New Canadian Open Course in Calgary? What is Ames' Involvement?

The Globe and Mail has a storyon a proposed new Calgary golf course utilizing announcer Johnny Miller as the lead [photopress:Johnny_20Miller.jpg,full,alignright]architect. The article, by Lorne Rubenstein, also points to the involvement of Calgary’s Stephen Ames as having involvement in the project. That is in fact the case — I know, as Ames told me in an interview on Thursday, but said the details weren’t signed and asked if I could keep the information to myself. But in typical fashion, the info was already out there, as the Calgary Herald had a story on the subject last week that referenced Ames and talked about the project:

One of professional golf’s most recognized names — Johnny Miller — has slipped in and out of Calgary to meet with the Windmill Golf Group.

He was obviously impressed with the principals because he’s agreed to design a new golf course at Harmony, the Bordeaux Development community to be built on the northwest corner of Springbank airport.

Miller, the winner of the 1973 U.S. Open — when he carded a remarkable round of 63 — and the 1976 British Open, has been joined by our own Stephen Ames as co-designer. Ames started this season with a third-place showing in the Mercedes and 10th in the Sony tournaments in Hawaii. He is playing this weekend in the Buick Invitational.

Windmill Golf Group is a Calgary developer best known for creating Elbow Springs. Though I can’t comment on its quality since I’ve never played it, from the routing plans shown on the website the design looks like your standard average public course, full of holding ponds. Miller, on the other hand, is a strange selection as an architect. He’s not regarded as a bad designer — though using the term “designer” for any PGA Tour pro outside of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Mark McCumber and Tom Lehman is typically a stretch. But Miller also hasn’t done anything of note.

His website says this of his experience:

Week after week, Johnny walks the world’s most prestigious courses, and if anyone knows what makes a golf course great, he does.

Of course that led me to wonder what courses they were talking about. After all, Miller isn’t the on-course commentator, so I’m not sure about the walking bit, and most PGA Tour courses are decidedly average, at best. I guess Johnny cover the U.S. Open, so perhaps it would be better to say Miller walks a great course “maybe once a year.” And just because you’ve played or walked great courses says nothing about one’s ability to create great golf.

According to the Herald, Miller was chosen because the developers feel he understands what a PGA Tour pro wants.

Windmill managing partner Barry Ehlert says he’s particularly pleased Miller accepted The Legacy Club at Harmony. Besides his great reputation in designing some 30 courses, Miller makes frequent on-site visits during construction, will attend the grand opening and plans to make other visits when time allows.

I know this is a reporter writing this doesn’t cover golf design, but it made me laugh out loud. Glad to see Johnny will turn up at the grand opening in exchange for his seven-figure design fee. Isn’t that the least one could have expected? His website has an entire section on Miller’s involvement in the grand opening, including part about how he’ll hand out prizes at the dinner. “Now that’s what we call a grand opening,” his website says. Grand indeed. As for his “frequent” site visits, that will likely mean six flights to Calgary, including some sort of media launch and the mentioned grand opening. So his frequent visits could mean four — that would be standard for most PGA Tour pro designers.

It strikes me that building a course for PGA Tour players who might show up once in a decade is short sighted and a mug’s game. The best PGA Tour courses — places like Riviera, Westchester, Harbor Town and others — were never built with the PGA Tour in mind. They were simply built to be great golf courses. If I were in Calgary and wanted to make a real splash, I’d have hired Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (then you even get the PGA Tour pedigree), David McLay Kidd or Kyle Phillips. In other words, someone with a vision and a track record in creating golf that could actually be deemed “great.” None of these designers have craftedcourses in Canada (though Kidd, Hanse and Phillips) have courses on the books, so the developers would have been acquiring a unique brand in the Canadian market.

But more than that, they would have been building a course that would last the ages — like Park did with Calgary Golf & Country Club. Instead they’re chasing the Canadian Open and building what they think PGA Tour pros will want to play and what they’ll likely end up with is mediocrity.

Which brings us back to Ames. According to one industry insider, Ames’ name is just being tacked onto the deal, and his actual involvement is “a mess.” One has to wonder how Ames fits into an equation that already involves Miller and his team (and I can’t figure out who actually does the design work for Miller as his website doesn’t mention anyone but himself as far as I can see.) Is he simply an add-on to appeal to the local market? What does he bring to the project other than his name since he has no golf design experience?

And if Ames wants to create his own design firm, which he surely could do with the backing of his agents, IMG Canada, why work with Miller? Why not find a designer or work with IMG’s in-house guy Brit Stenson to build a course? At least that would demonstrate what Ames is capable of.

