A 25-year member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) and founded Ray Hearn Golf Course Design in 1996. The 57-year-old Michigan native received a Turf and Soil Science degree from Michigan State University as well as bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture (starting the GC Architecture curriculum) from MSU. Has designed 22 new number of courses and remodeled over 50 courses — primarily in the Midwest and the Northeast. Studied the great courses overseas in Scotland, Ireland and England for 8 years rotating each year in the fall. Teaches golf course design as well as a very popular on-line GC Architecture seminar for 12 years now. Has won numerous national wards from Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, Golf Inc. and is a four time winner of the ASGCA’s Design Excellence Award His work at Waters Edge in Michigan is showing how a facility can maximize its land footprint and become a draw for all types of players – especially those new to the game.
THE HEARN STORY —
After watching the final round of The Masters in 1976 I knew my calling would be golf course architecture someday. I reached out to two legends at that time — Pete Dye and Robert Trent Jones, Sr. After 20 plus calls I finally got through to RTJ Sr. He was friends with Dr. Keyon Payne at Michigan State University’s Turf Department. I met him for 15 minutes in East Lansing, MI via a huge assistance from Dr. Payne. RTJ Sr. basically laid out my career in 15 minutes. He said to follow his path that he accomplished at Cornell and I basically did with a Michigan twist and a somewhat longer time frame.
Pete Dye was one of my ASGCA sponsors. He told me let the land dictate the design or redesign and never be afraid to take risks and dream. I followed all this advice and I feel my background in both turf science and landscape architecture lets me look at golf course design or redesign from a more comprehensive manner than most other golf course architects. I am not alone as there are a few other ASGCA members that have this unique background, It really helps us compete in a very competitive field. RTJ Sr. told me that he laid out a long road map but if I followed it and believed I would have a competitive advantage. I’m so glad I followed his advice.
How did you become involved with Waters Edge?
I was introduced to the owner by the Director of Golf Rick Content who I had worked with before on another remodeling project several years ago.
What was the genesis of the idea to develop a comprehensive practice facility as well as two new holes for the golf course?
I strongly believe the game of golf has to grow for this great sport to succeed. The same applies for courses. New golfers have to be eased into the game with limited intimidation and time constraints. The owners at Waters Edge GC wanted a new practice area as their primary goal. To do this additional land was purchased so two new holes could be built so that two existing holes could be taken out of play for the new practice area. The driving range can also be used as a 6-hole par-3 course when the range tee is closed. I designed two large chipping and putting courses as well as a sand practice area. New golfers and seasoned veterans will love all of these amenities which in turn attracts more exposure for the course and more play resulting in increased golf revenue.
What was the timeline for the work to be completed and the approximate budget spent on the effort?
I started the design work in late 2017. Construction on the two new holes was competed in the spring, summer and fall of 2018 with the new holes opening July 2019. The practice area and new hole 9 are under construction and opening is scheduled for June or July of 2020. Other holes will be remodeled in phases. More water and disease resistant grasses are being used to increase the course’s environmental and economic sustainability. On a scale of 0 to 10 where 10 is the highest, I would say this budget is a 5 in terms of the National Golf Course Builder’s data base for Michigan GC Construction. A budget that is neither high nor low. I am happy with where it is.
The immense shakeout from The Great Recession clearly impacted the golf industry. Beyond Waters Edge are you seeing course owners of all types thinking seriously about how to reshape the manner in which they are providing a golf experience?
Yes much like the hotel and restaurant industry, public golf courses are competing for players and private clubs members while resorts are competing for guest play. Many factors influence a person’s decision to spend money. The attractiveness and quality of the golf course, its playability and enjoyment level for all golfers has to be at the top of anyone goals and objective’s list. To help a course succeed, architects must be innovative so remodeled courses attract more golfers, while at the same time, decreasing maintenance costs.
Waters Edge is located in Michigan — one of the top five States in terms of total courses provided in America. For those facilities failing to either reinvest or reinvent themselves what sort of future is likely for them?
It will be very difficult to compete in a very competitive market for those courses that decide not to reinvest or reinvent in golf course improvements. Waters Edge GC is making this commitment and I am confident this reinvestment will pay dividends for them in several ways.
Given the situation the broader golf industry is facing in terms of the actual golf course product what role should architects play in this effort?
We have to continue to be innovative. Our efforts have to help clients — private, public, municipal — to succeed in attracting more golfers or members, but at the same time, helping lower maintenance costs. Golf is a business and for the business to succeed you need a healthy intersection of interested players and cost effective golf facilities. Both are needed and architects need to be keen on doing this when hired.
Speaking of roles what should the key golf organizations play — USGA, PGA of America, R&A, PGA Tour, LPGA — in this reshuffling situation and is enough being done to keep the sport financially viable for all stakeholders?
We just need to keep working together — making this great game more attractive and accessible for more juniors, women, minorities and super seniors. All groups are very important but new juniors are the key to golf’s future. If we all work together golf will succeed — but don’t kid yourself — it will require great effort by all parties.
Leisure time is being crunched given the time pressures of one’s day — how does golf remain relevant given this new reality?
Time is a huge factor. It is a big concern for all of us. Short course options within or separate from the championship courses. should be explored. I have done this on three projects. Educate golfers and design interesting courses that can be played in under 4 hours as many do in the British Isles. Promoting nine holes is also a key as an option to 18. Multi-use practice facilities and short courses within a championship course provide greater elasticity.
You’re actively involved in the golf industry as an architect – when you visit a facility what elements do you notice immediately?
This question could be a whole article. Among the key items are the following: the relationship of the clubhouse to holes 1, 9, 10 and 18. Is the routing strong or weak? What kind of natural features does the land provide? What kind of variety is there in the tees or is it lacking? I also look at safety issues and overall maintenance. Clearly, I do notice how well designed the holes are and whether there are quality shot values throughout. Finally, it’s hard to not see if the course is full or empty of golfers.
The biggest short and long term challenge facing golf courses of all types is what?
Short term side it’s courses surviving in a very crowded and competitive market. Facilities remodeling are most likely to succeed. On the long term side — attracting more new players — juniors, women and minorities. But just getting them is only one part of the solution. The industry needs to retain a significant percentage of them. One without the other will not suffice.
Photos: Courtesy Ray Hearn
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