Familiar footsteps

Features - Q&A

Incoming ASCGA president Rick Phelps talks with GCI columnist Jeff Brauer about following his father, where to place the blame for difficult courses and whether “Flogton” is a key to golf’s future.

May 16, 2011
Jeffrey D. Brauer

Rick Phelps begins his term as ASGCA president this month assuming the reigns from Erik Larsen at the ASGCA annual meeting near his home in Denver, Colo. Rick was elected as a regular member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects in 2003 and immediately became very active in the society by serving on numerous panels and committees. His election as president a mere eight years later is testament to his commitment to the ASGCA and the industry.

He heads the golf course architecture firm of Phelps-Atkinson. He officially began his career in golf course architecture in 1989 after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in environmental design from the University of Colorado. However, his experience in the field began as early as 1977, at the age of 10, by assisting his father, Dick Phelps, with construction staking on two golf course projects that summer – the original Englewood Golf Course and the nine-hole addition at Grand Lake. By 1998 he had taken over the firm as his father wound down his workload.

Rick’s work can be seen across the U.S. from California to Florida, and concentrated in the Rocky Mountain region. He has finished 13 new golf course projects and more than 150 remodel projects of varying size and scope.

His work is known for being practical, playable and environmentally-responsible, with significant emphasis placed on strategic and aesthetic variety both from project to project and within each project.

Myself an ASGCA member and past president, I caught up with Rick to get his take on the upcoming year as president, and to assure him that it won’t be as difficult as my own presidency, given most of my problems were “self-inflicted.”

What do you hope to accomplish as ASGCA president this year?

At this point, keeping the ship afloat might be a realistic goal. Seriously, Erik Larson has done a great job with the “Value of Golf” message. Erik’s message has been very well received by the GCSAA, PGA of America, NGCOA, USGA, CMAA and many of the other smaller golf organizations in the U.S. There are over 15,000 golf courses in the U.S. and, as an industry, we spend the vast majority of our time and energy talking about 3 percent of them. My goal will be to bring more attention to the other 97 percent.

We cannot lose focus on the importance of these facilities. Each of them has a story of “value” to tell from an environmental, economic and social standpoint.

Does being one of a few sons of a past president carry any additional

I wouldn’t say it carries any extra responsibility. I am absolutely grateful for the opportunity to have many doors opened before me through the success of my dad’s career. Becoming an ASGCA member and, ultimately, a leader in the organization, was always in the back of my mind.

Like your father, you are often associated with designing very good and affordable courses. How do you define affordable golf?

I describe affordable golf as public or private golf that is priced in the lower third for a given region. In most areas, this includes at least 60-70 percent of the total number of golf courses being “affordable.”

My visual analogy is a pyramid. The foundation of the “pyramid of golf” in the United States is built out of the courses that remain in the lower third of the pricing scale.

Does the media have a role in courses being too long, too hard and/or too expensive, by virtue of touting the Top 100 and ignoring “golf in America” as it is really played?

I would say absolutely, yes. Granted, the media is certainly not solely to blame. All of the “best of” lists are geared to fuel our competitive nature and spark debate between human egos. When the “best” is determined to be the longest, toughest, most photogenic, most exclusive, etc., then, over time, things can get a bit out of control. Again, back to my analogy, the pyramid can get top-heavy.

Do we need new championship courses?

We probably don’t need many more courses focused solely on attracting the PGA Tour.
However, I feel any new course should strive to be “good enough” to host a state tournament, local qualifier or other “championship” events. Whether the course is deemed worthy of hosting an event is for others to decide.

Can we convince owners to not build 7,500-yard courses?

That is already happening, to an extent. The economy is certainly helping as owners look at the time and money it costs to maintain those back tees that very few people are using. A big key to this whole issue is the willingness of the USGA and R&A to take an aggressive stance on equipment advances, which they have started to do in the last five to seven years.

I am a big believer that shorter courses can be just as much, if not more, fun than the long brutes. So now we face the challenge of proving that shorter is better. The “regular tee” can be fun and plenty challenging at 6,000 to 6,400 yards.

What courses typify “Golf in America?”

Out on the street, you would get two opposite answers. One would be courses seen regularly on TV – Augusta or Pebble Beach. The other would be the local course down the street. This is what typifies “golf in America.”

Were the 1990-2000 era upscale public courses good for golf?

Yes and no. The higher-end public courses were simply filling a niche in the market where there was tremendous demand at that time. Public course players were willing, and able, to pay a premium for a “better” experience. The niche was filled to the point of overflow and now we are seeing what happens with that imbalance.

