We interviewed Jeff
Mingay - golf course
designer and builder- who has also written for Golf
Week, LINKS and SCORE Golf (Canada's national golf magazine).
He has also recently joined Rod
Whitman Golf Course Design, Ltd and is helping in the construction
of Blackhawk; a new daily fee course outside of Edmonton, Alberta.
Jeff has also has researched the work of Stanley Thompson thoroughly
over the past few years and has gained a unique perspective on this
Canadian legend. Jeff is also currently working on two books,
one “One Hundred Years of Golf, A History of Essex Golf &
Country Club: 1902-2002” is due out in fall 2002 the other “The
Art of Classic Golf Course Restoration” is due out from Sleeping
Bear Press in July 2003.
WHAT ROLE DID THE RAILWAY PLAY IN STANLEY THOMPSON’S REMARKABLE
CAREER AS A GOLF COURSE ARCHITECT?
Mingay: Before the
Canadian National Railway hired Thompson to lay out a new course at
the Jasper Park Lodge in the early 1920s, he had only designed a few
courses, mainly in and around Toronto – none of which had really
attracted international attention.
National provided Thompson with the essential ingredients: a healthy
budget and a fantastic property. Still today, Jasper’s undoubtedly
one of the most spectacular properties in the world dedicated to
golf. And Thompson made the most of the opportunity. In fact, the
course was arguably the first in North America west of the
Mississippi River to favourably compare to the world’s best.
I understand it, Jasper immediately attracted the attention of the
international media – partly because Canadian National promoted it
as an international golf destination, but also because the course is
just that stunning. The attention it received indirectly translated
into some good advertising for Thompson and his golf course design
year or so later, presumably somewhat envious of the success of the
new Jasper, the Canadian Pacific Railway decided that it too needed
a Thompson designed course at the Banff Springs Hotel.
course at Banff opened in 1927, and is reputed to have been the
first course in the world to cost more than $1 million to build. I
don’t think that claim has ever been substantiated, but
nonetheless, Banff is a fantastic course in yet another of golf’s
also received a lot of media attention when it opened. Even more
than Jasper, I think. And, of course, Canadian Pacific promoted
Banff as an international golf destination too. Which, again, was a
positive for Thompson’s business.
I’d say it was the success of Jasper and Banff that more or less
propelled Thompson into the upper echelon of international golf
course designers during the late 1920s. These two courses provided
him his first wide spread notoriety.
Toronto’s St. George’s was also a Canadian National project as
well, completed in 1929. Canadian National owned and operated the
Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto at the time and they built the
golf course for guests of the hotel. It was actually called Royal
York Golf Course originally.
JASPER PARK, BANFF SPRINGS,
ST. GEORGE’S, CAPILANO AND CAPE BRETON HIGHLANDS ARE GENERALLY
CONSIDERED TO BE THOMPSON’S FIVE BEST COURSES. DO YOU HAVE A
FAVOURITE? IF SO, WHY?
I agree those are his best
five, but I’m not sure I can pick a favourite. That’s a tough
guess I’d narrow it down to Highlands Links, Jasper and St.
George’s. Then, between those three, I’ll admit I tend to lean
toward Highlands Links. But, again, I have to say I like them all
for different reasons. They’re all so unique – which is what
makes them all so good in own right.
most interesting is that all five of these courses benefited from
the same factors in their development.
of all, they were all laid-out on interesting natural properties for
golf. And not one returns to the clubhouse after nine holes. This is
particularly notable. Today, most architects have their hands tied
because developers insist that the ninth hole return to the
clubhouse. In order to achieve this, one or two excellent natural
holes usually have to be sacrificed. Because none of Thompson’s
best courses returns to the clubhouse after nine, we must assume
that he wasn’t restricted in this way. The developers must have
permitted him to route the best courses possible in each case, and
the results speak for themselves.
thing is that I’m pretty sure none of these developments faced any
real serious budget-related constraints. As we’ve already
mentioned, Jasper, Banff and St. George’s were financed by the
wealthy railway companies that were focused on building top-notch
courses to attract people to their respective hotels and resorts;
Capilano was financed by British Pacific Properties: another wealthy
company committed to building a world-class golf course that would
assist with selling homes in the ritzy residential development they
were putting together in North Vancouver; and Highlands Links was
financed by the Canadian federal government as part of the
development of Cape Breton Highlands National Park during the late
1930s. The government has deeper pockets than the three
aforementioned companies combined!
are the same factors that conspire in the making of great golf
courses today: good land, a healthy budget, and giving the architect
a freehand to do his work.
