Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Getting to Know: Brett Hochstein, Golf Course Architect

Orinda (CA) Country Club, No. 8
American Golfer: When did you start playing golf?
Brett Hochstein: My dad first snuck me out on a local course at age 4, hollow plastic clubs and balls in tow. Despite it not being a great course at all — the quintessential Doak “2” — I became immediately enamored with the game of golf and how it worked: hitting a ball through the landscape, dodging trees, water, and sand on the way to the green, where you finally get to watch it disappear into the hole. It was the coolest thing to me at that early age, and after experiencing much better courses and land 26.5 years later, it still is the coolest thing today.

Brett Hochstein
AG: How did you become a golf course designer?
BH: With my immediate obsession with golf course design as a little kid, I began looking early on at the ways in which one might get to become a designer. It seemed landscape architecture would be the best route for post-high school education, so I looked around at different programs across the country. It was my golf design-obsessed senior English teacher though, Don Ambrose, who pushed me into the direction of a school I hadn’t actually thought much of at that point, Cornell University. Outside of the allure of an Ivy education in general, the landscape architecture department itself boasted a 4-year program (many others were 5 years), true coursework flexibility, and an alumnus named Tom Doak, who was fresh off of debuting a game-changing course in Pacific Dunes. I wrote Mr. Doak a letter asking for advice, and he responded with a hand-written note on the back of a Pacific Dunes card* with his thoughts as well as an invitation to sit in on a golf design class at Michigan State that he was about to critique. I attended that class and got to speak more with Tom afterward despite it being late and him facing a 3-hour drive back up to Traverse City.

All of that left a lasting impression on me, and I stayed in touch over the years. After graduating from Cornell in 2008, going to Elmwood College in Scotland to study turf and golf courses for a year, and having a few years mixed in of trying to stay busy in anything golf related after the financial meltdown, Tom offered a chance to work with him and his skilled Renaissance Golf team in China. Specifically, they would need people to help shaping — even if that person had no previous experience operating anything more than a car. (To be fair, I had tractor and maintenance vehicle experience, at least). I jumped all over the chance, and luckily I was selected.

It was the break I needed, especially as I had aspirations of being a hands-on designer working in the field. I worked on that course and at Dismal River for 2.5 years, gaining valuable machine operation skills as well as project management skills from some of the best and most talented guys around. With a slowdown in work for Renaissance and the course in China wrapping up construction, I formed my own company, Hochstein Design, LLC, in January 2014, where I have been to this day working mostly as an independent shaper for a number of great architects while also continuing to push for my own projects as the lead designer. That won’t change my model though. I still always plan to be on site and in the machine as much as I can because it yields the best results, is fun to do, and satisfies my obsession for details.

*That card still hangs above my desk to this day.

AG: Why did you choose a career in golf course design?
BH: This is probably already somewhat clear from the first two responses, but my love for golf courses was both immediate and natural. Add to that I love to travel and see the world, which this profession allows for. Add further to that I had a childhood curiosity with excavators, always walking to a nearby development with my dad to see them dig basements, and now I get to sculpt golf features with them. I also love the nature of project work and having the satisfaction of completion vs. grinding away to no end. It keeps everything fresh, and it allows you to better bring full energy and passion to each new endeavor.

AG: In your opinion, have any design trends hurt the game?
BH: Where do I even begin? How about most of everything from 1960-2000? I’m just going to go through this in bullet form. In no order of importance:

- Extreme Hierarchical Design
At some point around the Golden Age, the distinction of a “Golf Course Architect” was made. The architect would create a set of plans and drawings and hand it off to a trusted foreman who would carry out that work. Because of the limited equipment, the slower pace of time and construction, and the skill and understanding of the architects, many of whom were born in the British Isles, courses still turned out very well with unique features and an overall adherence to the land. As time progressed though, so did technology and the disconnection of architects from their designs. Bulldozers made it easy to transform entire landscapes, and computer aided design (CAD) made it easier to whip up plans and quick calculations. These are still useful tools for all architects, but they also aided in further delineating the hierarchy of golf course design.

The key phrase there is “further delineating.” A hierarchy in golf is always going to exist; I mean, someone has to be able to make the final call on a design decision. The big question is how extreme is that hierarchy? How many people are there in between the architect and the guy moving the dirt around? How about the guys with rakes and shovels, or the ones floating out the final details of the green that will dictate exactly how it putts? How much two-way interaction is there between those different layers?

