Sand Hills Golf Club Members – When judging golf courses, people look at setup, layout and conditioning. Each hole goes under a microscope.
Another factor should also be considered: Does the ownership or governance structure of the course have a direct impact on the quality of the course? Answer – Accepting that there are always exceptions – yes.
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In seeking government of the people, by the people, for the people, democracy is our best chance of success. But as many examples show, when trying to create, maintain or restore a great golf course, especially at a private clubhouse, there may be a better way.
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For over a century, many private clubs have tried the democratic path. They organize themselves with a president, board of directors and several leadership committees. And in the democratic tradition, these positions change regularly. In many cases, elected leaders serve for a few years with their roles changing every year or two, with new faces on the Green Committee importing new ideas and plans for change.
And for over a century, course designers have shrunk. Designers have built great courses with vision, and even well-intentioned changes by green committees can destroy their excellence.
Changes are often made for the sake of change. A committee member’s game successes or failures can overtly affect decisions. Trees and flowers are planted where none should be. Holes are rearranged or elongated without proper impact considerations, changing the original designer’s intent. Some bunkers can be destroyed while others are introduced to big damage game strategies. The list goes on.
“Millions and millions of dollars were spent on golf courses and millions more to replace them,” said Devereux Emmett, a noted designer of many famous classic golf courses in the early 1900s. clubs supported by golf professionals.”
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Augusta National Golf Club, pictured in 1933, was designed by Alister Mackenzie (inset photo) and had a despotic captain for many years at Clifford Roberts. (Photoquest/Getty Images)
“My experience is that golf courses replaced by green committees have always failed,” wrote architect Alistair Mackenzie in 1933 in “The Spirit of St. Andrews.”
“There are times when great success can be achieved by a benevolent tyrant dominating the committee, but there must be no compromises – the committee must be a one-man show,” he wrote.
Bill Coor and design partner Ben Crenshaw have been fortunate to work with many of the top private clubs, on assignments from new construction to restoration and championship preparations. Many of these top clubs have a version of the solo approach. Examples include Dick Youngscap at Sand Hills in Nebraska, Ken Bakst at Friars Head, New York, Charles Stevenson at Shinnecock, New York, Jimmy Dunne at Seminole, Florida, and Dunlop White III at the Old Town Club in North Carolina. (These courses feature prominently on the Best of Modern and Classic Courses and Best of Best Private Courses lists in every state.)
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Coor is as polite, humble and uncontroversial as he looks, but he is speechless when asked about the value of the authoritarian model.
“There is no discussion. If you are looking for continuity in the course, the fewer people involved, the better”, said Coor. “The courses that have gone astray have a revolving door. You can see where the committee chair wants to make his mark on the course.
This principle applies to new courses that take time to mature and to old courses that have been reinstated. Consistency is best achieved when people involved from the start can follow the course’s progress after the work is completed.
The key figure in the equation is the superintendent, who is in charge of the day-to-day running of the course. His work brings out the finer details of the design and enhances the gaming experience. Badly done, it could be far from it. Most supervisors appreciate the design and strive to present the course in the best possible light. While this may seem like a simple goal that all clubs should strive for, the committee model often presents unnecessary challenges.
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The best way to support the superintendent’s objective of presenting the course in the best possible light is to provide clear communication and adequate resources. A long-term point of contact provides stability for supervisors.
A rotating committee structure muddy that water. Each committee is populated with members from different backgrounds, priorities, agendas and personalities. It forces superintendents to re-educate a new group each year, assess personalities, and navigate political landmines.
The simple task of removing a tree or adjusting a cut line becomes a cycle of debate and political maneuvering. At the end of the day, the club ends up with accountants and lawyers making decisions about grass and trees.
It’s easy to see why superintendents are the only group more inclined to the long-term solo model than designers.
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While supervisors are not in a position to speak, rotating committees can be quite a challenge. The fewer people involved, the better.
All of this begs the question: if professionals who know what’s best for the golf course agree that a leader offers the best chance of success, why don’t more clubs adopt this model?
It’s hard to know for sure because each club is different. One possible answer is politics. Private clubs are full of power struggles, big egos and more. Think of a private club: hundreds of members, each financially successful, most of whom are used to leadership roles, each at a different stage in life, each with a different game of golf.
It takes a special kind of membership to say the course is more important than any traditional membership or governance roles. Finding the right long-term manager for the club is critical. Predictably, many members likely believe he’s the right person for the role. Here are some characteristics of an ideal candidate:
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It is important to note that age, wealth, gender or popularity are not important factors. Finally, this person needs to work well with the team (general manager, superintendent, golf pro) and consultants (designer, irrigation specialist, agronomist). Members from diverse backgrounds can do this effectively.
Autocracy is not suitable for every club. Democracy must rule the day, especially if key members believe membership is more important than course. Each club must decide for itself.
But if one wants to have the best possible long-term course, autocracy may be the best chance of success.
The desert course in Las Vegas, which hosts this week’s PGA Tour event, was designed by Bobby Weed with input from Fuzzy Zoeller. The golf course was not designed as much as it was invented. Bill Coor and Ben Crenshaw drove back and forth across nearly a thousand acres of sandy hills in downtown Nebraska, signaling fairways and natural greens. By moving just 4,000 cubic yards of dirt and allowing the wind to form bunkers, the duo created arguably America’s most natural golf course, a timeless course design. For decades, winter winds have always reshaped bunkers, but course officials have recently discovered a way to prevent this. At the end of the season, they sprinkle the surface of the bunkers with sand, which creates a crust to resist the howling winds.
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“A unique course built with minimal earthworks and an incredibly low budget, as stated in countless descriptions by the club itself and golf architecture writers. Natural bunkers, green complexes and native areas from start to finish. No other homes, structures, vehicles or people off the course and the Nebraska Sand Hills. Can see for 20 miles on many holes with impressive views. Very firm and fast, but fair playing surfaces throughout. Well thought out hole layouts that allow you to play with All wind directions Some of the best bunkers found anywhere in America Absolutely natural feel on every hole Courses 1, 16, 17 with 18 unique holes.
“It’s worth the effort to get here. A course that brings the architectural focus back to minimalism is absolutely stunning. A wonderful collection of holes with wonderfully different playing characteristics depending on the wind and the tee played. Play from sun to sun and then enjoy the best steaks in golf.”
“I only gave a few ‘fives out of fives’. Sand Hills gets one of these. It’s just glorious. The route is amazing and the holes are sky-dropping. It just doesn’t get any better than this. It’s Coor’s masterpiece /Crenshaw.”
“Simply put, one of the truly special experiences in golf. Life here is simple. You must see Sand Hills or your golf experience is incomplete.”
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“It doesn’t get much better than Sand Hills. Exclusive and all about golf. Most guests play 36
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