PARK AND BANFF SPRINGS ARE LOCATED 3 HOURS FROM EACH OTHER. IS IT
FAIR TO SAY THAT THESE ARE THE TWO BEST MOUNTAIN COURSES IN THE
I’ve been studying golf courses pretty intensely over the last
decade and more. So, if there were any other courses in the
mountains that compared to Jasper and Banff, I’d probably know
about them. None come immediately to mind, so, yes, I think it’s
fair to say that Jasper and Banff are the best of the so-called
than that, I think it’s fair to say that they compare favourably
with many of the best courses in the world that aren’t in the
THOMPSON EMPLOYED SUCH FAMOUS ARCHITECTS AS ROBERT TRENT JONES AND
GEOFFREY CORNISH. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE INFLUENCES HE HAD ON GOLF
A number of guys who later became well-known golf course designers
themselves originally worked for Thompson – not only Jones and
Cornish, but also Howard Watson and Robbie Robinson too.
don’t hear golf design enthusiasts discussing Cornish, Watson,
Robinson, or even Jones courses the way they talk about Thompson’s
courses though. Their work rarely, if ever, exhibits the same flair
as Thompson’s. Nor does it inspire the same type of golf.
they didn’t get the really good natural properties, or the big
budgets like Thompson did? I don’t know. Or maybe Thompson was
just a bad teacher! Whatever it might have been, my feeling is the
students just weren’t as artistically inclined as the teacher. Nor
did they understand golf strategies as well as Thompson.
most cases, Cornish, Watson and Robinson – even Jones courses just
don’t look as good or play as interestingly as Thompson’s.
That’s a fact.
practiced a strategic style of design. His courses were wide enough
to allow less skilled players to enjoy a round, but his greens were
designed to set-up preferred angles of approach that challenge
better golfers at the same time. This ideal balance is what most
golf architects strive to achieve.
deviated from the strategic school. His most famous courses are more
penal in nature – tight off the tee, with elevated, tightly
bunkered greens, or greens guarded by water. A typical Jones course
is generally difficult for high-handicappers, and also
one-dimensional for good players. They’re comparatively less
fame has more to do with the media attention he attracted following
his redesigns of US Open venues during the 1950s than any actual
enduring qualities his own works might possess. When he redesigned
Oakland Hills for the 1951 US Open, it was the first time ever that
a golf architect was engaged to modify a course to counter the
abilities of the world’s best players. That was exciting to people
at the time.
today, with opportunity to compare the various schools of golf
course design that have been practiced over the past century,
we’ve come to learn that the strategic courses of the 1920s and
‘30s are most appealing to the majority of golfers – Thompson
IT WOULD BE
AMISS TO DISCUSS THOMPSON WITHOUT DISCUSSING HIS PAR THREES. IS IT
TRUE THAT HE DESIGNED HIS COURSES AROUND THE PAR THREES? CAN YOU
TELL US SOME OF YOUR FAVOURITES?
studying Thompson’s work, it’s pretty obvious that he routed his
courses around ideal natural sites for par 3s. Nearly all of his
courses possess consistently natural and exciting par 3s.
theory is that he learned this methodology while observing Harry
Colt’s work at Toronto Golf Club in 1912 and, two years later, at
Hamilton Golf & Country Club. Colt was a pioneer in the field of
golf course design. As I understand it, he too routed his courses
around the natural sites for par 3s.
