Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Golf needs to learn from Skiing

Few sports have better kids programs
Skiing spent almost 20 years with zero growth. In the last 10 years skiing has had a golden period where growth and profits have soared. There have been a number of new resorts that have come on line to meet demand.

Around 10 years ago the ski resort owners, the ones with the most to gain or lose, sat down and looked at why their sport was struggling. They discovered that they were barely getting 10% retention rate with novice skiers. The major complaints were a lack of time (golf can relate to this), how they were treated and in their case the loss of skiers once the kids left the home.

When they looked into how people came to the sport, it was usually through family but almost as often through friends (very similar to golf). They found they had excellent retention with the group they called the thrill seekers, they had modest attraction to the group they labelled the tag alongs, but they had almost no retention on the group they called the socials. That group only came to remain part of the group. They realized that to make skiing more “sticky” they needed to address each group by making it a better experience tailored to them.

Skiing was given the “golden gift” just over a decade ago with snowboarding. Snowboarding brought in a dramatically younger but most importantly ethnically diverse group to the hills. It was the “game changer” for skiing. But skiing was not foolish enough to make assumptions that this was all it needed, like golf was with Tiger Woods. They built terrain parks for the thrill seekers and snowboarders in particular to say we are thinking of you. They improved service and changed the rental system to provide top notch equipment with excellent service to address the socials. Imagine if golf courses provide options for equipment where you could play your preferences at a resort without carrying your bag through the airport, that’s what skiing has accomplished. I rented rather than bringing my skis the last time I went west!

The game changer - snowbaording

But the real key was how they dealt with the beginners (socials and particularly the tag alongs). The mantra forever in the ski resort business was add to more difficult terrain to gain a greater reputation for challenge. The reality was 90% of skiers spent 90% of their time on the beginner and intermediate slopes. Once the ski industry understood that their efforts were misplaced they concentrated on expanding the beginner’s terrain and providing additional diversity in the gliding terrain. Skiing changed for the better and the consumer showed up ready to ski. They had improved the stickiness of the sport by catering more actively to the average skier (the golf industry has to see the clear parallel).

So let’s apply these lessons to golf. The easier the initial experience, the more likely the player is to return to try the game again. The more accessible and enjoyable the experience, the more fun the game is and the higher likelihood that the person stays with the game. So if golf really truly wants to break this cycle of stagnation, the answer is to build the game from the ground up rather than from the peak down. We have no need for championship courses. We need a decade of short, easy and fun courses to grow the game.

Thank you skiing for providing a clear road map to success. The question is whether we will pay attention.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Ireland - Day Seven - Doonbeg

The opener at Doonbeg

When Greg Norman put together the routing for Doonbeg he was presented with a “snail” problem. Environmentalist had identified some key areas of great dunes where the project could not go into because of snails. All architects face restrictions and I’m sute these were frustrating.

The opener at Doonbeg is one of the very best of the holes on the course. You stand at the clubhouse and look at the glove like dunes at the end of the fairway and clearly see a logical green site for an opening five. This obvious choice eventually would lead to complications.
The 6th hole with 13th green below

The front nine was pretty good. I found most of the holes made sense and the flow was generally fine (ignoring the fact I could clearly see what was to come on the back). The ocean side 6th was a personal highlight. I enjoyed his bunker style with marram grass edges and blow out style. I found his use of many central hazards was refreshing. The bunker on the 3rd hole was epic. Finally the ninth was a super end to the nine, a short three set right on the beach with dunes that he clearly made (and were very well done!). After nine holes I was largely impressed.

The back nine left me not only flat, but really disappointed with many choices. There were great holes like the 13th and 15th, but the routing decisions and constant cross-overs were horrible. In my opinion he got enamoured with natural holes and never stepped back and looked at the overall impression that he would create.

The 15th with wonderful green site
Some holes did not sit right to me like the 10th and 11th. Others had safety issues like the 12th where the 8th tees were very much in play from the 12th tees. The fact that the 15th crosses the 5th and then the players walk across the 5th was again dangerous. A few of his architectural ideas were ill conceived such as the central bunker in the 12th green which did not work (nor did the green contours on that green). Some holes were unplayable in high wind, like the 14th, where the strange back angle of the green made the shot impossible in “any” prevailing wind. I found conceptually that hole made no sense. Finally the walk across the middle of the fairway of the 1st fairway to play the 18th was another head-scratch.

