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A Modern Day Confucius and Golf Course Designers’ Brains

“Being superman has many positives but you still have to wear your underpants on the outside.”

My friend Tommy Zhu waxing Confucius style on why Chinese people are reluctant to draw attention to their achievements

I don’t drive in China. When I go to or from a project a driver is usually provided and today was no different as I left one of my projects that has been dragging on for almost three years. I have picked up enough Mandarin along the way to have basic casual conversations and the one I had today left me not just a little traumatized. It turned out my driver recognized me as someone he drove along with his boss a few years ago. Today we were avoiding a traffic jam by taking an alternate route and he asked me if I remember going this way before. I said I did not as then I was only a few weeks in the country and chronically disoriented. The driver was nonetheless surprised, as he said this is where he drove his boss and me to have dinner at a locally famous restaurant that specializes in…… dog.

With horrified and sincere apologies to Brownie, Rusty, Razzbo, Bailey, Lassie, Old Blue, Old Yeller, Hooch, Scooch, Butkus, Bunker, Toto, Shorty, and all dogs everywhere past, present, and future.

I just didn’t know.

What, one might wonder, does this have to do with golf in Asia? Absolutely nothing except that there are choices to make every day by everyone working here. Not the least significant concerning the food in front of you is, “Do I or Do I Not want to know?”

Fortunately choices for golf designers as they begin their magic are not of such magnitude.

I will never look a field, a mountain, a beach or a forest the same way again. For that matter; a strip mine, a landfill or an abandoned fish farm.

I got to spend some time with several of the best designers working in China today

The question was, “What does it feel like?” I have listened to Golf Course Architects all my life and have heard tantalizing tidbits of creativity but now for the first time I asked the question straight away.

What does it feel like that first day you step foot on a new site. How do you do it? What is going through your mind?

I hoped to get more than the standard pabulum that every architect has at the ready for the media sound bite. “This is a great site.” “I am privileged to be given this challenge.” “We will be sensitive to nature and all its natural naturry beauty.” Blah blah blah

What I heard from these artists was mesmerizing even to a weathered old hand like me. These are the guys on the ground. Making the decisions and developing the vision.

Harley Kruse has soul. And the ‘Best New Course in Asia-Pacific’ according to the Asia Pacific Golf Summit.

Brian Curley is the mastermind behind the legendary Mission Hills, the largest single golf development in history and probably the most prolific designer in Asia today.

Mike Kahler and Robert Trent Jones II have been doing it at a stratospheric level for a very long time.

Dana Fry is fresh off of designing Erin Hills the site of the 2017 US Open a rare honor for a new golf course *

Steve Forrest can’t remember how many countries he has top 10 courses in.

*Belying the rarity of the achievement, Jones II recently did it at his Chambers Bay Course on Puget Sound, the 2015 US Open site

They share a commonality that in the end, they are producing some of the finest and most unique tracks being built today in Asia.

Listening to them describe those early occasions on the site, you can see in their eyes mirages of great approaches, visions of spectacular tee shots, flashes of strategic conundrums. Their anticipation of newly turned earth, then misty sprinklers and freshly mown greens is palpable. Harley “Sees” holes. Jones says “There is a golf course in every piece of property. You just have to find it.”

They have had sites that were so good the real challenge was to pick out the best routing and the best holes. Regrets abounded with tales of the potentially perfect hole or run of holes that had to be abandoned lest the rest of the golf course suffer. Kahler “Compromises” with himself, as according to him, “A golf course is only as good as its weakest hole.” Harley has to be careful, “Not to fall in love with a hole to the detriment of others.” Dana currently has a dream site in Inner Mongolia that he is attempting to do no major earthwork at all and is beside himself with the possibilities but daunted at the self-imposed challenge.

Then there are the plain flat sites unanimously voted by this group as the toughest of design challenges. Curley says, “Anyone can take a site that is a“10” and make it a “10” but the game changes when you have to take a “1” and make it a “10”.” Every bit of it has to be created in the designer’s mind. Once finished, a designer has no excuses, no rock to hide behind, no explanations of impossible canyons to cross. The scrutiny of having golf writers see your skills laid so bare can be unnerving. However success is possible. Dana Fry points to the incomparable Shadow Creek in Nevada, built from scratch in the desert. Of course it was one of the most expensive golf courses ever constructed and featured massive earthmoving and landscaping.

Still somehow I have a difficult time feeling sorry for them.

While designing a golf course and getting paid for it seems a dream job to most on the outside, logistical and practical challenges abound. With what I am sure must be a lump in their throat in these trying times, all have had to reluctantly tell clients, “Don’t build it.” Tales of sites so rugged and rocky they were described as “pointy” or swamps so miserable and isolated that no one would ever come once completed are common. Yet many get built anyway.

Mike Kahler relates that as he contemplates a site he keeps in mind who is going to build it and how and for how much. Doing just that not long ago he was startled by the sight of a water buffalo pulling a root rake, something routinely done with heavy equipment elsewhere. “Constructability” and “Flexibility” are two words that never leave his mind when starting out or throughout the process. Steve Forrest describes his process as, “A golfer setting up for a pre shot routine.” First solve the problems and then have some fun. The nuts and bolts of good design revolve around common axioms. Nines should return to the club house, holes should ideally be oriented north and south in consideration of the sun, minimal earth should be moved, native vegetation should be protected. Surprisingly wind is not usually a consideration. The mundane but necessary tasks of determining Clubhouse locations, parking lots, maintenance buildings are, if done correctly, not noticeable as ever having been thought of at all.

However Brian Curley points out that some of the best courses break many of the rules. Cypress Point for example has a first hole that plays across a road (17 Mile Drive no less), three par 5’s in a run of five holes (two of them back to back), back to back par threes, and nines (par 37-35) that don’t return to the tiny clubhouse; yet the course is often ranked Number One in America.

In China the rules change even more in that there is rarely direct sunlight so hole orientation is not a factor. Suitable land is rare so tremendous amounts of money is spent conditioning terrible sites. And inexplicably developers start projects without having secured all the land only to find they have to redesign and shrink the entire course or pay through the nose to proceed as planned.

These guys have vision. They can see a ridge and a blast crater on a strip mine, and bring to life a hole worthy of a post card. They have x-ray vision in that with a topographic map and a walk-about, they can see through mountains, forests, and in China even villages to unearth golfing gems.

They will all tell you that some of their best work was a result of, “Happy Accidents” where something was uncovered or discovered during the course of construction that turned into one of the best holes on the course. Steve Forrest says “Yes, but it is not haphazard.” The construction team is roundly credited with many of these discoveries. Guys called shapers are artists who bring designers visions to life. They are relied on heavily and do magically intricate work with seemingly outrageously oversized heavy equipment. I have heard them called, “Artists with ten ton chisels” and among the best of them, I find the description apt.

To a man these designers love the game and their profession. In China they are willing to travel to far flung barely civilized places, endure being the guests of honor at goat head and larvae Bar-B-Ques, hours and sometime days of delays in retched conditions, all because somewhere along the way, like many of us, golf got under their skin and it is there for keeps.

In addition to writing these missives as a companion piece for show creator Zenta Thomas’, “Breaking Ground”, Sam Sakocius of Project Control International is a golf development executive, entrepreneur, adventurer, lecturer, author, and full time resident of China.

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