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Interview with George Bahto

George Bahto – the dry cleaners owner-turned-golf course designer who restored the Knoll Club (West) to it’s golden age glory and who is helping Tom Doak build Old Macdonald, (out at Bandon Dunes Resort), sat down for a few questions:

George bahto stands in the deep bunker of the Redan Hole at The Knoll Clubs West course, the par-3 third.
George bahto stands in the deep bunker of the Redan Hole at The Knoll Club's West course, the par-3 third.

JF: Tell us about how you first got introduced to golf?

George Bahto: (I was forced to – ha!) It was caddying for my father at an early age.

JF: How old were you and what were some of you earliest memories of the game?

George Bahto: 12-14 years old. It seemed like a game you had to be pretty skilled to play, but I was a baseball player – golf seemed way too slow to me at the time.

JF: What made you change your mind?

George Bahto: While in the U.S. Navy, I started playing and realized I got the same thrill out of hitting a golf ball as I did from hitting a baseball.

JF: Tell us about how you discovered that the first three courses you called home were Raynor/Banks?

George Bahto: The Knoll in New Jersey was my home course at the time, and in 1986 our wonderful, Clifford Wendehack-built clubhouse burned to the ground. In trying to reclaim some of our lost memorabilia I visited USGA Golf House Library here in New Jersey. Researching in their great library promoted the understanding the architecture of Charles Banks and his famous partner Seth Raynor, which in turn led me to the architectural philosophies of Charles Blair Macdonald.

I then realized I saw similarities of the three courses I had called my home courses at various times from 1955 to the present day – what I usually refer to as the Macdonald famous hole concept.

JF: What were the other two courses?

George Bahto: Essex County Country Club (West Course) and a muni in New Jersey called Branch Brook.

JF: What – specifically – were the similarities you noticed that made you think they were related?

George Bahto: A number of things – they were values and concepts I didn’t understand at the time, but I never tired of playing these “home courses.”

But their putting surfaces were very interesting and fun to play on and had similarities. Also, the strategies off the tee and though the green were constantly challenging – sort of like playing on a pool table, a constantly changing, interesting play over the holes. There were similarities I noticed there too.

JF: What holes in particular did you notice first, and what made the light bulb go on in your head that maybe you were right?

George Bahto: Certainly the par-3s. [Author’s Note: At The Knoll, a Redan, a Short, a Biarritz, and an Eden]

JF: What sources did you consult to do your research?

George Bahto: USGA Library material was a great source, but limited. So I began visiting the courses they built. There I found more and more material and it gave me the opportunity to compare the various hole concepts on these different courses – many of them very different – yet they all had a very similar feel and ambience. I cannot thank these clubs enough to allow me access to their clubs and to their memorabilia.

JF: How did you get to build the Knoll?

George Bahto:

JF: Now when we first met, it was at the first tee of The Knoll. You’ll remember that you told me that if you were designing the hole yourself, you would have had the bunkers extend further into the fairway. I told you that I had noticed the exact same thing. Tell us a) why you would have done that – what is it about horizontal sweep of the land and perpendicular hazards that makes for better architecture b) why you chose not to at The Knoll; and c) when does an architect do the right thing by changing the original in such a way rather than restoring what was there previously to the exact specifications.

George Bahto: In the days when the course was built, the fairway extended from tree-line to tree-line, and the fairway bunkers were IN the fairway – now with slightly narrower fairways, the bunkers are off the fairway, although now, I’ve got them mowing the fairway a lot closer to the bunkers.

For the rest of your question, there are times to restore a course exactly when the course warrants it because of it originality. Other times the courses have been so altered it is near impossible to “restore” it – also some of the course so not warrant a true restoration and are better served with a modification based on the original architects philosophies.

JF: How did you get to design Stonebridge?

George Bahto: Gil Hanse visited me one day in 1997 and asked me if I could suggest a hole for a Raynor-style hole on a course he was designing in Hauppauge, Long Island. I was well into my research at the time. After he described the topography and yardage it reminded me of a hole I had seen in NJ at the Essex County CC. It was a short, slightly uphill punchbowl hole. Well then we added another hole, then another, then another, and after a while Gil thought: “well, why not an entire Raynor-style course” and that’s what we did.

A couple years later he approached me asking if I would like to take over the project because he was quite busy. I had not ever thought of designing and building a course but he convinced me I could do it. After a (very) brief tutoring – like half a day or so – I was introduced to the developer and that was the beginning of Stonebridge. The course is based on Seth Raynor architecture and, although a bit short and very tight, but by the end of 1999 Stonebridge was a reality.

I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to see a one dimensional drawing come to life in three dimensions, exactly how I visualized it, and understand that people would be playing over it for many, many years. I was an opportunity of a life time and a thrill of a lifetime.