My conclusion was the routing was flawed. Greg found the obvious holes and included them in the routing, but never showed the experience or restraint to understand you must abandon some obvious holes to achieve a comprehensive routing.

Ireland - Day Six - Lahinch

5th - The Dell Hole from the back left
Out of all the courses we played Lahinch had the best architecture.

It did have some unusual and brilliant holes in the Klondyke (4th) and Dell (5th) but each was very compelling despite a blind shot on the first and not being able to see 80% of the green (including the flag) on the par three. They just felt right despite what some would question as flaws.

The opener was my favourite of all the starting holes despite the fact the two previous days brought green sites and holes set in massive dunes. The others were beautiful but they were fairly easy due to the surrounding dunes collecting everything in. This one sat on a plateau with every miss leading to an uncomfortable recovery shot. It seemed to tell me – game on!

The front nine on Lahinch was by far my favourite with a run of “world class” holes beginning at the 4th and running through to the 8th. Even the 3rd and 9th were no slouches either. The fascinating thing to me was that once you finished the front, you were done with the largest dunes and as the round progressed you knew were going to head into lesser and lesser dunes as you go. I initially wondered whether the finish would be weak.

7th hole approach
The 10th was played through a valley of dunes finishing on plateau, the 11th (either one since there are two) was a short but fun three (I preferred the new one by Hawtree mainly because of the ocean backdrop and more attractive setting) and the long five along the river was an excellent par five. So far so good, but once again we know we are heading into lesser dunes.

The first surprise was the wild short four playing back into the bigger dunes. What made the hole super cool was the wildly undulating green. Throw in some giant short grass drop offs on the front and left and two super deep bunkers for emphasis and you got a great site. This led us to a progression of long fours and once again I worried about having a let down.

The 8th hole
The long 14th was a tough hole straight into the prevailing wind, what made this really neat were the two “large” sentinel dunes on either side of the approach and the narrow neck leading a great slightly hidden green site behind. The long four heading back through the dunes was even better with an outstanding plateau green requiring real precision or creativity to reach. OK, wow, these are still great!

The downhill 16th was a surprise, tough into a quartering wind but mainly due to the big drop from the tee to green. The hole must be Hawtree design since the shaping was a little too pronounced, but the hole was quite good all the same. The long 17th was set in the flattest piece of land and with the least pronounced dunes. I was a little underwhelmed at the tee, but found the fairway full of some great internal contour (huge lesson when presented with a flat site) and the two sentinel bunkers flashed high in the fronting dunes which created a unique and interesting approach shot. Something from very little always leaves me impressed with a hole.

Hawtree's new 11th hole on the ocean
The 18th was a bit of a let down as the dunes finally disappeared at this point. The tee shot was fine, but the second was fairly dull, even the approach seemed to lack something, until the green itself. The green was very good and the hidden short grass contours at the sides and back were actually wonderful (too bad they were hidden so well). I do expect they will eventually try and add something, I hope not too much, but it could use a few small flourished to get a great design to the finish.

In my opinion Lahinch was the best design we saw.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Ireland – Day Five - Carne Golf Club

8th green site
Carne was definitely the course with the most potential. The dunes at Carne are every bit as big as the dunes at Enniscrone, but in this case they seem to be more spread out allowing for holes to comfortably wind between them. Eddie Hackett did a fine routing the course although he did leave a couple of question marks this time(the last of his career).

The course opens with holes routed through largest of the massive dunes, but quickly plays into the heavily undulating land away from the main dune line. Some of the holes like the 3rd and 8th are standouts and my favourite was the 6th with a massive roll in front similar to the 13th at Highlands Links. All the fours were excellent, whereas the threes and five we only good.

The number one issue I had with the course was the bunkers. The placement was too far away from any fairways and greens to create any strategy. The bunkering was actually a distraction rather than an accent and I think the course would have been better with none. I really think if a good architect was allowed to re-bunker the course, Carne’s stature would be raised immediately.

9th green bunker - they all look like this

The back nine is where Hackett ramps it up since he takes you into the largest of the dunes on the property. The short par five 10th has an outstanding green site and should have been one of the greatest long fours in the game and be played from the front tees. This is mainly due to the prevailing wind that has it playing so short. The 11th is the most famous hole, a short par four, that plays around a 100 foot dune all the way along the right.

