Development of new golf courses in the USA exploded in the 1990s and peaked just before the financial crisis of 2008. Despite this downturn, the men of Renaissance Golf have continued a steady business of new designs and restorations. In 2016, four of the associates will debut a unique design in Michigan. The Stoatin Brae (Scots for “Good/Big Hillside”) course at Gull Lake View Resort. Brian Schneider, Don Placek, Eric Iverson and Brian Slawnik all trained under Tom Doak, the principle architect of the firm. For the first time, they have designed and built a course without Doak’s input or presence. Not to say that these four horsemen are going all Quebec or Catalonia on Tom Doak; far from it! Without delay, here is BuffaloGolfer’s first multi-person interview, with the men of Stoatin Brae.
1. Introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about how you got started first in golf, and then in golf course architecture.
Don Placek here, I reside in Traverse City, Michigan where we have our office at Renaissance Golf. My dad got me started in golf when I was very young. He was a teaching pro at a Donald Ross course in Denver, Colorado when I was born and not long after that at a small course in the small community of McCook, Nebraska about 100 miles from where he was born. So I was free to practice and play as much as I liked growing up. My family moved back to Colorado when I was in Jr. High School and I played my first competitive rounds shortly thereafter through high school and into college. When I wasn’t playing I was caddying and attended the University of Colorado in Boulder on an Eisenhower Evans Caddie Scholarship. Pete Dye’s oldest son Perry had an office in Denver where I interned in college. Graduating in 1991 I started working for Perry full time. It was a few years later that I read Tom Doak’s book The Anatomy of a Golf Course. cover to cover! I met him at the GCSAA show in Las Vegas in early 1997 and he hired me shortly after that. I’ve been with Renaissance Golf Design since.
Brian Schneider: I grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and golf was something we did as a family from an early age. My grandfather was a very good player and enjoyed the game well into his nineties, shooting his age more often than not. His brother, my great-uncle, owned a driving range and par-3 course in town- that’s the site of my earliest golf memories.
As I grew a little older, my friends and I became regulars at the local muni, where we could play all day for $3.00 if we arrived early. Many summer days began with a brisk bike ride to the course, bags over our shoulders, where we’d often play until dinnertime. Every American town should offer such an opportunity!
Once or twice a year, my parents would take us to Lawsonia Links, William Langford’s masterpiece in Green Lake, WI. The rolling ground and bold features were drastically different than anything to be found around Oshkosh- I think that difference sparked my interest in golf architecture, and Lawsonia remains one of my very favorite places to this day.
I began to see course design as a profession towards the end of my time in college and spent a few years travelling the country as a greens-mower and bunker-raker before Kye Goalby hired me to help with a couple projects outside of Washington, DC in 2000. Kye is a super-creative designer as well as a terrific shaper, and he was very patient and generous in teaching me how really good golf courses get built. In 2002, Kye and I worked together for Tom and Don on the construction crew of the North Course at Stonewall in Elverson, Pennsylvania, and I joined Renaissance Golf Design full-time that fall.
At age 8, purely by coincidence, my family moved a 20-minute walk away from a county owned course in a suburb of Denver, and my brother and I would spend the better part of our childhoods there. While Neal played the big course with the older boys, my best friend and I loitered around the putting green until legendary local pro Vic Kline would give us a chore to do in exchange for playing the par 3. We quickly ran him out of chores, so our parents had to cough up the princely sum of $40 each to play the par 3 for a year. I share this because I think access to the game for kids is so critical to golf’s future, it was much simpler when I was a kid.
I continued to follow my brother’s lead, he was getting into building golf courses. He got me a summer job after an aimless freshman year in college, during the construction of Riverdale Dunes, a course Perry Dye was building. Growing up, I recalled seeing a picture once of Desmond Muirhead; distinguished, plaid jacket and tie, smoking a pipe I think, golf course architect didn’t even feel like an option. But on most days that summer, the oldest guy on the project was 26 years old, and one guy, even younger, seemed to be doing his own thing. He was there to shape some of the green complexes, and fix up some of the others. In addition to watching a young Tom Doak have such an impact on the design, I was sent to chase off some old fart driving a hopelessly small rental car across the golf course. Preparing to yell at this guy to get the hell off the course, Pete Dye jumps out and starts yelling at me! “Where’s this puddle going to drain?” “What’s that dirt over there for?” I had no clue about either one, of course, or design in general, but I knew I loved golf, and after that summer, I knew what I wanted to do.
