Darius Oliver is in the midst of a 90-day tour of the USA, in search of great golf. He is no stranger to the beast, as he has been here (and seemingly, everywhere else) before. Oliver is the creator and caretaker of Planet Golf, two tomes of golf course reviews and a website. He writes regular columns for Golf Digest Australia and is one of three co-authors in golf course architect Tom Doak’s revisiting/updating of The Confidential Guide to Golf Course Architecture, newly expanded to four volumes. Oliver will pass through western New York in early August and plans a stop at the Springville country club on September 9th for a lecture and book signing. Those interested in attending should contact the
- What brought you to golf and how old were you?
My grandmother introduced me to golf when I was 12, but like most Australians who grew up in the 1980s it was Greg Norman who really inspired my passion in the game. I also caddied at Royal Melbourne as a teenager, and was hooked from the very first round. We don’t have caddies in Australia anymore, but back then a caddie was a kid who pulled a trolley for the member and was then able to play golf in the afternoons. From the narrow, tree-lined public courses of Melbourne I was playing one of the most wonderfully open, strategic tests in the world. It hooked me forever on the game. I would often play 50 holes or more of an evening, waiting in the dark until my parents would pick me up. Looking back it was a wonderful upbringing in golf.
- You brought the world Planet Golf, a text on the golf courses of the world OUTSIDE the USA. When did you begin the research, the writing, and when did you decide it was fit for publication?
Planet Golf was several years in the making, and several years prior in the planning. I purchased a copy of the World Atlas of Golf in the early 1990s and was shocked to see the Australian content limited to Royal Melbourne, Royal Adelaide and Royal Sydney. It struck me as just an appalling research job, to have picked the three big Royals and left out obvious classics like Kingston Heath, New South Wales and others. Not to mention Australia’s many hidden gems. I started thinking about the problem with golf books, and largely ranking lists as well. They rely mostly on reputation and established norms. When you publish a book with all the best American tournament courses and all the great links on the Open rota, plus the likes of Royal Melbourne, Ballybunion, Royal County Down etc it doesn’t leave much room to discover new courses or perhaps introduce the world to genuine, hidden quality. I felt it necessary to do the world properly, that I ignore American courses and concentrate on all the courses outside the USA, in order to build for American golfers a more reflective volume on outstanding golf. The travel for that first Planet Golf book alone took me to 40+ countries and more than 750 courses. Plus, before I could even publish Planet Golf I needed something behind me. So it really started in 2000-01 when I wrote and published Australia’s Finest Golf Courses, as an introduction to the publishing business and to, somewhat, establish my bona fides.
- What was the initial response to PG? Was there any backlash from some of the name architects, who might have felt wronged? Or, from the lesser-known architects, who wanted to be included?
Those who know me well, know that I’m used to backlash. I don’t set out to upset people, but I never got into this field to make friends either. My very first step into the golf commentary business came in the 1990s, when I got so frustrated by all the flowery, puff pieces written in Australian golf magazines about new courses I could clearly see were inferior to our established classics. You can’t blame a client for hiring a poor designer or a poor design team if every course that design team builds is rated highly and applauded widely.
So I’m sure some designers were unhappy about their courses missing out on being included, but I don’t have agendas and stress clearly in the book that these are my own views as to what constitutes great golf. Funny, but one of my biggest critics is a design team whose ‘signature’ course I am one of the only people to rate among the world’s Top 100. Designers want you to like everything they do, and I’d love to like everything they do as well. Problem is they don’t always take the business as seriously as I would hope. Sure you can’t build Pine Valley on a mudflat, but there are lots of great holes on crappy land and every client and every golf course, I think, deserves the best possible chance at success. Walking around a course where it appears little genuine effort or care has been put into the design is by far my biggest bugbear.
- You followed PG up with Planet Golf USA. Was this book always in the works or did you feel compelled to write it after the first was completed? What reconnaissance did you undertake to come to know the courses of the USA?
The truth is the USA book was never a certainty, but once Planet Golf had been reasonably well received I had an itch to scratch – to complete the set and do the entire world properly. So it didn’t take long to commit to the second edition, and to get started on the research. All told I spent six months in America, visiting more than 350 courses including every one of the Top 100 on Golf Digest’s list. That was my aim at the start, but it was a surprise to have been so successful getting access to the nation’s elite courses and clubs. I have been back several times since, and visited well over 400 of America’s leading courses. I feel I know the industry well here, but having said that am always discovering old golden age gems that I missed and need to see. On this current trip I’m going to see Old Town Club in North Carolina, which I honestly hadn’t heard about until this year. A couple of contacts have told me it’s the best course that I haven’t seen. I’m interested to see if that’s the case.
My current trip is for a new volume, Planet Golf Modern Masterpieces, which will review the great courses globally of the last 20 years. Pleasingly, around 70 percent of the content will be new to Planet Golf, which highlights just how many great new courses have been built in recent times.
- Looking back on the two volumes, are there any blunders that you wish you could take back?
Blunders might not be the right word, but there were oversights. In the first book, for example, I left out The Machrie, chiefly because I was told by a few cranky old Scots during my first trip that it wasn’t worth the effort. Nothing could be further from the truth. I finally made it to Islay a few years back, and fell in love – I dearly wish that I had reviewed it in Planet Golf, prior to these recent changes being made. For the American book I made a decision to include every one of the Golf Digest and Golf Magazine Top 100 courses, so there are plenty in the book that I would not have otherwise included.
