Monday, June 13, 2016

Getting to Know: Andy Staples, Golf Course Architect

No. 7 at Rockwind Community Links in Hobbs, N.M.
American Golfer: When did you start playing golf?
Andy Staples: I believe I was 7 or 8 years old when my dad brought home a set of clubs for me and my younger brother Tim. It was your classic 5, 7, 9, driver and putter in a canvas carry bag. I’m from suburban Milwaukee, and we were members of West Bend Country Club, a mid-tier blue collar club about 45 minutes from my house. My dad enrolled my brother and me into the 3-holer beginner golf program, and took lessons from the pro at the time, Don Hill. Interestingly, the front nine at WBCC was designed by Langford and Moreau, and consisted of some fairly aggressive features, deep bunkers and sharp green fall offs - Incredibly difficult for a 7 year old! I can still remember hitting a tee shot on the 3rd hole into a large grassy bunker about 75-100 yards off the tee on the right every single time I played the hole. This feature was so deep that all I could do was hit my 9 iron over and over until I finally was able to ricochet the ball out sideways. I just remember thinking, “Man, I have got to get better at this game! I stink!” I soon progressed to 5 holes, then 9. And finally 18. I’m not sure it was the best way to learn the game, but it sure got me hooked. I’m guessing it was the personal competition and being outdoors.

Andy Staples
AG: Why did you choose a career in golf course design?
AS: I became very interested in golf while I was in elementary school, and I practiced all the time. I can remember getting into practicing my sand shots on a sandy beach lake house in northern Wisconsin (near Rome WI, as a matter of fact) that our family frequented often when I was a kid. These sand shots were aimed at random targets, which turned into playing to a stick in the ground, which turned to me flattening out an area for a green, then finding 9 tees playing to one green, then 18 (very small) holes carved around the sandy hills, pines and lake water. I even played a hole off the boat pier. They all could be played with a sand wedge. I found great passion in making sure my course was as well-kept as possible, watering the green, and tamping it down. I even transplanted trees and built retaining walls. Funny thing is, I never named the course. I can only remember playing in the Staples Pro-Am on a fairly regular basis. In any event, one day, my dad came to me and asked me if I knew that people design golf courses for a living, and they’re called golf course architects. I stopped and pondered that for moment. I had no idea there could be such a job. I think I was 11 or 12 years old. From that point on, I knew what I wanted to do for a living.

AG: How did you become a golf course designer?
AS: Around the time I started high school, I began researching how one might become a golf architect. Since the course I learned the game (West Bend CC) was working with Chicago-based golf architect Bob Lohman, my dad made a call to him to see what his son should study in college if he wanted to be a golf architect. Bob told him to tell me to study Landscape Architecture. So, I searched schools across the country that had schools of Landscape Architecture, and settled on the University of Arkansas. It was during this time that I really tried to get into the business in some way, and at some point hopefully, in an office during the summer. I felt like I called as many people as possible – a whole slew of people. The one piece of feedback I remember getting was that I was crazy for trying to get into the business, and that I’ll never find a job. Ha! The classic story!

One of the people that I was able to get a hold of was Jerry Slack in Tulsa, OK. He told me to go to work in construction, and to learn how courses were built. Great advice! So, I found out about Wadsworth Golf Construction, and applied for a laborer positon during my summers. Over a couple of summers, the jobs evolved from being a drainage guy, to pulling wire for irrigation, to programming irrigation controllers to finishing greens with a sand pro. Once I graduated college, Jerry needed some help as a draftsman and compiling construction documents, and he hired me right away. There it was - I was in! I’ve also worked with Bob Graves, Damian Pascuzzo, John Fought and Brian Curley and Lee Schmidt. All in their own way taught me valuable lessons about the business.

AG: In your opinion, have any design trends hurt the game?
AS: That’s a big question!  First of all, I’d say the advent of broadcasting golf tournaments on a color TV surely had the most lasting impact on the game. The interest by those watching at home to have their course provide tournament-type conditions on a daily basis has caused more change, both good and bad, in everyday maintenance which puts high pressures on superintendents the world over.

As far as design trends, I’d have to say anything that made the game more expensive. Bunker liners and processed bunkers sands come to mind first. The distance that people are hitting the ball certainly has had an ill effect on the game in that it now takes more land and wider distance to contain the golf ball. But the trend that I think has affected the interest and strategy in courses has been the high level of green speeds and the “dumbing down” of the contours to maintain these speeds. So many greens that were built when 8 or 9 on the stimp was considered fast, are so much more interesting and creative just because you didn’t have to worry about a ball rolling off the green. If you look at greens at Crystal Downs in Michigan or Shinnecock Hills in New York, there is so much strategy inside the putting surface! This is all but disappearing due to the need to keep pin areas under 2 percent. This is a shame, and is something that needs more discussion.

