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Behind the architectural curtain - Bellerive hosts 100th PGA Championship

06 August, 2018

100th PGA Championship - Bellerive Country Club

Behind the architectural curtain

Interviews with M. James Ward

The 100th PGA Championship will be played this week at a facility little known to many outside the United States. Bellerive Country Club is located in the greater St. Louis area and opened for play in 1960 through the architectural skills of Robert Trent Jones, Sr. Just five years later the course hosted the US Open -- still the youngest course ever to do so.

The 1965 US Open was the first to be broadcast on color television and the first to be staged over four days of play. In all previous US Opens the final round consisted of 36 holes but that was changed following the searing heat and humidity experienced the year prior during Ken Venturi's triumph at Congressional.

The win by Gary Player was especially noteworthy as the South African became the first foreign born player to win since Tommy Armour's triumph 38 years 1927. He also become just the 3rd man to achieve the career Grand Slam following Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan. Player donated his winner's share of $25,000 -- split between a $5,000 donation to cancer research and $20,000 to junior golf in the United States. In addition, Player paid his assigned caddy $2,000 -- with $1,000 coming from a playoff bonus paid from the gate receipts of the Monday gallery of 6,790 and the remaining $1,000 from his pocket. Finally, the South African earned the win by playing fiberglass shafted clubs.

In 1992, Bellerive hosted its second major event -- the PGA Championship. Nick Price would win his first major with a 278 total -- three strokes ahead of four others who tied for second.

In 2001, the club was hosting practice rounds for the WGC-American Express Championship when terrorist attacks took place in September 11 in various locations in America. The event was then cancelled.

Two major senior events have been held at Bellerive -- the 2004 Senior Open won by Peter Jacobsen and the 2013 Senior PGA won by Japanese pro Kohki Idoki.

Bellerive hosted the BMW Championship -- formerly the Western Open in September 2008, the third of the four-part FedEx Cup Playoffs, and it was won by Camilo Villegas.

For many of the contestants in this year's championship it will be the first exposure to the course. Various upgrades have been carried out by architect Rees Jones and his firm. America's heartland will once again take center stage.

The participating architects

Art Schaupeter – based in St. Louis, Missouri. Opened his own golf course design firm in 1998 and has been a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) since 1999. His newest design project, TPC Colorado, opens to the public later this month.

Ron Whitten – Senior Editor, Architecture for Golf Digest magazine for over 30 years. Co-designer of Erin Hills Golf Course, site of 2017 U.S. Open.

Bryce Swanson – joined the staff at Rees Jones, Inc. in 2000. Since then, was the Co-Designer and Project Architect for the renovation of Atlanta Athletic Club, Highlands Course for the 2011 PGA Championship and renovation of Bellerive Country Club for this year's PGA Championship. A member of the ASGCA since 2010 and selected that same year by Golf Magazine to "Golf's 40 under 40" -- the most influential people in golf under 40 years old.

Greg Martin – has been practicing golf course architecture throughout the Midwest for more than 30 years through his company Martin Design. He is a past president of the ASGCA. His recent project in Chicago, Illinois -- The Preserve at Oak Meadows -- has received multiple awards including the Greens Star Award from Golf Digest, Renovation of the Year from Golf Inc., Illinois ASLA Merit Award Winner and Martin was cited as an Innovator of the Year by Green Sports Alliance.

This year's PGA Championship is at Bellerive, just outside of St. Louis. Robert Trent Jones, Sr., was responsible for the original design with a recent upgrade by son Rees and his firm. Define the RTJ, Sr., architectural style and how Bellerive fits within it.

Ron Whitten: With his plethora of bunkers pinching fairways and surrounding greens, Trent tested aerial as well as ground game and incorporated heroic, gambling shots over water hazards as a common feature in his designs. Bellerive still reflects this.

Art Schaupeter: I think of his style as being straightforward and strategic. He was very proficient technically with his designs, so they fit the land very nicely. Bellerive is a great example. It is a beautiful course with a nice flow to the routing of the holes through the property, and the individual holes themselves are all very solid tests, befitting his description of a great hole as a “difficult par, but a comfortable bogey.” The large greens have strong contouring that allows for the strategies on the holes to be modified with the different hole locations.

