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The art of selecting a golf architect and Hamilton Golf and CC

hamiltonI have a fondness for Hamilton G&CC. It is on a magnificent property, full of fascinating dramatic holes and intriguing green sites. The 5th hole is as good a short four as is found in Canada, and the 6th is a staggeringly good par three. It has a nice routing — even if it isn’t the original one — but changes over the years have dumbed down the architecture. Grass lines changed for the Canadian Open, leaving bunkers stranded in a sea of blue grass. A couple of the rebuilt greens are marginal. It resided in the Top 100 in the world in Golf Magazine for one ranking a few years back if I recall correctly before dropping off.

A year ago I played Hamilton in the company of an American golf architect. He asked who consulted to the Harry Colt design, noting the grassing lines were among the worst he’d ever seen. When I told him American Tom Clark was at the course he was stunned.

“Why isn’t there an A-list architect here?” he asked incredulously.

I didn’t have an answer — it never made sense to me why Tom Clark, perhaps a passable designer, but certainly not a notable name when it comes to restorative work, consulted at Hamilton.

Apparently the club is about to change that — this comes from a note recently sent to members:

At its August 1st Board meeting, the Hamilton Golf and Country Club gave its approval to issue a Request for Proposals (‘RFP’) for the appointment of a golf course architect who will be responsible to oversee and direct the course Master Plan. Responsibility for the RFP has been given to the Course and Grounds Committee, and in the next few weeks, a select number of Golf Course Architecture firms will be invited to respond to the RFP call approved by the Board. This article is intended to provide information about the RFP, the reason for it and what it implies for the members and for the course itself.

Why this RFP & Why Now?

Harry Colt is considered by many to be one of golf’s greatest golf course architects, and Hamilton’s West-South course is one of his classic works. As such, the decision was taken to put in place a framework to ensure that the Colt character is purposefully maintained and enhanced in future. In late 2011, it was decided to adopt Harry Colt’s core design principles to ensure that changes to the course or grounds are consistent with the architectural intent and signature of the original Harry Colt layout (West/South) and that these design principles are also applied to the East nine layout so as to achieve a consistent golf experience across all course combinations. Prior to this, there were no such guiding principles, and as a result it is fair to say the Colt character of the West-South course has been subject to compromise over the past 100 years. Being purposeful about the Colt legacy is perhaps the best way for us to maintain and enhance what is clearly our most valuable asset.

Hamilton actually has Colt’s greens drawings for the course and plenty of photography demonstrating what it once was. In what is surely course envy, the club appears to have became very intrigued at a renovation following Toronto GC’s work with Martin Hawtree which, with a couple of notable exceptions, is pretty good.

But they didn’t just turn to Hawtree (though he came out and looked at the course a couple of years ago). Instead Hamilton reached out to three foreign architects — no Canadian made the grade apparently — Hawtree, Tom Doak, who is known for his work at Bandon Dunes among others, and Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert, notable for their work at Goodwood and an upcoming rebuild of Angus Glen’s South Course. Interestingly, Doak, who has only ever worked in Canada at Essex G&CC, has also pitched to rebuild St. George’s greens with Ian Andrew.

Absent, surprisingly, is Gil Hanse, who studied Colt’s work and is known as an expert on the designer. Hanse is building the course for the Rio Olympics, as well as rebuilding Doral. But most clubs, especially those in Canada, still don’t know who he is. Or perhaps Hamilton approached him and he passed on the work — either way he should be part of the process.

What’s Hamilton’s plan? Nothing in the short term. The letter to members says the architect will be picked in 2013 and a master plan is the goal. But the club, which recently underwent a massive clubhouse renovation, indicates it isn’t rushing into anything.

Is there a major project in the works?

There are no immediate plans for a major project. We will look to the appointed architect for guidance on the course Master Plan, and establish priorities based on those recommendations. The decision to undertake any major project will, of course, be subject to the approval of the shareholders.

Apparently some are now convinced that Hamilton could once again be a Top 100 course with a restoration. I think they are right. However, I also think it is time the club recognized that its resources should be put towards the Colt course, and perhaps turn the nine holes designed in the 1960s by Robbie Robinson into a course for older members and juniors — not unlike how Toronto GC views its other nine.

Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see what Hamilton does. Hopefully they check with the courses each of the architects have restored — the equivalent of checking references for a person applying for a job. If a restoration is what they have in mind, one firm seems head and shoulders above the others.

But clubs often don’t make smart choices when it comes to their course’s historical significance — let’s hope Hamilton does in this instance.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

10 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Hamilton needs length. It’s hard to consider a golf course “outstanding” if one can only need driver four or five times in a round. Hitting hybrid after hybrid, followed by short irons – I don’t know, just seems hard to get excited about that. IMO.

  • I have to disagree with you Brad, what golf does NOT need is more length.
    If there is one common fault with modern architecture and the opinions of many golfers (not usually touring pros) is that if a course is not 7400 yards or more it is not suitable for a major event and furthermore should not be considered a top course in the country or world rankings.
    You could not be more wrong, Think or where the PGA was just held, or the OPEN championship etc. etc. Those courses and most of the courses on the World top 100 are not over 7000 yards.
    If more touring pros would get off the long golf course is better idea, perhaps the golfing public could start playing enjoyable golf again in a reasonable amount of time (not that I think the pros should learn to play quicker) Think it over.
    That is how we can grow golf.
    A young family man can not tell his wife he is going out to play golf with his buddies and come home SEVEN hours later and expect her to be happy. The longer the course, the longer it takes to play it and the more it costs to upkeep and play.

