Monday, April 16, 2007

Interview with Geoff Shackelford - Part One

Geoff Shackelford is one of the most prolific golf bloggers out there. His popular blog is a constant source of informed commentary especially when it comes to history and golf course design. He often posts observations on "MBA speak" and I particularly enjoy his hilarious series IM'ing with the Commissioners. SportsIllustrated.com's Gary Van Sickle named GeoffShackelford.com one of the 10 "essential" golf websites along with the likes of ErnieEls.com, GolfObserver.com and Golfweek.com.

Even when I disagree with him, I find his opinions intelligent and thought provoking and he elicits some of the most engaging discussions you'll find in the comments section on a golf blog.

But he's much more than a blogger. He is a golf course architect and has authored multiple books on the subject and he writes for several online and printed golf publications as well. I personally admire his writing, style and career, and figured if I wanted to know more about him, so might others. When he agreed to participate in my e-interview, I went a little crazy with my quantity of questions. Knowing that my friend Scott Tesar (best friend I never met) was also an admirer of Geoff's, I even threw in a few questions he wanted answered.* I never expected Geoff to answer as many as he did, and I am truly thankful for all his responses and the time he put into them.

Since there are so many questions, I have broken them down by category and will post them in two parts. This part covers his game and golf course architecture. The second part will cover his writing and some personal tidbits, so stay tuned for that!

*Scott's questions are indicated with "ST"- mine are "KW".

Geoff Shackelford interview - Part One

Your game

KW: When did you start playing golf and what were the circumstances?

GS: I tagged along with my dad and granddad when they played Valencia, home to the Champions Tour event. That was back when it was private, and not to sound too old, was surrounded by nothing. You could stand on the 14th tee and see nothing but open fields and farmland. Now there's a Hyatt, movie theaters and a really neat putting course/restaurant called The Greens.

KW: Was it love at first sight or how did it develop?

GS: It developed slowly, more tagging along and then gradually got more into it as I got older and realized I had no jump shot, nor any ability to jump.

KW: What are your top five courses to play and why?

GS: If I had to pick in one of those desert island kind of ways, it'd be Valley Club of Montecito, St. Andrews, Riviera, Royal Dornoch and Armand Hammer. They're all fun. In fact, I've had more fun golf experiences at Armand Hammer, a $2 pitch and putt in Holmby Hills, than just about anywhere else. My Pepperdine teammates and I used to go there after playing Bel-Air and it was by far more fun than the round at Bel-Air!

KW: What's your favorite local course (in which you're not personally invested) and why?

GS: Riviera. Masterful design. Though it's slipping away quickly. I'm glad I got to enjoy it before Tom Marzolf got his hands on it.

KW: What's your handicap?

GS: No idea. I rarely play. The last handicap I carried I was around a 2 index, which cost me a lot of money. I'd be thrilled to break 80 today. Bum wrist really took the fun out of it, as does the time it takes to play. Though I've had some desire lately. I found a chiropractor who adjusted my wrist and have graphite shafted irons that help.

KW: Lowest round score?

GS: 67 twice at Riviera from the white tees.

KW: Any holes-in-one?

GS: One, at Pismo State Beach par-3 when I was about 15. I also double-eagled No. 1 at Riviera with a 2 iron.

KW: Ever compete?

GS: Tried. Played at Pepperdine where I started for a little while, had a whopping two top-10 finishes in a four year career. Also played various amateur events, U.S. Open and Am qualifyings. Don't miss it even a bit.

KW: Do you belong to a club?

GS: No. Though I'm sure there are many honorary membership committees reading this and wondering how to reconcile their oversights.

KW: What's in the bag/do you have a favorite club?

GS: These days, as it's been since the first Bush administration, it's my trusty Ben Crenshaw Cleveland putter, an 8802 knock off. I had one I liked better, but it got stolen out of my car along with my other clubs. I am an all Taylor-Made guy now, with graphite shafts in the irons in hopes that it will take some of the pain out of hitting shots in cold weather. Finally got rid of my lousy Titleist irons and driver. What junk. Just kidding Wally!

Golf course architecture

KW: When and how did you first get interested in course design?

GS: Growing up at Riviera and reading George Thomas's book as a teenager.

KW: Did you/do you have a mentor?

GS: Ben Crenshaw, Dan Proctor and Dave Axland were very kind to me during the Riviera greens reconstruction in 1993. I learned a lot from them and they encouraged me quite a bit. Bill Coore just thought I was some spoiled brat. Now he tolerates me!

KW: How and how quickly did your involvement grow/What was your first big break?

GS: I've had many, but I guess the first real break was doing a redo of Sinaloa with Dan and Dave when my dad operated it. I learned a lot. Meeting Gil Hanse was the next one.

