Tee To Table sits down with Lester George, redesigner of The Old White Course at The Greenbrier

Published On: Jul 18 2013 01:12:41 PM EDT

On the heels of The Greenbrier Classic, which Lester George was awarded Best New Public Remodel by Golf Digest Magazine in 2007, Tee to Table had the chance to get one-on-one with Lester during a recent visit to Ballyhack Golf Club in Roanoke, VA.

Many golf enthusiasts can appreciate a particularly beautiful or even difficult track to play, but it’s truly amazing to be able to sit down with a golf architect to understand what it takes to build a great course. 

On the other hand, after a particularly tough day on the course, one could imagine what a golfer really wants to tell the golf course designer. 

All joking aside, Lester George has proven himself to be a stand out golf architect with a great vision and understanding of what it takes to build world class golf courses. 

Keep reading below to see what happens behind the scenes with golf architects, as well as Lester’s tips to playing your next round of golf.

Can you please give me some background information about yourself, along with what inspired you to become a golf course architect?

I attended the University of Richmond, where my interest in terrain analysis grew as I studied topography for a career in the US Army. 

I became so interested in terrain, landforms and map reading that I eventually founded the college's orienteering club. My aptitude in land evaluation was developed largely while serving as an artillery officer in the United States Army Reserve where I started playing golf around the country (I am a retired Lt. Colonel)  It was that ability, plus my love for the game that finally led me to Golf Course Architecture as a profession.  After years of pursuit, I was hired by a west coast golf architect named Algie Pulley. 

I apprenticed under Mr. Pulley for nearly four years.  I opened my firm, George Golf Design, in 1990.

Did you have a mentor or someone who has influenced you throughout your career?

Algie Pulley and his associate Tom Self were the two men who actually taught me the technical aspects of the design business.  Of course, working with those two had a direct influence on my understanding and use of the broader tenets of design and strategy. 

Many of my influences and design attributes have been by studying the great golf architects of the past such as C.B. Macdonald, Seth Raynor, Alister MacKenzie, A.W Tillinghast, William Flynn and Donald Ross.

These men shaped the American game with their courses from 1900 to 1940 and beyond. 

The great courses that they created such as Chicago Golf Club, Augusta National, Baltusrol, The Cascades and Pinehurst #2 represent a cross section of the many great course of merit ever created in the US.  Studying the design and strategies of these master architects has greatly influenced my knowledge and understanding of great design.    

What was your most memorable project whether it be the most enjoyable to design, most difficult, etc?

Certainly Kinloch Golf Club in Richmond Virginia, Ballyhack Golf Club in Roanoke Virginia and the renovation of the Country Club of Florida in Boynton Beach, Florida are as memorable as any. 

Kinloch, which is the highest ranked golf course in the history of Virginia, was very memorable and enjoyable because I got to work with amateur legend Vinny Giles as a co-designer.  Ballyhack Golf Club is the toughest track I have ever built and probably the most stunningly beautiful site I have ever encountered. 

The minute I saw it I knew something memorable would be built there.  Although demanding, the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, coupled with the partners I worked with made it a great experience.  My renovation of the Country Club of Florida has brought me great pleasure because it was my first course in Florida and it is such an historic venue with great tradition.  Fun, challenging and beautiful, the Country Club of Florida is a great private club with a diverse and fabulous membership. 

Are there any current trends in golf course design or any changes in the golf design industry in general that you have noticed the past several years?  It seems that the entire face of golf has changed in the near recent past.

Current trends in golf course design are playability, environmental sustainability, pace of play, cost and family inclusion. 

Generally speaking we have designed many golf courses in the last 25 years that are too hard, require too much time to play, are too expensive and exclude segments of the potential golf population for one or more of these reasons.  We are starting to correct this trend as designers by creating shorter, more enjoyable courses.  Alternatives such as short courses (3, 6, 9 holes) which provide a more suitable introduction to the game are be planned. 