In a lot of ways golf architecture has been treated too much like building or landscape architecture. Create a big set of plans and schedules, have a contractor bid on them and perform the work, and come by during the project for a few site visits waving around the roll of plans. This can work well in other forms of architecture, where hard materials can easily be specified, measured, and constructed. Golf is completely different though; it works with the ground out in the landscape, which is fluid and not readily defined. There needs to be that discourse between the land and the design, and trying to do it through 2D plans in an office results in a real disconnect between the initial vision and the final results.

How do you get around this? For one, spend more time on site before and during construction. You will learn way more about the site than you ever will looking at a map. Two, do more of the actual work yourself. Hop in the machine and rough in a greensite. Grab a shovel and tailor some bunker edges to the exact way you want them. Three, get people who love golf design involved. Communicate with them and let them offer an opinion. Give them a chance to try out something new. This opens up all sorts possibilities that may not have been thought about before.

All of the best stuff happening right now is based on tearing down the walls of the hierarchy, increasing time on site, and opening up communication between all levels. Doing otherwise is doing a disservice to your design and vision.

- Cart-centric (or Buggy-centric, for my European friends) golf design
Orinda (CA) Country Club, No. 13
I fully realize not everyone can walk a full round of golf, and carts are a great tool to help those people still enjoy the game. These players are a very small minority though. Somewhere along the line, carts became a standard and eventually even a requirement at many American golf courses, which is a bit preposterous when thinking about the game’s origins. I see fully capable and athletic young people in this country always taking a cart, even on a perfectly flat and easy-to-walk course. Contrast that to 80 year old men in Holland playing and pulling their clubs behind them on a trolley (pull-cart) in the rain and cold.

It’s a trend that is bad for a number of reasons, one of which is its effect on golf course design. For one, carts can lead to a malaise in routing the course, which is arguably the most important aspect of design. With the ability to have really long drives between green and tee, less emphasis needs to be placed on the physical and emotional connection between holes. Cart paths are also a big issue and have to be included in the design, sometimes getting in the way of features, often looking very ugly, and always being expensive to build. Turf corridors will need to be wider to spread out wear. Carts can also influence turf selection in a negative way, where you may have to choose a grass that won’t play as well but will hold up better to traffic. In cool season climates, this often means having to select a grass that is also more energy, water, and maintenance intensive such as ryegrass or creeping bentgrass.

With carts, costs get more expensive and limitations on the design get greater. It’s a lose-lose.

- Length
The golf ball goes too far for 5 percent of the golfing population, yet so many modern courses have been built as if that number were 95 percent. The increase in land requirements and constructed acreage leads to an increase in upfront costs, which leads to higher green fees to recoup the initial investment. Basically, 95 percent of golfers are paying a higher cost to accommodate the other 5 percent, which certainly doesn’t seem right to me. Add in that length is the least interesting way to increase challenge, and it makes me wonder what all the extra effort and extra length is really for.

- Over shaping construction culture
I’m looking at Myrtle Beach, Palm Desert, Florida, and nearly every housing-development course in the Midwest here. I’m talking about the courses full of repetitive, unnatural “containment” mounding lining fairways and surrounding greens. Courses with massive cuts out of hills to make the hole more visible and “fair.” Courses with lined ponds dug all over the place to supply fill for those very important containment mounds. I’m talking about bunkers with little depth, little interest, and big smooth sand lines. I’m thinking about cookie-cutter greens with smooth, uninteresting contours and shapes that were clearly built with big machines and then over-finished to ridiculous fault.

These courses were so common from the late 80s to early 2000s. They were as boring to play as they were expensive to build, which is about as bad of a formula for success as I can imagine. It isn’t a big surprise to see a number of them struggling now and closing.

- The Augusta effect
Augusta National is a fantastic course and fantastic setting. The challenging greens and surrounding short grass make for highly interesting golf not just for the pros but for anyone who plays it. The conditions and presentation though, while impressive in a number of ways, have probably done more harm than good across the game.

