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Interview: Golf Course Architect Steve Smyers

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Steve Smyers"A first class architect attempts to give the impression that everything has been done by nature and nothing by himself, whereas a contractor tries to make as big a splash as possible and impress committees with the amount of labor and material he has put into the job." - Alister MacKenzie

Those attuned to the world of golf course architecture sense that these are important, or at least fascinating, times. Over the last fifteen years, course design has become a massive and lucrative business, but differing viewpoints on how it should be done has created a separation within the field and the fissure between two disparate schools of design continues to widen.

On one hand there are the industrial firms headed by the likes of Tom Fazio, Rees Jones, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer, who excel at what could be called golf course implementation. Interested less in natural landscapes than their own concepts, these incredibly successful firms have anywhere from five to twenty or more projects on the board at any given time. They specialize in construction and earth-moving and typically produce similarly conceived courses over a variety of landscapes.

Their designs are thoroughly modern, but their styles are extensions or continuations of the highly produced themes made popular in the 1980's. While these courses, which total in the thousands, are some of the most dramatic and popular amongst the majority of the golfing populace, purists often question their naturalism, variety, and integrity.

Opposite of the industrial approach has come to be called "minimalism." Architects who practice minimalist design generally choose to craft their courses to mirror whatever natural characteristics the land has to offer. They generally seek out existing green sites, spend considerable time on-site to oversee every aspect of construction, alter as little land as possible (often moving earth to reduce slope rather than create it), and consequently pride themselves on delivering their product at a lower cost than the high-tech firms. If their designs share a common theme, it would be to prioritize strategy along with optional angles of play, with an emphasis on wider fairways and bump-and-run shots.

Traditionalists believe that these types of courses hearken back to the philosophies and intents of the "Golden Age" of golf design, the period between World War I and World War II when the majority of the country's great classic courses were designed and built.

Though most architects fall somewhere in between the two philosophies, Florida-based Steve Smyers is widely viewed as one who is helping lead the way back to more thoughtful, strategic golf designs. His courses regularly reflect the naturalism and strategic principles commonly found in "Golden Age" designs and his bunkering is some of the most inventive and impressive of this generation.

Smyers has traveled extensively and studied the great courses of the world, and as an accomplished player himself (he was a member of the University of Florida's 1973 National Championship golf team with Andy Bean and Gary Koch), he views the game from the advanced player, designer, and historian perspectives.

Working with Ron Garl before opening his own firm in the late 1980's, his credits include three mainstays in GolfWeek's 100 Greatest Modern Courses list: Wolf Run in Indianapolis (1988), Southern Dunes near Orlando (1993), and Old Memorial in Tampa (1997). Some of his other notable courses include Royce Brook (1998) and Blue Heron Pines East (2000) in New Jersey, and several courses overseas (Chart Hills, a 1992 design with Nick Faldo outside of London, is considered by many to be the finest course built in England in the last 50 years).

TravelGolf.com writer Derek Duncan spoke to Smyers in April about his design at Southern Dunes and other Florida projects, as well as his thoughts on modern golf course architecture and designing for today's game. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Duncan: Southern Dunes is such a remarkable and important course for the state of Florida. What did you see in that property when you got there, and what made you decide to try to build that type of golf course?

Smyers: At Southern Dunes we had a high sandy ridge and a lot of wind. Florida's got a sand ridge that runs through the central part of the state, and that's where Southern Dunes is (in Haines City). The highest point in Central Florida isn't too far from there. I really tried to study the wind patterns there and take advantage of that, and then you had the sandy soil, and those combinations make it right for that type of golf course. I'll tell you something, it reminded me a little of the conditions found in the Sand Belt region near Melbourne in Australia.

You know, every site is unique and offers something different to work with. What we try to do is, we like to find out what that site has to offer, what is there for us to work with, and then try to utilize that in our designs. So what we had naturally on that site was a high, sandy ridge with a lot of wind, so we wanted to utilize those features.

Duncan: Coming in to Southern Dunes is a little shocking because you enter it through a shopping plaza and then drive through a neighborhood, and yet its reputation is of this large, wide-open golf course. It's unexpected.

Smyers: When I started my career [in Gainesville, FL] little Meadowbrook was kind of slapped together under tough circumstances and a very low budget, and then I went up to Indianapolis and built a course called Wolf Run, and really from there worked overseas, I did a few jobs in America, but worked overseas almost from Wolf Run to Southern Dunes, and Southern Dunes really worked into my schedule [well] because we just had two little boys and it was time to stay home for a while. So we did Southern Dunes and since then we really haven't done too much with homes around the golf course, which is kind of nice.

