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Interview: Tom Lehman on Lora Bay Contributions, Working with McBroom and Player/Designers

There was little buzz about the Ford Wayne Gretzky Classic near Collingwood, though it just ended on Sunday. That said I [photopress:lehman_1.jpg,full,alignright]spoke to both David Hearn and David Morland today (I was playing with Morland), and both said they enjoyed Lora Bay, a collaboration between Tom Lehman and Tom McBroom, more than the alternative, Jason Straka’s much wider Georgian Bay Club.

Which leads me to an email I received from Tom a couple of months back. It seems Lehman is a blog reader, or a good Googler. He may be the first major winner to read this site, though I know Stephen Ames has come across it. Either way Lehman stumbled across my review of Lora Bay written when the course opened two summers ago. And he wasn’t happy, which surprised me a bit at first. Tom wrote:

Without question, the reason that, in your own words, Lora Bay was a bit of a departure from McBrooms work of the past was because of the difference in the way I and my design team look at things. Lora Bay is a team effort that reflects both Tom’s work and my own. It is only natural that the course has things about it that would not be typical “McBroom” or typical “Lehman”. I have never laid claim on having sole understanding or ownership of design strategy. Just because you play the game has no bearing on whether or not you can design a strategically challenging hole, much less an aesthetically pleasing one. Just because you have a degree in Landscape architecture does not guarantee you know your head from your rear end about designing a golf course, either.

Which I generally agreed with. I tried to explain that I really had enjoyed Lora Bay, and that I did think he’d contributed to the design, though the routing was already in place before he came to the project. However, I did say I wasn’t a huge fan of pro golfers turned designers as they rarely bring much to a project and tend to think they are the only ones that understand strategy. I don’t think pros are the only ones that understand how to make players feel certain ways in particular situations or design a hole to demand a specific shot. I think there’s a long list of average golfers — from Harry Colt through to Tom Doak — who have an equal understanding. I told Tom this and entered into a lengthy back-and-forth by email on the nuances of golf design and Lehman’s perception of the business from a pro’s point of view.

He has strong opinions:

What I fight, and probably always will, is legitimacy as a designer. For over 12 years, the time I have spent designing golf courses, being a touring professional has been used against me by other designers and by the media, even though everyone that I have worked with have all said the same exact thing about me as Tom McBroom did. I have worked very hard to change the perception that I am just another golf pro who only collects the check but it comes very slowly.

At which point I was becoming intrigued. I’d interviewed Lehman several times in the past. I found him to be smart and detail-oriented. No surprise he was also interested in design. Our email exchange ended with the decision to continue via phone. I found the discussion to be insightful, especially where it comes to Lora Bay, a course I’m quite fond of. Currently Lehman is working on a dramatic piece of property in Nebraska that will be turned into a course called The Prairie Club, a course many think could solidify Lehman’s reputation as a designer if it is a success.

Here is selected comments from our nearly hour-long conversation about a month ago:

RT: Since the routing was already established when you became involved with Lora Bay and Tom McBroom, what considerations did you have in regards to the site?

TL: I thought there were different elements and one of the first things we can to the conclusion was the course could be defined by different elements. There was the section that plays along the rim, and the section that plays along the orchard. The orchard was a big element that we both liked. Initially there was a thought we should take the trees down and we said no. We wanted to give it uniqueness. And there was the hope that the trees along the canyon ledge might die sometime so you got a look at the lake. I think there was a great opportunity to create dramatic, but fair golf.

RT: It struck me that there were a lot of draw holes on the site. You influence?

TL: Im actually quite fond of left-to-right holes. If anything I tend to play them better. I favour the opposite direction because Ive played them well, but you try to not repeat something and not do the same thing over and over again. You want to balance out the doglegs right and left, which is a good reason to have someone to work with “ be it a design collaborator or an associate “ so they can say, ËœHey youve done that three times already.

RT: The aesthetic of the course — with its fescue-fringed bunkers — is quite dramatic. How did that get developed?

TL: The look is one of those things you brainstorm and come up with. We had one idea that was more extreme and kinda backed off it to what we have. There are less scrubby waste areas to walk through and more classic ideas. We always intended to come in and touch up the faces and bring the sand up higher. The site is just a rugged, mans man kind of site and the bunkers were intended to have a strong and wild look to it.

RT: Let’s talk about a couple of holes. The 7th, a par-3, is really made strong by the green.

TL: I always felt it had a chance at being a really strong hole. It is long and the green flashes at the back. It is easy to have a ball run through the back, but you can use the right shot to bounce it in. I really personally enjoy golf shots where you dont have to aim at the pin to get it close. In this case if you hit a hooky 5-iron that lands on the green you can get it all the way to the back left of the green. But in baseball terms it has a short right-field fence, which means if you dont hit the hook and run it through the green youll be in trouble.

RT: The short par-4 on the back that skirts the orchard is also intriguing. Did it work to your expectations?

TL: Maybe you could tell me. You can tell me how the average person attacks it.

RT: The safest way to miss it is to play it to the left. But theres tree trouble there. Ive heard different things about it “ Ive heard some say it doesnt work. I tend to hit driver and favour the left side. You won’t make birdie from there if you miss it, but you can make par.