  • I am reluctant to contradict someone like Brad who is a touring pro but with respect, I am not sympathetic to the constant emphasis on length. I admit, part of that is because I don’t hit the ball as far as I once did. But it’s also because there is no imagination in the way courses are built or set up. I don’t agree with a lot of what Dick has written above but contouring around fairway bunkers and greens, more judicious use of rough, and smaller greens than the monsters at most courses that expensive to build and maintain, could make shorter courses more challenging, even for touring pros. Make no mistake, the pros hit the ball a long way but the distances today are a function of club and ball technology. That said, Dick is right, many venues are around 7,000 yards. I didn’t hear anyone complaining that Muirfield was too short. Anyway, length is a factor that I hear a lot of young golfers harping on. It’s misguided and unnecessary.

  • If HGCC reduced its length by 800 yards…and properly restored the bunkers and greens, removed trees and fixed its grassing lines…it would still by much better than what they have now.

  • @ Dick and al – in fairness, I never said anything about all courses needing length, just that Hamilton needs it. There are plenty of boorish, overbearing 7400 yard golf courses recently built in Toronto that I can’t stand. So I wouldn’t make the assumption that I like length over all else.

  • Brad, if there are a lot of such courses around Toronto, there are more in the U.S. where most PGA Tour events are played. I’m confused as to why you singled out Toronto.

  • Al – I made the comment based on the fact that this is a Canadian blog, and Hamilton is in the GTA (sort of).

    I think you’d be surprised, however, about the types of courses we play. Not even close to what you’re describing.

  • Brad, I have only been posting here for 3-4 weeks and have noticed that the steam goes out of these discussions quite quickly. Also, I’ve been on holidays for a bit hence the delay in responding to your last comment. I really wasn’t trying to describe anything specific. I wouldn’t be surprised at all by the courses you play on the tour in the US. Some are good, some aren’t. But it can’t be that many of the newer courses around the GTA are too long, or conversely, like Hamilton, are too short, when I see the length of many US tour courses. We have good golf course architects in Canada too so everything at home here is not second rate compared to US courses, even those that tour events are played on. There is no way that Merion, for example, plays for members the way it’s set up for the US Open. The winning score was plus one. At Hamilton in 2012, the winning score was minus seventeen. So, the toughest four day incarnation of Hamilton is eighteen shots worse than Merion? Not a chance. With the PGA Tour effectively “running” the Canadian Open, there is no way that Hamilton was set up in the same way Merion was this year and both courses are a tad under 7,000 yards and par 70. The USGA and the PGA Tour would go crazy if there was any suggestion that a Canadian Open venue be set up to play tougher than, or even as tough as, the US Open venue. But then, I happen to think that the US Open is based entirely on that tournament having the highest winning score so as to provide the magical mystery tour illusion of the world’s greatest golf championship. Pure American balderdash, nothing more. Anyway, there are some great US courses and some not so great, tour or otherwise. And there are some great ones in Canada too. But, I still don’t see why new courses around Toronto are being singled out as substandard in some way while at the same time I’d be pleasantly surprised by the courses played on tour. For me, any comparison has to be made without the inferiority complex that Canadians always have when looking south. 

  • I’m game for a discussion for as long as you want to be here, Al. Again, I only “singled out” some Toronto golf courses because our discussion of Hamilton (a GTA highly ranked course) somehow devolved into me thinking I loved 7500 yard golf courses and that length was a prerequisite for good architecture.
    My issue with Hamilton as “outstanding” stems from the golf course not having enough length to use driver more than 4 or 5 times. Of course, I recognize that I may be longer than the average player. However, I’m not going to offer you an opinion based on someone else’s golf game. I’m going to offer my opinion based on my own.
    Conversely, I can hit driver at Eagles Nest and Bond Head all day long – yet I do not enjoy playing those golf courses. Sensory overload, too many bunkers…I could go on.
    Re. Merion and the US Open – no, of course it doesn’t play like that for the members, day in and day out. What do you think the winning score would have been if the rough was at medium length and the fairways were wider? You might say you don’t care, but the scores would have been much lower and there would have been widespread admission that Merion at members setup is no longer a test for the professional game. And you know what? That’s ok by me. Some golf courses don’t stand the test of time if set up “reasonably.” They may stand that test if the rough is grown to 5 inches and fairways narrowed, and that is ok by me too. The US Open has always been an event that has high rough, narrow fairways and fast greens. It happens once a year, so any grumbling about it should be tempered by the fact that normal Tour events are shat on by “purists” saying it’s the same old, same old, every week. Evidently you can’t please everyone.
    Re. Hamilton last year, the winning score was dictated by the weather, no doubt about that. I think a more appropriate result happened in the previous two iterations of the Open, when (I think) -8 and -12 were the winning scores. Hamilton is challenging when firm and fast, absolutely. I would never say otherwise. I just don’t think it’s all that exciting.
    Now Shaughnessy…that’s an exciting Canadian Open golf course.

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