Mike Clayton has been spending a lot of time at the beach. But, while he has recently turned 65, it’s not to enjoy retirement. He’s been working with Mike DeVries on the layout of Seven Mile Beach, just east of Hobart, the capital of Australian island state Tasmania.
Clear of the non-native radiata pines that previously covered the site, the two Mikes (who, with Frank Pont, are the principals of the Clayton, DeVries & Pont partnership) are toiling away among pure rolling dunes that tumble down towards the ocean, shaping a golf course for developer and former tour pro Mat Goggin.
Does a site with such enormous potential add pressure for an architect? “There’s no pressure, in the sense that there are no members, but there’s pressure in the sense that a lot of people seem to know about it,” says Clayton. “I played golf with a couple of kids who were asking me about it, and I didn’t think would have a clue what was going on down there.
“Mat is really doing something to benefit the game. So I want to do the best I can for him because it’s his cash on the line and his dream. We’ve got to make sure that Seven Mile Beach is one of the best two or three courses in Australia, which I think is doable given how good the site is and how good the land is.”
The team is making solid progress. “So far, we’ve kicked into shape the first four holes, most of the eighth, except the tee shot,” says Clayton. “Thirteen, fourteen and eighteen are done and seventeen is pretty much done. We’re getting some irrigation in, but no grassing yet. Of the original 300 piles of pine trees that littered the site we’ve got rid of all but about 80 of them.
“We’ve pretty much settled on the holes. We were debating whether the sixth would finish up as a par four or five. Now that eighteen’s a five, six is probably going to be a four, which unfortunately gives a par 72, which is really conventional and boring. We might finish up putting it back. Mike was talking about building architects’ tees, that only we know about. It’s such a cool second shot into the sixth that if there was a back tee that took the hole from 480 yards to 550 yards, there would be a really awesome par five. We might just smooth off a back tee and if people want to play there, they can. But on the card it’s more than likely going to be a par four.”
Clayton says golfers can expect something extremely special: “The only two shots that don’t have a view of the water, which is pretty spectacular, are the second to the first hole and from the back tee of the second. On every other shot you can see the water, to a point where you almost start taking it for granted. I go and look at it every morning, when you get in the right light it’s beautiful. By the end of the day, it’s just there and you forget about it. But for golfers seeing it for the first time, it’s a pretty awesome experience.”
There are some parallels with Clayton’s other famous Tasmania newbuild, Barnbougle Dunes, co-designed with Tom Doak, which opened in 2004 and has topped Australia’s public access rankings ever since. “It stands on the edge of the sea with the same sort of big, rolling dunes. It’s much windier at Barnbougle than it is in Hobart, but you’ve still got to make fairways pretty wide, so you’ve got to drive the ball well, but you don’t have to drive it straight. The test is to drive it properly through the wind and there are parts of the fairways where the second shots are easier. If you can figure out where to drive it to get the easier approach, that’s part of thinking your way around the golf course. There’ll be some holes where if you drive to one part of the fairway, you get a clear view to the green. If you don’t, you’ll be playing blind over a mound or a dune. We could do that on every hole so we’re trying not to overdo it. But I think we’ve got the balance pretty right.”
Life is not all about playing in the sand though. CDP is a distinctly global practice and Clayton’s future will include no small measure of globetrotting. This year has already included spells in the US and Europe, nurturing a growing client base.
Among those is The Addington, the JF Abercromby-Harry Colt layout south of London that has long been regarded as having its true potential stifled by tree ingress.
“It was a good thing that they didn’t fiddle much with the golf course, but the playing lines were clearly overgrown with trees,” says Clayton. “If they’d been properly managed over time the tree removal wouldn’t have been as extensive, but when you don’t touch trees for 50 to 60 years, of course they’re going to grow way too far across playing lines and completely dilute or change the way the original architect intended the holes to play, and what he intended you to see.
“Pulling back the curtain has been great. There are so many fun holes to play and it’s a bit like North Berwick in that the golf is not really conventional, but it’s great fun, interesting and wild – a throwback to a time when architects and golfers and members weren’t so hung up on what people now say is conventional golf. All of the original great golf in Britain wasn’t particularly conventional. One of the influences of the pro game is that golf should be fair and predictable. The best courses show that golf is best when it’s neither fair nor predictable. The Addington is a great example of golf being great, not fair and predictable, but wild and fun.”
Clayton is known for his straight-talking opinions on what makes good golf, but does he see himself as having a particular design philosophy?
“I grew up in Melbourne, where [Dr Alister] MacKenzie had such an influence, and Royal Melbourne was the course that I always enjoyed most,” he says. “Despite being a pretty straight hitter, I always enjoy wide fairways and holes where shots from one side of the fairway are a lot different to shots from the other side. It’s hard to do that if it’s narrow, so I enjoy having space to play off the tee.
“Building beautiful green complexes is a hugely important part of good golf. There are some great courses that don’t have short grass around the greens, but mostly it’s a much more interesting way to make the short game interesting; hitting difficult shots off good lies as opposed to playing what would otherwise be really easy shots, made difficult because they’re in a terrible lie.
