You think designing a golf course — a really good one — is easy?
Read what Dan Hixson, designer of Wine Valley Golf Club in Walla Walla, Wash., says as he explains just a part of the process of creating the treeless layout on rolling farmland seven miles west of town:
“We were really dedicated to making something everyone could get around, but overall keep it of high quality and design to stimulate excitement from great players to higher handicaps. The other big priority was to make it beautiful both internally and how it relates to the bigger environment it lives within. The land had been softened by millions of years of wind and water erosion, and then a hundred years’ agricultural ploughing. This really softened any small natural undulations that may have been there. So we added the micro-undulations throughout to create the effects of the final course which is similar to a coastal dune environment.”
Obviously this guy knows his dirt.
And wait, there’s more: “Every natural valley and most of the ridges had potential golf holes throughout,” he says. “The hardest part was eliminating the good holes to get to the great ones. I must have done 20-30 routing plans, all which could have easily been built, before we even considered choosing one. Some real basic principles dictated a lot of the plan — no starting or finishing holes into the morning or setting sun, incorporate as much variety as possible, driving range facing north, etc. It was a great site, but we did do a lot of shaping. Very small quantities of dirt were moved but shaped to look like it was always there. I was on site every day for roughly 35 straight weeks. High temperatures and high winds hindered the grow-in a little. When you see an irrigation head with a 65-feet throw shoot water maybe 10 feet into the wind and 100 feet down wind, you can’t help but be concerned.”
You get the idea. Building a course that the developer, the people who play it, the environmentalists and the architect himself can be happy with requires a great deal of expertise. It’s not enough to just see a nice sloping piece of ground and imagine a good-looking hole there.
Most of all, you need passion, the sort of passion that not only drives you to spend 245 days in a row onsite working cup-sized amounts of soil into shapes, swells, ripples and furrows that no one but you will understand and appreciate, consciously at least, but also the sort of excitement necessary to breathlessly explain the process above in a minute or less.
Rest assured, when it comes to golf course architecture and building beautiful and thought-provoking layouts, Dan Hixson is a very passionate man. Hired by John Thorsnes, a co-owner of the course and an old friend from his club pro days (Hixson was the head pro at Columbia Edgewater in Portland for much of the 1990s while Thorsnes worked at Walla Walla Country Club), Hixson spent the best part of six years considering the terrain and picturing what he would do to it before he was even able to break ground.
“The first visit I made to Walla Walla was in 2002 to see the Byerleys’ [land owners] other farm at the foot of the Blue Mountains, which would also make a wonderful golf course. On the second or third trip we went and looked at the eventual site of Wine Valley. It was very obvious that this site had great natural topography, and it pretty much blew me away with the possibilities.”
Thanks goodness, or rather John Thorsnes, he chose Hixson to make the most of those possibilities. Clearly a fan of classic, strategic architecture, he fashioned a beguiling layout of stark beauty that, true to his vision, has entertained high-handicappers and engaged scratch golfers since opening in April.
“John and I discussed at length what we felt were good and bad examples of courses that claimed to be for everyone, but really were not,” Hixson says. “It is a fine line. What I think really differentiates Wine Valley is the width of the playing corridors. There’s plenty of room to play, but the better players have to be more accurate to gain better angles for approaches. Risk more, gain more.”
Hixson adds that having a site with no trees (which he hopes will always be the case), allowed width to be used as a key strategic element with very bold bunkering and green surrounds to protect the targets.
“Higher handicaps can work their way around virtually every hazard,” he says. “But a good player has to challenge many of them in order to score low.”
Most of the credit for Wine Valley obviously goes to the lead architect, but Hixson is quick to praise his small team of shapers — Brian Caesar, Dan Proctor and Kye Goalby, whose father Bob won the 1968 Masters and who has worked on 30 or more 18-hole courses, 10 of them for Tom Doak. Goalby was originally set to work on a course with Jay Haas but when that didn’t go ahead as scheduled he was free to join Hixson.
“I called Dan to see if he needed help still,” says Goalby, who had been recommended to Hixson by Tony Russell, a course construction expert who had worked with Hixson on Oregon’s Bandon Crossings, the designer’s debut course. “He did, and it went from there. Until I got to Walla Walla, we had never met.”
