I’ve always been fascinated by golf course developers who know exactly what they want. Far too often those that build golf courses haven’t a clue beyond the concept that a course will help sell real estate. That’s often been the case in Canada — and led directly to the failure of several high-profile projects where the course was a distinct let down, despite the hype.
That’s why Friar’s Head is such a unique project. Conceived by Ken Bakst, the 1997 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, Friar’s Head has been a critical and commercial success, sitting comfortably in the Top 50 golf courses in the world, according to Golf Magazine, and luring members quickly. Having visited the course a few weeks ago, the success isn’t surprising. Friar’s Head seems to have all the details nailed — fine practice facilities, a clubhouse in sync with its surroundings, and a course designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw that offers the right mix of aesthetic charm, maddening greens, strategy and fun. Rarely have all of these elements coalesced so well.
After returning back to Canada, I spoke with Baskt on the phone about Friar’s Head, his education in golf design and taking the risks that lead to a great golf course.
G4G: Have you always been interested in golf courses?
KB: I would say Im interested in the study of architecture. Im almost 52 and grew up on Long Island and was fortunate to play some of the courses everyone wanted to play. I went out to Stanford and played on the team out there in the late 1970s. And if youre not playing on Long Island, playing San Francisco GC, Pasatiempo, Pebble and Cypress isnt bad either.
But the stuff that was built in the 1970s through the 1990s and I would go and play them and think, ËœWhat is this? Im looking at these courses that everyone was raving about and I didnt get it. Everyone asks how I hired Coore and Crenshaw “ and Ill say I was lucky they had time in their schedule and liked the site. Because if you look back at the late 1990s, who was building this sort of course? Gil Hanse didnt exist. Doak didnt exist. None of those guys were doing this. When people would ask who I had hired and I said Coore and Crenshaw, theyd look at me blankly. Then Id say, well it is Ben Crenshaw and his partner Bill Coore and theyre doing some interesting things. Everyone without an exception would say, ËœWhy didnt you hire Palmer, or Jack Nicklaus or Tom Fazio or Rees Jones? I mean the guys everyone hires. And Id say that was because it wasnt the kind of golf course I wanted to build.
G4G: Someone once said you never get fired by buying products from Microsoft. Strikes me that is also the case with hiring Tom Fazio “ it is a safe bet.
KB: I think thats true. It is a safe bet, but we werent looking to make a safe bet. And people would say, ËœWhat kind of golf course do you want to build? And Id say we want to build a really old school, turn-of-the-century type of course based on that type of architecture. And people used to say, ËœYou cant build an old course. You have to let it become an old course. No, Id say, I think you can build an old course, but if Im wrong well have to see.
G4G: The design of Friars Head really runs contrary to many of the courses designed in the last 20 years. It has wide fairways and fascinating greens and lots of options. What was the thinking behind the design?
KB: Most people who havent been there will ask if it is hard. Ill say it is difficulty but not in the way most people mean. I know the mindset and culture of American golf. Hard to most Americans is long, narrow, water and sand flanking the sides of almost every fairway. Difficult from every tee shot on. But the history of early 20th century golf was about fairway width and green contours and options. The turning point to me was the 1951 Open where Hogan says he brought the course to its knees and where [Robert Trent Jones] went in and narrowed fairways. What happened to centerline bunkers and the line of charm? It is really simple “ as golf course got narrower, and fairways got down to 25 yards, there is no room for a pimple bunker in the middle because there would fairways with only 11 yards on each side if the bunker was only three yards wide. And who in their right mind would challenge and 11-yard wide fairway? You end up hitting and iron and not taking a risk. And thats what has happened at Bethpage. Old Bethpage used to have width and now it is just long and narrow.
I say to people if you are on a golf course that has long grass and bunkers on the outside and you have 25-yards to hit to “ and dont tell me that 10 steps one way or another will make a big deal of difference on your approach to the green “ and I ask what your goal is? Youre going to aim right down the middle every time and if you hit it right or left youll still find the fairway. The golf course is simply telling you to hit it at spots. But I wanted to get back to the notion of having enough width to hang yourself. Width for widths sake is of no value. If you have a 50-yard wide fairway with nothing in the middle and theres really no advantage to being at one side or another and theres no blindness or risk to it, well thats no fun. Thats just wide. On some of our holes “ like 18 or six “ the width of the fairway can be the difference between hitting a wedge approach or a fairway wood. Thats a real difference from modern designs which will put bunkers on the outside as an aiming point. What is that about? I play a lot of golf where I feel you hit the same shots on every hole. That doesnt mean it isnt fun “ but at Friars I hit different shots all over the place. Theres nothing better than confusing a guy on the tee, but weve lost some of that.
