Jim Engh on Mountain Golf
An Interview by Tom Dunne
Jim Engh is one of the rising stars of golf course architecture.
Since starting his own firm in 1991, he has designed a number of
award-winning courses, including Sanctuary, Lakota Canyon, and the
Club at Black Rock. Much of his recent work has been in the Rocky
Mountain region, but Engh currently has exciting projects on the
go at Reynolds Plantation in Georgia and Carne Golf Links in County
Mayo, Ireland. The ability to combine thorough design documentation
and cost efficiency with bold creativity have made Engh one of the
more sought-after architects in the country.
How did you get your start in golf course design?
I started out working on maintenance crews at a little 9-hole course
in North Dakota where I grew up. My dad was a John Deere dealer,
and was one of the guys who helped build the course. He brought
the tractors and with his friends went and laid out a course. They
were all flying by the seats of their pants with the design. So
maybe it was in my blood a little bit—my mom and dad are also
both very good players. From there, I entered the architecture program
at Colorado State and eventually switched over to landscape architecture
in order to get into golf design. I also spent my summers getting
as much construction experience as I could.
You’re based in Colorado and have worked extensively in the
Rocky Mountain region. What are the challenges that face an architect
creating a course in a mountainous environment?
Well, the biggest challenge is the most obvious—the terrain
itself. Sometimes you have a site that allows for more or less typical
design methods, and other times you end up with a wild and wacky
place and your job is to make it playable. Mountain golf at its
best is such a thrilling experience. The game has come a long way
from its origins in Scotland. At that time, there was one kind of
golf experience—the links. Gradually, as the game moved south
to England, a second type emerged—the heathland course. Today,
because of the places we are able to go, including deserts and mountains,
there are so many more mediums for the art form to be expressed.
That’s the real beauty of golf to me. I’m not saying
that one setting is better than another, but to be able to offer
an exciting golf experience in the mountains—which is probably
the most radical medium of all—is something that I have a
lot of fun with.
In the past, with a few exceptions like Stanley Thompson’s
work at Banff and Jasper Park, mountain sites were generally considered
ill suited for golf. What changed that?
Technology has improved a lot of the tools at our disposal—everything
from drainage to excavation to maintenance equipment. But the biggest
thing is probably the cart. Golf carts are often considered a big
taboo, but at the end of the day, they open up so many different
possibilities for the golf experience. I don’t know that I’d
want to build for carts all the time, but I can appreciate, as a
golfer and a designer, the ability to get into some of these natural
places and explore the nuances that the land has to offer.
Some critics hesitate to call a course great if it is difficult
to walk. Is this unfair to courses that feature major elevation
Oh, sure I think it’s unfair. I think walking is an integral
part of a certain kind of golf experience. But, if I have to use
a cart to get around a truly exciting golf course, if that’s
the tradeoff, I’m happy with that, because you get rewarded
in so many other ways. The thing is, mountain courses often aren’t
that difficult to walk from tee to green. It is the distance between
holes that is usually the issue. We are trying to work on offering
cart caddie programs at some of my courses, where players can still
walk and just hop on the cart for the really difficult climbs. Ultimately,
I think you have to judge a course based on the strength of its
golf holes, not what happens in between them.
How do you design a strategic golf course at high altitude?
At Snowmass, we designed a course at 8,000 feet, so obviously the
ball goes a lot farther. But thin air isn’t any less of a
natural strategic element than wind. Because golf originated in
low-lying, dunes areas, wind is seen by some as central to the golf
experience, but we’re really just talking about air. I think
the strategy of golf actually is fascinating at altitude, because
players see how far the ball travels and their normal sense of what
makes for safe and risky shots comes into question. Can I carry
that bunker at this altitude? Am I over-clubbing on this approach
shot? All of those things come into play. On mountain courses, you
come to the tee on a par-5 and because the landscape is so rugged
and you are so high up and you can see all of the options, you try
to play a little chess game with the course.
What were the major influences on your design philosophy?
I spent a great deal of time in Ireland. Exploring the courses there
opened my mind to a philosophy, a willingness to accept ideas that
might be a little different. There are some weird elements on the
ground at a place like Ballybunion, that may or may not work in
another context, but they are always good to keep in mind. I like
to think that my courses are golfing adventures, more than anything
else, because you are always exploring and finding new things. I
have a phrase we use around the office—"trap doors and
hidden fairways." I got this from an experience I had in Ireland,
touring a castle in Donegal. We took the public tour, and the next
morning all the other guys were late getting up, so I went back
and toured the castle again—except that this time, after the
tour ended, I kind of wandered off into one of the back hallways.
I started finding all of these amazing things—trap doors and
hidden stairways, passages that most people never see. I started
thinking about how that could be applied to the golf experience.
I don’t want people to figure out one of my courses after
playing it once, twice, or even ten times. I want golfers to always
have a unique experience. The depth of an experience is always so
much greater when you leave something to the imagination.
Can you describe a golf hole that illustrates the concept of trap
doors and hidden fairways?
The fourth hole at Sanctuary is one. I’ve counted the number
of ways to play this hole, and there are at least eleven. It’s
a par-5, and there are three landing areas off the tee that all
have different second shot strategies. Then there are two more second
shot landing areas, and there are all kinds of launching pads and
different lies and elevations out there. Playing it for the first
time, you are really overtaken by the scenery. Over time, you begin
to study the strategy and all of the possibilities. I’ve played
the hole dozens of times and I’m not sure if I’ve even
figured it out yet!
You’ve been quite busy lately creating a new nine at Carne
Golf Links in the west of Ireland.
Yes, we’ve got a great new routing over there. How do you
say this without sounding pompous—it really pushes the envelope.
The terrain is jaw dropping. We actually had to change the original
routing when we found a prehistoric gathering area in the dunes
where people would build fires and cook snails. In today’s
world, we have many more constraints than designers in the past,
but that’s part of the business. We’re excited with
the adjustments we made, and I was able to trust my values and even
try out a few bizarre ideas. The detail of these links areas allows
for so much creativity while still remaining playable. The sandy
soil allows for the fescue grasses to grow naturally—you don’t
have to saturate the course with irrigation. Drainage occurs naturally,
and that influences the process. As far as greens go, you have to
consider that they will be drier and firmer, the silty sand will
make the ball bounce, so you have to create your style and strategy
to accommodate more for the running shot than for the aerial approach.
It’s not every day that you get to work in a landscape like
Carne, so we are really excited to see how it will turn out.
As one of the rising stars in golf course design, what goals do
you have in the future?
I’m happy to have the reputation of pushing the envelope a
little bit. I like to design holes that might turn some heads. But
that’s the beautiful thing about all the stuff that is happening
today. There is such a great variety. If you look at what Bill Coore
and Ben Crenshaw are doing, or Mike Strantz, or Tom Doak—everyone
has a different style for these different kinds of golf experiences.