Duncan: Meadowbrook is such a tight property, especially the front nine. It's amazing you got nine holes there, but I imagine that that's all the land that they gave you to work with.

Smyers: I got probably a little ambitious in my start. I had just started my own business, I was on my own, and this was the first opportunity that I had and I wanted to build more of a golf course there than the land would allow and the client really wanted at first. Yeah, I probably tried to put too much into too little an area there.

Duncan: Because you had to fit golf holes into such a confined area, you did something quite bold and intriguing. The scorecard there by par reads 5-3-5-3-4-4-3-3-5. If you never had to do that, would you still be willing to break convention with your routings and plans and do things like putting back-to-back par fives or back-to-back par threes on a course?

Smyers: I don't have a problem at all with doing that. I just did a little thing with Golf World and I think the wave of the future might be going back and putting five par threes or six par threes on a course. If that's what the site gives you, that's fine. I think too much has been placed on the 7,200 yard, four par five, four par three [course]. I think too much emphasis has been placed on that.

Duncan: How many courses have you designed?

Smyers: In my own business we've built 35 and opened 34. The 35th will be open this summer. We've got probably 15 on the drawing board right now, but I don't count those because they're not built yet.

Duncan: When you work with an owner, how much latitude do they generally give you and how much of it are you fulfilling their desires?

Smyers: I think what we try to do is the entire process. We try to understand what their needs and wants are but I think its up to us to explain to them what the land will give them and what the property will give them for the best results. I think that's part of the process. We sit down and explain that to them, and we let them understand and get their feedback and their interaction.

Duncan: How often to you go head-to-head with another firm for a project, and how often do you have to promote yourself for a job?

Smyers: There are times when people will say "We want to talk to a handful of people," but most of the time its either a past client or someone who's been recommended to us, or someone that I might know, and they know how we go about things. I think that was very much the case with one [we're working on]. We're doing a project for Ivan Lendl up in Connecticut. He's visited our courses, knew of our style, knew how we worked, and pretty much we just sat down and said "We want to build a course, how are we going to make this thing work together."

Duncan: Ivan Lendl?

Smyers: Tennis player now golf fanatic.

Duncan: He looks like a player from what we've seen of him on TV on the Celebrity Tour.

Smyers: An absolute student of the game.

Duncan: You mentioned that there is a prominent sandy ridge that runs through Central Florida. If that type of soil and conditions exist there, why aren't there more courses like Southern Dunes that take advantage of it?

Smyers: I don't know. I like to think that we had a good team out there. I think we just used what was there and produced it.

Duncan: It seems that in that part of the state particularly, there is some interesting land, especially by Florida's standards, land that would be conducive to good golf, and it's not being taken advantage of by in large.

Smyers: There are some good opportunities there. Hopefully we're working on one not far from Southern Dunes that I would say is a much better site than Southern Dunes, with a lot of variety, a lot of good vegetation, better movement, and I'm hoping that project will come to fruition. At 36 holes, I think we can do something pretty neat there.

Duncan: Any other current projects in Florida?

Smyers: We have a project on the drawing board in Naples...we have the two projects in Florida that are on the drawing board right now.

Duncan: The land around Naples is pretty flat. What kind of land is this property?

Smyers: Oh man. It's an old tomato field. The golf season there is in the wintertime and you get your land breeze in the morning, which is the northeast, and in the afternoon the wind swings around and comes from the southwest. We're going to try to utilize that to give us something. We're trying not to do the typical Florida thing down there with the fountains in the lakes and a lot of water.

Duncan: In many ways you are known for your bunkering. The bunkering on your courses is notable in that it serves both strategic and visual purposes-it's beautifully done. Why do you emphasize this when so much of the bunkering on the majority of modern courses is generic?

Smyers: Number one, I think bunkering is there to set the course up, to lead you, excite you, and frighten you. I think golfers need to be frightened to be excited. Therein lies a lot of the underlying differences that set us off from other people. I think a golfer needs to stand up there and he needs to be excited, he needs to be scared, he needs to be intimidated, and when he pulls that shot off he gets excited. I think that's what keeps you coming back time and time again.

The other school feels that you don't want to do that, that it needs to be a fun, enjoyable round of golf, so they place all their hazards to the side. We put it in front of you, but we'll always give the golfer an alternate route. So it's not that we build more bunkers, we just build them where they're right in front of you. We build those sand faces right up there and they strike the fear of God into you.

