Voices of Golf: Desire for old-style links sparks revolution — written sfor PGATour.com
By Robert Thompson
There’s a quiet revolution happening in the golf course business.
But this one isn’t being led by Tiger Woods and doesn’t have anything to do with TaylorMade, Callaway or Titleist. Jack Nicklaus is nowhere to be found in this battle against progress.
The names leading this charge are largely known only to a handful of armchair golf course architects: Mark Parsinen, Mike Keiser and Julian Robertson.
Don’t recognize the names?
Keiser made his fortune in greeting cards, while Robertson continues to take home bundles of cash as a Wall Street hedgefund baron.
Greeting card king Keiser led this revolution when he hired unknown Scottish golf course architect David McLay Kidd to create Bandon Dunes in an area of Oregon that no one had previously considered for golf course development. That was followed by his development on the site of a second course, Tom Doak’s Pacific Dunes, which immediately vaulted into the ranks of the elite.
More recently, Robertson developed Kauri Cliffs in New Zealand and then hired Michigan-based Doak to build Cape Kidnappers on cliffs overlooking the ocean in that country. Both are remarkable links experiences fashioned along the lines of classic courses with names like Royal Dornoch, National Golf Links or Royal County Down.
But neither Robertson nor Keiser have been as outspoken about their projects as Parsinen, the creator of Kingsbarns, the course which opened in 2000 just down the road from the home of golf in St. Andrews, Scotland.
Why are these three successful businessmen building ‘old world’ golf courses? Why not follow recent trends and simply build courses surrounded by high-priced real estate?
Parsinen says it is based on two factors. First, it is a love of the courses on which the game of golf developed, untouched by commercial concerns. But on top of that, he says that all three owners have tapped into a changing golf zeitgeist. These course builders understood there is demand from golfers for courses that offer the look and feel of true links. If you build it, he says, they might come. But if you make it great, golfers will come from all over the world to seek it out.
For Parsinen’s part, the former computer executive spent months prior to starting Kingsbarns asking golfers what made certain courses great. Why was Cypress Point so good? What made the Old Course so discussed? He found people had a hard time communicating the factors that made some courses so much better than others.
“People spoke a sort of code language to explain what was code,” he says. “But it didn’t help me when I stood on a piece of property that I was going to transform into a golf course.”
After asking golfers even more questions, Parsinen found most people wanted authenticity, shot options and an experience that was entirely encompassing.
“They wanted to be totally absorbed by the experience,” he says. “They wanted to be completely absorbed between shots and be able to recover if they made errors. I found those factors were represented in a lot of older courses and links courses, which offered broader latitude if you made a mistake.”
Following his epiphany, Parsinen had to find a way to turn a relatively flat field that ran alongside the ocean into a work that would rival the best links courses in the world.
He went to extremes to convince people that Kingsbarns had been there for decades, studying dune structure and the great courses of Scotland. He would spend days wandering around some of Scotland’s great golf courses, trying to get a sense of the look of the towering sand dunes that surround clubs like Cruden Bay, the famed course located north of Aberdeen, Scotland.
“I thought if I really had a sense of what I’d seen, I should be able to recreate it in my sandbox. If I couldn’t, I’d go out and look again,” he said. “All of a sudden I realized why dunes look the way they do. You understand why the dunes at Cruden Bay are different from the dunes at Turnberry.”
To make sure his vision of Kingsbarns as a modern day Dornoch was followed, Parsinen managed the construction of the project himself and even partnered with architect Kyle Phillips in creating the course.
In 2000, Kingsbarns came right out the gate, becoming an unqualified success. After all, how many courses can say they entered the Top 100 in the world, as ranked by Golf magazine, at 46, and be a financial success, as Parsinen claims?
It is made all the more fascinating when you realize Parsinen’s grand design didn’t cost a fortune.
The Kingsbarns owner will openly boast about the fact that his course, only a few miles from the Old Course, was constructed for $7 million, a small budget for a project with such huge ambitions. Even in the tourism downturn following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Kingsbarns has prospered, Parsinen says.
Keiser’s Bandon Dunes also has performed exceptionally well, both in the balance sheet (peak season tee times are now tough to find), and with critics, who ranked Pacific as No. 19 in the world in Golf magazine, and placed Bandon at No. 74.
So if this is truly a “links revolution,” and an affront to most modern golf courses, what’s next?
Keiser is once again working with Doak to create Barnbougle Dunes in a remote are of Tasmania, Australia. Parsinen is in the midst of finalizing a project on land near Inverness, Scotland, which could see Doak or Gil Hanse develop the next great links gem. He said the land for his new course, which will be located near the Moray Firth, is significantly better than the property he had for Kingsbarns.
Anything short of greatness will be a disappointment.
Cape Kidnappers has only recently opened and few have played it. Robertson seems intent on building more, hedging his bets on surging tourist interest in New Zealand.
If past courses are an indicator, spectacular, breathtaking and beautiful results can be expected.
The golfing world waits with bated breath.