Chris Wilczynski loves golf course architecture. Why else would he go out on his own at a time when the entire industry took a down turn, thanks to a global recession and a lack of funding for new golf course projects in the USA? Chris has been in western New York lately, for reasons that will be explained in this interview. He took time to answer a spate of questions from BuffaloGolfer.Com.
1. How did Chris Wilczynski get involved in/interested in golf?
My route to this profession is a little different than most of my peers. It wasn’t the love for golf that initially got me interested in golf course architecture. It really was a combination of things. My Dad was a golf course superintendent while I was growing up. He was also a farmer. The influence of my Dad and the fact that I had an appreciation for the land as a farmer certainly impacted my career path.
2. Was it always the architecture? If not, how did you segue from playing golf to designing golf courses?
The biggest factor in my association with Golf came from taking advantage of an early opportunity while I was just 17 years old. I am very artistic and creative and always had a passion for design, architecture and drawing by hand. During my senior year of high school I was given an opportunity through a vocational school to do an internship. My Dad, with his connections to the golf industry asked Arthur Hills if I could work for him. So, my entire senior year of high school I attended classes in the morning and worked at Arthur Hills’ office in the afternoons. They really exposed me to golf and golf course architecture. I was hooked right away. It was a perfect blend of everything that I loved. Being artistic, creative and the ability to work outdoors.
3. What are your favorite course/holes and why?
My favorite day of golf was a few years ago when I played Pine Valley in the morning and Merion in the afternoon. Two completely different golf courses. I love Pine Valley. We actually stayed the night in the rooms above the clubhouse. The par 3 10th hole is awesome. The 8th and 9th holes, with the alternate side by side greens, are very unique and memorable. Some of my other favorites are Crystal Downs in northern Michigan, Prairie Dunes in Kansas, National Golf Links in Long Island and St. Georges in Toronto. I am also a big Donald Ross fan. Living in the Midwest exposes one to many Donald Ross courses. Inverness, Oakland Hills, Franklin Hills, Barton Hills and Essex in Windsor are all terrific.
4. You see courses with an insider’s eye? What elements of golf course design do amateurs typically misunderstand or completely miss, that would help them play better?
The best holes in the world are strategic and provide multiple options for play. Good golf holes should provide options for aggressive play and options for those that want to be less aggressive. Risk vs Reward. The best way to provide this strategic element is with angles. The golfer has to decide how much of the angle that they want to challenge. Golfers would enjoy the game more if they thought through each shot a little more. Golfers should think about where they want to hit the ball, how aggressive they want to play, and what the next shot will be if they hit it to their intended target. Oh, one more thing, golfers need to play the course based upon their skill level. The back tees are for the pros and big hitters. The game would be a lot more fun if we dropped our egos and played from the correct tee. I guarantee that we would all play faster, score better, and have more fun if we moved up one tee.
5. You worked with Arthur Hills before embarking on a solo career. What did you learn from Mr. Hills that advanced your work in the field of golf course architecture and construction?
Art really taught me pretty much everything I know. I started working for him when I was 17 years old. I saw him grow from a regional golf course architect to a national architect that was in demand. He build many golf courses that were sustainable and profitable for the owner as well as fun and challenging for the golfer. He believed that the best courses had sufficient width. Course with good width allowed a golfer to hit their ball, find it, and hit it again. I learned by watching and listening to Art. I believe that the business side of Golf is so important for our economy. When building a new golf course or renovating an existing course the architect should be mindful of the clients needs and help them create a business that can be profitable and successful.
6. You are currently engaged in a restoration/renovation project at Wanakah Country Club in Hamburg. Whose original design is it, what are you and your team restoring and what are you renovating?
Wanakah’s history dates back to 1899. The existing course evolved somewhere between the 20’s and 30’s. The most conclusive records indicate that Willie Watson was the architect responsible for the current layout at Wanakah. Some believe that Ross and Stanley Thompson were also involved at some point. Irregardless, the course has changed over the years with tree planting, addition and removal of bunkers and many other elements that were added by members and leadership committees. The best asset of Wanakah are the wonderful greens. The worst asset is the poorly draining, heavy clay soils. Most of the renovation work that we are doing revolves around improving the drainage within each fairway and adjacent rough area. To date we have completed holes #1, 2, 4, 9, 14 green, 15 and 16. There are a few other holes with tee additions. Wanakah would be considered a renovation or reconstruction. At the holes that we have completed we have stripped the turf, regraded the fairway and rough areas to provide positive drainage, installed drainage pipe and catch basins and regrassed the work with new sod. We have added new bunkers and new tees. Mostly forward tees to improve playability. We have also removed quite a few trees. We have not touched the greens. The finished product looks great and it drains well. Drainage is the most important aspect of providing great turf conditions and a playing surface that is not perennially wet. It’s the foundation of the course!
7. What type of terrain would allow you to build your dream course?
Sandy loam soils with subtly rolling topography. The ideal piece of property would allow you to fit the holes on the land without doing hardly any earthwork. The property could be inland or on the water. I would prefer some trees and a few natural water features. Having a palette like this would allow one to create a good golf course. The foundation would be in place. The course still has to be maintained well and run like a business for it to be successful. The design is one aspect of the process. The best courses are not only well designed but they are also excellent business operations.
8. You have done work in a number of environments (mountain, desert, coastal, plains.) Discuss the different challenge of each type of topography.
The topography as well as the soil types can provide unique challenges. If the site is too flat you more or less have to manufacture the golf course. If the site is too hilly then you need to modify the grades to allow the course to be built. I did a course in the Los Angeles area that required 13 million cubic yards of soil to be moved to create the course and the residential community. We were building the course on the side of a mountain. The work that I have done in Florida is unique as well. In southern Florida the land is flat and the water table is only about 2-3′ below the ground level. We build all of the lakes to provide the fill to create the course. Everything is raised up from the existing ground level. The management of the water is so important. It is critical when working in different geographic regions and with different topography that we understand the elements that we are given. Soil types and geography have just as much of a bearing on the type course that you can create as the topography.
9. What question haven’t we asked, that no one has ever asked, that you would love to address? Ask it and answer it, please, and thank you for your time today.
Why do you love golf?
A few weeks ago I was on a golf course architecture study tour in Long Island, New
York and Northern New Jersey. The study tour was attended by golf course
architects from the United States, Europe and Australia. The event was hosted by the
American Society of Golf Course Architects. We had the privilege to play four of
the finest golf courses in the United States. On the last day of our study tour we
played at Baltusrol in Northern New Jersey. The entire experience at Baltusrol was
great. The golf course is one of the best parkland courses in the United States.
The setting was beautiful and the course was in perfect condition. But, the reason
that I love golf is because of the game itself and the social connections that can
be created during the game. During my round at Baltusrol I was matched with another
American, an Australian and a Mexican (member of the European Institute of Golf
Architects). Here were four guys from different parts of the world playing the same
exact game. We had the greatest time playing together. We were all about the same
age and the same golfing skill level. We walked the golf course and talked to each
other the entire time. Yes, we had the architecture to discuss, but we also
discussed life, family, sports, the match that we were playing and of course our
golf games. The good and the bad! We had a lot of fun and formed friendships that
never would have happened without the game. We shared an awesome experience and
that memory will never be forgotten.
I love golf because of what it gives and provides to mankind.