Design Changes in the Field - Part 13

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer

Editor's Note: This is the 13th installment of golf course architect Jeffrey D. Brauer's ongoing journal about construction of the second course at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, Minn., called The Quarry at Giants Ridge. Here, he discusses how a visit to some great West Course courses impacted his design in the North Country.

New Spring, New Vision for Mining Scars and Tree Clusters

I have been busy traveling lately. At the end of April, I attended the annual convention of the American Society of Golf Course Architects in Santa Barbara, Calif. For me, membership in this prestigious group is a lifelong goal, serving it as president in 1995-96 was an honor, and attending the meetings is an annual highlight.

One architect describes our annual meeting this way: "We spend 51 weeks a year beating each other's brains out for the best projects, and get together this week to talk it over!"

Seriously, I always find that getting together with people who are both friends and competitors is instructive. I usually find that they - including the biggest names in the business - have about the same day-to-day professional problems I face.

What are these meetings like? Our usual format is to have indoor seminars each morning, followed by "outdoor seminars," which, to the untrained eye might look like rounds of golf! Of course, they must be "seminars" to attain the necessary tax-favored status of the IRS. Moreover, of course, playing the great courses of the world - Old and New - is, in fact, a seminar of sorts in our profession.

The indoor seminars consist of presentations by both our members and outsiders, like historians and related professionals. More and more, we feel that our own members are the best experts around, and they are presenting more of the panels. This year, representatives of the Tom Fazio and Rees Jones design teams shared their experiences in renovating courses for major tournaments. Again, given that the room is full of competitors, it's inspiring to hear how much knowledge our members willingly share to benefit others.

The highlight, of course, is playing great golf courses. In the last few years, we have focused on playing (and if the IRS is reading this, studying!) courses designed by "famous dead guys." This year, it was the Valley Club (an Alister Mackenzie gem) and La Cumbre Golf & Country Club and Ojai Valley Inn & Country Club, both by George Thomas. We also played a good Robert Muir Graves/Damian Pascuzzo course called La Purisma, built in the 1980s.

What do these courses have to do with the construction of Giants Ridge and Fortune Bay? Well, I got so fired up after this meeting that I went right back to my field visit in Minnesota and made some changes to the designs of both! At Fortune Bay, which is in the formative stages, this is no problem. My contractor at Giants Ridge did roll his eyes, though, as he felt he was only down to moving topsoil at this point.

Not so, as a good architect designs right down to the last minute, when the grass finally goes down! Actually, holes 2 and 18 have been used as topsoil holding areas, and have not been shaped. Both serve as examples of the types of improvements we can make by "field design."

Number 2 is a par-5 built in the topsoil borrow area for the first course. We planned to leave the quarry, and deepen it as a hazard to carry for the bold player trying to reach the green in two shots. The hole runs uphill from landing area to green. In such cases, it is always difficult to maintain vision to the green and hazards, and our plan didn't work out well in this regard. In response, we lowered the green, and also lowered the front of the green about 3 feet, and even added a "false front" for better vision. It makes the pin position front right dicey to get to! We also found that a portion of the sand hazard was blind, and decided to convert that to fairway.

As No. 18 became visible from under its topsoil piles, we directed the shaping of the green. We had attempted to save a small cluster of trees on the front left of the green. Actually, I recall discussing them last year. This year, it was clear that the green would be better if they were removed and we ordered it done. The green sits high above the Embarrass Mine lake (actually remnants of a 700-foot-deep iron quarry), providing substantial (to say the least) hazard to the right of the green. To compensate, we wanted a gentle punch-bowl effect to the left, so a golfer can play safely away from the lake and still attain the green.

Our theory for resort courses is to give them a good last shot of the day. They buy more beer and merchandise that way! There is a 25-foot-deep mining scar converted to bunker guarding the "ultra-safe" shot, to maintain some strategic value. Even for that, we filled in the front of the old pit so we could turf it. We feel this will often prevent a topped shot from rolling in.

We also added a back tee on the 12th, on a small ridge that elevates the tee a bit more. This elevation and removal of a small clump of trees in the fairway corridor opened and presented the fairway better. One reason this didn't work out to plan was the discovery of peat bogs in the fairway. We authorized the contractor to place geo-textile fabric on existing soil to stabilize the area, and add an intermediate layer and topsoil above it. So, where our plan anticipated a small cut to provide vision to the hazards and green (which is difficult enough to see since it is a reverse-sloped green) it got built with about 3 feet of fill instead.

It's funny how a new perspective in spring changes perceptions. Last fall, I felt saving those trees as "lone soldiers" (a stand-alone tree group) would look good. This spring, they looked terrible to my eyes. This hole illustrates how, most of the time, golf holes look better when you take trees out, despite the natural tendency to leave them in!

Even with great strides in 3-D computer modeling, we find that we still make changes in the field. Most of these changes involve better vision of features, or trying - and sometimes, like on the 18th, failing - to save various trees.

Last time, I promised a look inside the thought process of designing a fair course for various types of players, and that will still come. I hope you enjoyed hearing a bit about the process of field changes, and a glimpse of the annual ASGCA meeting.

Jeffrey D. Brauer and his firm, GolfScapes, have designed 40 golf courses and remodeled 80. Canterberry Golf Course in Parker, Colo., and Giants Ridge are rated among the best affordable public courses in the United States, while his Avocet Course at Wild Wing Plantation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., was a Golf Digest best new course winner, Champions Country Club is rated 5th in Nebraska and TangleRidge Golf Club is 12th in Texas. President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects during its 50th anniversary year in 1995-96, Brauer also designed Colbert Hills Golf Club at Kansas State, which opened in June 2000 as the cornerstone golf course for The First Tee program as well as the first collaboration between the PGA of America and Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.