Though it may come as a surprise to some, our Planet Golf Architect of the Year for 2010 is American Jim Urbina. Having started in the design business working for Pete Dye in the mid-1980s, Urbina left Dye in 1992 to join an unknown novice named Tom Doak, whom he worked with successfully for more than 17 years. In 2010, after completing their second masterpiece at the Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon, Tom Doak and Jim Urbina went their separate ways – and one gets the sense that Urbina was as stunned as anyone else when the partnership ended. It’s not an easy time to establish yourself as a serious solo designer.
So onto our award, and the reason for the choice of Jim Urbina is simple – he not only assembled a wonderful portfolio of completed work whilst working with Doak, but he was the Renaissance Design man on the ground at Old Macdonald, which is surely the most significant global golf course to have opened during the past year. Of course Doak himself was a strong contender for the award, as were Kyle Phillips (Verdura & Yas Links), Bill Coore (Lost Farm & The Dormie Club) and Brian Curley (Lava Fields, Blackstone & others in China).
Prior to notifying Urbina of the ‘Architect of the Year’ accolade we interviewed him for Planet Golf, asking about his beginnings in the business and of those early years with Doak as they worked to establish what has become a globally admired design company. Highlights of the interview are featured below.
Interview with Jim Urbina, Planet Golf Architect of the Year for 2010.
We’ll begin with some background – you worked for Pete Dye and essentially learned the craft of design from him. When was that and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from Dye?
JU - I started with Pete Dye in 1982 at a golf course in Colorado called the T.P.C. at Plum Creek. I worked for Pete and his son Perry for almost 9 years, a few being part time as summer employment. I was also teaching high school drafting for a couple of years until I decided to go full time in the golf design business in 1985.
In terms of what I learned, I never saw Pete roll out a set of plans on any of the golf courses I worked on with him. He would walk the golf course looking at each hole and how he wanted to craft it. I started as a shaper and would build any feature Pete wanted, greens, bunkers or fairways. His first instructions were always: lets build something and then we will look at it. He wasn’t afraid to change features if he didn’t like what he was seeing and he allowed me to have a lot of input.
He would also send me to look at golf courses he had already built to give me ideas for future work. His son Perry actually funded my first trip to Scotland back in the mid-1980s. The Dye’s started my education in golf design and one of the many things they taught me was not to be afraid to change an idea or concept if it wasn’t working. I owe them a debt of gratitude.
During my tenure with the family they kept sending me to places like Pine Valley, Pinehurst, Prairie Dunes, Cypress Point and the National Golf Links of America. I was so moved by the beauty and scale of these places that I wanted to start designing and building similar courses. In order to create styles like the Old Dead guys, I had to step away from the Dye company.
With the exception perhaps of guys like Brian Curley and Lee Schmidt, most of those who studied under Mr. Dye now build layouts that are the polar opposite to Pete Dye courses. Why do you think this is, and can you imagine ever building something like TPC Sawgrass or Whistling Straits?
JU - I can’t speak for Lee or Brian, but I wanted to try something different and fun. Could I build TPC Sawgrass or Whistling Straits? I am sure I would have given it my best effort but when it comes to those golf courses Pete was the man and I don’t think anybody could match his creativity. He was moving a lot of dirt while I worked for him and after seeing the simplicity and beauty of a Prairie Dunes or Cypress Point I felt that you could do something really cool with a lot less dirt moving, provided, of course, you could find that special piece of land.
From Pete Dye you went to work with Tom Doak at Renaissance Golf Design, and until recently you were his longest serving associate. What was it like to help build such a successful business?
JU - You are correct, after leaving the Dye family I joined Tom in 1992. In the beginning it was tough getting jobs and I remember interviewing and competing against the icons of golf in the early 1990s, when we rarely ever got a call back. Tom or I would go to the interviews but they usually chose the big names over Renaissance Golf Design. In the early days we got jobs by referral and not by interviewing. Tom had done three golf courses prior to me joining the company. When he got the job at Stonewall in Philadelphia, he and Gil Hanse worked on that project while I was hired to do the Charlotte Golf Links. Gil decided after Stonewall to move on and start his own company, which has been a very successful move.
After the courses in Philly and Charlotte were completed we looked for more work but things were a little tight during those initial years. We kept interviewing and finally Quail Crossing in Indiana came along, followed soon after by a few other courses that allowed Tom to hire more employees to man the work. Then our big break came, signing to do Pacific Dunes for Mike Keiser on a wonderful piece of land on the Oregon coast. We poured our heart and soul into that job and the golf course turned out pretty well, and soon Renaissance Golf Design had work in parts of the world we had never imagined. I moved to Long Island to work on Sebonack, next to my favorite golf course, The National Golf Links of America. We wouldn’t have got that job if the owner hadn’t fallen in love with Pacific Dunes. Tom started getting calls from all over the world and the company created golf courses in Tasmania, Victoria and New Zealand on the heels of the work at Pacific Dunes. From my humble beginnings in Charlotte, North Carolina, when no one knew who we were, we ended up building on some of the most spectacular sites ever imagined.
