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Behind the architectural curtain - 2018 US Open

07 June, 2018

118th US Open - Shinnecock Hills Golf Club

Behind the architectural curtain

Interviews with M. James Ward

After a fourteen-year absence, the championship of American golf -- the US Open -- returns to iconic Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, NY. In 2004, the event was hampered by poor decision making in not ensuring sufficient water was applied to the putting greens -- most notably the par-3 7th. The United States Golf Association (USGA) has expressed confidence such a situation will not happen this time around.

Shinnecock Hills is rightly lauded as one of the top five courses in the world. The eastern area of Long Island is also a hotbed for golf and served as the foundation for golf in America in its earliest days. Among the more noted layouts near to Shinnecock Hills include such stalwarts as The National Golf Links of America, Maidstone and Southampton. With more recently opened and noted layouts such as Friar's Head, Sebonack, The Bridge, Atlantic and East Hampton joining the golf scene.

Getting expertise from several different architects sheds additional insights into what happens behind the scenes. The unknown factors remain to be answered. What lessons did the USGA learn from Erin Hills in 2017? How will Shinnecock Hills play? What will the weather and wind conditions be like? How firm and fast will the William Flynn design play? Will Shinnecock provide high golf drama featuring the game's elite players?

A founding member of the USGA, Shinnecock Hills will host its 5th US Open -- making the club the only one to have hosted the championship in three different centuries. The stage is set -- the curtain is about to rise.

On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being "perfect" -- what number grade would you give the USGA in prepping the courses that have recently hosted the US Open?

Dana Fry: 7 or 8. Obviously at Chambers Bay they had issues concerning the greens and the tough time spectators had walking the course. At Erin Hills, which I designed with Mike Hurdzan & Ron Whitten, the players had favorable comments for the most part but some writers and fans were concerned with the low scoring. What all this proves to me is just how difficult it is to set up a course for a US Open. If the wind had been blowing everyday 20+ mph everyday at Erin Hills I can assure you the results and comments would be far different.

Nathan Crace : A 9 -- nobody's perfect. Hosting a tournament on that scale is a tremendous undertaking and you really have to hand it to the superintendents and their staff members at those courses. They have to walk a fine line working with the USGA to balance playability with challenging the best players in the world. When it comes to the US Open, I like to see the world's best be tested by par.

Marc Westenborg: I cannot provide a specific number because having only watched the US Open on TV, it is not possible to form an accurate opinion on the prepping of the golf courses.

Tripp Davis: Prepping and setting up a golf course for a US Open is a very tough thing to do. They've done an excellent job of providing test that doesn't favor anyone type of player, so I would give them a 9.

Jeffrey Blume: I think that the USGA has done a remarkable job of customizing each year's open to the design and conditions of the host site. As an example, the wider fairways at last year's open at Erin Hills were appropriate due to the length and difficulty of the course. Tightening the widths at a place like Merion was also spot on. I am curious to see how the wider fairways at Shinnecock Hills will change the strategy for the players. Overall I would give the course set up at recent US Opens a solid 8. The only negatives have occurred when the courses have gotten overly firm and fast.

If you could name one specific course, irrespective of logistics that has not already hosted the US Open, which one would you choose and why?

Jeffrey Blume: I would love to see an Open hosted with 100% warm season grasses. With the talent of players that come out of the states of Texas and Florida, I think it is time for the US Open to be hosted by a facility in one of these states. Perhaps Seminole or Colonial would be appropriate. I know the heat in the south is a negative, but we Texans and Floridians play in hot weather all the time.

Nathan Crace : Since the USGA is headed to Long Island for this year's US Open, how about National Golf Links at some point in the future? It's literally adjacent to Shinnecock, hosted the inaugural Walker Cup in 1922, and is perennially one of the top-rated courses in America.

