Hmm. Design a course that is challenging for good players yet approachable and fun for all skill levels. What a radical concept!
Well, that’s the overriding philosophy of architect Stephen Kay and his design partner, Doug Smith.
Of course it sounds simpler than it really is. But the bottom line is that the two men have put their words into action at such courses as the new nine holes at Blue Fox Run Golf Course in Avon, Connecticut and the reworked Timberlin Golf Club in Kensington, Ct. and at such acclaimed New Jersey tracks as Blue Heron Pines and Harbor Pines golf clubs and The Architects Club.
“I’m trying to create a golf course that when played from the proper tees allows a higher-handicapper to break 100 and makes it difficult for a good player to break 75,” said Kay. “I like to set up a hole strategically not just for the single digit handicapper but also for someone like my father, who is 86 and can still play. I want people to be able to see the hole unfold in front of them with no hidden tricks and be able to think their way to the green.”
Now, it isn’t that Kay and Smith design courses that lack bite. Indeed, Blue Heron Pines has hosted a number of high-level tournaments and there is plenty of trouble on Kay-Smith courses in the form of bunkers, water hazards and challenging green complexes and putting surfaces. Their firm has worked on over 200 new or renovated courses.
“There are several sets of criteria when we build a new course or renovate an existing one,” said Kay. “We talk about safety, functionality, strategic shot values and playability. By functionality I mean how the course drains and making big tee boxes, things that allow the superintendent to do the best job he can. Playability means creating a course that everyone can play, and that means seniors, juniors, women and the club champ.”
Kay, who is based in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., believes a number of courses designed during the past decade or so have left some players behind.
“They are just too hard for the average player. We have a golf course in New Jersey that everybody raved about because it was so challenging. Well, it just closed because it couldn’t generate enough rounds.”
Kay thinks a course should also be memorable and leave the player wanting more.
“The greens, especially, should be memorable. I always try to incorporate a variety of greens into my golf courses so that people can remember them. You do that be creating different levels or by placing a ridge in the green. You can place the bunkers and mounding surrounding the greens in a strategic way. The greens on some of the new courses built in the Northeast have been way overdone and sloped. People fall in love with their work.”
He added, “You think about Donald Ross, Charles Banks and Seth Raynor. They kept their greens simple and threw in little twists.”
It is no surprise that Kay is a great admirer of the earliest golf course architects. But he also believes we are in somewhat of a modern, golden age of golf course design.
“The early designers were doing something totally new and did some great courses. But I believe there have been as many great courses built in the last 15 to 20 years. We learn from the past and because we have better equipment and manpower and knowledge, perhaps our golden age is even a little better than the first golden age.”
Smith, based in Eastchester, New York, has worked with Kay since 1990. He was largely responsible for the design of the new holes at Blue Fox Run and the extensive bunker renovations and upgrades at Timberlin, which have turned that municipal track into one of the best munis in the state.
“At Timberlin we have a perfect example of a very good public golf course,” Smith observed. “Good topography and a good layout, but a course that needed a little bit of work everywhere to make it pop. It was mostly on the bunkers. We went in there and acted as though we were placing bunkers at a brand new course. We rebuilt some and left them were they were and in other instances we moved them or built new ones, all with an eye on strategy and how they affected play on each hole. I think we succeeded in bringing a new feel and playing experience to Timberlin.”Timberlin Golf Club
Smith said the new holes at Blue Fox Run, which are scheduled to open sometime late this spring, were designed to create a homogeneous feel with the 18 existing holes.
“Because some of the new holes were going to be merged with holes on the existing course, we first undertook some bunker work on the old course so that there would be a seamless look and feel. Two of the new holes are tree-lined, one hole has a very large pond that affects how players approach it, and the other six holes are routed on an old farm field and therefore have a links feel to them.”
He added, “We looked at all the other golf courses in the Hartford area and we wanted to do something that was different and stood out. We decided to make a course that did not look old but also did not look brand new.”New Holes at Blue Fox Run Golf Club
Kay and Smith’s firm also oversaw a million-dollar renovation to the public-access Ailing Memorial Golf Club in New Haven, Ct., work that included new bunkers, new tees, the planting of new trees and signage.
Smith is in agreement with his partner on how a golf course should be designed.
“In public golf, you have to keep the player coming back. You do that be making a course a real challenge for someone to break 75 and easy for someone to break 100. The end result is an memorable and enjoyable experience for each player.”
He added, “Golf has to be fun. So many courses designed today place the emphasis on difficulty. People will tell me, `Oh, that was a great golf course. It was so tough,’ but then they never go back. When we designed Blue Heron Pines in New Jersey as our first high-end daily fee course people said golfers weren’t going to pay top dollar to play a public course. Well, they did and it’s been one of the most successful courses from an economic standpoint.”
Making golf fun sounds trite. But if that is the case, why don’t more architects approach their jobs that way? When Stephen Kay and Doug Smith get their way the game is more enjoyable and the golf industry, in general, is better for it.