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The Death of the Big Firm

 

When I began my own company in 2005, I was determined to keep my business as small as possible. My hope was to do well enough to be able to select between interesting projects rather than needing to add additional employees to deal with a growing workload. At the 2006 ASGCA meeting I sought out a few of the architects, who all ran small firms, for advice. Clyde Johnston was the first and he gave me one of the most thoughtful pieces of advice any architect ever offered up, “Keep your business small, employees to a minimum and work out of your house. At some point you’ll be really grateful you did.”

 

Five years later I found myself dealing with one of the tougher periods in recent memory. I have weathered this storm despite having an extended period where no work was coming in. I’ve watched massive lay-offs at big firms, small firms struggle to survive, people forced to leave the business, and been grateful to survive. I was fine because I had no employees, no office, no lease arrangements and no debt. I worked out of my house, drove my own car, paid for everything as I went and ran my business with no outside help. I only required the usual yearly audit by my accountant/pirate to make sure that I had my affairs in order.

 

I think the business of golf architecture is in the process of changing for the long term. I’ve noticed a recent trend where companies have approached some of the remaining employees about them going out on their own. The truth is the employees don’t really have a choice. The employee is allowed to maintain a link with the original company. This allows them to still work together or have the former employer recommend them for work. The former employer is either hired as sub-contractors to the original firm or as independent by the owner if they are both working on the same project. This is a nice arrangement, but the reality is the original company needed to reduce its payroll and commitments.

 

Interestingly, you can see how this approach may represent the ideal future from both perspectives. The former employee will enjoy the opportunity to build their own company based around their own personal interest or skill set. They will certainly enjoy the tax benefits and may if lucky see a substantial increase in income if things go well. This may lead to the independence that some designers crave. The employer will enjoy having much more flexibility in the business, less overhead to worry about, and the chance to restructure or redirect the company if they desire.

 

A number of years back I watched two major designers make a major change in their business. Their firms had grown substantially and they were no longer happy since the business end had begun to dominate their lives. They dropped their staff and became much more selective about work. They still earn a nice income, are in great demand and no longer have the complications of running a large business. Their examples had an impact on my desire to be a small boutique shop.

 

I know through my own experience that being small does present complications on occasion. Usually the question is about how you can you possibly meet all the obligations without having a team behind you. Lately a few architects manage to deal with this by banding together by name. The company shares the two or three or even four names, but each remains independent as a business entity. They combine forces when they need each other or work independently when they don’t. This helps them deal with questions about the size of the firm or the ability to put a team in place. It’s a clever way to keep it simple and still meet the requirements of certain types of projects.

 

I think one of the reasons this trend is going to gain strength is that one of the most influential companies in golf design is made up of multiple independent contractors. We easily associate the group under one name, but the reality is that they are an accumulation of companies. I think the future will see hundreds of small individual businesses that have the ability to work on projects together or work on their own projects as individual. This will make the golf design business a lot more flexible and cost effective to deal with a market that will never be near as strong as when the large firms emerged.

 

Being small and nimble has turned out to be an incredible advantage in these tough times that we still are going through. I look at all the decisions that I made and the one that mattered the most was the decision to keep the business small enough to provide me with flexibility if things went bad. And I’m very grateful that I did.

 

September 14th, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday … to me!

 

photo by Chico - my favourite

 

Today I’m 45 and I’m feeling a little reflective.

 

I’ve been working in golf design since 1989, making this my 22nd year, and I expect I have at least another 20 years to go. I’m past the halfway point of my career and as a reflective person I choose my birthday to take stock of where I am.

 

I wrote five goals when I began my career in 1989.

 

1. Design a golf course

 

While I have had a huge impact on a couple of particular designs, I haven’t yet had the complete freedom to create exactly what I want to create. There are two nines that are completely mine, but not a eighteen that is truly 100% my work. The biggest gap in my design career to date is that I have not yet had the opportunity to develop and build an eighteen hole golf course that looks and plays like I believe it should.