AG: How can we grow the game of golf?
AS: To me, we have to go back to how people at the turn of last century were introduced to the game. Municipal golf played a significant role in providing an economical and accessible option for those wanting to learn the game, and we should look to these types of courses as a way to get people into the game. I believe if we in golf spent more time looking for ways to provide access and value to 100 percent of a community, and build local pride around a golf facility, more people would be interested in the game. This will take non-traditional thinking, and I’m not just talking about foot golf or a larger hole size. I’m talking about concerts on the range, walking trails, health programs and prescriptive park type ideas that celebrate the aspects of playing a game of golf that aren’t talked about. Being outdoors has been proven to reduce stress and increase a person’s ability to heal. How can a golf course provide some of these outlets? If you speak to anyone who loves the game, they almost always come back to the camaraderie, the outdoor activity, and the sportsmanship the game provides. Let’s start to find ways to better integrate our golf courses into society and aspire to provide benefits to 100 percent of the community. When this happens, more people will take up the game.

AG: Do you have a specific design philosophy?
AS: My philosophy is best described as a merging of the art and science of golf development. I strive to create golf courses that take best advantage of the land and look like they’ve been there for 100 years. So, you’ll always see details that would be a reflection of the site on which they are built. Green and bunker styles are driven by the location of the course, the soils they are built on, and the expectation of future maintenance. You’ll also see the subtle details such as an old looking rock wall, a stream channel or a created vintage barn, all to connect the golfer to a perceived history of the site. I believe good design isn’t always tangible; it comes from the “I just know it when I see it” perspective. And the details are what make people know they are someplace special. I’ll always ensure my designs maximize their ability to be efficient users of water and energy, and will match with an owner’s level of expected maintenance. I’m inspired by courses such as the National Golf Links of America, Cypress Point, and Sand Hills in Nebraska. If I can reflect as much of what makes these courses special into my projects, then I’m doing my best to leave my projects in the best position possible to be successful.
AG: Of all the holes you’ve designed, do you have a favorite (why)?
AS: I have to answer this questions with what I would say is the closest thing I personally have to a “template” hole; one that I try to integrate into each of my designs. I first found this type of hole on the property of Sand Hollow Golf Club in Hurricane, Utah, but was ultimately eliminated during the final round of routing adjustments. I got my first chance to build this hole in Hobbs, New Mexico. It’s the 7th hole at Rockwind Community Links (above). It’s a drivable par 4 that can be played at least 3 different ways. What makes this hole most interesting to me, is the most desirable avenue to the hole is with the shortest drive off the tee (generally with a 6-7 iron), leaving a somewhat “boring” approach – a true thinking man’s golf hole. The drivable option sets up to be a heroic carry over a penal hazard to a green that is positioned long ways along the line of flight to give a player the best chance to stay on the green with a running drive. In option #2, one can play out far to the right to a large open, relatively un-bunkered fairway. The approach leaves the player with an incredibly difficult approach to a narrow green that slopes away. The third “thinking man’s” option is to hit a short iron along the line of play, directly towards the green, up short of the hazard, then approach with a relatively simple wedge to the green built to receive a well struck shot. This hole is best suited for a site that plays uphill and has varying winds. I’ve yet to come up with a name for this template, so if you think of one, let me know!

AG: What’s your “dream foursome” (living or dead, golfer or non-golfer)?
AS: Assuming I’m in the foursome, the first would be my dad, as he was the one responsible for getting me into the game and really leading me to my current profession. The second would be the serving President of the United States (I just think it’s cool when the leader of the free world chooses to spend his free time on a golf course). And I think the third would be Seve Ballestreros as I’d really like to see his short game first hand. If I could play a five-some, I’d add Aaron Rogers, the quarterback of my Green Bay Packers. And yes, I am an owner!

AG: Is there a “bucket list” location in/on which to design?
AS: I’d love to get back into my home state of Wisconsin, as there is so much natural golf land there. I’m really drawn to the sand hills of Nebraska – the size and scale of this part of the country is just awesome. I’d also love to have a crack at a site in Scotland where the game was born. Nothing would be cooler than being able to make a visit to the Old Course to find some inspiration.

AG: What is the future of golf course design?
AS: I think the largest change coming, and you’re already starting to see it, is the philosophy of collaboration and partnership. One thing I think that is dramatically different today than when I was getting into the business, is the idea of apprenticeship or working under someone to learn the craft; that is pretty much disappearing. The focus now seems to be on getting involved somehow with great golf course projects, with a variety of architects, and seeing how these projects are built. I think this is an interesting evolution, and something I’m encouraged about for the future. Because of this focus on collaboration, I think we will continue to see more and more innovation and better and better golf courses being built. And, these projects won’t require sand dunes or ocean front property. I can also see the design business getting even more competitive. Time will tell!

Learn more about Andy Staples at

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