2. How did the four of you stumble onto this opportunity and were you at all reticent about undertaking the task?
Don: The Scott family, owners of Gull Lake View Golf Resort, contacted our offices in Traverse City hoping to somehow engage Tom in the work initially. But once Tom shared the idea of the four of us working on it as a team, Charlie Scott and his son Jon took to the idea that in exchange for being more sensitive to fee associated costs he could tap directly into some of the younger talent Tom had trained over the last 15 years. It was exciting, and because we had each other to lean on and we had been working with each other for so long all over the world we had the confidence to pursue the unique opportunity Tom was so generously providing.
Brian: Don covered this very well.
Erik: Actually, I credit Jon Scott for having the gumption to press Tom for something other than a full-on design deal. He knew the ground was special, but he also knew that this wouldn’t work unless it could be built very inexpensively, and to not get the most out of his and his family’s talents would be a waste. He and his family are very capable builders and designers, with a very successful business as proof, and initially I think he was looking for someone to partner with him to build some cool greens and bunkers. Internally, we had been talking for a couple of years about how we as associates might find opportunities to design courses just like this. Tom graciously encouraged the relationship, and we were able to convince Jon that we could provide more than just shaping help.
3. Gull Lake View has five courses, most of which were not built by professional golf course architects (or at least ones of reputation.) What did you learn from their work and how will Stoatin Brae be similar/different to/from the work that came before?
Don: To be sure the Scott family knows how to provide an enjoyable golf experience, they have been doing it successfully for generations and through some of the most difficult of economic times. If you are standing tall in the golf business with multiple courses after what the country endured in 2008 then you must be doing something right! Honestly, that’s what we as a group really took notice of right away. There are hundreds of thousands of people that just feverishly love golf within 100 miles of Gull Lake View Golf Resort. A quality playing surface in a natural landscape serves the vast majority of them well. And the courses the Scotts operate now do exactly that. Our task was to simply pay attention to that while adding some of the things the four of us learned working for Tom watching other golfers around the world who love the game just as much but have a measurably different way of experiencing it. The easiest way to separate Stoatin Brae from the other GLV courses was in the property and the characteristics the Stoatin Brae site offered that the other Gull Lake View courses didn’t. Namely ,vast, open ground with just the right mix of of tilt and slope combined with long range views both across and beyond the course boundaries. In short we had a more British Isles flavoring of topography as opposed to what is much more common on Michigan; rolling ground covered with a variety of healthy hardwoods and conifers. Stoatin Brae embraces the ground on which it resides just as the other GLV courses do, and because it does, it can’t help but be different.
Brian: While building Stoatin Brae, we lodged at the resort at Gull Lake View, and I was frankly astonished at how busy the place was all season long. The Scotts have figured out why golfers enjoy playing in the Great Lakes region and they’re doing it really, really well. Though four of the five GLV courses were designed and built by the Scott family (the fifth, Bedford Valley, was designed by William Mitchell in 1965 and later acquired by the Scotts), they were built in four separate decades so there is plenty of variety among them. Nevertheless, the existing courses at GLV offer quality turf conditions, a player-friendly approach to course presentation and the lovely forest setting that you expect to find when visiting that part of Michigan.
The setting is where Stoatin Brae really differs from what the Scotts have done in the past, as our site was a largely treeless, elevated plateau that offers long-range views that most area courses can’t match. The topography is close to ideal and we came up with a routing that required minimal earthwork, allowing us to focus on the contouring of the green complexes. Our putting surfaces contain a bit more contour than you’ll find on the other Gull Lake View courses, and we made an effort to limit bunkering to keep the focus on contour.
Eric: Excellent answers, both.
4. Is there a lead guy on this job, or do the four of you have the incredible patience to listen, discuss/debate and work together?
Don: Yes, there was a lead guy on this project, Eric Iverson. With Brian Schneider serving as a very close second. Eric and Brian shaped and finished all of the greens, and got some help from Blake Conant on the bunkering. Engaging input and feedback from Jon Scott throughout. Brian Slawnik was running Tom’s project The Loop at Forest Dunes in Roscommon, MI at the time Stoatin Brae was being realized, so he was busy there as well as Stoatin. And I serve in a more planning/administrative role in Traverse City the majority of the time so was really not involved in the shaping and construction at all. That said, however, all four of us were fully engaged in the routing of the course from the start, deciding together where the coolest holes were and more importantly the way to best connect them into the best 18 hole roster possible, worthy of such a wonderful piece of ground.
Brian: Working together on a project is nothing new for the four of us- we’ve been doing it for a long time. Stoatin Brae was simply the first time we’d done so without Tom’s involvement on a project of this scale.
I think we’ve always been comfortable being open with one another and sharing our honest opinions. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the guys I work with and have learned so much from them over the years. The discussion and debate you refer to is one of the things I enjoy most about the creative process and it plays a huge part in the way our work develops.
