Dana Fry and Jason Straka have worked together for many years in the golf architecture business. Fry and Dr. Michael Hurdzan formed an extraordinarily successful partnership for a long time, before Hurdzan/Hurdzan and Fry/Straka became separate entities. 2017 will witness the debut of Erin Hills golf course, Wisconsin USA, as a US Open site. Comparisons with Chambers Bay (Washington State, USA), the other and heralded ingenue of a public-course-turned-USOpen-site will be inevitable. The truth is, the two are completely different courses, just as Fry and Straka are from other architects. On a whimsical, spur-of-the-moment type, Mr. Fry and Mr. Straka sat for an 11th-hour interview with BuffaloGolfer.Com. Grateful? You bet. Here goes.
1. Tell us your names and how you got involved in golf course architecture.
Dana Fry. In the summer of 1983 I met Tom Fazio’s right hand man Andy Banfield at a bar. They were just starting a new job in Tucson, Arizona then called Ventana Canyon. He invited out for a tour and then offered me a part time job. After that job Tom Fazio offered me a full time job and my career was off. I worked with Tom Fazio from Aug. 1983 thru March 1998. Then worked with Dr. Hurdzan from April 1988 thru July 2012. I then formed Fry Straka Global Golf Design with Jason Straka, who worked with Dr. Hurdzan and me for 17 years.
Jason Straka. I started off as a greenskeeper for three years in northern Ohio to gain experience in maintenance. I attended Cornell University and received a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture where I completed a senior thesis under Tom Doak. I worked two seasons with McDonald and Sons (golf construction) and completed a master’s degree in agronomy under Dr. Norm Hummel at Cornell. My thesis was on the environmental design of Widow’s Walk Golf Course, which is widely recognized as the United States first environmental demonstration golf course. Norm introduced me to Mike Hurdzan in 1991. In 1995 I went to work with Mike and Dana until July 2012.
2. Assumption is always that architects play golf. What level of golfer are you and how does that help in your architecture?
Dana Fry. I was a scratch player for a number of years and played a little for the Univ. of Arizona from 1980 thru 1983. I am currently a 4.8 index at my home club Calusa Pines GC in Naples, Florida. I think being a pretty good golfer and playing and seeing a couple thousand courses around the world has exposed me to many different types of golf courses in all types of terrains, soil conditions, climates, etc. All of this has helped mold me into the architect I am today. Playing at a decent level helped me to understand shot values and how to create a fair but stern test of golf.
Jason Straka. I played competitive golf as a junior, carried a 3 handicap and won smaller tournaments like our city championship. I still maintain an index around a 9 but I do not shoot nearly the low scores as I used to. Having been able to break par at one time, but now as someone who struggles to break 80 has given me perspective on what it takes to make golf courses fun and playable, but yet how to challenge excellent players. I think what gets lost on many average golfers is that what is hard for them is not necessarily so for the games better players.
3. What has been the greatest lesson you have learned along the arc of your design careers?
Dana Fry. That there are many ways to create a great golf hole.
Jason Straka. I hold a paper to this day from Dr. Karl von Terzaghi, who is considered “The Father of Soil Mechanics”. He wrote, “The worst habit you can possibly acquire is to become uncritical towards your own concepts and at the same time skeptical towards those of others. Once you arrive at that state you are in the grip of senility, regardless of your age.” I drag that out and force myself to read it every so often. I try to keep myself humble and open to learning from others.
4. What property has been the most enjoyable to work with? This is not to slight any other property, but to highlight a special one.
Dana Fry. Obviously this is a very difficult question to answer but with Erin Hills hosting the US Open this summer it goes without saying this is going to be the course I am remembered for. It also happened to be the best site I have ever worked on and the process of building the course was a very memorable one.
