Every so often someone in the industry writes me a lengthy note taking me to task for something I’ve written. That’s fair. I often take positions that are not middle-of-the-road, so I’ve learned to accept that a lot of people won’t agree with some of my writing and opinions.
One of the reasons for starting this blog, however, was to offer honest perspectives on a number of matters, including golf courses. More often than not, when writing on golf courses most Canadian publications seem more interested in getting a back page ad then actually offering a clear perspective on a course’s strengths and weaknesses. And I’m not saying I’m always right — but I show my reasoning on what I think works and doesn’t work.
All of which brings us to Grand Niagara. In the summer of 2006, I played the course. It was in great condition, with each green fee costing more than $100. However, it wasn’t a great course. It was dull to the point of putting me to sleep, built on ineffectual land that is typical to the Niagara region. One might say flat as a table top, but that would be kind.
I called it “inoffensive architecture,” a term aimed at describing a course where the architect has taken so few risks that really there’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s also not a single factor that distinguishes it.
The review elicited a few comments and, to be frank, just like the course that generated the commentary, I’ve given Grand Niagara little thought.
Then suddenly a couple of weeks ago I received this note from Paul Gurr, the superintendent at the course:
Hi Robert I was just handed a copy of your review of GNR from back in 2006. What is your back ground in architecture (design) that allows you to be so critical? To be honest after reading this article it shows me that you really do no very little and do not pay attention what has been done and why.
I think when you review a property you must look farther before writing an article¦you can not just look from tee to green and to what you think is aesthetically pleasing.
If you feel like you are interested in learning on what are some of the most important things to make a great golf course and what influences a designer give me a call. I have been involved in the construction of many properties over 120 golf holes. Working along side Tom, Doug, Rees and on properties by Jack and Hurzdan.
Paul Gurr, Director of Turfgrass Operations and Property Manager
Grand Niagara Resort
It is always interesting to hear from people who work directly with the courses I critique. I responded to Paul that I’ve spent plenty of time studying golf architecture, walking lots of sites with designers, reading extensively on the subject, from Robert Hunter to Pete Dye to Tom Doak.
I also said my comments have been echoed back to me by many I know who have played Grand Niagara. Anyway, Paul took the time to write a lengthy note back to me, so I thought it might interest some to see the back-and-forth on the subject. Without prejudicing the debate too much, Gurr argues extensively from the perspective of someone involved in the construction of the course. For those unaware, Grand Niagara was developed by A.D. Sharp Development Co. (the family behind Four Seasons) and the Consulate Development Group. It was supposed to include a hotel and a second course, to be designed by Greg Norman. None of that has happened, though I hear there’s a split between owners that is holding up further development of the project. As it is, there’s still no clubhouse.
Anyway, Gurr responded to my remarks. I’ll highlight his comments, and add my answers after each section.
Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I fully agree that some courses are given certain ratings based off of money and I am glad that you see it this way. But you mention twice now a cookie cutter design. For me I am not making this personal even though I think this in the top 2 courses I have been involved with. Rees is very thorough when it comes to design and construction.
I dont doubt Rees and Keith [Evans, associate designer at the firm] are thorough. However, Ive played more than a dozen Jones designs, and many, many had holes and green complexes that were very similar to that at GN. And I never used the phrase “cookie cutter” in my review — it was “inoffensive architecture.”
Gurr: Shot value is a big item that I look at when I think if a course is well designed and how well it maintains. Design for an architect should not just be visual appeal but if there should be any changes down the road and if you have to add more drainage, bunkers etc to improve the course. Conditioning well that is tough subject as this really is a given if it not well maintained then course looses it appeal.
This is an interesting point. What you are arguing, and what you are arguing later on, is function over form. I agree it is difficult to create a golf course that functions properly within the restrictions (land, approvals, drainage). However, Id contend none of this makes any difference to the player who plunks down $125 to play GN. For that, they are looking for a unique golf experience that has an approximate value akin to the money they are paying. Sure that is somewhat subjective, but Ill tell you one thing “ no one ever came off a golf course and said, Well, Ive seen some of those holes before, but man, that drainage was top grade.
Gurr: An architect who builds a golf course on a flat piece of land and creates something that looks natural and plays well has done an excellent job¦.. a trade mark for all architects is their bunkers, so in my opinion this is where there similarities come from.
Id argue that Ive seen the template used for GN on other Rees courses. The standard pushed up green complexes, with deep flanking bunkering, occasionally catching the front edge of the green. Even deeper bunkers on the par threes. This isnt a knock on Keith “ he has to work within the style his boss lays out.
Gurr: What I am saying is that you need to look at more items when rating a golf course. When you tell the public that Niagara is flat as a table top you are pretty much telling the golfing public that what ever you play down here will look the same. I think when things are flat¦.. you will start to see when the expertise in design from each architect will be seen. To build on a flat piece of land is very hard to do.
