From the Award-winning Paradigm Journal, as interviewed by Paul Fuhr
“Golf is a game for everyone, not just the talented few,” Harvey Penick once said. From the casual to the serious-minded, millions of golfers play a game steeped in tradition and history. Not everyone appreciates the artistry that goes into crafting a golf course. Golf course architect Forrest Richardson, who has worked on designs for more than 70 golf courses and has authored sevaral books on the subject, continues to dream up new ways to challenge, inspire, and entertain players. After studying golf course design in Dundee, Scotland, he studied under the tutelage of the late Arthur Jack Snyder in Phoenix, Arizona. His firm Forrest Richardson & Associates not only creates golf courses from scratch but restores old ones to their former glory. From the deserts of the American Southwest to Hawai’i to Asiatic Russia to Mexico, Richardson’s work is known all over the world. His artistry is rare in that people can interact and walk the grounds of his imagination.
What inspired you to go into golf course design?
It sounds corny, but I became fascinated by golf at a very early age and I simply loved the idea that a golf course presented problems, like a puzzle. My brother took me to play my first real (non-miniature) course. From that point forward I realized there was a profession called Golf Course Architecture, and the rest is history.
What artistic aspects do you find in golf course architecture?
The puzzle part. I recall a quote by Dan Rice, who said, “There are three forms of visual art: Painting is art to look at, sculpture is art you can walk around, and architecture is art you can walk through.” Well, this is the fun part of golf courses: you also play them. The finished golf course is a stage for individual dramas to play out, day after day, for generations to come. To me, the art of designing golf courses is part writer, part designer, part engineer and part psychologist.
You mention that you allow the existing geography inform your vision and process. Because of this, have you ever been surprised by something you’ve designed?
Yes, I am surprised a lot. Even though I visualize well, things happen you do not expect. Golf courses are really big design projects. I fly a lot, so I get to see things from the air more than most people. Golf courses are perhaps the largest form of art mankind has devised. Even though we do not typically appreciate them from the air, the fact remains that they are a huge part of the built landscape. Only a fool changes great terrain. The trick is to nestle a golf course into the land, changing some stuff but allowing the natural parts to shine through. At least that is what we set out to do, and of course, it is site specific. No two golf courses are the same, that also plays into the equation.
Restoring golf courses sounds like an extremely difficult process. What are the challenges that go into restorations?
History is a big influence. When we restore we are trying to recapture a theme or ambiance or legacy. But, very often there is not much there, or much left. In those cases we reinterpret. I am not afraid of putting my own stamp on a golf course if I feel it will be better. But, I always begin by looking for some good stuff that might still be there. You asked what challenges…just imagine you are remodeling your kitchen and instead of a few hundred square feet, it is hundreds of acres! Golf courses, even though they look like simply landscapes, have an underground network of drainage, irrigation and soils. The same stuff that goes wrong remodeling your kitchen can happen to us. But it is bigger and more expensive.
What appeals to you about Arizona?
It’s still somewhat of a frontier. My father saw this in the 1950s when he first visited. I’m glad he did. To me the fascinating part is the diversity of landscape, terrain and culture. An hour and a half north is the largest stand of Ponderosa pine in the world, and snowcapped mountains at 13,000 feet. To the south is Old Mexico and vineyards. Arizona is really everything and can never imagine not calling it home.
What was the experience of designing your first course? How does that compare to your current designs and processes?
Well, my very first course was in my backyard. Forget the fact that it wasn’t a paying job, it was still my first. I had fun, I created and I lost track of time. Today when that happens I know I have done well because it’s a feeling you realize you have felt before.
Is it challenging to design a course to appeal to the average golfer just out to enjoy the beauty of the course, while still being challenging to the advanced golfer?
You have to remember that golf is supposed to be fun. A lot of course designers forget that, especially the name-brand professionals who for years created tough-as-nails designs that may have looked great, but they were often too much for the average guy. I am stubborn on the fun part–to me a golf course that is truly fun will be enjoyed by everyone, not just the good player. Of course, I do inject challenge and some maddening hazards. That is part of the game. But I do it in a way that the lesser player can find a way around the trouble. At the same time I work to tempt the better player to boldly overtake the trouble. This is the equalizer in golf. Again, it’s a puzzle.
