On New Golf Courses, Nature Wins A Round

nyt-paper.gifIn the New York Times story "On New Golf Courses, Nature Wins a Round," Kathleen McCleary puts Rustic Canyon alongside elite company like Pacific Dunes in citing the course as an environmentally sensitive, old-school natural design. In the spirit of sharing and "fair use," most portions of the article are reprinted below, courtesy of the Times who, without authorization, lifted one of Geoff's photos off his old web site. :)

From the June 6, 2003 New York Times:

On New Golf Courses, Nature Wins a Round


On a grassy bluff 100 feet above the Pacific Ocean, you can see for at least 14 miles in each direction, from the windswept dunes and rolling hills along the shore, straight out across the sea toward Japan. The wind can blow so hard here that the rain comes in great horizontal gusts across the dunes. But there's a wild beauty to all the drama, with thick clouds scudding above the waves and the beach grasses and blooming thickets of gorse swirling in the wind. Dozens of different shades of green and gold blanket the hills, from the bright yellow Scotch broom to the deep green pines to the golden brown grass along the fairways.

Fairways? Yes; this particular three-mile stretch of wilderness along the Oregon coast is also a world-class golf course, Pacific Dunes. While Mark Twain famously called golf "a good walk spoiled," a new breed of golf course is turning that maxim on its head. Even bad golf is enhanced at Pacific Dunes, a walking-only course that seems to sprout from the sand, gorse, beach grass and shore pines that characterize this stretch of coast in remote southern Oregon.

"My definition of a great golf course is one that a nongolfer will have as much fun walking as a golfer," said Mike Keiser, 58, the self-described "thoroughly mediocre golfer" who owns Pacific Dunes and its sister course, Bandon Dunes. In a departure from the carefully manicured courses that blanket most resort communities, the best new courses are etched into canyons (Rustic Canyon in Moorpark, Calif.), rolled into sand dunes (Pacific Dunes and Bandon Dunes) or slipped into woods and wetlands (Hunting Hawk Golf Club in Glen Allen, Va.).

"There's a definite movement back toward courses that appear to fit seamlessly into the landscape," said Bill Love, the golf course architect who designed Hunting Hawk. That can include using native grasses that may sometimes be dormant and brown, outlawing the use of carts and avoiding asphalt in favor of weathered wood for paths.

Jay Morrish, president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, agreed. "We're certainly leaving more untouched areas," he said.

It is not appearance alone that is driving the trend. It is also environmental concerns about course development and maintenance, along with a desire to get back to a more traditional style of golf — "good, solid, honest shot-making," said Mr. Love, who has worked on more than 100 courses over the last 20 years. Many of the new courses represent a return to "links" golf as it originated in Scotland, golf played on an open, windswept and sandy course, with an emphasis on a strong ground game.

For many years, the highest-ranked courses in the United States have also been the oldest. Just eight of the top 50 courses on Golf Digest's 2003 list of "America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses" were built after 1936. Until the 1960's, "golf course architecture was embedded in nature," said Brad Klein, architecture editor for Golfweek magazine. Most courses were created using existing grades and hand tools. Architects had to work with the land's natural features out of necessity. But as technology and budgets increased, course architecture turned to moving major mounds of earth and building moats, lakes and hills.

"That produced a lot of courses on land you couldn't otherwise have used," Mr. Klein said, "but it also created a very unnatural, very contrived look."

The boom in residential golf communities in the 1990's also played a part, Mr. Love said. "It's unlikely you're going to have a golf course that looks like it sits on the Oregon sea coast running through a residential development," he said. But those boom days are over. The number of rounds of golf played annually has fallen every year since 1999, dropping 3 percent in 2002. While 398 new courses opened in 2000 — a 15-year peak — just 220 sprouted in 2002, according to the National Golf Foundation. Developers "saturated the market" with too many new courses in the 1990's, Mr. Morrish said. "We were opening a golf course a day," he said. "That's not going to happen again, even if the economy comes around. It's going to be survival of the fittest."

Or, as the current trend seems to indicate, survival of the most wild, scenic and natural. The top four courses on Golfweek magazine's annual list of best modern courses (opened after 1960) are all natural-style, and all were built within the last eight years. Those courses include Pacific Dunes (2001) and Bandon Dunes (1999) as well as Whistling Straits (1998), near Kohler, Wis., another walking-only course, which runs along two blustery miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and will be the site of the PGA Championship in 2004.

Tom Doak, the architect behind Pacific Dunes, said that a decade ago golf course architects would "brag about how much money they spent and how much dirt they moved around." It is not unusual to move a million or more cubic yards of soil in building a modern golf course. At the private Sandhills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb., the paradigm for naturalistic courses, the designers Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw moved just 5,000 cubic yards of dirt. At Pacific Dunes, Jim Urbina, who oversaw construction, estimated that 45,000 cubic yards were moved, and most of that was putting back sand and soil the wind had blown onto the dunes, he said. (But sometimes architects have to move dirt to create the look of a naturalistic course. At Whistling Straits, Pete Dye started with 560 acres of completely flat land and trucked in 800,000 cubic yards of sand to create huge dunes with tall wild grasses for a rugged links-style course that is nearly treeless and decidedly not parklike.)

