Golf lessons


Sean Dudley

How should aspiring golf architects go about getting into the business? What training is most applicable? Adam Lawrence reports.

Golf architecture, in relative terms, is a young industry. And, although golf architects like to describe their business as a 'profession', the truth is that much of the regulation that characterises a true profession is only now starting to develop. All you need to practice as a golf course architect is clients willing to provide land and pay the bills. If you are rich enough to fund your own projects (such as CB Macdonald in the early part of the 20th century) you can even skip that requirement.

That's fine in theory, but in practice, golf architecture is a hugely competitive business. Because the barriers to entry are relatively low – anyone can call themselves a golf course architect – it's pretty clear that there is oversupply, at the lower level of the profession at least.

"My biggest hurdle was, and I guess still is, the financial side of the business," says Philip Christian Spogard, a Danish trainee golf designer who has been studying on the European Institute of Golf Course Architects' (EIGCA) diploma course, and will join the London office of Thomson Perrett and Lobb later this year. "Jobs are not hanging on the trees and the uncertainty of this business is occasionally nerve-wracking."

Spogard began as a law student, switching tracks after his first degree. A two-handicap golfer, he eventually decided to pursue his dreams. "I guess you can say golf course architecture is my greatest passion in life," he says.

"I have always been fascinated by the beauty and diversity in golf courses and the golfing experience. During my time at law school I often dreamed about changing careers in order to pursue a career in golf course design. After I completed my BSc in law I thought it to be a good time to try out this dream. I started a BSc in landscape architecture which I recently completed. In truth, once I started focusing on golf course architecture I never looked back and never regretted this choice."

Another student member of EIGCA who initially took a different academic route is William Swan. "I studied economics at university, as well as some history and philosophy," he says. "None are particularly relevant to golf design. At a push I could try and link the fundamental economic concept of opportunity cost to strategic golf design."

But Swan's experience is different in one key regard: a passionate golfer who chose to study at St Andrews University, he is part of a family with a long history in the golf business. His father, Howard, is the principal of Swan Golf Designs.

"I think that a love of golf is the only reason people aim for a career in golf course architecture," he says. "I had the benefit of a family tie to the industry, which gave me some exposure to golf architecture as well as to the game itself. This exposure gave me an accurate picture of what was involved, meaning that I entered the industry with less of the romantic notions that most golfers associate with it.Moreover, the family tie gave me an access point to the industry."

But other students take a more direct route. The first golf course architects – people like Old Tom Morris – earned the majority of their living from playing golf professionally and working as greenkeepers. Even nowadays, this 'bottom-up' route into is popular.

Robert Trent Jones senior is generally accepted as the pioneer of education in golf course architecture.While at Cornell University during the 1920s, Jones was able to put together a group of courses – covering subjects from landscape architecture to horticulture to agronomy – to create what he believed to be the requisite courses for becoming a golf course architect. Cornell's school of landscape architecture remains a popular choice for aspiring golf architects in the US, with leading designers such as Tom Doak and Gil Hanse being more recent graduates.

"While I was as Cornell for my undergraduate education, I read a lot about RTJ and was inspired by his quest for knowledge prior to becoming a professional under Stanley Thompson," says Paul Albanese of Albanese & Lutzke, who also heads up the Edinburgh College of Art's (ECA) course in golf architecture. "In fact, while at Cornell, I decided to pursue becoming a professional golf course architect. And, I believed, like RTJ, that I needed to have the necessary educational foundation before I became a professional.

"So, similar to the student inquires I now receive, I went about trying to find the best education for becoming a golf architect. I quickly found out that there were no specific programmes or schools that taught golf architecture as such. So, I researched the profession, and noticed that many of the well respected people in the field had degrees in landscape architecture. That made a lot of sense, as golf architecture is really just a specialised version of landscape architecture.

"By the time I made this revelation, I had already completed three quarters of an environmental engineering degree, with the hardest part behind me, and I was not going to switch mid-stream. Therefore, I decided to complete my engineering degree, and pursue a masters degree in landscape architecture subsequently. I figured it would be beneficial to have both a solid technical foundation in conjunction with a design education. And, it turned out to be correct. I will often tell people that due to my education in both engineering and architecture – I have developed both a right side and a left side to my brain, which I believe is essential for becoming a competent golf architect."

Landscape architecture is clearly the most popular single background for would-be architects. But it is not, in itself, a training in golf architecture. In both the US and Europe, there are college courses that look at design more specifically. One key difference, though, is that in Europe, these courses, in general, are backed, or were instigated, by the EIGCA. In America, ASGCA adopts a different policy: its major role in training is to assist would-be architects to find placements with suitable firms where they can learn the profession in situ.

EIGCA's student education programme began in the British Institute with the instigation of a postgraduate professional diploma in golf course design. Some 30 students graduated through this programme in four separate classes before 2000, and this continued until 2002.

In 2000 Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), in association with Heriot-Watt University, began a masters degree in golf course architecture with accreditation by the EIGCA. This 12 month programme is conducted by teaching, dissertation and project work. In 2003 ECA expanded its education in the subject by beginning a two year part time postgraduate professional diploma in golf course design, accredited by EIGCA.

Some 44 students have graduated from the masters programmes, eight from the one diploma programme by ECA. The two programmes at ECA were reviewed by the EIGCA Education Board, made up of Senior Members of the Institute and student representatives together with the course directors.

