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Tales From The Design Trail

By John Steinbreder   •   March 21, 2019

More than anything else, golf course architects are artists, imaginative and inventive people able to turn raw and rugged land into layouts that delight the soul and rouse the mind. And they use rather clunky tools like bulldozers and backhoes to do so. But at their core, those people are also adventurers, and their work these days takes them to the corners of the earth. Part of that is due to the recent trend of building courses in remote settings, and the realization that so long as the layouts are brilliantly conceived and constructed (Nebraska’s Sand Hills and Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, to name but two), people will go to them no matter how long and arduous the treks may be. And with the market for new-course development in the States dried up to the point that only a handful of tracks open in America each year, more and more designers have been taking jobs in outposts. Turkey and China, for example. Fiji and South Africa, too. Along the way, the architects have become modern-day Burtons and Spekes. Instead of trudging through the wilds of East Africa in search of the source of the Nile, they are leading expeditions to other far-flung spots, producing in the process some of the finest courses the game has known and spreading the gospel of golf all around the world as they also enjoy close encounters of the most interesting and unique kinds.

It is not always an easy task, especially on those gigs that take them to the most out-of-the-way places. In addition to the usual hassles of tractors breaking down and workers showing up with crashing hangovers, there are face-offs with deadly poisonous snakes and run-ins with nearly naked aborigines armed with bows and arrows. Often times, the terrain on which they are toiling can be traversed in the early stages of the project only by using game trails formed by the mammals that long have occupied them – or by making new ones with machetes. Ask any architect about life on the road – some of them are gone from home as many as 300 days a year – and they will recall the strange foods they have eaten, the ramshackle shacks they have slept in, the weeks they have had to make due without plumbing, running water or air conditioning and the bug bites that at times have caused their faces to redden and swell. They rue the canceled flights, lost bags and missed air connections. And as much as they pine for the loved ones they leave behind for weeks and months at a time, they sometimes struggle to adjust from being on the road with their crews to being back with their families.

“…There are face-offs with deadly poisonous snakes and run-ins with nearly naked aborigines armed with bows and arrows.”

“I am not sure most golfers understand what kind of pioneers course architects have become or appreciate the life so many have to lead in their work,” says designer Rees Jones, whose father, Robert Trent Jones Sr., was in the 1950s and ’60s one of the first architects to work extensively overseas – and who has logged more than his share of frequent-flier miles in his own work. “Many times, they get to places before there is even a proper airport or hotel. And forget about Internet or cell service.”

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Adds fellow architect Steve Smyers: “We’re vagabonds, and in addition to designing and building courses, we also have to learn or at the very least understand the local languages and customs as well as the work ethics and habits of the people we employ and the overall situation in the countries in which we are working.”

But Jones and others are also quick to describe the things they like about their peripatetic lives, and there are plenty of them. Such as getting to experience and learn about exotic cultures and becoming parts of local communities after spending weeks and in many cases months toiling there. Or providing a living and teaching new life skills to local laborers who had neither before. And in the end, there is the satisfaction of working in golf and creating golf courses that provide places for both foreigners and locals to play as it also helps further the game by introducing it to other peoples and lands.

Of Sheep and Snakes

“There is only one way to build a golf course properly, and that is to be there,” says Benjamin Warren, a 37-year-old native of North Berwick, Scotland, who has worked with Tom Doak on the Grand Saint-Emilionnais Golf Club near Bordeaux, France, and with Gil Hanse on the Olympic Golf Course in Rio de Janeiro, and now is leading a revamping of the Green Course at the Royal Dar Es Salam Golf Club in Rabat, Morocco, with fellow designer James Duncan. “So, we have to travel a lot, and while the core product is essentially the same, the job itself is wildly different each time. Sure, it can certainly be difficult, but the work is always interesting, as are the experiences we have on and off the site.”