was a 17 year old caddie at Toronto when Colt laid-out his course
there. And his older brother, Nicol Thompson, was the professional
at Hamilton in 1914. So, I’m sure young Stanley was paying
attention to the development of these courses – taking mental
his 1926 book The Links, Robert Hunter refers to par 3 holes as
“the acme of golf.” He suggested that a series of one-shot holes
of varying length and character provides more excitement than any
other types of holes. It seems Thompson shared this opinion. Many of
his courses feature five par 3s, and they almost always play
different lengths, from different angles, and possess unique
a typical Thompson layout you’ll usually find one par 3 that’s
150 yards or shorter, three that range between 165 and 200 yards
long – all with completely different character and shot
requirements – and always one that plays 230 yards or more. This
kind of variety is ideal.
don’t think I’d surprise you with my favourites of Thompson’s
par 3s. His most famous one-shot holes are famous for good reason
– like the Devil’s Cauldron at Banff. Nothing can prepare you to
see this hole for the first time. I’d seen many photos and read
about it, and thought I knew it, but when I stepped on the tee there
for the first time, it blew me away! In concept, it’s a simple
hole – a medium length drop shot par 3, with a green pitch from
back to front surrounded by bunkers. But the view from the tee is so
awesome – it changes the entire complexion of the hole!
Cleopatra – the ninth – is similar in beauty. The view from the
tee down to the green is spectacular – Pyramid Mountain, in the
distance, lines up perfectly with your sight line from the tee to
the centre of the green. And the playing character of the hole is
even better than the view. I don’t think many contemporary
architects would have the guts to build this hole today – a 235
yard par 3 played dramatically downhill to a narrow green with steep
drop offs and sand on three sides! In my opinion, there aren’t
enough of these types of holes in golf today!
a big fan of Thompson’s long par 3s in general. I really like the
220 yard 16th at Capilano and the 235 yard 8th
at St. George’s, with its green half hidden behind a hillside on
the left. It’s a particularly unique hole. And I hear the 8th
at Uplands in Toronto is something to see. I haven’t been there
my absolute favourite Thompson par 3 is probably the short fifteenth
at Jasper, called “The Bad Baby.” It’s only 138 yards long
from the back of the tee, but the green is one of the tiniest I know
of. It sits on a natural diagonal ridge with steep drop offs on all
sides, and a bunker front left and another back right. I think
it’s Canada’s “2 or 20 hole”. If you hit the small green,
you’re inevitably left with a relatively short putt for two. But
miss it, and you might make a 20!
HOW MUCH HAS
PLAYING EQUIPMENT TECHNOLOGY CHANGED THOMPSONS DESIGNS?
The ball is going so much further today than in Thompson’s era
that golfers do approach his courses differently than their
predecessors did in the 1920s and ‘30s – and even the ‘80s!
courses have probably become less challenging for better golfers,
but not necessarily less interesting, I don’t think. The inherent
variety in the length of holes and the type of shots required, and
the challenge in pitching, chipping and putting that his greens
provide for keep his courses interesting, regardless of how far guys
are driving the ball.
I think Thompson courses might be even more interesting for average
golfers today. The average male golfer today is probably driving the
ball the same distance as the best players of Thompson’s era. So
the strategies that Thompson designed for the better players of the
1920s and ‘30s, and the carrying bunkers he placed for them, are
probably more relevant to a larger number of golfers today than they
that in mind, I think we have to be very careful when considering
changes to Thompson’s original designs – particularly in the
quest for additional yardage, and also the relocation of fairway
bunkers. So many clubs with older courses are anxious to add yardage
as a response to improvements in club and ball technologies, when in
fact 6,500 to 6,700 total yards is still plenty for the average male
club member. Similarly, the carrying bunker 200 yards off the tee is
still a well-placed carrying hazard for guys who drive it 230-240
my opinion, fiddling with an original Thompson design isn’t
something to be taken lightly. And either is the distance issue. If
the USGA and the R&A don’t do something soon to strictly limit
the distance to be gotten by the ball, the game is inevitably going
to suffer. Not only will a bunch of great 6,660 yard golf courses
become less interesting drive-and-pitch affairs, but the cost to
play the game will rise significantly. It’s a simple equation:
longer courses require more land to be purchased, and more money to
build and to subsequently maintain, which will inevitably result in
today’s astronomical green fees going even higher!
tells me most golfers would rather have more affordable courses to
play then an even longer golf ball.
