Golf was meant to be a walking game…

Golf course design consultant J.D. Hart believes golf course architecture is an art form, and as time has evolved it has come full circle … back to its beginnings. The trend, he says, is toward minimalism and traditional Scottish designs. As the owner/operator of J.D. Hart and associates, J.D. strives to extract the best-golfing experience from the landscape without compromising nature’s dynamic plan.

We recently interviewed J.D., a former course superintendent, to get his take on golf course design.

Q: First of all, when and how did you get into the business of designing golf courses?

A: The first job I had was working on a new golf course several months prior to it being finished and opened for play. At that time it was state of the art and the longest in the state, with automatic irrigation, large greens, abundant acreage, etc. The dynamics were more than in some country clubs. So right from the beginning of my golf career, I was exposed to and learned good golf construction techniques.

Later I became the golf course superintendent and started studying how the players negotiated the golf course and why, showing me the cause and effect, if you will. So as my career developed, I did several small construction jobs on golf courses and various landscapes. I studied hundreds of golf courses, both domestic and foreign. Then I bought virgin land, designed and proceeded to construct nine holes of the private 27-hole golf retreat that I had planned.

Q: How have industry trends changed since you started designing golf courses?

A: Back then, we were just starting to end the phase of garish designs and excessive yardage. It has come almost full circle … back to being more natural and like the links land-style golf course we know as on the Scottish seacoast. We were, at times, in a race for bragging rights as to who pushed the most dirt to build one. Now we know less is better and can be more unique.

Q: How involved can your clients be in the design/build process?

A: I want my clients very involved. They are the ones who know the customer base they want to serve, and the presentation of their business posture. So we partner my perspective on extracting the best design from their property and construct what will work best.

Q: How important is it to keep harmony with nature?

A: VERY. As we know now, we are the conservators of this planet, and keeping things fitting with what is here keeps us from throwing nature out of balance. Now let the already existing contours of the geography show us a routing and flow to our golf game does work well. Some of the greatest golf venues in the world were created without moving much dirt at all.

Q: Is it more difficult to design/build a more natural golf course?

A: To a degree, yes. It takes more thought as to how natural features fit the game of golf. Routing is also more difficult. The parcel of land guides the design, and its features have a degree of control. Using those features is best thought out slowly. The designer has to be more creative and less arbitrary. When Perry Maxwell first saw what would become Prairie Dunes, he was asked if he could see 18 holes of golf. His reply was he could see a hundred holes; his problem was to eliminate 72 of them. And so it is with the most natural of designs, not easy. It takes a lot of thought and study.

Q: Can you explain the growing interest in Hickory Golf?

A: It is real. In the mystery of golf, it is about shot-making skills. Sure, Hickory Golf followers dress funny in their knickers and floppy caps but don’t let that fool you. Many of those guys are very adept at golf. Our eight-time national Hickory golf champion, Randy Jensen, can hit a 100-year-old golf driver 290 yards. Over three million worldwide believe in preserving this valuable period of golf history and know it to be a very rewarding way to play the game.

Related: The Joys of Hickory Golf: Making the Rounds Part 15

Q: Are you seeing interest in golf courses being built more like they were long ago?

A: Yes. Even Donald Trump just had one built in Scotland in a very natural style. This trend has been circling the world now for several years. Sand Hills in Nebraska was one of the forerunners. Designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, it was completely out of the ordinary and an immediate hit.
The “contrived” style of golf course design is waning. The design philosophy is coming full circle. Shadow Creek cost around $40 million to build, whereas Sand Hills cost so little it is a secret.

Q: Are more existing golf courses wanting to tweak their landscapes to resemble courses built long ago?

A: Trends take sometimes 30 years to cycle. Right now golf is in a bit of a holding pattern. As that mid-course correction completes, more golf courses will undergo renovation projects and naturalization projects. I believe we will see the utilization of more native grasses and a trend toward more holes that reward golf skills besides pure length of shots. Some golf courses could look more Scottish just by letting some of their trees die away without replacement.

Related: The Care and Feeding of Native Areas: Two Perspectives from Two Industry Veterans, Part 1
The Care and Feeding of Native Areas: Two Perspectives from Two Industry Veterans, Part 2

Q: What can be done to make golf courses more natural?

A: One example would be the use of wood for many of the features added around the teeing grounds and bridges. At Ballyneal, Tom Doak was bold enough to design the tee post (for the yardage) and not include any other tee markers. Many of the features, tee markers, sprinkler tags, and yardage markers were originally to speed up play.

Another example would be using tree, shrub and turf selections that are natural and native to that climate zone. You can also soften abrupt slopes. Not all greens compounds have to have mounds around them. Mowing patterns need not always be so formal and rigid. Have some “no-mow” areas, out of play, of course. Encourage walking and the use of caddies. There are golf courses in the U.S that require a doctor’s excuse for golf cart rental.

Q: What do you see as the next “big thing” in golf course design?

A: The PGA is touting “Play it Forward.” And in this sense, I believe we will see shorter golf courses with holes designed on the skill it takes to hit a target. Some golf course designs may revive the turn-of-the-century golf course styles as in the early 1900s, which will be more for Hickory Golf (5,000 to 6,000 yards). I believe we’ll see more natural golf courses, and hopefully, more stand-alone golf courses that are individually owned. One question I have had for years is why the pattern of St. Andrews hasn’t been followed more. I hope we will see more movement toward making golf real, again.

Q: What is your idea of the ideal golf course project?

A: For me, it would be for a private individual or group … a stand-alone, preferably private golf retreat.
It would have adequate acreage, approximately a section of land so 6,000-plus yardage, 18-hole design of 72 par would fit well. Not necessarily sea coast property, but with ample rumple and rolling. It would also have minimal trees, and be isolated and quiet. Then I would add comfortable amenities without being showy. The course would be natural and comfortable for pure golf.

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