CHARLOTTE, N.C. - For some golf course architects, legendary course designer Alister MacKenzie is a major influence. To Todd Eckenrode, studying the eccentric Scotsman's classic designs is a way of life.
Eckenrode will be the first to tell you that he was a lucky, having grown up playing Pasatiempo Golf Club, MacKenzie's most cherished design and his home address in the U.S. However, it was a rude awakening for this California native when he ventured away from his home course only to find that not all golf courses were as intriguing and memorable as Pasatiempo.
"You start to think that it (Pasatiempo) is the norm until you get out in the world and see it is special," Eckenrode says from his office in Irvine, Calif. "That course had such a profound influence on how I view golf course architecture."
That view is now one that he takes from his new firm, Origins Golf Design. Eckenrode worked for Nashville-based Gary Roger Baird for six years, heading up the west coast design office. After the two collaborated on Barona Creek in Lakeside, Calif., Eckenrode decided it was time to hang his own shingle.
"This is a great opportunity for me to take on some new projects, but Gary and I still plan on working together quite a bit," Eckenrode says.
And why not?
The duo seems to have the magic touch after designing what many consider to be one of the top ten courses in the state in Barona Creek. The course was recently ranked as one of Golf Magazine's "Top 10 You Can Play" for 2001, and the minimalist layout is being lauded for the way it blends with the surrounding landscape. Located 30 miles east of San Diego on a 1,500 foot plateau ringed by mountain peaks, Barona Creek is a major component in a $225 million hotel and ranch themed casino project funded by the Barona Band of Mission Indians.
The classic or minimalist design philosophy that is so evident at Barona Creek has become the cornerstone of Eckenrode's body of work. But the 33-year-old UC Santa Barbara graduate says the enigmatic concept is often misinterpreted by recreational golfers.
"If you want to contrast classic design with contemporary design, it is an integration and utilization of the natural features," he says. "The modern technique was to impose your will on the land. A lot of golfers think that classic or traditional design calls for small greens and tight fairways, but that is a misnomer. In the early days of golf course design in America, greens were large and fairways were wide to allow players multiple ways to reach the hole. But a green built in 1920 will shrink significantly over the years."
Eckenrode says that even some golf course architects have merely paid lip service to the notion of classic design. The evidence, he says, is in the average cost to design and build a golf course during the 1980's and 90's. Ten and even $15 million dollar projects became the norm as developers and designers participated in a costly game of one-upsmanship.
"There is no need to spend $8 million on for a great golf course," he says. "It is hard to generalize it, but $4 million should get you a wonderful golf course. Coastal properties are another story, but most of the time you don't have to make it up in land value to have a great course."
Pacific and Bandon Dunes, two remarkable links style courses carved from the Oregon coastline, are the two best examples of "minimalist" designs in the U.S. right now, Eckenrode adds, and Sand Hills in Nebraska is a close second.
"Coore, Crenshaw, (Sand Hills) David McLay Kidd (Bandon Dunes) and Tom Doak (Pacific Dunes) are the architects who are doing it right," Eckenrode says. "These guys are the leaders right now."
But if Barona Creek is any indication, Eckenrode's name could appear in this inner circle of minimalist moguls in the near future. Currently, Origins Design has four new projects in the works, the two most notable being Jackson Hills in the Gold Country of Sacramento at the base of the Sierra Nevadas, and Casa Blanca Ranch, located in the foothills between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Both courses are about two years away from opening.
"We are only looking to take on a few projects at a time, and we won't take on one far from home unless it is a special project," Eckenrode says. "By special, I mean a special opportunity to do something unique and classic."
Origins Design has, however, thrown its name in the hat to design courses in West Virginia, Massachusetts, and Illinois east of the Mississippi River, and Washington and New Mexico closer to home. And Eckenrode says the firm will also take on a limited number of redesign and restoration projects, such as the revamping of the historic Redlands Country Club outside of San Bernardino. The original nine-hole layout at Redlands was constructed in the late 1800's, and MacKenzie added an additional nine holes in 1927.
"We've dug through the old newspapers from the 1920's and discovered some of the ways he was involved," Eckenrode says. "What we've discovered is there are some unique things going on out there. There's a horseshoe green on the course that was probably his first, and there is a Redan hole that could be his only attempt at that design technique."
If anything at Redlands Country Club turns out to be uniquely MacKenzie, no one will be more qualified than Eckenrode to unearth it.
July 29, 2002
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