JF: About how much earth did you move to build Stonebridge?

George Bahto: Well there were a lot of things in play. We had to put in seven ponds for openers, and a couple are huge. But also I was learning on the fly. Here’s George, never having done this before, and trying to handle everything – routing, construction, costs, and the owner, all these considerations at once – and then just when I think I have everything okay for the moment, I hear some guy in my ear with, “I have 70,000 yards of dirt in trucks waiting for your instructions. Where do you want to put it?” and I’m up all night trying to figure out where to put it! As a rookie I have to learn everything and put out unexpected fires like where to put dirt, so I’m inventing features all over the property with it, it was hilarious. You had to be there, it was a “holy crap” moment. I’m running all over the course waving my arms and freaking out on anyone who would listen. I’ve got twelve trucks of dirt and all kinds of guys digging holes all over the place.

JF: Is that the zaniest, craziest thing to happen to you while on one of your construction jobs?

George Bahto: Not quite. While building Stonebridge, I didn’t know anything about running machines like dozers. So we’re working on the last hole (number 1, the Bottle Hole), and I figured I could only do minimal harm at this point, there’s only one hole left. So I said to the guys, “Why don’t you show me how to use a D4 dozer.” So I’m farting around in the dirt to get the feel of this thing, you know, backwards, forwards, dig, lift, and all, and I knew where the bunkers were going to go, so I try to roughly shape the first hole fairway bunkers and greenside bunker. Well when I went down in there, I wasn’t exactly driving smoothly and I bumped my head and cut my forehead. So they’re cackling out loud, but I got the basic bunker done…bleeding from the head the whole time…

JF: Your pride more injured than your head?

George Bahto: HA! NEITHER! I just roared back at them to go clean up my work. So I laid out the bunkers without any marks in the land, but plenty in my head. That was my career on the dozer. Now I’d rather wave my arms at the driver.

JF: What holes there can be traced to holes showcased by Raynor and Banks?

George Bahto: All 18 are based on Raynor/Banks concepts. We had a limited piece of land, only 97 acres for golf. It was tough to build. There were 110 houses on the property. We had 130 acres overall, but the houses were in the middle, so I was limited about a lot of things I wanted to do. So I focused on the greens and green surrounds to make up for the short length of the course, (it’s only 6100 yards). So the greens there are severely undulating given that it’s a muni, (but semi private on the weekend). On the greens, I had to determine how close they’d be cropped; they can’t ramp them up to 11, they’d be unputtable at that point. It’s based on green speeds of 9-10, to get the most of the Raynor strategies. The greens were the answer in building a good course, because I didn’t have the room to do outrageous fairway bunkering. I give you the fairway, but I try to getchya on the greens!

JF: Why do you hate the term “template holes” to describe the style of holes Macdonald and Raynor repeated so often? What term should we use instead?

George Bahto: I like the term “inspiration holes” or “genesis.” I don’t like “template” because it gives the impression that a guy with a plastic template can just do something cookie cutter. Now to be fair, it all depends on how you use the word template. But you can’t just throw it around in too general a manner or it will lose meaning quickly. Take the term “Cape Hole.” It really means a green that juts out completely into a hazard, but now people use it to mean a hole that curves around a hazard, and that’s wrong.

JF: Like people say that about 18 at Sawgrass.

George Bahto: Exactly. Not a Cape Hole. For example, in my first book about Macdonald, The Evangelist of Golf, I detailed the greens of eight different Eden holes on all the major courses he built, and they are all different. Each has a different configuration except they’re all the same, if you understand what I mean by that. The bunkering is where it ought to be – there’s a Hill bunker and a Strath Bunker, for example, but its a different version from course to course. From Chicago to National, from St. Louis to Charleston, they are all the same general hole, but the nuances differ from site to site because of each sites unique terrain.

Also, the Short holes all look different. An oasis surrounded by sand is the unifying theme, but the bunkering can be different from course to course, it’s not a copy from one course to the other.

So to get back to your question about the holes I used at Stonebridge, I tried to do an eclectic version of Macdonald/Raynor greens I had visited. I said, “gee, there are certain holes that fit here that I like, not much different from what Macdonald did at such and such course. Just like at Old Macdonald, the new course where I’m working with Tom Doak at the Bandon Dunes resort, we routed and built the holes around the natural landforms by selecting the strategies that fit the most naturally into the existing landforms at each part of the property. We’re not copying and reproducing at all; instead we are reflecting what Macdonald have seen there had he walked the property and routed a course there.