G4G: I found many of the greens “ like the par-5 seventh or the 18th “ to be difficult and compelling. But it also struck me that the most challenging greens were on the shortest holes.
KB: When I attack and I get too aggressive and miss it where Im not supposed to miss it, I usually laugh because I know I have my work cut out for me. That is an interesting green. If you want to build a course where no one who plays a course for the first time at least walks away saying, ËœI think that was too much, well I think youre not playing it close enough to the edge. Ive had a number of people say the seventh green “ among a few others “ should be rebuilt. I tell them they are entitled to their opinion and then ask if theyve played Augusta. When they say they havent I tell them that if we need to rebuild that green, than Augusta has to rebuild a half a dozen. And I tell them that theyll likely play the course a few times “ and some of them are really good players “ and I want them to tell me what they think of those greens after the fourth or fifth time when they know the hole. And those people come back and almost always say they were wrong. They start blaming themselves for being too aggressive where they shouldnt have been. Theres a reason the seventh hole is 535 yards from the tips and not 600. I want all players to have a decision to make “ whether to leave 80 yards or attack and take the risk. It is awfully hard to take a 3-wood or a long iron out of a good players hands and hit a 6-iron. Maybe they think if they play the hole more conservatively, then nine times out of ten their score will be better. But if you stuck a water hazard in front of that green, then it would be a different deal. Theyd think they were going to dunk it in the water and take a drop and take six or seven. But all that grass around that green is a big temptation. And nothing better than temptation on a golf course.
G4G: The golf course, the clubhouse, the practice facility all seem to have a singular vision.
KB: It was a long labor of love. We took the philosophy that if we didnt know or werent sure about what we were doing, then we didnt do it. And I know thats a pretty different way of doing things. Most projects get built in a pretty short span and everyone is moving quickly. Decisions get made and it doesnt always end up great. Of course you can overthink things too. In a warm weather climate a golf course can get built in six or seven months. We started in February 2000 and didnt finish the golf course until late spring 2002. And it wasnt like we were done “ it was just the course was playable.
G4G: If I understand correctly, youre still fine-tuning the course?
KB: We are still tweaking. This past winter was the first we didnt do anything. It wasnt as if we were done. It was just that the things we were thinking of doing we werent sure how we wanted to go forward.
G4G: I ran into Bill Coore when I was visiting the course. Is he at Friars Head regularly?
KB: Bill is always there “ once or twice a year. I wait for him to come in and say, ËœWhat do you think of this? There were three or four different things we talked about and hed say, ËœThat would be really neat, but is it worth it? He was asking about the law of diminishing returns. Hed say, ËœI think that idea would be very neat, but I dont know if anyone will notice the difference.
Some of our changes are quite significant. The way we operate I dont ask anyone in our membership. We let them be surprised because your initial reaction is quite different than if youve been prepped and told in advance. There was stuff where people said, ËœHow did you have the guts to do that? The hole was good before and it is even better.
G4G: Can you offer a specific example of some of the changes?
KB: When we opened there were trees between one and nine and between nine and ten. Nine was great, but we started picking away at the trees with Bill until they were all gone. Trees are very overrated. Weve never taken out a tree that weve regretted. But there are trees that Bill likes because they prove the landform. And hes worried that if we remove them completely people will think we moved [the land.] Why even put that in someones mind?
When the clubhouse was being built and the views started being opening up [on nine] and the hole started playing windier because it was more open.
There was also a tree behind the fourth green “ a walnut tree “ that just died, which was Mother Nature doing her duty. And people said, ËœWell youll have to plant another tree. I wasnt so sure, and waited until Bill came. He just looked at it and said, ËœThere you go. It doesnt need a tree. It was neat when it was there and neat when it was not there.
G4G: It must have been rewarding to see such strong reactions to the course?
KB: Fortunately we found enough people who appreciated it and saw the difference. Most people, whether they are into architecture or not, they come and they have a good time and they might not be able to articulate why they enjoyed the golf experience, but they know they are having fun.