You once said that “manmade features can be equally as good as those we find in nature,” citing Shadow Creek as an example. How have designers like yourself been able to collapse the distinction between the beauty of a natural setting (such as Cypress Point’s Hole 16) or a manmade one (such as Sawgrass’s Hole 17)?
Very few golf courses are wholly natural. After all, we are creating landscapes with flat areas as tees and improved turf at greens. So, even the most “natural” of course is really conditioned nature and part of the built environment. The trick is to balance, and to find balance, between the built and the discovered. And, this is a matter of each site and what it lacks or has plenty of already. Your example of Cypress and Sawgrass is a great example. Both are terrific holes. One is based on nature — and no one could ever improve on the Pacific Ocean crashing against the Carmel Coast — and the other is a flat swamp in Florida that needed to be reinvented. Again, both are great experiences. And both have something to offer the golfer.
How has golf technology changed the way courses are designed, and what lost aspect of course design would you like to see return?
Greens are becoming less interesting as people demand faster putting surfaces. It would be like museums telling painters to stop using bright colors because the glare from lights is difficult to control. At present, course owners are demanding faster putting surfaces and that causes us to hold back on bold and more wild green contouring. Putting is less fun on flat, drab greens. But, with today’s green speeds, you have to be cautious. Length is also an issue, but I think the concern there is overblown to a degree. Sure, golfers can hit it further, but few do it all the time. If we make courses 7,000 yards and more for the casual golfer we will spend more money and make the game less fun. Both are awful directions. The perfect solution is to create courses closer to 6,000 yards and just make believe the yardage is 7,000. If we could do that the whole golf world would benefit.
In what ways, specifically, do you integrate the culture of an area into a particular course?
I spend a lot of time researching a site and locale. One of the best ways is to early on begin giving golf holes names. When you name a golf hole — even an idea of a hole — you force yourself to think about history, culture and what exists.
While you state that your firm is not bound by particular looks or style, is there one style of course you find more challenging to design, such as a links-style course?
Not really. In fact, you can really only create a links course where there is bona fide links land. You can create a course with links-like features, but that might be a square peg in a round hole. You have to be careful about forcing ideas onto land. The most challenging design is the one on flat, boring land. But, even then, it can be fun to overcome the obstacle of drabness.
Courses seem to be getting longer. Do you feel the course loses an aesthetic appeal as golf courses get longer?
I am against length for the sake of length. As far as aesthetics, a long course can be just a beautiful as a short one. But, remember that golf is not all about the visual — you feel it, you experience it and you play it. Any course that is not fun and enjoyable is less appealing overall.
Do you ever set out to create a signature hole for a given course? If so, what is that process?
I think all designers do, whether consciously or not. In my case I do not look for a particular hole to shine above the others, but it almost always happens as you go from paper to the ground. At some point a hole or a stretch of holes will rise to the top and become favorites.
As you design more courses, are there elements or processes that you find yourself moving away from?
Today I am less interested in super-high detail in plans, but we still cover the basics and make sure we know how to control budgets. I am much more comfortable with allowing certain things to happen in the field, as sculpture.
Are there any signature elements that make a golf course a “Forrest Richardson” course? If so, what might they be?
I look for uniqueness in holes and greens. I always try and leave something behind that cannot be found anywhere else. When I manage that, I know I have succeeded.
What courses are your favorites? What specifically is appealing about them?
The Hideout in Utah is a favorite because the whole town became a partner in the design. That shows today as the course matures. In Mexico we created a course where none had been built before, anywhere near. That was fun because it was breaking new ground, literally. And, my first project, Phantom Horse [now known as Arizona Grande] in Phoenix will always hold a special place in my heart. It was, as you asked early on, my first real project.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Not knowing what site lies ahead. Truly, I love the idea that every project and piece of land is unique. Even though it is tempting to use standards and repetitive design trends, each project is a wholly new undertaking. I love the change and being able to adapt.