Jaeger Kovich didn’t enter the golf course architecture and building business at the most auspicious moment. Despite what some might call his poor sense of timing, Kovich remains steadfast in his pursuit of a place in the architecture of the game’s courses. After a period when enormous architectural firms ruled the roost, the economic downturn of 2008 reduced the landscape of the business to a new normal. Kovich is betting on Proper Golf (his company) carving the right niche in 21st century golf course architecture. In February, an interview was published on Golf Club Atlas. Hopefully this one adds to the conversation.
1. Tell us how you got involved in golf, with specifics as to age and influence.
There are pictures of me playing in Florida when I was really little, but all I remember is my grandfather taking me to someone’s garage where a guy cut down a few clubs for me, and the story about us getting kicked off my grandfathers course.
The Randall’s Island Driving Range was really where I learned how to swing. Growing up in New York City, my best friend and I would walk the 2 blocks up to 86th st, and take the shuttle across the Tri-Borough Bridge to the driving range. We probably were first allowed to do this on our own sometime around 13-15. From there I somehow became the one in charge when we progressed to getting in a car and driving to a course. With the help of my parents I found brochures, websites, books that had course listings and reviews. Somehow I just started analyzing how far we had to drive, what I liked, what sounded different, price, etc. A few years later I quit playing lacrosse to join the golf team in high school.
2. At what point did you realize that your interest in the game lay in the architecture?
During the summer between Junior and Senior Year of High School a friend gave me tickets to the Wednesday practice round of The 2004 US Open at Shinnecock Hills. I walked around the course for a while, and then I happened to sit down for the first time behind the tee for the par-3 7th hole. A couple groups came through, then Adam Scott, Vijay Singh and Darren Clark came up with another famous 4th, who I cannot remember. They all dropped multiple balls, tried different clubs, and none of them could keep the ball on the green. Something was different. I got home that night, and was telling my father about how this hole was going to be the story. Little did I know what was about to happen in Southampton later that week.
The confirmation came four years later. Hobart offered the opportunity to do an internship in Boston, MA for a semester, and take a few independent classes once a week at night. I was somehow able to talk my way into being a free intern in the office of Mark Mungeam, at Mungeam Cornish Golf Design in Uxbridge, MA. My first day came the morning after the New York Giant’s and David Tyree beat The Patriots. As the only Giant fan in the building I snuck out the back of my friends Superbowl Party in Charlestown, and made it to Uxbridge without a scratch. By the end of my first day I knew I wanted to be a golf course architect.
3. Which architectural figure has been your greatest influence and why?
I would say Tom (Doak), although I have a hard time not saying his design associate Eric Iverson. (I will talk about him in the next question.)
I read Tom Doak’s Minimalist Manifesto on the Renaissance Golf Design website one night after caddying at Quaker Ridge. I then bought a copy of The Anatomy of a Golf Course, and read it in the caddy yard. It changed everything for me. It made me want to learn how to build golf courses, and not just design them, so I began to pursue an internship with him.
I graduated in 2009, when the US economy took a dive, and the golf course world was put on hold. In the mean time I tried to teach myself Mandarin Chinese because I knew Bill Coore and Tom both had potential projects in Hainan. I also learned how to run construction equipment at one of those equipment operator schools and started finding my way onto more and more great golf courses. When the opportunity finally came to join Renaissance Golf Design on Christmas 2011, I had 2 years of golf course construction experience, and I was ready to hit the ground running.
I traveled the world working on Tom’s projects over the next few years. I was lucky enough to help on a number of plans in his Traverse City office, went on a few site visits and picked his brain about so many things. Whether it is my traveling incessantly to see golf, minimalism, and the entire design/shape model, it’s hard to point to anything in my career that has not been influenced by him in some way.
Tom does not get enough credit, nor recognition for being so incredibly generous with his time and knowledge on the subject. He has been a teacher and mentor to so many people over the years. I could not possibly thank him enough. He is a great influence not on just me, but the game itself.
4. Which project on which you have worked has given you the greatest satisfaction?
Honestly, I would have to say Simapo Island, the golf course I built in China with Renaissance Golf Design. It never opened, and likely never will. I understand that probably seems weird, for a variety of reasons, especially since I’ve been lucky to do some work under my own name, accomplishing a major life/career goal at such a young age, but considering all the things I had to do just to get the opportunity to join the team, and then all that we overcame to build it, I will forever be proud of what we created.
I learned so much from the year and a half long battle. The entire team poured our hearts into creating the best golf course we possible could in our giant sandbox called Simapo Island. Work wise it was the best opportunity I could have asked for. With 2 million cubic meters of golf landscape to create and the best teacher I could have possible asked for at my disposal night and day, in Eric Iverson. I was like a kid in a candy shop!