 

I am excited because I know that at Mike and I will get that chance, hopefully as soon as next year if everything goes as planned. 

 

2. Become a member of the ASGCA

 

I became an associate member in 2004 and while I really enjoy the close friendships this affiliation has brought me, I can honestly say the experience has not yet been what I had hoped it would be. 

 

3. Work on one of the 100 Greatest Courses in the World

 

I have worked on both Highlands Links and St. George’s (the bunker restoration). I have made a significant mark in the preservation and restoration at St. George’s and I look forward to restoring Highlands Links over the next decade. I am fortunate to be given these opportunities on such historically important courses.

 

4. See all the top 100 Course in the World

 

I have always liked lists, but I doubt I’ll ever see all of the top 100 because I’m no longer interested in completing the list, just for the sake of completing the list.  I’ve begun to concentrate on visiting the courses that interest me because of the architecture and/or history, rather than sticking to a list. Of the current top 100 list, I have managed to see fifty-five, but there a least a dozen courses I have no interest in seeing.

 

5. Work on the courses of as many of the great architects as possible

 

I have been lucky to work on seven of my top dozen architects in history.

12. Willie Park Jr. – four clubs
11. Charles Alison – one club
10. William Flynn

9. Perry Maxwell
8. Seth Raynor – one club
7. Stanley Thompson – twenty-five clubs
6. Donald Ross – one club
5. George Thomas
4. Charles Blair MacDonald
3. A. W. Tillinghast – two clubs

2. H.S. Colt – one club

1. Alister Mackenzie

 

So what do I want going forward?

 

Obviously, I want to fill that gap.  I want that one really nice property and the opportunity for Mike and me to build our vision.

 

September 13th, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 13 Courses That Should Have Made The List

The 18th at Kawartha

 

So What’s Missing in My Mind?

 

Twin Rivers

Best Element: It could either be hitting over a 40’ waterfall, playing beside a raging river, hitting over roaring rapids or the par five along the ocean

The Good: The ocean view on the opener and shot over the waterfall to finish is really incredible

The Bad: Some of Robbie’s holes are dull despite a great setting

The Ugly: The trees blocking the view of the rapids all the way up 5th hole is a crime

Ian’s Rank: Top 75

Comment: At times the course is spectacular

 

Digby Pines

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 75

Comment: Anyone who has seen it raves about the architecture and setting

 

Royal Quebec

Best Element: The course relies on the subtle landforms to challenge the player

The Good: The use of the creeks and valleys makes for some wonderful holes

The Bad: The back nine has some plain holes in the middle

The Ugly: the most recent work on the 13th is very out of character

Ian’s Rank: Top 100

Comment: Clever and subtle throughout

 

Islesmere - Red and Blue

Best Element: The run from the 6th through to the 14th is awesome

The Good: the 17th and 18th make a great finish

The Bad: The course gets very congested and tight in places

The Ugly: the trees are just too tight and hamper the architecture

Ian’s Rank: Top 100

Comment: Some excellent green sites and beautiful bunkering

 

Chateau Montebello

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 60

Comment: The land is awesome and this was one of Thompson’s ten best when he was alive

 

Royal Ottawa

Best Element: So many wonderful natural landforms left in place

The Good: The greens are often extensions of the fairways

The Bad: The bisecting valleys create lay-ups off the tee

The Ugly: the bunkers are too modern for such a historical golf club

Ian’s Rank: Top 60

Comment: I adore this course for its simplicity and elegance

 

Ottawa Hunt

Best Element: The fairway contour is surprisingly interesting throughout

The Good: The routing works well and the elevated green sites are great

The Bad: The over-shaping around greens seems out of place here

The Ugly: The green contours are so bad that I would rebuild all 18 greens

Ian’s Rank: Top 100

Comment: A great layout hampered by ridiculous greens

 

