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General Contractor

The leader of Arnie's Army tries to build courses that hackers and pros can enjoy

February 20, 2003|MIKE JAMES | Times Staff Writer

Arnold Palmer has been nearly as busy as a builder of golf courses as he was as the player who helped rejuvenate golf and bring it back into the sporting mainstream in the early 1960s.

He won 62 PGA Tour events from 1955 to 1973 and near the end of that run began working with architect Ed Seay on course design. The Palmer Course Design Co. was formed in 1979 and Palmer's name now appears on more than 250 projects worldwide, including eight courses either open or under construction in Southern California..

On the site of one of his layouts being built -- Mountain View Country Club in La Quinta -- Palmer recently talked about course architecture, his likes and dislikes in course design and the challenges of devising a layout that duffers and scratch players both can enjoy.


Question: Are you concerned that advances in equipment technology are forcing changes to some of the traditional, most famous courses to accommodate the great distances players now hit the ball?

Answer: I do have a concern. We're looking to build golf courses longer and longer and I'd like to think we wouldn't have to do that, keeping in mind that we're going to build them a little longer just by the natural evolution of the game.

But the thing we have to do is slow the golf ball down just to keep the game in perspective. We can't do much about the players, who are going to get stronger and stronger, and I don't think we can do much about development of clubs that makes the game a little bit easier, particularly for the higher-handicap player. We want to make the poorer player feel more comfortable about the game, and that means playing better. But in doing that, we've made it easier for the good players too. So the one place we can go to have a definite effect on the game is the golf ball. I'm not trying to eliminate competition between ball manufacturers; I'd just like to see the standards change. And that won't change anything except the playability of the golf courses. The marketing, advertising, production and making of balls will be the same as always, the ball simply wouldn't go as far. And who's to say that isn't good? Somewhere, we have to make a change, and my way to do that is to slow the ball down. Make it a little larger and a little lighter. That's all you have to do.

Q: Do you like to put identifying characteristics in your courses that establish them as Palmer courses, features like the waterfalls with Ted Robinson Sr. and railroad ties of Pete Dye?

A: Never. I look at every course we do as something new. We want to try to work with the land to create the best golf course we can, and I don't want to try to put something that doesn't belong on a course just because it's a trademark. We want to make every course different, use water, sand, whatever, to create a course that's fun to play. That's the most important element, that the course be enjoyable for all levels of player.

What we've done here at Mountain View is what we try to do everywhere. We have no two holes that are alike; no hole reminds you of the hole you just played. You won't find an extraordinary number of sand traps, but there are things here that will interest you. Greens with slopes that will take you down into a second cut where you can putt the ball back up onto the green if you choose to. That sort of thing is something we work constantly to perfect and to make fun for the golfer, not exceptionally penalizing but challenging.

Q: What's your philosophy on trouble around the greens?

A: We try to provide variety around the greens, whether a sand trap or a water trap where the water comes right up into the sand trap; that's one of the features that we invented many years ago, or I invented -- sand traps that go continuously right into the water, a beach bunker.

I generally don't like to build a sand trap that is 20 yards away from the green. If it's that far away, it doesn't hurt the good player; it only hurts the poor player. So that isn't one of my objectives. A sand trap should be up against the green, just off the cut, and that's another thing we try to do.

We try not to make too many shallow sand traps. If you're going to build a hazard, and it's in the form of a sand trap, then build it down where the player has to play some kind of a shot to get a good result.

Q: How big a challenge is it to design a layout that works for a player who hits a drive only 150 yards and one who hits it twice that far?

A: Well, that's the biggest challenge. Going from 7,400 yards to 5,500 yards is quite a difference, but what we try to do is make the course equally playable from all the tees. And we design our greens so pin placements can be very challenging or very easy, where the ball rolls down and in the hole almost every time.

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