Golf course architecture boomed in the 1990s, and continued a bit into the 2000s. Many aspiring architects entered the business, although not so many were solvent enough to remain in it through the lean years. Dan Hixson produced his first course in the early 2000s, at Bandon Crossings in Oregon. Just up the road from the world-famous Bandon Dunes golf resort, the Crossings represented the fulfillment of one dream and the beginning of another. Hixson then created Wine Valley golf club in the fun-to-say town of Walla Walla, Washington. Today, he finds himself immersed in Silvies Valley ranch in Eastern Oregon. BuffaloGolfer plans to be out west this fall and hopes to play and shoot the Crossings and Wine Valley. In the meantime, here is an interview with Mr. Hixson.
Dan Hixson is not a big-budget, flashy, ad-driven golf course architect. How did you get involved in golf and then in golf course architecture?
My father was a club Professional, so my three siblings and I grew up around courses and playing from a very early age. At age 7 I told my dad I wanted to design courses after he took me out to Eugene Country Club while it was being remodeled. He explained what was going on and I was discovering for the first time that someone actually designed golf courses. I guess I thought courses were just ‘there’ before that day.
I started drawing courses then and have never really stopped since. However, it did take me thirty years before I actually got into the business, but that day seeing bulldozers and excavators building a golf course was truly the moment for me. Eventually after attempts trying to play the game for a living and 14 years as a club pro I made the decision to do what I had always wanted. I loved my club job, but golf course design was my dream.
I resigned as Head Professional at Columbia Edgewater Country Club in Portland and started my own business. I know a lot of people thought I was nuts to give up such a great job to start from scratch as a designer. I always figured I could do all the “golf stuff” as a designer, but had little knowledge of everything else. What I did realize before going out on my own was that I did not need to know everything; drainage, irrigation, engineering, soils, grasses, etc. But I had to be resourceful on where to find answers to those questions when they came up. I have had plenty of help, both for free and paid advice to help with the issues that I at first did not know.
What I did need to know was solid golf course architecture, and being able to convey to clients that I knew how to design it. I learned through years of analyzing virtually every course I had played, trying to determine what is good and bad design. I had enough of an art background to be able to draw in a way to help convince and excite clients that I did know the difference. What I also knew was in the broadest sense was ‘GOLF’ and how to talk about it. I knew the world of golf from many angles: playing, teaching, the golf business, golf history, running and playing tournaments, tour players, equipment, club fitting, club repair, rules, maintenance, juniors, women, beginners and golf courses. I had a true liberal arts study type background into golf. Columbia Edgewater had over 200 single digit members, so I had better know golf, I was there to be the expert.
Being self-taught and no experience as a golf course designer, needless to say, business was rather slow at first. I had seen new courses and remodel work that was highly praised but I did not think it was very good. What I lacked in experience, I made up for by believing in myself, and that I could design great golf. I know that sounds cocky, but if I didn’t believe in myself, then who would.
Eventually I started to do a few small things, for not much money, which fortunately came out pretty good. More importantly I didn’t make any big mistakes, so the word slowly spread around to the clubs and Superintendents in the area and that lead to better projects. I had a few big breaks along the way, and now I have nearly more work than I can handle.
Photos courtesy of Wine Valley Golf Club
What are the most important steps for you when building a golf course, whether the site is ideal or not for golf?
Before anything, is a good client. This is not my original idea, as many designers in any field will say the same, that the project is only as good as the client, more important than money, land or anything.
First – Having a good strategic golf program or mission statement of the project that is very clear and thoroughly discussed and agreed upon with the owner(s) prior to any design work. Clearly many projects do not do this. Multiple projects are built when the architect designs or gives recommendations that convince the owners to build something far more expensive than what is feasible for the particular situation. I think this is where I can give the client a lot of guidance because of my background. Not all owners have knowledge of the business side of construction or even operating a golf course, while other do. Either way, it is absolutely vital to communicate the dreams and visions before any blade hits the dirt.
Second – The routing of the course. The routing is the most important thing to get right within the design once good strategic golf program is decided upon. It directly affects everything. A great routing takes into account far more things than the obvious of laying out good golf holes. Yes great golf holes should be the main purpose of the routing, but cost of construction and maintenance can vary tremendously based on the routing of the course.
Third – Probably the most rewarding part for myself personally is the improvisation in the field. By keeping a flexible about design changes in the field. Unexpected things happen during construction, sometimes in a negative direction, and other to the positive. This can be large changes to a green complex or just adding the little bumps, folds and ripples that give the course more interest by looking natural. I don’t think you can draw or plan these little elements as they do become clear…at least to me, until you are in the dirt shaping it and finishing it. These little changes can only take place without affecting the budget if you are making decisions on them while it is being built, in-the-field. I have been fortunate enough to have worked with some very good shapers who really cared about these little details…and as you know…its in the details to make something great.
