ASGCA president challenges members to expand the idea of golf

Forrest Richardson hopes you’ll watch his YouTube video.

It’s a 15-minute mission statement named “Ahead of the Game,” and in it the current president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) dares his contemporaries to “think of new ways to play and enjoy the game.”

In a nutshell, Richardson believes recreational golf would attract more beginners and repeat players if architects treated them to layouts like Gil Hanse’s nine-hole Cradle in Pinehurst, N.C., Bill Boswell’s low-budget, 12-hole “nature trail” outside of Augusta Ga., and Dan Hixson’s complex at Silvies Valley Ranch in Seneca, Ore., which features a reversible course, a rules-optional short track and a screwball seven-holer where goats serve as caddies.

Richardson’s message: The ASGCA’s members should get creative and redefine both what a golf course is and how the game might be played. 

“What I’m saying is that it’s possible to think not only outside the box, but way outside the box,” he explained. “We owe it to people to expand the idea of golf.”

It takes courage to swim against the prevailing tide. Like many of his colleagues, Richardson studied the masters in Scotland and steadfastly defends golf’s traditions. But he understands that traditions are often an impediment to progress, so for decades he’s beseeched architects to break the spell of the 18-hole course and design venues that are “more fun, more enjoyable, more diverse and more inviting.” He thinks architects should experiment with lightweight, limited-flight balls that would enable a version of golf to be played on a patch of actual or artificial turf virtually anywhere, including the heart of cities. He’d even consider playing golf with drones instead of clubs.

“Golf courses of the future should be different, and they will be different,” he stated in the video. “There’s no doubt at all that we will continue to draw from the greatest examples of the past, but just as the game has changed up ’till now, I know it’s going to change moving forward.” 

Of course, any suggestion that the ASGCA’s members need to get “ahead of the game” implies that they’ve been behind it. Richardson established his design firm in 1988 and joined the ASGCA in 2000, so he had a front-row seat as members of the society mass-produced hard-to-play, often forgettable courses, most of them created to sell houses in cookie-cutter communities. The way he sees it, the majority of those courses failed to do their most important job, which is to coax players to return again and again.

As Richardson questioned the conventional wisdom, it seemed to some that he was tilting at windmills. Nonetheless, the values he evangelized for – affordability, playability, economic and environmental sustainability – have become accepted tenets, and dogma-flouting designs are in every architect’s toolbox. 

And now, at long last, he has a soap box to stand upon.

“Let’s start asking whether there are new ways to play the game, and not just the ways but the wheres and the whos,” voiced Richardson, who credits Thomas Friedman’s “Thank You for Being Late” for having “a profound impact” on his convictions.

But if minds are hard to change, 75-year-old organizations are darned near impossible. And in his one-year term, Richardson’s biggest challenge may be to redefine the ASGCA itself. 

In recent years, regard for the society has waned among some of the most impactful architects in the business. Tom Doak and David McLay Kidd, who altered the trajectory of 21st-century design, aren’t among the ASGCA’s 168 members. Nor are other well-regarded designers, among them Tom Weiskopf, Mike DeVries, Davis Love III, Ron Forse, Kipp Schulties, Kris Spence, Gordy Lewis and Mike Young. Also absent are talented up-and-comers including Hixson, Jim Urbina, Mike Nuzzo, Bruce Hepner, Tyler Rae, Kyle Franz and Andrew Green. 

“The ASGCA is a fine organization, but it’s rooted in the past,” said Ian Andrew, a Canadian architect who quit the society last year. “Younger architects see who’s in the group and who’s not, and they ask themselves if they need it. I don’t think the next generation sees it as being important.”

“I’ve never paid any attention to it,” said Mike Keiser, who’s done more to inspire the next generation than any other developer.

Just one architect applied for membership in 2020, a number that the ASGCA understands it must increase. Over the past few years, it’s eliminated several barriers to entry, notably the requirements that applicants have at least eight years of design experience and a minimum of five new 18-hole courses to their names. Belatedly, it’s recognized that post-recession golf design isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition and that a substantial part of new construction nowadays consists of par-3 tracks, practice facilities and putting courses.

“Having more members would give us a stronger voice, so we’re adapting to today’s economy,” said Richardson’s predecessor, Jan Bel Jan, who advanced changes in the application process during her term as the ASGCA’s president. “Our membership requirements have been evolving for 75 years, and they’ll continue to evolve.”

Notably, by the end of Richardson’s term, in October 2021, the ASGCA figures to further relax membership qualifications. The new prerequisites haven’t been fully hammered out, but Richardson expects the society to focus on “the architect’s body of work.”

“Maybe we went too long without making adjustments,” he conceded. “We’re trying to accommodate those who, due to the economy, might need a lifetime to qualify under former requirements. We want them to participate with us earlier in their careers, not at the end of their careers.”

There’s one requirement that won’t be adjusted, however. New members will still be obliged to buy three square yards of Ross tartan and spring for one of the society’s emblematic sports jackets.

Some things will never change. 

Robert J. Vasilak, one of Golf Inc.’s contributing editors, blogs at @RJVasilakGolf.com.

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