Q&A with Brian Schneider of Renaissance Golf Design

Q&A by Met Golfer Editor Jeff Neuman with Brian Schneider, Lead Design Consultant for the restoration of Hollywood Golf Club.

Brian Schneider has worked closely with Tom Doak as part of his Renaissance Golf Design team for fifteen years, following stints on the maintenance crew at Pine Valley, Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills, Riviera, Merion, and the Old Course.  He was Lead Associate on Barnbougle Dunes, Bay of Dreams, and Dismal River Golf Club, and played a variety of roles in design and shaping work at Sebonack, Cape Kidnappers, Ballyneal, and many others, as well as restoration work at San Francisco Golf Club, Pasatiempo, Milwaukee Country Club, Palmetto, and Medinah. We asked him about his work on Hollywood Golf Club, the Walter Travis design that is hosting the 102nd Met Open Championship Presented by Callaway Golf.

 

Q:  When did you start (and finish) the Hollywood work?  Would you describe it as a restoration, a renovation, or something else?

A: Our relationship with Hollywood is ongoing, but we began talking with the club in early 2013, as part of their search for a new consulting golf course architect.  Their bunkers had been suffering through some structural issues at the time and the club was looking for help in getting them rebuilt.  I had visited Hollywood in the fall of 2000 and thought the course was fantastic, but I also knew that there was a lot of room for improvement, especially when compared to what the course had been in the 1920s; both Harry Vardon and Ted Ray named it as the best course they’d seen on their whirlwind American exhibition tour in 1920.

Our proposal for the consultant position was based on an interest in the thorough and pure restoration of that 1920s course, which may have been a bit more than the club was looking for at the time.  We were chosen for the job and immediately began preparing for a bunker restoration project scheduled for later that year.  Plans were finalized, LaBar Golf Renovations was selected as the general contractor, and work began in September of 2013.  An unusually cold and wet winter meant progress was a bit slower than expected, but the work was largely complete by April of 2014.

I think our work at Hollywood has been very much a restoration in the strictest use of that word.  We were fortunate to have access to a wealth of helpful documentation, primarily a number of high-quality aerial photographs of the course from its early days, along with a great collection of ground-level photos taken during the 1921 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship.  Those resources enabled us to restore the location and appearance of the original bunkers with a high degree of accuracy. 

Rebuilding the bunkers at Hollywood was a bigger task than it would be at many other clubs, as the original course had over two hundred twenty of them!  There are bunkers of all shapes and sizes, from a massive and intricately shaped greenside bunker on the eleventh hole that measures over a quarter acre to a couple of tiny bunkers beside the fifth green that are barely big enough for two feet and a clubhead.  While today’s course is still some fifty bunkers shy of what was in the ground ninety years ago, everything we’ve built has been based on historic documentation.  The club deserves tremendous credit for taking on a project of that scale.

The ongoing element of our relationship with Hollywood includes the potential restoration of some of those still-lost bunkers, the expansion and realignment of fairway mowing lines, tree management, and hopefully the renovation of the par-3 seventeeth hole.  That’s the one hole on the course that no longer reflects the intent or style of the original design, having undergone a tee-to-green renovation two decades ago.  That hole was largely left alone during our restoration a few years ago, in hopes that we might soon get the opportunity to rebuild it in a manner that better embraces the wildly unique concept that Mr. Travis had created.  Properly restored, the seventeenth would give Hollywood one of the most distinctive and enjoyable sets of one-shot holes in the Met Area.

 

Q: How familiar were you with Walter Travis’s work before coming to Hollywood? Had you worked on any other Travis courses?

A: Hollywood and Garden City Golf Club (where Tom Doak has consulted for decades) were the first two Travis courses I’d seen, and they lit a fire under me to see more of his work.  Both are great courses, yet they couldn’t be more different from one another.  In each case, Travis deserves only partial design credit: at Garden City, he’d inherited an earlier layout created by Devereux Emmet, and at Hollywood he was assisted by green chairman Frank Barrett in building new features on top of a very good 1914 routing by Isaac Mackie.

Since then, I’ve made a point to study and play nearly all of his remaining courses and I’ve always found plenty of fascinating holes and interesting features to reward that effort.  There’s a great deal of variety within his portfolio of work, but the one constant is the quality of his putting surfaces; in that regard, Travis was as good as any architect that’s ever lived.  His greens are beautifully and often boldly contoured, and they instill his courses with an uncommon degree of approach and short-game interest.  It’s a very high compliment to say that the set of greens he built at Hollywood are among his very best.

I’m very fortunate to assist Tom with his consulting duties at Garden City GC, and we’re also the consulting architects at Round Hill Club in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Last October, we completed a full renovation of the bunkers at Round Hill, again based on Travis’s plans and vintage photographs of the early course. 

 

Q: Can you describe some of the unusual or unique features of Hollywood?

A: If you aren’t familiar with Travis’s greens, you’re in for a treat.  On a rather quiet site that lacks eye-catching natural topographical features, Travis used bold, dynamic green sites to create interest and drama. 

The interest created by those green sites is highlighted by an extraordinary amount of bunkering.  As I mentioned earlier, those bunkers run the gamut in terms of size and appearance and they’re often arranged in rather unusual patterns.  All told, there are over four acres of bunkers on the course, the result of the timely confluence of two important factors: first, the site is blessed with wonderful sandy soils; secondly, I believe that Travis was heavily influenced by the time he had recently spent with George Crump during the creation of Pine Valley.  Hollywood is unique among Travis’s courses in the amount of sand he employed, and I suspect that the sandy site gave him the opportunity to create his own, albeit somewhat gentler, version of Crump’s masterpiece.  For anyone with an interest in golf course architecture, the 1940 aerial photo of Travis’s effort is truly remarkable.

