Following more than three years of planning, construction has finally started at Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club, some three hours drive east from Vancouver, in British Columbia's unique, desert-like interior.
The visionary behind Sagebrush is British Columbia native Richard Zokol, a two-time winner on the USPGA Tour who is leading the development and collaborating with my partner, fellow Canadian golf architect Rod Whitman, on the design of the Sagebrush course.
While a few contemporary golf architects have successfully created brand names that seem to infer there's one genius behind each course, the creation of every golf course involves collaboration between the principal designer, his associates, shapers, greenkeepers, clients, and others. It's no different here, at Sagebrush, where Whitman, Zokol, and consulting agronomist Armen Suny are in the mix.
"Collaboration only makes news though when two well known architects, or an architect and a Tour player are involved," says Tom Doak, who recently worked together with Jack Nicklaus and company at Sebonack: a highly touted new layout adjacent to the National Golf Links of America and Shinnecock Hills, on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York.
"Jim Urbina deserves a lot of credit for Sebonack," adds Doak, referring to his lead associate on the project. "But he won't get much because there are two names in front of his, and most golf writers don't want to dig deeper than that." A majority of the world's great courses are the result of successful collaboration.
Take perennial world number one, Pine Valley, for example. Over a period of years, Pine Valley's founder and principal architect, George Crump, solicited advice from an extraordinary number of collaborators, including Harry Colt and AW Tillinghast. And, of course, before Doak/Nicklaus there were Dr Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones at Augusta National.
Mackenzie is arguably golf architecture's most successful collaborator. Throughout the late 1920s, the globetrotting doctor relied heavily a number of talented individuals – including Perry Maxwell and Robert Hunter in the United States, and Australians Alex Russell and Mick Morcom – to bring his designs to fruition.
Consider: MacKenzie never saw Augusta National and Royal Melbourne complete.
In his absence, Bobby Jones and golf course contractor Wendell Miller and company were left to ensure Augusta was finished according to plan. And, handpicked by MacKenzie, Russell and Morcom orchestrated creation of Royal Melbourne's heralded West course, famously laid out by MacKenzie on his whirlwind tour through Australia in 1926. In many ways, the art of golf course design is entirely subjective. In turn, it's essential that collaborators are relatively compatible personalities and basically like-minded. Otherwise, the situation inevitably threatens to become contentious.
Doak, who has also recently worked in conjunction with Australian golf pro and course architect Michael Clayton, admits his collaboration with Nicklaus was unusual. "Both Jack and I are used to making the final decisions ourselves," he says. "But we agreed from the start to find common ground. And Jack was very good to include me on everything. It helped, too, that we work the same way, making decisions on our feet in the field, and that Jack doesn't usually do the routings for his courses. So, the use of my routing wasn't too big a distraction." Golf writer and course architect Geoff Shackelford, who collaborated with former Doak associate Gil Hanse at Rustic Canyon Golf Course near Los Angeles, contends that the success or failure of collaboration depends entirely on the personalities involved and an understanding of roles.
"Gil and I and (Hanse associate) Jim Wagner worked well together because we have similar senses of humour, and because everyone had a role," says Shackelford. "I knew I was there to throw out ideas. It was up to Gil and Jim to weed through them and take the ones they liked.
"Most interesting to me was that something about the collaborative process created many things that none of us had quite thought of. So, the mere process, with the conversations, arguments, and other things that go with collaboration, led to design ideas that were not really the product of any one mind. I look back at those parts of the design as the most interesting and generally the most timeless in terms of elements that have proven to be the most original holes we created." Currently working with Kingsbarns developer Mark Parsinen at Castle Stuart Golf Links near Inverness, on Scotland's east coast, Hanse suggests ego and money are two big obstacles to such collaboration these days.
"Golf design can be a lucrative profession," says Hanse. "With that there comes a mentality that a designer needs to create a brand name in order to attract the next client. Collaboration waters down that brand name. For me though, if the best product is produced with the help of talented individuals brought in to collaborate with the designer, I see nothing wrong with the methodology. If the collaborators are aligned with the architects on a philosophical and personal basis, collaboration can't hurt the project.
More importantly, how can it not be fun?"