Bryce Swanson: I find Mr. Jones' courses are a very solid test of golf. From the tee shot all the way through the green. I find his routings to be very good and that can be said about Bellerive. Bellerive will be a very good test for the players and it should challenge them from the tee through the green surface.

Greg Martin: I don't know enough about Bellerive to comment, but it is long, narrow with well defined doglegs and is well bunkered. Those are the trademarks of RTJ. Rees Jones does a marvelous job of interpreting that work for the modern game and Bellerive is a perfect example.

What made the Jones Sr. style so successful at that time?

Ron Whitten: They were exceedingly attractive courses that were challenging to play, hence many of his designs hosted professional tournaments.

Art Schaupeter: The golf is straightforward, good strategic options to consider and all done well from a technical standpoint. All aspects of your game are tested on his courses, and probably a good reason why so many of his courses have held championship caliber events.

Bryce Swanson: He had an innovative approach to his designs. He used bunkers differently from other designers during that time. He varied the size and heights of his greens from course too course, based on the site and type player that would be using the facility. Mr. Jones also seemed to have a tremendous amount of drive and desire to be successful.

Greg Martin: RTJ produced championship golf, designed to be testing, demanding length and accuracy. Long, tough, tree-lined, heavily bunkered and linear was far different than most golf at the time.

How will the legacy of RTJ, Sr. be assessed? Will it be more towards the courses he created or the manner by which he promoted himself globally?

Ron Whitten: His courses stand the test of time, so that's what he'll be remembered for. Most golfers have forgotten or never knew most aspects of his self-promotion.

Art Schaupeter: I think it will be a bit of both. He has gotten a lot credit for creating, or at least helping create, the “profession” of golf course architecture, but there is no doubt that his body of work will also stand the test of time. He should be remembered both for how he marketed himself, and by extension the profession of golf course architecture, as well as for the quality and depth of his portfolio.

Bryce Swanson: I think it will be both. I believe his career lasted 70 years and during that time he created or remodeled more than 350 courses. His work can be seen in 30 countries and includes Valderrama a past Ryder Cup venue. Altogether, his courses have been the setting of 20 some US Opens and a dozen or more PGA championships.

Greg Martin: RTJ Senior created the modern model for golf course architecture. “Give your course a signature” was a tag line. This lead to numerous architects creating unique elements that provided distinction. His business was a modern refinement of what was happening during the golden age of architecture, but a distinct departure from many of those strategic philosophies.

Over the last 15-20 years golf architecture has moved towards a rebirth of classical styles incorporated by a range of architects. What prompt that to happen?

Ron Whitten: Disagree with your premise of a "rebirth of classical style." Trent would argue he built a classical style but adjusted it for ease of maintenance - long tees easily mown, big greens for lots of hole locations and shallow bunkers above grade so they didn't need drainage. Todays "rebirth" is much about a dramatic look that's terribly expensive to maintain.

Art Schaupeter: A new-found appreciation for true links-style golf. The building of Sand Hills in the mid-1990s probably helped usher in this appreciation in the US. That coupled with the volume of work and influx of new architects at the time. We all made our pilgrimages over to Scotland and Ireland and realized how much fun that type of golf could be. That also opened our eyes to the classic designs here in the US from the early 1900’s and the philosophies of the architects that created them.

Bryce Swanson: I think the interest in classic styles has always been around, but I think some of the tools being used are much better today.

Greg Martin: The move toward classic elements, width and firm playing conditions was less about architecture and more about how architecture can evolve to accommodate golfer needs and maintenance requirements. Golden age architecture is more adaptable to firmer and fast conditions that are necessary as maintenance budgets are scrutinized and water consumption regulated. Other than that, width allows for more interesting and unique golf with more strategy and demands more creative shot-making.

Missouri enters the spotlight of attention with the PGA Championship coming to the State. Does the "Show me State" get less overall attention than other Midwestern locations and if so why do you think that is?