 

Q: When you took on the work, did the club have particular interest in hosting championships?  Or was the work primarily for members play?

A: The club has a fine history of hosting prominent local events, along with a few USGA national championships; it was important to us and to the club that our work preserve that level of challenge for the very best players.  Though at over 7000 yards, with one hundred seventy bunkers and a pretty severe set of greens, there was never much reason for concern.

In all of our work, whether on our original designs or with our consulting clients, the goal is always to make the course as engaging and enjoyable as possible without too much focus on difficulty.  In general, though, I think many restored courses tend to get a bit easier in some places and a bit harder in others, and both easier and harder in new and different ways.  For example, we often look to expand fairways and approaches while also minimizing the amount of rough surrounding bunkers.  The addition of short grass means that more balls are likely to be played from fairway rather than from rough; it also means that balls are more likely to roll into hazards or farther away from the ideal line of play.

Adding interest through consulting work often involves the preservation and restoration of unique features, those things that give a place character and differentiate it from all others.  A primary goal of the work at Hollywood was to recapture and highlight the boldness of the original design, accentuating the things both subtle and spectacular that make it such a fantastic course for the members and their guests. 

 

Q: Do you have a favorite hole, green, feature?

A: The funky little fourth and the multiple-route, bunker-laden twelfth are pretty unique and often singled out as being standouts on a course full of very good holes.  As much as I enjoy them both, I also think the set of par-5s is exceptional.  All three long holes ask the golfers to tack their way between and around and over some of the most impressive and intimidating bunkers on the course, and they all feature outstanding greens.  The arrangement of the bunkering and the contouring and orientation of the green complexes are such that the tee shots really matter; in each case, missing your drive significantly complicates the rest of the hole.

On a course full or terrific putting surfaces, a few are truly memorable.  The roly-poly sixth green features a severe false front and a prominent spine separating the sharply canted front plateau from a shallow bowl in the back half.  A few holes later, the small but deep depression in the back left corner of the ninth green makes for perhaps the most interesting hole location at Hollywood. 

 

Q: What aspects of the course will be brought out by professional play on it at the Met Open?  Are there particular holes where you’re interested in seeing what they’ll do?

A: Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of playing the course with 2016 [and now 2017] Carter Cup Champion Ethan Ng and 2016 Met Amateur Champion (not to mention U.S. Mid-Amateur Champion and Masters Low Amateur) Stewart Hagestad, and it was shocking to see how far two skinny young guys could carry the ball.  In addition to their length, however, both demonstrated beautiful control of the ball with their irons and hit some remarkable little shots around the greens.  When players of that skill level are at their best, even the greatest courses are vulnerable to surrendering low scores.  Nonetheless, I’m confident that Hollywood will prove to be a fascinating and challenging venue, and the club will be a gracious host.

Course superintendent Mike Broome and his crew do a fantastic job of ensuring that the architecture is allowed to shine.  Barring unfortunate weather, the fairways will be running fast and the greens will undoubtedly be firm and quick, and an area where Mike excels is in keeping the approaches to the greens tight and bouncy.  The difficulty of the putting surfaces often requires not just thoughtful execution but also a fair bit of creativity and imagination to get the ball close to the flag.  The course will be presented in a way that provides a wide variety of shot options, including an occasional punch-and-run to tricky hole locations.

Among the individual holes, I’ll be curious to see how the competitors choose to attack the aforementioned long par-4 twelfth.  The hole presents a few different options off the tee, depending on how aggressive you want to be and how confident you are in your swing.  I’m also interested to find out if players will succumb to the temptation of trying to drive the green on the short par-4 thirteenth.  During our casual April round, both Ethan and Stewart hit towering drives over the trees directly at the green, proving that it’s easily within reach for at least a portion of the field.

 

Q: What’s it like to play on a course you’ve worked on? Do you enjoy it, what emotions or thoughts do you have, do you see things you could’ve or should’ve done differently?

A: Returning to play our work is one of the best parts of the job, and one I don’t get to enjoy nearly as often as I’d like.  In the case of a restoration client like Hollywood, it’s an absolute blast to experience our improvements with a bag over your shoulder… to directly interact with the features we took so much care in creating… to actually play the shots we were visualizing as we were shaping.

It’s also incredibly rewarding to have put back in play the brilliant ideas of the great architects of the past, whether it’s Travis or Tillinghast, Ross or MacKenzie.  Those guys won’t be returning to build more courses, so it’s our duty to protect their work and to honor their legacies.

Because we are personally involved in both the design and construction of our courses -- supervising the work and shaping all of the features ourselves -- surprises and second-guessing are pretty rare.  Having said that, there are always little things that can be improved or things we haven’t yet had the opportunity to address, and they can pester you until they’re resolved.  Sometimes it can be difficult to turn off that part of my brain as I play, and it often takes a few rounds before I can stop seeing it as a workplace and simply appreciate the course as a great place to play.

 

Q: What are you working on now that you can talk about?

A: The next year will be busy with projects all over the world, including a pair of significant renovations in Australia and bunker work on the Hotchkin Course at Woodhall Spa in central England.  We’re also very excited about the upcoming restoration of George Thomas’s daring original design at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles.

In the Northeast, we’ll be continuing the restoration of Garden City later this fall as we tackle the fairway bunkering on a number of holes, including the reintroduction of some long-lost features.  We are also proud to be working with another new Met Area client: Montclair Golf Club in West Orange, New Jersey.  The 2016 merger with nearby Rock Spring Club gives the club fifty-four holes of golf, including three nines by Donald Ross and three nines by Seth Raynor and Charles Banks.  We look forward to improving all six courses in a way that once again reflects and honors that design heritage.