If you were anything like me in high school, you spent a lot of time during history class drawing impossibly difficult golf holes in your notebook. What avid golfer doesn’t imagine he could design a great layout?
Several years ago, Phoenix golf course architect Greg Nash– Billy Casper’s partner, and designer of dozens of courses– offered me the chance to quit day-dreaming and step up to the drawing board. Nash agreed to build one golf hole of entirely my creation into a layout he was designing near Las Vegas.
Nash was tired of golfers misunderstanding the difficult nature of course design. He was fed up with businessmen and surgeons proffering opinions about why the fourth hole was too narrow on one of his layouts, or complaining that he should have flattened that bunker by the twelfth green. In providing a writer with the chance to create one-eighteenth of a golf course, Greg hoped that I’d communicate to folks what his profession is really like. He hoped I’d express some of the intricacies, frustrations, and endless challenges faced by course architects. Because, as Greg says, “A lot of people don’t know spit from apple butter about golf course design.”
First Visit: January 29
I met Greg in person on the morning of my first site visit, when he picked me up at the Las Vegas airport. I’d expected a strapping, gray-haired statesman; instead, I was greeted by a slightly-grizzled rock star wearing jeans, dusty cowboy boots, a black leather jacket, and Kenneth Cole shades.
As we drove to the future home of Del Webb’s Anthem Golf Course, in nearby Henderson, Greg handed me a topo map and told me a little about the site, which he described as awesome. Although the course was being built amidst a subdivision, the golf holes played through the bottoms of a series of canyons. The houses were mostly confined to the mesa tops. Greg explained that most subdivision layouts force you to invent the entire topography; here, the canyon system provided challenging natural terrain that would allow us to be more creative and spontaneous.
Greg suggested that I look at the land as it existed and think about what we’d need to do to create a great golf hole, starting from the tees. Then he told me I’d be designing the eleventh hole, a par five of approximately 620 yards.
As we drove through the front gate, the site– a large swath of desert stripped clean of vegetation– struck me as bleak. Although the canyons were dramatic, the place depressed me. Greg had already routed the golf holes and erected stakes to mark the center lines of the fairways. As dust blew across the mesa, I wondered what was really left for me to do.
Greg maneuvered his 4×4 across the golf course and explained how the builders would dozer off the topmost layer of rocky soil and eventually deposit six inches of fluffy fill dirt before grassing the holes. They’d eventually plant sage, yuccas, and other natural desert vegetation to make the course blend in with its surroundings, and they’d even edge a few fairways with stately Mondelle pines as aesthetic accents. He referred obliquely to dynamiting rock, laying irrigation pipe, moving dirt, engineering water features, and performing a dozen other processes I’d never considered back in history class. And that was only a glimpse of the real work involved. “I’m not sure what our budget is, exactly, but it’s at least ten million,” he said.
When we reached the deep pit that would someday become the eleventh hole, Greg excused himself to confer with a couple of his associates about cart path locations, sub-contractors, heavy machinery, and mowable slope angles. I was left to consider my artistic canvas and wait for the land to begin speaking to me.
Number eleven began on the rim of a high, flat mesa, and descended 100 feet down a saddle into a winding canyon. In the distance, the Vegas skyline and a range of tall, notched mountains shimmered in the dusty sky. Not far from the future teeing areas, the mesa dropped over a sheer cliff that would have made for a fantastic tee box, but I saw the ropes and stakes marking it out as a housing site. I’d encountered my first design limitation, and I began to understand the kinds of compromises that Greg must face.
The very bottom of the canyon, which was crossed by a dry wash, flowed like an ancient river bed, winding from side to side. I liked this organic movement, except for where a slope descending on the left side of the hole cut off the view to where the green was located.
My mind wrapped itself around launch angles and potential hazards. I tried to imagine what this wide expanse could look like as a golf hole. I wanted it to blend naturally into the landscape, but what kind of design elements would reflect this canyon topography while simultaneously expressing some of my own personal philosophies about golf– all without seeming hokey or tricked up?
I knew that my hole called for a rugged western sort of styling, and I thought about the Grand Canyon, which lay not far from here to the southeast. I imagined a golf hole in which the fairways consisted of multi-level tiers, like mesas juxtaposed against each other– just like what I saw on the horizon, too.
