As I put the finishing touches on this interview, I ask myself what Old Tom Morris, Marian Hollins, Harry Colt, and other great architects would have done with the tools of the 21st century. Remember that they didn’t have a bulldozer at their disposal, let alone a GPS bulldozer. Never mind the computer hard and software that today’s great architects utilize to create the next generation of brilliant designs. We caught up with Brian Zager, one of the bright-hot names in golf course design. He’s not a principle, but he is principal in the construction of golf layouts. He takes it from there. Enjoy.
Would you introduce yourself and let us know what your chosen profession is?
My name is Brian Zager. I provide golf design related services to clients and I’m an independent golf design associate for Tom Doak. I enjoy playing golf. I also play golf and racing computer simulation games. I create mods for these games in my spare time. I’m a big Wisconsin sports fan.
I’m working in the golf course architecture business and applying my technical background to the field. It wasn’t a conscious decision I made. In high school and college I was a student who didn’t know what career path to pursue. I was too practical to think of something like golf course architect as a career at the time, yet it turned out I couldn’t stand the boredom of doing a more typical job. I ended up treating my hobby more like it was a career and then I was fortunate that it actually turned into one. I did a lot of smaller side jobs that led up to this without realizing where it was taking me. I was in the right place at the right time and a few people gave me some great opportunities to work for them along the way.
How did you get involved in gaming design?
Our family purchased our first computer when I was 11 years old and it came with the game Jack Nicklaus Signature Edition which allowed you to create your own golf courses. The problem with real golf when you are 11 is you can only play when your dad takes you, so I started creating my local courses for the game because I could play them more often on the computer. Also there’s this thing called winter in Wisconsin (something I imagine Buffalo area residents can relate to) that makes golf kind of impossible for about 4 months, so you end up spending a lot of time on the computer!
I eventually progressed to game modding when I was high school/college age. Mods are enhancements to a game made by the people playing the game as opposed to its original developers. I was really into the racing simulations developed by Papyrus and I enjoyed creating new tracks as mods for some of their games at this time.
Creating courses for golf games isn’t generally called modding since the developers of a lot of the golf games actually created software for people to create courses as opposed to a player of the game needing to reverse engineer how to do it first. However, it is still similar in that a community of players are doing a bunch of work for free just because they love the game and love contributing to it to make it more fun for everyone. A few people, including myself, started to take golf course design for games more in a true modding direction by creating and using third party tools and data to make real golf courses more accurately.
After college, I got the opportunity to do freelance work for a company called Red Chain Games to create golf courses for simulators. It was mainly a side job. For most of this time I was also working a regular full time job as a quality assurance technician at Renaissance Learning, an educational software company.
How did you become interested in golf course architecture?
I dabbled in creating my own courses in games when I was younger but it was my early 20s when I got serious about learning about golf course architecture. What really interested me was when the community for the computer golf game I played during this time, PGA Championship Golf 2000, started a design contest. What was unique about this contest was people submitted their entry for a golf hole, everyone voted on which was the best, and the 18 winners ended up as part of a complete golf course for the game. The best part about it to me was the discussion it generated. Everyone posted their thoughts about what they liked and didn’t like about the entries. There were people participating in this that were well versed in golden age architecture, minimalism, Scottish links golf, etc. It made a very big impression on me. None of my entries ever won but creating something and receiving immediate feedback on your work from amateur golf architecture enthusiasts was an incredibly fun way to learn.
I found out about the website Golf Club Atlas at this time as well. This site was my other main source for learning about golf architecture. I didn’t read too many books about it primarily because our public library didn’t carry a whole lot of books on the subject and buying books wasn’t something I thought about much at the time. The internet was able to satisfy my interest for the most part. There was one exception. I bought Tom Doak’s Anatomy of a Golf Course book during this time. I first found out about Tom through his forum posts on Golf Club Atlas and I came to think he was the most interesting modern golf course architect from those posts.
Which came first for you, the gaming design or the golf course mapping? How did one lead into the other?
The course mapping came later. It started with what was to become Sand Valley, a golf resort in Wisconsin founded by the Keisers of Bandon Dunes fame. It was fall of 2013 and I was working my full time QA job and doing golf courses on the side for the simulator software company, so I was pretty busy. However I heard about the potential new golf resort from my dad who read an article about it in the local newspaper. The site of this future resort was only about 15 miles away from where I was born and raised. I was very much aware of what the Keiser’s did at Bandon and it pretty much aligned with my way of thinking of what good golf architecture is. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about the possibility from the beginning.