Dana Fry: Chicago Golf Club. There are many reasons why. It is a founding member of the USGA in 1894, it's an architectural masterpiece and a throwback to the old school of golf architecture, for historical reasons and mainly because I believe it could. The course sits on close to 200 acres so they have the room to add length to the course and the greens are perhaps the most challenging greens in the U.S. If Merion which sits on 126 acres can host the US Open then I am confident Chicago GC can.

Tripp Davis: Pine Valley. I have played competitive golf there and there is no other course in the world that does as good a job of testing every part of your game, and it does not favor any one type of player.

Marc Westenborg: Pine Valley. Its history and reputation as a tough highly strategic golf course along with what I would describe as “proper hazards”; unmaintained areas of sand. Allowing members of the public to experiences the golf course as spectators or TV viewers would be great for the game of golf.

There has been internal debate within the USGA regarding the appropriateness of wider fairways for the championship. At Erin Hills, much wider fairways were used. At Shinnecock, the fairways will be wider than what was done at the three previous modern championships. Average width will be 42 yards. Can wider fairways really test the world's best players and is accuracy really being undermined by such a practice?

Marc Westenborg: It very much depends on what hazards border the fairway. If strongly penal just off the edge then wide fairways are more justified. It could be argued that the wider the fairway, the greater number of possible angles of approaches to the green which only adds to the strategy and challenge of the golf hole. Narrow fairways very much result in similar angles of approach but a stiff challenge if dense trees or long rough borders them and this may encourage the use of more accurate irons and henceforth the requirement for longer approach shots.

Jeffrey Blume: It depends on the individual course and its design. If wider fairways allow for optimum angles for approach shots, or bring certain hazards into play, then wider fairways can have a tremendous impact on strategy. Width for no reason would have a negative impact on the quality of the tactical examination, but done correctly and thoughtfully wider fairways on individual holes can create greater variety in shot making and test accuracy without the use of unnecessary rough.

Tripp Davis: Wider fairways, with the right set up in firm/fast greens and tough hole locations, make it not just important to hit the fairway, but the proper part of the fairway to get the best angle and distance for the following shot. How that width is used is subjectively important in that you can add more width on the side of the fairway that does not leave a very good angle to the green, or you can cut that width off at certain distances from tees so length is not a dominant factor on too many holes, better testing every part of the game and not favoring anyone type of player in identifying the best player in the entire field.

Nathan Crace: I think there's an important distinction between "playing width" and "fairway width." Widening playing corridors for the average golfer is a good thing because it increases enjoyment of the game, provides different angles from which to play a hole, and increases interest. But for a major being contested by the best golfers in the world, I like to see a blend of accuracy and shot making -- not one extreme or the other.

Dana Fry: Everyone knows now that after Erin Hills the USGA had just over 7 acres of fairways removed at Shinnecock because of this very concern. The fairways this year will still be far wider than they were in 2004 the last time they had a US Open at Shinnecock when they were around 26 yards wide. It will be very interesting this year and I for one can't wait to see the outcome. I think ultimately the weather conditions will be the deciding factor. If the course plays soft and their is little wind I think the scores will be low but if the wind blows everyday and it plays fast and firm watch out for high scoring.

What role should an architect play if called upon to assist with a US Open site?

Nathan Crace: It depends on the course. I like the trend toward adding more public venues in recent years. But as with any project, the primary goal is to assess and meet the needs of the course and the client. We have a duty to them first and foremost. The US Open may only come to that course once every 10 or 20 years -- or perhaps only once at all. We have to think about who the golfers are that will be playing the course on those days in between and what best suits them.

Dana Fry: In the case of Erin Hills the USGA was involved before it was awarded a USGA event. All issues were discussed ahead of time with focus being on tee locations, green contours, bunker locations, fairway widths, chipping areas, hospitality and access issues, turf grass varieties to be used, etc. The USGA did not tell the architect what to do they just made suggestions. It is imperative the USGA have an architect involved on issues concerning design integrity and they are great to work with.