KW: What do you consider the single most important aspect of a good design?

GS: Whether it's fun and interesting.

KW: Are you a consultant now/what is the state of your business?

GS: I'm consulting at a few older clubs looking to restore some of their old style design character, and doing that either on my own or in one very special case, with Gil Hanse. I'm also hopeful that a few new projects with Gil are going to start soon. We have just gotten a job on Vancouver Island in Canada. The Prairie Club in Nebraska is still on the drawing board and inching toward a start date in 2008, and there are a couple of others we're hopeful about.

KW: Do you/have you done course "makeovers" or do you stick to new course development?

GS: I'm interested in new stuff and restoring great old designs. Makeovers are tough, but I'd be interested if it's the right project. There surely is no shortage of bad architecture built in the last 20 years in need of help. I'm just amazed how many courses call back the architect who messed up the first time around!

ST: When you first start a new golf course project, what is your first step?

GS: Routing the course. It sets the stage for everything else in the planning process. It's all about routing. And that's the most fun too. Trying to solve all the issues and walking the land, discovering great land forms or interesting quirks in the landscape that you want to build around.

KW: Do you have particular grasses and sands you prefer to use and do they vary based on region and climate?

GS: Varies. But as a lover of links golf and rugged looking courses, fescue grasses are my favorites. I can only imagine what Rustic Canyon would look like with more fescues and less rye. With sand, anything but the blinding white stuff.

KW: When you design a course, do you base playability on the average player or professionals?

GS: Both. I tend to be overly concerned with the average player since they're the ones who ultimately make or break the course. But the design concepts for a hole start with figuring out a strategy for the good player, then placing tees, bunkers, greens based on that.

ST: What steps do you follow when designing the layout? What is your strategy/thought process for challenging the golfer?

GS: I'm interested in what is going to make them think. What is going to make them stand on the tee and want to place a shot on a certain side of a fairway based on the green design and day's hole placement. It's sad how rarely this occurs in golf course design. Yet most of the great holes have some meaning where the player has to take factors like hole location and hazards into account before teeing off.

KW: A lot of the newer courses that are built to challenge the longer hitters and their new equipment have plenty of room for a couple sets of forward tees yet it seems strategies and playability from there are barely considered. How much consideration do you put into how a course will play from the forward tees?

GS: A lot. It's so tricky now with such a divide between long and average players. And then of course most golfers look at certain numbers on a card to determine the quality of the course, and that usually is just a number with little meaning about what the design has to offer. But you have to address it or else people will write off a course if it doesn't meet certain "standards."

KW: Do you see course design mentality starting to reflect the influx of female players?

GS: A little. Alice Dye's formula for forward tees is really getting used a lot and has helped get some better forward tees in place. But we have a long way to go.

KW: Do you ever consult with/work with female designers when developing a course?

GS: Never have. I've talked with Amy Alcott a fair amount about design. But other than her, I've met very few women who have even the slightest bit of interest in golf course design. Why that is, I have no idea.

KW: What's your biggest peeve about modern golf courses? Any peeves with the classics?

GS: With modern courses, they're boring, overbuilt, ugly, drain poorly and little thought is put into the actual placement of hazards. Classics? Not really. They did some amazing things with horses and road scrapers!

To be continued...

And that concludes part one of the interview. Geoff really gave some interesting answers and I wish the interview could have been in person so I could have followed up on some of them! Thanks to Scott for for providing some great questions and of course to Geoff for his responses. And again, stay tuned for part two about Geoff's writing and personal tidbits!

Next post.


Scott said...

I for one, would LOVE to see and PLAY the Prairie Club course when it opens...

That area is SPECTACULARLY beautiful, and it would be AWESOME to see how Geoff and Gil lend their artistic talents to that raw land, in light of the artistry that they created at Rustic Canyon (one of MY favorite local courses).

Rustic LOOKS deceptively easy when you first drive up, but when you actually PLAY it, it reveals a deeper character than initially meets the eye, and becomes a good challenge that's VERY interesting to play repeatedly...

Great post and topic, Kristen, I'm really looking forward to Geoff's responses on the SECOND half!

Thank you Geoff, for putting the thought into your responses that you did...

REALLY interesting stuff...

***Note: Just did a little research, and that area along the Snake River near Valentine, NE looks like it's going to become the "Bandon Dunes of the Midwest"!

More details at http://www.hotel-online.com/News/PR2007_1st/Mar07_SandHills.html

Tom Lehman's signed on to do a THIRD course in the area!!!

Scott said...

Check out the cool pictures at http://www.prairieclub.com/index.html before they take the site down...

Tom G said...

What fascinates me about the design process is the routing. The creativity and vision to imagine 18 holes laid out is quite impressive.