Mr. Keiser really knows great golf architecture and is a terrific champion of the craft. He sent me to Scotland to review what course and holes Macdonald said he saw there, and then tried to emulate in America. Macdonald documented everything he did quite well, so we were able to review what Macdonald saw. We – Doak and I and some of his crew – saw all the original holes he took his ideas from…and that became the launching pad for our ideas. We base our strategies not on what he built in the U.S., we’re basing it on the ORIGINALS – so it is not a western copy of National Golf Links of America or “National West,” or whatever catchy name is going around. It is Old Macdonald, and it stands alone. There is nothing out here that looks like National. Why? Because we placed the natural strategies where they fit the land, we didn’t copy existing holes from anywhere.

Now at Old Mac – and this is one of the many reasons I’m thrilled to work with Tom and Jimmy Urbina, because of the strategy of placing the hole designs where they fit the land, we have a very natural golf course. It was a real education working with them. The approach Tom and Jim use when building golf holes is that all they use is basic routing plan with the positions of the tees and greens, but nothing else. That’s the way the other truly great architects do it too. There’s some that can do it, but not many.

JF: Tell us about some of the holes at Old Mac?

George Bahto: Well the first thing that hits you is the hugeness of the greens. Most are over 10,000 square feet and some are almost twice that size. The biggest is number 5 at 18,000. That’s the “Short.” The Biarritz is number 8, and it’s huge too, but it doesn’t look like any other Biarritz; there is no strip bunkering on either side. Natural land forms take the place of those bunkers. You will not see the usual Raynor style bunkering, and the swale is different from any other swale as well. It’s not a uniform looking trench that looks like someone stuck a pipe in the mud and engineered this ugly blah thing around d the imprint it left. I hate those things. The Biarritz at Old Mac varies in width, depth, and shape. It’s crazy, it’s beautiful, and its the natural landform! No natural landform goes down uniformly, like some that are built – totally even all the way. Ours is free form and ties into the surrounds smoothly, .and that’s the secret of what Raynor and the other great architects did. If you build it right, you can’t see the line between what they built and what was there originally. That’s really why Doak and company are so great and why Mr. Keiser built such a great resort that has one better course after the last.

JF: On how many acres does it sit?

George Bahto: 350

JF: Walk us through what holes you feel are the highlights of the Knoll Club?

George Bahto: Well first of all, I’m done. We finished up all the fairway bunkering last spring. We reset all the mowing patterns, and widened the fairways, and painted the expansion of the collars in preparation for expanding the greens out to their original sizes. The greenside bunkering is so severe now. It was fun to find how deep the original floors were, we were way down there on some holes. The owner in the ’50s added sand to the bunkers to make getting out easier. The Redan bunker on number 3 had between 5-7 extra feet of sand thrown in to make it a much easier shot out. Also, one of the most satisfying fairway bunkers was on number 9. The berms had settled at least two feet. It always bothered me at the Knoll that the face of the bunker was lower than it should have been. But I found out that Banks built some berms with rubble to get rid of stones he found on the property. Hauling rock is costly, so he stuck some in the woods, or they’d build the green on top of it. It’s good drainage, and that’s why some are pushed-up. Well to build them, they threw topsoil over the rocks, which filtered down over the decades, so then the profile of the berm lessened. So I raised the berms to compensate for the settling.

The members love it. They like the cleanness and original depth of the bunkers. The lines are nicer, although it’s tougher to get out, and the course is tougher all around, in fact. They are still afraid to go back to the tips; they still play the middle tees, but we’re making back tees.

JF: What are some of the strongest holes at The Knoll?

George Bahto: well they’re all great there, that’s why I love it so much and devoted so many years of my life and went grey pre-maturely. The most difficult holes are 2 (the Double Plateau) and 18 (the two-shot Redan), but the 4th hole’s also a great one, (the Lion’s Mouth). That is a key hole where you have to be careful because of the hog’s back in the green. That green is at Stonebridge, actually. 4 at The Knoll inspired green number 16 at Stonebridge, (a short par-4 with a hog’s back)

JF: What are some of your favorite PUBLIC courses in the US?

George Bahto: Old Mac, in fact, all of Bandon Dunes, Pebble Beach, The Knoll, Rustic Canyon, TPC Sawgrass. In fact, if you dissect Pete Dye’s work, you’ll find all the great holes Macdonald would build. Harbour Town, The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, anything by Dye.

JF: What’s the dumbest thing you’ve seen someone do when building a golf course? What architectural features make you CRINGE and swear “I would never do that!”

George Bahto: Long forced carries over water on par-3s. Then un-natural mounding, and trees that encroach into the play zone in the name of architectural features, to start with.

JF: Who are some other architects whose work you revere? That left behind something of lasting value?

George Bahto: Very broad question. Just about all the dead old guys.

JF: Tiger, Phil, Vijay, and Ernie put up $100,000 each oin a winner take all, televised one hole shoot-out. You get to pick the hole. Where do you take them?

George Bahto: The 18th at Stonebridge. A double plateau dog-leg with a tough carry at the corner. That is a tough par-4.