Timothy Nugent is a practicing golf course architect, in an era when the number of new course builds across the world has dwindled. He had a few moments to answer and create some questions for us, that we hope will give a bit of insight into his profession and its current state. Our Mo’ Golf had the opportunity to play The Phoenix Golf Links in Columbus in 2010, and will add photos to this interview as time allows.
1. Tell us about yourself. What drew you to golf and golf course architecture, your education, your field experience…
Well, I was never really drawn to the profession, instead I was actually immersed in it from birth some 51 years ago. You see, my father Dick Nugent, was a GCA and at the time was the project architect for Robert Bruce Harris working on the development of Kitty Hawk Golf Course in Dayton, Ohio. My family was living in an old farm house on the property (now the second hole) when I was born. My father and a co-worker, Ken Killian, broke off from Harris in ’64 and started Killian & Nugent. Each worked out of their own house for a number of years until they could afford to get an office. To insure that we could eat and pay our mortgage, my mother went back to teaching school. I was the youngest and not quite in school, so I got to hang out at home with Dad. When he had to go out to the field, I went with. Sometimes, he would give me to a dozer operator and I would ride around with him (back then there was much more room in the operator’s seat area). If Dad had to do surveying or layout, I would hold the survey rod and pound the stakes. This work was my “job” on an as-needed basis pretty much my entire childhood. So, surveyor’s assistant become my job-skill. When I turned 14, they got the commission to do Kemper Lakes. Being only 7 miles from our house, I started working there compiling the field topography maps. At 15, when they started building the front 9, I worked for the on-site landscape company in charge of the construction. Dad had put in the contract that they were to furnish an experience Surveyor’s assist on an as-needed basis and offered me for the job. I was a pretty big kid – around 6′, so I just told everyone I was 16. So, when I wasn’t surveying, I was installing drainage, edging bunkers and picking rocks for the next 2 years. At 17, I worked on for a guy that ran a commercial landscaping business out of a golf course that he managed for some investors. There, I worked on the maintenance staff or went out to help on some commercial project if needed. The following year, I was old enough to join the Union and worked for an Underground Utility Contractor that put in water main and sewer pipe. This is where my surveying skills paid off. When my foreman found out I could survey and do layout, that meant he could have me do it and free him from the task. I went from being the rookie laborer to essentially the assistant overnight. When college came. I started off studying Civil Engineering (although my dad had gotten his Landscape Architecture degree from Illinois, he said it was a “Colored Pencil Degree” and Engineering would be worth more. I was also playing Basketball and managed to blow out my knee.which made getting around campus almost impossible. I went home and enrolled in the architecture department at our local JC. I liked building much better than dirt. But I also found I liked being in the midst of construction over the suit and tie world of Architecture. So I went on to enroll in the Construction Management school at Arizona State. It was the early 80’s and the construction business was on it’s heels (pretty much like today) and Arizona was one of the few places in the country where there was building going on. I figured the best way to get a job after graduating would be to already have one, as an intern or something. Plus, I figures I would know a lot guys from school who might help. While at ASU I worked for Dye Design doing some layout at Red Mountain Ranch, Wadsworth Golf Construction at Desert Highlands and The Boulders and went back one year to build The Golf Club of Illinois fro my dad. Upon graduating, I worked for a big Top 100 building contractor as an assistant Project Manager. After a year, we finished our office building project and I was slated to either got to Fort Worth or Los Angles. As my fiance’ still had one more year to get her engineering degree, we decided that I would go to Graduate School and get my MBA. After that, my wife was ironically working in Los Angeles for the Santa Fe RR and I got a job with a small Construction Management company there that specialized in computerized scheduling and construction delay claims (mostly California prison construction projects) One day I get a all from my dad who says he just got 3 jobs and needs help as one of them was a three course project and the bank wanted the owner to hire 3 Marquee designers (also known as Golf Pros) and the owner was scared by the cost overrun stories that came with that route. Since dad had already worked with the land planner to come up with the routing and housing Master Plan, we got Palmer, Trevino and Player to design the golf holes. I was the Construction Manager as we started fast-track with the Palmer course and a month later, the Trevino. I got to work with Ed Seay and mostly Eric Larsen on the Palmer and Florida GCA Charlie Mahanna on the Trevino. I was even lucky enough to go around with Mr. Palmer 4 or 5 times and even dinner at a rib joint one night when he was too tired to fly back to Florida (we were the second course he visited that day as they were also doing Dakota Dunes at the same time). Unfortunately, I never got to meet Mr. Trevino and the 9-hole Player course was build a few years later. After that. I was pretty much the office “Field Guy”. We had a handful of young guys in the office doing plans and I had to job of getting them built and ironing out any problems in the field. I also helped with reviewing the office work, which didn’t win me any friends (young architects know everything and hate to be criticized). While we managed to survive the recession of the early 90’s, we had to downsize. Later, Dad decided he had had enough of Chicago winter, mom had retired from teaching and they wanted to move to sunny Arizona full-time, where we still had my college townhouse. Over the years working with my father, I worked on several landfill projects, developed our own golf course, worked in Michigan, Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, S.D. Iowa and even Hawaii (2 islands). Work ran the gamut from remodels to new construction. Stand alone courses to 1,000+ acre Master Planned Communities.