I found out Oliphant Golf Construction was involved through some additional research and sent a cold contact through Oliphant’s website explaining that I created courses for simulators and that I was interested in helping out if there was anything that fit my skills. I didn’t hear back right away but over the next three weekends I went out and took pictures of the property. There was a thread running on the Golf Club Atlas forum about the project with a lot of people questioning the quality of the site. I decided to post my pictures to the thread. That pretty much put an end to the debate there. The next day Craig Haltom from Oliphant replied to me asking if I could create topo maps with the data I used to create simulator courses. I never did that before, but I figured it out pretty quickly and that’s how I got started in creating maps.
After that I made occasional topo maps of other projects for Craig, Michael Keiser, and David McLay Kidd, who I met while he was working on Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley. I also did some renderings for Golf Digest and worked on the grounds crew part time at Sand Valley for a few years. None of these jobs ever made up enough work to call them a full time career yet. Sand Valley opened a lot of opportunities for me but it took a while for me to land my big break.
The world of golf will soon connect you with The Lido. Would you explain how you came to connect with Tom Doak and Renaissance Golf, and the Sand Valley Resort?
I connected with Tom and Renaissance Golf through The Lido project. The Keiser’s decided to bring the Lido back to life at Sand Valley based on the research of Peter Flory. Peter, for a couple of years prior, was creating a model of it in a computer game and interacting with many people with knowledge about the course on the Golf Club Atlas forum. The problem was that Tom Doak didn’t know what to do with a computer model. He needed it in the form of a topo map. Craig Haltom gave me a call to see if there was anything I could do given my background in games and creating maps. I never worked with this particular game before, so it was quite a challenge, but after some exploration of the file format and writing a few scripts I was able to hack together a way to do it.
After that success, Craig gave me the opportunity to do GPS work on the construction site for Lido through the winter of 2020/2021. We needed to translate the plan into the ground and he needed someone to flag contours in the field. I never worked with GPS before but it was a pretty easy learning curve for me to get up and running. However, this method of doing it was hit or miss as far as trying to recreate what Peter modeled in the computer.
In February of 2021 we started renting a GPS bulldozer and that was a game changer. It eliminated the need to flag contours. With this technology, the model is loaded into the bulldozer’s computer and the operator sees the contours on a screen. This information allows the operator to know what he/she needs to do to get it close. Once it’s close the operator engages the automatics that allow the blade to shape what is in the model almost exactly. This still requires skill on the operator’s part, just a little different than a traditional shaper. The technology is more of a game changer in the ability to communicate a plan and the fine details of its shaping work, not the full automation of shaping in the field.
We walked the Lido in 2021, during construction. It is a massive property. What was the greatest challenge for you to bring from theory to reality?
I think the greatest challenge for everyone was getting the course as close as possible to the original with the limited information available. Once we started using the GPS bulldozer, I was not needed for flagging contour lines, but luckily I found a new roll. I got to work with Renaissance Golf Design associate Brian Schneider during this phase. Brian explained to me that in the old 1926 aerial there were light areas and dark areas. The light areas were dried out high spots and the dark areas were low spots receiving more water. There was also an image of a plasticine model of the course. This model was a reference plan used back when the original course was built. The features of this model mirrored what we saw in the aerial so this gave us confidence in both our assessment of identifying high and low spots in the aerial and in the fact that they actually built the course fairly faithfully to the plasticine model.
Peter Flory mostly did things by eye when creating the computer model (and did a really good job considering that). However, to take the guess work out of it during construction, I lined up the 1926 aerial to where we were building the holes, traced out these light and dark features, and used GPS to flag them in the field to show exactly where they were. The GPS dozer was usually two or three holes ahead of the finish work so Brian Schneider and Brian Slawnik made edits to the already shaped land based on these flags to put these features in the exact same places they were in relation to the rest of the hole. I also did tracing and flagging for bunkers and grass mow lines to increase our accuracy of those features.
What was your favorite thing you worked on at The Lido?
Holes are not constructed in order and we were a little over half done when we reached the point of working on the fairway for hole one. When Brian Schneider and I compared what was already shaped by the GPS dozer to aerial imagery and photos, we saw that we needed to make wide scale changes. After discussing it in detail, the plan was for me to trace and flag everything before he returned early the following week, similar to what we did on previous holes.
