Year in review: A look at golf architecture in 2013

The walking bridge to No. 7 Blue at Streamsong Golf Course.

Golfweek architecture editor Brad Klein (follow on Twitter here) and travel editor Martin Kaufmann (follow on Twitter here) talk about some of the best new and renovated courses of 2013, and what they’re looking forward to seeing in 2014.

• • •

What is the most interesting new course you saw in 2013?

Klein: Streamsong. Middle of absolute nowhere, equidistant between Orlando and Tampa and 40 miles south of Lakeland. If they can make a go of it in terms of business, good for them. It’s really one 36-hole golf course, with two 18s by Tom Doak and Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw side by side. Actually, they overlap. I just wish they were more readily distinguishable. But together they make the trip out there into that great void of Central Florida worthwhile. Though don't count on your GPS to get you there. There are no signals where Streamsong is. Just weird topography, evokes a feel of the Nebraska Sand Hills. Also of some lost world of dinosaurs.

Kaufmann: The two courses at Streamsong are a good call. But Brad is right: It does feel really remote, even for those of us living just 90 minutes away in Orlando. The new lodge there should help matters by adding a stay-and-play option. There aren’t many new courses these days, and I doubt that any will grade out higher than the two at Streamsong in the architecture rankings. Sewailo Golf Club, which just opened this month in Tucson, is definitely worth a look. Most of the top Tucson courses are up in the hills north of town; Sewailo is down in the valley southwest of town. But thanks to the big casino budget that backed its construction, oodles of dirt were moved to create a lot of interesting land forms and angles.

• • •

What is the best course renovation of 2013?

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Philadelphia Cricket Club-Wissahickon Course

Klein: Philadelphia Cricket Club-Wissahickon Course, the old Tillinghast layout that had gotten kind of tired. Keith Foster put back lots of bold bunkering, cross-hazards, minefields of sand. The club made a big step in undertaking that work and Foster is meticulous in his approach; very old school, very quiet. He's not into making headlines, just in bringing back creaky features that people thought were obsolete in the 1970s and 1980s and that now prove to be fascinating and lovely.

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Ambiente's 13th hole at Camelback Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Kaufmann: This is where most of the interesting work is being done – relatively modest renovations and redesigns. I suspect the leader in the clubhouse here is Gil Hanse’s redo of the Blue Monster at Doral, though I haven’t seen it yet because it just re-opened a few days ago. Special mention to Camelback’s Ambiente Course in Scottsdale, Ariz. I saw it years ago, when it was known as Indian Bend, and thought it was perhaps the worst resort course I had ever seen – roughly comparable to a cheap muni. It was flat, boring, unattractive. But Jason Straka’s redesign has made it interesting, strategic and really quite lovely. That was particularly impressive given the constraints of that site, which sits on a flood plain. There’s a lot of golf in Scottsdale, but I’m not sure there’s anything quite like Ambiente.

• • •

Which 2014 major championship sites, on any of the professional tours, are you most interested in seeing?

Kaufmann: Pinehurst will get the most coverage because it's hosting two national championships in June. But the course I'll be watching most closely is Royal Porthcawl, which is hosting the Senior British Open. Porthcawl would have been the natural place to host the 2010 Ryder Cup if such things were decided on merit rather than money. I suspect that Porthcawl is going to get rave reviews and that there will be a lot of calls for it to be added to the Open Championship rota, though infrastructure might be an issue there. My hope is that Porthcawl shows well – I have little doubt that it will – and that more golf travelers will be inspired to give Wales a shot. There's a lot of outstanding, reasonably priced links golf in Wales, even if that fact hasn't been particularly well marketed.

Klein: If Ryder Cup sites and other tournament venues were selected only on the basis of architectural merit, we wouldn't be seeing any of the sites they've used for Ryder Cups in England, Scotland or Wales. Actually, almost all of the stops on the PGA and LPGA tours would be different. I am very curious as to what shape Pinehurst No. 2 will be in for week two of national championship month there, when the women show up.

• • •

Are there any new or renovated courses opening in 2014 that you're particularly excited to see?