Looking out at the mountains, I also noticed a V-shaped notch, and wondered: why not cut a corresponding V out of the middle of that left slope, thereby allowing golfers to see and play toward the green, and simultaneously creating a desert island floating in the middle of the fairway?
Later that afternoon, as we drove back toward the airport, I described my still-forming ideas to Greg. He offered a reserved consent, and told me he’d fax me a sketch later in the week. When it arrived, it captured the essence of my vision. We tweaked it and discussed it, and Greg approved this preliminary plan.
Second Visit: February 20
As soon as we drove out to the eleventh hole, we knew it didn’t look anything like what I’d described to Greg and what he’d sketched in response. Where I’d called for a steep cut that divided the fairway into flat upper and lower tiers, there was only a continuous slope. The notch in the left hillside had not been cut. Things looked much as they had on my first visit, except that the rocky cover material had been peeled off and hauled away.
Greg was calm at first. He explained how things come up– you want to cut something but you hit solid bedrock; or the shapers have a different vision of what you describe to them. “Sometimes you just have to deal with it and compromise and be creative. Which is why an architect has to be out on the job,” Greg said. I sensed he was trying to tell me why this golf hole would never look anything like I’d planned.
But then he picked up his cell phone, and his mild, professorial manner disappeared. “They got this all screwed up,” he shouted at someone. “How are they saying what’s drawn here is out there?” He held up his sketch for emphasis.
Soon, shapers and dozer drivers and construction foremen appeared out of the desert and converged on Greg’s truck.
Didn’t anybody go over this with anyone,” he yelled. he was livid, too, that someone had hauled away the dirt they’d scraped off the fairway. Greg had intended to use that to build our tiers.
It was clear that nobody had any idea what the hole was supposed to look like, but they each explained why things weren’t their fault. Greg smiled. When he showed them the drawing and described my vision, the construction foreman said, “Wow. That’ll look really cool.”
We drove up to the tees while the dozer operator started making the V-cut and someone arranged to have a bunch of dirt hauled back up the slope. Greg barked into his cell phone as he drove, dealing with a raft of other mistakes and miscommunications on other holes– all in a day’s work, I understood. I also saw that he wasn’t really angry, but how acting that way helped get things done.
We spent about five minutes looking at tee boxes, half a dozen of which cascaded from the mesa top down the saddle. A few more lay across the wash that crossed in front of the fairway and would around to define the left side of the hole. I offered a couple of comments and Greg took notes, but we knew it was the terrain here that would dictate the best tee box locations.
Just before we quit for the day, Greg mentioned that I should start thinking about the green. But I already had an idea of what I wanted. I handed him a copy of my first golf book, “Beyond The Fairway,” of which I’d designed the cover. It depicted a golf green shaped into the Japanese yin/yang symbol, conveying what I consider the Zen aspect of golf. I asked whether we might recreate the symbol, using the green as one half, and a bunker curled up against it as the other.
Greg looked at the book and said, neutrally, “We could do that.”
Third Visit: March 11
Shane Whitcomb, Greg’s design associate, was waiting for us in his truck when we arrived. We drove out to Number 11, past where a machine was screening dirt 24 hours a day for the 120,000 square yards they’d need to plate the holes. As we approached my hole from behind the green, the fairway still looked wrong– mostly slope. When I mentioned this, Greg said, “That might be the part where we have to say we did the best we could.”
We drove right up to the future putting surface and consulted the diagram I’d sent Greg, and he asked how I thought it looked. When I said that some of the bunker lines needed sharpening, Shane handed me a can of spray paint. I revised the shape and painted the turf island into the middle. With the bunker stepped below the green, the execution represented an abstract interpretation of my concept, and it looked very cool.
Then we drove up to the tees, which had been mostly roughed in as we’d decided, except for the left-most tee, which wasn’t there. I’d sited this tee to make the carry seem farther because of the angle to the fairway. We set stakes for this tee, and then looked out at the hole: from here, number eleven had begun to look like a golf hole– a beautiful and daunting par five.
From this perspective, the fairway tiers also looked more pronounced, and I noticed a third tier way down to the left, just before the fairway fell off into the wash. Greg explained that this tier had appeared when they ran out of dirt. To me, it greatly enhanced the effect I was looking for, a happy accident.