Kawartha

Best Element: the bunkering is the equal of Banff , St. George’s and Jasper

The Good: the set of par threes are nearly as good as Jasper and Cataraqui

The Bad: The open five is good but not great

The Ugly: the club does no promotion of it’s course

Ian’s Rank: Top 25

Comment: Like the Old Course, lots of room to play , but don’t get in a bunker

 

Lake Joseph

Best Element: The landscape is far more dramatic than most of the Muskoka courses

The Good: It has some of Tom’s very best holes

The Bad: It also has a couple of his worst

The Ugly: The pond on the 18th was a huge disappointment for me when I like so many ideas along the way

Ian’s Rank: Top 75

Comment: More often great than not

 

Highlands (London)

Best Element: Great routing on a surprisingly undulating property

The Good: It has a very impressive collection of fours and threes

The Bad: The fives are all short and fairly average holes

The Ugly: The property is slow to drain and can play very wet

Ian’s Rank: Top 75

Comment: The threes and fours are terrific

 

Cherry Hill

Best Element: Some of the very best greens in the country

The Good: The bunkering is quite unique

The Bad: The course is very flat

The Ugly: the number of three-putts on the final green

Ian’s Rank: Top 50

Comment: The greens make this a must see

 

St. Charles

Best Element: the only Mackenzie nine in the country

The Good: plus a Donald Ross nine

The Bad: the changes to the Ross course

The Ugly: the alteration of the 3rd on the Mackenzie nine is a crime

Ian’s Rank: Top 100

Comment: The course has a lot of interesting holes despite the flat land that the course is one

 

Waskesiu

Best Element: A beautiful piece of property

The Good: The 8th hole is worth the drive alone

The Bad: Some really weird holes like the 16th

The Ugly: the 2nd should look out to the lake, not to the trees that have grown up

Ian’s Rank: Top 100

Comment: There are enough wonderful holes that overcome the strange ones along the way

I though about Glendale in Edmonton, Peace Portal, Point Grey and UBC, but was not convinced enough on any of them.

 

Commentary on the Rankings

 

The rankings used to be awful. They told us more about what’s new and less about what’s great. For years we had to endure Glen Abbey as the second best course in Canada when I’m not sure that it’s the second best course in Oakville.

 

The latest and greatest has always been given a quick road to the top before starting a long slow descent into a more realistic ranking. It happens most years. Devil’s Pulpit began at #4 in 1992 and Gallagher’s Canyon was also a lofty #15 for a course no longer on the list. Interestingly that was the year that Hamilton inexplicably did not make the list. In 1994 we saw King Valley at #4. After that fewer courses were built and the older courses came back to the top.

 

In 2000 we saw Nicklaus North at #9 and Angus Glen (South) at #14. 2002 brought Red Tail in at #5 and Lake Joseph at #8 and even Le Geant at #12. Imagine this Lake Joseph is not even on the top 100 anymore! 2004 placed Bigwin at #6 and Fox H’rbour at #10 and finally 2006 featured Taboo at #11. This year both Jason Logan and Robert Thompson opined that Muskoka Bay was overrated at #9, so may be that hasn’t changed yet.

 

Time is always the best measure of greatness.

 

I did think this ranking was the best to date. While I have suggested in the past few days that some courses are either better or worse than the ranking suggests, I do think that Jason is slowly dialing the panel in and getting a much more accurate ranking each year.

 

 

 

My Thoughts on All the Top 100 in Canada – Part Four of Five

 

Courses 76-100

 

 

17th of Maple Downs

 

76 Wooden Sticks GC

Best Element: The land was excellent

The Good: A few of the replicas give you a good idea of what the original hole was like

The Bad: The majority of them are not even remotely close to the original

The Ugly: I bet the architect never saw most of the original holes in person

Ian’s Rank: would not make my top 100

Comment: Good land gone to waste on a bad concept

 

77 Eagle Ranch Resort

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: I saw it driving by - looked like good land

 