HAVE THE REDESIGNS AND RENOVATIONS ON THOMPSON’S COURSES GONE
Unfortunately, a lot of
Thompson’s original work has been butchered over the years, for
all the wrong reasons. But things have changed in recent years.
Nowadays more clubs are rightly investigating the potential for
restoring their Thompson layouts.
of the most recent work I’ve seen on Thompson courses has focused
on bunker reconstruction. Of course, a good Thompson restoration
wouldn’t be complete without refashioning the bunkers, and also
re-installing any original bunkers that may have been filled in over
the years. But the true genius of Thompson’s work is in the
greens, and the strategies that they set-up.
often laid-out odd shaped putting surfaces that provided for
challenging hole locations on the outer edges of the greens. These
types of pin positions had to be approached from favourable angles
in the fairway or else it was impossible to get the ball near the
hole. It was important to use your head on Thompson course, like in
billiards – to play the shot at hand with the next in mind, as per
the day’s hole location.
over the years, green surfaces have a tendency to shrink, and the
result is always the loss of a course’s most strategic hole
locations. I’ve visited many Thompson layouts where it’s plainly
obvious that the greens have shrunken significantly, and still I’m
yet to see a comprehensive green surface reclamation project
undertaken on a Thompson course.
drew inspiration from The Old Course at St. Andrews. His courses
were big and wide and multi-dimensional. The shrunken greens and the
narrow fairways lined with interfering trees that we so often find
on Thompson layouts today are in direct conflict with his original
design intentions. They’re the product of evolution. Narrow
tree-lined holes, featuring 15 yard wide fairways and tiny, round
greens weren’t Thompson’s thing.
restorations focus on green surface reclamation and related
adjustment to fairway patterns. And tree removal of course. Bunker
reconstruction is a secondary element.
more than a few clubs I know of have spent an extraordinary amount
of money to rebuild their bunkers in that famous “Thompson
style”. The aesthetic beauty of the course might have been
improved, but the original Thompson playing character and strategies
haven’t been restored. And isn’t that the intention?
been a lot of excellent restorative-based work done on classic
layouts in the United States in recent years. But we’re yet to see
a comprehensive restoration of a Thompson course completed here in
CAPE BRETON HIGHLANDS WAS RECENTLY RANKED THE BEST COURSE IN CANADA
(by Score Golf magazine), PERHAPS A LONG OVERDUE RECOGNITION. CAN
YOU TELL US WHY YOU THINK THE COURSE IS SPECIAL, AND IN PARTICULAR
WHAT ARE SOME OF ITS CHARACTERISTICS?
I recall Score Golf magazine
took some heat in 2000 when they announced Highlands Links had
dethroned the National Golf Club of Canada as the number one-ranked
course in the country. I defended their choice then, and I still do
think most golfers who argue that Highlands Links shouldn’t be
ranked number one either haven’t played there, or played the
course in the spring when turf conditions aren’t the best.
Greenkeeping at Cape Breton is very challenging. It takes a while
for the course to recover from the effects of winter. And still
there are always isolated problems that persist throughout the golf
season each year. Tom Forsythe and his staff do an excellent job
under the circumstances.
general, golfers are too focused on turf conditions. If the turf’s
not in good shape, they tend to overlook otherwise interesting golf
courses. And Highlands Links is replete with interesting golf holes
– one after another.
Stanley Thompson accomplished at Highlands Links during the late
1930s is nothing short of genius. There is such a tremendous variety
of holes there – which is the result of an brilliant routing that
takes full advantage of the natural attributes of the property.
final product we play today suggests Thompson had no preconceived
notions. He simply allowed the native landscape to dictate where
golf should be played. I mean, there’s back-to-back par 5s at the
6th and 7th holes, followed by consecutive par
4s under 330 yards at eight and nine. Later, there’s back-to-back
par 5s again, at the 15th and 16th holes. But
these holes are so unique to one another and so interesting to play
that it never crosses your mind that you just played two par 5s in a
row, or two short par 4s back to back.