Greg and Shane drove down the future cart path, but I walked to the first landing area, where the fairway tiers converged into a swale. From this spot, you could hit to the left of the fairway island, through the V-cut, directly toward the amphitheater green, although you couldn’t reach it yet. Once you passed through the cut, the hole was turfed all the way to the pin. You could also play a more conservative shot to the right of the island, to another tier that would offer a challenging third shot over a faced ridge lined with yuccas, and the yang of the bunker. If you mis-hit your second shot and landed too close to the island, you’d have to knock out to one of the fairways to have an approach to the green.
Three ridges on the hole– up on the mesa top; on the right side of the island; and fronting the right side of the green– unified the movement of the hole. Three arrangements of yuccas (separating the fairway tiers; atop the island; and fronting the green) added to the sense of flow. With luck, a small tier on the green would reiterate the tier theme established on the fairway.
I offered a few recommendations for tweaking number eleven, and then Shane asked if I wanted to play my hole. While Greg feigned anger and amazement to his workers over various glitches throughout the golf course, Shane and I drove up to the tees to hit a few balls with beater clubs. I teed up on a pinch of desert sand and crushed my first drive down the center before hitting two more balls that caromed off to the right. Shane hooked a couple into the wash on the left, and we took off after them.
Even from where my tee-shot landed, it was a long way to the hole. I aimed my second shot into the V-cut and airmailed it onto the desert island. Shane offered me a favorable ruling, and after dropping in the dirt beside the island, I knocked a five iron onto the green. Shane suggested we leave the ball buried there for posterity.
I had– more or less– managed to par Anthem Golf Course’s 620-yard eleventh hole by hitting driver, driver, five iron. I realized, happily, how tough this hole really played.
Final Visit: June 24
Greg called in the middle of June to suggest that I visit Anthem one last time before they started plating the holes with clean dirt. Driving in, the site looked completely different, with new roads laid out, housing foundations rising, and a forest of boxed trees awaiting planting. Two holes had already been grassed, and I could only imagine how much more work had occurred to bring them to that point.
The first thing I noticed on number eleven was that the trees I’d called for had been planted, but not quite how I’d meant. I was happy to see that the mesa effect worked well now, except from the front-most tees, where the drop-off was mostly slope. You could see and feel the hole’s shot values, and appreciate the drama of the island from the first landing area.
We spent much of that day working on the green with Wayne Ward, Greg’s expert shaper. Wayne wore a cap that said “Betty Ford Clinic Outpatient,” and handled a tractor like he’d been born on it. Wayne’s challenge was to level out the green so as to minimize unwanted sloping. While he pushed dirt around and surveyed the results, Greg and I drove up to the tees for a final look. From the daunting back tees, the slow river motion of the hole flowed beautifully and the fairway tiers and the desert island built anticipation for the approach to a green that would also startle and delight. Even without grass, Greg had already transformed this site into a crafted work of art.
On our way back to the green, I mentioned that some of the trees seemed a bit off, and that I thought we could make the lines crisper with a couple more. Greg got on the phone and called for more pines, and they arrived in a tractor bucket, and we placed them in such a way that they moved your eye along the correct route for playing the hole. When we stepped back and looked, the entire aspect of the hole was improved.
Wayne was gone when we returned to the green.
“He’s either confident or afraid,” Greg said. Then he added that he would put Wayne up against any tractor driver in the country.
When we surveyed it, the green still dropped a bit strongly from the left edge, which would cause golf balls to roll toward the middle of the 6000 sq. ft surface. But knowing how far golfers would have traveled to reach this green– over some very rough terrain– that seemed the least we could do for them.
At the time of this writing, the design and construction of Del Webb’s excellent Anthem Golf Course is complete. Now it’s all up to the grass, which has a few more months to grow itself before the official opening.
As for my sense of whether I could really design great golf courses, I would say both maybe and no. I like to think that my eye is good and that I understand both landscape and golf well enough to blend them in smooth confluence. But I also understand that vision is the twinkly but minute part of course design. Far more time and energy goes into managing a team of supervisors and a crowd of workers, dealing with technology, solving intricate problems, compromising creatively, and occasionally yelling in just the right way to get things done. While Greg Nash is an inspired course designer, he’s also an artist of another sort, and I recognize that I have little talent for that particular kind of wizardry.
Now, it’s up to the critics to judge how good a designer I am. But let me just mention that any surgeons or golf writers who have complaints about number eleven can keep their opinions to themselves. Or go have some apple butter.
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