BAYONNE, NJ – A funny thing happened when I went to interview a golf course architect about his design strategies. I got a grad school-level lecture in landscape architecture, construction, and golf course permitting instead.
It was every bit as fascinating.
Eric Bergstol lives the dream of everyone who enters one of those Armchair Architecture contests they have in magazines from time to time. Much like a writer who starts with a blog and ends up reporting from press row, Bergstol’s the amateur who made it to the professional ranks by hard work, strength of will, and love of the game. He’s designed over a dozen courses, each one of them known not only for their fascinating design, but also for the perseverance shown in getting a job done over a difficult piece of property, whether its environmental constraints or pesky permitting issues. Bergstol “gets to yes” as quickly and effectively as Pete Dye, Tom Fazio, or any of the other biggest names in golf.
His magnum opus is Bayonne Golf Club, high on a hill overlooking New York harbor on one side and New Jersey on the other. In one of the largest and most complicated undertakings in golf design history, Bergstol took an old New Jersey landfill and created an Irish links, a true representation of golf across the Pond in how it looks and how it plays. Glorious and majestic, the transformation is staggering – Bayonne is our generation’s proper rejoinder to Pete Dye’s Stadium Course at Sawgrass, not just a true engineering marvel, but the state of the art of the craft of golf course design. It reset the bar in so many ways. And when Eric and I talked, I had as much fun listening to the construction stories as I would have if we had been discussing the differences in style between Devereux Emmet and Charles Banks.
But more than that, Bayonne is also the kind of course that when you show your friends pictures, they say, “You’ve got to be kidding me! I never imagined golf could get this good.” Transportive, restorative, exhilarating, even in the shadow of lower Manhattan, here you find tranquil solace amidst the traffic of the World.
JF: What are your first memories of golf?
EB: I started playing when I was 12 at Spook Rock, the local muni course in Ramapo where I grew up, but back then my main sport was basketball. I didn’t get serious about golf until I was in my 30s. That’s when I started playing more frequently.
I consider myself an athlete, so I worked hard to get good, and managed to get down to scratch in a few years I stayed a consistent low handicap player for most of my life. I’m a 2 now.
JF: When did you decide you wanted to make golf your life?
EB: Golf is a social event for me; it’s an opportunity to meet people and bring them together to share a common love of the game. When you start playing more, you really come to understand the ethos and the history, the objectives and the values of golf. It’s more than just a physical challenge, but mental one as well, and you really achieve personal growth
JF: They say the game is a window to the soul.
EB: That’s right. And so for me it became an avenue for my good friends and me to get together and enjoy both each others company and some competition. But it wasn’t until I became a developer and a designer that I began to get into the subtleties of designing and building courses.
JF: And how did you get into developing and designing courses?
EB I went to college at Kings, then grad school in NYU, but I also worked as a developer. In the early ‘90s an opportunity for a property came up near where I grew up. An institution that had closed that had sufficient land to do a course. Golf was very hot back then; the National Golf Foundation said there was a demand for 500 courses a year, so I jumped on the wagon. It was close to New York, (you can’t miss when you’re close to New York), and there weren’t a lot of facilities near there.
That was Minisceongo Golf Club, a private club, my first one out of the box. To design it, I hired a man named Roy Case.
JF: For our readers that might not have heard of him, tell us about Roy.
EB: Roy didn’t have an ego. He was a friendly and personal guy, and he allowed me lots of input. He understood how to build and rout a golf course. Even though I was just learning, an infant in that world, he allowed me to consult. One thing I can do, though, is see and understand things in 3-D. I tried to study what people like about a golf hole and why, as well as what works architecturally, so I enjoyed working with him and doing that job.
JF: How did your career arc develop from that course though now?
EB: The first thing I learned from that job was how to rout the golf course properly. You have so many variables – natural setting, soil, climate, sunlight, wind, landscape, and many other business factors as well. What is your course trying to do? Trying to be? A resort? A real estate development? A public course? A private club? Some architects specialize in one type of course, other architects at others, and some can handle everything. But each type of facility has different issues like number of rounds, will it have carts, etc. at a public course there has to be room to play the game and that you’re designing it for more rounds. It’s a different expectation than a private club.
JF: As Tom Paul of the USGA Architecture Archives Committee likes to say, it’s a big world out there…
EB: It is a big world out there, but still the great classics still stand out, and they all started with a good routing plan, each hole different but important to the whole, while the whole itself has a character all its own.
JF: Like the chapters of a book.
EB: Exactly. With great courses, you come off the course and you remember every hole. They all told their own story, 18 chapters, all different and all interesting. Take Friar’s Head for example, Coore and Crenshaw again. Here they come to Long Island, and build the number two or three course on the entire island. And they did one called Hidden Creek, one not many people know about, that was totally flat, but they built a lovely golf course.
