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Scottish Design Masters 2017

08 March, 2017

Scottish Design Masters 2017

A report on the Scottish International Golf Course Architects Conference in Inverness

Organised bytheGolf Tourism Development Group, a consortium including VisitScotland, Scottish Enterprise, Scottish Development International, Scottish Golf Ltd and the PGA, the Scottish Design Masters conference in Inverness last week was aimed at improving the development, delivery and promotion of golf tourism in Scotland.

Intended to showcase Scotland’s role in helping to shape golf course architecture from a global perspective, the conference also provided participants with the opportunity to debate the future direction of the industry based on a sustainable approach to golf course design and maintenance.

Delegates and speakers arriving a day early visited the UHl Dornoch Campus for a tour of the Degree Programme, followed by an evening reception in the Royal Dornoch clubhouse. When this introductory session concluded, it was back to the Kingsmills Hotel in Inverness for the main proceedings.

Adam Lawrence, Golf Course Architecture Editor, hosted the conference and after a brief introduction to remind everyone that the theme for the day was “Celebrating Scotland’s Global Legacy” he invited Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary at the Scottish Government for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, to formally open the event.

Dr Paul Miller from Elmwood College in Fife was first onto the podium to talk about “the modernisation of places for golf” and he spoke about how the game had evolved from using agriculturally unsuitable land around the coastline to building courses away from the links, closer to centres of population.

His main concern was the danger of modernisation leading to standardisation and to illustrate this he quoted the situation where a group of foreign golfers had chosen to play a course with a conventional layout (four par threes, four par fives and ten par fours) instead of Elie, which has only two par threes and sixteen par fours – “eliminate random and lose the point” was his message.

American Bradley S. Klein – author, design consultant and senior writer for Golfweek magazine – was the next keynote speaker. A former professor in international relations and political theory, he had previously caddied on the PGA Tour during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Brad spoke at length on the works of the prolific Dornoch-born architect Donald Ross, who was turning out new designs at the rate of twenty-five a year by 1920. From more than 400 courses that were fashioned during a prodigious career, Brad reckoned Whitinsville in Massachusetts and Teugega in New York were probably the best two untouched examples of his craft.

Architect Martin Ebert, whose design firm now advises at seven of the current nine Open venues, spoke on the architectural influence that Scotland – and the Old Course at St Andrews in particular – has had down the years on the rest of the golfing world. Starting with Old Tom Morris then ending with Tom Doak, he catalogued a dozen golf course designers over more than a century who have had their thoughts shaped by the golfing ground in Scotland. Martin also gave a brief outline of some changes that he made recently to the Ailsa course at Trump Turnberry, where an extensive renovation has cemented the layout’s status as a World Top 100 track.

Speaker number four was golf historian and clubhouse architect Mungo Park, the great-grandson of Willie Park Snr who won the first Open Championship at Prestwick in 1860, and it was his contention that Musselburgh – where more than a hundred clubmakers, ballmakers and keepers of the green made their mark on the golfing world in the late 19th and early 20th century – is as important to the development of the game as St Andrews. Mungo talked about several of Willie Park Jnr’s many designs at home and abroad, with a large number of these overseas courses laid out across Canada and the USA.

International Golf Course Consultant Gordon Irvine, who learned his greenkeeping skills at Turnberry during the 1980s, told the tale of how the long-abandoned Old Tom Morris course at Askernish was rediscovered. Along with several others who felt like him that it was an opportunity “to give something back,” they met up on the island of South Uist to go in search of the old course on Lady Cathcart’s estate. After “looking for clues as they went along” they eventually identified twenty-one possible green sites for the course. Gordon then led the attempts to “beg, steal or borrow” assistance from the wider golfing community, resulting in the non-sanitised, irrigation-free layout which is now in play.

Winding up business on the first day of the conference, Stuart McColm, the General Manager at Castle Stuart – where four of the last six Scottish Opens have been held – gave a talk entitled “If it isn’t difficult, it can’t be good.” His assertion that courses can be designed with plenty of fairway width, minimal carries and sensible green contours is one that surely resonates with many golfers who will also agree that courses can “test the best yet be playable for the rest”. Difficult course setups (where “eye of the needle golf” is considered to be “character building”) rarely allow the means to play a recovery shot, begging the question: where’s the fun in that sort of golf for the ordinary golfer?

