Rod Whitman is a golf course architect who happens to have designed the most important Canadian course of the past two decades. Not to say that his previous efforts are undeserving in any way, but the opportunity to design Cabot Links in Inverness, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, was a life-changer. Rod Whitman, like his brethren Coore, Doak, Hanse, et al., comprehends golf course architecture in a way that foretells a promising future of a return to core values. He took time out of his work at the second Cabot to answer our nine questions.
Tell us about your foundation in golf course construction and architecture.
– In 1976 I met Bill Coore while attending Sam Houston St. University. He had met Pete Dye and was intent on perusing a career in GC architecture. I became interested in the field myself and later Bill introduced me to Pete. Later on, I went to work for Pete on several golf course projects. My association with these two architects and my passion for the game formed the basis for my own design aspirations.
You went out on your own in what year and for what reasons?
– After working with Pete Dye in the early 80’s at the Austin CC, I was approached by a close friend, Ryan Vold, from my home town of Ponoka, Alberta. His family wanted to build a course in some ground in central Alberta. Wolf Creek golf resort was the result. It opened in 1984 and was my first GC design project.
It seems that architecture aficionados want to assign a great architect to each country. Scotland had Old Tom and later Donald Ross, England had Harry Colt, Australia had Alistair Mackenzie. Is Canada’s great architect Stanley Thompson or is there another/room for another?
– Certainly Stanley Thompson was a great Canadian GC architect. Others can judge newer golf course designs and make their own comparisons to Mr. Thompsons work.
How did you come to meet Ben Cowan-Dewar and sign on to design his little course up Cape Breton way?
– Ben paid me a visit while I was doing a project outside of Edmonton. Blackhawk Golf Course was the location. Also, we played golf together at Wolf Creek. I believe he liked what he saw and when he decided to build his own project he asked me to be the GC architect.
What were the greatest challenges that came with designing Cabot Links to meet your expectations, the expectations of the land you were given and (you had to know that the golf world was watching) the expectations of the golfing world?
– Challenges were greater for Ben than for me. Putting together an ownership team to see the project through was Ben’s responsibity. Mike Keiser coming on board was key. Having a seaside site is rare in the golf world and Ben worked tirelessly to make sure it was exposed to as many golf course aficionados as possible.
– From my point of view, just putting together a construction team was perhaps the biggest challenge in not only getting the project started, but getting it done. Dave Axland came on and helped put the team together.
– The site had challenges specific to its history. Parts of it were reclaimed by the govt after years of coal mining. One of the challenges associated was that was that we were not allowed to make many cuts and only allowed to fill in some areas. Finding fill soil was tough because of restricted cut locations.
In your estimation, what are the key elements of a golf layout (could be hole lengths, configurations) and how do you ensure that you include them in your golf courses?
– Variety! Wind angles, sun angles, differing directions of play, carry options vs. ground game,.
– That being said, working with the land and trying fulfill these elements is the art of GC design.
In terms of conditioning and relative to topography, how do you feel that a golf course should play? How is the game of golf meant to be played?
– Historically, golf was more of a ground game given the its historical beginnings on sandy soil and windy sites. The topography of the old Scottish links is where it has its roots. Over conditioning and equipment improvements have led to a decline in the variety of shots that a golfer might be asked to play. Golf played on lean, firm turf – links golf if you will, brings us closer to the spirit of the game.
Unlike the 1990s, when a success story like Cabot Links would have ensured additional design offers, the 2010s show a different landscape for architect-designers-builders. Where are you now and what are your current/future projects? Even though we haven’t seen Cabot Links, Sagebrush or Blackhawk, we suspect that the world needs more Rod Whitman.
– Right now I am working with the Coore and Crenshaw team at the second course called Cabot Cliffs. It promises to be another fine course.
What question haven’t I (or anyone else) asked, that you would like to ask and answer?
– What is the specific design strategy for the holes you have designed and built?
There are thoughts and design strategies incorporated into every hole. And it is incumbent upon successful golfers to determine and utilize that information.