Categorized | 2013, December 2013, News

Artists of the Landscape Part II

By: John Russell

Artists of the Landscape

The Great Depression and WWII created a void in golf courses development, but this was almost singularly filled by Robert Trent Jones, a talented and energetic golf architect with a supreme sense of showmanship. Trent Jones actually started his career as a golf professional and although he was an excellent golfer, health issues drove him away from tournament golf towards his other passion of golf course design. He enrolled at Cornell University, and by choosing a range of independent subjects including landscape architecture, horticulture, agronomy, hydraulics, surveying, economics, and public speaking, he mapped out a unique curriculum for himself which had many of the ingredients of a current day golf course architecture degree.

After finishing his degree in 1930 Trent Jones started out in golf course design in partnership with Canadian architect Stanley Thompson, and although they achieved some success with Banff and Capilano courses in Canada, business was constricted by the great depression. The partnership ended in 1938.

Persevering with his chosen career, Trent Jones business began to blossom after WWI, driven by his salesmanship and an uncanny skill to connect with the most important and wealthy. He commercialised the business more than anyone before or after him, building over 400 courses with teams around the globe loyally following his design principles founded on extremely long tees, jig-saw edged bunkers lining the fairway, and huge greens protected by elaborate bunkers or lake. Golfers were given more than one line to play on most of his holes, but none offered a safe miss.  One of his advertisements in the 1960’s bellowed the slogan “Give your course a signature”, leading to the terms “signature course” and “signature hole”.  But as all of his courses were clearly identifiable, a signature was what you got.

Pete Dye appeared on the scene towards the end of Robert Trent Jones era in the late 60’s and in his own words “figured if I was ever going to make a name for myself in this business, I should just do the opposite of whatever Trent Jones was doing. He was the Goliath of the industry.” Dye’s philosophy was to create holes of dramatic appearance typically with massive earthworks and even bigger budgets, which he frequently exceeded.  One of his trade mark design features were steep revetment walls in bunkers and shoring of water hazards, inspired by the bunkers of Prestwick golf Course in the UK.  The island green at TPC Sawgrass is a classic example. Spectacular as they are, Dye’s courses are more suited to the touring pro rather than the average amateur golfer.

Padi ValleyThe modern era of the 80’s brought in Golf Architect Tom Fazio whose approach was to create a beautiful environment with a course that could be enjoyed by the average golfer. This may have created courses that were not so inspiring from a strategic player’s perspective, but fitted snugly into the requirements of developers who would use a golf course to attract buyers for adjoining residential properties. Fazio would take on any challenge, such as turning a depleted quarry into a golf gem, provided there was a big budget to back him up. Not surprisingly, Fazio’s business boomed in unison with the property market, making him the pre-eminent designer of the modern era with his name on the highest number of courses in the US top 100.

Big names do sell real estate memberships, and with the property boom entered great professional golfing names into the field of golf course design. It may be questionable how much input they could have personally with their busy schedules, and arguable how valuable their contribution may be given their lives had been dedicated to training and competing, but all are shadowed by dedicated professional designers. It seems though that the character of the courses signed off by these golf professionals often reflects their preferred style of play and ball flight, so in a sense the design is their “signature.”

With a slowing down in the golf industry, downturn in the property market, and growing environmental awareness in the West, golf has entered the “natural “phase in the western world.  Golf course design has almost turned full circle in its philosophy to harmonise with the local natural environment, minimise disturbance of landscape by earthworks, and use local flora and vegetation which places less demand on soil and water resources and requiring less added nutrients. Marketing has shifted from impressing with the spectacular to offering enjoyable playable holes for the average amateur.

At the other end of the economic seesaw are the growing Asian economies where in most countries; golf is still on the rise. Here, the range of possibilities covers the whole spectrum of golf course design. Most of the well-known designers have already tried their hand in Indonesia including Jack Nicklaus, Thompson Wolveridge Perret, Gary Player, Greg Norman, Graham Marsh, Dye Designs, and Robert Trent Jones Jr.

However to secure projects in Asia on an ongoing basis, designers need to work as much on relationships and the business culture as to do on the technical aspects of a project. This requires long-term consistent engagement with clients, something that may be hard to sustain for large international practices with high overheads. Not surprisingly, compact firms lead by owner/designers has been doing steady business. Over a 20-year span, Bob Moore of JMP design group has already seen the completion of five courses in Indonesia with   five more in the pipeline. His philosophy is to build beautiful and enjoyable courses, which the average golfer will want to play again and again – words that a money-conscious developer loves to hear.

There are now over 70 courses in Indonesia, with 40 in Jakarta and surrounds alone, all a treat to play and compare. With a growing economy, an ever-increasing affluent middle class with housing and commercial estates sprouting up in new areas to accommodate them, developers are poised to launch a new generation of golf courses. Perhaps these could nurture an emerging generation of local golf course designers.

About John Russell

Once a zero handicapper, John Russell is a business strategist with a deep understanding of golf. Previously advisor to KADIN Indonesia, HIPMI, and an executive in Bechtel Corporation, John has always used golf as a tool for business. In 1999 John entered the golf world full time, becoming Indonesia’s pre-eminent golf personality with golf schools, television appearances, articles in golf media, and now weekly articles in Jakarta Globe. Understanding how golf can be applied for better business, John became a pioneer of corporate golf in Asia. His innovations are now common practice. John can be contacted at john@johnrussellgolf.com.

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