Marc Westenborg: I worked together with the R&A preparing Royal Liverpool for the 2014 Open. We concentrated on the finer details, new back tees, length of carries and fairness of bunkers; ensuring that balls would not end up in unplayable lies close at the foot of their revetted faces. We also re-profiled some of the green surrounds and areas between fairways, ensuring a variety of differing stances and angles and type of shot. However, it must be said that all these adjustments, were also for the membership; not specific to the Open. Hoylake hosting the Open was in many ways the catalyst to carry out improvements to the golf course.

Jeffrey Blume: If the original architect of a course is involved in course set up, then I think his/her perspective on the course design is of prime importance. No one else would have a better understanding of the intricacies and intent of the design. If the host venue is a classic course where the original architect has passed on, then the study of the course by a modern architect can provide the same insight..

Tripp Davis: First would be to work with the USGA and the Club to possibly add tees, move tees, add or move bunkers, or modify greens to provide hole locations that better test the players. A good golf course architect is not only an expert in design, but in how to get desired results via a variety of construction and maintenance methods. Second, an architect that understands the game can be a part of the team that sets the course up day to day for the tournament, mostly to provide insight as to how far set up can push design..

When watching a golf telecast -- especially the US Open -- what do you pay particular attention to?

Jeffrey Blume: I love to look at the bunkering of a course. How it describes the strategy of shot making, how the players adapt to bunker placement depending on the playing conditions of a given day, and how the bunkers can be used to challenge players strengths and weaknesses. The bunkering of every course is its most visible fingerprint, and how an architect uses the bunkers says a lot about their individual style, strategic philosophy, and aesthetic preferences.

Marc Westenborg: One can never get a true understanding of a golf course by watching TV; undulations and changes in gradient are particularly hard to decipher. However, much of my current work is bunker renovations so I do enjoy seeing their different styles and ways they are landscaped; the bunkering at Erin Hills was of particular interest. Also of interest are the ball trackers and choice of golf club the golfers are using and the huge difference between amateurs and the professionals.

Dana Fry: For me I pay most attention to weather conditions. If you have dry, windy and firm conditions the odds are you will have higher scoring. If you have soft conditions with little wind and good putting surfaces you will have much better scoring. The other issue that comes into play is the width of the fairways and height of the maintained rough. If you have the "old style" US Open fairway widths of 25 to 30 yards wide, cut at 4+ inches and fast, firm, windy conditions watch out because the scoring will be high. .

Nathan Crace: I tend to get caught up on the details of green complexes, bunker placement, where the water hazards are, positioning of tees, and how they all fit together (or don't) in one big life size jigsaw puzzle of nature. I gravitate toward angles and strategy, but TV doesn't do justice to many courses because you're viewing a 3D landscape on a 2D screen. That said, the aerial footage and new tracer technology both add a dimension for viewers that helps see the big picture.

Tripp Davis: The course set up and how players are choosing to play the course, strategically. I also like to watch the type of shots they are playing when being aggressive.

The USGA and R&A have publicly indicated they are watching closely the impact of greater gains made from enhanced technology tied to golf balls. Is there an issue of concern and how realistic do you see a future action be jointly taken that actually rolls back the distances modern professional golf is achieving?

Nathan Crace: I think that genie has long been out of that bottle. As much as I hate to see some of the classic courses being impacted by the length the Tour players can hit the ball, the fans like the longer ball and you still have to get the ball in the hole to score. The USGA and R&A might try to dial back advances in the ball going forward, but I think we are where we are right now. I'm not a fan of bifurcating the rules, but that might become a reality down the road..

Jeffrey Blume: I think the issue of how perceived length is affecting the modern game is one that certainly needs to be studied. I commend the USGA and R&A for their approach to looking into this issue without any pre-conceived notions. The issue is much more complex than simply looking into how far professionals can hit the golf ball. Of far more importance to me is how length affects the amateur game and the footprint on which the game is played. Changes in technology and golf ball distance is nothing new to the game, and golf has adapted to these changes in the past. I am sure that those of us in the golf industry will adapt again, whatever the USGA and R&A study reveals.

