Sunday, January 7, 2018

Getting to Know: Keith Cutten, Golf Course Architect

Hole No. 16 at Cabot Links
American Golfer: When did you start playing golf?
Keith Cutten: Though I didn’t start playing golf until I was 13, my exposure to the game came much earlier. My grandfather, who was English, was fascinated with golf. I still remember going to visit my grandparents as a young boy and watching golf with them. It seemed to always be on in the background. My grandfather would analyze the courses and how they compared to those he had played back home.

My grandfather made several trips over to England and Scotland when I was young and always returned with detailed stories of the courses he had played. He often communicated these to me through pictures and scorecards. My grandfather’s passion for golf was contagious. Although I was into almost every other sport imaginable, I soon took to golf as well. Sadly, just before my 16th birthday, the year we were going to start playing regularly, he passed away due to cancer. To say I was devastated would be an understatement. My only solace, my grandfather gifted me his clubs. It was my first real set and my escape from the realities of that time. Those clubs still sit in my office on display. Though he left me his clubs, his real gift to me was his obsession for the game. I soon spent all my time on the golf course. I still do.

AG: How did you become a golf course designer?
KC: At the age of 17, following my first summer working at a golf course (Cherry Downs in Pickering, Ontario) and having already completed three years of my high school’s five year program in drafting and design, I sat down with my father to plot out a future career path in golf. As funny as it sounds for a 17 year old to be this methodical … again, I state that I was obsessed.

My father, an Environmental Scientist by profession and an artist by nature, had some great advice. Instead of taking the traditional path of an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture, one in which there is little freedom to study golf course design, I applied to the University of Waterloo and their Bachelors of Environmental Studies degree in Planning and Environmental Design. I selected Planning for my undergrad because I wanted to have a good understanding of the development industry and environmental design/management practices before pursuing a specialty in golf design. Further, it was my intention to craft a skill set to enable me to take any project from start to finish. The experience I have gathered through achieving my designation and stamp as a Registered Professional Planner has been invaluable. I have attained a vast knowledge of the development industry and the approval process.

Additionally, the School of Planning at Waterloo offered a fantastic co-operative education program to complement their academic requirements. My background in drafting and design offered me my choice of employer. For my first work placement I selected a small office where I was offered the freedom to utilize my graphic abilities. The results for my employer were so lucrative that he did not want to allow me to return to school. As this was not an option, he instead walked me through the process of starting my own company. Cutten Drafting and Design Consultants was born.

Over the next four years I worked hard to excel in both school and business. At my time of graduation in 2007, I had worked on more than 500 projects - for almost 50 clients - in a variety of fields, including architecture, engineering, landscape architecture, and planning. If that was not enough, I also worked at the Stanley Thompson designed Westmount Golf & Country Club in Kitchener in an effort to build my knowledge of golf course maintenance. Finally, in my final year of study I did an exchange to Oxford University in England to study UK Planning. As you can guess, I spent many nights and weekends over my three months there visiting golf courses.

At the end of my undergrad degree, and for my final co-op placement, I decided to leave the field of planning and get my first taste of golf course architecture. More specifically, I wanted to build courses. So, in 2007 I wrote to Canadian golf course architects Rod Whitman and Jeff Mingay who were starting the construction of Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club in British Columbia. I selected this duo for two main reasons: 1) Rod Whitman’s mentors were Pete Dye and Bill Coore; and, 2) they were the only ones in Canada utilizing the classic design-build model. Though I started on the end of a shovel and rake, I soon moved onto to shaping with larger equipment. Rod and Jeff taught me the actual process of designing and building golf courses that fit within the natural terrain. This design-build process utilizes inherent site attributes to provide interesting strategy and enjoyment for all levels of golfer. I was hooked!
Hole No. 2 at Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club
Between 2008 and 2012, I worked with Rod Whitman and Jeff Mingay as a design associate. Our most celebrated project completed during this time was Cabot Links in Inverness, Nova Scotia. I spent three years onsite during the recession and participated in everything from the initial site surveying and clearing, to feature shaping and finishing. Rod’s past relationships also meant that Coore & Crenshaw associates often joined our projects. At Cabot I was lucky to meet Dave Axland, who would become another important mentor. These relationships continued even after Jeff started his own practice in 2010. Since 2008, I have been lucky enough to complete 100% of the graphic and planning work for both Rod Whitman and Jeff Mingay. The benefits of these relationships to my understanding of the profession have been immense.
Master Plan for Victoria Golf Club (with Jeff Mingay)
In 2012, I returned to school to continue my educational journey. It had always been my plan to enter a graduate level program that would allow me to focus on golf course architecture. Luckily, I was able to find a program that would allow me to enter studies part-time while still working on important projects. In the spring of 2016, I completed my thesis and achieved a Masters in Landscape Architecture degree from the University of Guelph. I am now turning that research into a book.