Duncan: Many high-handicappers, because they don't have the shots to always play around the hazards, don't like to see that much sand. Is the joy of circumventing the hazards substantial enough to overcome the high-handicapper's initial dread of seeing a public course like Southern Dunes with its nearly 200 bunkers?

Smyers: I feel it is. I feel that if they can master their own mind and pick their route around the golf course, we give them plenty of room to play golf. And if they should not succeed at a shot and hit it in a bunker, [they] can go in that bunker and find it and there's always an opportunity for recovery. Then you get in that bunker and you play the shot that you feel most comfortable with, whether its sideways, whether its backwards, or whether its forward, you can always escape from the bunker. A water hazard you can't escape from. So while people will talk about our bunkering, we don't have water hazards on our golf courses because I'm a firm believer that recovery is a very exciting part of the game. I mean, we have a few water hazards-Southern Dunes has a couple-but our water hazards are few and far between.

So, it's kind of interesting. While [people] talk about bunkers, they can find their golf ball and they can get in there and hit it. You can't do that out of a water hazard.

On that note, let me tell you something interesting. We built two golf courses up in New Jersey at a 36-hole complex, and the name of the complex is Royce Brook. The strategy and the bunker placements are very similar on both golf courses, but the style of the bunkering is different. On the East Course we built the bunkers with the grass that comes down, the old, typical New England style bunkering, and so the bunkers aren't as visual. And on the West Course we really put them in front of you and really got into some good shaping on them, and the bunkering kind of looks you right in the face there. Everybody considers the West Course the much more difficult course, but in reality the East Course is just as strategic and just as difficult, you just can't see it in front of you.

Duncan: What style of bunkering do you prefer?

Smyers: We build different styles of bunkers, we really do. We're more noted for the big, sweeping style of bunker. But I will say this: it's because of Southern Dunes and Old Memorial where we had big expansive sites and sand was the feature. At (those courses) we basically had native soil that we worked with. At Wolf Run in Indianapolis we went with very small, very basic shaped bunkers. But it's a smaller scale site (Wolf Run). We're in ravines, we're up against streambeds, we're in woods...the site was more of a closed down situation so we went with smaller fairways, smaller greens, smaller bunkers. But when you go to Old Memorial or Southern Dunes, everything was open and...we had to make our scale bigger.

Duncan: The Tom Fazio alterations at Augusta National have been a source of contention for many in your field for the last several years, particularly the addition of the rough. Some people say that it makes driving the ball on that course easier by taking away some of the decision-making, that is reduces strategy on a course where strategy was the key element. Some say that the best way to set-up a professional course is to take away direct lines of play and open up options. Judging from your designs it seems you might fall into this category.

Smyers: I do. I think that you've got to challenge the golfer by getting him to think about the golf shot. You know most people don't know how to, or they don't think their way around a golf course. That's what beats 99% of the golfers out there-the intellectual demand. You really make players think when you don't limit their options, when you don't instruct them to hit it here or pay the price, when you make them wonder and create indecision. Sometimes the hardest thing to do on a golf course is to make yourself hit the ball 10 [yards] to the right or to the left of where the target is. Most golfers can't do it, and they hit the ball right at the target even though they can't pull that shot off, and that's when they get into trouble. We want our courses to make golfers think up there before they hit it, to look around them, to actually see what it is that's there in front of them.

Duncan: How have your design ideas changed since you've begun, if at all?

Smyers: The biggest thing now is that the game has changed. That's really the biggest difference. The game has changed so dramatically in the last 4-5 years with the advances particularly in the technology, you have to find a way to keep up. The new clubs and the golf balls are longer, people are hitting it straighter, there are so many new types of turfgrasses, it's a different game now. I think strategy is important...it's the most important thing we can use. So we have to emphasize strategy in our designs, but you also have to emphasize the site as well. You have to make players examine the hole, the slope, the lie, the angle, and emphasize each contour and how it affects the shot along with the wind, and then make them hit the right shot for the occasion.

And really, because of the technology, we have to add length too. As well as being more strategic, we have to add that length and make the player be accurate with [it], and we do that by emphasizing the contours and the angles, the wind. If they're going to be long, they have to be accurate and they have to examine their options.

Duncan: I spoke to you before about a parallel I've noticed between the 15th at Southern Dunes and the 17th at The National Golf Links of America, from what I know of it. Was there any direct influence of the latter into your thinking about the 15th at SD, or is that a stretch on my part? Perhaps I'm just finding a parallel between two soundly designed golf holes?