Yes, but once again, just because youve done something functional on a flat piece of land, doesnt make it strong. Think of it this way. You have a friend who buys a house in a subdivision “ a nice one to boot. His house looks like a dozen other nearby homes, but hes very proud of it. Why? Because it has granite counter tops in the kitchen, something the other homes dont have. It strikes me that GN is one of those houses “ very nice, but very much the same, even if it does get the granite counter top. It lacks character.
Gurr: Rees (Keith) made sure that behind each hole you had a visual sight line of the trees to provide you better depth hitting into the green, drainage the biggest issue for flat pieces of land is where they started. Ie 3% slope needed to be used on the golf course¦very subtle but will make sure that we have no standing water. Items like these to me our very important for an architect. I look at this way as if you had an architect build you a house you would hope they would use the right products to make sure you would not do any updates in the 1st 20 years or so. Rees thinks of everything¦¦you pay for it at the start but he will save you a lot of money once you are open. Golf in Canada right now is hurting and you need to make sure things are done right from the start so you are not spending too much in the 1st few years of your new operation. Grand Niagara has done this. We moved over 675,000 cubes of dirt here¦.but you can not really tell this was done. Grand Niagara has a very natural look to it¦.to me a very excellent design.
I actually dont think “ in the era of Bill Coore and Tom Doak and Gil Hanse, etc. “ that Rees courses look natural. The greens complexes are all artificial and constructed. The bunkers are all large and flashed. What is natural about that? Paul, you would know better than I whether the construction was done properly. I assume it was “ I think for $1 million per design, the Jones firm must get that bang on. However, this is once again back to my note of function over form. I also find it intriguing that you think moving 675,000 cubic yards of earth can somehow be akin to natural. This isnt a minimalist design, and it is clear where the fill was moved around “ at least to me. Youre probably right though “ most people wouldnt notice it.
Gurr: I have played a lot of courses by Rees, Fazio, Doug and Tom and they all have very similar designs. You mentioned in your article he simply reuses the same style over and over again w/out regard to the property what does this mean????
Largely this comes down to the uniformity of green complexes and bunkering. The Jones firm has a template and it gets reused. Id argue that is similar to what Fazio does, but I would contend both Doug and Tom have experimented with more “ and different styles “ within their courses in the last few years. Maybe thats because they dont demand the same sort of fee structure “ or because they dont have the same expectations placed upon them. But no one can tell me Eagles Nest and Cobble Beach are the same. Sure there are some strategic similarities, but the look, the aesthetics and even some of the strategies are very different.
Gurr: There was no subtle land here it was FLAT. Design on flat land has to change or you can not drain it. GNR would have been better w/out the holding ponds how is that possible?
Once more “ it doesnt matter. I know the holding ponds were probably necessary for storm water management. But that doesnt mean they look natural or are an interesting part of the design. God, the pond on 8 and 9 looks like a construction site, not a natural setting. And thats because it WAS.
Gurr: What you get are three types of holes that use holding ponds as features, those w/fescue and the occasional tree lined That is the land that he was given. He utilized the land as best he could to make sure that he used the trees areas as best he could.
I agree “ but that doesnt make it a great course.
Gurr: Commenting on any property can not be done just playing it once and then sitting down and writing things up. All I am saying is that you need to improve the way you rate a course. Talk to the architect, the golf course superintendent etc ask them some Qs. This I think will help you better understand each property and see what the architect has faced to make it happen.
Once again, Paul, put yourself in the guise of the average player coming to see GN. Do you think they ask any of these questions before they make a decision? No! Yes, there are surely some that love Grand Niagara. They werent in my group. But even on posting boards when I hear someone say something nice about the course it is usually along the lines it was very fair and in great shape. They rarely point out the great holes “ and thats because there arent any.
That said, there is nothing Id consider awful on the course either “ thats my definition of inoffensive architecture.
Gurr: There a lot of values that I now look at for me to judge what I think are great golf courses. Not just playing and looking at it tee to green.
It is interesting how people see courses and designs. Gurr never responded to my remarks, but essentially argues his position on Grand Niagara as function over form. In other words, what is beneath the ground, how a course is built and how it drains, etc., is equal to the actual design. He applauds the Jones firm largely for creating a very functional course on a poor piece of property, one that was flat.
My take is different. I don’t think golfers care how a course was built. They don’t consider the drainage. When was the last time you heard someone say, “I’ve got to join course X — it has the best drainage!” Never happens. One high-end private course in the Toronto area spent a fortune on sand for the fairways when it was built. Now this course is in incredible shape — maybe the best in Canada — but membership isn’t full and no one is joining because they sand capped the fairways. They join, or don’t join, on the basis of the design, the amenities, etc. They join course X because it is fun to play, has great greens, hot cart girls, whatever. And that’s the problem with Grand Niagara — it is well constructed, but for $125 people are looking to be wowed. And it doesn’t offer that.
Is Grand Niagara a bad course? Absolutely not. But it isn’t a good course either, and there lies the rub.