but manipulated in order to create a reverse redan and punchbowl green combined. It is one of the most unique and entertaining green sites in all of golf.

The Edan at Camargo (courtesy of GolfClubAtlas)

The criticism for Raynor will always be that he was always working from the design ideas of MacDonald, and while he created a few unique holes, he was largely working from a template. This approach means that Raynor courses can begin to feel similar, in particular the collection of par threes that sometimes follow the exact same formula for all the holes. The only reason I don’t have him higher on my list is the fact that I have trouble separating his skill from the architecture of MacDonald.

Favourite Course: Fishers Island
How many courses can boast the combination of an Alps holes, with a punchbowl green, all set along the oceans edge. There may be a greater collection of architecture at other courses, but the setting is certainly unrivalled in all of his work. There are great examples of many of the classic templates, but so often they are either along the ocean, occasionally over the ocean and at least looking out to the ocean. It does make you wonder what Cypress Point may have been like if he hadn’t died after his first visit to the course

The Alps Punchbowl at Fishers Island (courtesy of GolfClubAtlas)

What I take from him:
The ability to adapt concepts is the foundation of great architecture. There was not a more skilled man when it came to taking a full concept and reintroducing it over new terrain or establishing it into a completely new setting. The holes manage to fit wonderfully over any terrain despite the often rigid nature of the architecture which is a testament to his awesome skill.
It has often been said there are no new ideas, just new adaptations of old ideas – perhaps Raynor is still underestimated after all this time.