11th hole from high dune

The 12th was the only miss. The tee shot plays into a nice valley, but straight at an out of bounds and then turns hard left with a green cut high into the dune on the left. It just seems forced it the setting and left me questioning whether there was another possibility. The 13th was a nice reprieve from the big dunes finishing out by the ocean. The 14th is a cute three played along the dunes on the left with the ocean on your right. The setting is pretty cool, but the green is clearly too steep to pin and the new expansion is so poorly tied in. The 15th, 16th and 17th are all world class holes. I was very impressed with the quality and variety. It was every bit the measure of the best of all the great courses we have seen so far, except the inexplicable bunkers. The 18th is wild romp home over some crazy undulating land set between the big dunes of the site. This all finishes on a cool promontory

17th green

I would recommend Carne to anybody. The course is wild, fun to play and certainly has one of the most impressive settings I’ve seen. It was not as good as Enniscrone, but it remains a must play when travelling Ireland.

Personal note: I had an 8 on the final hole to shoot 83. I played the 7th through 17th at one over including a two shot penalty!

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Ireland – Day Four – Enniscrone

Every once in a while when you travel to see golf course, you are left completely astonished by what you find.

the landing area on the 2nd hole

Enniscrone begins with an impressive run through a massive set of dunes for the opening four holes. The highlights are the two impressive and thoroughly entertaining par fives that are as good as any of the great par fives in the World. The opening four holes are so impressive that you think a trip to lesser land would be disappointing, but its not.

The 5th then features an elevated tee shot that must be carefully placed between two fairway dunes in the landing area. The returning four plays back along the same ground before finishing up at a really nice raised green site. The next five plays back off an elevated tee and bends slowly around a lower gentle dune line dotted with blowouts before ending up an elevated green set in the side of the dune. The par three 8th plays off the dune line and out to well bunkered green site set in a flatter area. Finally the 9th plays up the other side of the large gentle dune and features a massive blow out along the right side of the landing area and the ocean all the way down the left before finishing at a nice green. The point is even the “lesser” holes in the routing features some fun shots, plenty of character and some interesting architecture.

4th tee shot

The back nine begins with play up the main dune line and back into the main dunes of the site. The short three that follows is a gem featuring a super cool reverse redan setting for the green site. The hole that follows is one of the better short fours I have played. The scale of the dunes, the all or nothing carry over the blow out and an awesome plateau green set against one of the biggest dunes I’ve ever seen creates a hole that you will never forget. The short four that followed was quite tricky, but prudent play off the tee sets you up for a lovely pitch into a low bowl.

approach to 12th green

Now the really fun stuff comes. The 14th a long five through incredibly massive dunes is as fun a tee shot as there is in golf. The approach is tricky because rather than a typical elevated or green the green is set down inside a large bowl. Not conventional, but sure was fun. The next two holes are standouts, a long par four playing between low dunes on the left and massive dunes on the right all while looking at the town across the bay. The par five employs a similar setting but curves gentle around the mammoth dune before finishing at a green site surrounded by dunes.

The finishing three is played from a high plateau to an elevated green that drops off on both side. I liked the concept a lot but found the “shaping” around the outside of the green to be out of character with the rest. There was some minor over-shaping at the 15th too. The final hole is a long four played through two massive dunes followed by a long iron into a well bunkered green. Once gain the extra target bunkering on the right and over-shaped surrounds identified the work was done during a renovation.

16th hole looking back

All in all the course was outstanding. The set of fives is so good it rivals Highlands Links (which has the best set in my opinion). I would comfortably vote for Enniscrone to be in the top 100 in the World.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Ireland - Day Four – Co. Sligo

The 4th

I really enjoyed Sligo and found the course fun to play.

The opener was easily the best one we have seen so far with a stunningly good green site. The next stretch of holes was great as you traversed the high hill with a four and five. The 4th hole was a highlight with an outstanding plateau green that employs a cool Redan style green. It was really hard to hit the required shot being downwind, but the area long and left was all kept short providing some realistic options for play.

The 5th tee is set 80 feet above the fairway and offers a wonderful view of the remaining nine and a great view of holes 13 through 17. Very few links courses offer such a panorama and it set the table for the holes ahead. The 5th played downwind as did the 6th. The 7th and 9th were played with a cross wind while the long 8th was down wind once again. The holes rely mainly on the combination of burns and a really cool set of greens to be far more interesting than you would expect of flat land holes.

9th hole

The interest was raised once again One beginning with the 9th and ending with the 12th that all play along a far spine that eventually ends at Rosses Point. Each hole deals slightly differently with a major cross fall including a stunner of a three at the 9th where some outstanding bunkering presents a really nasty challenge.