actually amazing how we end up with so many 7,000 yard par 72 golf
courses these days. The reality of it is, we’d have more courses
like Highlands Links if contemporary architects practiced what they
preached in regard to utilizing natural landscapes instead of
forcing preconceived notions into the ground in order to arrive at
7,000 total yards and a total par of 72 – and to get the 9th
hole back to the clubhouse!
green complexes at Highlands Links are extremely varied and
interesting as well. Like all of the world’s best courses,
Highlands Links starts with a solid routing for the holes and is
enhanced by an interesting and varied set of greens.
of course, this is not to mention the setting. Highlands Links is so
remote, out there on the northeast tip of Cape Breton Island in the
Highlands, on the Atlantic coast, that it’s unlike any other North
American golf experience. It’s undoubtedly one of the most unique
and memorable places for golf in the entire world, but also one of
the most unpretentious.
THREE OF THOMPSON’S
BEST FIVE COURSES ARE PUBLIC, CAN YOU THINK OF ANOTHER LEGENDARY
GOLF COURSE ARCHITECT WITH SUCH A GREAT BATTING AVERAGE FOR PUBLIC
Donald Ross has a pretty good
“batting average” for public golf. You’ll find a Ross-designed
course opened to the public in a quite a few cities across the
eastern United States, particularly in New England. But in all but a
few cases, those Ross courses aren’t going to be found very well
great about Jasper, and Banff, and Highlands Links is not only are
they well preserved, they’re very well taken of and, more
important, comparatively inexpensive to play.
if you want to play Ross’s Pinehurst No. 2, or Pebble Beach,
you’re looking at a $300US green fee or more! I don’t know the
exact cost to play Jasper, Banff or Highlands Links at present, but
I do know it’s much less expensive than that.
the price of golf today, Jasper, Banff and Highlands Links all offer
a world-class golf experience for a bargain price!
SPRINGS HAS BEEN CHANGED AROUND A LITTLE BIT AND RENOVATED PRETTY
SIGNIFICANTLY, HOW GREAT IS THE STRETCH OF HOLES FROM 10 TO 15 (THE
OLD CLOSING HOLES AND THE FORMER NUMBER ONE)?
I don’t know the details of
all the changes to Banff over the years, but the worst would seem to
be the re-numbering holes that took place about 10 years ago, when
they added a new 9-hole course and a new clubhouse in what’s
basically the centre of the original Thompson course.
Thompson’s original 5th hole plays as the first, and
the par 5 fourth is the home hole. This sequence of holes just
isn’t as elegant as Thompson’s original routing; the course just
doesn’t flow as well starting on number 5.
tee shot at the original 1st hole was undoubtedly one of
the greatest opening shots in all of golf. There you are on an
elevated tee in the shadow of the majestic Banff Springs Hotel, high
above an inviting fairway, with the raging Spray River below, and a
breathtaking view of the Rocky Mountains right in front of you!
It’s an inspiring sight.
an ideal world, Banff would return to the original sequence of
holes. Not only to reclaim the experience of that opening tee shot,
but also because of the closing four holes you mention.
I recall correctly, it’s on the 16th tee that you get
your first glimpse of the hotel in the distance. It’s almost
surreal when you see it for the first time sitting up there on the
side of that mountain. It gives you a feeling of “heading home”
– just like at St. Andrews. In fact, Thompson’s original “out
and back” routing at Banff sort of mimics the routing The Old
Course – you play nine holes out, and nine in; out and in, as it
reads on every scorecard!
love the green at the par 4 sixteenth. It’s relatively narrow and
triangular in shape with steep drop offs on all sides, and the Bow
River tight on the right. It kind of reminds me of the 1st
green at Pine Valley. The further back the hole is cut on the green,
the more precise the approach must be.
17th is another of Thompson’s really good long par 3,
about 225 yards long. And the 18th, lying in the shadow
of the hotel, is arguably the best hole on the course.
employed an “in your face” style of bunkering at Banff. He
placed a large number of the 140 or so bunkers on the course in the
direct line from tee to green rather than on the periphery of the
holes. As a result, you can’t help but notice the bunkers, and
everyone, regardless of golfing ability, is forced to contend with
at least a few throughout the course of a round.
the eighteenth there are two clusters of bunkers, one on the left
off the tee and another on the right closer to the green, that
really force you to “tack” your way to the green.
at Banff isn’t played straight down the centre of the fairways.
