1. Why did you want to be a golf course architect?
Golf runs in the blood of the Ritson family and my earliest recollections are of my grandpa as captain of the local golf club, family holidays were spent in Scotland playing golf course or looking in the rough for golf balls. Summer holidays on Blyth Golf Course and I became a single figure player and captained the junior team. My other love was of the outdoors growing up on a farm which with wildlife and beautiful open spaces and this led to a first degree in Agricultural and Environmental Science and then to a Masters in Landscape Design from Newcastle University.
Working as a Landscape Architect, both in the UK and Africa, I qualified as a Chartered Landscape Architect but it wasn’t until 1997 that the European Institute of Golf Course Architects started a Diploma Course in Golf Course Design at Merrist Wood College, which gave me the opportunity to pursue a long-held dream to become a golf course architect and started my own company Ritson Golf Design.
2. Which golf course architects do you admire and why?
There is a rich history of notable golf architects such as Harry Colt and James Braid, Herbert Fowler or Alistair McKenzie and all demand respect, designing courses in the days before mass earthmoving was standard but two of my ‘architect heroes’ are Desmond Muirhead and Dave Thomas.
Some years ago I was privileged to listen to Desmond Muirhead giving a talk at Cambridge and what stood out was his great sense of humour and he was not constrained by the usual concepts of what a golf course should be but rather followed flights of his own fancy, dramatically transforming the golf landscape with bold patterns and symbolism. This took golf course design in a new and experimental direction and although this has not caught on, he demonstrated what was possible to create on such a large scale and to keep an open mind when designing.
Coming from the North East, the name ‘Dave Thomas’ was notable for his designs at Slayley Hall and The Roxburgh and playing these courses brough respect for this great man who I was lucky to meet through the EIGCA. Noted for designing courses to fit the landscape, he tried to create unique golf holes of great character, which live long in the memory. There are large generous fairway landing area and the scale of his designs is in keeping with the sweeping majestic scenery of those natural areas. Large greens are angled away from the player and protected by large deep bunkers demanding respect and joy from the golfer in equal measure.
3. What is your proudest design achievement?
To have constructed several golf courses in Africa and with more in designs now on the table. This is still an incredible and fascinating continent to be building golf courses and my first major commission was to design the Ibom Golf Course in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria. When started back in 2000, only small areas which had been cleared were surveyed and several weeks were spent clearing the centrelines for the holes through plantation and dense swamp by hand. Biting ants and snakes rained down from trees as we cleared, and the local villages were constantly at war with each other. All measurements were made using tape measures and local labourers employed to carry out the work. It took several years to construct the course.
The course was opened by Colin Montgomery, Nancy Lopez and Retief Goosen - a fine line up indeed - and slightly irritating as I had not been paid for most of the work but then that’s Nigeria. The hotel was a great success and the course regularly holds major competitions and pro-ams but the most satisfying sight is that of the young Nigerians playing golf in this tropical paradise and who knows, maybe a hotbed for future champions.
4. What are your favourite three golf courses in the World from a design perspective, and why?
5. What are the greatest challenges you face as a golf course architect?
There is an over-provision of golf courses here in the UK and although there are a lot of good golf courses, there are also a large number of poorly designed courses and in fact up to 80% of courses are not designed by an architect! So, it is hardly surprising that much of our work is to analyse and improve these courses.
As architects we need to help the golf course owners and committees understand that the golf course can be fun, beautiful and can contain roughs and wild native areas to encourage wildlife to the benefit of all and that courses can be strategically challenging, not just for the low handicapper but to consider all standards of players.
6. What environmental or sustainable initiatives have you incorporated into your designs?
My philosophy has always been to design the golf course to fit on to the landscape and although this takes more design time, it produces low-cost courses with great character and unique to their own landscape. On several courses I have helped farmers and landowners set out and construct the course, using sand found from borrow pits on site, bringing in recycled material to build practice ranges and digging out site won gravel and rock for the drainage in the bunkers and beneath greens.
On existing courses, I advocate removing exotic trees such as Leylandii and have replaced them with native trees and shrubs such as Oak and Birch, which attract a great deal more insect species. Wherever I can, I have created new ponds, and these are soon teaming with birds and aquatic wildlife. Outside the greens and fairways, I like to seed large areas with native grass and wildflowers chosen to reflect the plants which would naturally occur in this area and provide a fantastic display for the golfers and are easier to maintain than short grasses.
7. How do you see the golf course design industry changing in the next 20 years?
If golf is to survive and thrive in Europe, we need golf for all, not just for the narrow demographic of well healed, middle age male golfers and the great challenge is that most golf courses are already built and were designed 20 to 100 years ago. The golf courses must now change to cater for the young beginner and the more mature player, with people living longer, whilst still providing a challenge to the young lower handicap golfers who with modern equipment and physical fitness training can hit the golf ball very long distances.
To accommodate this the golf course industry must provide a variety of golf facilities which can be enjoyed by all of the family, with a range of smaller courses and ranges for beginners through to the full-size golf courses. The existing courses need to be redesigned to offer a greater number of teeing positions and landing areas to cater for this wider range of golfers and at the same time this must be done in an environmentally sensitive and sustainable way to remain economically viable.
8. What makes a golf course great rather than just good?
We all love a knock about on our good little 18 hole golf course, some fresh air and hopefully not too many lost balls and this is fine but the mark of a great golf course is that it grabs your attention from the first tee and the game progresses with a roller coaster ride of emotions, brought about with teeing vistas inviting you to drive down the fairway through a myriad of strategically placed hazards to challenge at every turn.
The great course will test your nerve and sinew with the best strategic holes played on a knife edge, so that one day you play the hole one way perhaps attacking and on another defending, depending on your confidence or just the way the wind blows. There are certain physical attributes of a great golf course and the surrounding scenery is something as architects we cannot influence but it is the emotions it brings to the golfer which raise the game to the next level that marks out the golf course as a great one.
9. What advice would you give to an aspiring golf course architect?
There is no doubt that in the UK and USA there is much less demand for new golf course facilities than in the previous twenty years and therefore it is increasingly difficult to earn a good standard of living, solely designing golf courses and therefore any aspiring golf course architect should ensure that they have a professional qualification which they can fall back on when needed, for example to train as a professional Landscape Architect, Engineer, Ecologist or alternatively develop skills on the maintenance, irrigation or horticultural side of the industry. Most successful golf architects develop a ‘niche’ or specialism within the golf course industry, and this should be encouraged as it leads to a greater diversity of golf courses.
10. What do you enjoy about being a golf course architect?
It is the places you travel to and the people and colleagues you work with along the way that are the highlights and joys of being a golf course architect. To be travelling to far and distant places, often way off the tourist maps and seeing the landscapes hand, then learning about the soils, plants, climate, geology, ecology and culture before starting on the design of the golf course.
Then when a golf course is completed, it is the interaction of the golfers within the landscape and to see people enjoying the beautiful landscapes that you have helped create and at the same time how the golf course challenges them to raise their game. There is an over-riding sense of sharing the beauty of nature with so many people who adopt the golf course as if it was their own home and I hope will watch it grow and develop over the years for future generations to come.
Click here to read more about Steve.