What was your relationship with Tom like during those early years?
JU - Tom and I formed a golfing friendship while working together for Pete Dye. He was a kid wanting to get in the golf design business and I was a kid trying to make a living fresh out of college with a teaching degree. We grew up together watching each of us evolve into crafty golf course builders. We traveled countless miles exploring new courses and staring at old ones trying to extract some ideas for our next design. Some days we would drive all day just to see one golf course and others we would cram in 3 or sometimes 4 courses on a long June day, always discussing what we had both learned. I recall countless days of walking and playing golf courses sketching ideas, measuring greens, checking slopes, gauging sizes and shapes of bunkers always posting a note in the back of the mind where we could use that idea later on in our careers.
Thousands of cheeseburgers, gallons of Coke and Diet Coke and many late nights talking golf course architecture either at a local restaurant at midnight in Brora, Scotland or waiting for a delayed flight debating Mackenzie’s importance in the world of golf design at an airport in San Jose del Cabo. We shared many days, curious where our next job was going to be and we also triumphed together building some of the most beautiful courses in the last 25 years.
Lets talk about one of those courses, Old Macdonald which you were awarded co-designer credit for. Can you explain the background, and your role on the project?
JU - In 2006 we got a call from our favorite client Mike Keiser, who wanted Tom and I to build another golf course on the Oregon coast. He wanted us to create something in the theme of what Charles Blair Macdonald did at The National Golf Links of America, which happens to be my favorite golf course. We felt very lucky, being able to work on the site again and build a course alongside Pacific Dunes. Old Macdonald took two years to build, and I spent over 170 days on site creating and building the holes and features. Like Pacific Dunes, where I spent over 180 days doing the same, we built them both without any drawn plans or sketches. You cannot create these golf courses on a two-dimensional drawing, you have to live on site walking the property every day, staring at landforms and thinking of new and refreshing ideas. That’s what we would do; we would play with the ideas and make minor changes day by day. As Pete Dye told me years ago, “Jim, lets play with it for a while”. I did just that, creating features and erasing them quickly if they didn’t look right.
I also had to teach people who, for the most part, had never built a golf course before and create budgets and construction timelines that I submitted to Mike Keiser. With the help of Ken Nice, the resort agronomist, we built two really good golf courses in the span of ten years with local labor. Pacific Dunes was built mostly with kids out of high school. On both courses we were surrounded by a lot of shaping talent, guys from Renaissance Golf Design and a few local shapers who were every bit as good. One local guy, who had never played golf and was retiring from farming, turned out to be one of our best.
I guess the feature visitors will remember most about Old Macdonald are the greens, which are enormous. Can you talk us through the process of how they were created?
JU - I was counting the days to the start of construction on Old Macdonald, thinking about all of the Macdonald–Raynor courses I had worked on and the countless others I had visited and played. Who wouldn’t want to emulate the ideal holes that Macdonald brought back to the US from the UK? He viewed, played and sketched all of the iconic golf holes including The Road Hole, The Eden, The Redan, Long, Alps and many of the other original holes from the likes of St Andrews, North Berwick and Prestwick. I had seen many of these holes in their original form, and they remain the base for many modern designs.
Replicating holes like The Alps and Short allowed us to create some very undulating greens. The par three 5th has one of the largest greens on the golf course and it was one of the first that Mike approved, which set the standard for the scale of targets that followed. One of the most important parts of the creation is putting the final touches on each green. At Old Macdonald I used a sand pro and rake to create the final putting surfaces prior to seeding. This is where the final little nuances are created. Staring at the green in its rough shaped form and walking the hole forwards and backwards gives you the last sense of need. Making sure all of the recovery shots can be executed and the entire strategy of the hole is finalized in your last putt. That is the process that I have enjoyed on every golf course I have designed with Pete, Perry and Tom. The greens are the face of a portrait and I treat them with that respect.
These greens reminded me of the scale of greens at The Old Course, a place I have great respect for. Because of the size you have to constantly remind yourself of the importance of scale as it relates to the surrounding topography. If the greens are oversized then the remaining area around them must match. I think we did that with great care at Old Macdonald.
What was the most enjoyable aspect of the Old Macdonald project?
JU - The most enjoyable part of the creation of Old Macdonald was working for an owner like Mike Keiser. He provided all of the impetus for success, great land, good leadership, a very creative idea and last but not least, surrounding us with a very talented group of consultants.