In 2004, though, EIGCA decided to withdraw its accreditation of both programmes to concentrate on the recovery of its postgraduate diploma course to its own management and the development of its Masters programme.

September 2005 saw 16 students from 12 different countries selected from over 50 applicants to commence the course. They originate from as far afield as India, South Africa, Canada and seven continental European countries as well as the United Kingdom. Two women are amongst them.

"As chairman of the Institute's Education Board I am delighted that we have sixteen talented youngsters studying for EIGCA's Diploma," says architect Howard Swan. "I feel it essential that anyone who wishes to become an architect, and practise professionally, learns from the outset in a structured programme.Many do not."

EIGCA is also keen on instigating a Masters Degree in golf course architecture. Discussions are underway with the University of St Andrews, exploring the possibility of running a 12 month research-based course. Subject areas would be selected by an Education Panel which, it is hoped, will be a partnership between the university, the R&A, EIGCA and, perhaps, other golfing bodies. A second postgraduate diploma will begin in summer 2007.

At every opportunity students are encouraged to interact with EIGCA membership to spend time with tutors in their practices, to attend Institute CPD and general meetings. All successful students are invited to become EIGCA graduates, the first step in the professional career ladder towards membership of the Institute.

What characteristics and skills make for a successful architect? Garrett Gill, an established American golf architect, teaches the subject as part of the golf enterprise management programme at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. "Golf architects need to be able to produce golf courses that make money for the owner from the beginning. That's not necessarily about golf design exclusively, but also comes from having good CAD skills in production, 3D modelling skills, graphics, construction grading/drainage, project estimating, and the like. I think they need to play golf at least to the extent they carry a handicap, have their own clubs, and play with the game with honesty and integrity. They should be personable, know how to have fun, have good work habits, be open minded, and be tolerant of meaningful criticism.

"All the basic design and construction skills from layout and routing, through grading, drainage, soils, turf and irrigation can be taught in a classroom," Gill says. "What's difficult to teach is the passion for game needed to be a good designer, along with compassion for the golfer, philosophy of design, fairness and strategy."

Brian Phillips of Niblick Golf Design is a graduate of the Heriot-Watt programme, and now represents the EIGCA's graduates. "If I were to choose one skill it would be routing. It is the single most important element of a golf course. If you have routed the course poorly then it is doomed for the rest of its life. If done well, minor improvements can always be made to the course."

But Phillips also emphasises the importance of education for the more procedural elements of the job. "If you are going to be an architect that has to produce tender documents, education is crucial," he says. "Someone who works for Tom Doak is going to learn with one of the best but are they getting a formal education on the specifying and drafting side of the job? Tender documents are the bread and butter of ensuring a project does not go too far over budget – I have not yet seen one that has come in under budget. The likes of Doak and Coore & Crenshaw are the cream but small courses still need to be built by normal guys and not all clients want design and build; they want to put it out to tender. To do that you need good documents.

"One of the main skills an architect needs is an ability to negotiate with your client. Hardly any architect will be allowed to just build exactly what he wants. There are budgets to be kept to and often clients have certain guidelines we have stick to. It is the architect's job to negotiate what he thinks is best for the course and the client. That is not always easy, clients are usually strong-willed people and it takes time and effort to convince them that they might not have what is right for the course.

"A related skill is sales.We are salesmen at least 40 per cent of our time, doing presentations, sitting in meetings, negotiating our fees. I would advise any young architect starting up to learn as much as they can about design but sales is one of the most important skills."

Phillips says all-round experience is key. "I would advise anyone finishing a masters or the diploma course with the EIGCA not to go straight into an architect's office just being a CAD jockey but to join a construction company for a year. You will learn more out in the field after your education than being sat behind a computer doing polylines."

It's fairly uncontroversial, therefore, to say that many of the skills a golf architect needs can be learned as part of a course of study. Technical aspects such as drainage are something that one can teach. But what about more creative skills? Gill argues that routing can be taught, but is that really so? Will a golf course routed by someone taught from a book make the best use of the property, or does a great routing spring more from exposure to great golf courses?

"There is art in architecture.Most of the design programmes in landscape architecture have some basic course work in art and if not, the golf course architect should spend some time in art, both studying it and doing it," says Gill. "Good composition is the same inside or outside, on a canvas or on the earth in the form of a golf course."

"The key to my design education was the incorporation of critical thinking," says Albanese. "Looking at the world with a critical eye is essential to becoming a good designer, whether one designs golf courses, jewellery or cars. For the creative process to be effective, the designer needs to always be observing and analysing, and responding. This is a much different tact than taken by an engineer, who is always looking for 'the answer'. It is not so cut and dry in design, and that is what makes it so intriguing – at least to me.When teaching golf design, I believe it imperative to have students learn to think differently, and critically. Being critical is not being negative, as is often believed. Thinking critically means to look, and ask 'why?'"

Albanese scorns those who argue that teaching produces designers who do things by rote. "An important part of the design education is teaching the design process, and not simply providing templates for how it was done in the past," he says. "I do not look at design education as a place where students learn formulas and answers, but rather learn a methodology and strategy by which they can explore the creative side of their brain. A good design education will not product robots, but individuals that think."

This article first appeared in issue 5 of Golf Course Architecture, published July 2006.