Then take three more of my favorites, Shinnecock, National [Golf Links of America], and Bethpage Black, all of these courses, among the best on Long Island, all started with a great routing plan. You can have all the terrific shapers and construction guys, but there’s an art to this too.
That first job also taught me the importance of creating a balance – and by that I mean short and long par-3s, par-4s, and par-5s, some left, some right, and some straight. Pete Dye, for example, pretty much lives on his courses when he builds them. To him, the golf course design process is an evolution. Pete doesn’t work off specific plans in the detail some designers do…
JF: That’s right. We’ve all heard stories about him taking a twig and drawing the hole design in the sand, and then the team goes and builds the hole from that!
EB: Yes, compared to guys who draw up plans at the drawing board and hand it to the construction crew, and Pete has had tremendous success doing that. He’s one of the ultimates at routing a course and balancing it well.
JF: Now how did we get to Bayonne from Minisceongo?
EB: From Minisceongo, which was 1994, I built 11 clubs, owning and developing nine of those 11. Hudson National was next, a Tom Fazio design. That project was complicated. It was another learning experience, building it in tough property with rock all over the place and being on top of a mountain in Westchester. It”s not like building on a sand pile in the south. This was rock piles in the northeast. Plus we had thee unions to deal with. But we had the best guy for that. Fazio was terrific and I learned so much from him.
JF: What in particular?
EB: Fazio has an exceptional ability to design a course that looks challenging and difficult, but plays very fair. He won’t make a bunker where a shot will roll into it if it gets anywhere near – you have to hit it in the bunker to get that. At a UK course you could be 20 yards away and the ground contours will pull it in. off the tee the you get generous landing areas, you know where you have to hit the golf ball, and the design of the greens also give you a variety of shotmaking requirements that make the course interesting.
So after Hudson National I did New Jersey National. I designed it myself, and I loved every second of it. I came to the property everyday in work boots and jeans, driving around in an ATV with my flags and paint guns. That was around 1997. And then I did Pine Barrens in mid-Jersey.
JF: I was regular at Pine Barrens back in the day. 14 and 15 were two of my favorites: the quarry par-3 followed by the slithery par-5 that winds through the forest. That was great fun.
EB: It is great fun. Pine Barrens sat on a total of 420 acres and was flat, but it was also all sand, which is exactly what you want, and it was all right there, everything we needed.
But 200 acres of the 420 were protected a habitat. We had a rare pine snake. I never saw him, but apparently it was his habitat, and so we had to put in radio transmitters into the snakes…
JF: Wait, wait, wait…you put microchips in snakes?!
EB: Yes. The areas where he went we noted, and those were the areas that were protected, so we couldn’t build there.
JF: Now how much Pine Valley influence is there? 14 and 15, again, look like holes you’d find in Clementon.
EB: Well what about Pine Hill? That had 150 feet of elevation, much different than the 20 feet at Barrens. I doubt many people built and opened a course faster than we opened Pine Barrens. On October 6 or 7, 1997 we started and we were all grown in and open on October 8, 1998 for press day. We could do it because it was all sand. We had the perfect USGA spec greens mix right there, piles of it, dump trucks full…an unlimited supply. So we quarried out holes 10 and 14 and built all our green sites on perfect USGA spec sand. All our bunkers were carved out of the natural sand too; we didn’t have to put in drainage or gravel, we just did pushups like old style. That’s the real similarity to PV – native plantings and sands. But the difference with Pine Valley is the elevation that we couldn’t re-create.
Pine Hill was next. We opened it in 2000. I spent five years assembling nine different properties to construct it, and each of the nine pieces was necessary. Pine Hill had a different environmental constraint – there was a stream that ran through the property that had trout, so we had to deal with various agencies like Fish and Wildlife.
One of the things they did was “electric shock” the stream. What happens is the fish float up to the top, so you can count them. It doesn’t kill the fish or hurt them in any way, and they are able to sample how populated the stream was.
It was determined we had seven native trout, and that meant the stream was a protected area and needed to be re-habitated for these seven fish. We spent $1 million to establish the stream, banks, and sides so that the stream had more definition and support: a million dollars invested for seven trout.
JF: Now there’s talk that there’s a lot of Pine Valley influence in the design of the holes at Pine Hill too, and it’s located just a mile or two from PV.
