TACOMA, Wash. -- John Harbottle III, one of the hottest course architects on the West Coast, has spent a lifetime around golf greats. His mother, Pat, was the 1955 U.S. Women's Amateur champion while his father, John, is a five-time winner of the Washington Senior Men's Amateur. Harbottle's golf-design mentor was Pete Dye, and he's collaborated on courses with PGA Tour stars Johnny Miller, Fuzzy Zoeller and Peter Jacobsen. At age 44, Harbottle appears poised to join their royal ranks.
The designer of such acclaimed layouts as the Olympic Course at Gold Mountain in Bremerton, Wash., the Golf Club at Genoa Lakes outside Reno, Nev., and the Savannah Course at Stevinson Ranch in Stevinson, Calif., Harbottle also remodeled the famed North Course at Los Angeles Country Club in 1996. He's earned praise for the playability and environmental sensitivity of his creations while implementing strategic elements passed down from architecture's masters.
TravelGolf.com freelance writer Daniel Mitchell caught up with Harbottle at his home course, the Tacoma Country Club, in late December. Here is that conversation.
DM: Having worked with Pete Dye for six years (1984-90), how much of his influence can be seen in your work?
JH: I think it varies from job to job. There's people that have said they 've seen the influence. I suppose if anything, I don't build bunkers that are the same exact character of Pete Dye's style of bunker, but the lines of play he sets up for the strategy and the placement of bunkers, the character of the greens I think I have similarities, because a lot of what I learned about green design and green construction I learned from him.
DM: You're known for incorporating links-style characteristics into your courses. Talk about that aspect.
JH: I don't think we've done any what you'd call true links courses. A little bit of that (labeling) is due to marketing. A lot of the basis of what I do with design comes from the courses of Ireland and Scotland. Those are very dramatic golf courses that fit very much with the lay of the land there. They're ingeniously laid out, under very radical circumstances in a lot of cases. They're very indigenous. So that's the roots -- the terrain, the character of the rolling terrain and the natural grasses, really unique green complexes -- that's kind of the basis for what I bring to design at my courses.
But I call (what I do) more of a links touch than a links course. There's elements of links courses that are found in our courses, but none of our courses really have the site to develop a true links.
DM: What other facets mark your philosophy?
JH: We try to build an old-fashioned-looking golf course. We set up a lot of risk-reward with the placement of the hazards and the way the hazards fit the terrain. We like to use a lot of natural grasses as well, for developing contrast to the way the area looks rather than building a parklands golf course that might be wall-to-wall turf.
We want to build a golf course that is very interesting and striking to look at, and very challenging to an expert player, but we also don't want to build it at the expense of the average guy's ability to have an enjoyable round of golf, so we set up a lot of hazards on diagonal principles. So the average guy, if he's using his head, can safely manage his game throughout the hole, but the better player can challenge the risks.
DM: There's been a recent movement toward more classical and minimalist design elements. Do you consider yourself a proponent of this style?
JH: Definitely. But that doesn't mean you don't still innovate. Alister MacKenzie, who was hailed as one of the greatest architects of all time, certainly a classicist in his own right, in his book he explained that he was just touching the tip of the iceberg, that you have no idea the directions that golf course architecture is going to go in the years to come, and I think that's run home. Even now, after we saw a big trend toward major earth moving and tremendous innovation, we're going back now and trying to get more classical elements built into our courses.
These days, when we have a project where we have to move a lot of dirt, we try to move it in a way that looks like we haven't moved a lot of dirt. So even though we may be moving mountains in some aspects, we're still trying to do it so it looks like a classical old site. We're trying to make the site look like it was made for the golf course, even though at times it may not have been.
DM: Name some current architects whose work you admire.
JH: I'm a big fan of Tom Fazio. I think he does wonderful work. Jay Morrish as well. Those are two guys that I try to emulate not only a lot of their design characteristics but also their personalities. They are very warm, friendly people, they treat everybody with tremendous respect. I think those are qualities in an architect... You always hear of the golf course architect being a real hothead that doesn't listen to anybody else's ideas. We're often thought of as prima donnas. But there are some very successful, personable architects out there, and I think those are the guys you want to emulate.
There's other guys. Dana Fry, just a great architect and a good friend of mine; Bobby Weed down in Florida; Rick Jacobsen... Many of my contemporaries, guys my age, like Keith Foster, I think they do wonderful work.
DM: Do you have a favorite course that you've played or studied?
Definitely, Pinehurst No. 2 would be the first one that would come to mind. A course with hardly an ounce of water in play unless it's raining, and it's the kind of course you can have a great day on, and you can shoot 100 on, play the same golf ball all day long, and never get tired of the challenge. The designs of the holes are fun, the terrain is just wonderful for golf, and the aesthetics of the pine trees and the contouring and the bunkering is just tremendous.
Cypress Point is a very much shorter course, totally different style of design, but another classical old course. Breathtaking views to the water, dramatic designs on the back nine, and two of the greatest par-3s I've ever seen in 15 and 16.
The experiences of playing those two courses are just wonderful, rewarding experiences. There are many others: San Francisco Golf Club, Pine Valley...
DM: You've worked on courses with Peter Jacobsen, Johnny Miller and Fuzzy Zoeller. How much did they contribute, and how much expertise do Tour pros really have to offer in course design?
JH: They all had good contributions and they're all very nice people. I think that they gave what they could to the project. They gave what time they had available. You know, this is what we (architects) do for a living, so we tend to give a lot more time than maybe a guy who's making a living winning golf tournaments, that this is a sideline for him. It's an interesting thing for them to do and they care about it and they enjoy it, but they don't have the ability to put forth the commitment you need to build a golf course.
I think because of their ability they bring a greater understanding of how to play the game, because they can hit shots that the average people can 't. They also do a lot of playing in pro-ams, so they see how the worst play the game. So I think they bring that very important element to design. I think a lot of them have a creative eye as far as being able to look at what they like and don't like aesthetically.
I don't really think they're good for just thinking up golf holes from a piece of dirt. They aren't gonna say, 'Let's do this kind of par-4 here, let 's do this for this particular land.' I think you need to do that on a regular basis to really be able to envision.
Courses designed by John Harbottle III
ArrowCreek Golf Club, Challenge Course (With Fuzzy Zoeller), Reno, Nev. BanBury Golf Club Eagle, Idaho Cinnabar Hills Golf Club San Jose, Calif. Dairy Creek Golf Course San Luis Obispo, Calif. Gold Mountain Golf Complex, Olympic Course Bremerton, Wash. Golf Club at Genoa Lakes (With Peter Jacobsen) Genoa, Nev. Hawks Landing Golf Club Verona, Wisc. Izatys Golf & Yacht Club Onamia, Minn. Ridgecrest Golf Course Nampa, Idaho Shining Mountain Golf Club Woodland Park, Colo. Sierra Nevada Golf Ranch (With Johnny Miller) Genoa, Nev. Stevinson Ranch, Savannah Course (With George Kelley) Stevinson, Calif. Sumner Meadows Golf Links (With Lynn Horn) Sumner, Wash. Sunbrook Golf Club Saint George, Utah Tony Lema Course at Monarch Bay (Redesign) San Leandro, Calif.
January 4, 2003