Leaving much of a course in its natural state sets the stage for how it will be maintained, Mr. Doak said. "There are two approaches to golf course management, just like medicine," he said. "You can take the holistic approach and create the course in such a way that it needs minimal intervention to maintain, or you can take the surgical and medicinal approach." Mr. Doak said he spent "an inordinate amount of time telling workers where not to go" in building Pacific Dunes. He worked with a soil specialist, Dave Wilbur, an agronomist who instructed Mr. Doak's staff on the best way to preserve topsoil loaded with organic material so grass would put down deep roots, creating healthier plants that require less water and chemical intervention.

Ken Nice, the course superintendent, said he used fertilizer "very, very sparingly," and only organic products. He said he sprayed a herbicide just twice a year; most courses use herbicides four times a year.

Preserving as much natural character as possible on a course is in the best interest of course developers, said Bill Love. "The result is that you're able to lower operating costs because you're not maintaining as much ground, or maintaining it as frequently," he said. The notion that golf courses should stay lush and green year-round is wrong, he said. "If you have an area of the golf course that tends to brown out a little in summer, that can be very pretty and doesn't have to detract from the look."

Not all architects agree with the leave-it-alone approach. "Some people want to do as little as possible to a piece of property and make it look natural," said Mr. Morrish, who has been involved with the design on more than 100 courses in the United States and Europe. "Someone once asked me if I was a minimalist. I said, `No, I'm a necessarist.' If it means tearing off the top of a hill by six or seven feet so it will receive the ball, that's what I'm going to do. I don't think God ever played golf." But the bottom line for golfers is always how well a course plays.

On a typically sunny cloudy windy rainy day in late March at Pacific Dunes, Tom Doak stood over his ball on the fairway at the 12th hole at least 40 yards from the green. With his George Low putter, he rolled the ball across the unusually short grass of the fairway, up a slight mound to the left of the green and to within a foot of the cup. "Most golfers would take a 7-iron and try to fly the ball" to the green, Mr. Doak said. "You have to play golf differently on this kind of course" where strong winds, many dunes, firmly packed sand and smooth colonial bentgrass on the fairways encourage playing the ball on the ground.

Differently, at Pacific Dunes and other naturalistic courses, means playing a game in response to the elements. "I've played Pacific Dunes when it was sunny when I got on the first tee and hailing by the fourth tee," said Scott Burridge, a 10-handicap golfer and CBS sports anchor for KOIN-TV in Portland, Ore. "When you first see some of the nice wide fairways, you think, `Oh, I can hit that.' Well, if the wind is blowing at 40 m.p.h. it's not so easy."

The new courses are not for everybody. "A lot of people don't get it," Mr. Klein of Golfweek said. "A lot of people think that a golf course ought to be lush and green."

If You Go

IF you're looking for new naturalistic courses, look west. "Converted farm and ranch lands lend themselves more readily to more naturalistic forms of construction," said Brad Klein, architecture editor for Golfweek magazine. This explains the courses sprouting in Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota and other states west of the Mississippi.

Mike Keiser, the owner of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, said he searched the East Coast for years for property on which to build the wild, links-style course he envisioned. "I naïvely thought I could find 500 acres on the ocean with gently rolling dune land," he said, "but everything on the East Coast had been discovered 100 years ago." Mr. Keiser, who lives in Chicago, ended up building two courses in a remote corner of southwest Oregon.

Here is a quick look at some courses:

PACIFIC DUNES Bandon, Ore., (888) 345-6008. A 6,600-yard par-71 course, Pacific Dunes has wind, views, thickets of gorse and some of the best playing in the country. Its sister course, Bandon Dunes, which opened in 1999, is a 6,700-yard par-72 links-style course that is also one of the nation's best. Both courses are open all year and are a five-hour drive from Portland or a one-hour flight (into North Bend Municipal Airport, where cars can be rented, 40 minutes away). Shuttle vans also operate between North Bend and the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.

RUSTIC CANYON Moorpark, Calif., (805) 530-0221. Golf Digest magazine's pick for "the best new affordable" public course of 2002, Rustic Canyon is treeless with firm, sandy soil in a broad, wild canyon north of Los Angeles. The par-72 course is 6,900 yards.

WILD HORSE Gothenburg, Neb., (308) 537-7700. Foot-high prairie grass and wildflowers choke the rough on 300 acres of rolling hills near the Sand Hills. This 6,800-yard par-72 course has no trees or water hazards — just hills and giant "blow-outs," where the soil has eroded down to the sand.