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Behind the architectural curtain - 2017 Presidents Cup

26 September, 2017

2017 Presidents Cup - Liberty National Golf Club

Behind the architectural curtain

by M. James Ward

This week's Presidents Cup Matches at Liberty National -- the 12th contested -- will provide point blank views of the Manhattan skyline and the iconic Statue of Liberty which is easily seen from a number of holes at the course. The return to Liberty National marks the 3rd time that the world's finest players will set foot on the Jersey City-based layout. The original design from the late Bob Cupp and former PGA TOUR star Tom Kite was panned by several players for not being playable. One player jokingly said even Lady Liberty had her back to the course.

In 2010 changes were made and after the '13 Barclays event was played the original feelings clearly had changed. To be fair -- the players were not enamored with the updated layout but the outright negativity had indeed softened considerably.

The dynamics of a team competition is clearly different from a 72-hole stroke play event. The contest features a match play format and the wherewithal to pair players correctly in order to get the needed chemistry and production is a critical decision for the respective Captain's -- Steve Stricker for team USA and Nick Price for team International.

The routing of the course has also been changed so that the actual closing stretch of holes will play a key factor in nearly all the matches. Weather leading up to the event has been above average and the forecast for the event calls for dry conditions with windy weather expected near the conclusion. With the course being adjacent to New York harbor it's very easy for wind velocities to be especially brisk.

Four architect's weigh in on the nature of this year's matches and how Liberty National will fare as the International team seeks to achieve just its second win in the series.

Q1. Liberty National is hosting the Presidents Cup matches this week and in the process in coming into existence had to overcome a number of significant challenges dealing with a former landfall site and a myriad of different governmental jurisdictions. What's been the most challenging site you've ever faced and what did you learn from it?

NATHAN CRACE: Bay Breeze GC at Keelser AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. The storm literally changed the landscape of the Gulf Coast. The Back Bay in Biloxi filled with storm surge and flooded the course from the north because the base sits between the Back Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, submerging the five holes along the bay. When the water receded, nearly one foot of marine silt was left behind that had to be removed before we could re-build and re-grass. Additionally, Keesler is an older base with a number of closed landfills on-site that were capped with clay decades ago. In those areas, there could be no cut and it was a challenge to re-design those holes in such a way that--as you play them--they blend in with the other holes and the natural lay of the site. That project proved that with the right team no project is impossible and patience and good planning is indeed virtuous.

DAMIAN PASCUZZO: Early in my career I assisted Bob Graves in designing a public course on an old municipal landfill in the San Francisco Bay Area. Without a doubt, it was the most technically challenging project I've ever been a part of. There are a myriad of regulations and constraints working on top of a landfill that limit, or prevent, almost any kind of creativity. Between the underground methane recovery systems, HDPE irrigation system and drainage systems, we must have installed a few hundred miles of pipe. There were no natural site features to work with, just a barren plot of land capped with heavy clay that is subject to settling at any place at any time as the refuse decomposes. Like Liberty National we brought in tons of sand and soil so we could grow trees and turf. Unlike Liberty National, we did not have an unlimited budget.

FORREST RICHARDSON: My first project, Arizona Grand Resort in Phoenix, had numerous environmental obstacles and eventually was blocked by a group of lawsuits. The decision went all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court and was ultimately approved. As a young guy entering golf design it was an eye opener, and taught me never to take anything for granted.

JIM NAGLE: The most challenging site we've worked is The Country Club of Orlando being completely redesigned and rebuilt. The property's situated on a poorly draining, flat site with a myriad of soils conditions. What we have learned from the process is the need for absolute and total open lines of communication between all involved parties. This includes civil engineers, golf course designer, club committee members, golf course superintendent, geo-technical engineers, adjoining property owners, irrigation consultant, golf course contractor and agronomic consultants. One small breakdown in communication can have a dramatic effect on costs and construction progress.

Q2. A number of criticisms were brought forward by tour players -- most notably Tiger Woods after the first Barclays event in '09. Eventually, Liberty National opted to make 70 plus modifications to the course with original architect the late Bob Cupp and Tom Kite participating in a consulting capacity. What's the standard you use in whether or not modifications or wholesale changes are needed in a design you've done?

DAMIAN PASCUZZO: We have never been involved in a remodeling project where we had to go back and make wholesale changes to the golf course after we completed the initial design work. To me, that would indicate that the designer didn't have a good understanding of his client's goals and objectives when they started the project. We tell all of our client's about the "two-year rule". Players need two-years after the renovation to play the golf course and experience the changes to the appearance and strategy. If after two years there are some lingering issues, they we are more than happy to address them.

