Gareth Williams

Date: Mon 14 Oct 2019

10 Questions for ... Gareth Williams AEIGCA

The latest in the popular series of Member Profiles where you can get to know our members better.

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

Put simply, it was the combination of landscape, sport and design. I played a lot of sport as a youngster but never at a level that could lead to a professional career. Golf came second to cricket and so I never really played competitively – it was more for the enjoyment of the game and playing in the natural landscape, which is why I think I focus so hard on making sure the game remains fun.

Golf’s ties with the landscape are certainly what draws me to the game. From school I studied Physical Geography at university and then Landscape Architecture; I’ve always had a love of art and design and so when I discovered a profession that combined that with landscape and golf, golf course architecture was an obvious path.

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

As a landscape architecture student I was very interested in how space and landscape can affect us, and conversely how design can force our views, reactions and movement. No surprise then that Alister Mackenzie’s work on military camouflage and “artificial cover indistinguishable from nature” helped me feel I was heading in the right direction early in my career.

But it is Harry Colt – influenced by John Low and Stuart Paton’s changes at Woking – that I most admire as a golf architect. His body of work is almost unprecedented – and, I feel, often underappreciated – but it is more the influence he has had on the shape of golf as we know it. Working as a Club Secretary within a largely penal game in the early-20th Century, Colt came to understand the need for courses to be playable by all standards; that idea is the basis of the Strategic School which, by and large, is what makes golf such a fascinating and enjoyable game.

3. What is your proudest design achievement?

Not strictly design, but I’m most proud of the work I’ve done in guiding projects towards more sustainable solutions – be that in their design, maintenance and operation, or other areas. As with any industry, golf design and development has been through different ‘ages’ – from the Golden Age of the 1920s to that of mass earthworks of the 1980s and ‘90s. Today’s market might be considered the ‘Age of Sustainability’, and since it’s always been the basis of my work as a golf course architect it’s great to be part of that change.

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

Difficult to choose on a global scale as many of the highest rated courses I’ve yet to see but, for different reasons, 3 close to home are :

  • West Sussex – classic heathland that offers fantastic variety of colour, textures, character and natural beauty; quirky design and routing features that break golf architecture ‘rules’ (blind shots, back-to-back par 3s); ebb and flow in its routing, brilliant in its imperfections.
  • Royal Cinque Ports, Deal – the topography is often the primary hazard (as opposed to the bunkers etc.), reinforcing the idea that less can be more in design terms; brilliantly identified (and unusual) green sites; balance of the routing, ebb and flow of different sections of the course; difficulty doesn’t remove enjoyability (lack of variety does!).
  • Seaford Head – publicly-run and accessible, with uncomplicated operation and welcoming atmosphere (I played there a lot as a teenager, there should be more like it!); an imperfect rugged downland course on public land, it’s a great example of a course that doesn’t need a huge maintenance budget to be fun and playable – it typifies golf as a game to be enjoyed; the combination of natural and quirky, man-made features alongside natural topography provides great interest.

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

Golf course development projects tend to be an endless list of challenges(!), but (as above) convincing clients to follow more sustainable development practices would certainly top the list in my career to date. That said, knowledge of the benefits have certainly increased in recent years, thanks in no small part to GEO who have made it a far more understood topic. It is also hugely encouraging that the R&A have acknowledged the importance of sustainability in golf development and management by launching the Golf Course 2030 initiative.

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

Sustainable development’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t have just one focus – and finding a balance between the environment and other contributing factors just seems like common sense to me.

Using existing qualities of a site, its environment and the local culture are a simple but incredibly important part of that process, not least because they are already intricately linked. Enhancing those inherent qualities help a project or course retain its unique sense of place and provide tangible environmental, social and economic benefits.

Use of water is always a high priority consideration – so, for example, native grass and landscape selection, minimising irrigated areas and water harvesting each contribute to minimising each project’s requirement. And including local resources for projects – from local workers to building materials – ensure they become an important part of their community.

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

Golf desperately needs to be a broader church. Its origins as a game with no strict format changed to such an extent that until only recently, 18 holes was the aspiration for almost every project. That will change – rapidly, I hope – with the understanding of the value of different forms of the game. Shorter courses and playing formats other than strokeplay will find greater acceptance, in large part because they provide a quicker, easier and, for many, more enjoyable form of entertainment. That is, after all, what this game exists for!

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

Put simply, balance and variety are the key factors – in all aspects of the course. Golf courses are distinguishable by tee boxes, fairways, bunkers and greens; most will have some element of strategy and all sit in some type of landscape. But the beauty of golf is that each course is subject to the randomness of nature; to make them great they must balance all of their individual elements visually within the landscape, and also within the context of the sport.

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

  • Try to look at golf from different perspectives – the professional, low-, mid- and high-handicapper, greenkeeper and club manager, for example. It’s both a game and a business, so to understand the demands of each will give you the best chance of developing design solutions that work.
  • Learn different ways to play the game – in the air, along the ground, with a draw or fade, long and short. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of seeing the game from only your own playing perspective, but a good, interesting golf hole should be playable from different angles and positions.
  • build a good understanding of the principles of sustainability – it is fast becoming a key part of our job as designers and consultants to clubs and developers.
  • Read as much as you are able, and experience as many good and bad courses as possible. Keep an open mind and you’ll develop your own views on what you like and what you don’t ….. and don’t be afraid of changing your mind!

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

I love the creativity my role affords me. Drawing influence from multiple sources – within and outside golf – to develop conceptual design ideas is a lot of fun, and particularly so for non-traditional forms of the game in recent years. And having developed an early interest in sustainable development at school and then university, it is incredibly satisfying to be following through with it as part of my career.

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