2. What courses that you designed bring you the most pleasure and pride?
All of them. Some just more than others. A lot has to do with who you are working for and who you are working with. The nice thing about this business is you are mostly working for very intelligent people. People who have gotten to where they are by surrounding themselves with very capable people and then stayed out of their way. It’s rare to get micro-managers as clients. Different courses resonate for different reasons. Green Bay Country Club because it was my 1st big job. It was a bunch of young movers and shakers that wanted a club of their own and we were in on the ground floor and helped advise all along the way as to how to set up the club and initially manage it. Early on, we brought in Wadsworth Golf Construction and did a Design/Build for a Guaranteed Maximum. John Cotter, the Chairman, sometimes would drive up and back (1day, 3 hrs each way) with me and told me all kinds of stories about building course all over the US. He also became one of my mentors as we worked together on over a half a dozen courses where he took the project on himself instead of passing it off on a general superintendent. My liaison was a young ER Doc who worked the night shift at the hospital so he could be on-site during the days ( he only needed 3-4 hours of sleep). I stayed at his house 82 nights and got to know everyone real well, Our families even went skiing at Steamboat for a week. Perhaps my biggest coup was getting the superintendent from Black Wolf Run to come over and be the super. He is still there. Along the way, I’d say perhaps High Meadow Ranch outside Houston with David Orgin was special. He partnered with fellow Chicagoan and Texas A&M Alum David Goff (Oggie was on the golf team and Goff was the point guard and captain of the BB team). David Goff actually worked for my dad and went on to work for Joe Black at Western Golf Properties. Although the term hadn’t really been coined yet, this was a minimalist golf course. Pretty much the only dirt we moved was one irrigation lake that generated dirt for greens and tees. The three of us rented an apartment (Oggie lived in San Antonio (when not out on tour and Goff in Phoenix). I still remember Oggie getting a phone call from Tom Lehman saying Payne Stewart’s plan had crashed and on board was one of may Dad’s former architects, Bruce Borland. Finally, I’d have to mention del Lago just outside of Tucson in the little town of Vail. This was interesting because it was a golf course, only no one ever played on it. You see,it sits aside the Pantana Wash, one of the major dry river drainage ways in the Tucson area. The Pantana is around upwards of 1,000 feet wide (although the bridge is only 430 feet). Back in the 80’s, Von Hagge designed a 36 hole course that crossed the Pantana. He did this by filling in portions to make the shot across doable. Just prior to opening, a big rain event happened and everything Von Hagge filled in was washed away. But that isn’t why it is memorable. It is memorable because I hired my dad to be my field guy. He was living in Mesa and building a house in Chandler (southeast of Phoenix) and it got him out of the house (and out of my mom’s hair). The local cantenna even named the chopped steak sandwich The Dick Nugent on their menu. I think the hardest part was for the construction superintendent. Finally he pulled me aside and said,”you tell me to do this and your dad says no, do that”. Especially since the guy had worked on one of dad’s projects about 20 years prior. I just told him to ask his boss who signed his Application for Payment. That pretty much solved that one. Plus, I was able to reconnect with some of the Wadsworth guys I worked with way back when I was at ASU. Now they were the bosses. Guys with nick-names like Kong, Snap, and Bear. Me? mine was Silver. Evidently they thought thatsince my dad was an architect, I must have been born with a Silver Spoon in my mouth – HA!
3. You have experience with two landfill courses, Harborside in Chicago and Phoenix Golf Links in Columbus. Describe the challenges of building this type of course.