JIM NAGLE: The majority of Forse Design projects involve the renovation/restoration of existing courses. No matter the scope of work involved there is instant feedback from members and owners. We process much of the feedback and determine early on if there are concerns that need addressing. Where we have had to return and make modifications often involve limited cupping areas on rebuilt greens. As maintenance standards improve and member desires for faster greens increases we have returned to soften portions of rebuilt greens to increase the cupping areas. We have also looked at bunker placements and their impact on pace-of-play and also determine if they are affecting weaker golfers and unnecessarily making the course harder for that particular group.

NATHAN CRACE: There's no doubt the game is changing. From equipment to maintenance practices to golfers themselves, we have to not only adapt, but also think ahead and stay out in front. I like to sit down with a new client and have them write down their goals. Most will say "We need more rounds" or "We need to cut maintenance costs," but a surprisingly small number have actually taken the time to write down their goals. Once we know where the clients wants to be when the work is complete, we can then determine the best way to get there and start putting together a realistic plan for the budget they have in mind. Whether that means zeroing-in on modifications to specific problem areas or wholesale changes throughout the entire course, you can't start that journey without knowing where you want to go.

FORREST RICHARDSON: In the end it is the customers -- the players -- who decide on what is good or needs work. I have been thankful that most of my work over the years has been well received. There is no doubt that when you add the ingredient of professionals to the mix you get people with not only a stronger voice, but an interest that involves their livelihood. Changing golf courses is to be expected. We just expect it later on, not after just a few years.

Q3. This year's Presidents Cup features a re-routing of holes -- the closing stretch #15 thru #18 is actually the first four holes normally. The purpose was to make sure key holes are played since match play is the format and matches could end prior to getting to them. What's your take on re-routing in general terms and when par designations are changed or composite courses are used?

NATHAN CRACE: It certainly isn't the first time we've seen a course do that and I understand the powers-that-be want the matches to go the distance not only for the fans, but also for television. The problem, however, is not so much the course where a match play event is hosted as it is the way in which a match play event is concluded. Too many matches end before the last hole.

FORREST RICHARDSON: Look, the Old Course plays forward and backward. And before it has been formalized into a “course” it was simply an open area where players made up their own holes. I support adaptation by clubs and tournaments. We leave behind a playing board, but they make the rules and set it up they way it needs to be handled.

JIM NAGLE: We have been witness to successful and unsuccessful re-routings as well as the changing of par. Compromising quality design for overall par is not something we as designers will pursue. I do concur with the re-routing of the Presidents Cup course. We experienced this first-hand at Rolling Green Golf Club during the 2016 USGA Women’s Amateur Championship. The match play event limited the need for their final two holes (17 & 18). Those two holes are some of the best at the Club but were not played as often as hoped because of the match play format. The routing of the course did not allow for switching of holes like Liberty National.

DAMIAN PASCUZZO: In this case, re-routing the holes makes perfect sense because of the match play format. You want to give the best holes a good chance of being played. In general, we have no objection to rerouting the sequence of holes especially if it improves the rhythm of the entire round. We like to design a series of closing holes to create drama and memorability for the players. If that involves re-sequencing existing holes, then so be it. We would like to see more clients open to the idea of par 69,70,or 71. Too many players and owners are handcuffed to the idea that the only real golf course is a par 72.

Q4. How much of a role should an architect have when future changes are being contemplated in dealing with one's work?

JIM NAGLE: Some believe an architect is an unnecessary expense, yet, we have witnessed projects being more expensive without the aid of an architect than with. This involves revisiting long standing clients and reviewing past work while continually looking to the future. The game has changed much in the last 15-20 years since much of our work was completed. The courses all require a fresh look as the game, golfer expectations, budgets, equipment, rounds played and cultural/management practices continue to evolve.

DAMIAN PASCUZZO: Steve [Pate] and I work hard to build and maintain long-term relationships with all of our clients and we are always gratified when they call us to consult on potential changes either big or small. We provide the continuity of design philosophy and intent that gets lost as superintendents and leadership evolves at a club or course. However, the reality of the design business is that ownership changes, and green committees change, and sometimes they want to go another direction with a different designer, or make the changes in-house without consulting anyone. It's frustrating, and many times leads to poor results, but there's not much we can do about it.

