Saturday, January 7, 2017

Getting to Know: Riley Johns, Golf Course Architect

Hole No. 6 at Winter Park
American Golfer: When did you start playing golf?
Riley Johns: I started playing golf when I was about 12. My friends were part of a local junior program and I used to sneak on the course and play golf with them. I didn't have my own set of clubs so I was forced to use theirs. Unfortunately, it was the wrong hand and for the first 2 years of playing the game I swung back-handed. A few years later I became the range-ball cart boy and played golf more "officially." I was finally able to afford my very own set of clubs - the correct hand - and played on the high school golf team.

AG: How did you become a golf course designer?
RJ: It has been a long journey so I'll try and do the Coles notes version:

- I was never the kid drawing golf holes on restaurant napkins. Instead, I was the kid playing outside in the sand box and building forts in the forest with friends. Growing up in a small town in the Canadian Rockies afforded me the opportunity for endless outdoor adventure many kids just don't get to experience.

- My formative years in the work world included outdoor jobs like land surveying assistant, landscaping, civil construction, and golf course maintenance. I'll never forget one season I worked for both the maintenance department and the clubhouse kitchen cooking - those made for some long 16 hour work days! It was this time while working golf course maintenance and playing lots of golf which got me hooked on the game and ultimately interested in its creation.

- When I turned 18 and finally had my own wheels, I went and worked full time for a golf course construction contractor building golf courses throughout Western Canada. My previously learned skills in land surveying, landscaping, civil construction, and golf maintenance became a valuable asset to the team and I quickly worked my way up the ranks. During those years I learned everything hands-on from drainage and irrigation, to shaping and finishing. I had so many seasoned professionals and architects take me under their wing and help me learn and grow along the way.

- By the time I was in my mid 20s I had worked on dozens of projects, everything from new builds with signature designers, to small municipal renovations, to classic restorations. However, I felt locked into shaping and I wanted to have more creative freedoms with regards to design decisions. I knew shaping and reading golf course architecture books would only get me so far in this world, and if I wanted to become a legitimate professional in the industry that I needed a higher education. That's when I applied and got accepted into the Bachelor of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Guelph.

- Having a decade of real world construction experience before attending university turned out to be a real positive. This allowed me to dive deeper into studying golf course architecture, which was the real reason I was there. I essentially created my own degree program learning everything from turf and soil science to art and graphic communication. Every class I took was through the lens of learning golf course architecture and I paid my way through university by shaping golf courses in the summer months.

- After I graduated university, I was lucky to then go work for and intern under Mr. Tom Doak at Renaissance Golf Design. Although I did a short stint shaping in China with them, most of my time was spent in the office with Tom Doak and his associate Don Placek. Having never worked in a professional office environment before, this was a fantastic learning experience and with some of the best in the industry. Being exposed to things like the nuances of routing golf holes, budgeting and cost estimating, contract negotiations, consulting, and the creation of plan sets was an invaluable learning experience which really helped bring my own skill sets full circle.

- Shortly after my time at Renaissance Golf, I established my own design firm in Canada called Integrative Golf Design with associates Trevor Dormer and Dan Philcox. Since then we have continued to enjoy working on some amazing projects and look forward to bringing our knowledge and experiences of golf course architecture to Canada.

AG: Why did you choose a career in golf course design?
RJ: Golf design combines a variety of things that interest me. Gamesmanship, psychology, environment, engineering, and earthwork construction are all deeply embedded in the DNA of golf design. Working with such different elements in a creative capacity is interesting yet challenging and very rewarding work. It is like trying to solve a puzzle while creating a puzzle.

- Adding to this, it involves traveling and seeing new places. This career path has allowed me to visit places like Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, and Iceland to experience and study golf courses. I really enjoy exploring and meeting new people and learning about where they are from and what they do.

- Having a constantly evolving work environment, both the site and the people, keeps things fresh and interesting, this has always been an attractive part of golf course architecture to me.

AG: Do you have a specific design philosophy?
RJ: At the end of the day, golf is just a game. It is meant to be a fun, sporty, challenge played on an interesting landscape. My philosophy is that the more fun an architect has designing and building a golf course, the more fun it will ultimately play.

- I think the way to achieve this is by taking golf course design out of the planner/engineers computer screens and put it back into the hands of the craftsmen on the ground. Distinct, fun, and character rich golf courses are infinitely more enjoyable to play and I believe they will be more sought after in this new age.

AG: In your opinion, have any design trends hurt the game?
RJ: Not sure if it is considered a trend or not, but in my opinion "signature" mega-projects have hurt the game. Kind of like how Wal-Mart has hurt the mom-and-pop stores of the world. They are almost always real-estate/profit driven and lack the soul and character that makes a golf course special. The costs to build and maintain these mega-courses is extraordinary and thus makes the golf expensive. Do we really need to make golf more expensive and more exclusive?

"Golf is a game and not a mathematical is of vital importance to avoid anything that tends to make the game simple and stereotyped."
- Dr. Alister MacKenzie

AG: Of all the holes you’ve designed, do you have a favorite (why)?
RJ: It's tough not to go with the Lido Prize hole at Cabot Cliffs, but I will have to go with a more recent one - hole #6 at Winter Park - a short drivable par 4.

- Standing on the tee you can see the flag taunting you through the understory of the oak trees.  The green is receptive for the bold carry over the trees but one must gamble with the Lions Mouth bunker placed directly in the line of play. The other option is to tack your way down the left side and play safely for an almost guaranteed par.

- Because this is a match play venue, everyone has a blast trying their luck on this tee shot. It is tons of fun and everyone seems to enjoy the thrill of the gamble. That's why I like it!

AG: Is there a “bucket list” location in/on which to design?
RJ: Sandy dunes alongside the ocean, maybe sprinkle in a river, some cliffs, and a pine barren.

- Sand is the easiest material to build golf with because it drains, it's easy to sculpt, turf establishes into it easily, there's no compaction problems, and it doubles as a on-site bunker sand source.

- Ocean because of the views and the wind. Views are for aesthetic pleasure and beauty, while wind is to make the golf course forever different during changing conditions.

- A small dose of some other landscape to add to these elements would be nice. This just adds to the variety and character of the place.

AG: What is the future of golf course design?
RJ: I think we are entering a neo-Golden Age in golf course design. One that puts more emphasis on thoughtful and interesting architecture, and less on just visual aesthetics. Just in the last 10 years I have seen a huge movement in people interested in golf course architecture and they now actively seek out courses of value. I think the Internet and social media has acted as a catalyst for people to get engaged and become more aware of what good golf used to be like before losing its way.

- In short, the future of golf course design is going to be re-learning from the past. There are a lot of established golf courses in the world that will need to be re-worked soon. This presents a huge opportunity for the future, and if done right, could bode very well for the sport.

AG: How can we grow the game of golf?
RJ: Short courses (of any kind) will help grow the game. These are the perfect place for people to learn, practice, and try the sport. Eighteen championship holes of golf is no place for someone to learn the game of golf - that's like learning how to surf at Mavericks.

- I think quick, fun, relaxed, affordable, interesting, and easy-to-maintain short courses are going to be a big part of the future. Things like putting courses are perfect places to introduce smaller kids to the game too.

AG: What’s your “dream foursome” (living or dead, golfer or non-golfer)?
RJ: Hunter S. Thompson, Bill Murray, John Daly

Learn more about Riley Johns and Integrative Golf Design at

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