He has little interest in plastering his name all over the annals of golf course architecture. He'd much rather carve up an 80-year-old bunker and return it to its original form. For that matter, he'd rather return the entire course to its original form.
Speaking of carving, Greensboro-based course designer Kris Spence is slicing, dicing and making a nice niche for himself in the business by restoring Donald Ross and Ellis Maples designed golf courses. He recently completed a major overhaul of the Grove Park Inn's (Asheville) treasured Ross resort course and venerable Mimosa Hills Country Club in Morganton.
On both projects, Spence worked off of Ross's original plans and notes, and even used an old aerial photo of the Grove Park Inn course to guide his work. His attention to detail is paying off - Spence's restorations are catching the eyes of architecture critics, golf writers, and more importantly - new clients.
"I am in some light discussions with some folks about designing some new courses," says Spence, who's yet to embark on a solo design project. "There have been some offers and opportunities in Florida to build some generic courses for senior citizens, but I just can't get excited about that. I am looking for a client who wants a true golf experience."
Spence says he is holding out for a client willing to spend the time and effort to produce a thought-provoking, traditional course that emphasizes brains over brawn. Until then, he is more than content to keep on keeping on with his restoration work.
"Ross did about 50 courses in North Carolina and Maples did about 70 total, and most of them are in North Carolina so there's a large volume of work out there for me," Spence says.
Working with Ross-designed courses is not a novel calling in the golf course architecture business. John LaFoy was once considered a Ross restoration guru. Massachusetts-based designer Brian Silva has remodeled a handful of Ross courses and is considered an expert in the field.
But Spence comes at it from a different perspective. Before striking out on his own as a designer, Spence was a superintendent and a golf director. He spent his hours retooling the bunkers of the Atlanta Athletic Club, modifying the greens at Forest Oaks Country Club in Greensboro, and even overseeing Jack Nicklaus' design team during construction of the Governor's Club in Chapel Hill.
"It is ironic really," Spence says. "Both Ross and Maples got their start in the business as greenskeepers and it evolved for them. The same thing happened to me. My formal education is in agronomy, not landscape architecture, like most designers these days."
No landscape architecture degree, no problem. Spence says modern golf course design relies too heavily on aesthetics and not strategy. Ross, and later Maples, were both masters of presenting golfers with two or even three different ways to play a golf hole without moving tons of dirt. Spence says Ross was particularity good at using his greens to promote strategic play.
"Strategic green corners are very important with Ross courses," Spence says. "You have to be able to place the hole as close to the greenside bunkers as possible to force the strategy off the tee and determine the ideal approach into the green."
Greens and bunkers were the focus at Mimosa Hills, a small, private club in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The course opened in 1928 and is one of the few Ross designs in North Carolina to have remained virtually untouched over the years.
"The putting surfaces were original putting surfaces," Spence says. "But over time, they soften as the contours spread out. We sharpened the contours in the greens to restore the original break. We also excavated out to where the greens used to be to retain the strategic corners."
Spence says the bunkers at Mimosa Hills were filled with anywhere from one to four feet of sand. He and his crew removed all the old sand and completely retooled every trap.
"We dug out these little windswept looking bunkers and found these elaborate, beautiful bunker surfaces below," Spence says. "Ross adapted his bunker style to the American style of bunker, but he still preferred vertical walls in his bunkers like the sod wall bunkers in Scotland. So we re-steepened and re-contoured the faces so that the external features were very aggressive."
With a couple Ross projects under his belt, Spence is turning his attention to Maples. Maples worked for Ross in Pinehurst toward the end of Ross' career, and Spence says the similarities are striking.
"They had similar thoughts about how golfers should have a ground option available to them," Spence says. "It was hard to get the ball up in the air back in those days with that equipment. They also offered golfers who could get the ball up in the air and hit it a long ways similar rewards."
Both Maples and Ross made use of natural ridge lines when laying out fairways. Oftentimes, a par-4 or a par-5 was draped over a ridge approximately 220 to 250 yards from the middle and back tees. Golfers who could fly the ridge were rewarded with downhill "power chutes" that would add 10 to 20 yards to tee shots.
"People are starting to realize that Maples' work is worth saving," Spence says. "He did some wonderful work and designed beautiful bunkers."
Spence and his partner Jim Ganley are working on restoration plans for three Maples designed courses, the Gaston Country Club (Gastonia), Cedarwood Country Club (Charlotte) and the Chatmoss Country Club (Martinsville, Va.).
"We don't just do Ross and Maples," adds Spence.
No, but they sure do Ross and Maples right.
Lives: Greensboro, N.C.
Looks like: Ernie Els with Nick Price's hair
Favorite designer other than Ross and Maples: Tom Fazio
Building a short course in Greensboro modeled after Ross best par-3s from around North Carolina . Golfweek magazine senior writer and architecture critic Brad Klein called Spence's work at the Grove Park Inn the best restoration project in the country.
August 14, 2003