Actually many more than just those 2, but those were significant. Harborside grew out of a court case when, during a title search, it was discovered that the land (450 acres) that the City of Chicago had turned into a landfill was actually owned by the Illinois International Port District and the settlement was that the City had to restore the land. The Port District determined that the Highest and Best use would be a golf course. Since the landfill was still operational (the City was using it as a place to dump their Bio-Solids ( a nice way of saying processed Sewage Sludge). After visiting several big name golf pros, they ended up giving us the job. Dad had done a landfill job for the Navy at Great Lakes and we had just come off a course in Hawaii on the Big Island that was built on Lava and we had to make our own soil. This evidently resonated with them. The Chairman (who also sat on the Boards of 3-M and owned Helene Curtis, didn’t play golf but read P&L’s (profit and Loss statements) and liked the Financial Pro-Forma I had prepared. That project had all kinds of unknowns that had to be solved. Part of the degree was that the City got 3 more years of Bio-solid dumping. But they couldn’t tell us how much or when. But it could be up to 3 million cubic yards. And the stuff would have to be capped with a 3 foot layer of compacted clay (in 3- 1′ lifts). Where would we get the clay, how could we design a course when we didn’t know how much material we would get of even when we would get it? And the 6 million dollar question, what would we use to grow the grass on? We knew the sludge was way too salty. Finally, how would we pay for it since the Port District didn’t have any taxing ability nor did it get any funds from the State. It was run like a private business, generating income from their assets. Well, we managed to solve all those problems and created a course worthy of holding a Profession Tour event. The Phoenix was a bit different. It was in response to an RFP (request for proposals). The owners didn’t know what to do with it and it was in need of a complete retrofit. Named Model Landfill, it was supposed to be a model for how to close a landfill. Well, not more than a decade later, the settlement had created several small ponds that were leaking water into the landfill, the gas collection system no longer functioned and erosion had eaten big crevices into the cap, exposing waste and letting liquid leachate leak out. I was approached by a guy who had a soil, bio-remediation company (they cleaned petroleum contaminated soild from leaking fuel storage tanks) and he also owned a golf course. So, we put together a proposal and won the job. We would get a fee for fixing the landfill, put in a new gas collection system and end up with an affordable public access golf course when we were done. Luckily after Harborside, we developed our own golf course in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago and had to deal with gas collection systems and capping. Plus we learned some other things along the way as we found that normal golf course design needed to be modified to conform to the ever changing nature of the ground. Simply put, landfills settle. With landfills you quickly find out the no two are the same. Each will present it’s own problems. However, like any niche, one eventually is able to identify potential issues and correct or allow for then in the design. At the Phoenix, we had a couple of problems that required novel solutions. One was water for irrigation. The cost for a well would have been well into the 6 figures. but, across the street there was a rock quarry that drew water from the Big Scioto river to wash the stone. We negotiated pumping their waste water up to a holding lake we dug on the only part of the land that wasn’t landfill (an old trailer park). The lake excavation was used for fill on the greens and tees as fill material wasn’t readily available. Another way to conserve fill material was finding an alternative material to back fill the many miles of gas collection, irrigation and drainage pipe. Down the road was a coal power plant. A company next to us had set up a tire recycling business and had sold shredded rubber to the power plant to increase the BTU’s. But the power plant stopped buying the tire chips because they couldn’t burn the steel belts. This place had a virtual mountain of tire chips and no way to get rid of them as fast as they were making them. So, we negotiated not only to take them off their hands but they also delivered them to us. Using the free tire chips instead of scarce soil or expensive gravel also now acts as an indicator to the location of buried piping. If they hit rubber, the know a pipe is there. With most any landfill course, the hardest obsticle is the fact that you can’t just dig to solve your problems. Everything has to be built on top of what is already there. That means everything has to be imported. And if the cap is already in place, that means getting 2 feet just to cover the irrigation and drainage pipes. And getting bunkers to fit and look like real bunkers without being able to dig into the ground is real challenging. And you can’t plant trees. If the roots penetrate the cap,they will get into the methane-rich environment and die. Wind is almost always a factor too. Sitting higher than the surrounding land and without tree cover, wind always seems to be present. So, you need to have wider fairways than a average course to compensate.
4. Why should an industrial city, or one with an industrial waste property, consider building a landfill golf course? We have the perfect site in Buffalo, so this point hits a nerve here.