FORREST RICHARDSON: Of course I think 100%. The issue is that relationships come and go. The right thing to do is not always what gets done. When I see that, I feel it is a shame.

NATHAN CRACE: Understandably, we as architects want to be involved with the changes our courses undergo in future years. That's not always possible because owners change, public bid laws impact how architects might be selected for some public course projects, new owners may want to use an architect they've worked with in the past, etc. We've all re-worked other architects' work and had others re-work our past courses.

Q5. Can courses still be created that test the world's best and still be playable for the broader masses?

JIM NAGLE: I was told during a conversation with the agent of a Major Champion and multiple time Presidents Cup/Ryder Cup member that “the average golfer cannot comprehend how tour players approach the playing of a golf course.” That was very telling and led me to understand the constant changes performed on many of the courses hosting PGA and major USGA events. Often those courses which may lack overall length, have their fairways narrowed, the greens are made ridiculously fast and tees added in never thought of locations to maximize distance. This is all done to challenge the world’s best.

FORREST RICHARDSON: Yes. That has to do with set-up, length, and course conditions. I put length in last place. While Cypress Point may not involve any long irons or approaches for a tour event, it certainly could be set-up to be challenging for the best players in the world. And, without any doubt, it is enjoyable for anybody.

DAMIAN PASCUZZO: Of the roughly 15,000 US golf courses maybe 100 are qualified, or even desire, to host the World's best players. So on that very small percentage of courses there are certainly things that can be done to test the most elite players and still convert it back to be enjoyable for the broader masses. We think it has to do mostly with the way the course is setup. There is too much emphasis on length as a means of creating difficulty. How about trying some unconventional ideas such as not raking bunkers. After all, they are hazards. Why compact 2 inches of sand on bunker faces so that the ball releases down to the bottom? Let the ball plug if that's what it does naturally. How about slowing down the speed of the greens a little so that we can design more contour into the putting surface? Let's play with the height of turf cut everywhere from fairway to secondary rough and see how that impacts the challenge.

NATHAN CRACE: Yes! The key is flexibility. Options derived from multiple tees, angles or play, location of hazards, and the willingness of the architect and the owner to take the time for due diligence to make it work. At my current renovation of The Refuge near Jackson, Mississippi, we are installing the Longleaf Tee System with a series of 5 to 6 tees stretching from 4,000 yards to 7,045 yards and a total of 9 "courses" you can play within the same 18 holes. It will be as much--or as little--golf as any player from scratch to beginner could ask for based solely on his or her skill level--not gender or age. It takes time, planning, and a project team that includes the architect, the owner, the contractor, the superintendent, and the golf professional all being on the same page. It can be done, but it can't be done haphazardly.

Q6. With the possibility of 8,000+ yard courses looming has golf reached a point where the rules dealing with golf equipment must be separated between those at the highest skill levels and the overall golfing audience?

DAMIAN PASCUZZO: In general we would have to say no. The fact is, professional golf at the top levels is entertainment for the viewer. We like watching how far these guys hit the ball. We like the drama of players going head-to-head battling down the stretch for the victory. Whether they shoot 62 or 72 is almost irrelevant for most of us as is the length of the golf course. If amateur players want to come closer to having the same playing experience as the top players, then they need to play the correct tees for their swing speed so that they will have the similar approach shots to the green.

NATHAN CRACE: I've never been a big fan of bifurcating the rules, but unfortunately, we may get to that point in the future. It just isn't financially feasible to build an entire course solely for Tour players and not the regular players when a course hosts an event once a year. However, adding back tees with additional length and varying angles across and between hazards and narrowing fairway cuts for a few weeks in advance of an event can resolve some of those issues. Then there's green speeds--don't get me started on that.

JIM NAGLE: Equipment, player abilities, courses and turf management have been constantly evolving and improving the game. Golf course architects were complaining of their designs being neutered in the 1920’s & 1930’s as equipment was changing. During golfs “golden age”, the early 1900’s through the end of the Depression, equipment changed from hickory shafts to steel and the golf ball was constantly changing, specifically its core. All changes were allowing for more controlled and longer ball flight. For me personally, the verdict is still out there.

FORREST RICHARDSON: My simple answer - yes.

Q7. When watching the telecast of this year's Presidents Cup matches what's the one thing you notice that often times the average fan likely misses?

