American Golfer: When did you start playing golf?
Jeff Danner: I started playing golf around age 11. My parents took me out once or twice and I hated it, swearing to never play again. Lo and behold, I hit a few good shots and caught the bug. Soon after, I wanted to play every day.
JD: When I started playing, I wanted to go to the course every day, but couldn’t always get there, so I started coming up with different layouts for my parent’s back yard to be played with a whiffle ball. The yard was actually quite large and undulating with trees, planting beds and rock features. This allowed me to experiment with different routings and sequencing based on what I wanted to achieve with each course theme. I used an old set of blades that belonged to my grandfather to try and learn how to shape different shots around trees and over the house. I even experimented with modifying whiffle balls with various kinds of tape, so they could better withstand the impact of woods and longer irons. In a way, my little golf world evolved the same as the real one. The whiffle “ball technology” evolved, changing the strategy of my small backyard courses. This meant I had to be creative and modify them to bring back their original strategy. Or in some cases, rethink the strategy all together. Sound familiar?
When college came around, I researched what I needed to do to become a golf course designer. I ended up studying Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, also completing an Independent Study on Sustainable Golf Course Architecture. My post graduate studies were through the European Institute of Golf Course Architect’s Post Graduate Diploma Course. This was my introduction to the international golf scene. I am currently an Associate Member of the Institute.
AG: Why did you choose a career in golf course design?
JD: I’ve always had an interest and passion for nature and the outdoors. I love the human/landscape interaction that golf presents. Golf Courses are beautiful landscapes that provide numerous environmental, physical and mental health benefits.
AG: In your opinion, have any design trends hurt the game?
JD: The perception that longer is better and the par 72 standard. If the strategic elements of a course are sound and well balanced, any course can be “championship” worthy. The U.S. Open in 2013 at Merion’s East Course was a great example of this.
Another detriment would be the mantra that greener is always better. However, we are currently seeing the industry wise up in this regard.
AG: How can we grow the game of golf?
JD: Make it less intimidating for beginners. Make it more cost and time effective. Change public perception of golf as an elitist sport that is detrimental to the environment.
All of the above should be implemented while preserving the traditions and integrity of the game. Golf needs to appeal to new audiences, while not alienating people who love golf for what it is. Meaning, with every idea we come up to make it more attractive to masses, we must be careful not to alter golf in a way that drives away the “lifers.”
AG: Do you have a specific design philosophy?
JD: Work with the land to create a memorable golf experience that is a fun fair test. Take what nature gives you and figure out how to highlight those characteristics that are unique to the site. Environmental and financial sustainability is paramount for every project.
AG: Of all the holes you’ve designed, do you have a favorite (why)?
JD: Not specifically. I am partial to shorter par 4’s that present a good risk/reward opportunity. To me, these are the most exciting holes to play. I also like maybe one longer par 3, that might require a 3 wood or hybrid for the average player. It’s important to test every club in the bag, for all skill levels.
AG: What’s your “dream foursome” (living or dead, golfer or non-golfer)?
JD: Ben Hogan, Michael Jordan, Old Tom Morris, Alister MacKenzie at Cypress Point. If I’m playing, then MacKenzie can walk along and let me pick his brain.
AG: Is there a “bucket list” location in/on which to design?
JD: Not in particular. Anywhere, golf can have a positive impact on people’s lives. It would be a thrill to renovate or restore some of the courses in Northwestern Illinois and Wisconsin where I grew up playing. I would also love to design a course for my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.
AG: What is the future of golf course design?
JD: I think because of the economic downturn the market has started to purge itself in a lot of ways. Courses that are struggling are closing or being repurposed while others are strengthening or repositioning themselves to be more competitive. The emphasis and importance of sound strategy and playability will only continue to grow. With all the talent and competition in the industry, design creativity should only become stronger.