Forty-Four Decisions on a Friday

By Tom Doak

When I talk to people about my job, it seems that they have no idea what I really do when I’m on a job site. Most people ask questions about golf architecture as though our most important decisions are how long to make each hole from the back tee, and where to place the bunkers.

We pride ourselves on being minimalist architects and trying to keep the job as simple as possible, because we understand that every time you move earth around, you create more things to worry about – where the drainage will go, whether the new contours will blend in with the old, whether the area gets topsoiled correctly, and so forth. But even when you’re not moving much earth, there are plenty of different considerations that go toward making each hole.

For my visit to Rock Creek Cattle Club in May, 2006, I wrote down every decision I considered on the first day of a one-week trip. Rock Creek has been under construction since October of 2005. It’s a spectacular piece of property, and we had thousands of acres to choose from in laying out the course, so it’s not that great an achievement to come up with a good routing that didn’t require much earthmoving. Still, there are millions of rocks that have to be screened out of the soil in the process of shaping greens and installing drainage and irrigation and preparing for grassing, so that golfers don’t break their wrists on opening day.

My last trip was in mid-March, by which point six holes [nos. 2-7] were shaped and ready for rock removal and irrigation work. Since then my lead design associate for the job, Eric Iverson, and three shapers have been working on finishing those holes and “roughing in” holes 8-13 and the first hole so that I could make adjustments on them for this trip. In sand that would have taken only a month or so, but in these rocky conditions it has taken 2 ½ months.

I arrived in Missoula at 1:00 in the morning after a thunderstorm in Denver delayed my flight up here; I’ve been on the road for ten days this trip and I’m a bit tired, but excited to come back to Montana and check up on the progress, because I’m sure this will be one of the very best courses we’ve done to date.

One of our construction interns, Jonathan Reisetter, picks me up at a hotel by the airport and drives me out to the site in Deer Lodge, about an hour and fifteen minutes by car. Along the way he catches me up a bit on progress – which greens have been shaped, what he’s been working on himself, and what he’s learned from the job so far. Before we go into the site, which is several miles up a dirt road from Deer Lodge, we stop and get sandwiches for the crew so they won’t have to waste time driving out to lunch. We meet Eric, Chris Hunt, and Kye Goalby, plus the superintendent Isaac Farabaugh, in the middle of the first fairway. We eat lunch on the hood of the car and visit a bit, then it’s off to work.