However, I got the idea that with this many changes it was probably easier to edit the computer model and redo the whole fairway with the GPS bulldozer. I didn’t say anything right away because I didn’t know if I could do it in the allotted time. I lacked experience using the game software Peter built the model in so I needed to transfer the model to something else. I ended up returning to the game software I used back in the days when I was participating in the design contests because I knew that was my best chance at recreating the wild contouring and shaping of this hole. I spent three days reverse engineering the file format of the older software to figure out a way to put a high resolution version of Peter’s model into it, and one day doing the actual editing of the model. Then on Monday morning I proposed the idea. Luckily everybody agreed it was a good idea! Thanks to the diligent work of our GPS bulldozer operator, and a bit of luck for me in that I was in tune with what Brian Schneider was thinking, the final version is exactly as I modeled it in the computer. We ended up doing smaller edits this way to most of the remaining holes on the south half of the course as well.
When I look back to 15 years ago, I was using the same software to create course designs for a computer game as a hobby. Now I’m using it to help build a real golf course. It sounds incredible. Walking on the edited fairway on hole one for the first time felt like a science fiction movie where you cross through the glass of the computer monitor and actually start walking inside the computer game. The ultimate virtual reality is actual reality.
Tom Doak suggested that his time with Jack Nicklaus, during their collaboration on Sebonack, was a time for each to learn from the other. What have you learned from Tom, throughout this collaboration at The Lido?
Tom offered me the opportunity to intern for him during the winter after my first year working on Lido and he phrased it exactly as you said he did with Jack Nicklaus, as an opportunity for us to share knowledge.
Tom relates a lot through various stories of past experiences. The obvious things I’m learning are all of the things you don’t think about when you’re creating golf courses for games or simulators: learning to think about where water drains and other maintenance related requirements, seeing firsthand how he processes things through topo maps and site visits, and learning how he interacts with various people such as clients, investors, engineers, superintendents, shapers, interns, etc. I was familiar with a lot of Tom’s design philosophy through his forum posts and books but I still frequently learn something new hearing about various holes he likes and why.
I try to pick up on what makes him successful. One of the biggest things is he is always listening to what other people are saying, keeping an open mind, and approaching everything with the opportunity to learn. When working with him and suggesting ideas, he makes the final design decisions, but if he disagrees he explains why, and if you’re able to defend a certain idea of your own, there’s a good chance of it ending up in the final design.
He built a network of contacts that is incredibly far reaching by meeting people in his travels to see other golf courses and through his willingness to help people working in the golf industry. He is giving me an incredible opportunity to learn from him and I try to help him to the best of my ability in return. One thing that is really important to Tom is to innovate and not keep doing the same things over and over. I think the biggest thing I bring to him is showing what is possible with technology, helping him see where it is useful to his process, and how it can push things in new, interesting directions.
You’ve had the opportunity to apply your skill set to a new golf course build. Do you believe that it can be applied to golf’s other hot topic, the restoration of classic courses?
Absolutely, I assisted Brian Schneider with some of his other restoration projects already through alignment of old aerial photos and doing vector drawings on them. We talked about the possibility of bringing GPS into these types of projects in the future as well but at the moment I’m spending most of my time working for Tom on some of the new, original course design projects he is currently working on.
Are you a golfer? If so, how does your craft help you to play the game? If not, why not?
Yes, my dad got me started playing golf since before I can remember. The relationship between golf architecture and playing go hand in hand. Thinking about golf course architecture does help you to make better decisions on the course, while playing golf holes in different ways and under different circumstances helps you learn about architecture. My game improved when I was in my 20s and thinking more about golf architecture was probably part of the reason. Now, all of that experience playing and thinking about golf allows me to make good decisions about how to apply technology to the maximum benefit in my work.
What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment so far?
I think my biggest accomplishment so far, with help from Peter Flory and everyone on the Lido construction team, is proving that it is possible to achieve great results shaping a large portion of a golf course in the computer first. Computer aided golf design gets a bad rap in golf architecture circles, and somewhat deservedly so since most of the great courses weren’t created this way. However, when people with a high golf IQ use the technology themselves, that’s a completely different thing from CAD or 3D modeling professionals with no golf experience trying to create contours good for golf by referencing drawings or grading plans. I’m not saying old methods are bad or are disappearing but I think knowing how to take advantage of technology and when to use it is a critical skill for the next generation of great golf architects to possess.