CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Pinehurst based golf course architect Dan Maples recently sat down with TravelGolf.com Senior Editor Shane Sharp to talk about golf course design, and the state of the recreational game.
With a father in the business, was your career choice as a golf course designer ever in doubt?
I'd say it was. I never planned on being a designer. I grew up working in construction just to earn money in the summertime, so I always worked somewhere for my dad (renowned architect Ellis Maples) running bulldozers or looking after jobs. It was just a good way to make money. I did it all through college. When I went to college, I went to Wingate College (in North Carolina) and I really didn't know what I wanted to do at that stage, so I was in data processing. I went through two years of data processing and accounting.
A friend who I played on the golf team with said he was going down to the University of Georgia to look at their landscape architecture program. So we rode down there from Wingate and I said, 'I really like this.' That's how I got into it. Then when I got into the design program, I really wanted to be in golf course design. I didn't want to be a landscape architect. But if I weren't a golf course architect, I'd probably be a landscape architect.
So you'd be a landscape architect if it weren't for golf?
Yes. Well, I sort of am now … and really, landscape was the best thing to go into as far as a formal education. You picked up architecture, highway engineering, earth volume calculations and all kinds of things you need. By the time I got into all that, I knew what I wanted to do.
Tell us something about course design that the average player probably does not know.
The average player just plays a finished product. However, to get to a finished product is very involved.
Do you factor the sun into course design, so that holes don't play east and west into the sun?
We try and do that. The ideal property would run north and south, but there's hardly any ideal property around. And you get locked into a lot of things that you have to do that affects your routing.
What are some of the challenges facing golf course design today?
Probably the biggest thing is environmental concerns. With the setbacks (buffers around streams and water that must remain undisturbed) in North Carolina, and probably coming everywhere, that are 50-, 75- and 100-foot setbacks on a lot of the creeks, it will keep you from ever playing across a creek or ever seeing a creek. If some of the restrictions in North Carolina go (nationwide), the only thing golf is ever going to be is in a 40-acre field. It's going to push us into a cornfield where you can't do anything but move dirt. All the natural streams and lakes and things, you won't be able to include them in the design.
So, potentially golf courses won't have water hazards?
Yes. They already have rivers in North Carolina that have 100-foot setbacks, and they're trying to do all the tributaries, too. So that's the biggest single factor that is affecting us right now.
Can you build a pond on a golf hole?
You can build one in a 40-acre field, but as far as being able to even cross a wetland, or play across a wetland, you won't be able to do it. All of that is coming down the pipe. We see it coming.
Although you have designed courses worldwide, the majority of your courses are in the Carolinas. What are some of the opportunities and constraints you face in North and South Carolina?
North and South Carolina have about every type of terrain. In those two states we've worked in everything from pure sand to solid rock. And we've worked with anything from warm season grasses at the coast and mid-Atlantic, to blue grasses in the mountains.
Many writers say Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus ushered in modern course design with Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines in Hilton Head (at right). Small greens, tight fairways and tough pars became the norm and penal courses were the rage. It seems in the past 10 years we've witnessed a turn back towards the traditional. Where do you think course design is at this point?
It's probably in the middle somewhere. I really think Robert Trent Jones ushered in the era of modern golf. If you look at his designs compared to what Donald Ross was doing, and compared to the British and Scottish courses that were being designed. I think everything will keep going back traditional because its just good, solid architecture that never goes out of style. Plus, traditional courses are not as expensive to maintain and not as expensive to build, too.
Is there a trend now toward more playable courses, as opposed to the over-the-top designs?
Everybody (who designed difficult courses) got so much publicity and the courses were so hard that they've all come back around to trying to build playable golf courses. I think that's probably what is happening.
Who are some of your mentors and/or influences in golf course design?
My family comes out of the Donald Ross school. My dad worked with Donald Ross, my grandfather worked with Donald Ross. We're basically traditionalists, but I like to throw in a little mixture. The Pit (in Pinehurst) is not quite traditional, but some of it is.
We don't really have too much of a trademark. I've played a lot of courses all over and one guy that I really like is Arthur Jack Snyder out in Arizona. I played a couple of his courses and was really impressed with him. I wrote him a letter and told him that I really enjoyed some of his courses. You could tell he put a lot of thought into them as far as how they blended into the terrain and how they played. Those two things, usually people don't combine them too well. And my dad was definitely an influence. He was influenced by Donald Ross. A lot of the things that Ross did then, we still do now. I don't like blind bunkers, I don't like blind water hazards. I want to see as much of the green, want to see as much of the landing areas, as I can. That's never changed, ever since we've been in business.
What are some of your favorite courses other than your own?