Decisions to Make

  1. Eric has put a small nest of bunkers into a small ridge in the left-center of the first fairway, about 265 yards off the back tee. I’m a little nervous about someone hitting into them and facing a 140-yard bunker shot over a stream for their second shot of the day, but there is lots and lots of fairway to either side, so I’m good with leaving these bunkers.
  2. We specified two bridges across the stream – one to the right for carts which they will come back across after hitting the tee shot on #2, and a footbridge to the left of center over the water (which in itself is only about three feet across). But the bridges have been delivered, and it turns out the project landscape architect ordered a second cart bridge months ago when he got the permits to put in the bridge … this “footbridge” looks like it would support King Kong, but we decide Kong would be more likely to join Sebonack since it’s close to New York. But now we’ve got to decide whether to use a $20,000 cart bridge or just abandon it. Whoops!
  3. The shaper on this hole, Chris Hunt, has put in a couple of bunkers short and right of the green and one big one at the back left. The first right-hand bunker is 25-30 yards short of the green so you could have to play over the next bunker to a right-hand pin – again, a tough shot on the first hole. But it does look good there. I’ll sleep on that one for a day or two before I decide if it will stay.
  4. Chris’s green has a lot of slope from back to front and from right down to left front opening. There’s a hump in the back center which will make it too difficult to putt across to the right side, so I tell him to make that transition as soft as possible, and ask him to check grades (elevations) on the green to be sure the left side isn’t too steep. If the slope is 2% it’s fine, but if it’s more than 3%, a putt from behind the hole may not stop at modern green speeds; so architects must check every green carefully, or just build their greens very flat.
  5. There is some contouring to the left of the green which would make for an interesting chip shot, but it also funnels a bit of drainage over the left side of the green instead of around it. Normally this is a no-no, but I will allow it here because it’s only a tiny area which will drain on. In sandy soils it would be no problem, but here we’ll have to install silt fence next to the green to prevent the greens mix from being silted up during grow-in.
  6. While on this side of the stream, we also glance at the site for the second tees which have yet to be built. This tee shot plays up and over a ridge with bunkers cut into the left side … you can’t see the green from the tee but you might see the flag on the green. It’s hard to tell right now with a pile of rocks in the way, so we’ll wait to decide on the elevation of the tee until we clean up those rocks.
  7. Now we jump in the truck and head across Rock Creek to the west side, where holes 8-18 are located. The first stop is the eighth green at the high end of the creek; we had cleared across the creek when I was here in March but I had only roughly sketched out an idea for the green. Jonathan has since built a green and three bunkers hanging down the bank to catch balls on their way to Rock Creek, which is about twenty feet across and full of rushing water after the spring melt. The green makes two soft rises over its length but it’s nothing dramatic, it doesn’t need to be sitting right next to the creek. Pretty good for the first green Jonathan has ever shaped on his own.
  8. We hike up the hill to the tees on the par-4 ninth; this is the longest green-to-tee walk on the golf course, about 150 yards and thirty feet uphill, so we will locate the “halfway house” one hole earlier than usual to break up the walk. There are three tees on the hole, and the forward tee needs a bit of work, as there is a lower shelf which is too small to use … we’ll just make it all one level.
  9. Eric has flagged the fairway lines out through the native grasses, and we adjust the line on the left a bit wider so that pulled tee shots will roll out in the irrigated grass instead of the native grass. That’s a costly decision, though – I’ve probably added two or three sprinkler heads to the plan at almost $1000 apiece.
  10. Kye asks about the shapes of the left-hand fairway bunkers and do we see enough of them from the tee? These are gathering bunkers as a lot of the landing area tilts over in that direction, so we want them to sneak up on players a bit. There is also a distant scar in that direction where some work was done for the irrigation pond, and big flashy bunkers would draw people’s attention that way. We all agree the bunkers are fine as they are.
  11. We have done some work to lower the crown of the fairway landing area to make it easier for short hitters to see the green on their second shots, but we haven’t gone far enough yet … we’ll have to lower a small portion of the fairway another two feet or so.
  12. The visibility of the green from past the trouble spot is better than expected now that we’ve ripped out a small line of rocks which was in the way. No more earthwork needed there.
  13. This green looks huge for a short par-4 but when we pace it off it’s only 7,500 square feet, not as big as it looked. I decide to extend the green a bit on the right so that the pin can occasionally be tucked behind a hollow on the edge of the green.
  14. We move over to look at the tees on #10. Jonathan has done a great job here, tucking the middle tees for this long par five behind a ridge on the right side so that you don’t have to stare at them when playing from the back, and he’s built them plenty big enough which is often a concern in hilly terrain. We do consider adding a fairway bunker into a ridge just before the start of the fairway, to help define the right side of the fairway which you can’t see from the tee. It will also be a lot more playable for a bad tee shot than the rocky rough.
  15. There is a pretty good-sized Douglas fir on the left short of the fairway, which obscures part of the fairway bunker complex on the left. It’s not bad now, but in five or ten years you probably won’t see the bunkers at all. Isaac asks if we should get the tree out before the client sees it – many clients have a sentimental attachement to trees and tell us not to remove them even when they’re clearly in the way – but we decide Bill probably won’t notice this one unless he thinks it’s in the way, so we don’t have to rush and get it out of there before he sees it.
  16. The fairway on this downhill par five is extremely wide, but it does wrap behind those left-hand fairway bunkers so if you can clear them you’re still in grass and not rocks. However, I move the fairway flags a bit higher up the slope so players won’t wind up going through the grass and into the rough.
  17. We are burying gigantic boulders collected from other fairways at the bottom of this hill so that a second shot short of the green won’t face quite such an uphill third shot. It looks like we will raise the fairway five or six feet when finished over a pretty broad area. I remind Eric to make sure we don’t trap any drainage at the base of the hill.
  18. The approach back up to the green had a big knobby contour right in the way so it blinded any approach shot from below; this has been removed since my last visit, but the work wasn’t tapered back far enough, so the fairway leading to the green is really narrow and lots of players will likely fade their shots over the edge of the bluff on the right of the green. I say we need to cut the approach back a lot on the left to make it wider and more inviting; Kye smiles because Eric has already anticipated this.
  19. Likewise, Eric thinks the tenth green ought to be a bit bigger at the back and left, and I agree. Another of our young shapers, George Waters, built this green before heading over to work in Scotland, but George is still building his stuff a bit small for the scale of this landscape.
  20. We look at a lot of possibilities for the best tee locations on hole 11, but decide to hold off until work is complete in the landing area and we are seeing exactly what the golfer will see from the tee.