Day 1 of the conference over, it was onto Inverness Town House – which is currently hidden behind specialist material decorated with a full-size image of the building’s frontage whilst it undergoes a £4.5m refurbishment – for a civic reception and dinner hosted by the first-ever female Provost in the city, Councillor Helen Carmichael. Unfortunately, there was no chance of a late night out on the town because Day 2 of the event was scheduled for another sharp start so it was off to bed at a reasonable hour for the delegates with an early morning alarm set…

Tom Mackenzie got things under way at the start of Day 2, where the theme for the session was “future approaches to sustainable golf course design”. Tom, who is Martin Ebert’s design partner and outgoing President of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects, spoke about the importance of green sites (both the putting surfaces and surrounds) when designing a course. He also talked about a small club in Slovakia where a 9-hole course had been built within a modest budget for an enthusiastic group of ordinary golfers who saw the Scottish model of inclusive, accessible golf as being totally relevant to what they wanted to achieve.

Thad Layton, senior architect from the Arnold Palmer Design Company, was next up and he talked about the four main components of his firm’s operation: variety, beauty, strategy and context. The second course he’s designing at Castle Stuart will have its own identity and Thad mentioned a few of the elements to be incorporated into the routing, such as the Castle garden (at holes 3 and 4), oak tree copses (at holes 8 and 9), the shoreline (at holes 7 and 14) and stone dykes (at holes 2 and 12). A 65-bedroomed lodge is also due to be completed by the summer of 2020, further enhancing Castle Stuart’s credentials as a golf destination.

Richard Windows, official Agronomist to the R&A Championship Committee, works for the Sports Turf Research Institute, an organisation that offers independent advice for the design, construction and management of all types of playing surfaces, including football, rugby, tennis and cricket. As he explained, a large part of his work with golf courses (especially during the Open) involves testing green speed, firmness, moisture content and trueness then recording the results for performance measurement. Richard spoke in some detail of his attempts to assist clubs restore the running game and deliver authentic playing surfaces in a sustainable manner with minimal inputs.

Sam Thomas from the Golf Environment Organization was the next speaker on his feet. For the last four years, Sam has been banging the drum about sustainable golf development with an international working group that includes leading golf industry figures, academics and government bodies. He told the conference that “sustainability is not a crazy revolution,” and that courses should be respectful of their surroundings,” citing the case at Bandon (Preserve) where net proceeds from this 13-hole par three circuit go directly to the Wild Rivers Coast Alliance, an organisation which supports conservation, community and economy in the local area.

Last, but certainly not least, Australian architect Bob Harrison gave the conference a wonderful insight into the 18-hole course that he’s been involved with on the Isle of Jura at Ardfin over the past five and a half years. The layout has been built on a difficult coastal site by Irish contractor SOL, with holes 1 to 6 completed eighteen months ago. Sand and gravel had to be shipped in from Ireland, along with turf from Yorkshire, making this one of the most onerous golf projects ever undertaken in Scotland. Ardfin House and nearby farmhouse buildings (soon to become a 15-room lodge) are also being renovated with a compact pitch and putt course sited in front of the guest accommodation. In many ways, Ardfin epitomises the fact that golf is played all over the mainland and islands of Scotland, no matter how remote or demanding the location.

With business on Day 2 drawing to a close, it was only a few hours until the Highlands & Islands-sponsored closing dinner took place in one of the Kingsmills Hotel’s formal dining rooms, preceded by a highly entertaining whisky tasting presentation from the sales manager at the community-owned craft whisky distillery at Glenwyvis.

Reflecting on what had been said at conference over the preceding two days, host Adam Lawrence commented: “It was a fantastic event. I learned something new from every single presentation. In my 12 years in the golf industry, I feel it was the most informative conference I have ever attended.”

Gordon Todd, from the Golf Tourism Development Group, added: “This was a conference of its time with a lot of discussion ongoing at the moment about how to attract more people into golf. It was a privilege to host such a distinguished line-up of speakers who provided educational and inspiring talks which could influence thinking for years to come.”

Thanks to conference sponsors Highland Council, Visit Inverness Loch Ness, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, Toro Ltd and Highland Golf Links for their generous support and to Cecilia Gregor at Planit Scotland for all her help.

Jim McCann
Top 100 Golf Courses


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