While completing my studies on a part-time basis, I also worked for two different golf contractors in an effort to expand my existing skillset. Having only previously worked in the design-build method, I wanted to experience the traditional architect-contractor framework. As project manager, I worked on several Stanley Thompson renovations, including the renovation of Westmount Golf & Country Club where I had labored during my undergrad, and a Willie Park Jr. renovation. I worked with a variety of architects including Dr. Michael Hurdzan, Doug Carrick and Tom McBroom. Whereas my technical and management skills were strengthened due to the demanded pace of construction, so too were my beliefs that the design-build process allowed for more creative and collaborative design efforts.

In 2015, I took several semesters off from my studies to work at Cabot Cliffs with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (an easy decision!). My role was to prepare the course for its opening. Working on bunkers, tees, walkways, drainage and native areas was a great experience. What made it better was having Bill and Ben show up and like my work! It was special to walk the site with them several times and hear their thoughts on how the project had evolved. I have since remained in regular contact with Bill and hope to work with them again soon. Bill was instrumental in helping me with my thesis and even sent me information twice when his hand written notes were lost in the mail.

In 2016, I incorporated my company as Cutten Golf Inc. with the intention to craft my own portfolio of work, while still offering my mentors and other architects my design, planning, and shaping services. I have had the pleasure to work with some of the most skilled people in Canada and the US and hope to continue my pattern of success.

I am currently working alongside Rod Whitman in St. Andrews, New Brunswick at the historic Algonquin Golf Course. I am now Rod’s senior design associate and am project manager for our ongoing works. We hope to return some of the lost seaside charm to this once great Donald Ross design.
Hole No. 10 at Algonquin Golf Course
Master Plan for Algonquin Golf Course (with Rod Whitman)
AG: Why did you choose a career in golf course design?
KC: “Choose” may be the wrong word. If you were to ask my wife or family about it, my career in golf was not a choice as there is no other job that could come close to captivating my curiosities the way golf architecture does. Today, the golf course architect must be a craftsman, biologist, planner, engineer, hydrologist and psychologist. Employing all these skills effectively is what drives me. Yet, I believe that the human imagination is hopelessly limited when compared to the intricate beauty of nature. Hence, it is the balance between design and discovery that keeps me interested. Every day brings new puzzles that require a specific set of skills to handle correctly. The best part is bringing these elements together through hard work, and then being able to stand back at the end the day and look at what you have created or uncovered.

Golf architecture is a lifelong study and one that fascinates me. I enjoy dissecting a new golf course, good or bad, as there is always something to be learned. Visiting the finest courses in the world is truly the best way to understand what constitutes great golf course architecture, but recognizing problems during other visits may be equally as valuable.
A study in course design: Routing plan for the National Golf Links of America
AG: In your opinion, have any design trends hurt the game?
KC: Trends, to me, are not the issue facing golf course architecture. A design trend happens when a group of people adopt a similar technique or style — usually one they consider novel — until enough people start adopting it that it becomes passé. Eventually, market saturation moves people toward the next trend. The current overuse of ragged bunker edges could be an example. While I believe bunkers should be true hazards, and rugged bunkers reflect this principle and the origins of golf as played in Scotland, I believe that variety should be the dominant design principle in the making of all golf features. The best architects both past and present did not force any one style, rugged or not, onto the landscape. Instead, they took their cues from their surroundings and developed site specific styles to conceal their design decisions. These projects often became the trend setters.      

Movements, on the other hand, are persistent shifts in the fundamental principles of design. Design movements are a result of larger social or economic variations that force total change. Movements are often reflected in design trends, but their effects on the game are far more all-encompassing and enduring. Having completed a thesis on this very topic last year, I am currently in the process of working with Australian writer/editor, Paul Daley, to transfer my research into a book. With the working title “The Evolution of Golf Course Architecture,” I hope to reveal how external influences have shaped the discipline of golf course architecture, over time.

