Q&A with golf architect Tripp Davis

Golf architect Tripp Davis

This is the final installment of a three-part series on renovations to Willow Brook Country Club. The golf course architect, Tripp Davis, is based in Norman, Oklahoma.

HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED WITH THE WILLOW BROOK PROJECT?

Davis: Chris Hudson (WBCC head pro) called us to come down and take a look at the course and possibly do a master plan. As with many of the clubs we work with, the reason for the call tends to be a few things that everyone wants to change. But, any change on a golf course needs to be looked at relative to how it fits in with the entire golf course, which is why a master plan is important.

WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE COURSE AT WILLOW BROOK?

Davis: I had heard Willow Brook was a good older course but what blew me away the first time I saw the course was the really nice land that rolled with some really interesting mature trees. The routing worked very well with the land which is the foundation of any good course. It is the “bones” and Willow Brook has good “bones.” I also saw a lot of potential in how the features of the course could accent the land and the routing to have a more classic look and feel.

HOW DID YOU CONCEIVE THE PLAN TO CHANGE HOLES 11 AND 12?

Davis: While Willow Brook has very good “bones,” the one flaw I saw was the flow of the course seemed to bog down a little by starting the back nine with five par 4 holes in a row, which extended back to playing seven par 4 holes in an eight-hole stretch starting on No. 7. No matter how varied par 4 holes may be, one of the reasons the early golf architects created par 3 and par 5 holes was to add simple interest to the play of the game. Chris Hudson and I talked about this early on in the process of doing the master plan - how you can sometimes get to the 15th tee, the first par 3 on the back, and have some of the enthusiasm drained. So we looked at options to break it up. The existing 11th was a pretty good hole, but a flat tee shot to a really elevated green felt a bit awkward. I also felt the 12th hole was not one of the better overall holes on the course. The 12th green was at a great green site, but it felt to me the landing area for the tee shot was more of a green site than a landing area for a tee shot. By putting a green where the tee shots on the 12th would land, by playing to that green as a par 5 from the existing 11th tee, the hole seemed to flow with the land better. And that resulted in an opportunity to create a great short par 3 to the really good green site of the old 12th hole. So while we wanted to break up the routing on the back, you never want to force anything. We did not want to break up the routing and then end up with holes that weren’t better. The land gave us the opportunity to create two new holes that may end up being among the best on the course.

WHAT OTHER CHANGES ON THE BACK NINE WILL PLAYERS NOTICE?

Davis: I think every hole on the back nine is getting better in some way. On 10, the fairway bunkers will better challenge an aggressive tee shot and the green will better challenge the angle of approach. The 13th will have a visually striking green complex with more interesting contours and a new bail-out area to the right. On the 14th, there will be a new fairway bunker down the right, going along with a green most often approached from the right. The tees for 15 will be larger and more varied so that the shots to the new green will be different with the varying tees. The 16th will have a more risk/reward long approach to the green, a more varied lay-up area, and a green with more angles so the pin location will make the approach more interesting. The 17th is turning into a classic long par 3 - striking visually off the tee with distance control being important to finding a makeable putt. And the 18th will have more options off the tee and a green more visible from the fairway with a new deep bunker left of the green.

YOU HAVE DESCRIBED WILLOW BROOK AS A CLASSIC COURSE. WHAT MAKES A COURSE A CLASSIC DESIGN?

Davis: “Classic” design can mean a lot of things, but in large measure it is timeless design, lacking any faddish elements that are in vogue at the moment. It is design that is based on those fundamental things that have sustained the game for centuries. It is strategic interest presented in time honored ways. Classic courses are often on interesting land, routed to take simple advantage of what the land offers. They are courses that seem to fit the land and where the features (greens, tees, fairways and bunkers) seem like they were meant to be there. Classic courses have a good flow - flow being how the course progresses from beginning to end. They also tend to lack clutter on the landscape with clutter being anything from the signs near the tee with a diagram of the hole to overplanting of the natural landscape. Classic designs are not cluttered.

WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE ARCHITECTS FROM THE PAST?

Davis: I grew up playing a lot of Donald Ross courses in Georgia and have always been particular to his work - how he used subtle angles and slopes to add strategic interest. After I moved to Oklahoma, I was exposed to a lot of courses designed by Perry Maxwell, who was exceptional at routing courses over interesting land and creating features that fit the land. As I played amateur golf in the Northeast, I became familiar with the work of A.W. Tillinghast, who I consider the consummate golf architect in creating interest that works with the land. And I have studied the work of Seth Raynor and how during the 1920s he moved more dirt than most while still making his courses look like refined versions of nature.

DO YOU HAVE AN OVERRIDING PHILOSOPHY OR MOTTO FOR YOUR WORK?

Davis: I started out using what I knew about the strategic side of playing the game. My approach was to make the game strategically interesting to play, making use of angles created by the fairway lines and the position of the bunkers and greens. I also like subtle slopes to fairways and greens to make the player have to think. Relative to the strategic side of designing the play of the game, I still make use of those, but with 23 years of experience as to what works best for all types of players and what visually presents strategy in the most interesting way. My experience has also taught me to create design that will last functionally, or how it is best maintained, and how the quality of the construction will last as long as possible. I think it could be described as part art in the way we create the design of play and part science in the way quality construction is important to sustainable maintenance of what is built.

YOU ARE A GOOD PLAYER. IS THAT THE CASE FOR MOST ARCHITECTS? HAS THERE BEEN A POOR PLAYER WHO WAS A GOOD ARCHITECT?

Davis: I don’t think you have to be a good player to be a good architect, but it doesn’t hurt. Playing the game at a high level requires the ability to see and feel shots, and this can be used to create design that challenges the player to see and feel the right shot. While most of the early architects were good players, some were not. Alister MacKenzie, who designed Augusta National, was not a particularly good player, but he had Bobby Jones as his adviser. Raynor rarely even played the game but was mentored by C.B. McDonald who was one of the first great amateur players in America. You find that most of the best work being done is by those that have been good players or those who are able to listen to good players who help them with design.

HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?

Davis: After being an All-American my senior year at Oklahoma, I thought I could play a little and turned pro. I had a little success, but hurt my shoulder after about 18 months and realized that I loved playing the game, but not so much for a living. Ever since I started playing golf competitively at age 11, I was fascinated with golf architecture, so in the fall of 1991, I went back to school to get my masters in landscape architecture at OU and started working toward being a golf architect. While I was in graduate school, I moonlighted for a golf architect in Austin, Charles Howard, where I learned a lot. When I was finishing grad school, the state of Oklahoma was getting ready to do three courses and a group asked me to work with them to pursue those projects. To my surprise, we got two of the three. That began my career and in 1994, I formed my own company, Tripp Davis and Associates.

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