Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Black Swan Event - Revisited

In 2009 I wrote the following:

I’ve recently become very interested in Nassim Taleb’s idea of The Black Swan. The Black Swan is an unforeseen and unpredictable event that has an enormous impact on society. There is no way to predict the coming of a black swan event, but history has shown us again and again that these events occur with regularity. What is unknown is when.

Many, through hindsight, have suggested that some events like the financial crisis of 2008 were predictable, but we all know even with hindsight that timing the event was impossible. Therefore even the most minor of the events remain completely unpredictable. As a quick aside I don’t agree that a Black Swan Event can be a positive event such as the birth of the internet since the impact is far to long term for my definition. Only a devastating event has enough impact to change the “known” landscape in an instant.

The reason I bring this up is one of the interesting ideas that goes along with this is the notion of collective blindness leading up to the event. I personally think that to a large degree we have seen collective blindness as a contributing factor to why we had the financial crisis. Everybody enjoyed the endless growth, but nobody was willing to step back far enough and ask whether it was sustainable and what would happen when the music stopped. 

Taleb’s basic theory is that all consequential events come from the unexpected. So thinking of all of this, I find it fascinating to look at the current state of the golf design business. I was reading about the level of work in the Far East and reflecting on how many architects are concentrated and busy in this region. A high percentage of that work is being done in China with a large percent of that on Hainen Island in particular. I kept thinking about this concentration of architects and projects and wondering what if the music stopped tomorrow?
What would happen to the golf design business if the government of China “enforced” the ban on new golf courses? What if the real estate market collapsed since nobody appears to play the game? 

Last year we saw the moratorium on golf in China enforced. Many courses were plowed under to return to farming. Currently the government is reviewing the courses that were built illegally and deciding what to do with them. Things have definitely changed ... for now? … for the long term? … we just don’t know that answer and it will not come any time soon.

In my mind when I wrote the first piece, I thought was the next shoe to drop for golf course architecture  was a complete stop to golf development in China. The financial crisis was obviously the first and will be the most meaningful for this generation because it has impacted the access to capital for projects. It was a generational event for golf course architects. The impact of China is more regional in nature, but that does have a spillover effect.

On the high end, people like Bill, Tom and Bill are busy because that end of development never goes away. We need to keep sight of the fact that they are the exception, not the rule. So let’s talk about the other 99% of architects. The China based firms have laid off their employees and will see another round of new architects entering into the competitive fray.

In 2009-2010 (this is an estimate on my end based upon personal relationships) I figured about a quarter of the architects ended up having to find a new profession through necessity. In 2015, I see another similar period where competition goes up exponentially and some will not find enough work.
I do think the design/builders may do fine since they have more options for survival, but all the new architects will face a very Darwinian atmosphere where few will thrive.  I expect by the end of 2016 it’s quite likely we will see another 25% forced to look at other industries.

So is that it? Is that the great (and perhaps necessary) thinning of the herd?

I don’t think it is.

Perhaps it’s my deep love of writers like Cormac McCarthy but I don’t think we’re done. The Financial Crisis wasn't predictable. China couldn't be predicted because there was no transparency in the process. While we knew it was based upon the early speculation of a transitioning society, we also knew that progress would be controlled and that meant stops and starts along the way. The only revelation was nobody mentioned water as a potential factor in slowing or stopping golf development in China

Which brings me to the point I wanted to talk about. Is access to water the next Black Swan Event looming over golf architecture? I don’t think it will impact everywhere, but it will in regions where the resource is scarce. I think the next Black Swan Event will be a moratorium on new golf development in locations where water is transferred from another watershed to meet the needs where water is short. I see California being first, but other Southwestern states will eventually follow.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Green Is Beautiful Article

8th at Islington being built
My article on building steeper rather than flatter greens during a green rebuilding program. After visiting a course that went through a recent rebuilding, I couldn't remember one single green among the group because they were all so flat and similar. When faced with multiple rebuilds last summer, that was the last thing I wanted to leave behind.
The other issue is clubs want fast greens. If they are steep, then they will be fast. It's easier to manage speed than to try and manufacture it. If you don't have to cut them tight, you will have more grass and therefore healthier greens... that's also a major reason for building them steeper than current convention believes.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Great architecture is 50% Design and 50% Presentation

4th Green site - feeder slope is key feature
One of the most important aspects of golf course architecture is how it’s presented. The golf course superintendent and golf club can positively or negatively impact your architecture and how it will perform with their own choices. If they maintain the turf to reflect your architectural philosophy and design intent, they will emphasize what you have created.