It was Mike Keiser who requested that I be penned as co-designer of the course, which is a title I cherish having spent much of the past 27 years away from home and away from my wife and kids, all in the quest to create something really different that people will enjoy for years to come.
It remains to be seen how my work will be perceived as time goes by. I hope people will think of me as someone who really spent time working out the details on each and every hole. That would make all that time away from home worth it. It is in the details 100%.
After Old Macdonald you and Tom Doak ended your 17-year association. Why was that?
JU - Following the completion of the course, in mid-2010, Tom told me that it was time for me to go out on my own, even though we may still have projects to build if the economy recovers. New course work was drying up but we still did team consulting on some of the finest golf courses created in the golden age, such as the San Francisco Golf Club.
So you established your own design practice at one of the most difficult points in the history of this industry. How hard has it been to get your message out, and have you had any lucky winning jobs?
JU - Throughout last year I spent time getting my name out to the people who know the work I have been involved with and I hope to spread my message to others who don’t yet know who I am. I learned a lot during the last 27 years and I also taught others what I had learned. In terms of new projects, I did my first solo design consulting work this past summer at a wonderful old course in Vancouver BC called Marine Drive, a Vernon Macan design. We restored as much of the golf course as we could. Over the years it had become a combination of many different ideas and I was hired to bring back some consistency. It turned out really well and we did all of the work in one summer, which is a testament to the director of Golf and the links committee.
I have also been commissioned to do work in New York on an undiscovered gem designed by A.W Tillinghast. The golf course was not even listed as a Tillinghast design in many of the history books, including the Tillinghast societies web page. After extensive research the history of the course is unmistakable and the new owners are eager to restore the golf course to its glorious past. It was originally developed by movie mogul Adolph Zukor, who started Paramount Pictures, as his own private retreat in 1923.
You had previously restored some of America’s most celebrated old courses, can you briefly list some of the clubs where you worked?
JU - For years now I have been fortunate to consult on some really good golf courses, including places like San Francisco Golf Club by Tillinghast and three Mackenzie designs in California - Pasatiempo, The Valley Club and Claremont C.C. I have also consulted on Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor designs, a sprinkling of Donald Ross and one of my favorites, the Garden City Golf Club in New York. These wonderful designs have taught me a lot about what makes golden age designs so timeless and I want to continue bringing these design concepts to my new courses.
How does the Jim Urbina approach to golf design differ from your competitors?
JU - I hope people understand the amount of work I put into every design, and realize that the golf courses I worked on were done without any plans or a golf course contractor. I had high school kids and Apache Indians and local laborers that had never built a golf course before working with me to craft designs such as Pacific Dunes, Apache Stronghold, Sebonack and Old Macdonald. One of the coolest creations I was a part of was the nine-hole Aetna Springs Club, in Napa California. It was built in 2006-07 by about ten people and was a fun little project with a really good set of greens and 13 imaginative bunkers.
This is what golf course design and construction must have been like before million and bazillion dollars budgets. I think golf courses should go back to this type of craftsmanship.
To close, perhaps explain the Jim Urbina philosophy on design and perhaps why golf developers should engage you as their course architect, or why existing clubs should appoint you as their course consultant?
JU - My philosophy about golf and design started with Pete Dye, who transformed topography by moving mass amounts of dirt to achieve his design features. I have taken his basic design principals and let them evolve over time. 27 years of creating golf courses have taught me easier and more cost effective ways to create really good layouts. Spending time with Tom and walking and playing great golf courses has allowed me to mix a blend of Pete and Golden Age designs to create new and innovative courses.
Seamless golf is a term I use a lot when explaining the look of the golf courses I have worked on. I started working with teeing grounds so that they were not unimaginative eyesores that you walked up on and teed off from, I wanted them to be a part of the landscape and started making what I called the Uni –tee. Robert Hunter, a famous course designer who worked with Dr. Mackenzie, once said that a golf hole should start and finish the same way - very natural and blending in with its surroundings.
Mackenzie himself once said “the chief object of every golf architect or green keeper worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself.” Cypress Point is a pretty good example of this philosophy, and my first attempt came at Pacific Dunes. I carried on the look to golf courses like Sebonack, Aetna Springs and Old Macdonald. I also started concentrating on what I called corridor golf, eliminating the lines of convergence on the golf hole. Studying old courses like St Andrews taught me about changing the way golf courses looked, and made eliminating the very mechanical look of a golf course my priority. Randomness is the key to a very natural golf course and I work hard to make holes appear one with nature. You can discuss golf strategy until you are blue in the face but I know what makes a golf course fun and challenging and I feel this is the key to really good golf courses that stand the test of time.
I appreciate challenging layouts like Oakmont and Pete Dye’s Sawgrass but my goal is to design and build fun courses that take less then 4 hours to play. We have enough of the high level, difficult golf courses I want to create fun and imaginative ones.