FORREST RICHARDSON: Golf architects -- most anyway -- tend to be able to think in both two and three dimensions. What we see on TV is not only the perspective shot from the camera, but also the geometric plan view of the hole. Most people do not think this way. The result is that most are appreciating the aesthetics and the dramatic relationship of the hazards and greens. What they miss is how it all got brought together -- how the hole was brought to life, which began with a simple sketch and laying out the design from two dimensions to three. Understanding that opens a wider view to understanding how golf holes are designed.

JIM NAGLE: There is a team of maintenance staff that wakes very early in the morning with still a few hours of dark remaining to begin daily preparations. The team, led by the golf course superintendent, are the hardest working individuals at the course and take the utmost pride in their work. The roll of the ball on the green, the conditions of the bunkers, roughs and fairways are all the results of the hard work and dedication of the superintendent, his staff and volunteers.

NATHAN CRACE: In particular, regarding Liberty National, I remember watching The Barclays on television in 2009. I should mention that, while I never worked for him, Bob Cupp was the person who encouraged me in the 1990's to pursue my dream of becoming a golf course architect and eventually became my lead sponsor for ASGCA membership some 20 years later. But back in 2009, I noticed that many of the fairway cuts and green surrounds at Liberty National ran off into the bunkers with no rough to slow down the ball. He responded that a few of the players had also noticed that and liked that it made them think more about their shots. As golf course architects, we tend to focus on things that maybe the everyday player doesn't notice. For me, that can be a blessing and a curse because it's a "hyper-vigilance" that I can't switch off. I've been fortunate to play some very nice courses in the last 30 years and I often find myself distracted by things like grass types and drainage or looking at certain features and thinking "I wonder why Donald Ross, Pete Dye, or whomever did that?" Not in a critical sense, just wanting to learn, understand, and soak it all in.

DAMIAN PASCUZZO: I know this sounds strange, but I'll try and watch the interaction between player and caddie throughout the matches. I like to see who relies on their caddie for more than yardage, especially as the pressure in a match intensifies. I'll watch to see which player reads their putts alone and which takes some advice from the caddie.

The participating architects

NATHAN E. CRACE, ASGCA, Principal, Watermark Golf/Nathan Crace Design – Headquartered in south Mississippi, is a native of Indiana and been designing courses for nearly 25 years and is a graduate of Mississippi State University's PGA Golf Management program. Nathan's accolades include Golf Digest's "Best New Affordable Public Course in America" (Copper Mill GC), Golf Inc Magazine's "#3 Best Public Course Renovation in America" (Ole Miss GC), and a 2017 ASGCA "Design Excellence Award." He is also a published author and a member of the Golf Writers Association of America.

JIM NAGLE, Golf Course Designer / Forse Design, Inc. – A golf course designer working closely with Ron Forse, Forse Design for over 19 years. Ron and Jim have teamed to recreate some of the most memorable restorations of many Top 100 Classic Courses cited by Golfweek Magazine. Nagle's been the lead architect for many Forse Design projects such as: Lancaster C.C. (PA), C.C. of Buffalo (NY), Rolling Green G.C. (PA), Bryn Mawr C.C. (IL) and Kirtland C.C. (OH).Offices located in Hopwood, PA & New Smyrna Beach, FL. 20+ years in the golf design business working with Dye Designs, Derck & Edson Associates and Forse Design, Inc.

FORREST RICHARDSON,ASGCA / Principal of Forrest Richardson & Assoc., Phoenix, AZ – Has completed new courses and significant remodels, including restoration work. Among his projects are Olivas Links (Ventura, California), The Hideout (Monticello, Utah), Mountain Shadows (Scottsdale, Arizona) and the new Baylands Golf Links (Palo Alto, California). His renovation/restoration work includes the Wigwam Resort (Arizona), Berkeley CC (California), and Arizona Biltmore Adobe Course (Phoenix, Arizona). Forrest serves as the current Secretary of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and a member of the USGA Museum Committee.

DAMIAN PASCUZZO,ASGCA / Principal designer of Pascuzzo / Pate Golf Design, El Dorado Hills, California – Began his design career in 1982 and is a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Since 2003 he has been working with 6-time PGA Tour winner and 2-time Ryder Cup player, Steve Pate. This design team has won awards for their original creations of both the Old Course and Challenge Course at Monarch Dunes in Nipomo, CA. They have also completed a major remodel of the historic 36-holes at Omni La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, CA. Their international work has also been recognized when Murasaki CC was selected to host the 2020 Japan Open. They are currently completing a remodel of the Kings Course at Gleneagles CC in Plano, TX.


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