Kaufmann: I'm already planning to block off time in July 2014 to visit Gamble Sands in Brewster, Wash., in the north-central part of the state. Work has been completed on the course, and they're allowing plenty of time to complete the grow-in phase. This is David McLay Kidd’s newest course, and he's not exactly downplaying expectations. He said his goal at Gamble Sands was to build a course "just as playable as Bandon Dunes." There undoubtedly will be a lot of comparisons between the two courses. It's a big, sandy, walkable site with a fescue carpet, wide fairways and no homes in site.

Klein: I'm hopelessly remiss in not having seen the new Doak Course at Dismal RIver in Mullen, Nebraska. I also understand that David Kidd has done a real tribute to the late architect John Harbottle at Tacoma Golf & Country Club, where Harbottle had started to do a restoration before his tragic early death. The work that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw did on Perry Maxwell's unheralded gem, Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, NC, has been stunning from what I've seen in process and I cannot wait to see the finished product. And for all the driving I do back and forth over the Whitestone Bridge between the Bronx and Queens in New York City, I am very interested to see if the Jack Nicklaus and John Sanford-designed Ferry Point Course that Donald Trump will be managing for the City of New York is as good on the ground as it looks from up on high.

Kaufmann: Let me go off the grid a little bit and mention one new international course that I’m anxious to see. The Jack Nicklaus course at Quivira, a resort/residential project in Los Cabos, Mexico, has been stalled for years, but it’s finally nearing completion. It should be open by late spring. I toured the site five years ago when it was just a bunch of huge sand dunes, and thought it was one of the most spectacular settings I’d ever seen – for golf or any other purpose. It’s on a cliff at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. This might sound like sacrilege, but a friend who visited the site this month said some of the cliffside holes reminded him of Cypress Point in terms of their wow factor. No pressure, Jack.

• • •

What is the biggest architectural trend you're seeing?

Klein: Most of the private clubs and many daily-fees I'm seeing now are adding forward tees -- way forward of where they were a decade or two ago. Like at 4,800 yards. They're also making sure they have a good set of senior tees at maybe 5,800 yards. And instead of adding multiple tees, a lot of places are relying upon inventive computer programs to print out scorecards with hybrid or composite tee combinations so that you can play a mix of tees rather than the same set every day.

Kaufmann: The forward tees are definitely a big trend. So, too, is the movement toward use of less water, less rough and, in some cases, less managed turf. There are practical considerations driving this, specifically, cutting maintenance costs and speeding pace of play. But I think it’s also a market correction of sorts. We went through the go-go ’90s and early 2000s when developers wasted millions on mediocre courses. But recessions tend to instill in people an appreciation of simpler times. In the case of golf, I think a lot of people came to the realization that the works of guys like Tillinghast and Mackenzie are called “classic courses” for a reason, and maybe there are lessons to be learned from their legacies.

• • •

Which architect currently is doing the most interesting work?

Klein: Hard to answer. All the big design shops got smaller, and there's lot of young, hard-working talent out there running free and looking for work and willing to establish themselves. I think there's been a big shift, from the heyday of Nicklaus-Fazio-the Joneses to the post-Pete Dye era of Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Coore-Crenshaw and their progeny who are now out there doing smaller work, a lot of restorations. Dave Zinkand's work at Desert Forest GC in Carefree, Ariz., is a good example. So, too, with Kyle Franz at Mid Pines in Southern Pines, N.C. And out at SentryWorld in Stevens Point, Wis., I’m excited to see what former RTJII design staffer Jay Blasi has been doing on a course that Jones had designed in the 1980s – and now they’re sort of collaborating on it! It's a whole new world out there, harder than ever to track and more diverse.

Kaufmann: Brad mentioned Keith Foster earlier. He’s under the radar, but has a really impressive portfolio of renovations. Tom Doak is a demigod to the architecture aficionados, and as much as the contrarian in me would like to challenge that, the fact is that Tom has earned that status with consistently outstanding and fascinating work. Over the past five years, I could count on one hand the number of rounds that I found more enjoyable or compelling than Doak’s Rock Creek Cattle Company in Montana.

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