When Mike and I designed Laval-sur-le-lac’s Blue Course, we had to make sure that it would be challenging enough to host a Canadian Open, but friendly accommodating enough to ensure the average player would still have fun playing the course. We addressed that contradiction by creating a golf course with immense flexibility in the set-up.

3rd - miss and everything runs away
The golf course was designed with no rough and tends to fall away at the edges. So when the greens are firm and fast, the surrounds cut tight and the pins are moved to the edge, the golf course can be toughened and danger can lurk at every turn. But slow up the greens and surrounds and add more middle pins and the course plays decidedly friendlier. Because of all the short grass players can play to their strengths and make the game easier on themselves.

We knew from the outset that the club understood what we intended. More importantly all of us (club, Mike and I) had full faith in Luc Ladocuer to vary the conditions accordingly. We knew he could push the architecture during an event or soften it for the conditions of the day. I’ve played there multiple times and the presentation showcases the architecture making the course fun to play.

Quite a few years back I went to see one of my earliest designs. While the course has lots of bunkers, the real challenge is the contouring of the greens and extensive use of shortgrass around the perimeters to make the course challenging. It also droops over the edges at every turn, making the surrounds a key feature. Off the tee it’s wide and very accommodating and it was designed as a second shot golf course with some of the most interesting and complicated recovery shots I have ever generated.

10th at Riviera's new set-up in 2015 brought criticism
The last time I played, the round was disappointing because the surrounds were long and puffy. You could no longer play a running or chip or putt a recovery shot from the short grass around the greens. Even a miss would sometimes stop on the slopes and not run out to the intended consequences. The greens were still quite good, but the course was a pale version of itself without the impact of the chipping areas. The design relied on their importance and in this case the maintenance had negated the architecture. I was devastated heading home and have never gone back since.

It was a stark reminder that unless the maintenance meets the architecture, your best ideas can be lost through height of cut or the presentation of the surfaces. Golf architects must be cognizant of the complexities of the superintendent and help them at every turn. In turn the Superintendent needs to understand the architecture and how best to present it for play. Great architecture is half architecture and half set-up.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Geeked on Golf Interview - Another Preview

"Is there a particular element of a golf hole that you like working on the most?"
The grassing lines, they are the most underrated and important element on a course.
Commonwealth - and the absence of rough
In the simplest terms, short grass emphasizes the importance of the undulations on the ground and long grass eliminates them. The more the ball has the opportunity to react and move on the ground, the more interesting the architecture is. The more short grass in play, the more options the player has to try a myriad of shots. Where you place your grassing lines will either identify all the available architecture or mask it.

No rough around greens and bunkers at Augusta
Greatness in architecture is most often found when the distance between success and failure is razor thin. This is why Raynor’s work resonates so much. Many people get stuck on the engineered nature of shapes, when the beauty is how it plays. By having the green and collars come right out to the very edge of his plateaus, there is nothing to save a ball once it reaches and edge. You either on or looking at a recovery shot, unless you have used a feeder slope and come up short. One of the keys to this approach is having all the transition points slightly over the bank to make sure nothing is able to stop at the edge and the fact that the greens and their contours are emphasized more through the infinity backdrop this creates.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Preview of Interview for "Geeked for Golf"

I was asked to "Describe your process for a design project."
I begin with a philosophical question, what experience do I want them to have? There are so many options on style, set-up, approach, etc. You also have to address what everyone’s expectations are and how you can reconcile their needs with your own philosophy in a way that works for both of you. For example when we built Laval, we had to plan for a Canadian Open and membership play. We solved that riddle with our design approach, based very much on the Sandbelt Courses of Melbourne and how fun they were for day to day play and how tough they could be made with a firm, tight turf and edge pin locations.
When it comes to routing, my personal methodology is to walk the property looking for vistas to borrow (or avoid), features that will make great ground for golf and natural places to end a hole. I collect as many as I can without worrying about the routing. I also like to accumulate options to naturally move uphill, since these are often the keys to an imaginative and walkable routing where no transitional holes are required. Finally, I believe a great set of threes is a paramount, so I identify the most dramatic locations possible and try to incorporate them into the eventual routing.
The next step requires persistence and patience. You find a few alternatives to walk through and you go test each one. You’re looking for a continuous journey through the landscape without interruptions. It should be a terrific walk long before it becomes holes. So you discard sections that lack, add other locations that peak your interest and walk and walk. You go through this process until you finally can walk eighteen holes and have it unfold like a story.

One of the great secrets to a routing and developing rhythm is the understanding that a break between dramatic locations will make the setting that follows far more impressive by comparison. It’s like a rollercoaster where you don’t want a continuous run of thrills. You need the spaces in between to lower the heart rate and let you prepare for the next thrill. It’s not just about finding and designing holes, it’s all about how you want them to feel and part of that is how you develop the rhythm of the course.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Dilemma

Building 12th at Laval
A very long time ago I found myself the target of what I can now look back as the funniest insult ever hurled my way. The poster on Golf Club Atlas called me a "third rate, third tier architect." I have a lot of company if I'm the bar. It brings some self reflection and questions about the work I do.