The first key piece of this research was published in the October 2016 edition of Golf Course Architecture magazine. In the article, I describe the influence of Horace Hutchinson on the early evolution of golf course architecture in England. Specifically, I reference how his time spent studying art and sculpture in 1890, under the tutelage of George Frederick Watts, directly linked golf architecture with the emerging Arts and Crafts movement in London. Editor, Adam Lawrence, called the article, “one of the most exciting articles GCA has ever published.” He also stated that, “Keith’s research, I think, ties together a lot of loose ends in the gestation of golf’s Golden Age.” The article can be accessed HERE.

However, this part of my research clearly only covers the start one of the more beneficial movements in golf course architecture. To fully describe the movement which I believe most “hurt” golf course design, we must once again look at the external influences on the discipline. The Golden Age of Golf Course Design, which refers to the ultimate refinement of design skill in North America following WWI, occurred largely due to the deflated British economy offset by rising opportunities in North America. However, this movement actually started before WWI with the opening of Oakmont (Henry Fownes), the National Golf Links of America (C.B. MacDonald), Merion East and West (Hugh Wilson and William Flynn), and Pine Valley (George Crump and Harry Colt) in the United States. In Canada, Colt established the Toronto Golf Club in 1912 and the Hamilton Golf and Country Club in 1914. These projects would set the stage for the many great design achievements following the war.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, coupled with the outbreak of WWII (which didn’t end till 1945), the discipline of golf course architecture entered a tumultuous 15-year period of uncertainty. During this time many of the great designers of golf’s Golden Age would pass away. Further, of the few left standing, most were now seniors who had withdrawn from their practices. H.S. Colt would outlive most of his friends and family and would die deaf and alone in England in 1951. Donald Ross lived out the rest of his days in Pinehurst until he passed in April of 1948. The first meeting of the new ASGCA was held the previous December, in 1947, in Pinehurst. Ross was made the first President but did little to form the society’s bylaws and vision. This task was given to one of the few architects left standing from the inter-war period – Robert Trent Jones. This history is important as it illustrates that following the Second Wold War the previous design movement had come to an end, as there was a break in the passing of knowledge from mentor to protégée. While this history will be covered in much more detail in my book, it is the subsequent movement – modernism – which would negatively affect golf course design for the next four decades.

This new movement was primarily brought forward by Robert Trent Jones. It was likely a combination of his post-war successes and studies in design at Cornell, which would have been grounded in the then prevalent ideology of Modernism, which altered design thinking moving forward. The Modernist ideology that “form follows function” is relatable to the stylistic changes implemented by Trent Jones. Observing that the golf ball was going further, and players were becoming better athletes, Trent Jones established a design style to protect his courses from the skill of the game’s best. Modernism also encouraged a visual clarity of form. This meant, for golf, that the previous subtleties of the landscape were in direct competition with the ideology of this new movement. Hence, where Modernism prescribed the elimination of "unnecessary detail" in other fields of design, Robert Trent Jones took this same thinking to the design of golf courses. I believe this movement is the catalyst for many of the issues facing golf today.

Though some would argue that we are entering, or currently in, a second Golden Age of golf course design (and I would be inclined to agree), my concern is that our knowledge of the history of golf course architecture has focused too much on the great individual architects and their portfolios of work. Understanding the relationships between the various design movements and trends, both positive and negative, is key to the advancement of professional practice in golf course architecture. In any other profession, be it art, architecture or landscape architecture, one of the first courses students are required to take is a history of design. From this course, students are exposed to a study of eras and movements which have been heavily scrutinized by the associated academic body. I hope that my book will represent a similar examination of professional practice in golf architecture and will help in the understanding of our own design evolution. I believe this work is vitally important because when the current framework of social and economic influences inevitably change we need to have a clear vision of the past to inform our future.

AG: Do you have a specific design philosophy?
KC: A specific or pre-conceived design philosophy? No.

My focus is the creation of distinctive and enjoyable golf courses, which seamlessly blend with the sites on which they are placed. My involvement is a combination of tactile, emotional, and (most importantly) reactionary skill. Every golf course is different, and there should be no template for the process other than seeing what the land or the golf course is willing to give me. After that, it’s about remembering what I have seen and read for the last 20 years and applying it to the task.

In golf course architecture, you are working on a giant puzzle and the only thing you know for sure about the best solution is that it will usually result in 18 holes – all other restrictions are in your head. I am convinced that the fewer "rules" one has about building a great course (number of holes of certain pars, returning nines, etc.), the more free one becomes to find the best overall solution.

