The following first appeared in Golf Course Architecture in 2006. Forrest Richardson shares lessons learned while devising the routing plan for The Links at Las Palomas in Sonora, Mexico.
Mike had seated himself at the end of the long table. From my vantage point I could see that he was on his third — maybe fourth — tequila shot. His first shots — that is, the very first tastes of tequila to ever cascade their way into his belly — had come just an hour earlier. Mike was from Kansas. Rural Kansas is not much on tequila so I am told. This is equitable however. For Sonora, Mexico is not much on wheat.
We were seated outdoors overlooking the beautiful Sea of Cortez. The celebration was all about arriving at a final land plan. I counted 24 at the table. There were the developers from Mexico, their American partners, some bankers, civil engineers and us. The “us” I refer to is Mike, who by this time is on his way to becoming “Mike who likes tequila”, me, and our counterparts, the American building architects who will eventually create the high-rise condominium buildings which form the community that we have sketched out on tracing paper. Earlier, as the sun had shifted lower and the breeze had become softer, Mike and I had walked each hole — for the third time that day — of what would eventually become The Links at Las Palomas. With flimsy plans in hand, we had looked at each shot and each setting — the dunes and terrain — until we were satisfied.
“Well, we begin by studying the land,” I will say to people who ask me how one goes about creating a golf course. At social gatherings, on airplanes and whenever in the presence of golfers, this is the top question golf course architects are asked. The next step, I explain, is to create the routing. This is the treasure hunt. The sequence. The flow. And, in my best and most passionate tone, I will emphasize that the routing defines the golf course experience well more than anything else the designer can bring to the table.
At The Links at Las Palomas I learned more about routing than at any other previous site. While being taught to use the land from my early work in designing courses, nowhere before had a canvas been so rich for golf. At no land I had ever walked had the purity of golf been so close to the surface. The routing here was a matter of finding solutions. And when we found them it became a matter of knowing whether to leave well enough alone with the natural terrain, or to inflict our idea of a better design. For if we were to mess about too long, or with too much thought on a given area, the magic of spontaneity would quickly evaporate. We discovered this too late on a few occasions. But, I am pleased to add, we got lucky at other times. The tinkering that designers so regularly become obsessed with may actually have improved our course, at least in places.
Here, for the taking, are my in-no-particular-order thoughts on working with this linksland site. As the final draft of this writing was sent off to Adam Lawrence, a printed copy of this last bit was hijacked to occupy a small space to the left of my desk. I will do my best to refer to it in the coming years.
1. Routing is not about formulas . While I know this and have learned it from others, I do not always believe it, nor am I willing to defend this. Our 9th ends a quarter mile from the clubhouse and we have an extra hole you can play after the 18th.
2. I have always loved par-3s. Now I know why. Golfers enjoy them. They are fun. These qualities are easy to spot, but they are trumped by the “ideal” of a certain recipe, that “two-per-nine” is somehow “correct” for most courses. We have six when you include the extra, 19th Hole.
3. Success must include financial success. I know this, but occasionally am clever at talking my way out of the idea. Great golf must rise to the level of enabling and supporting a financially successful bigger picture. I did not win out in the pursuit of many oceanfront acres for golf holes. I am glad. Had my persuasion skills been used for this purpose I would have forever been known as the guy who stole millions of dollars from my clients.
4. I am right: Drawing is essential. From now on when I get into a conversation about the value of creating plans versus the value of hand-on field direction, it will be easier for me to take a position. It is not that one is more important than the other. Rather, it is that the argument that drawing and plans are overrated is simply not bucket that holds water. We made drawings. We made changes. It was balanced. You can create a golf course without much in the way of drawings, but you will need lots of luck. Luck, at its very best, is a 50-50 proposition.
5. Risk. Worth every penny.
6. Listening. Also worth every penny.
7. Manmade features can be equally as good as those we find in nature. I used to not believe this, Probably because it has been written so much that this simply is not the case. I do agree that natural, when it is striking, is nearly always worth saving and embracing. But our creativity in earthmoving, building and dreaming up something new can also be exciting. We created some near features here-and people like them.
8. The concept of lull is not bad. A siesta within a round of golf-a span of holes where we are not bombarded with stimuli — can be a decent thing. We created a few sleeper moments — I am now O.K. with this.
9. Surprises. If there is one ingredient to golf that needs to be increased, it is this. The critics who detest my bumps and knolls fronting greens can go on hating them. I am O.K. with this, too.
10. Embrace change. Great golf sites are always changing. Wind, water, golfers and ideas are the culprits. It was always my narrow mindset that when we design a golf course it must somehow be preserved and kept. I now know this is not only unrealistic, but it contributes to the delinquency of good golf. We saw things settle, blow away, blow back, dissolve and blow away again. I am more open-minded to change, although I am still a stubborn designer.
11. Variation. Still a forerunner to great designs. The “throw bunkers at the course” mentality was never a favorite of mine. Now it is clear why this is so essential. We have just 13 sand bunkers in our course — formal pits with sand. The greens, the dunes, the sleepers, and the fairway contours are so much more interesting. Why has this taken so long to set in?
12. Each golf course is a story. I have written this and yet forget it from time to time. Hopefully this concept is now lodged between by ears. I hope it is safe there. If not, I shall look above my desk.