The 13th quarters back into the wind with a three set close to the beach. From then on it’s all hard work. The 14th through to the 18th have you fighting your way back home straight into the prevailing wind. I found the holes somewhat interesting because the dunes are in play, but I was also disappointed in the architecture since it was almost non-existent. I was surprised at how the architecture was far less interesting than some of the interior holes over lesser land.

It leaves me with an interesting question about routing. Is an out and back that finishes into the wind “a firm test” of a players skill or simply a “slog” that I must avoid in my own routings.

Ireland – Day Three – Ballybunnion Cashen

The 12th hole

We went to see the Cashen Course in the afternoon.

The front nine works its way through some massive dunes, but was reasonably playable. The opening hole was generous and the second was quite impressive, the third a beautiful par three and the fourth was a second stunning hole played down from a mammoth dune to the valley below and back into some smaller dunes at the end. I wondered what the fuss was other than the fact that the greens were at best 3,000 sq.ft.

The remainder of the nine worked pretty well although the routing could have easily been slightly different and eliminated the large walk from the 7th to 8th tees. The back to back par fives that followed worked well although one of them really should have been a long four making them feel different from each other.

The one thing I could not get my head around was the scale of architecture. The greens were so tiny and the bunkers were the smallest little “circular” bunkers that they were lost amid dunes. Even bigger was the issue of the greens being that small and presenting an almost impossible target

The 7th hole
The back nine was another story. The entire nine holes plays through the most extreme area of dunes and it felt like Trent had often sacrificed a potentially better routing to have the two finishing holes on the coast. The routing was often awkward, it had safety issues and almost every shot was an all or nothing proposition. Each player we talked to said the course was way too hard.

The issue with the Cashen is the scale. The scale of the dunes meant finding a routing was tough, although I’m fully convinced if he did not return nines and stayed out in the lesser dunes at the end of the site it would have been a much. The secondary issue was Trent’s inability to offer architecture that was appropriate for the scale and severity of the site.

I think Cashen was a huge miss on a great, but tough, site

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Ireland – Day Two and Three - Ballybunnion Old

2nd shot to 11th hole

Ballybunnion is one of the better routings I have seen in quite some time. It may be one of the most remarkable examples of how to slowly and meticulously present an excellent golf course. The opener is largely open and then the second presents a tee shot through massive dunes. The 3rd through 6th are all in open land before the golfer is presented with back to back impressive holes in the 7th and 8th. Once more you are sent back to open land before running through the dunes from the 10th right through to the 12th. One last venture into somewhat open land on the 13th and then back into the biggest dunes right through to the18th. It’s this slow and deliberate unveiling that helps bring the golf course to crescendo as you play.

The course could have easily relied on the numerous dune holes to carry the day, but the green sites on all the holes in open land are some of the very best on the course. Some like the opener and 5th require some precision, but are open to all sorts of different shots, others like the 6th and 9th are so incredibly diabolical that only the most precise shot has any possibilities of success. The greens and the surrounds are easily a highlight of the course long before the dunes begin to blow the golfers mind.

Par three - 8th hole

The architectural highlights for me were the 6th green (one of the very best greens I have ever seen and one that I will incorporate in my work – falls off on both sides at a diagonal), the 8th (a brilliant and deceptive short three), the awe inspiring 11th (which plays as an all or nothing approach after a dramatic tee shot) and the awesome long par three 15th (which is as spectacular a long three as the game has). There are another half dozen wonderful holes on top of this too. It’s that good!

Personal note: despite high wind I had two rounds in the 80’s

Ireland - Day Two – Waterville

11th hole - 2nd shot

The second course we played was Waterville. Waterville is a links course designed by Irish legend Eddie Hackett, which has subsequently undergone a lot of work over the last ten years under the guidance of Tom Fazio. Most of the work has been an attempt to add additional character to the holes routed over lesser land, but some of the changes have also been done to add length in order to keep Waterville one of the premier links courses in the World.

The opening nine has received most of the attention. The Fazio team has done a wonderful job of adding new dunes to make the opening nine feel more links like. They have done a great job of generating the variety in shapes, sizes and spacing. Unfortunately the architectural work, like burns and bunkering, had a decidedly North American feel and is not as authentic.

