Matt Schiffer

Date: Sun 29 Oct 2017

10 Questions for … Matt Schiffer AEIGCA

Matt Schiffer

1. Why did you want to be a golf course architect?

After graduation, I worked as a Civil Engineer for more than seven years and grew increasingly disillusioned by the lack of creative thinking inherent in infrastructure design. I’ve loved playing golf and seeing new golf courses since my teenage years so it was an epiphany when I realized that the profession of golf course architecture existed at the intersection of one of my personal passions and my technical skill set.

2. Which golf course architects do you admire and why?

I find myself drawn to Seth Raynor and C.B. Macdonald - Raynor in particular due to our similar career paths. I’m fascinated by their work because I’ve come to appreciate that applying a handful of template hole strategies to more than 100 golf courses without being too repetitive or overly referential to the originals requires a great deal of creativity. I like that they were able to distill the strategic brilliance of Macdonald’s favorite ~25 golf holes and reapply that strategy over whatever terrain they were given. The National Golf Links of America, The Mid Ocean Club and Shoreacres are very different superficially but they are all brilliant and beautiful and very memorable experiences that are uniquely Macdonald/Raynor.

3. What is your proudest design achievement.

While I don’t yet have much solo design work to my credit I’m proud to have worked with many of the best architects and consultants in the business over the last 13 years. I learn something new from each of these collaborations, as every architect has a different point of view, a different point of emphasis, and a different way of getting the job done.

The 9-hole short course/practice area that I co-designed with Cees van Nieuwenhuizen in Baku, Azerbaijan incorporated so many of those lessons – from strategic variety to accessibility and playability for all skill levels to sustainable and economical construction and maintenance practices.

4. What are your favourite three golf courses in the World from a design perspective, and why?

  • Pine Valley is the most strategically varied course that I’ve seen – every shot and every club is tested and each of the 18 holes is unique and unforgettable. It may be the perfect golf course, but only for the highly skilled (and very well connected) golfer.
  • I’ve never had more fun playing golf than I did at Royal Dornoch. Starting with the short walk from town, the character, charm, and natural beauty of the golf course and the surrounding Scottish Highlands are impossible to replicate.
  • My third choice is a bit of a dark horse but it’s a 9-hole course called Northwood Golf Club set within the towering redwoods of northern California. Designed by Alister MacKenzie, it’s the perfect embodiment of what I think public golf should be: unfussy, affordable, and accessible to all skill levels. On a perfect northern Californian afternoon, you could play 9-holes amongst some of the largest and oldest living things on earth in less than one and a half hours and for a very reasonable price. It’s a rejuvenating and humbling experience.

5. What are the greatest challenges you face as a golf course architect

There are so many aspects of golf course architecture to master – safe and balanced routing and sound strategic principles are learned with design experience and from seeing as many great golf courses as possible. More technical aspects of the profession such as agronomy, grading, and drainage require some expertise and formal training to fully grasp. Artistic and creative skills can be developed over time but are more likely inborn traits. There are also constant advancements in technology, including irrigation and playing equipment, to stay on top of. Finally, for the very best finished product, it’s vital to be involved with the construction of your design.

I believe that a golf course architect’s greatest challenge is to surround yourself with people who are very good at aspects of the profession and either learn as much as possible from them or get out of the way and let them do their jobs.

6. What environmental or sustainable initiatives have you incorporated into your designs?

I have been fortunate to work with and learn from other golf course architects who are recognized industry leaders in sustainable and environmental design. I have also nearly completed the EIGCA and GEO’s “Raising the Standard of Sustainable Golf Course Development” program, which provides a comprehensive overview of sustainable golf course design.

These exposures continue to inform all of my design decisions – from minimizing earthworks to incorporating native, non-invasive species to locally sourcing materials and supplies to reducing costly inputs such as water, electricity, fertilizers and pesticides. Long term environmental and economic sustainability makes sense for all stakeholders and will be necessary if golf is to stay relevant.

7. How do you see the golf course design industry changing in the next 20 years?

I think that the bursting of the golf bubble in 2006 was very difficult but an important correction to the excesses of the 90’s. As an industry we’ve been forced to confront and reexamine what the average golfer wants and what the prospective golfer is looking for.

Recent initiatives such as rules simplifications, “teeing it forward”, the reduction or elimination of rough, and the honest reconsideration of the 18-hole round give me hope that golf course architects, owners and superintendents are now focusing on making the game and golf courses more inclusive, fun, and environmentally responsible.

I hope that this trend continues and 20 years from now golf courses are seen as valuable public amenities that are both environmentally beneficial and accessible to all members of the community, not just golfers.

8. What makes a golf course great rather than just good?

The best golf courses in the world come in all shapes and sizes but they are universally in harmony with their natural surroundings. A course that’s been imposed upon its site has an incongruity that’s difficult to overcome. A great golf course has the power to inspire even the most mediocre golfer.

9. What advice would you give to an aspiring golf course architect

Never stop learning and experiencing! The sport of golf is unique in the non-uniformity of its playing ground. There are more than 30,000 examples of the good, the bad and the ugly and an aspiring golf course architect would be wise to learn what works and what doesn’t work by studying golf courses and the many hows and whys of their design, construction, and ongoing maintenance.

10. What do you enjoy about being a golf course architect.

I love that our profession is a rare combination of subjective artistic expression and objective technical expertise. I love that there is no “right” or “wrong” design answer and that you really don’t know how players are going to experience your design until they’ve started playing on it. I love how golf courses are living things, able to evolve and change and (hopefully) improve over time. Finally, I love the comradery of working within such a small industry. Over the course of my career, I’ve found my colleagues to be extremely generous with their time and knowledge.

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