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Architect Rick Robbins: Master of the game

Kiel ChristiansonBy Kiel Christianson,
Equipment Editor and Senior Writer

GREEN BAY, WI - North Carolina-based golf course architect Rick Robbins possesses a certain aplomb that speaks of a lifetime steeped in the traditions of both the South and the game of golf. When he was young, Robbins's family was involved in the resort development business in the North Carolina mountains.

His father managed operations at one of the finest golf venues in The Tarheel State, Pine Needle during the 1960s, and he learned to play on that revered Donald Ross design. He developed an affinity for the development side of the golf business, and eventually earned a landscape architecture degree from the NC State University School of Design, with a mind to head back to the mountains to work with his family.

Shortly after graduation, however, he was hired by Bruce Devlin and Robert von Hagge to work in their Florida office and learn more about golf course design. After 13 years, Robbins signed on with the Jack Nicklaus Group, and was eventually awarded the position of Senior Designer in Hong Kong and the Far East, where he lived for two years, designing courses in exotic golf destinations like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and Sri Lanka.

In 1991, Robbins founded Robbins and Associates, International, and has designed and overseen the construction of golf courses throughout the continental U.S., teaming up occasionally with the likes of Gary Koch (Mangrove Bay, St. Petersburg, FL, The Tribute, Gaylord, MI,) and Rick Smith (swing doctor to tour pros and new owner of Treetops Resort, also in Gaylord).

Robbins's courses have won praise from players and critics alike, and his current projects include layouts from the top of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee (Taqueta Falls) to the farmland of Iowa (Echo Valley) and northern Wisconsin (Royal St. Patrick's). Always with an eye to classic course design principles, he realizes that the game is continually evolving and no matter what diverse topography one encounters during course construction, American golfers today have some distinct biases with respect to design.

"If I went out and tried to design a course today like 'the old classics,' with blind shots and greens like No. 9 at Augusta National, the developers would fire me," Robbins chuckled as we joined him for a preview of Royal St. Patrick's in Wrightstown, Wisc., just south of The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field.

New Courses, New Architects, and a Pile of Sand

Set to open in late spring, 2003, Royal St. Patrick's will serve as the centerpiece of an ambitious mixture of residential, commercial, and municipal development. The par-72, 7,000-yard course will snake around natural wetlands, home lots and office complexes. This is typical of new courses these days, according to Robbins. "Most projects today are initiated by developers who are not strictly golf developers. The courses are part of larger, usually residential, developments."

According to Robbins, this new layout will be a "wide-open, generally treeless layout, with penalties coming from the high fescue that will define and frame the fairways, the water features on 14 of the 18 holes, and the sod-faced bunkers." Combined with the ever-present wind, the bunkers should lend a linksy feel to the place, despite the loamy topsoil upon which it is built.

Robbins or one of his associate designers, makes the trek from North Carolina to Green Bay once every two weeks to check on the progress, and give the builders and shapers notes on how the layout should be tweaked to meet their design specs. Our first stop is the green on No. 2, which is all smoothed and sculpted sand at this point.

"Most new course architects - myself included - make the mistake of building greens too severe [on their early designs]," Robbins says as he squats down to get a worm's-eye view of the future putting surface. "When you look at the sand like this, before the greens are sodded, you can see spots that won 't hold a ball once you get grass on them."

He points to a benign-looking mound of sand. "See that hump there? That needs to be shaved off and flattened out some, or you won't be able to mow it without scalping it." This seemingly small detail figures prominently in the architect's blueprints and notes for the day, highlighting the stupefying amount of coordination and planning required to turn a flat piece of farmland into a memorable - and fair - golf course.

Great Lakes, Great Golf Course Sites

Royal St. Patrick's is Robbins's second course in The Badger State. His first was Horseshoe Bay Golf Club in Egg Harbor, on the peninsula north of Green Bay. Located in the heart of the famous Door County - often called the Cape Cod of the Midwest for its inspiring vistas of Lake Michigan and the posh crowd who migrate there every summer - Horseshoe Bay Golf Club was recently voted by readers of Great Lakes Golf as the second-best course in the state, just behind The Straits Course at Whistling Straits. Elite company, indeed.

Along with The Tribute in Gaylord, Michigan, and Waters Edge in Chicago, the two Wisconsin layouts represent Robbins's only work to date in the Great Lakes region. "One thing about this part of the country," he says, "is the diversity of the landscape. Compare The Tribute and Horseshoe Bay, which are only about 100 miles apart, as the crow flies [over Lake Michigan].

"The Tribute is very rolling, with landforms that let you do anything you want. At Horseshoe Bay, there's only about six to eight inches of topsoil on top of solid limestone, which had to be blasted in some places. We had to treat it as if it were a desert course in Scottsdale because that bedrock was so close to the surface.

"One of the things I like about the Great Lakes region is the variety of grasses available. The bents, the blues, the ryes - they offer a nice palette. Down south, where it's almost all Bermuda, the contrast usually isn 't so striking."

Today's Top Course Architects, and the Issues They Face

As a member of the exclusive American Society of Golf Course Architects, Robbins enjoys the chance to become acquainted with his contemporaries. Whose work stands out among today's designers? "I enjoy Tom Fazio's work, and of course Nicklaus's, especially his more recent work. Also Clyde Johnston and Greg Norman. I hear Doonbeg [Norman's new Irish links course] is marvelous."

With respect to the state-of-art golf course design, Robbins is optimistic about the future of golf, but concerned about the effect of the sport's newfound popularity. "Everyone sees the pros on TV, and they expect the courses they play to look like the ones they see on TV," he laments. "Today it's all target golf. The game is repeating swings with control rather than about creativity. And players expect never to have a bad lie."

And new, high-tech equipment, in Robbins's opinion, ".benefits good players almost exclusively. Average players are still hitting it where they were before. The real effect of the new equipment is on the cost of course construction. When I started, 150 acres was the average acreage required. Now, it's 250. Courses were designed to handle 750-foot first shots. Now, it 's 850 feet."

It is edifying, however, that the classics, like the old family stomping grounds at Pine Needles, are still the measuring stick to which modern courses are compared. Just like a firm handshake and good Southern manners, Donald Ross greens never go out of style.

Robbins and Associates, International
100 Parkthrough Street
Cary, NC 27511
Tel: 919-319-1004
Fax: 919-319-1605
E-mail: gcdesign@Bellsouth.net

Royal St. Patrick's Golf Course(Opening 2003)
PO Box 298 Wrightstown, WI
Tel: 920-532-6347

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.

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