I had the pleasure to play golf with George at Quaker Ridge in Scarsdale. George works at the USGA, is the author of “Sand and Golf: How Terrain Shapes the Game,” and an accomplished golf course architect and bunker shaper. Here is an interview that followed our round.
— George…it was great to play golf with you. Tell me your story… how did you end up working in golf course architecture?
I became interested in golf course architecture after reading Tom Doak’s “The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses” and “The Anatomy of a Golf Course.” I was captivated reading about all the great courses and interesting designs and couldn’t wait to go see them for myself. I began my study of golf course architecture in earnest by working in golf course maintenance, it was a great way to learn about the practical elements of a golf course as well as the strategic aspects of design. I worked on the green staff at St George’s G&CC on Long Island, at Royal Dornoch in Scotland, and at Merion. I learned a lot from the courses I worked on and made a concerted effort to visit all the great courses in each neighborhood.
I eventually got up the courage to call Tom Doak’s office and ask what I should be doing if I wanted to become a golf course architect. He recommended that I visit and study classic courses and that I begin to learn about golf course construction. As he explained, having good ideas about architecture was one thing, but translating those ideas into reality was really the key. I spent my first year after graduating from McGill University working in golf course construction and then went on to earn my Masters in Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph. During my time at Guelph I was fortunate to win a summer internship with Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design. I spent my first summer in golf course architecture working on restorations at Yeamans Hall and Mid Ocean before heading off to Tasmania to help build Barnbougle Dunes. I had seen a lot of links courses in my travels to that point, so it was very exciting to be building a new links golf course on an amazing site.
After finishing my graduate work I continued helping architects like Doak, Coore & Crenshaw and Kyle Phillips on restoration work at places like Pasatiempo, California Golf Club and Pinehurst Number 2. I also helped build new courses like Sebonack, Rock Creek Cattle Company and the Renaissance Club at Archerfield. The projects I worked on gave me an opportunity to travel widely and experience golf course architecture from the ground up. Eventually I got an opportunity to restore a golf course on my own as the lead architect, Watchung Valley Golf Club, an old Seth Raynor design in Watchung, N.J. Today I live nearby the course and get to enjoy the continual progress being made. I play there regularly, which has been a very special experience. One downside of having worked on projects all around the world is that there are some I have never been back to see finished.
A summer working at Royal Dornoch laid the foundation for George’s appreciation of classic golf course architecture and links golf.
— When you play a course you haven’t played before what in particular are you looking for that those of us without a formal golf design background might miss?
I look for what makes a course fun, what makes it interesting, and what makes me want to come back. I think that all golfers are looking for those traits when they play courses, I might just be more aware of the key components. I’m also very interested in how a course fits into the landscape. The time I spent studying links golf courses gave me an appreciation for the fact that great designs are almost always a product of the land. I look for courses that make the most of their setting, even if the terrain is flat and relatively featureless.
–Tell us about your book, “Sand and Golf: How Terrain Shapes the Game”.
“Sand and Golf: How Terrain Shapes the Game” explores what makes golf, and golf course architecture, so special on sandy terrain. I always found myself drawn to golf courses situated on sandy ground. I loved links golf from the moment I set foot on Royal Dornoch and I had the opportunity to visit and work with many sandy courses during my career in architecture. I helped restore classic courses on sandy ground like Yeamans Hall and Pinehurst Number 2 and I worked on new sandy courses like Sebonack and Barnbougle Dunes. All those experiences taught me the value of sandy terrain for golf. Golf originated on sandy ground so really it should come as no surprise that the best courses are often found on sandy sites.
As I traveled and studied architecture I sought out sandy courses wherever they could be found: the links courses of the U.K. and Ireland, the heathland courses around London, the Melbourne Sandbelt, the east end of Long Island, the Sandhills of Nebraska, and numerous sandy courses on the West Coast of the U.S. I began writing down observations I made during those travels and took thousands of pictures. Eventually I realized I had enough for a book, if I could stitch it all together. After several years of work I was very proud to publish “Sand and Golf: How Terrain Shapes the Game.” Tom Doak was kind enough to write the forward, which meant a lot to me because he taught me so much about the value of sandy ground and he had given me some great opportunities to work on amazing sandy sites.
“Sand and Golf: How Terrain Shapes the Game” explores what makes golf, and golf course architecture so special on sandy terrain.
— What are some awesome courses in the US that the “top 100” lists for one reason or another have missed?
I think that Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles is a great course that gets overshadowed by famous neighbors like LACC and Riviera. Wilshire is on a flattish piece of ground and the primary feature of the property is a small, winding barranca. The clever routing manages to utilize the barranca on more than half the holes in a variety of interesting ways. I worked on the restoration project there and really enjoyed bringing the lavish bunkering and fascinating greens back to life. They have made ongoing progress restoring some interesting double greens and the original grassing lines. Every time I go back I marvel at how interesting the design is and how special it is playing golf surrounded by so much Hollywood history.
Not too far north of Wilshire is Rustic Canyon Golf Club, a great public course designed by Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford. To me, Rustic Canyon is everything a public golf course should be. The course is wide and playable, but there is plenty of challenge and strategic interest. It’s also relatively affordable, especially for the quality of the experience. You don’t need to be an architecture aficionado to understand that there is something special and unique about the course; people just enjoy playing golf there, whether they notice all the architectural details or not. Along with a great design, the course happens to be located in a beautiful secluded valley that is criss-crossed by small barrancas, making for wonderful golf.
I think Tumble Creek, a Tom Doak design in Washington state, is another great course that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. The front 9 in particular contains an amazing collection of natural golf holes in a dramatic setting. The back 9 starts off on the same elevated ground before dipping down into a river valley with a unique feel of its own. It’s well worth the trip over the mountains from Seattle to check out Tumble Creek, one of Doak’s lesser-known but really great designs.
— What are you doing these days at the USGA?
I work in the Education and Outreach department of the Green Section. Our primary goal is to take the excellent work done by USGA agronomists and researchers and share that information with a variety of audiences including superintendents, golf course owners, and golfers. I believe very strongly in the work and my role at the USGA is a really good fit for me. My background in golf course design, maintenance, and construction gives me an excellent understanding of the subject matter and my experience as an author, speaker, and photographer helps me communicate Green Section materials to all of our different audiences.
(Note: George Waters now works in the Education and Outreach department of the USGA Green Section. He continues to travel extensively and remains an avid student of golf course architecture).
— When are we playing golf again together??!
Very soon! I predict a round at California Golf Club or Watchung Valley Golf Club in our near future.
You can follow George on Twitter @gwatersgolf or connect with him by emailing email@example.com.