Klein talks architecture, 'Wide Open Fairways'

Bradley S. Klein hits a tee ball at dusk at Bandon Preserve in Oregon.

Golfweek senior writer Bradley S. Klein recently penned the book, "Wide Open Fairways: A Journey Across The Landscapes Of Modern Golf," which shares his insights on golf course architecture – in regard to topics including new designs and course overhauls.

Klein also spoke recently with Golf Club Atlas in an interview that shed some light on his thoughts about a variety of golf architecture topics, including the Golfweek's Best course ratings of which Klein is an integral part.

Here are a couple of excerpts from "Wide Open Fairways":

• • •

Oregon: Bandon Charette

For all the drama and scale of Old Macdonald, each of its elements still had to be playable and fit in sensibly. And perhaps it was here, if anywhere, that I played any minor role in the whole process. The vision of the whole that Doak and Urbina consistently displayed always amazed me. It takes considerable courage to see big features that can be worked into shape or, like that dune for the seventh and eighth holes, that can be willed to work for golf. It also takes no small measure of restraint.

One of my tasks was to make sure the blind over-the-dune tee shot on the par-4 third hole was playable by mid-handicappers. This was “Sahara,” based on the par-4 second at National Golf Links, which in turn was adapted from the old third hole at Royal St. George’s in Kent, England – a hole that no longer exists. At Old Macdonald the idea was to get people over the primary dune ridge and to tempt them to hit it left in hopes they could reach the green on this short par-4. To do so would require an act of faith as well as a very bold shot that would have to travel high and far for it to clear the dune. The safe shot down the middle, between two existing snags that stood like goalposts, was only about 140 yards through the air and at a height of 35 to 40 feet. It’s the kind of shot you can easily manage with a driver – unless you have to and are trying hard. To make the carry less intimidating, Doak and Urbina brought down the hill about ten feet. All they did was push the dirt down, and the hill just melted, to the point where I could carry it with a 6-iron shot. Eventually, one of the snags gave way – a shame, I thought, though Doak always disliked elements that looked contrived and formulaic, as those two did. At least they left one. . . .

Despite the time I’ve spent in the field with golf course architects, I’m never really sure what’s going on in their heads. It’s easy to articulate ideas and strategies, but I have always felt that much of the on-site work comes from a quick visual assessment and response to the scene, as if course design were as much a matter of reaction as a matter of systematic planning on paper. Actually, it’s more about fieldwork and site adjustment than about working things out in advance. Not that you entirely wing it in the field. Without a sound routing nothing can go right. But I’ve seen too many courses designed to within an inch of their life in exhaustive documentary record on paper, and when the plans are handed over to a builder, the result looks like a giant Tupperware party that’s been landscaped into place.

Doak and Urbina, like others who got their start in the business by working on construction crews under Pete Dye, proceed with a minimum of a paper trail and a maximum of time in the field. And so for me it was always an exciting, if uncertain, venture to see with each visit how Old Macdonald had evolved and what puzzles remained to be solved.

Given his work style and temperament, Doak for me was always very hard to approach. I didn’t want to come off as an upstart or as a writer who thinks he’s suddenly a golf course architect. And so I always tried to temper any comments with the understanding that those guys knew what they were doing but that I could see it in terms of an unfolding process and anticipate how it might come out and be perceived down the road by others. In effect I was the resident golf course critic who, on a live, ongoing basis, was formulating and submitting reviews that became part of a feedback loop that went into the making of the golf course.

I have this theory that in every golf course project there’s always one problem hole that doesn’t quite fit or that is the perpetual outlier that can’t be made to work right. . . . At Old Macdonald the fourteenth hole always bugged me. It was a mid-length par-4 that started at the base of a big dune ridge and climbed steeply as it turned left. The problem for me was that the upslope from the middle of the fairway into the green was way too severe for comfortable playing or for walking. It seemed to me to contrast with the rest of the course. All it takes is one such anomaly that hampers the sensibility of the place, and you’ve undercut sustained effort everywhere else.

If I brought it up directly with Doak, I can’t remember his response, though surely it would have been the kind of distanced engagement (i.e., nonengagement) that characterized so many of his dealings with others. . . . So, I spoke with Urbina, who was receptive to my concerns about it insofar as he listened, took me seriously, and assured me he’d think carefully about it. When a further version of work on that hole did not allay my concerns, I went to Keiser about it, and we walked the area together. He took me seriously, and at that point, having fulfilled my obligation at least to convey my concern, I dropped it.

Whether anyone pushed Doak on the matter or he just came around to it himself, I’ll never know. In these and in all other matters, I long ago learned that it’s more important to be effective than to gain affirmation that you’re right about something. Whatever the case, the slope eventually was “melted down” and softened in severity, to the point where it is now far more playable and walkable than it used to be. . . . There is something about pride of birth in the development of a golf course. The gestation period is measured in years, and when it emerges completed and ready for public consumption, the course takes on a life of its own that will variously thrill, confuse, entertain, and frustrate thousands of golfers each year. To have been a witness to the process with this widely watched and now widely acclaimed golf course has been something of a career marker for me. It turns out that those wide open spaces don’t just happen on their own. Someone has to make them. As with Keiser, Doak, and Urbina at Old Macdonald, someone first has to imagine them.

• • •

A Restorationist Manifesto

Nothing is more frustrating for the advocate of a restoration project than having to face dozens of fellow home club golfers who think no changes are needed. “Don’t fix it unless it’s broke,” he’ll be told. “We love our course just the way it is.” “It’s always been like that, don’t mess with it.” “The trees are the best part of our course.”

Each of these oft-uttered clichés is evidence of ignorance. And yet it’s just these sentiments that must be combated for restoration to succeed. Concerns about bunker reconstruction, tree management, drainage, green speeds, and what to do with cart paths are all, by contrast, essentially technical in nature and can be solved accordingly.

But overcoming indifference and changing the sentiments of club officials and members is a study in psychology, politics, and salesmanship. . . . What is to be done to convince traditionalists that restoration is a worthy effort? I’d suggest using the language of course conditioning and setup. . . .

The discussion about restoration is generally too oriented around issues of architecture and not enough about agronomy. The classic designers all understood the importance of greenkeeping, turfgrass selection, and proper drainage. Modern debate tends to overlook what goes into sound agronomy. Here restorationists can readily claim the moral high ground. Too many golfers equate a plant’s need for water with the need to apply more water. There’s nothing worse for turfgrass than for the plant to be soaked – more precisely, for the plant leaf to be soaked. The root needs water, and the way to achieve this is by getting water off the surface and into the soil. Overwatering ruins far too many courses, which only promotes the growth of annual bluegrass (Poa annua). At the same time, the proliferation of trees and their leaf canopies ends up creating shade conditions that harm turfgrass while preventing air circulation.

Tree management is crucial to good turf quality. That usually means tree removal. Without getting into the details of arbor care, suffice it to say that any restoration effort has to focus on tree management, and the best way to defend this objective (knowing how much people love their trees) is to make a case for the healthy turfgrass that will be produced.

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