Sure this may be classified as more of a maintenance trend, but maintenance strongly affects architecture. Also, most of Augusta’s actual design changes over the years have also been negative for reasons of “protecting par” as well as further playing up its reputation for being flawlessly manicured. This means tree planting to cut off ideal angles and reduce strategy, increasing maintained “rough,” going to ridiculous and costly measures to add a few yards of length, and dumbing down the look of bunkers to add to the “clean” aesthetic. Add in the lush conditions that reduce ball roll, and a keen eye can see that they keep getting further away from Dr. MacKenzie’s intentions and general ethos.

A lot of golfers, especially those in the Midwest and Northeast who are desperate for the arrival of spring, are enamored with Masters-version Augusta. They see it as a model to follow. With the negative design-change tendencies of the club listed above though, you end up with many courses and clubs following along in their own (often impossible) pursuit of being another “Augusta.” This is one of the reasons there is so much restoration and renovation work being done to many clubs. It’s also a reason why golf is under fire from being wasteful with water and chemicals.

Can we ever get to the point of just appreciating Augusta and The Masters for what it is without trying to emulate it? I’m not sure, but it would do a lot of help for the game and the environment if we did.

- Hazards everywhere
This ties a little back into the overshaping bullet point, as a lot of those courses also commit this crime as well. I mentioned the numerous ponds, but a lot of these courses are built around wetlands too. Courses with too many forced carries and too many red, yellow, and white stakes mean more strokes and more frustrations for the mid to high handicapper. It also means more lost balls, which come with their own price tag, and slower pace of play.

I hate to be so negative, but a lot of these trends really bother me and have led us to where we are today, only building a handful of new courses a year while fighting a negative reputation for golf development. We’ve not only saturated the market, we’ve done it with expensive and poor quality courses. Now, with a lot of new talent out there and lessons learned by the industry as a whole, we have fewer opportunities than we would have had to correct these mistakes and create truly positive golf experiences. It’s disappointing.

AG: How can we grow the game of golf?
BH: The biggest thing honestly would be a culture change, which is both very difficult to achieve and very slow to have happen. Everyone talks about golf being more inclusive and having faster, more affordable rounds, but they’ve already had all of that in Scotland since the dawn of the game. Whatever we can do to mimic the way they approach the game over there, we should do.

Play match play—It’s faster, more engaging, and more fun. Worry less about a pre-shot routine — you aren’t a pro with thousands of dollars hanging on each shot. Reduce maintenance standards — it will make golf more affordable, more environmentally friendly, and more fun with firmer turf and extra ball roll. Walk don’t ride — it is good exercise and speeds up play by not having to worry about path restrictions or doubling back across the fairway to your partner’s ball.

Along with trying to make the game more culturally inclusive, which is very important in its own right, these are just some of the things we can do to make golf more enjoyable and inviting.
Sketch of No. 17 green at Sallandsche Golf Club, Netherlands
AG: Do you have a specific design philosophy?
BH: A specific one? Not really. There are certainly a few ideologies I tend to follow though.

The first is “gain a strong understanding of the land and its story.” You must engage with it and ask questions of it. How do we best utilize it for a natural and flowing routing that also provides the most interesting and varied golf? How do we go about the style and form of feature shapes? What bunker styling relates best to the land?

I prefer in general to leave the land well enough alone, especially when it is good and moves in a way man would have a hard time recreating. When the need to create artificial features arises though, which it undoubtedly will, it is best to create them in a way that both relates and responds well with the surrounding ground. The overall aesthetic will be much greater, making the golf course really “fit.” When done cleverly, these features can also be used to make for very interesting and engaging play.

The second thing I tend to follow is “no rules of golf design are set in stone.” There absolutely are guidelines that will most often lead to preferable results, such as balancing the flow of hole length, keeping green to tee walks short, or reducing/eliminating forced carries, but sticking strictly to a script is asking to miss out on potentially great opportunities.  The back nine of Pacific Dunes is crazy with its par sequence, but who would argue that it doesn’t make for the best set of holes? And sometimes, you might want a 200-yard path to cross a piece of un-golfable ground and get to a point with an unforgettable hole or set of holes. The best designs and designers are the ones who not only bend the rules but also know how and when to do it.