Almost every hole has a bunker to be played over or around.
JASPER PARK IS ONE OF
OUR FAVOURITE PLACES TO PLAY GOLF. DOES THE SETTING OVERWHELM THE
ARCHITECTURE? WHAT FEATURES STAND OUT FOR YOU?
The setting at Jasper is awesome. But, for me, the architecture
overwhelmed the setting. The course is that good in my opinion.
all of Thompson’s best courses, Jasper’s brilliance stems from
the routing of the holes. He utilized the best natural features on
that property perfectly. In fact, I don’t think there’s a weak
hole at Jasper, and some of the best holes there are least talked
about – like the opening three holes, the par 3 seventh, and the
par 4 eleventh too.
YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT THE STANLEY THOMPSON SOCIETY? WHAT IS THE
SOCIETY DOING THESE DAYS?
The Stanley Thompson Society
was established back in 1998 by a group of members of golf clubs
across Canada with Thompson designed courses. The principle
objective of the Society is to encourage the restoration and
preservation of Thompson layouts.
done a lot of research and writing on Thompson in recent years.
I’ve collected quite a bit of information about his design style
and philosophies, and have recently talked with both Jim Barclay and
Bill Newton about assisting the Society with building an archive of
material to make available to clubs interested in researching the
history of their Thompson courses with intent to restore them.
Barclay is Thompson’s biographer – author of The Toronto Terror.
And Bill Newton is actually Thompson’s great-nephew. His
grandfather was Stanley’s brother, Matt. They’re both very
knowledge men, very much involved with the Thompson Society.
of right now, I don’t have an official role, but I plan to assist
the Society’s cause. It’s a worthy cause, and they founding
members have done a very good job in short time, advertising the
Society and its intentions. Membership is growing, and many more
clubs are becoming aware of the history and significance of their
Thompson designed courses because of the Society’s efforts.
there are Thompson courses that have already been ruined to the
point that pure restoration is impossible. But there are still
others that have jealously been preserved. I’d like to see the
Thompson Society become an organization that can assist in
determining where courses fall into that spectrum – kind of like
the Donald Ross Society has done in the United States. There are too
many competing architects out there trying to sell their own take on
restoration. With any luck, a comprehensive Thompson archive,
administered by the Society, will put an end to that game and save
at least a few Thompson originals from ill-advised alterations in
CREEK GOLF RESORT, ANOTHER OF CANADA’S BEST COURSES, IS INCLUDED
IN OUR CURRENT FEATURE ON ALBERTA GOLF. YOU’RE CURRENTLY WORKING
ON ANOTHER PROJECT IN ALBERTA WITH WOLF CREEK’S DESIGNER, ROD
WHITMAN. CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT THAT?
from the air
We’re in the process of
finishing a new 18-hole course for Blackhawk Golf Club in Edmonton.
It’s going to be a public access daily fee course, scheduled to
open for play early in 2003.
quite a bit different than Wolf Creek, but equally good – maybe
even a bit better. It occupies a very unique property in the North
Saskatchewan River valley, about 30 minutes or so by car from
downtown. The par 3 12th and long par 4s at the 13th
and 17th holes actually play along the banks of the river
in a beautiful setting.
are a total of twelve holes in the river valley section of the
property, and some awesome looking bluffs on the other side of the
river itself. So the course is very secluded. There’s no threat of
any future peripheral developments infringing on it, which in itself
makes Blackhawk somewhat unique to other similar golf course
developments these days.
are sporadic groves of trees through the property, and some nice
native vegetation that have been preserved and should provide the
course with a rather mature feeling right off the bat.
routing is really good too. It takes full advantage of the best
natural attributes of the site. There’s good variety in the types
of holes out there, and a varied and interesting set of greens as
a solid routing with eighteen interesting and diverse greens will
always guarantee a decent course.
If you happen to have a better than average site, like
Blackhawk, then the course is likely to be that much better. So
I’m confident it’s going to turn out to be pretty good.