And will the Canadian Open come to Calgary? Maybe, but by that time Ames will be nearing the Champions Tour. The course is scheduled to open in 2012, and since we know the RCGA won’t take the Canadian Open to a brand new course, that means 2014 is probably the most likely date for a tournament. By that time Ames will be 50.

Interestingly, the venues for the Canadian Open appear to be shaping up like this:

2008-09: Glen Abbey

2010: St. George’s

2011: Shaughnessy

2012: Terrebonne

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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.

15 CommentsLeave a comment

  • The vast majority of golfers will be more impressed if they hear the course is designed by Miller than by Doak.

    I have played Entrada, a Miller course, and it was nothing special.

  • Tighthead: While I hear you, I think that is short term thinking. If Miller builds you an average course the owner gets the marketing value of saying Johnny Miller, US Open champ, built you a course. If the course is average, it won’t really matter who built it — prospective members will go elsewhere (though this, admittedly is a bit different in the Calgary market where new courses are infrequent).

    By hiring Doak, Kidd, Hanse, etc. you might not get the same marketing buzz (though I’d argue that whomever hires Doak in Canada first will get a lot of attention), but you’ll likely get a better course. And in the end, over time, it is the quality of the experience that matters, not who “designed” it. So what the developer is doing is aiming for short term exposure vs. building a great course.

    Unless, of course, you think Miller’s team (with Ames in whatever role) can design a great golf course. I, for one, don’t think there’s any proof of that.

  • Robert, I know what you are saying, but I am not sure that everyone shares the same criteria about quality of experience. Put Miller’s name on it, go with a glitzy CCFD style, and lots of people will be happy. It may be more lucrative for the developer.

    I can still mention Bandon Dunes to most people at my club and they have never heard of it. Most of them probably consider Nicklaus to be the best living designer, and don’t know that Crenshaw designes courses.

  • TH: I understand your point, but in the battle against mediocrity, I remain convinced that even a 20-handicap recognizes a great golf course when he plays one. Take Pacific Dunes as one example, and Kingsbarns in Scotland as another — or in Canada, places like Blackhawk near Edmonton, and Highlands Links in Cape Breton. People might not even know the designer, but they understand the courses are great.

  • RT, I agree, but they also think Nicklaus North, The Bear, Morgan Creek and Northview are great. There is a battle against mediocrity, but it is a tough one. The proposed Miller course could see four scramble tourneys per week and if they have cute cart girls, the fresh oil barons will rave about it and vote with their expense accounts.

  • Seems like in Calgary we get the same promise of a PGA Tour hostable venue every couple of years. The excitement continues right up to the point of first play, where most golfers realize, yeah nice course, but ultimately nothing special.

    Ultimately the Miller and Ames names will draw golfers out for that first play, but I would imagine just like the rest of the new courses in the city, the hype will be short lived (ie. The Hamptons, Sciroco, River Spirit).

    Bottom line there are really only four courses in Calgary that have proven to hold their popularity, three of them private courses, and one public. The Calgary Golf and Country Club for its classic design and legacy, Priddis Greens for its breathtaking scenery, Heritage Point for its high quality and ease of access, and the Glencoe Forest course which is by far the toughest course in Southern Alberta, but one that Ames consistently shoots 5-7 under on, not nearly tough enough for the PGA.

    The dream of a PGA worthy course in the Calgary area is one that many of us have, but ultimately only time will tell if we ever get one. At this point, this is just another promise that may or may not come to fruition. Good for them if they can make it happen, but I’m not keeping my hopes up.

  • “using the term “designer” for any PGA Tour pro outside of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Mark McCumber and Tom Lehman is typically a stretch”

    Don’t you think that Mr. Crenshaw should have been included in the above list? Crenshaw may not be an active PGA Tour pro but neither are Nicklaus and Weiskopf. It appears tha DL III does more than just token appearances as well.

  • Wayne: Absolutely — my list wasn’t meant to be exclusive. As for DLIII, I’d have thought so — but he only turned up at the Angus redo once. Perhaps that says more about the job than it does about Love.

  • I enjoyed Elbow Springs thrice in 2006. Ames and Miller – obviously the owners are courting a Trinidadian Morman membership. Can’t wait to see the houses.

  • I hate to bring up a sensitive topic in relation to the choice of architect but It is well known that the Windmill group is of the mormon faith and wanted to hire a good mormon to design the course…….of which Johny Miller is.
    My two cents

  • Spark: Interesting. I guess Mormon golf designers are quite a niche. Still, strikes me as ridiculous to hire anyone based on their religion. Why not simply hire the best available and get the best project?

    And the last I checked, Ames isn’t a Mormon, though I hear his name may not be associated with this project for long.

  • I was at first excited when I heard the news.

    But having been a member at Elbow Springs [where greens-fee players get priority tee-times over members on weekends] … I think I’ll pass on this enterprise.

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