Lessons from the links


Sean Dudley
By Forrest Richardson,The Links at Las Palomas

Forrest Richardson

Mike had seated himself at the end of the table. I could see that he was on his third – maybe fourth – tequila shot. His first – the very first taste of tequila ever to cascade into his belly – had come an hour earlier.Mike was from Kansas. Rural Kansas is not big on tequila so I am told. Fair enough. Sonora, Mexico, is not big on wheat.

We sat outdoors overlooking the Sea of Cortez, celebrating arriving at a final land plan. I counted 24 at the table. There were the developers from Mexico, their American partners, some bankers, civil engineers and us. The 'us' I refer to is Mike, now 'Mike who likes tequila', me, and our counterparts, the American building architects who will eventually create the high-rise condominium buildings which form the community we have sketched out. Earlier, as the sun shifted lower and the breeze became softer,Mike and I walked each hole – for the third time that day – of what would become The Links at Las Palomas. Plans in hand, we looked at each shot and each setting – the dunes and terrain – until satisfied.

"We begin by studying the land," I say to people who ask me how one creates a golf course. At social gatherings, on planes and whenever in the presence of golfers, this is the top question architects are asked. The next step, I explain, is to create the routing. This is the treasure hunt. The sequence. The flow. And, in my best and most passionate tone, I will emphasise that the routing defines the golf course experience more than anything else the designer can bring to the table.

At The Links at Las Palomas I learned more about routing than at any other previous site.While being taught to use the land from my early work in designing courses, nowhere before had a canvas been so rich for golf. At no land I had ever walked had the purity of golf been so close to the surface. The routing here was a matter of finding solutions. And when we found them it became a matter of knowing whether to leave alone the natural terrain, or to inflict our idea of a better design. For if we were to mess about too long, or with too much thought, the magic of spontaneity would quickly evaporate.We discovered this too late on a few occasions. But we got lucky at other times. The tinkering that designers so regularly become obsessed with may actually have improved our course, at least in places.

Here, for the taking, are my in-noparticular- order thoughts on working with this linksland site. As the final draft of this article was sent off, a printed copy of this last bit was hijacked to occupy a small space to the left of my desk. I will do my best to refer to it in the coming years.

1. Routing is not about formulas. While I know this and have learned it from others, I do not always believe it, nor am I willing to defend this. Our ninth ends a quarter mile from the clubhouse and we have an extra hole you can play after the 18th.

2. I have always loved par threes. Now I know why. Golfers enjoy them. They are fun. These qualities are easy to spot, but they are trumped by the ideal of a certain recipe, that two-per-nine is somehow correct for most courses.We have six when you include the extra, 19th hole.

3. Success must include financial success. I know this, but occasionally am clever at talking my way out of the idea.

Great golf must rise to the level of enabling and supporting a financially successful bigger picture. I did not win out in the pursuit of many oceanfront acres for golf holes. I am glad. Had my persuasion skills been used for this purpose I would have forever been known as the guy who stole millions of dollars from my clients.

4. I am right: Drawing is essential. From now on when I get into a conversation about the value of creating plans versus the value of hands-on field direction, it will be easier for me to take a position. It is not that one is more important than the other. Rather, it is that the argument that drawing and plans are over-rated simply doesn't hold water.We made drawings.We made changes. It was balanced. You can create a golf course without much in the way of drawings, but you will need lots of luck. Luck, at its very best, is a 50/50 proposition.

5. Risk. Worth every penny.

6. Listening. Also worth every penny.

7.Man-made features can be equally as good as those we find in nature. I used not to believe this, probably because it has been written so much that this simply is not the case. I do agree that natural, when it is striking, is nearly always worth saving and embracing. But our creativity in earthmoving, building and dreaming up something new can also be exciting. We created some neat features here – and people like them.

8. The concept of lull is not bad. A siesta within a round of golf – a span of holes where we are not bombarded with stimuli – can be a decent thing.We created a few sleeper moments – I am OK with this.

9. Surprises. If there is one ingredient that needs increasing, it is this. The critics who detest my bumps and knolls fronting greens can go on hating them. I am OK with this, too.

10. Embrace change. Great sites are always changing.Wind, water, golfers and ideas are the culprits. It was always my narrow mindset that a course must be preserved and kept. I now know this is not only unrealistic, but it contributes to the delinquency of good golf.We saw things settle, blow away, blow back, dissolve and blow away again. I am more open-minded to change, although I am still a stubborn designer.

11.Variation. Still a forerunner to great designs. The 'throw bunkers at the course' mentality was never a favourite of mine.

We have just 13 formal sand bunkers on our course. The greens, the dunes, the sleepers, and the fairway contours are so much more interesting.Why has this taken so long to set in?

12. Each golf course is a story. I have written this and yet forget it from time to time. Hopefully this concept is now lodged between my ears. I hope it is safe there. If not, I shall look above my desk.

Forrest Richardson, ASGCA, began working on The Links at Las Palomas in 2002. The 18-hole course (and its bonus 19th) sits along the Sea of Cortez in Penasco, Mexico.

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