Finally, I believe that golf course design should be a team activity, where a talented collection of passionate “golf geeks” (also known as shapers) work collaboratively to produce the best results. When this team nurtures creativity and free thinking, and strives to have fun each and every day, then these same characteristics inevitably find their way into the final product. The result … the golfing world benefits!

AG: How can we grow the game of golf?
KC: At its core, golf is a game and games are meant to be fun! With magazine ratings and professional standards constantly looming over course designers, this simple fact has been frequently forgotten. Golf courses should test the skill of the most advanced golfer without discouraging the duffer. I believe that this objective is best achieved through the application of classic strategic design principles, adequate width, and interesting ground contour.

Starting in the 1950s, we instituted the practice of hiding our courses in unnecessary rough, trees, new back tees, and other trappings that failed to improve the sport, purely in an effort to combat that which relates to less than 1% of golfers – professional level skill and distances. Further, modern designers imposed their style onto any site, regardless of the inherent attributes of the existing landscape or architectural history. The result … considerable maintenance effort and money were used to maintain patterns that conflict with natural processes. These increased costs are a direct result of the design process, and have resulted in higher green fees and fewer people entering the sport.

However, since the late 1980s a new way of thinking has slowly come to the forefront of golf course design – minimalism. Though minimalism is often seen by outsiders as a reduction of inputs, those who practice it know it is more closely aligned to the old saying, “measure twice and cut once.” Brain power is the architect’s new primary tool, reminiscent of the time before large machinery when architects were forced to be creative. Minimalism embodies these time honored principles in an effort to save clients time and money, while producing better golf courses. Reducing the overall costs (design, construction and maintenance) and our environmental footprint are both major foundations for growing the game.

Creating courses which are inclusive for both men and women is critical, though ensuring that these same projects allow for native flora and fauna to co-exist and thrive is equally fundamental to changing linger public preconceptions of the game. As with all things in golf course design, variety is the main goal. Having a variety of course lengths, pars, styles, difficulties and price points will ensure all people have access and can grow into the game over an entire lifetime.

AG: What is the future of golf course design?
KC: As I’ve suggested in my previous responses, to secure the future of golf architecture we need to understand the cause for movements in the past. Though golf architecture currently seems to be in the one of the best states since the Golden Age, the prevailing minimalist mindset likely started as a reaction to the excesses of the 1980s and has only been strengthened by the recent recession, increasing negative environmental and social stereotypes, and an overall drop in sport participation. If economic, social and environmental fortunes improve, resulting in another golf boom, will the industry see another flood of mediocre designs? I’d like to think not.

The largest benefit from the past 10 years has been a thinning of the herd. By that I mean both mediocre courses and signature designers. Maybe more timely, is that the work being done now has an outlet to communicate design intent like never before – social media. Interviews like this, and discussions and debates reminiscent of the golf editorials of the early 1900s, allow for a public display of passion and transparency. No longer can the golf course architect act as the all-knowing creator. Instead, passionate teams will pool resources to foster superior products. The industry and its practitioners must be open to critique, as it allows for growth.

AG: Of all the holes you’ve designed, do you have a favorite (why)?
KC: As I’ve mentioned previously, one of my favorite elements of the design-build method is the team dynamic. Hence, I would never state that I’ve designed any specific hole as an individual, as this would misrepresent the process. However, there are obviously some standouts within my portfolio.

The par 4, 3rd hole at Cabot Links would be one such example. Although I was responsible for much of the bunker shaping at Cabot Links, it is this bunkerless hole which still holds a special place in my (designer) heart. It was here that Rod Whitman gave me my first opportunity to shape a green. When you add to this that I got to work with Dave Axland on the fairway mounds and shaping, this hole is a standout in my personal evolution as a golf course architect.