Experience is an apt word choice, and Warren will never forget the one he had a few days after traveling to Morocco to begin a restoration with Duncan on the highly rated Red Course at the Royal Dar Es Salam. “I arrived with a very open mind and was as much looking forward to learning about Moroccan culture as I was the job,” he recalls. “That’s why I booked a place to stay initially in a traditional Moroccan home, called a riad, in the old part of the city. It was a beautiful spot, and it put me right in the middle of Moroccan life. I loved being woken each day at 4 a.m. with the call to prayer, and I really enjoyed just walking around the streets of the medina and taking in the sights and smells. But then came the Festival of the Sacrifice, otherwise known as Eid-al Adha.”

Eid-al Adha is a Muslim holiday and one of the most important in that religion, its roots going back to Abraham, who is a revered figure in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. As the story goes, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son (Isaac to Christians and Jews, and Ishmael to Muslims) as a way of proving his devotion. And he was willing to do so before God told Abraham to kill a sheep in Ishmael’s stead.

Muslims have celebrated that change of heart on the part of the Almighty for centuries, and Warren heard about the festival shortly after he arrived in Rabat. “My co-workers at the golf course told me it was like Christmas for Christians, with families getting up early in the morning for breakfast together, after which the men go to the mosque,” he says. “And when they return from prayers, each family sacrifices an animal. But only after the King has sacrificed his.”

Usually, it’s sheep, though some families will kill a cow, goat or camel. In many cases, the people take care of their own sacrifice, but some will bring in professional butchers to handle the task. So important is the ritual that poorer families have been known to borrow money to buy an animal, and once it is slaughtered, the skin is saved and eventually tanned, and the meat processed.

“The day before Eid, all our crew returned to their families, and I went back to my riad,” Warren says. “There were sheep everywhere. In the streets. In the trunks of cars and the backs of pickup trucks. On the rooftops. And all of them alive. Then, the following day, the sacrificing started, and as I walked around the medina, I saw blood in the streets and people going door-to-door with butcher knives. By the end of the afternoon, the heads of the animals and the skins were piled outside of homes, the air was thick with smoke from the sheep being cooked and everybody was so happy, so cheerful. It was not for the faint of heart, to be sure. But it was fascinating.”

Fascinating is not exactly the word Rod Whitman would use when he thinks of some of the things he and fellow designer Bill Coore saw when they traveled to Indonesia to build a course in the late 1990s for what became the Klub Golf Rimba Irian in the Western New Guinea region.

“This course was deep in the jungle, and one day we saw one of the aboriginal natives walk across a fairway,” says Whitman, a Canadian and longtime associate of Coore’s who is best known for the Cabot Links course he created on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. “He had a little dog with him and was carrying a bow and arrow and wearing what looked to be a ragged pair of shorts. He looked at us, we looked at him, and then he disappeared into the bush. Later on, we saw the same guy. He still had the little dog and the bow and arrow. Only this time, he was carrying a dead pig.”

Later on that same job, Whitman was with a crew that was clearing some land when all of a sudden workers started chasing after a snake. “It was a big one,” Whitman recalls. “Maybe eight feet long, and they ended up capturing it and killing it. For food. They said that kind of snake tasted good.”

Another encounter with a reptile on that job was a bit more unsettling. “I was walking through the trees and along a creek when our Australian guide suddenly told me to stop and not move an inch,” Whitman says. “I did just that, and right by my feet was a sort of viper they called a cigarette snake. He was all coiled up but for some reason never tried to strike me and eventually slithered away. I asked our guide why they gave those types of snakes that name, and he said it was because they were so poisonous that if they bit you, you only had enough time for a cigarette before you died.”

Welcome to the Jungle

Forty-one-year-old Casey Krahenbuhl has worked with designer David McLay Kidd for a dozen years, and that gig has taken him – and his family – all around the world. “We built a course at Guacalito on the Emerald Coast of Nicaragua, and all that was there when we first arrived at the site were a couple of rickety houses and an old shack on the beach. There was no running water and only one road to and from the site. The topographical maps were terrible, and the only way we could get around most of the property was behind a team of locals who hacked their way through the jungle that covered most of it with their machetes. They cut everything at 45-degree angles, and everywhere we walked there were these really sharp shoots that looked like those bamboo traps you’d see in those old war movies. If you fell over, you’d be dead. And if they didn’t kill you, then the poisonous snakes and spiders would. There was no infrastructure, and no skilled workers, and we were literally taking guys out of the jungle and putting them on the crew.”