- Who are the architecture “geeks” that you have gotten to know over the years? Have any of them surprised you with their insight?
I’ve met lots of great people in golf, but none that I would necessarily term a’geek’ – especially when measured against myself and my own level of ‘geekiness’. Truthfully, what has surprised me most in golf is how many people I assumed were as passionate about the game as I am, but aren’t. Be they administrators, players or, worst of all, design people the lack of genuine interest in creating a lasting legacy is what frustrates me the most. Few designers are genuine artists, and that’s how I assumed they would all be. Caring about the game and the courses they leave behind, rather than just taking any commission that comes their way and churning out repetition. I’ve plenty of respect for some people in golf, but as a blanket statement far less for those in the critical area of design than I ever would have expected. Hopefully with the downturn that changes, and some of the charlatans are weeded out.
- You are currently helping Tom Doak with his revisitation of The Confidential Guide To Golf Courses. Volume 1 is out and V.2 is due this fall. How does Doak’s literary work differ from your own? Is it a good thing that his and your ranking systems are so different?
Tom’s literary style is very different to mine. For a start it’s much more concise, which I really like. I wish I could dismiss things more succinctly at times but it’s not in my nature. I think our books are very different, because for a start Planet Golf is beautifully photographed and uses high-quality, glossy paper stock. Tom’s is more a reference book. I would like to think people read my reviews cover to cover, but I know for many they are picture books, which is fine.
In terms of the rating systems, ours are quite different but probably established with similar aims. I’ve always sought to determine the general, broad quality of each and every hole and each and every golf course I see. To me they are either poor, good, very good or great – and there are shades in between. But rather than assign a precise number to the course, I prefer a general 0-3 flag classification. Not all zeros are poor, by the way. I don’t think I have any business trying to tell the reader that one very good course is clearly better than another. Rather, I feel my job is to point why the great courses are great and perhaps why a very good course doesn’t quite make the grade. Ultimately it’s about personal preference. I’m not going to argue you are wrong to rate Shinnecock Hills ahead of Royal Melbourne West, for example, because they are both in the elite group. I will strenuously debate if you try describe somewhere like Oak Hill or Baltusrol or Kingston Heath or Sunningdale as better than Royal or Shinnecock, because I think there are clear reasons why they aren’t. The quality of holes 1 through 18 is what separates the really elite courses.
- You have some experience now with golf course design and development. Did you feel any insecurity heading in or was it the appropriate, next step for someone so steeped in the courses of the world?
This may sound arrogant, and certainly isn’t meant to be, but I think I know as much about golf course design as anyone in the industry. I’m certainly as passionate as anyone I know. My reluctance to get involved in design before Cape Wickham stems from a lack of knowledge in the other key areas of golf course architecture – namely dirt moving, irrigation, drainage and agronomy. But that said, I have never had a problem standing on a tee or a fairway and pointing out why a bunker was in the wrong place, or why a different approach to the green might have made more sense. Plus I think of all the elements that go into the building of a golf course, design is the most important. It’s not always treated that way.
With Cape Wickham I started the project putting the approvals together, and then getting the right design and development people involved. As things progressed my involvement just naturally grew and I ended up having an active role in design alongside Mike DeVries.
In every sense Cape Wickham was a labor of love, for all of us. Together Mike and I spent more than 350 days working on site, which is obviously not how the bigger firms would have done it. The site is so special, however, that we felt it demanded that sort of attention. Plus we would look the fools if we screwed it up. Even with such a hands-on approach, though, there are things we didn’t quite get right. I’m sure we will over time, as the course matures and evolves.
Whether I get involved as a co-designer on another project would depend largely on the site and the people involved. There are other things I want to do in golf, and I think I can probably do more good for the game by advising on ten projects than concentrating on one as a sole designer.
- What question haven’t we asked (or anyone, for that matter) that you would love to answer for the world? Ask the question and answer it, please.
Why does great golf design matter?
It matters because ultimately the courses we play separate our game from all others. Our playing fields change, they vary, they are different, unique and, hopefully, they are interesting. There are numerous issues facing golf today, including participation rates and attracting new players into the game. It may just be my background and experiences at Royal Melbourne, but I feel that if junior golfers are given the opportunity to play great courses and play great holes, they are more likely to be hooked on the game and become lifelong players. Guys like me are recession-proof golfers, so addicted to the game that regardless of our personal or financial situations we will still find a way to play. For me that started as a junior, and I’m constantly frustrated by golf courses that are set up so hard as to almost deter junior or beginner golfers. Most of the really great courses are the opposite, challenging to good golfers but relatively straightforward for beginners or those who don’t bomb the ball. Those are the courses I love, and the ones I think have the best chance to attract new players into the game. I wrote the other night from Cabot Cliffs, that if those on the verge of quitting the game were to play the course we might be able to halt the decline in participation. Same with new players. Once golfers have the basic skills if they were able to play a course like Cabot Cliffs, or those at Bandon, or Cypress or National Golf Links or any of the really fun, charming golden age golf courses in this country then I think more would become lifelong participants.