But that input is never limited to RGD staff- there are always other people involved who contribute in many ways. At Stoatin Brae, that included Jon and Charlie Scott, guest shaper Blake Conant, golf course superintendent Rick Fogarsi and the Gull Lake View crew that helped get the course built, and an occasional friend who would pop in for a tour during construction.
Eric: Administratively yes, architecturally, no. It was not an easy property to route, and all four of us found holes that unlocked the site’s potential. As many know, Tom has consistently championed the notion of multiple sources of input. Among his many gifts are the ability to flesh out half-baked ideas, and his willingness to explain why he doesn’t think others will work. We’ve all been bouncing ideas off one another for 15 years, and we’ve learned so much from Tom and each other along the way by debating ideas, as opposed to Tom just saying, “no”, which he rarely does without explaining why.
This process has made us all so much better at our craft. When you share an idea, it needs to stand up to the scrutiny of a number of really sharp minds, and if scrutinizing the ideas of others, you need to make your case. “I don’t like it” is just not good enough. We openly and honestly debate our work, and it works so well because we care about and trust one another’s judgement.
I’m glad Brian mentioned Blake Conent and Rick Fogarsi, and our client Jon Scott too. Their input was invaluable, and they represent the constant presence of smart people we surround ourselves with. The list of aspiring young designers we’ve worked with through the years is remarkable. They show up incredibly well studied, confident in what they’ve learned. They certainly keep us on our toes, and we help them get better, too. Having a lot of brainpower on site makes any course better.
5. What can the golf world expect from Stoatin Brae that hasn’t been seen before from Renaissance Golf, and maybe not ever in the world of golf course architecture?
Don: I don’t think anyone will see anything that is unprecedented. We have all learned a lot in our tenure with Tom and perhaps one of the greatest lessons is restraint. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a number of very exciting holes on the course. There are! But those holes reside on the more contentious pieces of topography. Where the ground was naturally quiet, so are the holes that live there. We often talk about the cadence of the great courses of the world, North Berwick in E. Lothian, SCOTLAND for example. Where the flow of golf holes mix like the playlist of a talented DJ at a great party. Make no mistake, music influences all of us strongly and I feel like it shines through in our work.
Brian: We’ve all seen too much golf to think that we’ve created anything wholly unique at Stoatin Brae, but I do believe we’ve built something very different for the local market, and different than anything we’ve done before. We were entrusted with a very good piece of land and really tried to leave it alone as much as possible. This is not a new approach, but it’s the only time it’s been done on that bit of ground, so that’s unique in and of itself. Putting a golf course on that site will draw golfers to a really cool little part of south-central Michigan.
Eric: It’s a tried and true recipe that we followed, dating back to the Golden Age, so enthusiasts won’t find any earth shattering new concepts. However, considering how many of those once terrific courses have been compromised in one way or another, “borrowing” a little of the course for development over here, or (sigh) better practice facilities over there, those that remain intact are even more revered. Viewed in that light, 18 interesting and unique holes, a well designed, fun set of greens, plenty of width, draped over terrific golfing ground, with beautiful views in every direction is, sadly, a pretty rare commodity. There just aren’t many courses that meet all those criteria.
6. Bill Johnson writes on the GLV website the following: “This is too good of a site to keep for just a select group. We want everyone to come out and enjoy the experience that this ground has to offer.” What have you done to make this mantra a reality?
Don: No doubt, tee to green the property lends itself beautifully to golf. But what is often both underestimated and underappreciated is how the golf experience benefits from what you see beyond the holes themselves. Stoatin Brae, perched atop a significant natural plateau, rather unique to Southern Michigan, has many engaging long range views of the Kalamazoo River Valley that can border on majestic when the morning and evening light is draped across the course. We tried very hard to be sure golfers got a good eyeful of the best ones throughout their round of golf here.
Brian: Don, Eric, other Brian and I grew up playing affordable, public golf, so that segment of the golf course business means a lot to us. We’ve been fortunate to build some very good, affordable golf for Tom at Apache Stronghold in Arizona, Commonground in Denver, and Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, among others. Stoatin Brae was another such opportunity, and as always, part of our mission is to keep the construction costs in check. This economical approach to construction should translate to relatively modest green fees for a course of this caliber.
Beyond that, the design itself is very user-friendly in that there are no water hazards in play, minimal forced carries, ample width, and open approaches to most of the greens. We also built a set of forward tees specifically for beginners and juniors, creating a course that golfers of all abilities will enjoy. This isn’t to say that the course will be a pushover, but the challenge comes in the form of angles and contour rather than penalty strokes and lost balls.
Eric: We just had to not screw it up. It felt like golf before we started, so we knew if we could get it all to fit, and make the most of the views and the contour, it would be pretty darn good. It really was a tremendous opportunity, one we are so grateful for, to both Jon Scott and to Tom.