Ron Whitten: Depends upon what you, as an easterner, consider the Midwest. If you think Ohio is Midwest, then Missouri is overshadowed. But to me Midwest is Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Dakotas, Missouri, in which case it's one of the stronger states with regard to championship golf. Iowa, Dakotas have never hosted any majors, Nebraska only the Senior Open.

Art Schaupeter: Well, Chicago with a long golf history and very deep stable of outstanding courses probably gets the focus in the Midwest compared to all other areas, but Missouri has its share of great courses and if you can avoid the high humidity it’s a very pleasant place to live and to play golf. The community is very friendly and relaxed, and the golf can be very enjoyable, with only a few months of downtime in the heart of winter.

Bryce Swanson: Missouri does get overlooked, but I think the Midwest, in general, gets overlooked. Bellerive is projected to have huge crowds this week and I believe it might be sold out. They have always drawn huge crowds and the same can be said about other major golf events hosted in the Midwest. But I think it comes down to TV coverage and the desire to see major events played or being finished during prime time hours.

Greg Martin: Good question. Missouri has loads of great golf but being in the transitional zone many turf varieties cannot thrive in certain climate conditions. The erratic and unpredictable weather doesn’t provide for reliable turf conditions. There are a number of new turf varieties being developed that are better suited to these harsh temperatures and high humidity.

Course preparation has been an ongoing topic for discussion. How is it that the PGA is so successful under the guidance of Kerry Haigh while the USGA and its leader Mike Davis has been searching for a much more consistent effort?

Ron Whitten: Again, disagree with the premise of your question. Has Mike Davis said he's been searching for consistency? I don't believe so. Each course set-up is different, depending upon the locale and weather conditions. Overall, the USGA has always wanted its national championship to be the toughest test of the year, which displeases many. When it is, pundits bitch. When it isn't, pundits bitch. Often the same bunch of pundits. I prefer to sit back and watch the show, regardless.

Art Schaupeter: It feels like the USGA is still trying to dictate the final score a little too much. If the golf course needs to be kept on such a slim knife-edge condition-wise, then when Mother Nature throws a slight curveball during event week, the course can get away. I do like the courses that the USGA has chosen to play at over the past few years. The PGA, with it’s obvious focus on the players has been a little more forgiving with the course set-ups, which has benefitted them.

Bryce Swanson: Tough questions, I think in many ways it comes down to luck and timing. Thinking of what Bellerive has gone through and done to get ready for one week is truly amazing. The process started at least 3 years ago and when it is all said and done it all depends on the weather that week during the event.

Greg Martin: That depends on what you consider success. There is no doubt the USGA has made some monumental mistakes in recent years. The USGA has been fostering a broader approach to the game, playing on firmer, faster golf courses in recent years with an attempt to foster a change in golfer expectation, understanding and appreciation for the game. The PGA carries a far simpler set of goals.

What's your take on the PGA Championship moving from August and being played in May starting in 2019?

Ron Whitten: I like the move, although it probably removes some usual courses from future consideration -- but we shall see how Oak Hill in Rochester presents itself in May (2023). The move expands the opportunity for the PGA Championship to be hosted in states previously considered too hot for August, like Florida, Texas, Arizona. It's also nice that the Open Championship, which smugly insists its winner is "The Champion Golfer of the Year" will be the last major of the year, unofficially justifying that arrogant title.

Art Schaupeter: I’m looking forward to it. It condenses the schedule down in terms of the majors and FedEx cup, and as a fan I think that will be a good thing. For fans living in the central or northern parts of the country, we’ll get into the serious golf events a little sooner, which will be nice coming out of winter.

Bryce Swanson: I understand the reasons behind moving the event and the other changes to the PGA schedule. The May date should open the door for some other venues to be played. I also hope the new tour schedule will bring new fans to the game of golf.

Greg Martin: I love this idea. Moving the Players Championship to March helps golf, as golfers are getting excited for the season. This change will help generate more early excitement. The downside is that fewer northern courses will be part of the PGA rotation because of the earlier date.

Read more about Bellerive Country Club


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