Call it enlightened self-interest. What many people don’t see is a closed landfill is a headache to the owners. Sure, while they are in operation, they are making money hand over fist in tipping fees. But as soon as the garbage trucks go away, so does the source of income needed to operate the facility. As experienced by Model Landfill, unless they are maintained on an ongoing basis, they can deteriorate over time. Rarely, do the experience catastrophic failure. Rather it’s a death by a thousand cuts, so no one really pays much attention until it’s too late and they are forced to throw really large sums of money at it. When we developed Willowhill, Waste Management had set aside $2 million to close, seed, and maintain the 185 acre site. We took the upper 89 acres (the side slopes where too steep to use) and they gave us $900k to take on their closure and maintenance responsibilities. Well, we kept the golf course portion of the landfill prestine, we had to or the golfers would take notice. We spent $250k a year doing that. It’s no wonder that our property was much better maintained then theirs. Where we have tight, erosion resisting turf grass, they have clumps of weeds and prairie grasses and a never ending battle against erosion. We even were able to tell them when they were having issues with the as system because we were there all day, every day and noticed little deviations. Also, even though it resided in an area of high wealth, none of the land around it was developed. It was “THE DUMP”. Once it became a golf course, even though everyone knows it was a landfill (it sticks up 100 feet above the flat Chicagoland landscape), now there are $800,000 houses and even a high end shopping area. The golf course simply changed people’s perception and with it, jobs and tax revenue came. And the local residents got access to a fenced off tract of land and get to play golf, what could be better!
5. Give us a list of the five points of a golf course that the average player has no clue exist, matter, influence the playability of the course.
The most important is what goes into the routing (arrangement of the golf holes). The routing set the rythum of the course. Vegitation. Trees can not only have a big effect on how holes are played, but also on the agromonics of the turf. Trees can block sunlight, wind, and compete for moisture. Trees can also be big expense to maintain and cleanup after. Location of the Clubhouse. I doubt any golfer gives this a second thought but it is the key to the routing. Most courses have returning nines. Therefore, the location of the Clubhouse directly impacts 4 holes and influences the four adjoining those. The circulation around the Clubhouse. Much thought has to go into this. You have to find a way to park 200+ cars, make sure they don’t get hit by golf balls, get golfers to the clubhouse and the practice green and the driving range and the first tee and off the 18th green without traversing great distances and without having to think about it. Oh, and get big delivery and garbage trucks in and out without anyone noticing. Drainage, Drainage, Drainage. A good golf course is primarily an exercise in drainage. Unseen by the golfer, he has no clue about the miles of underground piping, recontouring of the terrain (to make some parts steeper so water will drain and others flatter so it won’t erode). Also, collecting all the millions of gallons after a rainfall.
6. Straying a bit from you, you have this father who designed the finest 9-hole course in the country, the course that whetted the appetite of Mike Keiser, the man who would revolutionize golf builds in the early 21st century. Were you involved at all? How cool is this?
Ah, The Dunes Club! (9-holes of Golfing Heaven). Yes, that was the 1st summer I came back to work for my dad. It was supposed to be this little, private 9-hole course for this guy who had just built a house on Lake Michigan and was a member at Butler National. With no local courses up to his liking, he decided to build his own. Everyone else was pretty busy with their own projects and dad had 2 big courses (Ivanhoe County Club and Seven Bridges Golf Club underway. I had some free time because Geneva National wasn’t scheduled to start construction until after Labor Day, so I got it. Although it was a small project (around $1 million) we had Jack Turhill, the Tournament Director from the PGA Tour and Long Island native to consult on the design (Mike wanted a blend of The National Golf Links and Pine Valley) and Wadsworth to build it. Some pretty big firepower for someones backyard course! I can’t say I contributed all that much. I did vote to leave the grape arbors in front of #4 tee, even though that meant building a ridge to get the tees above them. My biggest contribution was probably conviencing my dad that a golf course should be built as much into the ground as on top of it. This was something I learned from Jay Morrish working on those 2 Nicklaus projects in Scottsdale/Carefree. In hindsight, yeah it was pretty cool, but at the time, i was young and it was just another job. Who would have ever thought some guy with a greeting card company would go on to do what he has. What was probably cooler was when we went out to Ore. for a week and laid out a course on a huge 30,000 acre tract of old timber gound that Mike had bought. Unfortunately, he was also looking at the Bandon property and decided to go there instead and we never built the other.
7. Ko’olau was at one time the highest-rated, most difficult course in the known universe. Carved from jungles in Hawaii, can you describe that whole building experience?