78 Marine Drive GC

Best Element: Big Bertha is awesome

The Good: I really like the holes near the clubhouse

The Bad: The course is on a very small property

The Ugly: The trees (needed for safety) choke out the golf course and make the course overly demanding

Ian’s Rank: Top 100

Comment: You have to walk single file down the fairways

 

79 Summit G&CC

Best Element: the property is one of the best I have seen in Canada

The Good: The routing makes exceptional use of the terrain and plays a big part in the strategy

The Bad: the bunkering lets down the course

The Ugly: The loss of the awesome 7th was a huge blow for the course

Ian’s Rank: Top 25

Comment: This is one of the best routings I have seen and one of the most underrated courses in the country

 

80 Sunningdale G&CC – Thompson

Best Element: The Thompson bunkering is terrific

The Good: Great opening holes begin a solid front nine

The Bad: The back nine is not as strong or as interesting

The Ugly: the rebuilt greens are very different

Ian’s Rank: Top 100

Comment: There are enough interesting features to make this worth the visit

 

81 Maple Downs G&CC

Best Element: Excellent routing sets the table wonderfully

The Good: The elevated green sites are truly exceptional in places

The Bad:  the original 18th green is a better site than the current one

The Ugly: The new greens on the 4th and 16th are awkward

Ian’s Rank: Top 30

Comment: This course remains one of my favourites to play in the country

 

82 Black Bear Ridge GC

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: would not make my top 100

Comment: A par 6 – seriously….

 

83 Eagle Creek GC

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: Lots of water in play  

 

84 Riverside CC

Best Element: The 18th was a great change to the course and is a wonderful hole

The Good: Kinnear’s 9th green is truly incredible

The Bad: The 17th was not as good a change as the 18th

The Ugly: The 1st green is an odd design

Ian’s Rank: Top 40

Comment: I really like this course and consider it another underrated course

 

 

 

The 10th at Laval-sur-le-lac

 

85 Laval Sur Le Lac – Green

Best Element: The 10th and 11th are an incredible pair of holes

The Good: The threes are outstanding

The Bad: there are way too many trees ruining the design and playability of holes

The Ugly: The hedge on the 14th is ridiculous

Ian’s Rank: Top 50

Comment: Really good course that needs major tree removal to really improve

 

86 Beaconsfield GC

Best Element: The back nine routing is really cool

The Good: The 15th (Gibraltar) is one of the great Canadian threes

The Bad: The new centennial pond

The Ugly: The single sod wall bunker is so out of place

Ian’s Rank: Top 50

Comment: All the great golf is on the clubhouse side of the highway

 

87 Royal Mayfair GC

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: This was one of Stanley’s best until the changes

 

88 Lookout Point CC

Best Element: The ground is very much in play on this course

The Good: The tiny greens on some short holes make them lethal without length

The Bad: The short fours all coming home are often cited as an issue

The Ugly: The original 8th green (now 18th hole) was a much better site

Ian’s Rank: Top 20

Comment: You must be creative and fit to play well here

 

89 Thornhill G&CC

Best Element: The 9th through 11th are an awesome run of holes

The Good: There are at least half a dozen outstanding holes on this course

The Bad: The housing right of the 14th ids definitely in play

The Ugly: The 90 degree doglegs on the 3rd and 17th

Ian’s Rank: Top 35

Comment: This is a course that surprises you all day long

 

90 Burlington G&CC

Best Element: One of the best sets of fours in the country

The Good: The run of fours in the middle of the course are all fantastic

The Bad: The first four holes are tough as nails

The Ugly: The 17th is truly awful despite a wonderful lakeside setting

Ian’s Rank: Top 30

Comment: A very subtle design that is ridiculously good throughout

 

 

The finishing hole at Cataraqui

 

91 Cataraqui G&CC

Best Element: The three par threes are the best set in Ontario and second best in the country

The Good: There are a dozen excellent holes!

The Bad: The 5th and 17th are the difference between top 10 and top 15

The Ugly: the new pond on the 17th is a disappointment

Ian’s Rank: Top 15

Comment: One of the best pieces of architecture in the country!