EB: Tom Fazio designed it, and as you know, he’s a member of Pine Valley, and he’s very well thought of there. Pine Hill sits in the same hills and ridges that Pine Valley is – Pine Valley on the east side, Pine Hill on the west. So yes, the terrain at PH is very similar to PV, as are the plant material, soil, climate, even the elevation. Remember how we talked about Pine Barrens couldn’t match the elevation change? Pine Hill does. The clubhouse elevation is the highest point in New Jersey. So there’s naturally going to be similarities. But Tom wanted to produce something unique, and our environmental constraints made him have to create his own unique holes, not recreate the ones at PV.
JF: Sort of the same thing at Bayonne? You weren’t trying to recreate the holes of Scotland and Ireland, but the style and playability?
EB: What inspires me most is when the course is natural and fits the terrain, and that’s what pulled me to the Scotland and Ireland courses so much. Everything is natural, everything was created by nature, and we just kind of accommodated the golf course to what was there.
JF: So what courses in the U.K. might have given you ideas for Bayonne?
EB: Again, it’s the big-shouldered ones, the big dunes courses.
JF: Which ones in particular?
EB: Well, in Ireland there’s Lahinch. Lahinch has huge dunes, aand some of the holes are tucked right in the midst of them. The character and shape of dunes are more like a windblown. The there’s the back nine Ballybunion, the front nine of Portstewart, Portrush and County Down. In Scotland and England it would be Birkdale, Turnberry, Aberdeen, Dornoch, Macrahanish, North Berwick, the list is endless.
What I was concerned with at Bayonne was making it feel huge and expansive even though we only sit on 130-135 acres. I didn’t want holes to play next to each other. I wanted them to play independent of each other and feel like you were playing the game across huge expanses amid big dunes.
JF: Now you solved that problem ingeniously with the terracing you used in several places.
EB: There you go! Exactly. I didn’t want dunes or humps between parallel holes, or fairways next to each other. So by importing vast quantities of fill, I was able to terrace adjacent holes so that they were independent of each other. We made it so they fit what would be the natural contours of erosion, as opposed to just putting mounding between two holes on the same elevation likes it’s Florida.
JF: That’s the great thing about having all the sand you needed. You could just do whatever you needed.
EB: Sure. That’s why to build a great course in Florida, you have to move a lot of dirt or get into the central or northern sections which have natural elevation. You need one of the other. Even a course like Seminole has two long ridges that create the interest on the golf course, and the ridges affect so many holes. We had a flat parcel at Bayonne, but we also had sand, so we manufactured everything.
JF: But you made it look natural, even though you used something like 7,000,000 cubic yards of earth…
EB: Here’s what we did to get it that way: first we located the clubhouse in the center of the property. We also wanted it on one of the highest points of the property so it would have a 360-degree view, which it does. You can see several boroughs of New York, including Manhattan.
JF: In a big way…
EB: From there, we brought material in and created as much interest as we could, taking advantage of the great views we had.
Building it was complicated. It was a reclamation site that required major mitigation. Most shoreline properties in industrial areas have environmental issues. Well we had to create a site impervious to water penetration into the core of the property.
Now the entire property is an inverted bathtub. So we brought in sheet piles – steel plates that are interlocked and anchored down into the soil. Along with that is a bentonite slurry wall. That is created from the grade level to the bedrock around the entire perimeter of the property. That prevents any ground water under the golf course from exiting the property. All the ground water is contained there, and we mechanically pump and treat 60,000 gallons of ground water per day, pumping it to the sanitary sewer system.
JF: The cost of that had to be staggering. We all knew it was a Herculean effort to get all the permitting together, and that it’s as remarkable a transformation of land uses as golf has ever seen, but to do it all in greater-NYC is, well, historic.
EB: It was industrial area, now it has a golf course on it that survived every environmental scrutiny imaginable and regulatory agencies that put requirements on us that most people wouldn’t dream of being able to meet.
JF: So once you sited the clubhouse, how did you go about choosing the routing you did?
EB: Everything was different here because of the permits we had to get; everything was subject to them. It wasn’t just go out and rout the golf course and look at a bunch of different 18-hole plans. I couldn’t design holes until the permits for that art of the golf course were in. And even then, you got one kind of permit for one part, and others for the rest. The water areas were more environmentally sensitive, and then there are the mitigation areas, the habitat restorations and such. Once I tried to get permits for tee boxes set in the water playing back to land, but I wasn’t able to secure permits for that. And we didn’t just have 7,000,000 cubic yards to start. We brought it in at a rate of about 1,000,000 per year over the seven years it took to build. So we’d truck in sand, put it somewhere, get a permit, build that little section, all the while trucking in more sand, getting more permits, the building the next holes.
So we have this irregularly shaped piece of property that we can only work a piece at a time. We also had to balance shots – short-long, right-left, etc. to have a nice variety. And we wanted one and 10 to start at the clubhouse, a little different the typical Irish and Scottish links that go out and back.