At this point, it seems likely the number of new golf courses that will be built is finite. When given one of these precious few, there’s an obligation to our peers and to golf to do good work. We take that very seriously.
7. Where did the name “Stoatin Brae” come from? Is there a “Grand Hill” on the grounds? How does the topography of the acreage play into the design?
Don: Indeed, tacking your way up the entrance road nearly 100 feet offers a memorable sense of arrival. Combined with nearly 75 more feet of elevation change found on the course proper from its highest to lowest points the alluring part of it all is found in the transition from the more dramatic areas to those that are so much more subtle. The overall elevation of the course and clubhouse certainly lead the way in it’s namesake, but your arrival and departure to Stoatin Brae do a wonderful job of enforcing this Gaelic moniker.
Brian: There is also a prominent hill on the northern portion of the property that factors into the golf on the 10th and 13th holes. That landform plays a significant role in the routing, both visually and strategically.
8. What has been the most challenging aspect of the design and build?
Don: As I mentioned earlier the construction really was handled by Brian Schneider and Eric Iverson they will have more insight into the real challenges big and small. But I know the soils were heavy and often had the kinds of stony surprises found on a property that has developed into a natural, broad scale, plateau for a reason! Our training has us moving as little earth as necessary, which we do on sandy sites as well, but the demand for that approach here was paramount. Still, heavier soils don’t blow around much during construction and if managed thoughtfully can provide a playing surface that is far more conducive to fun and interesting golf than soggy, squishy conditions do. Managing the need for golf carts and the traffic patterns that come with them is always a tough nut to crack, especially when you are trying to get the tees and greens close enough together that the walking golfer is rewarded for playing the game that way! I’m confident though that walkers and riders will find themselves compatible and the course a great deal of fun no matter how you get around here however.
Brian: Again, Don covered this very well
9. What haven’t we asked, that you wish we had asked, and are dying to answer? Ask it and answer it!
Don: What does this course have in common with the truly great courses you have been very fortunate to see and play around during your career with Tom Doak and Renaissance Golf?
Stoatin Brae, has two critical ingredients, found in spades on every single one of my most favorite courses around the world! They are….. enough fairway width to swing freely and comfortably at the golf ball in conjunction with what is often a complimentary golfing breeze. Strategic width doesn’t mean easy or dull, rather, it engages players to create angles that reward thoughtful play and shotmaking with enough room to recover and stay in the game even when you aren’t playing your best. I love playing golf and periodically in my life played quite well but it’s nearly impossible for anyone to play your best golf for 18 straight holes. And the courses that don’t beat you up when your swing isn’t in sync and permit you truly have fun when you are scraping it around are the best!! Because playing well is always fun, but having fun when you aren’t at your best is what the great courses do consistently! Stoatin Brae has got the goods when it comes to FUN!
Eric: Question: How would the course be different had Tom been involved?
Excellent question! Designing a course involves hundreds of decisions, large and small. Surely he would have done some things differently. That said, Tom has had a huge influence on all of us, and I know part of my process for Stoatin Brae was to ask myself “what would Tom think of this?” I’m certain that made the course better. Overall, I think he will really like it, and we can all rest assured he’ll tell us if he doesn’t.
If pressed for an answer, I would say perhaps it would have fewer bunkers. Tom has been on us about that more and more lately. We set out to do it with 30 or so larger bunkers, intent on accentuating select contours already out there to supplement the strategy. It’s not heavily bunkered by any means, but Tom may have pressed us harder to keep the count down even further.
We found the soils were very unpredictable, a mix of heavier stuff, lots of rocks, some gravel and the random layer of sand. As many of your readers will know, when you can keep the soil structure intact, it drains much better, and this place drains really well, so when we could leave well enough alone, we did.
The disturbance required to strip topsoil, do some shaping, and put it all back together wasn’t going to be worth the cost of cleaning it up in some cases. Where the soils were agreeable, we stuck to the plan. Where they weren’t we built bunkers instead. The square footage of sand stayed roughly the same, just divided up into more, smaller bunkers.
We deliberated over each one, and consistent with our process had to make the case for each one with Jon Scott, the guy who would have to maintain them. In the beginning he was all for it, I think worried that we weren’t doing enough to make the holes visually exciting. In the end, we feel we got the balance right, and having the client decide on a number of them was really a good exercise.
We did sneak one by him on our last day. I roughed it in and Blake dolled it up in about 20 minutes, and we were gone. I called Jon about it on my way to the airport, telling him “You’re gonna love it”. He responded, “Yeah, you keep telling me that”. We’ll see if it’s still there this spring!