Poor Eric had no idea what to do with me at first! I wasn’t half as capable as I thought I was when we arrived. But to his credit, he put up with me, and my insistent questioning about everything golf course related. He helped turn me into a really efficient and productive member of the team. He let me battle through some things on my own, via trial and error, and walked me through other parts of the process. Eric is likely the best shaper in the world so I was always pressing him for knowledge, feedback and more opportunities. By the end, not only were we speaking the same language, but we were operating on the same wave length. The satisfaction that comes from a true team effort like that is hard to duplicate.
As we got closer to the end not only had I developed real skills on the machines, and a talent for building golf courses, but I learned something that I will carry with me forever in this business: All to often we do not get to go back and play the courses we build. Even if or when we do, chances are, we won’t find them the way we want to, or the way we envisioned them. The fact is, they aren’t ours, and no matter how much we would like it to be different, all those things are entirely out of our control. To be really happy in this business one must truly love the act and process of creating the golf course.
Given all that we overcame to get that golf course built, I will forever be satisfied by our accomplishments over there, no matter what happens to it.
5. You lock up your first solo project at The Village Club of Sands Point and arrive for your first day on the job. You take a deep breath, then exhale. What happens next?
My relationship with The Village Club of Sands Point began in 2014 with a feasibility study for possible changes to the course that would go along with moving the clubhouse. I explored a few options for the club, trying to find the ideal solution to rearranging the golf course to start and finish out of The Mansion. The property is blessed with incredible views, history, and landmarked buildings as the former estate of the Guggenheims. I tried to tie all of these elements into my design. After dozens of sketches I found a way to utilize the skyline of New York City on the opening shot, and finish on the doorstep of The Mansion while keeping the cost down by only affecting 3 holes. I had a lot of fun with the rerouting process, and trying to find ways for the municipally owned club to best benefit the community. I made recommendations for the inclusion of a walk/bike path, and a community putting course. Other parts of the process like procuring driving range netting estimates, and sitting in on meetings with the mayor were new experiences. The feasibility study was completed with a presentation, and report to accompany a set of plans… We are hopeful The Village will be voting on the big improvements to the course sometime this spring.
The bunker renovation that took place last year was a bit of a different animal. I barely slept the night before my first day of shaping. I was 100% in charge for the first time, I was tearing into the work of my old boss, and I had made a special request asking to start the project on one of the best holes on the course. #13 is a par-5 that plays east, with the green located on a cliff above The Hempstead Bay. I had a really good idea for the left greenside bunker, and needed get things started off with a bang after a long planning process. The pressure was on me to communicate my vision in the dirt as we never did any drawings or sketches for the planning of this project. I spent time on the course going on a few walkthroughs with the Green Chairmen, Head Pro Karl Obermeyer, and Mike Benz the superintendant who did all the budgeting and was in charge of the in-house crew that would work along side of me. They loved the classic elegant look, and the adjustments I made to the floor, helping balls come to rest on the bottom of the bunker instead of plugging on the faces. As the project went along trust continued to build. It was a really great feeling to be given so much freedom my first time ever acting as both architect and shaper. I am really looking forward to my continued relationship with The Village Club of Sands Point and finishing up the last three holes, although we have purposely put off the holes near The Mansion for a little while longer until we have a plan in place for the bigger changes.
5. (Alternate Routing) Has there been a project that you wish you could have a second chance at, or did you ever lose a project that you would dearly have loved to complete?
Well, considering how proud I am of what I have accomplished thus far, there is not much I would do over. That being said, it would have been awesome to have won the design concept for 2016 Rio Olympic Bid. I worked on the team for Renaissance Golf Design. It was my first project for Tom Doak. We spent virtually every waking hour working on it for a month straight including 2 all-nighters in the office trying to make our deadline and get it to Brazil.
It is a little bittersweet now that I have been involved with Gil, and Hanse Golf Design. Gil, his partner Jim Wagner, and the entire Caveman Team are all super talented, and deserved of the opportunity. I know what Gil and the guys went through to get the course built for this summers Olympic games. I have enjoyed my time working with shapers Neil Cameron and Ben Hillard who made their way from Rio to Streamsong Black, as well as Kyle Franz at Vineyard Golf Club, another Hanse project. I know these guys put everything they had into the Olympic Course, no matter how difficult things were. I hope I get to see what they came up with down there in Rio, but at the same time, I’ll always wonder.
PS – The routings Tom and Gil did were not all that dissimilar!