The third principal I tend to follow is “have fun while you are designing and building.” This may just sound like new age Millenial-think, but the results speak for themselves. In my experience both on my own jobs and others I’ve been familiar with, the amount of fun had by the design team and crew on a project is almost directly proportional to the amount of fun the course ends up being to play. The Renaissance Golf Design team very much emphasizes this philosophy, and how many would argue against the quality and enjoyment levels of their courses? As ironic as it reads in a sentence, fun is something to be taken seriously.
Hochstein helped restore No. 8 at Orinda CC to its former glory
AG: Of all the holes you’ve designed, do you have a favorite (why)?
BH: I’m going to have to rephrase this to “favorite hole I’ve worked on,” since it isn’t really fair or true to say I designed it. The 8th hole at Orinda is a fantastic little drop shot par 3 designed originally by William Watson. The green is small, narrow, and elevated above its surrounds, making for a very exacting tee shot. Over the years, bunkers evolved and were added, redwoods were planted, and the green both shrunk and gained slope with sand splash. We (architect Todd Eckenrode, fellow shaper George Waters, superintendent Josh Smith, and myself) had the pleasant opportunity to restore it to its original glory, completely reworking and expanding the green to the edge of it’s elevated pad, restoring the bunkers to original positions, eliminating the Redwoods to increase wind flow and the distant view, and adding short grass on the falloffs to create different short game options for those who miss the green. It is very nearly do-or-die in a way similar to 17 at Sawgrass, but instead of a penalty stroke and drop, misses to the green have a challenging and interesting chance of recovery, whether it be a bump and run up the slope from the left or a delicate sand shot from the bunkers on the right.

My real favorite part about the hole is a little tweak we made to the green where we sharpened and beefed up some slopes at the wings near the center of the long, narrow green. This effectively split the green in two sections and emphasized not just hitting the green to have a chance of birdie but hitting to the proper half of the green wherever the hole is cut that day. It also emphasizes your misses. You really want to miss at the proper distance. Otherwise, you will have to negotiate going over the flanking bump on your sand shot from the right or from your pitch shot on the left. These shots are not impossible, but they are certainly a degree or two of magnitude more difficult than having missed at proper distance. That’s pretty cool to me.

AG: What’s your “dream foursome” (living or dead, golfer or non-golfer)?
BH: Since it is too hard to pick amongst the Golden Age architects, and Ryan Farrow already took the top prize for witty response, I am going to go with a few figures in golf design I have still yet to meet: Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw, and Mike Keiser.

AG: Is there a “bucket list” location in/on which to design?
BH: For me, it would be an absolute dream to work on any sandy site where we knew we could grow fescue. My vision and skills are specially tailored to sand, where even the smallest ground contours matter and a rugged natural aesthetic is easily obtained. I am all about details, and sand is the perfect palette for creating great detail. A warm season sandy site would be my next pick, especially after I’ve seen the capabilities for very tight and linksy Bermudagrass this past summer at The Valley Club. My third pick would be something close to home in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I’m not thinking there will be too many more of those in my lifetime, despite the region ranking 396th in courses per capita and every public course being packed all days of the week.

Specifically speaking, the biggest pipe dream would be a stretch of open, golf-scaled dunes in the Sleeping Bear Dunes high on a bluff over Lake Michigan. That will never happen for a number of reasons, and it probably should never happen, but that site has everything: sand, texture, landforms, ridiculous views in all directions, fescue growing climate, and location in Michigan, my native state. I can only imagine the bliss of spinning around on a sandpro on a calm summer evening — Lord Huron playing through my headphones — and looking out over the glassy lake and ever-changing clouds as the sun works its way downward through them and toward the distant horizon. Bliss, indeed.

AG: What is the future of golf course design?
BH: That is tough to say. We may already be looking at it right now, for I don’t know how or why we would go away from the current trends of design. The emphasis is and should be on golf that is more fun, more affordable, more environmentally friendly, and less time consuming to play. Some designs carry these ideals forward better than others, but for the most part it seems like these things are at least being considered in the majority of projects. Things ought to only continue down this path with short course options for urban areas, more creative and minimalist designs, increased inclusiveness to the game, and a more reduced approach to maintenance. Golf didn’t begin as a sport of excess. It’s time to get away from that mentality and get back to the game’s roots.

To learn more about Brett Hochstein, visit

1 comment:

Aunt Ilene said...

Even though I have never golfed in my life Brett , I found this very informative and very interesting. A good read !! Aunt Ilene