How do the best-of-the-best stack up in all design eras?

I would say the “best-of-the-best” from differing eras stack up very well against one another, particularly the pre-depression era and the modern era. I don’t mean to ignore the post-WWII to the post-Vietnam era. From a pure architectural standpoint, there are a lower percentage of standout courses from this era. However, that is almost entirely due to the “new” purpose that was seen for golf at that time that was very much focused on what I am now calling the “foundation” golf courses.

How are you using technology to assist in course development and renovation?

The tools that are available to assist us in design and communication today are fantastic.

Pen and pencil will always have their place in my office, but the digital tools like CAD and Photoshop are too valuable to ignore. We use them to dramatically improve our ability to convey our design ideas to clients and have them gain a better understanding of the vision for the end product, whether that’s new construction or renovation.

What specific things in your design work make courses more affordable?

Minimize earthwork, maximize surface drainage and limit the hand labor required to construct features. Typically, if hand labor is required to build a feature, hand labor will be required to maintain it, thus, driving up both the initial construction costs and the long-term maintenance costs.

What in your design work makes courses more environmentally-sustainable?

Environmental sustainability follows closely with reduced costs. Reduced turf area, long- term drainage/storm-water management solutions, proper landscape planting/management and a cooperative/understanding owner are all essential elements to overall environmental sustainability.

It seems like every time we, as an industry, move to meet the latest challenge, the bar is raised a notch or two – not that this is a bad thing – as there will always be things that we could or should do to make our projects better environmentally.

What course would you direct a golfer to if he wanted to see the best expression of your philosophy?

Keeping in mind that we encourage our client to be involved, our “philosophy” is a bit difficult to pin down. Devil’s Thumb, in Delta, Colo., will always be a course where we achieved a tremendous product for relatively little money.

The Broadlands, in Broomfield, Colo., is more of a park-style course in a residential golf community, but where the homes are not intrusive to the golf experience. Antler Creek, in Falcon, Colo., is the longest course I have done, but we managed to have it remain very playable from the shorter tees without sacrificing the strategic interest and variety. I could go on…

What is the first course that is more “Rick” than “Dick” Phelps?

For new construction, probably Devils Thumb. Twelve Bridges (now called Catta Verdera) in Lincoln, Calif., and two courses that we did with Hale Irwin, Panther Creek in Springfield, Ill., and Southern Woods in Florida are all projects where I had significant involvement in final design and implementation.

Your father’s work personifies the predominantly “practical” design values of the post-WWII era. In your work, I see those values and some interesting new directions. Talk about how you have evolved.

You hit the nail on the head with the word “practical.” I find it somewhat ironic that we seem to be entering an era that is very similar to the post-WWII time when if it wasn’t absolutely necessary to the design, then it was not included.

Being practical, or financially responsible, is a learned behavior that I will never lose. My design philosophy has always been to expand on what my dad worked so hard to build without giving up the core values of responsible golf course architecture.

Are “alternative courses” or games like Flogton a big part of golf’s future?

Anything that gets people outside with golf equipment in their hands should have a role in the future of golf. The market will ultimately dictate what works and what doesn’t. However, we need to find the people who are willing to take a “risk” to try some new ideas first.

Are you dabbling in the overseas market?

Dabbling would be too strong of a word. We would certainly not turn down a real project overseas, but we are also not actively chasing work outside of North America.

What should international clients learn from American golf course architects?

Quality design and construction provide the best value over the long-term life cycle of a golf course.

However, there is definitely a “point of diminishing returns” where more money doesn’t improve and, in fact, may well destroy the potential for success.

OK, now for the lightning round – design on plans or in the field?

I really enjoy the field work, but on some sites and projects it is essential to have a great set of plans to work from.

Traditional design or new ideas?

Again, both!

Big greens or small?

Variety is always the goal. If I owned my own course, I would prefer bigger greens with a bit more contour.

Square tees or round?

Rounded tees, or even “free-form” tees, save a significant amount of time over square tees in terms of mowing and top-dressing.

Lacy edged bunkers – fad or trend?

Both, it depends on the site. A links or prairie style course can have “lacy” bunkers and they will look much more natural than a highly edged look. On park-style courses, intricate lacy edges would be more of a fad.

Wide fairway or narrow?

Variety! Anywhere from 80 feet to 200 feet depending on the site and design. GCI

Jeff Brauer writes the Design Concepts column for GCI.