JF: That’s a lot of parameters to have to meet. Again, the terracing must have helped you with containment on thr part of the property where holes are closer together.
EB: Exactly. By increasing the vertical component – elevation – we also were able to increase the horizontal component. On paper what looks close actually has much greater width when you factor in height.
JF: You were also able to create room with the two old school cross-overs. They work smoothly, are interesting and let you move well through the property. They have an old-school charm.
EB: I’m pleased with the crossings of 2 and 8 and also at 9 tee. I was able to make a bigger golf course that I might not have been able to do otherwise. It happens often in Scotland and Ireland, like you said, and because of the elevation changes via the terracing, we were able to do it successfully. It doesn’t impact play, and it isn’t hazardous. Then on 13 tee the championship tee hits over corner of 12th hole and as the tees move forward, the level of the player changes and the expectation of them having to do that disappears.
JF: What were the first holes that got constructed?
EB: Well, I’ll tell you what was last! The first hole! When you build something like this you tens to finish away form the area where the importing is going on. The area where the first hole is was the last to build because that’s where all the traffic had to come in, through the main entrance of the property.
The northern part of the property was filled and finished first – that’s holes 4-7. Later holes like 16 – where the boats were offloading material.
But generally we worked the perimeters first, then we finished 10, 11, 12, and 17 and worked ourselves back up the center and out through the construction ingress and egress.
JF: That’s a completely different way to build a golf course than any other golf course architect has told me in all the interviews I’ve done. When we speak of Bayonne, we have to talk about what an engineering marvel it is.
EB: It was a constant evolution. “We want to do this…can I get a permit?” And then “yes” and you go ahead or “no” and you have to change on the fly. It took a lot of years, but we stuck it out. I probably opened 7 or 8 courses while I was building this one.
For the limitations I had I’m really happy with the routing. The greens were designed to play at a 10 or an 11 tops, because I intentionally created larger greens and put more movement in them than you would typically find on a modern design. They are typical of what you’d find in Scotland and Ireland.
JF: Now there’s this myth going around that some people in golf design and golf writing circulate that “you can’t hit driver over the first six holes at Bayonne.” Is that true, and even if it is, is it wrong that some people see it as a negative? After all, Sawgrass, takes driver out of your hands frequently, yet the remarkable balance and routing are hailed as its strengths. And moreover, shorter hitters like bogey golfers and the 10-18 crowd can still hit drive, can’t they?
EB: One of the strengths of Bayonne is that the course builds to a crescendo. It ramps up powerfully at the end.
[Author’s Note: I must disagree with Eric on that point. I think the course is strong 1-18, no connective tissue, no pushovers, no afterthoughts. I once started a round at Bayonne on 14 – the gorgeous par-3 playing to the harbor, and finish coming up to the 150-foot flagpole on 13. It took my breath away finishing with mighty 12 (the “Seven Sisters, Six Brothers hole) and then up to the shadow of the clubhouse, so close to 18 that it also makes a terrific and convenient finishing hole.]
EB: (con’t) You start with a dell par-4 green hidden behind some mounding, and you must be on right side to have any view of the green. Two is similar. They are placement over power. Sure, shorter hitters can hit driver, but I want players to have to think their way around, put the golf ball in good positions where they can have a better view and angle.
Three is a Redan par-3, but you can hit driver on four and six. On six it’s designed to be drivable if you choose.
JF: If a guy breaks a window with his tee shot on nine, who pays for it?
EB: That hasn’t happened yet, we haven’t had a window break. Actually they are hurricane windows. They’re pretty strong.
JF: Who are your favorite golf course architects and why?
EB: Well Tom Fazio. I worked with him on the three projects, so I have a lot of respect for him. I think the courses that Coore and Crenshaw do are excellent, because they are so careful in what they do. They’re interested in quality and not mass production, so each of their courses is high quality as well.
Of the Old Dead Guys, I’m a big fan of Donald Ross and C.B. Macdonald. Also Tillinghast always did what I describe as big shouldered courses, and I like that.
JF: You mean where the land forms are larger than life and the playing corridors are wide?
EB: Yes, exactly. And the bunkering is dramatic, the fairways are wide: there’s no squeezing ten pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag.
JF: You get a chance to telephone your 15 year-old self and give him five minutes of advice, but you can’t tell him you’re you, and you can’t tell him you’re from the future. What advice do you give him?
EB: In life, be careful of your choice of friends. My nature is that I trust people and always try to see their good side. It helps me sleep well at night, but I should be careful. If it’s related to golf, I got into golf because I wasn’t afraid of taking a risk. I made many mistakes, and all those mistakes shaped me and made me more determined to do it well and better. So go ahead and take chances.