At Wine Valley, Goalby shaped most of the greens, tees, fairways and the occasional bunker. “Brian actually did most of the bunkers,” says Goalby. “We didn’t work separately though. We worked together to ensure all the holes’ features meshed properly.”
When working on No. 7, for example, Goalby and Caesar would continuously walk back and forth to get the bunkers in the fairway to tie in visually with the bunkers near the green. At the same time, they worked on the greenside bunkers to gain the appearance that they overlapped and also to get the bunker height exactly right in order to allow the flag in the punchbowl green to be seen. They also created the fairway contours on the hole to reward the correct placement of shots, create the appropriate visual of the green, create surface drainage, and try to make it look cool though entirely natural, which was difficult as the hole had started out completely flat.
What were we saying about the expertise needed to build a golf course?
Wine Valley’s terrain reminded Goalby of Ballyneal in Colorado, a highly acclaimed Tom Doak design.
“I remember after I arrived in Walla Walla telling some of the guys at Renaissance Design (Doak’s company) that the scale of the valleys were really a lot like some of the holes at Ballyneal without the vegetation. I consciously did not try to emulate anything at Ballyneal, but I am sure there are similarities which people who have played both could spot quite easily.”
Even though Hixson hired Goalby, Caesar and Proctor on reputation alone, it wasn’t long before he felt entirely comfortable letting them loose.
“I could soon see how good they were,” says Hixson. “We would have only brief discussions about what I was after, and then I would let them go. I would check their progress a couple of times a day but was happy to let them improvise a lot, especially in the bunkering. Their experience and passion were great to work with. It was almost impossible to screw the job up with them on board.”
In turn, Goalby is grateful for the respect Hixson showed him. “Even with all the freedom Dan provided, I probably overstepped my duties at times and drove Dan nuts,” he says. “But if what I did was interesting, Dan was able to look at it objectively and allow things to evolve from his original ideas. I give him a ton of credit and gratitude for letting me and my creativity run wild.”
Another place that required a good deal of creativity was Palouse Ridge, an hour northeast of Wine Valley and part of the Washington State University campus. Tacoma-based John Harbottle, a 25-year industry veteran with 20 highly acclaimed original designs and 20-plus renovations to his credit, beat out several other well-known architects for the job but got a bit of a shock on his first drive around the property.
“My initial reaction was that it was a bit steep,” he says. “I remember wondering how we were going to build it without moving a few million yards of earth.”
After hiking the property a couple of times, however, Harbottle says the potential of the site became apparent. “There were large valleys wide enough for one or two holes each,” he says. “The high points offered panoramic views of the Palouse and surrounding mountains and the terrain looked so dynamic. The landscape moldings were big, and I thought a golfer could really experience the thrill of nature when attempting heroic shots.”
But though the slopes didn’t quite pose the problems that Harbottle first feared, there were still the issues of a sensitive environment and hostile climate to overcome.
“At the bottom of most of the slopes were wetlands and riparian habitat,” Harbottle says. “To protect the wetland features, we implemented a lot of erosion control measures. It was a real trick to grade without adversely impacting the sensitive areas. And, on the fringes of the construction window, we dealt with a lot of strong winds, heavy rain and snow. This, coupled with the slopes, made it difficult to maintain what had already been shaped. Groundwater could be a problem as well.”
Palouse Ridge, it seems, wasn’t the easiest place to build a golf course.
But whatever problems Harbottle encountered, he overcame them as Palouse Ridge was ranked No. 7 among the nation’s best new public-access courses by Golf Magazine in 2008. It was Golfweek’s 15th best new course, and No. 9 on the now-defunct Travel + Leisure Golf’s list of top new courses in the world.
As for Harbottle, he gives Palouse Ridge an A-plus. “It is an exciting place to play,” he says. “The undulating terrain makes for interesting shotmaking and great distant views. There is an overall balance to the routing with long, medium and short holes doglegging left and right. The greens have a variety of contours and are set at various angles to receive the approach shot. There are plateau, punchbowl and at-grade greens. Palouse is cerebral. It is a course where you must play the terrain. Flying directly at most pins or fairway centers may put you into the worst places. You will need to use your head as well as your heart.”
Head and heart — exactly what went into making these two instant Eastern Washington classics.