 

92 Northern Bear GC

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: No interest

 

93 Radium Resort – Springs

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: Some interest…

 

94 Mad River GC

Best Element: The 6th is brilliant

The Good: There are many really interesting holes along the way

The Bad: …and just as many that made me scratch my head

The Ugly: The 4th is so narrow it’s unplayable

Ian’s Rank: Top 75

Comment: Full of brilliant and not so brilliant moments

 

95 Tarandowah Golfers Club

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: I think it’s probably quite good, but I doubt it’s great

 

96 King’s Forest GC

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: This is a must see for me this fall!

 

97 Westwood Plateau G&CC

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: Very severe in places which I’m never fond of

 

98 Pine Ridge GC

Best Element: The original greens are incredible

The Good: The 9th is an epic “ insurmountable” par three

The Bad: The flat land sometimes underwhelms until you reach the green

The Ugly: The four altered holes ruin a great course

Ian’s Rank: Top 50

Comment: It shows that brilliant greens can make a great course from average land

 

99 Wildfire GC

Best Element: The course is very much on grade which I enjoyed 

The Good: The incorporation of rock features as accents

The Bad: The course leaves you underwhelmed at times

The Ugly: The use of erratic rocks as a strategic element is dangerous

Ian’s Rank: Top 75

Comment: I like the course and its simple approach

 

100 The Club at Bond Head – South

Best Element: The routing is pretty darn good

The Good: The bunkering was really original and innovative

The Bad: Everything looks so shaped, nothing looks natural  

The Ugly: The earthmoving was heavy handed for a nice piece of land

Ian’s Rank: Top 75

 

 

 

 

My Thoughts on All the Top 100 in Canada – Part Three of FIVE

 

Courses 51-75

 

Oakdale's tremendous 10th

 

51 Rosedale GC

Best Element: The routing by Bendelow creates a marvelous flow through the property

The Good: The variety of hole lengths is terrific

The Bad: The range ruined the spectacular 15th

The Ugly: Every version of the 18th has been awful

Ian’s Rank: Top 30

Comment: A really good golf course with many wonderful holes

 

52 Cobble Beach Golf Links

Best Element: The setting overlooking the Bay is beautiful

The Good: The lumpy fairways are really cool and pretty clever

The Bad: Why put two par fives on the lakeshore and limit the number of holes that could be placed there?

The Ugly: The use of ponds on the par fives is repetitive

Ian’s Rank: Top 50

Comment: The ground game is in play here through some clever design ideas

 

53 Fox Harb’r Resort – great site horrible architecture

Best Element: The setting is a world beater with a mile of ocean front

The Good: The back nine is on a slope that falls towards the ocean

The Bad: The ocean is inexplicably not in play on any of the holes

The Ugly: The 18th is one of the worst holes I’ve ever seen

Ian’s Rank: would not make my top 100

Comment: You could not have got less out of a great site

 

54 Chateau Whistler GC

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: Looks decent and worth a visit through the photos

 

55 Le Diable

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: would not make my top 100

Comment: The course comes across as repetitive

 

56 Nicklaus North GC

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: flat site, but some good architecture

 

57 Oakdale G&CC – Two, Three

Best Element: The terrain plays a major role in the strategy

The Good: Some of Thompson’s greatest holes are found here

The Bad: Rebuilt greens and altered holes have weakened the course

The Ugly: The recent bunkering on the 6th and 7th is awful

Ian’s Rank: Top 50

Comment: The course is very well routed over really good terrain

 

58 Priddis Greens G&CC – Hawk

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: Not a clue on this one

 

59 Predator Ridge – Predator

Best Element: The landscape is unique to Canadian golf

The Good: There are some wonderful valleys that holes route through

The Bad: The routing of the course leads to many extreme and awkward holes as it gets pushed into high ground

The Ugly: All the mounds added between natural fairways and beautiful landforms are brutal