Though some of the other holes at Cabot seem to get more attention due to their artistry, this sometimes driveable (wind dependent) par 4 is a classic strategic design. The more than 60-yard-wide fairway and lack of bunkers seem to confuse golfers on their first visit. The choice between driver, utility club or long iron gives many options. Further, with a prevailing breeze pushing shots toward the wetland on the right, coupled with mounds that hide the green from the safety of the left fairway, players are given a lot to process. Hence, it is not uncommon for indecisions to lead to poor swings from this elevated tee.
Hole No. 3 at Cabot Links
AG: Is there a “bucket list” location in/on which to design?
KC: As many of the other “Getting to Know…” participants have mentioned, sand is the ideal medium in which to create golf. This point is perhaps best represented in a book published by my friend George Waters, titled "Sand and Golf: How Terrain Shapes the Game." It is definitely worth a read! Perhaps even more than the benefits to a designer (drainage! drainage! drainage!) are the economic benefits to both the construction and long term maintenance of the project when it is built on sand. If I ever get the opportunity to create more golf on a sandy coastal or inland site, it will not be something I will pass on.

However, to me, one of the greatest opportunities forthcoming in the golf industry is the potential renovation of the many strategically void golf courses built during the 60s, 70s and 80s. Specifically in Canada, there were many golf projects constructed in stunning locations, which require little thought to navigate. As stated by Max Behr, “the object of golf architecture is to give an intelligent purpose to the striking of a golf ball.”

AG: What’s your “dream foursome” (living or dead, golfer or non-golfer)?
KC: Being a golf geek, several Golden Age groupings spring to mind. Conversely, as a music lover, several “rock gods” would make for an interesting few hours. However, if I had to answer this questions honestly, and I will, my answer would be a little more personal. My wife and I recently had twin boys at the end of September (Porter and Cooper). Though they are only 4 months old now, I can’t wait to get them into golf. My dream foursome would involve traveling to Scotland where I could play one round over the Old Course with my grandfather and his new great-grandsons.

To learn more about Keith Cutten, visit

Bonus Question
AG: Assuming equipment remains the same, what can a golf course architect do to protect today's courses or design future courses without approaching 8,000 yards?
KC: The most interesting thing about this whole debate might be the common misconception that this is a new problem. In fact, the great architects of the Golden Age of Golf Course Design (1911-1937) encountered the same issues with the invention of the dimpled golf ball and steel shafts.  Architects such as Alister MacKenzie, Harry Colt and George Thomas Jr wrote about the changes they were seeing in the game and a different vision being crafted in North America versus that which had evolved in Scotland.  These architects believed the game was being diluted from its ‘sportier’ heritage into a game of exact distances.  Their writings and courses employed timeless strategies to mitigate the effects of technology on the game. Strategic design (angles of play) and width, combined with thoughtful ground contouring, was the prescription of the day, intended to stunt the effects of technology.  More importantly, this method of design was intended to challenge the best players, yet allow the beginner to still navigate his/her way around the course. These designers understood that their job could be distilled to one mission – doing that which was best for the game.  Golf is, after all, a game, and the best designers understand that it is their job to make it fun.

Unfortunately, following WWII and the Great Depression, this progression of knowledge was interrupted and the prevailing mindset changed as architects began to narrow fairways, grow rough, and eventually soften contouring (especially in greens).  Since the early 90s, a renaissance of sorts has been occurring.  Architects, dubbed ‘minimalists’ by the media, have begun to reintroduce classic design principles and construction methods.  This shift has been aided by both the proliferation of information (via the internet and social media) and a general paralleling of social tastes.  However, today we as architects are confronted with a difficult situation, and it has to do with length versus width and the economy of golf.

The resources required to build and maintain an 8,000 yard layout, while still providing sufficient width, are simply not sustainable and inevitably become the burden of the average golfer as rates increase.  Golf is the only sport to have changed its fields of play to suit equipment advancements.  For this reason, many in the business have become proponents of a Tour Ball (one that decreases distance by at least 10%).  The benefits of such a system would be as follows:
1. Golf manufactures would not lose out on any current investments in research as 99% of golfers would still want game improvement technology.
2. Existing courses would not need to be lengthened further, reducing operating costs and keeping rates lower.
3. Two golf balls would allow players of differing lengths (or skill levels) to play the same tee.  This would increase interaction, benefit match play formats, and improve overall pace of play.
4. Faster play and shorter walks help prevent the dreaded +5 hour golf round!
5. Tour players would again be challenged to hit every club in their bag, instead of the boring driver and wedge game which has become the norm.
6. Golf’s most revered and hallowed layouts will not need further modifications.

The most important role of the profession of golf course architecture moving forward will be education.  The correct application of classic design principles and the responsibility to uphold that which is in the best interest of the game must be our primary objectives.  We all love this game, and we must do that which protects its future.

Originally Posted 2/10/17  

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