TL: My personal belief on short par-4s is that you want golfers to go for it. You want them to try it. So I think the biggest mistake would be making it look so hard that no one goes for it. You want to entice them to hit the driver so that it entices them to go for it. If the hole at Lora Bay doesnt work quite the way it should it is because there isnt enough slope in the green. But it is a daily fee golf course and there is that issue. But we wanted to give them a shot that looked inviting, but was hard if they didnt hit the shot. I dont care if guys make a whole bunch of pars. If you get out of position you have to work for it. On a 290-yard par-4 where you hit it out of position and have to work for your par, well I feel good about that.

RT: Is it particularly tough these days to craft a course that works for an event like the Nationwide Tour stop that’s coming to Lora Bay, as well as for the average player? Can a course defend itself against pros if it is generally set up for amateurs?

TL: It all depends on how firm you can make the greens. If you tuck some pins and firm up the greens, any golf course can be tough. I think guys will shoot some good scores out there, but there are some good holes and a blend of easier holes. Fun golf, frankly, is a course where you have a chance to score. Look at something like Sawgrass, which is daunting, but when the wind blows guys still shoot reasonable scores because there are a lot of opportunities to pick up shots. Not every hole is impossible. Or take Pebble Beach. Ive heard guys say it is nothing but some holes on the ocean. But if every hole was like eight and nine, it would be too hard. No one would enjoy it. You have to mix it up and give people opportunities to get shots back. Thats how I see Lora Bay.

RT: Working with McBroom must have been interesting. He’s a strong-willed designer. Any challenges in the field?

TL: I can tell you the biggest debate Tom and I had on the whole course was the 16th hole, the short par-5 that goes up the hill with the ridge line that bisects it. In its native state, the ridge was sort of like the 18th at Riviera. So we had this internal debate about whether we wanted to lower the ridge and make it more accessible, or to keep it native and play over it. We went back and forth on that and didnt make a decision on it until the end. And at the end, we lowered the ridge, but still kept it so you could play up and over it. And I like that, but some might not because theyll think it is too hard. I personally like the idea of playing it up and over. It was the perfect situation “ theres a ridge with a big wide landing area, and it gets tighter towards the green.

RT: It sounds like a partnership that worked.

TL: Very often you need to have the right partner, and if you dont have the right partner, things dont go well. And thats partly because he has strong opinions and doesnt back down. He let me know what those ideas were and I thought that was a great learning experience. He took way more care, for example, in the foreground than we ever did.
Between the tee and the fairway and even the start of the fairway. On a great golf course there are lots of things that jump up at you, including the negative shapes that go down and come back up. Often you are hitting over them, and in great courses the foreground has a lot of interest and isnt just dead space. And if we had a dead flat area in the foreground, Tom would want to go in and carve out an area in the foreground to remove the dead space. He gave it interest and thats exactly what you see most often on great golf courses. He thinks in those types of details and I really liked that. At the end of the day I feel the golf course wasnt totally the way Ive done thing and totally the way hed do things. But neither of us had to walk away compromising the core of our beliefs.

RT: This conversation started via e-mail about the perceptions of player designers…

TL: Unfortunately thats the world we live in. There are people who are not as open minded as you are and we couldnt have this discussion. They resent the players and think they have not put in their dues. You could make an argument that I have not gone to architecture school. But I have put in a tremendous amount of time and have played more golf courses than most and have done so since I was 12 years old. And if you pay attention you can learn a great deal. So there are different roads to go about it. And they are both right Id say, but only if you are totally committed to it.

RT: Committed from the start of a project?

TL. Yes. I think you learn a great deal if youre willing to put a lot of time into the planning of the routing. You have to be on the site and walking it over and over again in its native form and seeing the shapes and trying to figure out the best way to sequence the holes. Only then you understand that strategy is totally dictated by the land you are working with. The courses we all like so much were built on great pieces of land and the topography dictated almost everything. And the ability to commit to that part of the process is what makes guys better. If it is simply showing up after the routing is done, and to help strategy, while you learn a lot, you also lose things.
I think the only way you can get there is if you have your own business. A lot of guys look at you as a player and say, Lets bring you in to work with Tom McBroom or Doug Carrick. Well let them do the heavy lifting. And therefore youre not quite as involved and theres not as much of a reason for them to keep me informed about what is going on. But if I have my own business, now were going back and forth on everything and working through the issues. Lora Bay isnt quite that way, but projects since “thats the way it has been.

RT: That sounds like it takes a lot of time — time a touring pro might not have. I know you’ve made dozens of visits to the Prairie Club…

TL: If you want to do it right, you cant be involved in the corporate commitments. You have time to play golf and design courses. Thats it, especially if you are married, have kids and want to play 25 or 28 tournaments, you run out of time quickly.

RT: Will the Prairie Club be your firm’s calling card?

TL: Weve been working on the routing for a year and a half. I think itll be extremely good. Itll be different than Sand Hills and Doaks project in that they mostly followed the valleys. Our site might be better because you can play up-and-over and perpendicular. There is a lot of variety and I think the topography gives it a lot of variety.
It is a great chance for us to make a statement about what we do. Im not the kind of guy that wants a lot of credit, but Im serious about what I do. And dont put it on me as the guy who is just going to show up to cut a ribbon.

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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.

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