Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

Shapers are the tailors of the golf course

As my project at Picacho Hills continues, I am very impressed with the work of Superintendent Gil Martinez and his crew.   When everyone grabs hold of the rope and pull as one, great things can be accom­plished. My shaper and I have received liberal praise, but without everyone else’s best effort we wouldn’t look half as good.

I have had occasion to in­troduce my shaper to some of the members. It occurred to me that most people don’t re­alize the importance of the connection between the archi­tect and shaper.

I have worked on several projects with Keith White of White Construction. Although White Construction is in New Hampshire, Keith, along with his older brother Lindsay and a flexible crew, have worked all over the world. Besides working with me, they have done golf course construction for many well-known golf course architects including Rees Jones, Tom Fazio, Greg Norman, Craig Schreiner, and Michael Hurdzan.

Golf-course development differs from almost any other type of development because the most successful golf courses create a unique aes­thetic that can be at once dra­matic and soothing — all without being overbearing.

Unlike parks, the grounds must meet strict and some­times anomalous criteria for playing the game. Even small imperfections that go un­recorded in mapping tech­niques can influence a hole alignment, bunker or green shape, or fairway edge. Often times, a distant mountain or other land feature can inspire a line of play or mound form.  The golf course architect takes in all these factors dur­ing the planning phase, and produces a design that also meets the client’s playability requirements and budget.

However, the true magic happens when the golf archi­tect and shaper join forces.

Communication is the essence of design — the ability to con­vey the designer’s intent to another party, who will create the vision. A plan can be pret­ty, it can be neat, but if the contractor cannot understand what is required, the project will most likely go over budg­et and fall short of the vision.  In years past, golf-course ar­chitects were rarely schooled designers. Some were agrono­mists, golf course superin­tendents, and golf pros. Oth­ers were physicians (Alister MacKenzie), or insurance salesmen (Pete Dye). They of­ten prepared rudimentary plans or no plan at all.

About the time I started my business, golf course archi­tects began hiring landscape architects to prepare plans as demands for regulatory re­view and producing a project within a budget became more important. Being a licensed landscape architect myself, I entered that niche and jumped into the golf design ring. My environmental back­ground, along with my com­mitment to professionally pre­pare documents, among other experiences, was my ticket to success in the golf design business.

My commitment to keeping the contractor to the plan was very strong in those days. I felt a good designer should be able to complete plans that accommodated any and all ex­isting conditions. Further­more, I felt that an architect’s dependence on a shaper was a crutch for the unschooled ar­chitect and that a true design­er didn’t need a shaper. In my early work, when the shaper would question me about the project I would simply say “build it to the plan.” While this technique allowed me to learn a lot since the product was truly mine, I slowly be­gan to realize that at best I missed some opportunities and at worst, there were some mistakes.  Fortunately, I never made a mistake that cost anyone any­thing more than a less enjoy­able round of golf and even my worst efforts are still suc­cessful today. Gradually, I rec­ognized that I could not possi­bly take note of every nuance during the design phase and as I interacted with more and more shapers I came to real­ize that collaboration often produced the best results.

Plans are still important, but verbal clarifications trump plans any day. This works for golf courses because there is an unwritten understanding that the project isn’t complet­ed until everyone is pleased with the result. Therefore, un­like other building contractors and most landscapers, golf­course contractors work with the golf architect until he/she is satisfied. Shaping is often expressed as a separate line item in a bid and it essentially provides the contractor with not only the fee to do the ba­sic grading, but also to tweak it. Therefore, the more famil­iar the contractor is with the architect, the lower the con­tractor’s bid. Architects also have reputations with regard to how much tweaking they might do. Some are known for blowing up an entire hole and instructing the contractor to start again from scratch.

Yes, ego is a factor.

But getting back to the shaper-architect relationship: understanding the glossary is critical. Cape and bay, steep and deep, illusion, mound, hollow, roll, ridge, crest and saddle are fairly straight for­ward terms, but others such as dish, undercut, contour, feathered, spot on, flash, ra­zorback, and others are not so obvious. The shaper-archi­tect relationship can be in­strumental in determining if the project goes smoothly.   Once the shaper realizes how the architect likes the landforms contoured, there will be few if any adjust­ments. However, the best de­signers are wary of such a comfortable relationship be­cause it can result in monot­ony. Repetitive bunker shapes with consistent slopes mesmerize the mind.  This can result in the visual drama of the composition being lost.

The shaper-architect rela­tionship is but one reason that experience is critical in golf course construction and renovation. As the title of my article says, “Shapers are the tailors of the golf course.” They take the architect’s de­sign and help fit it to the spe­cific site.

A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces in January 2010. She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, and executive director for the Rio Grande Golf Course Superintendents Association. You can comment and view past articles at her blog: http://roadholeshorts17. wordpress.com/.

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1 Comment»

  Brian Jennings wrote @

Thanks for bringing a bit of noteriety to us shapers, we certinly appreaciet it !!! As a 28 year vetren shaper and stepson of a golf course architect, I have a great insite to the relationship between an architect and their shaper. Feel free to contact me if you would like to expand on this relationship, I would love to give any input you would want for future articals. Thanks
Brian Jennings

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