“I don’t think the principles of great architecture changed among all the great architects over the years. MacKenzie’s thirteen principles are pretty close to what a good golf course is. Different length holes – there’s a place for great, long par threes, for the short par three, the Melbourne Sandbelt has got the world’s best collection of holes around 300 yards that are vexing and perplexing to play.”
“I adored watching Seve play golf. He was the only guy ever to win at St Andrews, Augusta and Royal Melbourne. They were the courses that brought out his genius. He had space off the tee to play and if he hit the ball to the wrong part of the hole, he could hit shots that were great enough to recover. He could play to a tight pin from a bad angle, hit that big three iron up over a bunker and stop it and he was genius around the greens. Those places gave him room and space to express his genius. He played some decent US Opens – he played well at Oakmont the year that Larry Nelson won, hitting irons off the tees. That wasn’t the way MacKenzie wanted people to play golf. It wasn’t the way Seve played his best golf. And it wasn’t the way he wanted to play golf.
“The fact that Seve was the master of playing golf like that tells me a lot about the best philosophy for building golf courses, which is build something that Seve would enjoy and Seve would play well, because he was the best player to watch.”
The most successful modern golf architects have earned their reputations by creating designs that mimic nature. Does Clayton see any place for courses that have a more man-made appearance, like a TPC Sawgrass, for example?
“I thought Pete Dye did a miraculous job in a swamp,” he says. “There are a lot of things there that I really think constitute good architecture.
“You look at the original photos when it was much sandier, it was much more difficult and they calmed the greens down, but the original photos of that course look amazing. So I think it’s a brilliant golf course, although I don’t love the seventeenth hole. There is space off the tee. If you drive it down one side of a hole, you get a different shot than if you drive it down the other side. And if you drive it down the side that’s protected by a hazard, the second shot’s likely to be easier.
“Great architects can man-make something, but it doesn’t look man-made. If it obviously looks man-made then it probably doesn’t look that good. But if you can’t tell which part of it was man-made, how the dirt was moved, then that’s the genius in making a hole look good on a piece of land that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to make something look good.”
Since CDP was established in 2019, the firm has enjoyed an explosive start, with three newbuilds signed (Seven Mile Beach, plus two courses at Ha Long Bay in Vietnam for developer Vingroup) and more on the cards, plus a rapidly growing client list of existing clubs (recent additions including three ‘Royals’ – Dublin, Perth and Ostend – plus a first Scottish client, Monifieth).
“When I started with John Sloan and Bruce Grant in 1995, I was still playing in Europe,” says Clayton. “They asked if I wanted to get involved in a design business. I was 38 and still playing some decent golf, but thought it sounded like fun. It was something I was always interested in but never would have done it on my own instigation.”
In that first foray into the design business Clayton says they got lucky with a high-profile first client, Victoria Golf Club, and the work snowballed from there.
“You’re never quite sure how it’s going to go. Mike and Frank are two guys who I have a lot of respect for and are incredibly talented, and that made it easy for me. John Sloan said to put good people around you. That’s how the first business worked and it worked really well for a long time. I’ve always been lucky to have good people around me, so this is a continuation of that good luck.”
So no thoughts about that retirement? “I feel like I’m young. I don’t know how long I want to work for, but I see myself doing it for ten years at least. I’ve always enjoyed it. When people are winding down their business lives at 65, I feel like I’m starting again, which is not in any way daunting. It’s challenging and fun and I’m looking forward to it.”
For CDP to build on its initial success, “the real trick is to not take on too much work,” says Clayton. “The last thing any of the partners would want is to be running ten projects at once, because you inevitably don’t do any of them very well. The trick is to pick the right projects and not take on too much work and time it right. That’s the tricky part of the business, how you give the right amount of time and effort and application to a limited number of projects, without running out of work in two years because you haven’t signed enough up. It’s such a difficult balancing act.
“The best architects – we all know who they are – can afford to say ‘I can do your project in 2027’ and the club’s happy to wait. If we can get into that position, that would be nice. But there aren’t many guys that are in that position, where you’re sought after and the clubs have the patience to wait for a couple of years.”
Clayton looks back on the last 25 years as having been an incredibly positive time for golf. “The era of the famous golf pro dominating the business is certainly over for the foreseeable future, and I think that’s a good thing,” he says. “Coore, Doak, Hanse, Kidd, DeVries and guys like that really restored the reputation of, not ‘proper architects’ but, a much different model from what dominated the 80s and 90s, which was famous golf pros building golf courses and, in truth, not spending that much time on site. They were big conglomerates of teams with a famous name at the top and if the last 20 years has shown anything, it’s that there’s another way to do it and it’s been great for golf.
“People will look back in 50 years on these years as being incredibly productive. A lot of that has been because of guys like Julian Robertson and Richard Sattler and Mike Keiser and owners who have gone down different paths, which has been a good thing. It started with Dick Youngscap at Sand Hills. So much of what’s happened, the genesis of all of it, was at Sand Hills. Mike Keiser went out and saw what had happened there. If Bandon Dunes hadn’t been built, Barnbougle Dunes wouldn’t have been built. And if Barnbougle Dunes hadn’t been built, then Seven Mile Beach probably wouldn’t have been built.”
For more of Mike Clayton’s views on golf design, visit www.golfcoursearchitecture.net to read the series of articles he wrote for GCA during the lockdown of 2020.
This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.