Many famous architects come from wealth. So much so in a few cases that they never accepted a design fee for their work. Others tried to run with the wealthy and lost everything (Tillinghast and Thompson among them). Even a couple of the biggest names in golf today come from a position of wealth that others don't know about. It a rich man's game and some would argue a rich man's profession. I don't have that luxury.

When this is all you have, often you have to choose a path between financial stability and artistic opportunity. For a long time I have concentrated on making sure that I have a great business ... do very good work ... and hope the new opportunity will come with a growing reputation for solid work. Well, from a business perspective that's smart, but its slightly naive too. To get new projects, you need to run in the right circles and know the right people.

I know some, but I don't do what I need to do. That takes effort and money to accomplish and that runs contrary to running a safe and successful business. And risk.

I still want to build a great golf course from raw land. I have occasionally wondered whether I would ever see the opportunity to fully express myself. I have recently had a couple of opportunities that almost met that standard ... but in my mind .. not quite.

I really enjoyed the creative process of building Laval (Blue) with Mike Weir. It allowed that self expression to make it into the style of play and the complex set of puzzles that Mike and I left for the members to solve. We did not play it safe and many of the highlights come from the greatest risk. It was the last time I ever had a doubt that I could build something great ... given the opportunity.

More of those opportunities have come, but none has yet been a raw land project.

You can't consider my own personal dilemma without considering the times were in. Most architects are having a tough time finding work unless they are wildly successful already or niche players like me. Between Financial Crisis of 2008 and China finally imposing a complete stoppage of all new golf course, it is likely that half of the architects working since 2000 are either retired or doing something else.

I know what I need to do. I have to change the work I chase, end some arrangements that I have and spend a lot more time on the road in pursuit. I always argued that the people who are most successful in this business are not a fluke. It's the hard work behind the scenes that make them successful, but if you've met them, they also pay a personal price too. And there in lies the dilemma, its time to ask what price am I willing to pay?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Golf at Maple Downs

The tee shot on the 12th hole
I invest a lot of thought into what I'm trying to accomplish when I design. 

How do I want them to feel? Where does this fit into the rhythm of the round? Do I want to draw them into taking risk? Do I want them to make a decision? What options should they have available? How will a higher handicap manage a tougher section? This is all carefully thought about long before I design holes.

I've been luck enough to work on two projects where I was able to share my own design philosophies. I thought it would be interesting for each membership to understand how the holes came about and make a few suggestions to help them explore the possibilities in the ground. After that, the rest is always up to them ...

I thought I would share a sample of the piece I wrote for the 18 holes Maple Downs, set to re-open next spring ...

The second shot from a "safe" right side lay-up

Hole 12 - Bottle

A great short four should confound you through its options. Each choice should spell out the obvious benefits of success, but be clouded by the potential for disaster. Ideally the decisions should be so difficult that the choice is eventually based upon the emotions of the player at that very moment. In this case the first instinct is to try and drive the green because it looks so close of the elevated tee. With experience a player will know that only a draw has a reasonable chance, but pulling it even slightly left is going to be absolutely dead. They might get a fade home in a big wind, but anything reaching the surface is through the back and landing short is sure to head dead right on the first bounce. So then where would you lay-up? Well, the left fairway short of the bunker is wide and flat, but also blind and the green runs away from play. Far right is ideal for an approach because the green offers a backstop from this angle. But the landing zone begin to narrow just as the angle improves and the fairway runs downhill directly into the fairway bunker. How about driving it long right, but anything over the bunker will run through into deep rough well below the green staring directly into one of the deepest bunkers. Worst yet, is the strong potential for a downhill lie to an elevated green fronted by that bunker. So where do you go? And that at less than 300 yards that is strength of the hole.

The green, which was moved well left for sunlight exposure, falls from front left to back right with almost every pin being down the right side. The slope is very consistent from the first quarter to the back. There is a sadistic little back left shelf that can be pinned, if you see the flag there play to the bottom right and putt up the small shelf to the pin. From anywhere else, it won’t stay on top.

High handicap’s Guide to Lower Scores:

Play as right as you dare off the tee, long enough to see the green, but short enough to avoid the bunker. From there play a low running approach shot the massive fairway cant. It will corral your running approach and turn it hard right towards the green. It will take feel to develop this shot, but it is a sure thing if you lack the trajectory to play into the backstop. Besides, it takes the front bunker out of play.