So you want to design your own golf course?
CHICAGO -- Besides a hole-in-one, breaking 80, and playing Pebble Beach, what's the one thing golf nuts like us would love to experience, do, have? You've probably already done it, at least in your imagination. Maybe you've scribbled this desired experience on a grill room napkin, or doodled it on a notepad during a particularly boring business meeting.
Got it yet?
Design your very own golf hole.
There isn't a golfer among the true lovers of the game who hasn't created the ultimate, coolest, most strategic, hardest, thrill-ride-of-a-golf-hole in his own mind. Maybe it's been a wild, wacky par-4 like the ones on the courses featured in Golden Tee, or an impossible par-3 over the Grand Canyon found in some of the those crazy golf calendars or posters, or maybe, maybe it's the real thing. A true, playable hole you've dreamt of having sculpted into rolling land somewhere in a warm climate.
I've scribbled my share of holes on scraps of paper; just for fun. But then came a chance of a lifetime - a chance to turn those scribbles into a real design, a piece of golf architecture that, imagine, would actually be built as part of an honest-to-goodness golf course.
A landscape architect, I am not. A turf grass specialist, I am not. And although I have certainly paid attention to golf course design, I am far from an expert. I am simply a golf writer, an 11 handicap who plays a fair amount of golf, has seen hundreds of different courses, knows just the basics of the classic and modern course designers, and happens to know the architects at a Chicago area golf design firm who are goofy enough to let me actually do this. How did I get them to agree? Simple, I asked.
Todd Quitno is with Lohmann Golf Designs; the firm that built The Merit Club and has been involved in numerous renovations and new course construction around the Midwest. When I told Todd what I wanted to do, asked him if it could be done, and if he could possibly tolerate a rank amateur on his team, he actually said, "Sure, sounds like a cool idea."
I was floored. Maybe he didn't realize what I was actually asking. So, I made it very clear. I wanted to be the primary designer of the hole, I wanted to go through every step, every process, and call the hole my own.
"We can do that."
I truly thought Todd must be loony.
The project he had in mind was about 50 miles northwest of Chicago in McHenry County, Illinois called Blackstone and the developer, a real golf lover with a life-long dream of building his own golf course, was quite committed to the plan. He had the site, but had some environmental and zoning issue to get through. I figured that would be a couple weeks. Wrong. It took months to just begin the process. There were meetings galore with local officials and politicians with more to come. This part of the process didn't seem like much fun, but I plowed ahead.
"What do you want to design?" Todd asked.
"I love par-3s, but I really have a love for short, strategic par-4s."
"I like the short par-4 idea" said Todd. "I think you'll learn the most about hole design and strategy with that one."
And we were off.
Todd told me to start making sketches, to get some tracing-type paper, a special ruler that would help me keep things to scale, and to have fun.
"Do a whole bunch of sketches. Nothing should be ruled out right now," he said.
That sounded a lot more fun than zoning regulations.
Before starting the drawings, I wanted to walk the land and get a feel for the space and the natural contours. That's what every good golf course architect does, right? So, Todd and I put on our boots, hopped into the Lohmann Designs truck and head out.
The land for nine of the holes was open and treeless. The other nine would be built through a wooded area deeper into the site. We trudged through hip-high grass and weeds, sweating and panting our way to where we both thought the tee box would sit. It was a good view with the land naturally sloping down and to the right.
"Seems to me that's how this hole should layout," I said.
"See, you're getting the idea already," Todd said with a smile of approval.
I went home and started being creative. I must have sketched out 15 holes and read dozens of chapters in the golf architecture books in my personal golf library. A little inspiration, I guess.
While I worked, the red tape mounted. The developer continued to deal with issues of waste water treatment and the system that would do that work. Permits and other documents were still not in hand and the delays on starting the real work continued with little end in sight.
Is all this normal? Could the project be scrapped and would I watch the dream of having my own hole built simply crumble away?
"I wouldn't say this project is either unusual or normal," said Todd. "As for the project falling apart, I'm 95% sure it won't simply because (the developer) has so much already invested in it and I know owning a golf course is his life dream. He has told us numerous times that it will get done no matter what."
I pressed on, continued to sketch away, and met with Todd again with my plans in hand.
"These look good, but let's talk about why you want these bunkers where they are," said Todd.
We worked through elements of strategy, mounding in the fairways, wetlands, and discussed giving the big hitters at least a chance to go for the green from the tee box. How did I want the green to look? Would the undulations match the strategy of getting to the putting surface?
After a number of discussions, a number of re-dos, and a second look at the land, I had satisfied my mentor, and met the myriad of strategic elements that would make the hole playable and at the same time challenging.
My hole, at least on paper, had taken shape - a 325-350-yard par-4. I could see it crudely sketched out and imagine playing it in my head. From here, Todd took over the final drawing of the hole to meet architectural specifications. I was quite pleased.
"So when will we break ground?" I said.
"Well, we hope this fall," said Todd. "But it depends on a lot of things."
As of this writing, there are still delays involving permits, lot sales, and more. But it appears in the spring, the bulldozers will begin their work. And when the land is cleared out, I'm going to do what all the big designers do these days. I'm going out to the site; I'm teeing-up a ball on the soon-to-be tee box and crush one toward the soon-to-be green. I'll probably end up in the soon-to-be bunker, but who cares. This is my golf hole.
October 11, 2004