Jason Straka. Tough question because the best or most enjoyable property doesn’t necessarily equivalate to a favorite project. I am excited for our new project in Brazil, both because of the site and the client. The site is reminicent of The Boulders in Scottsdale, AZ with it’s large and unique rock outcroppings, and our client is a golf fanatic and all-world great person. It has the potential to be right up there with my favorite sites and projects we’ve worked on.
5. Describe a bit of the international flavor of golf course architecture these days. You have offices in many countries, speaking many different languages.
Dana Fry. I started traveling regularly overseas to Asia for work in 2006 and moved to Hong Kong full time for several years until moving back to the U.S. in Dec. 2013. I have now traveled to over 100 countries and it goes without saying that if you want to continue to build new golf courses you will in fact have to work internationally. As for myself I love the adventure, travel and challenge of working in foreign countries but it isn’t easy. The language barriers, lack of qualified golf course contractors and limited knowledge of golf in some of these countries presents many obstacles but I found the rewards far greater. I plan on working overseas for the rest of my career.
Jason Straka. Dana said it perfectly. I too enjoy immersing myself in other cultures and exposing my family and friends to them as well. It makes the world a smaller place and a better one to live in. The work challenges are indeed greater, but it’s rewarding to leave a legacy where many golfers will enjoy the course and all the benfits the game brings for a long time. In fact, that is what is most rewarding for me in my chosen profession. Many of my fondest memories throughout my life, as well as life-long values, were developed in and around the game of golf. I am honored to be able to bring that to others, especially on an international stage.
6. Tell us a bit about the Erin Hills course that hosts the 2017 US Open for the first time.
Dana Fry. Erin Hills GC sits on 652 acres of land in Erin, Wisconsin in an area called the Kettle Moraine which was created over 10,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. The natural undulating terrain on the sand and gravel based soils helps create firm and fast fairways and has a great variety of natural green sites. Close to 90% of the golf corridors were never touched and Erin hills is indeed a golf course created for the most part by mother nature.
7. Tell us about the land you’re working on now, the south course at Arcadia Bluffs.
Dana Fry. The golf course sits on 310 acres and will be built on sandy soils. It will be designed as a low profile course that is a throwback to a style of golf courses built in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s, the course will feature wide fairways and flat bottomed bunkers with steep grass faces that at times jut out into the center line of play with several routes into the greens. In addition the greens will feature many false fronts and squared off edges with different quadrants of the green being protected by steep slopes. The tees, greens and fairways will be 007 bentgrass and the primary roughs will be 90% turf type tall fescues and 10% bluegrass. The course will also have vast native areas between the holes made up of two fine fescues.
8. An understanding of which one aspect of golf course architecture would be most beneficial to the everyday golfer, public or private course not withstanding?
Dana Fry. When trying to read which way a putt will break imagine if you were standing in the rain and water was running on the surface of the green where would the water drain to? That generally speaking is the way the ball will break towards if you were putting. It’s been my experience that the everyday golfer has a hard time reading putts and this little tip might help them to read the greens a little better.
Jason Straka. Dana’s tip is an excellent one, and one that I often give to friends I’m playing with. Another one would be for golfers to realize that architects many times try and tempt players to play more agressively than they should. Trying to hit a round full of nothing but heroic shots usually leads to high scores.
9. What question has no one asked, that you would love to answer? Ask it and answer it, please.
Dana Fry. Do you enjoy your job? The answer is simple in that I have never felt I have even had a job and that what I do is my passion. To be involved in something from its inception and to see it thru it’s completion is an enormous thrill with many ups and downs along the way but when the project is done it is something that you remember forever. That it brings fun to those that will play it for many years to come just adds to this satisfaction.
Jason Straka. How do you define what a successful project is? Not every golf course is meant to host the U.S. Open like Erin Hills or be ranked in the ‘top 100’. The most successful projects are those that meet and exceed what a client’s goals are, whatever those may be. Sometimes it’s hard to put aside one’s ego and design and build something that meets a client’s goals when an alternative design might be ranked higher or even be a better all-around golf course, but one that does not meet the client’s needs.