What do you implement that makes the game fun and worthwhile for the average golfer that most golfers have no idea you have done?
I really don’t know, because I want the golfer to have an idea of what I have done, just by the fact they like or love my courses because they are fun to play. I always look at golf as fun, so why shouldn’t that be my main thought while designing.
Finding the natural things in the land that work for golf. It’s too easy to design something in the office and then bulldoze everything in the field to match the plan, instead of using what is already there that works for golf. Blending those natural things with other features that are built, are often not noticed by the average golfer.
I continuously use the terms (in my own head), variety, unpredictable, asymmetrical, odd, to-scale and out of scale, intimate, visually stimulating, unusual and many others while doing more of the detail and feature designs. I think these things make golf fun. Big par fours with driving bunkers left and right, an elevated green with flanking bunkers is not my version of fun golf.
What do average golfers undervalue in a golf course?
Without a doubt, I think it is strategy. Having taught thousands of lessons to all levels, very few golfers truly understand strategy. I used to give playing lessons on how a player should manage their game around the course. I think when a golfer plays a course they are not familiar with, most will blast away and take what comes their way. In reality our scores are far more affected by mistakes rather than great shots and of course holing putts. If a player that understands this, they will attempt shots with confidence that are relatively easy for them, and not try hard shots that they know they probably cannot pull off…boom…triple bogey. Each hole has a strategy that varies for each individual golfer’s physical and mental skill levels. Some courses have extreme strategic requirements (think of a Pete Dye tournament courses, which I love) and some have small strategic levels, but still it is there. Most golfers do not even grasp this concept; therefore I think strategic golf design is undervalued. It is the fastest way to improve your score is to strategically play golf, not just go out and play golf swing, and hope for a good score.
Photos courtesy of Bandon Crossings Golf Course
What do average golfer overvalue in a golf course?
The list is long: GPS in carts, perfectly groomed bunkers, a hot drink cart girl (men only), fairness, summer conditions that keep the turf green.
Actually, I really do not have a great answer because average is indefinable in terms of golf. I send a small questionnaire to clubs when I start any Long Range Planning for the Greens Committee and Board of Directors to answer about their course. Within any club usually the toughest nastiest bunker will always be the favorite AND the least favorite. The steepest green is loved AND hated the most. The bunkers are always in bad condition no matter how good they are. The course is too wet, until it turns brown in the summer, then its too dry. I really don’t know what is overvalued, because virtually any element on a golf course that is considered great by someone, is disliked (at least to some degree) by someone else. Golfers are an opinionated group of people for sure.
Regarding the green color factor of turf grass is a catch 22, at least here in the Northwest. Superintendents have to walk a fine line in the summers. Many greens committees suggest and demand to let things dry out in the summer, but the poa annua dies off so easily when it gets hot. Once the super lets it brown up, much of a membership starts screaming that the course looks awful and that the super killed it. The poa will come back in the fall, and the membership is divided about getting more roll and brown turf? I certainly prefer less green in the summer, but try to explain that to a group ticked off members that spend a million-five plus on an irrigation system and a million plus on annual maintenance and they don’t want things dying. They bring out a guest and see dead or nearly dead turf and they don’t care what the Greens Committee thinks, they want green. For me it can be a big educational topic I approach during Greens Committees meetings. I can be blunt to the committee, whereas the Superintendent cannot without jeopardizing his position. It truly is an educational situation that will continue as the value of water increases.
Discuss some of your favorite holes on your own courses. What do you like about them, what makes them play great, what makes them memorable?
Number 18 at Wine Valley in Walla Walla, Washington. It is a downhill par 5 with seven bunkers, the most I have ever designed on a hole. What I really like about the hole is how it is fitting as the final hole for this course. Much of the front nine is on the lower portion of the property with some views, but not like on 18. Eventually the routing works it way to the highest portions and 18 plays down with this huge view for miles. The hole lies in a small valley and is very wide about 100 yards from native grasses on each side and stays that wide up to the green. No matter how long of a hitter you are, eventually one of the bunkers will be on your radar to avoid. The hole allows options of how to get to the green, but isn’t so complicated that you can’t miss a shot. The green has three bunkers (two left and one right) but is most protected with a fairly steep approach slope that most balls will roll to the bottom if not on the green. I like it because everything is directly in front of you and we allowed plenty of room to negotiate the hazards. But what I really like is the hole is very beautiful with the view sheds and the scale of the features.
Number 11 at Bandon Crossings in Bandon, Oregon. This is a 175-yard par 3 slightly down hill. The green sits just behind a small ridge. Originally the green was going to be built 4 or 5 yards past the ridge so you could see the front edge of the putting surface. When we started shaping the green I kept moving it forward until the front edge went well up onto the ridge. I had a brief conversation with the owner about it and he ok’d the idea. The result is a Redan like front portion of the green sloping away from the tee. Any ball that just reaches beyond the top of the ridge will roll 20+ feet on to the green. This was possible because we were building push-up style sand based greens. We had 10’ or more of sand under the green that allowed us to improvise with the green. I played there recently with the owner and we both consider it our favorite hole on the course.