“As is the case with most any new project, the first part of the job is about making the place livable,” he adds. “So, as we are starting to clear the site, we are shipping in things like generators, DirecTV and mosquito nets.”

The course at Guacalito became the centerpiece of the Mukul Resort and opened for play in 2013. Krahenbuhl spent two years there with his wife, Lacy, who was pregnant when they arrived and gave birth in a Managua, Nicaragua, hospital to the first of their two children, a son Jack (whose given name is actually the Spanish version of that appellation, Joaquin).

Krahenbuhl family
Krahenbuhl with wife, Lacy, son, Joaquin, and daughter, Ava, at the Guacalito beach club several years after the opening of the resort

“At Guacalito, I turned the beach shack into my office, and most every day for two years I surfed what turned out to be a really good break when I wasn’t with my family or working on the course,” Krahenbuhl says. “I really enjoyed that job, and perhaps the best part of it was the lives we changed. Guys who were living in shacks that had dirt floors and barely subsisted on farming, fishing and hunting were now making good money, especially for that part of the world. People who had never driven a car before were now driving tractors. In the end, we ended up employing more than 100 locals to build the course, and most of those guys are still working at the resort.”

Of course, things could get more than a little interesting, and Krahenbuhl remembers returning one night to an apartment in a nearby resort in which he and his family were living only to discover that the gates to the complex were closed, and his wife and then 9-month-old son stuck inside. “Some sort of strike had been called by people at the resort, and there were about 50 workers standing by the gates, refusing to let anyone in or out,” he says. “Some were even armed with shotguns.”

Krahenbuhl found a way into the complex through a back entrance and was able to get to his family. And when it became clear that the standoff was not ending, they packed up their belongings in the middle of the night and snuck out that back entrance after most of the protesters had gone home for the evening, and while those who were still at the front gate had gone to sleep.

“Needless to say, we found ourselves another place to rent,” he recalls.

Crime and a Blessing

Central America was the site of some of Kye Goalby’s more eye-opening times as a course designer and shaper, specifically the country of Mexico. The son of 1968 Masters winner Bob Goalby, he has been helping Doak build courses since 1996 as he also has crafted his own layouts on occasion and taken on jobs with other architects. His first gig for Doak was on Apache Nation land in San Carlos, Ariz. The course was called Apache Stronghold, and his most indelible memory from that was the nickname the Native Americans hung on him. “It meant ‘always going backwards’ in their language,” he says. “And they gave it to me because I was always driving a backhoe.”

A partially restored hotel in Mexico that served as Kye Goalby’s quarters, once he got past armed guards

Some years later, Goalby traveled to Baja California Sur to construct a course for Doak at a resort in the desert between Cabo and La Paz. “Sometimes, we flew in and out of a dirt air strip there on small planes, and it was all pretty casual,” says Goalby, who is now 54 and only recently married to a woman with whom he has been together for the past two decades. “Then one day when we landed, we noticed three guys armed with Uzis standing outside the trailer that served as the terminal. I asked the fellow who ran the airfield what was going on, and he said that a couple of weeks before, some other guys with Uzis had come out of the desert when another plane had landed and stole it after forcing the pilot out of the cockpit at gunpoint. ‘So, now we have to have Uzis,’ he said.”

Housing was as big an issue as transportation on that project, and Goalby remembers spending his first couple of nights in a dusty hovel he shared with laborers who were picking peppers in fields on a nearby farm. “The door didn’t lock, and stray dogs walked in and out of the place,” he says. “So, I moved to the beach hotel that the resort owner was restoring. I had to drive on a dirt road that ran for some 5 miles and go through a checkpoint manned by still more guys with guns to get to the spot, which was set on cliffs and had beautiful views of the ocean. It was more or less abandoned, but there were a couple of finished rooms, and I moved into one of them. Then one night, when I heard a bunch of screaming on the beach, I looked out the window and saw some people getting into small boats and then heading toward a big boat off in the distance. I figured there was some sort of drug deal going down. And given the size of the ship in the distance, probably a pretty big one.”

