Designer Michael Hurdzan Plants the Seeds of Success
COLUMBUS, OH -- The offices of Hurdzan/Fry Golf Course Design occupy only part of the 5,000 square-foot building in which they are housed. The rest of the space contains one of the most extensive golf-related collections in the world (the collection of wood shafted clubs alone numbers close to 5,000). This isn't just a place where golf courses are designed; this is a place where golf is lived and breathed. It is a place where people not only honor the history and traditions of the game, but also believe that the game itself offers something back to the people who play it, and even the people who don't.
Dr. Michael Hurdzan, the founding partner of Hurdzan/Fry, holds a PhD in environmental plant physiology, and has been called "the guru of environmentally sensitive public golf design," and was named "Golf Course Architect of the Year" in 1997 by Golf World Magazine. Dr. Hurdzan is the author of Golf Course Architecture: Design, Construction, and Renovation, one of the definitive modern volumes on the subject. He also served for 23 years as commander of Green Beret and Psychological Operations units in the U.S. Army Reserve, specializing in survivalist tactics.
Two of the most notable of the over 250 courses created by Hurdzan and his team (including Dana Fry, full partner since 1997) are the Canadian courses designed for the creators of the Trivial Pursuit board game - Devil's Pulpit and Devil's Paintbrush - which Golf Digest named as the best new courses in Canada in 1991 and 1992, respectively.
One of his most ambitious undertakings has been to turn an "environmentally dead" garbage dump in Scituate, Mass., into an award-winning golf course - Widow's Walk Golf Club. At Widow's Walk, 50 percent less water and fertilizer are used than at comparable courses, and even carpet scraps salvaged from the site were recycled as the stacked walls of "sod"-faced bunkers. Where once the only animals found on the property were rats, now birdwatchers report over 80 feathered species thriving.
Dr. Hurdzan was kind enough to sit down with Senior Writer Kiel Christianson for a question and answer session, amongst the dizzying array of golf books, equipment, and memorabilia, much of which is displayed in a series of faux storefront windows designed and built in-house as part of what have to be the coolest offices in all of golfdom.
KC: How did you get from PhD to PsyOps to golf course architecture?
MH: My dad was a golf teaching professional at a course owned by Jack Kidwell. Jack Kidwell was a golf professional who had rebuilt his won golf course and had helped others rebuild their courses, and Mr. Kidwell became a golf course architect in the mid 1950s. I remember when I was 13 years old, walking into his office and seeing a drawing of a golf course for the first time - I was captivated. It was almost magical. I said, "Mr. Kidwell, this is what I want to do." And he said, "Then I'll teach you how to do it."
I entered Ohio State University in 1961, and told them I wanted to earn a PhD and become a golf course architect. I wanted to have the credentials and the credibility. Well, ROTC was mandatory for the first two years, but I found that I really enjoyed it. So I signed up for the advanced courses, and when I graduated I was commissioned as a chemical officer in 1966. After my PhD, I went into the military, but President Nixon canceled the chemical corps. The next day, I entered the special forces, jump corps, PsyOps, and all the rest. For the next 23 years, I was a commander in the Army Reserve.
KC: What's your design philosophy?
MH: First is that most people see golf as a competition. For me, it's recreation. Golf courses should be designed to be fun for non-competitors. The second thing is that, as Mr. Kidwell taught me, golf should be affordable. Golf has been good to us, and we feel strongly that it should be accessible to everyone. Finally, that accessibility should also be extended so that there are no race, gender, or physical barriers to the game. I would like to see golf as widespread as basketball or baseball. So my philosophy is to help the game grow. We'll build very inexpensive golf courses…depending on what our clients want. We just finished a project in Medorah, North Dakota [to be named The Bully Pulpit] on a very good site [near Teddy Roosevelt's ND ranch]. The construction cost just $638,000, and the irrigation cost another $700,000. So the whole shooting match was $1.3 million - that's cost-effective golf.
I don't feel that I'm in competition with Tom Fazio, Pete Dye, or Jack Nicklaus. My competition is Disney, with pro football, pro baseball, fishing, camping. Golf competes for people's discretionary money. And if people don't find golf enjoyable, they'll spend their money and time on something else.
KC: What's the hardest type of site to build a course on?
MH: The two hardest sites to work on are dead-flat sites, or extremely steep sites. One is an artistic challenge, to take a flat cornfield and make it memorable. And the other is a very technical challenge, in terms of engineering and construction.
KC: Reading your book, it's evident that you hold The Old Course at St. Andrews in high esteem. What is it about courses like that that impress you most?
MH: The exciting thing about those old courses was the strategy. They have big, wide fairways with a scattering of hazards. You have to develop your own strategy every time you play. There is an infinite variety of factors in play from day to day as wind conditions, pins, and tees change.
KC: What are some of your favorite courses, aside from The Old Course?
MH: There's a twelve-hole course on the Isle of Arran named Shiskine. All twelve of those holes are completely memorable. And Cypress Point - I love that course. And the more classic courses of Eastern Long Island, New York, are ones I love.
KC: How has modern technology affected course design today?
MH: I've played over 40 rounds of golf in Europe with wood shafted clubs, and it's taught me that the basic design principles still hold. The old masters gave you wide fairways to play to. In 50 years, I've never met anyone who says, "I love going into the long grass and hacking it out." It is important to set up hazards to intimidate and challenge the great players, but not encumber the average player. One key is including really challenging hole locations. Greens need to have two to three pin locations to challenge great players. And there needs to be at least five sets of tees, where space allows. We've even proposed six or seven sets of tees on some layouts.
KC: What are some current projects?
MH: With six designers and a total staff of eleven, we're one of the five or six largest course design companies in the world, so we do about eight courses a year. Right now, we're doing that course in North Dakota, one outside Boston called Turner Hill, a 36-hole facility in Somerset New Jersey, and one in Paducah, Kentucky called Mineral Mound. We're also building two courses in Alabama, one near Georgian Bay, Ontario, and one called Wren Dale near Hershey, Pennsylvania.
KC: One last question. If you had to survive for a week alone on a golf course and the cart girl were nowhere in sight, how would you go about doing it?
MH: Ha! That's a great question. I would try to make sure that the course was near an orange orchard and a flowing stream.
Hurdzan/Fry Golf Course Design
Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, Partners
Tel.: 614-457-9955 Fax: 614-457-2250 Web: www.hurdzanfry.com
Prominent Hurdzan Designs in Ohio
Blue Ash Golf Club, Blue Ash
Cumberland Trail Golf Course, Pataskala
Cooks Creek Golf Club, Ashland
Eaglesticks Golf Course, Zanesville
Golf Club at Dublin, Dublin
Indian Springs Golf Course, Mechanicsburg
StoneWater Golf Club, Highland Heights
The Vineyard, Cincinnati
October 12, 2002