While the sun blazed in the sky yesterday, I spent the day indoors, participating in the RCGA’sGolf Canada’s latest seminar series about golf design, a group of events co-sponsored by the Stanley Thompson Society. Rarely, I think, have we seen such a gathering of top names, including Doug Carrick, Graham Cooke, Stephen Johnston, Ian Andrew, Peter Beresford, Ted Baker and David Moote. Oh, and Lorne Rubenstein from the Globe and Rick Young from Score was also there to round out the group.
It is always hard to determine the level of interest people have in these sorts of seminars, and Golf Canada was cleaerly a little worried about the potential turnout. In the end there were about 40 people there who weren’t participating in the seminar, including the GMs of St. Thomas, Cuttten Club, Sunningdale, Turtle Creek and Muskoka Lakes.
The issue from the start seemed to be focus. The day was ambitious — with numerous speakers and panels. Perhaps too ambitious. The lead speaker was Dr. Cecelia Paine from the University of Guelph who talked about landscapes as heritage properties. I found her discussion interesting, but it ended just as we were getting to the question of a golf course as a historically significant property. Should historically significant golf courses be protected? Is there even a way to do this considering it is a landscape on which a game is played?
These are interesting questions, but they weren’t really raised. Instead we received a disconnected discussion from Lionhead architect Ted Baker who seemed to simply say he didn’t like ponds and that he didn’t really understand the genius of Stanley Thompson. Needless to say it was a confusing talk, and one I could have done without. Interesting quote from Baker though: “Great golf courses don’t have ponds and every time I use a pond I feel guilty.” Fascinating considering the use of ponds at his designs like Royal Ontario.
From there the discussion moved to a discussion of golf and the environment led by Teri Yamada, an environmental expert relating to golf. Her panel was invaluable, and focused on all the recent environmental legislation and how it impacts golf. What a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, with environmental activists ignoring science and politicians pandering. I loath Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty at the best of times, but his introduction of the cosmetic pesticide bill in 2008 had nothing to do with protecting his constituents and everything to do with pandering to voters (think Family Day here as well). Now golf courses in Ontario (starting in 2012) have to send fliers to all the people who live around their courses telling them what pesticides they used over the year, and hold public meetings that will only be attended by the whacky left-leaning environmentalists. Of course, as one insider said during the presentation, golf should have hired a lobbyist to tackle this issue a half-decade ago, but the organizations, including Golf Canada, and the National Golf Course Owners Association, couldn’t agree on anything. This might be the top issue facing the sport, and despite a study last year showing the economic windfall from golf, little is being done to lobby various provincial and federal governments. Or at least I haven’t heard of much — perhaps someone can enlighten me.
From there we switched gears and talked about the future of golf. This section was led by Stephen Johnston, a golf industry consultant. Johnston talked about the fallout of recession on the private golf business, which he says will lead to more unaccompanied golf play and the need for courses to find a niche and market to it. He said attrition rates at clubs is falling given longer lifespans of members, but finding members is harder and clubs have to work to attract families now.
“The key to success for these private clubs is finding a niche they can participate in,” he says.
While it was interesting, I didn’t think it actually touched on golf in the future, unless you consider that the game revolves entirely around private clubs. I was on the supporting panel and talked about Turnberry Golf Club, the new course in Brampton, and whether it is (with 16 par-3s and a couple of par-4s) a new model going forward. It is one that architect Graham Cooke, who was in the audience, seemed to like. At the very least, I’d have liked to talk about how new golf courses should look and play — but we never dealt with that.
The day ended with a direct and aggressive talk from Lorne Rubenstein. Lorne can occasionally be esoteric and philosophical when it comes to golf, but on this day he was direct and to the point. He pulled a photo out of a simple hole in England, a mid-length par-3 with a simple green and a single bunker. “It represents all of the values I think we need,” he said. “It represents the kind of game we need to get back to.”
From there he hit out at huge maintenance budgets, the notion that golf courses have pandered to the power game.
“Golf is a game,” he said. “We can use all the buzzwords we want, but we’ve gotten too far away from the game.”
He said we’ve become too worried about pristine conditioning, which raises the cost of the game, and golf architects and owners have built too many courses that are too expensive and can’t be walked, which Rubenstein feels is essential to the game of golf. At the same time Canadians travel to the UK to play, even though the fairways may have clover in them and not be manicured.
“We’re not going to get anywhere unless we ask what kind of game we’re going to leave to our kids in 10 or 20 years,” he concluded.
With that Doug Carrick, Ian Andrew and Graham Cooke joined Rubenstein on a panel to discuss golf design. It is hard for any of the designers to defend their record — Cooke and Carrick have built their share of 7,400 yard golf courses and Cooke seemed to defend the notion, saying golfers want different experiences. Interesting that the most successful courses the designers have been involved in — at least from a commercial perspective — are not always their most high-profile. Think Ballantrae for Andrew, Osprey Valley for Carrick, and Piper’s Heath in Milton by Cooke. None of these are the best-known courses by the respective designers, but all are affordable and popular.
What did the seminars, despite the lack of focus, demonstrate? That there are a lot of issues that need serious thought. But with only 40 people willing to come and participate — and they are the same people that have put in appearances at past seminars — it isn’t surprising that we haven’t managed to get much traction on environmental issues or educated people on golf design.