Not every experience is quite as harrowing. Some, in fact, can be downright deep, and Jim Urbina will never forget the day that same Apache Stronghold course on which Goalby worked was blessed by a medicine man. “The Apache people are very spiritual,” says Urbina, who worked on his first project as part of the Pete Dye crew that built Colorado’s TPC Plum Creek in the early 1980s and has gone on to help build a number of epic layouts, among them two tracks at Bandon Dunes: Pacific Dunes, as part of Doak’s team, and Old Macdonald, for which Urbina received co-design credit. “They don’t necessarily believe in God but in a much bigger power. And they talk a lot about the ‘four ways,’ which are North, East, West and South. So, after the ceremony, which is designed in part to ward off evil spirits, the medicine man takes me around the course to show me little symbols he put in trees at the four ways. At the last one, he shows he how he has turned the symbol the other way, leading out of the property, so if any evil spirits found their way onto the layout, they could get out.”

Occupational Hazards

A recurring challenge for those architects who travel beyond U.S. borders is contending with things being done differently in certain parts of the world – and often times with much less urgency – than they are back home. “On more than one occasion, we have had to deal with equipment that was not at all suited for certain sites,” says Hanse, whose most recent design of note is the Black course at the Streamsong Resort in Central Florida, and who is currently engaged in a renovation project at the hallowed Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia. “And we spent much of our time when that happens pulling bulldozers and backhoes out of sand and mud.”

One of the most interesting dilemmas Whitman ever encountered was in France, when he was constructing the Châteaux course at Golf du Medoc. “The workers there liked long lunches, and they liked to drink wine at lunch, which sometimes went on for as long as two hours. There was nothing I could do about it, and it was frustrating at times. But you have to adapt in situations like that, and we still managed to get the job done.”

Krahenbuhl has dealt with his share of hassles, and the one he perhaps remembers most of all involved transporting grass from the United States to Nicaragua. “We had a load of paspalum coming to Guacalito from a plantation in Florida,” he says. “We are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars of grass that has a very specific shelf life once it is put into containers that are refrigerated. And then it begins its long journey. To Miami, then to Honduras and Nicaragua and finally southern Nicaragua, where we were. It was so delayed the first time we did that, we had to put it all out the night it arrived so that it would not die. We got every single person we could find to help do that.”

Often times, the bumps in the road are just silly and fun. “(Shaper) Jim Craig and I were working a few years ago on a course for Bill (Coore) and Ben (Crenshaw) at Shanqin Bay in China,” Duncan says. “We had both just arrived, and there was no water to speak of and the only equipment we had was a single bulldozer that had just broken down. A mechanic comes out to fix it one Friday afternoon, and we cannot understand a word he says. So he just gets to work, taking off the side panel and changing filters. Jim and I had nothing else to do but watch him, and watch the fishing boats come in from the sea. After a while, the mechanic closes the side panel, wipes the oil off of his hands and goes to his van. He then pulls out this giant bong and fires it up. He takes a big hit, and as he blows the smoke out, his eyes roll up in the back of his head, and Jim and I crack up.”

“…You have to adapt in situations like that, and we still managed to get the job done.”

– Designer Rod Whitman

Kye Goalby and co-worker Blake Conant in Mexico after the operator of a D-8 bulldozer ran into their rental car

Smyers didn’t know whether to laugh or cry during a job in Virginia when he drove to an isolated part of the site to evaluate some recently completed work. “I parked my car on a little point that jutted into a river and got out to take a look around,” says Smyers, who is best known for original designs at Old Memorial in Tampa, Fla., and Wolf Run in Zionsville, Ind., as well as a recent revamping of a track outside Dallas that is the centerpiece of the new Maridoe Golf Club. “The course I was building was on an old farm, and when I returned to my car, there was a small herd of about 25 cows standing by it. Suddenly, they started running at me, like a stampede, and I felt kind of trapped. I ran to the top of a knoll, grabbed a stick, threw my hands up in the air and yelled for the cows to stop. I didn’t know what else to do and was much relieved when they actually stopped and then sort of walked away. I got back into my car and drove up to the farmer’s house to tell him what had happened. And he said I did exactly what you are supposed to do when you are charged by cattle, and that is throw up your hands and holler.”