Tripp Davis: Players are longer than a few years ago. How realistic a roll back may be is a better question for the USGA and the R&A. I do think design can be somewhat effective in “rolling the ball back” by making it less of advantage to hit it really long. In that we do have to value the precise players as much as we do the longer players.

Dana Fry: I agree with what Jack Nicklaus has been saying -- we need a tournament ball. I spent a lot of time with the players the week before the US Open last year and quite a few told me they can easily fly the ball 300 yards in the air and if needed can fly it up to 320 yards in the air. I watched as several of them carried the bunkers that were 320 yard carries in the air then hitting downslopes and getting additional roll. Do we just keep adding distance? I hope not but is it the right thing to do to make every US Open course have 25 to 30 yard fairways and force the majority of the field to use long irons or utility clubs to hit the fairways? I don't think that is right either. I think the Master's is the only place that could implement a tournament ball and hope in the future it will happen.

Marc Westenborg: The distance professionals are achieving does not concern me. Only a tiny portion of golfers worldwide can be described as professionals yet the advance in technology has benefited them significantly more than amateurs. If professionals continue to gain distance that is fine with me; just so long as it’s a “level playing field” for all. Spectators love the huge distances professionals are capable of and it must be remembered that the further the golf ball travels, the greater the need for accuracy.

We must design new and adapt existing courses such that they challenge professional golfers without penalizing the amateur. There will come a point where technological advances reach a natural conclusion so I am of the opinion that the USGA and R&A’s time and money is better spent working together in growing the game of golf.

Above photo identifications:

*The first photo shows the demanding par-4 9th hole at Shinnecock Hills.
*The second photo listed by the second question is the 10th hole at Pine Valley.
*The third photo listed by the 3rd question is the 10th hole at Shinnecock Hills.
*The final course photo is the iconic Stanford White clubhouse at Shinnecock Hills.

The participating architects

Dana Fry – Started in the business in 1983 working for Tom Fazio. Among his most noted design efforts include Erin Hills Golf Course-site of the 2017 US Open, Devil’s Pulpit, Devil’s Paintbrush, Calusa Pines Golf Club, Naples National Golf Club, Hamilton Farm Golf Club, Philadelphia Cricket Club, Farmlinks Golf Club & Shelter Harbor Golf Club.

Jeffrey D. Blume – Blume is President of the American Society of Golf Course architects and managing general partner of Jeffrey D. Blume, Limited, a golf course architecture firm based in Houston, Texas. He is also a former General Chairman of the Shell Houston Open. Over twenty eight years in the golf course design profession, he has completed commissions both domestically and internationally. Some of his more notable designs include Grand Pines Golf Club at Bentwater, Sterling Country Club, and the renovation of The Golf Club at Texas A&M.

Tripp Davis – Since starting his own design firm in 1994, has created 19 original designs around the world, including China and Mexico, and is one of the leading golf course renovation and restoration specialist in the US. Most notable original design include the Old American Golf Club near Dallas, Texas, recent and future host of the LPGA Tour, and his most notable renovation/restoration has been Oak Tree National in Oklahoma, which hosted the 2014 US Senior Open following his work.

Marc Westenborg – Started his design career with Hawtree for whom he worked for 14 years before founding Westenborg Golf Design. Worked on over 50 projects worldwide; his most high profile being Dun Laoghaire, Dooks, Cobh and Cork in Ireland, Rockliffe Hall in the UK and La Zagaleta in Spain. A Senior Member of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects the company is based in the United Kingdom.

Nathan Crace – After attending Mississippi State University and graduating from their Professional Golf Management program, he went on to work for an upstart design firm before founding his own firm eight years later. Designing courses for nearly 25 years--including Copper Mill Golf Club near Baton Rouge, Louisiana named Golf Digest's "Best New Public Course in America" in 2004. Crace is a native of Louisville, KY and raised in Charlestown, IN.


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