When most touring professional golfers seek to involve themselves in the design business, their preferred project is a large-scale resort or housing development, which will generate large sums of money to pay an enticing design fee, and where their celebrity will assist with marketing.
Not so 2014 European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley. “At this stage in my career, I really don’t have time or energy to deal with those big blank slate new build projects,” he says. “Maybe in the future, when my playing career starts to wind down, that will change. But at the moment, my preferred projects are bespoke upgrades. I have always wanted to have personal ownership of my career and my business interests, and doing things bespoke, on a smaller scale, appeals to me much more than just being a name on a big project.”
The way McGinley has set up his business echoes this theme. Ten or fifteen years ago, when signature design was all the rage, and the big firms were managing dozens of projects at once, the top design operations headed up by the biggest name pros were relative behemoths, with many lead architects and dozens of support staff on payroll. Now, with work harder to come by those firms have shrunk, and McGinley’s operation is headed up by technical co-ordinator Joe Bedford, a former greenkeeper who the golfer has known for many years. “I have no interest in running a big, impersonal operation,” he says. “I want to be hands on with every project and I want it to be intrinsically me. Joe and I are very closely aligned, we work very well together.”
On the firm’s biggest project so far, the rebuild of Quinta do Lago’s North course in Portugal, McGinley worked alongside architect Beau Welling and his practice as an advisor. He has had a long relationship with the Algarve resort, helping it to open a new golf academy only a couple of years ago. Welling says McGinley was a good foil. “It was great,” he says. “Paul is very passionate about Quinta and golf in general and his passion was infectious during the job. I would work with him again in a heartbeat. He had definite thoughts on strategy and greens contouring, and he loves greens rolloffs, as do I, so that led to us doing many of them at Quinta.”
McGinley and Bedford have also spent more than two years on the rebuild of the Achimota golf course in Accra, the capital of Ghana. As in much of West Africa, the oil business is driving an interest in golf in Ghana, and, with the help of Irish-based oil company Tullow, which has extensive businesses in the country, McGinley and his team were brought in to upgrade a number of Ghanaian courses. “Achimota was designed in the 1930s, but it was very run down,” says McGinley. “There were holes in the greens, which were in worse shape than most tees you’d see back home, and the fairways were non-existent, pure dirt. Tullow helped provide funding for us to renovate the course, though we didn’t change the routing – we extended some of the greens, and tried to mirror as many of the original shapes as we could. I’m very proud of what we did there, and there’s plans to work on several more courses in Ghana. We’re partnered, as well as Tullow, with TaylorMade and the R&A. The low oil price has affected the scheduling of the projects, but in time we hope to have a significant impact on golf in Ghana. I hope soon we’ll see a Tour event – not the main European Tour, but either the Challenge tour or the seniors –going to Ghana.”
On golf design, McGinley is a traditionalist. He might want to be involved in upgrading old courses, but he says he believes there ought to be restrictions on what people are allowed to do. “My view is that there should be a governing body in golf courses, someone with quite a bit of authority, and old courses should only be upgraded in sympathy with the original design,” he explains. “I am not a fan of large water hazards or deep rough – anything that sees golfers lose lots of balls. The game is hard enough, slow enough and expensive enough. We don’t need to create reasons for people not to play.”
And, though professional golfers who go into signature design have most often found themselves creating long, difficult ‘championship’ courses (most of which never host a championship!) he says this is not for him. “The ego of owners has got in the way on many projects,” he explains. “I don’t really understand why you would want to build something like. Target the people that actually pay the bills! The big key for me is trying to create a situation where the golfer is enticed rather than intimidated. I think there is a lot of intimidation in modern course architecture, and I think we should move away from that. Courses that are not too difficult, bunkers that are not too deep. As much as possible, I work away from blindness, though obviously sometimes it’s inevitable. If the good guy comes along and shoots 61, good luck to them. They aren’t the ones who pay the bills. One of the reasons that golf is not growing as we would like is that courses are too difficult.”
And he says that such courses often do not even achieve their goal of challenging the pros. “One of the biggest mistakes people make when preparing for professional play is making courses too soft,” he explains. “The skill levels of professional golfers are only really evident when courses are firm. You could have an 8,000 yard course and if it is soft the guys will shoot low numbers. If we could find a way of firming up golf courses, technologically, it would be the biggest thing for the game.”
This article first appeared in Golf Course Architecture – Issue 43.