Smyers: I'm kind of flattered. I think The National is one of my favorite golf courses in America. It really propels a lot of our ideas. I think if you parallel 15 there and 17 at The National I think you're referring to more off the tee and the way the fairway moves more than anything because the approach shot definitely is different, but there are similarities there. I think what you're seeing is the similarities in strategy and decision-making.

I think the biggest influence on me is, I've been over to Great Britain and Ireland and played and studied the majority of the links courses and have a true fondness for links style of play. But I think the courses that made the biggest impact on me personally were the Sand Belt courses of Australia, mainly Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath. It's not only how they play there, but it's the total package of what they put together because if you take the links courses, they're so natural that basically you go out and you've got the wind and you've got the rain and you've got the climate changes and you've got the full conditions that vary from one day to the next and its up to the designer to take all those things into account and utilize the bumps and the rolls and the hollows and the dunes to develop a really good golf course.

So you're really starting with what's there and what you're utilizing. What we do, we have to develop. And they develop those golf courses down in Melbourne. They took good sandy soil sites and through the years developed all of the features from the tees, greens, fairways, bunkers and they landscaped them so everything fits into a natural context where everything fits together so nicely that the golfer can read the golf course as he stands on the tee or in the fairway. He can read the shot at hand because the landscape of bunkering and everything fits in such context, that he can read the strategy that is so important to those golf courses.

The strategy is important, the ability to see it and to read it is very important. And that's done through how the golf courses were developed and the overall shot-making of the courses. I think I took away more from those courses, though I'm totally enamored with links golf. I think I took away more from those courses that will apply to modern-day design and situations that we encounter.

But I think what you picked up in Southern Dunes from The National Golf Links is the strategy. That's one of the most strategic golf courses in America. I think the strategy was very much picked up from there, but how everything fits in context, I think we took from the courses in Melbourne.

Duncan: Who are some of the architects you admire and perhaps look to as an influence?

Smyers: Number one, I'm kind of out of the ordinary here. I think that there are some guys today in modern design, we're going to look back upon [them] and say...they're really doing some pretty darn good things. But the older style designers, starting with that era, I'm a big fan of the Alister Mackenzie school of design. Once again, he's credited with doing a lot of the work down in Australia and that really influenced me.

I think that (C.B.) MacDonald and the National Golf Links, the strategy and the thought that has to go into playing any MacDonald course, really that's what the game is all about. You've got to think your way around the course. Too many courses today are just about "a" result for "a" shot, and we've got to get back into the shotmaking mode.

Duncan: Many of your contemporaries believe that as well. I'm sure the people that you are a fan of have that similar mentality, where they're talking more about strategy and options and the intellectual side of golf.

Smyers: I think the modern day guys that are doing the most with that are Bill Coore, Crenshaw's partner, and Tom Doak. With Sand Hills (in Mullen, NE), which Bill did and has been open a few years, and with the opening of Pacific Dunes (Bandon, OR), Doak's course, those are going to be two very significant courses in modern design and I think that people are going to become very aware of the strategic school as opposed to the visual school.

Duncan: How long will it take for architects of the "visual" school to get into strategic design, or will they?

Smyers: The whole key is to provide the visual with strategy. All firms are getting pretty good at both of those, but just a few are really utilizing the ground play.

Duncan: We always hear people say that all the good golf sites have been used up. It doesn't sound like you believe that.

Smyers: No, not at all. Not at all. I think if you are talking about good golf sites on large bodies of water you're probably right in America. But once again, I think sand and wind-Sand Hills is a good example. It's out in the middle of Nebraska.

We're working on a site now in South Carolina just outside of Charleston that's got wonderful soil conditions, it's got some big oak trees, and it's dead flat. But it's got a low water table, it's got good sand and big oaks and it's five miles from the ocean so we get a good coastal breeze. I personally think that once we develop that-I mean if you looked at Royal Melbourne as its original site it would be an ordinary site, but it's truly one of the great golf courses in the world. So I'm looking at developing that into one of those types of settings, utilizing the native landscape material and the bunkering to provide the strategy of the golf course.

Duncan: Do you have an owner there who will let you do it that way?

Smyers: Yes. They've already embraced the idea. You know, if you look at the evolution of golf most of the courses were built on linksland, and then when they came inland they tried to find that good sandy soil, which were the heathland courses of England. Then when they came to America [with] The National Golf Links of America, the courses out on Long Island, Shinnecock, Maidstone, and then you go to Australia and the Sand Belt courses, those were how all the original courses were built, for drainage purposes. Once again, good drainage, good sandy soil, a little bit of wind, we'll have a great golf course.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.


 
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