9th approach

That leads me well to my number one criticism I have for the course. The bunkering is mostly there to provide visual stimulation. I was surprised how often a bunker sat simply to the side or worse a bunker on the corner could be carried only to leave you stuck in the rough. I found that I really liked Waterville and felt the course was beautiful, but I was disappointed by the lack of strategy, particularly on the front nine. Playing away from trouble for the ideal line is anti-strategy to me.

The reason Waterville is in the Top 100 in the World is the back nine. The highlight is the par five 11th. The tee shot is played between a wonderful set of large dunes and then the approach is played across or through a stunning deep valley back up to a spectacular elevated green all the way surrounded by large dunes.

I think Eddie Hackett did a marvellous job of routing the holes back and forth through the dunes for the opening three, plays off the top and then back into them for the next two and finally in and out of the dunes to the 18th.

Waterville is well worth playing.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Ireland - Day 1 - Dooks Golf Course

Dook's opening green
The Dooks Golf Club was our opening round in Ireland. The course was built mostly by the members over some terrific links land, but in recent times Martin Hawtree has been brought in to help modernize and update the course. Martin’s main focus was adding close to 500 yards.

I really enjoyed Dooks. The opening nine was definitely the strength of the course despite the fact that the holes run back and forth until the 10th along the ocean. What I really liked was the variety of ways which the holes attack the main hill to generate different hole types. There may have been no real standout holes among them but the sum of the front nine holes was certainly a fun and enjoyable experience.

The back nine was good, but just didn’t have quite the same charm for me. My companions did like some of the early and late holes in the nine, but all of us saw the nine being the lesser of the two.

One struggle I had from an architectural perspective was the green site shaoping. The green surfaces

The enertaining 6th

were usually very smart, but my issue often came in the areas beyond. Rather than blending into what was there, far too often these were respaed to create repetitive undulations and rolls. The impact was the course contrasted against the surroundings rather than blended. It’s certainly something I would have avoided at all costs.

The biggest issue I had with Dooks was the way they lengthened the holes. It always seemed to involve an extended walk back to find the tees. There were at least six long walk backs and the experience quickly became tedious. I would have enjoyed a shorter course with shorter walks.

I’m glad we played the course, it was fun to play

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Golf’s Most Influential Architects

Walking the 18th at Quaker Ridge with Gil Hanse
Bob Vasilak wrote a recent piece for Golf Inc. titled “Golf’s Most Influential Architects”
I was interviewed and supplied some background information and a few quotes on Tom Doak and Gil Hanse. I did not offer comments on others largely because many are not an influence on me.

The piece can be read here:

In it he listed the 15 Most Influential architects in this order:

1.   Pete Dye
2.   Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw
3.   Tom Doak
4.   Brian Curley and Lee Schmidt
5.   Jack Nicklaus
6.   Robert Trent Jones Jr.
7.   Ron Fream
8.   Kyle Phillips
9.   Tom Fazio
10.   Greg Norman
11.   Rees Jones
12.   Gil Hanse
13.   Steve Smyers
14.   Richard Mandell
15.   Charles Blair MacDonald

Coore and Crenshaw's 17th at Bandon Trails

I'm influenced by Coore, Doak and Hanse (and lots of old dead guys like MacDonald too).

In the 16th spot he listed a number of American and foreign architects who received mention. I was a little surprised to see that I got a mention in the foreign group that included Nick Faldo, Michael Clayton and Martin Hawtree. Not bad company for a little Canadian architect who specializes in hostorical restoration.

We had a lengthy talk on the phone and Bob asked me to write one of the five sidebars on the course that had the greatest influence on me. While selecting St. Andrew's may be a little predictable, it was an honest selection. That particular experience convinced me that Max Behr was right and playing freedoms were the most important basis premise of my design philosophy.

11th Hole at St. Andrew's

Here is the piece I wrote:

After finishing an enjoyable round at St. Andrew’s Old, played in strong wind, I had an epiphany about the experience. I realized that the style of the architecture at the Old Course had little to do with punishing poor shots and had much more to do with encouraging intelligent play. It’s greatest attribute was the freedom to choose.

I had always appreciated how the course provided me with the option to select an appropriate route and the opportunity to play a variety of shots. I’m still thrilled by the unlimited options throughout the round, but it took a round played under difficult conditions to drive home the importance of having the freedom to set your own path.

I played well that day despite the wind. While I was pleased with the results, I knew that to improve my score that I would need to take on much more risk the next time out. St. Andrew’s Old is one of the few courses I know where you can have this sort of experience regardless of weather. Ever since that day, I have tried to provide the same freedom to choose in my own architecture.