These venues are being planned for ages 8 to 80 so everyone can play without the pressure of playing a course that can't possibly do well on.  On the alternative courses people are finding they can learn the game in a more relaxed environment.  They can play quicker, less expensively and have more fun the "big" courses which sometimes are less than welcoming to beginners.  These trends also promote playing with family and friends.  We are also trending toward more environmentally compatible golf courses which, by design, can use less natural resources such as water and reduce chemical applications while still promoting good, viable turf and playing conditions.  Sustainability, environmental friendly maintenance practices,

How often are you able to play and what is your favorite course to play?

Sadly, on average, I probably play between 12 and 15 rounds a year.  I used to play more but my lack of play has led to a deterioration of skills (like any golfer).  When I do play, I usually don't think much about architecture.  I am like everyone else, struggling to get the ball in the hole.  Kinloch and Ballyhack are the two courses I play the most because of access and diversity.  However, I like most golf courses (even ones I did not design) because I am just like other golfers inasmuch as I am on the golf course to enjoy the surroundings, be with family or friends, play a game I love and relax.  I know some architects who can't relax on the golf course because they are continually critiquing the course (theirs or another’s) and bring their "work" to the golf course.  I probably haven't turned in a score for handicap purposes for 10 years.  It's just not what I am out there for. 

What new projects can we expect from you in the future?

New golf course design in the United States is virtually non-existent due to the economy.  I have one new course ready for construction in North Carolina which probably will start in 2014.  I, like most American architects, am concentrating the majority of my time on the renovation and restoration of classic courses and doing some new course design work in Asia.  I hope to start my first course in China later this year.  We are also working on a number of master plans and Alternative courses to help some developments tap into the market of new players.  Hopefully the renovation work, which is what I have concentrated on form the start, will continue to provide intriguing problems to be solved for the clients we have.   

Any helpful tips to golfers in general to keep in mind when playing a new course and/or how to become better on a course they are familiar with from a design perspective?

1) The biggest tip I can give most players is to remember to LOOK at the golf course.  All-too-often, the player steps to the tee and just gets a visual reference and hits the ball, not concentrating on distance, line or hazards.  Find a shot you are capable of playing and COMMIT to that shot.  One of the most prominent design goals of most architects is to defend par

This should mean that the player (assuming he/she is playing the course from the correct tees) has a reasonable chance to make a par or bogey on most holes.  Golf course architects employ different design tenets to accomplish their goals.  They can use a risk/reward strategy where the player gains a distinct advantage over their opponent or the course by executing a risky shot over or around a hazard.  Architects can employ visual techniques that intimidate or distort the reality of what you may be looking at.  Maybe a bunker on the horizon is closer to you than you thought and the shot over it easier than it appeared.  Learn to recognize this when you see it.

2) Always play the tee you are comfortable playing.  Don't be guilty of just saying "I play the white tees at my home course, so I should play the white tees here.  This goes for women and beginners as well.  Look at the scorecard and the yardage and play a comparable yardage that you are familiar with.  You will have more fun and chances are you will enjoy the outcome as well.  Adjust your game to the conditions as well.  If it is windy, rainy or wet, understand the way the ball reacts to those factors.  Don't come up short all day because the wind is blowing, take more club to avoid the hazards. 

3) Play your game.  Even if the course is visually intimidating, place your shots.  You will find that most course architects will leave a less perilous route to every hole or a bail out for most shots.  Recognize this a play for it.  Find your line of play and commit to a game plan.  Course architects, contrary to popular belief, love the game and want you to enjoy the experience on their course.  I have NEVER had a client that asked me to build the "hardest course in the world", nor would I want one.  It takes no skill to design a hard course.  It takes skill to design a playable, fun course that all skill levels can enjoy.  More often than not, that is the exercise in discipline the architect faces.            

For more information about Lester George, check out www.georgegolfdesign.com.

Deanna Alfredo is the owner/founder of TeeToTable, Inc.  Her focus is today’s ladies’ golf and how lady golfers are more prolific than ever. Her site www.TeeToTable.comfocuses on golf, travel golf, her creative outlet of cooking and teaching others helpful hints.  Join her this year on ClickonDetroit as she ventures through her golf season and much, much more.

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