6. Bring one dead architect back to life and explain the project you would work on with her/him.
I would pick an architect and project where they spent a lot of time on site. As someone that is fascinated with the process of building golf courses, I would select someone that is going to be on site everyday. I wouldn’t be climbing on the horse drawn plows like I do with an excavator or bulldozer, but I would love to see them shape a green, and how they built bunkers. I am also interested in how the architect communicates his ideas. The way people visual dirt, and the vocabulary they choose to explain shaping I find very interesting.
Based on my understanding that Perry Maxwell lived onsite to manage the construction for Dr. Alister Mackenzie for at least the front 9 of Crystal Downs, I would have liked to spend that time in Frankfort, Michigan with them. The front 9 at Crystal is probably my favorite nine holes of golf in the world. Getting to watch Perry Maxwell build greens for Dr. Mackenzie would be a dream come true. Crystal has one of the best collections of greens in the world, and Maxwell is in the discussion for the best green builders of all time.
I would love to hear Dr. Mackenzie explain his thoughts on routing. He was a master of the artistic routing, and the front nine at Crystal is pure genius. I have spent a good deal of time learning how to route a golf course from Tom, and spent some time at Crystal with him, where he is a member, and knows the history pretty well, but the opportunity to hear from the good Dr himself on his process at Crystal Downs, would be an amazing learning experience. I would love to ask him about looking for features on a topographical map, how he made decisions to build #11 and #17, two of the best “connector holes” in the world.
My fall back answer might be working with George Thomas at Riviera. The pictures from the construction, and the sketches in his book are really interesting.
7. What mistakes are still being made in new builds and restorations?
Wow, that is a loaded question!
With renovation or restoration, one mistake I think we make is forgetting that the golf course is a living, breathing thing. Far to often I feel like the industry as whole is chasing an impossible quest for fairness, and as a result golf courses are becoming over engineered. We are spending excessive amounts of money on the “latest and greatest” when perhaps we would could step back and find ways to work with nature a little more. Sometimes we forget that addition by subtraction is a very powerful concept in architecture. I would love to see more methods of recycling incorporated into these types of projects.
It is much harder to judge “mistakes” on new builds. Often what people call a mistake on a new build is really a matter of style and is totally subjective. However, I can’t stand when I see a new course and later refer to it as “Catch Basin City”. It also makes me want to pull my hair out when I see courses that are still being built with containment mounding. Do these affect style? Yes. But most importantly they touch on a major philosophical issue I have when it comes to the most important thing on a golf course, drainage, or more specifically, surface drainage.
8. What assignments do you anticipate receiving your attention over the course of the next decade?
Honestly, I’m just hoping to keep building fun golf and working on exciting projects. Whether it is taking on some more projects of my own or working with talented architects like Gil Hanse, and his partner Jim Wagner who have taken me under their wing as of late, I will be very lucky to keep busy. There are many talented people working on the design/shape side of the business, and there is a lot I can learn from them as my solo career is just starting. I have always said that building golf courses is a team sport, and I hope to continue work along side many of these architects and shapers who share similar philosophies.
While sure I have dreams and goals for my career. I would love to one-day design a new golf course from scratch. I believe it is, innovative renovation and restoration that will be the path towards bigger projects down the road. With that in mind I think you will see a number of new teams and partnerships form between shapers and architects over the next few years as the next generation of architects begin to arise. Over the next few years we will start to learn more about many of the young, talented friends I’ve made working with Gil and Tom.
9. What question haven’t we asked, that should be asked? Please ask it and answer it.
This was the hardest question for me. I thought long and hard for a few weeks, about crusading against a few things that need to change in our industry, or explaining some of my other goals and aspirations. I would have loved explain my visualization process for shaping, lament about bunker theory, or talking about my solo design work at The Village Club of Sands Point. Instead I went with a classic:
If you could only play one course for the rest of your life, which course would you choose?
I chose this question, because I hate it! I could never restrict myself to only one. Playing, or even just walking different golf courses is what I enjoy most. I have seen 200 golf courses in the last 4 years alone. I’ve been in the most exclusive clubs, and driven hours out of the way to play on sand greens. I have even snuck onto an active military base to see the remains of a long lost Donald Ross course. There are a few courses I might consider answering with, but only playing one golf course for the rest of my life would eat at my soul forever.
North Berwick West Links would probably be my answer, but it is going to take threatening the lives of loved ones because you might need a hit man to keep me from driving down the road to Muirfield. That golf course is nearly perfect too!
If I picked National Golf Links of America, I would go insane from the daily Shinnicock Hills sighting. I might never be happy again if I picked Ballyneal, which I would say is the course I most wish I designed. Just knowing I would never get to play its cousin up the road, Dismal River Red, which I helped build, but have never been back to play is enough to make me sick.
There is only one question that is worse: What is your favorite golf course?!