Ian’s Rank: Top100

Comment: A little less of everything would have lead to a better course

 

60 Bear Mountain G&CC – Mountain 

Best Element: The views are out of this world

The Good: There are some incredibly dramatic holes due to the severe terrain

The Bad: There are just as many bad ones because the land was too severe

The Ugly: The 11th is awful and the best three is not part of the course

Ian’s Rank: Top 75

Comment: The land was way too severe to build a cohesive course

 

61 London Hunt and CC

Best Element: The undulations on the lower holes create some nice movement in the fairways

The Good: The closer to the river, the better the land, the better the holes

The Bad: I honestly can’t remember half the holes…

The Ugly: The course looks very similar unless you have terrain

Ian’s Rank: Top 100

Comment: It’s nice, but not much stands out

 

62 Salmon Arm GC

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: would not make my top 100

Comment: no clue

 

63 Bell Bay GC

Best Element: Ted Stonehouse!

The Good: I like the use of cross-slope on some of the fours

The Bad: The course is dull to look at

The Ugly: The best view on the property is out the back of the 18th tee?

Ian’s Rank: would not make my top 100

Comment: The course is just a little too plain for my liking

 

64 St. Thomas G&CC

Best Element: The land is spectacular and so are most of the holes

The Good: Anything in the main valley is magnificent

The Bad: The course needs tree removal and bunker work

The Ugly: The 2nd hole is truly odd

Ian’s Rank: Top 20

Comment:  One of the best courses in the country

 

65 Heron Point Golf Links

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 50

Comment: I drive by almost every day and I like what I see

 

66 Essex G&CC

Best Element: The greens are truly stunning

The Good: An impressive course when you consider there is no elevation change

The Bad: The fives are all quite short

The Ugly: The drive down the 401 to get there puts you to sleep

Ian’s Rank: Top 40

Comment:  The greens are some of the best in the country

 

67 Angus Glen GC – South

Best Element: The routing of the holes across the road is great

The Good: The threes are really strong

The Bad: The course weakens in the back once it reaches lesser land

The Ugly: The opener is too hard and too soon

Ian’s Rank: Top 50

Comment:  A really good golf course that is surprisingly falling out of favour

 

68 Heritage Pointe – Desert, Heritage

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: not seen it

 

 

The Hoot's front side

 

69 Osprey Valley – Hoot

Best Element: The bunkering is some of the best in Canada

The Good: The “Pine Valley” concept is brilliantly executed for 15 holes

The Bad: The final three holes seem so different from the others

The Ugly: The 17th and the waterfall are like going to Vegas

Ian’s Rank: Top 30

Comment: The holes from 2 to 15 are exceptional

 

70 Deer Ridge GC

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: would not make my top 100

Comment: seen some of it, but never felt the need to see it all

 

71 Magna GC

Best Element: The rolling land was really good

The Good: The scale of the fairway contours is impressive

The Bad: The scale of everything else is way too large

The Ugly: The scale of the bunkers removes any hope of some intimacy that would pull the design back to human scale

Ian’s Rank: Top100

Comment: Scale is a very dangerous element to get wrong

 

72 Mount Bruno CC

Best Element: The open setting up in the mountain side creates beautiful views

The Good: The understated design makes the course blend beautifully back into the land

The Bad: The course has too many trees and too little native grass still

The Ugly: You can’t find the entrance without a guide

Ian’s Rank: Top 30

Comment: Best course in Quebec

 

73 The Ridge at Manitou

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: Top 100

Comment: looks good in the photos

 

74 Big Sky G&CC

Not seen it in person

Ian’s Speculation: would not make my top 100

Comment: Not my Cupp of tea…

 

75 Bayview CC

Best Element: The holes using the major valley are really good holes

The Good: There are some clever greens hidden in this layout

The Bad: The course becomes very plain when the land gets flat

The Ugly: The over-planting of trees inside tree lines is awful

Ian’s Rank: would not make my top 100

 

 

 
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