HOUSTON — America’s most exclusive golf club is also its most welcoming. That’s my big takeaway lesson from attending the 72nd annual meeting of the American Society of Golf Course Architects in Houston, April 15-19.
Every golfer has an opinion on course design. But only a few hundred know how to implement that idea into a reality. Many – but not all – who do so are among the 184 members of the ASGCA. They’re easy to spot at their official functions: the men and women wearing those goofy, red plaid jackets. The pattern is called Ross tartan, named for the iconic Scotsman Donald Ross, who was among the 14 founding members of the society and served as its first president when the group first gathered at Pinehurst in 1947.
Gaining membership in this club requires negotiating a series of professional and technical hurdles. It's easy to figure out where a bunker should go or how a green should be shaped. It’s quite another to have the technical skill to specify the proper angle of repose, the materials, composition and cost and the construction specifications needed to convert that personal taste into a workable feature that will hold up over time. Prospective members go through a grueling review process, including peer inspection of their work, submission of detailed plans and an interview.
In previous decades, the society acted more like a protective guild than an inclusive professional association. Some designers used the society to create a kind of regional exclusion that prevented competition from potential rivals. Lately that has all changed, and while members directly compete against one another for jobs they also are talking to each other for tips, advice and suggestions on everything from bunker liners and new turf grasses to irrigation budgets and greens mix.
Incoming ASGCA President Jeff Blume spoke powerfully about the collegiality that lies at the core of the group. As he pointed out, the industry has seen a major downsizing and decentralization, the last decade, thanks largely to the industry-wide downturn from the 2008 recession and the subsequent shift in the golf marketplace from big-scale new projects to small-scale renovations.
"We used to have collaboration and collegiality focused inside the office," said Blume. "Now they are taking place outside, through external networking and informal cooperation."
Ceremonial dinners are not often the occasion for memorable and moving orations. Blume’s was the exception. He spoke personally about his own development, acknowledging friends and business partners who helped him along the way. And his loving recognition of his wife, kids, sister and parents – all of whom were in attendance at the lead table – provided a teary moment to which all in the room could relate. This is a profession where people care for each other. Golf is like that.
Professional development seminars are always key to this gathering. This year’s presentations included technical specifications for green construction, grow the game initiatives, and storm water retention strategies. This was, after all, metro Houston where last August, Hurricane Harvey brought massive rains (as much as 3-4 feet) that deluged the entire area. Golf courses throughout the region are being (and have been) recruited into the effort as storm water management basins, with considerable redesign needed to make them functional for major rains while still providing enjoyable golf. When done right, these layouts provide community value that benefits non-golfers as well.
Among the most ambitious of these efforts that served as a case study at the meeting is The Preserve at Oak Meadows in the Chicago suburb of Addison, Ill. Golf architect Greg Martin described the scope of a 285-acre project costing $18 million that involved 19 regulatory government agencies, conversion and a small army of consultants. Martin called it “a forest preserve with a golf course,” with the priority placed on reclaiming the native Illinois prairie and wetlands landscape while providing a revenue producing recreational amenity that was both "resistant and resilient" in the face of perennial flooding. It’s the kind of project where the golf course has to fit within a larger strategy of land management. Not the sort of thing that you can just improvise in the field.
This was the twelfth ASGCA meeting I’ve attended since my first one in 1991 at Pebble Beach. Three years ago in San Diego, I was lucky enough to have been honored with the group’s Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement. The honorary membership status that came with the award qualified me for a share of the red tartan cloth, which they thoughtfully presented in the form of a Ross-plaid yarmulke.
That awards dinner is a highlight of the gathering, but this year’s ceremony was tinged with unexpected sadness because it was obvious the honoree, former President George Herbert Walker Bush, would be unable to attend because of the sudden decline in the health of his wife, Barbara Bush. She passed away the next day. A toast in her honor the following evening at the president’s dinner drew a hearty "here, here."