  21. There is a small hump about 6-8 feet high just before the start of the fairway which will make it really hard for forward-tee players to see where they are going. Again, we’ll wait until the rest of the fairway is graded before we decide to remove the hump.
  22. The landing area for the eleventh fairway plays along a ridge, and if you don’t judge it correctly the ball will go down into a lower landing area on the right. There’s a 25-foot difference in elevation now, and the bank is too steep to mow as fairway, so we decide to cut 6-8 feet off the ridgetop and add six feet of fill in the lower bowl. That’s a lot of rocks to move around.  [As it turned out, Eric decided not to pursue this.  The superintendent assured us it could be mowed, and the fairway "as is" was more dramatic and less expensive.]
  23. When I walk up on the green I’m disappointed; it looks a bit too small and too high in relation to the ground around it. After some conversation it sounds like Kye had the green more like I wanted it and Eric had him raise the back to hide a grassing line back there; we decide to get it back to what Kye had built before and then reassess.
  24. There is a bunker to the right of the green which I think blocks too big a portion of the green from the lower landing area; we agree to slide it back to guard the back right only.
  25. There are some more evergreen trees of various sizes on a low rocky ridge behind the green; I decide to remove 3-4 trees so they don’t all grow together into a solid background.
  26. The twelfth is a short drop-shot par 3 and the boys have built some terrific-looking bunkers around the green. The only question is how much irrigated turf we need to have around the green, as opposed to retaining natural grasses and rocks around the back edges of the bunkers. We decide to irrigate more on the right side of the green and tie it into the next tee.
  27. On closer inspection, the green is very interesting as it sits, but we might get another interesting pin placement at the back left of the green if we move a hump in the green a bit forward to make more room behind it. It will be difficult to judge the distance correctly to get the ball to the right part of the green if we change it, but players can always aim a bit more into the middle of the green to avoid the hump if they’re uncertain.
  28. The thirteenth is a very long par-3 across a very deep valley. The tees have to be built out of a series of rocky ridges and we spend a while looking at how to cut and fill to make the tees without them looking too manufactured.
  29. The guys have already made some jokes about this green and Eric says the client is a bit uncomfortable with the big contours on it, and when we walk up to it I can see why – it’s really a bit too much at the far end of a 240-yard hole. After some deliberation I think the green has been built a bit too far to the left, so it’s right on the brink of a fifteen-foot drop on that side; we agree to move it to the right and slightly farther back.
  30. We will also recontour the left side approach so that there is an intermediate level for shots which are just wide of the green.
  31. Since number 13 is the last green which has been rough shaped, we hop in the car and drive all the way around to the eighth tee on the far side of the creek to get a look at the hole from the tee – with the water raging in Rock Creek and no bridge in place, it’s a two mile drive to see it. Eric has built the tees into the side of a hill since my last visit, and we agree that the transitions between them are a bit too abrupt for walkers, so we’ll put a little more fill at the base of the slope.
  32. I ask how long the hole is from the back tee; both green and tee have been moved in the field, and since we already have two fairly short par-3’s at 12 and 17, I want to be sure this one is at least 190 yards from the back. This is the only time all day I will ask about a yardage. No one has brought a rangefinder, so we’ll have to check it tomorrow with the golf professional’s.
  33. There is an alternate tee up to the right (the original location) and Eric asks if I want to still build it. The hole is much shorter from there, maybe 130 yards, but you look right down at the water surging through the creek, so I say I still want to build it as an alternate tee for the members.
  34. The only thing about Jonathan’s green which doesn’t look good is the left side which is up against a bank. We think about a bunker at the edge of the green, but decide maybe it will look better if we just clear a bit more of the native grass at the back left to change the shape of the grass line.
  35. We also decide to add a bunker just across the creek before the start of the fairway, to provide a buffer between the fairway and the bank down to the water. This will be better ecologically as well as visually.
  36. We walk back to the seventh green, where a crew is finishing installing the greens mix and topsoil around the green – it’s the first one that has been finished and the irrigation is installed so that the hole can be seeded in about two weeks. This is a local landscaping crew without much golf course experience, so we take some time to show them how the transition from topsoil to greens mix has to be tied in seamlessly.
  37. We also discuss the cart path location for the seventh hole. In an ideal world we wouldn’t have any paths at all – most players would walk, and golfers who needed carts would just use the fairway – but that’s impossible here in a wet spring. Our paths are way out of the line of play to keep them out of sight as you’re playing the course; Eric has done a great job of this so far so that I don’t have to make too many cart path decisions, because he knows how much I hate for the paths to determine what we can do on the hole.
  38. We drive past the sixth fairway and stop to look at the irrigation crew in action. They are churning up a lot of rocks as they put in the pipes, and we go back and forth over whether it would be better to wait on topsoiling the hole until after the irrigation is in the ground, so that they wouldn’t contaminate the topsoil with their rocks … but Isaac is more concerned about crushing the irrigation pipes during the topsoiling.
  39. I ask Eric to stop in the fifth fairway so I can see how the green looks from the left side. This is one of my favorite holes so far, a short par-4. If you play safely away from a nest of bunkers in the shoulder of a hill on the right, there’s plenty of fairway, but then you have to play over native grass and bunkers to a green that’s just barely visible from the left. The greens mix is now in and I’m pleased with what you can’t see from that side.
  40. We stop in the fourth fairway and find that the topsoiling operation has just buried a couple of little shelves we built into the rising fairway so that drives wouldn’t all collect to the same point. Eric is bummed over the quality of this work and the contractor can expect a pointed reminder about it tomorrow.
  41. We all agree that we should use a bit of extra topsoil on the approach as well, and shape it so that balls short of the green aren’t so likely to roll back down away from the front edge.
  42. We go down to the first tee to look at the hole from there and to pick up Chris for the afternoon. Kye has suggested an alternate tee to the left which sits down in a bowl and has better separation from the entrance road to the property, and we all like this idea.
  43. The practice green was also supposed to go down in this bowl with Kye’s tee, and I suggest changing the shape of the green so that we can get some green behind the tee where players will be very close to Rock Creek and you have a great exposure to the sound of the water.
  44. Now that we’ve toured the rest of the course, I see that Chris’s bunkers to the left of the first green are a bit different in style than those we’ve built so far. Tomorrow we’ll change them up a bit to look like clusters of smaller bunkers instead of single larger ones.