Well, I like Pine Valley. I really like Pine Valley. I like Merion. I like Royal Dornoch, Donald Ross' home course in Scotland. I like the Palmetto in Aiken (S.C.) It's a great golf course. I like a lot of my dad's golf courses. I could play all those, like Grandfather Mountain, Boone Golf Club. His courses were so playable. I played them growing up and I go back and look at them now and they're so simplistic. But they don't really give up much. They're not tricked up, but you can't eat them up. They're fun to play.
Do you like to lay out a course hole by hole, beginning with No. 1, or do you lay out the entire course first and make revisions as you go along?
I do it hole by hole, although sometimes I start on the back nine. But I do it hole by hole. I'll lay out No. 1 and No. 2, and when I'm satisfied with No. 1, I'll go to No. 2. But if I don't like No. 1, I don't go to No. 2. By the time I get to No. 9, I've got nine holes I like.
You can do that sometimes and then you go to the back nine and start on No. 10 and you can't make the back nine work. So sometimes you back up. It's kind of like dominos. They keep moving around until you get 18 of them you like. I've worked a couple of them backwards before. I might go from No. 18 back. You have to look ahead just a little bit to see where they might run. And then you've got to look at what it's doing to the real estate. You might come up with 18 beautiful holes, but you've got roads and streets and things that don't let it work at all. You can't always just go in there and lay out the golf course. Now, Donald Ross could because he never had real estate to deal with. It's a lot tougher now.
In the 1980s you created a unique golf course named The Pit Golf Links in an old sand mine in Pinehurst. How do you feel The Pit has stood the test of time?
It's definitely stood the test of time. It's such a unique piece of property to begin with. It took from 1928 to 1972 for them to mine the sand, so I guess you could say The Pit (pictured) started in 1928 and was finished in 1985. But I think it's stood the test of time. It's one of those golf courses that's a little unique for us because we're used to people liking our golf courses. Pete Dye told me when I built The Pit that I was going to get a little taste of what he goes through because not everybody would like The Pit. It's fairly controversial. You either love it or you hate it. There's not much middle ground. If you like Scotland, if you like Ireland, if you like that type of golf, you'll love it. If you're into pretty much wide open courses like Augusta where you can hit the ball anywhere on the 200 acres and it's almost impossible to lose it, then you're not going to like it. It puts a premium on accuracy, but it doesn't put a premium on distance.
That's kind of a trademark of yours, that you don't necessarily have to hit it a long way, but you better hit it straight.
The Pit is probably the ultimate in that respect, and Cramer Mountain is like that. The Pit is very fair, but if you get to pressing it, it can just eat you alive. Both of those golf courses can. But there's no penalty there for being short. You can take a driver in your hand and if you're willing to gamble with it, you can be rewarded. But if your gamble doesn't work, then you're in big, serious trouble.
Did The Pit influence any of your other designs, or your philosophies?
I don't think so. Our philosophies were the same coming out as they were going in - make courses playable where you can see all the hazards. We used our design principles on The Pit. Even though it was a unique piece of property, we didn't change our design criteria.
You recently took over management of Gates Four Country Club in Fayetteville, N.C., and made some improvements and renovations to its Willard Byrd layout. How do you feel making changes to the work of another architect?
I thought we took a good Willard Byrd golf course and made it better. And I think that's something he would do in the same situation. It's basically a good, sound golf course. We did a lot of things that are probably somewhere between construction and maintenance.
You grew up in a golfing family and have won the American Society of Golf Course Architects annual championship six times. How important is it to you to be a good player?
I think it's essential. Well, it's essential, but to be a good player doesn't accomplish everything because the good players really don't pay the bills. The good players are probably 10% (of the golfing population). The average player shoots 90. And if the average player joins a club and it beats him up every day, I don't think that's enjoyable for him. So it's important to us for him to enjoy it. So being a good player does help and we judge our courses from a good player's standpoint, but we also work for the average player just as hard - probably harder. I don't think it's hard to make a course tough for a good player. I think anybody can do that.
You've said that Cramer Mountain, a private club you designed on a small mountain just outside Charlotte, N.C., is one of your all-time favorites, much like your father had an affinity for his mountain course at Grandfather Mountain. What about Cramer Mountain makes you feel that way?
A lot of it is the Bell family. He (owner Graham Bell) knew I put my heart in it and he appreciated that. He didn't hamstring me or tell me what to do. He trusted my judgment. It was an extremely challenging piece of property to even make a golf course work. They gave us enough money to make it a good golf course. If you go into a piece of property like that under-budgeted, you're both going to lose.
That's an awesome piece of property. It may have scared some people to death, but I loved it. And I love the course. I could play it every day. If somebody blindfolded you and took you to that golf course, you would swear you're in the Blue Ridge Mountains. You wouldn't know you're nearly in sight of Charlotte Douglas Airport. A piece of property like that doesn't come around every day. And that piece of property, probably today you couldn't not build that golf course on it with the laws we have know.