We imagine it differs from a midwest plains course! And How! Built for a Japanese billionaire who couldn’t get into the Chinese dominated Wailaie CC, he decided he would build his own Japanese club. In the begining, there was an outcry from the environmentalists who claimed we would be cutting down ancient rainforest. The owners lawyers produced WWII era aerials from the Navy Department that showed the land to be a gaint tent city of troops and before that, pasture land. Well that pretty much put an end to those claims. My dad had a promising young guy as the project architect. I was finishing up Geneva National, Aldeen GC in Rockford, Il and Praire Green in Souix Falls that fall. Well, thinking that he had strong hand, being the on-site guy way out in Hawaii, he told Dad he wanted to be made a partner or else! Well, needless to say I was on the next plane to Hawaii and had to take over mid-project. Luckily, I had spent 2 weeks there in July, while he took his vacation, so i was at least familar with everyone and the project, so it was a pretty easy transition. And, as luck would have it, Wadsworth was our contractor. In fact Tom Shapland, their current President was in charge out there. It was a completely different site than I had ever experienced. The site was a rain forest jungle. Up against the 2,000 foot high Ko’olau Mountain ridge that besects Oahu (acutally the remaining western side of a Volcanic caldera (crater), the tradewinds had eaten away the eastern side. Every morning like clockwork, the tradewinds would blow the low clouds into the verticle face of the Ko’olau and around 8 o’clock they would gain critical mass and rain for about 20 minutes. Just enough to to everything to mud. In fact the jungle was so dense that the original topo didn’t match what we found when the holes began getting cleared. When we questiioned the local engineer, he said “oh yeah, it is so dense, we could only map the tops of the trees and exptrapolate down to where we thought the ground would be”. Needless to say, a lot of field changes we needed. Many places above streams were ravine-like and too steep for golf. so we had to get a crew of guys from Tonga to build these huge boulder retaining walls. Because we were afraid that some of these were 10′-20′ high, we built bunkers long, continuous sand bunkers along them to keep golf carts away from the drop-offs. The other option was fences and after we built the 1st on on the left side of numer 10 fairway Dick said no way, this looks like crap. No one want s a fence between them and their shot to the green. Another challenge was they would not allow for more than 15 acres to be worked on at a time. Imagine a checkboard where you could only work on the red squares. Controlling all the rain water coming off the mountain proved to be a huge undertaking. We had to build a concrete canal all along the high side of the golf course. When complete, you could drive a car in it and not see the car from the golf course! A cool thing that we discovered an acient Hawiian Birthing Rock near the 15th tee. This was an alter-like rock formation where women had their babies. It was even carved to resemble the adjacent Ko”olau Mountain Ridge.
8. Give us an update on the new builds, renovations and restorations that Nugent Golf currently has in the works.
As you know, the downturn in the economy has pretty much halted golf course construction. Luckily, I had a back-burner project that I’d been assisting with in Helsinki, Finland finally get the green light. It is another landfill recapping/new gas collection system project. Since there aren’t Golf Course Consruction specialty contractors over there, we determined that iwouldnot only do the design work but also all the shaping and feature work. This turned out to be a good decision as the capping contractor didn’t live upto expectations and we decided not to extend there contract for future phases and took them on ourselves. I will be going back to finish up (no pun intended) after Easter While I was over there, I did some feasibility work for a potential project outside of St. Petersburg, Russia. Back in the USSA? 10 years ago I designed a 36-hole project that never got built, Who knows? Maybe this time it will. It’s a great all sand, forested site next to a picturesque lake.
9. Stare off 100 years in the future. Will we still be playing golf? If so, what types of golf courses do you imagine we will be playing?
Well this is now 2012 so let’s hope the Mayans are wrong. In 100 years? Well, I’m sure we will still be playing many of the same sports as today, including golf. The only question os whether they will be outside or in the virtual world. It isn’t hard for me to invision interactive software that makes you feel like you are walking along the shores at Pebble Beach or crossing the Swilican Bridge as you trudge up 18 at St. Andrews. You probably will even get to pick the temperature and wind direction/speed. You never know, playing on a real course might be only for the ubber-rich or those in the ruling politicial class
10. What question(s) haven’t we asked, that no one has ever asked, that you would really like to answer? Give us the question(s) and your answer.
Probably been asked more questions than I can rememeber. 2 guys found out I designed golf courses at a New Years Eve party and I got stuck talking golf courses for 2 hrs. How about The Biggest Misconception about golf course architects. “You must bea pretty good golfer!” Well, most are okay golfers, some are good and some are pretty bad. However, I think left by themselves, really good golfers would make for pretty bad designers. Why? No context. they would see everything thru their eyes and not those of the end user. The guy my dad always refered to as Joe Six-Pack. Oh yeah, my dad was one of those really bad golfers. Best thing that ever happened to him was slipping disk. After surgery, he had the perfect excuse NOT to have to play.