What courses created by other architects have inspired you in your creative process?
When I first turned Professional in the eighties, I played one season on the Australian Tour and was able to play Royal Melbourne, Titirangi in Auckland and a few others designed by Alister MacKenzie. Prior to that the only MacKenzie course I had played was Pasatiempo. I really fell for his courses and his style and often think of them for inspiration.
Even though I do not design anything similar to his style, I find much inspiration in Pete Dye courses. He really took courses in a different direction with the use of water and massive bunkers. His courses made me rethink how I played the game having grown up playing tree lined parkland courses in Oregon.
Just before I made the career change to design I played Oakmont, Plainfield, Merion and Pine Valley. That was a very inspiring trip to see these great four courses when I knew I was going in that direction in a couple weeks. While I loved all four, the design elements of Merion stuck with me the most. A small piece of property, the level of conditions, lots of short holes and the history added up to wanting to design more than ever.
Finally of course…Bandon Dunes. To see what David Kidd did as his first course was awesome and Doak’s Pacific Dunes is definitely in my top 10. I was able to spend a bit of time with Bill Coore at Trails and the Preserve and truly admire his work on both.
Is there anything you consciously avoid when designing / routing a golf course?
Not really, but I do ask myself a lot during the routing, “Is this stupid”? I have a fear of someday somebody saying why didn’t you do this or that, and my mouth opens and I can’t talk. I tend to worry about the routing a lot. Sleepless nights, 20 or 75 versions, just to make sure I’m not missing anything obvious. So I guess to answer your question, I do consciously avoid looking like a moron.
Does anything non-golf (music, poetry, woodworking, etc.) inspire you when you create a golf course.
Yes for sure. Anything creative I can find inspiration in. I have many interests that come and go through the years. I have been a music lover for my entire life and listen to it all the time. I love to design things, from furniture, to landscapes, buildings, yards, anything that has problem solving issues. I have DVD’s of biographies of Frank Gehry, Louis Kahn and several architects that I love to watch just to get a little insights into their design thoughts. I wish I was a reader, but I don’t retain all-that well nor do I have the time to become deeply educated in any one area.
I love visual arts and have dabbled in painting and drawing for much of my life. Seeing great art always get my mind thinking in creative ways. Having drawn a painted for so long made the transition to making plans very easy for me. I had been drawing golf courses since I was a child, which is probably why I still love doing it. Currently my drawing level is at an all time low, probably because not enough drawing time, too much dirt time.
What projects do you have on the drawing board? Any that you can discuss?
Currently finishing my biggest project to date called Silvies Valley Ranch. It is a 36 hole reversible course and a 9 hole par 3 in Eastern Oregon. It is definitely off the beaten path in a very beautiful part of Oregon that very few have seen. The construction of this project has been multiple years I progress, but truly a once in a lifetime event. I have had close to full artistic license to create something truly different.
I have been fortunate to be hired by many of the Country Clubs and courses in the area and am currently doing many ongoing projects of improving these fine clubs.
I have started writing a book on Golf Course Design, much different than anything before. But at my current pace, it should be done about 2031 or later or never.
What question haven’t I asked, that no one has asked, that you would love to answer? Ask them and answer them please.
What would like to do over your next design projects?
It has been said that there really is nothing new to design, that it has all been done. I don’t believe that at all. I have many other design ideas (that make the reversible course seem normal) that I have never seen or heard of that I hope someday to implement. Here are a few of the simple and obvious (at least to me) ones to share:
I would love to retro-fit an existing 18 hole course into a reversible course. Certainly it would take a course with certain characteristics (space and topography) to implement this idea. Economically speaking there are so many benefits vs building a second course. It truly is better use of land and offer savings in maintenance.
I have also been thinking of ideas to implement about course maintenance. I have a plan, somewhat on paper but a lot in my head about how to build a course with many elements built in a way to save tremendously on maintenance costs, but provide design features unique because of this idea.
Your design wish list is?
- Without naming names, I would like to work on a project by one of the more well-known developers.
- Build entirely on sand again. I was fortunate to have had two experiences building Bandon Crossings mostly on sand, and rebuilding Crestview GC mostly on sand. I would love the flexibility and improvisational elements of a pure sand course.
- To design and build on a flat, unwanted site, so that everything in the end was created. That is the perfect project to build the maintenance-friendly course I mentioned above.
- To do a major remodel on a mediocre course and turn it into something special, something great.
- To build small 9-hole courses in smaller town areas for new golfers to get stimulated about the game. I had one of these in the works a few years back, but it never materialized. Again, fun being the biggest design idea, maybe a little crazy is a better way to put it.