Hanse was not sure how to react when he went out to dinner one evening during a project in South Korea. “The waiter brought a live squid to the table on a platter and then chopped it up right in front of us. The tentacles were still moving as we began to eat it, and as I grabbed one of the pieces, the suction cups latched onto the chopsticks I was using and would not let go.”

Finding humor in the things that happen during projects is often times the best way to endure what can be long and arduous projects. One way Hanse tries to do that is through the use of kangaroo courts. “You get fined three cases of beer if you get a bulldozer stuck,” he says. “If it is a golf cart, then it is only one. What we determined was the price for certain levels of stupidity, and the beer all went into our end-of-project party. During construction of the Castle Stuart course in north Scotland, one of the guys who was helping out, Colin Sheehan, the co-founder of the Outpost Club and coach of the men’s golf team at Yale, came back to the house we were living in wearing only one boot. Apparently he had stepped into some very thick mud and was only able to get his foot out but not his footwear. We fined him a case of beer for that.”

Local Color

A longtime associate of Doak’s who now works on his own, Bruce Hepner has seen a lot on the job. And though that has presented him countless hassles and difficulties through the years, he also appreciates the life golf course design has given him and the interesting times he has enjoyed on the road. “When we were building Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, we had a competition one day between the Americans in our crew and the Aussies and Kiwis who were helping us as well,” he says. “We started with softball, and after three innings, the Yanks were up 29-0. Then we switched to cricket, and we ended up losing 31-29.”

Any livelihood that involves golf frequently leads to rounds on some pretty good courses, and that, too, is a benefit. “During the Renaissance Club project in Scotland, we had a standing tee time every night at nearby North Berwick,” Hepner says. “We’d hustle down there when our work was done and do our best to get all the way through the Redan, which was the 15th hole, by dark. What a treat it was to play that great golf course every day.”

For Hepner, it was also a treat becoming immersed in different communities. “We’d set up camp in these small quaint places and get to know the bartenders and waitresses and shop owners,” he says. “We tried to blend in as best we could and become part of the community. But we did have had one rule, and that was everyone had to be out of the bar at 11:01 p.m. By that time, the locals had drunk enough that they started to get a little cross-eyed, and to think that we were all trying to steal their wives or girlfriends.”

Bruce Hepner with intern Jonathan Reisetter on the job in Holyoke, Colo., at Ballyneal

One night in the small northeast Colorado town of Holyoke, where Hepner and Goalby were part of a crew building the Doak-designed Ballyneal course, the two men went out for ice cream. “There was this great place to get cones, and Kye and I each got one,” Hepner says. “And as we sat on a bench on the main drag eating them, we realized it was prom night because there were guys driving up and down that road with their dates in their pickup trucks and farm combines. The guys were in tuxes, the girls in gowns with their corsages, and they were riding in these vehicles to prom.”

In many ways, that moment was as foreign as any Hepner had enjoyed overseas. And it spoke to one of the things that makes the job of designers, shapers and their associates so special. Constructing great golf courses is just one aspect of the job. Traveling the world and getting to know and experience places as wide ranging as Holyoke, Colo., and Guacalito, Nicaragua, is another part of the profession – and another reason to appreciate the people who make their livings in it, artists and adventurers one and all.

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Designers Pete Zarlengo and Goalby (putting) enjoy ultra-exclusive club privileges during grow-in at Tara Iti in New Zealand.
Photo Credits

Rainbows in New Zealand, motel, barefoot golfers (courtesy Kye Goalby); sheep (iStockphoto.com); Bruce Hepner and Jonathan Reisetter (Will Smith); Guacalito (courtesy Casey Krahenbuhl)

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