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a need for boarding schools

During a recent The Bag Drop recording with Doug Stein (founder and president of Black Creek Club), we took a dive into the Lookout Mountain Club renovation project. Or, as Doug calls it, a completion project. Doug chooses completion over renovation or restoration in order to emphasize that the project was an as-faithfully-as-possible completion of the original plans. These plans were never realized for a variety of reasons, and I suggest you visit the grounds and find Doug for a wonderful telling of the journey to what is now a top-tier course whether you're speaking strictly of the US or the globe.

"Too many cooks spoil the broth" is a proverb which is more applicable in the case of golf courses than in anything else.

- Dr. Alister MacKenzie, Golf Architecture

We would strongly recommend every club to have a permanent committee. It is the only way a policy of continuity can be adopted, and this is particularly important in the case of green committees. The history of most golf clubs is that a committee is appointed, they make mistakes, and just as they are beginning to learn by these mistakes they resign office and are replaced by others who make still greater mistakes, and so it goes on.
One of the reasons why golf is an expensive game is that there are far too many people connected with golf who think because they can play golf that they are qualified to advise on golf courses.

- Dr. Alister MacKenzie, The Spirit of St. Andrews

I consider Dr. Alister Mackenzie's quotes to be a collection that should hang in every golf club and be read aloud at the beginning of any club board meeting. But what do these quotes have to do with the recent Doug Stein conversation?

What was clear in the conversation with Doug is that he values—a value he lives—a study and reverence for history, particularly with respect to a club. A study of a club's history helps to situate decisions and directions for the club. A study of a club's history helps to understand an architect's intent and design. A study of a club's history helps to understand the founders' visions. A study of a club's history helps to understand the good and bad decisions occurring across its lifespan. A study of a club's history enables informed decision making in the present.

The "completed" Alps Hole at Lookout Mountain Club.

Unfortunately, a typical club board structure follows a revolving door model that both attracts and enables egocentric, personal agendas. All too often a club board becomes a fraternal group in which each individual looks to not only leave their mark on the club, but also take in acknowledgments and accolades for that mark. All too often a club board is composed by people that have "played all the courses," "been to Bandon," and "know the game." All too often a club board is composed by people who are satisfied with their own biases and judgments when making decisions. The result? A golf club that slowly, but surely, has its strengths, history, and coherence stripped away. In its place? An unrecognizable course and a club that is a hodgepodge of bygone trends and personal preferences. Each board leaves it marks, and sum of those marks is rarely something notable.

As an analogy, consider a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Stepping into a FLW, one might be struck by the design and think to themselves, "Well, that's interesting. I don't get that. If it was me, I'd move that wall." Imagine that person buys the house and moves the wall. Rinse and repeat that over several owners. What's left? Something that certainly is not a FLW house. Something that is unlikely to be notable. Something that fails to inspire. At the hands of personal preference, we have lost what should be a historic treasure deserving reverence. I predict those interested in golf course architecture and its history are frustratingly naming in their head far too many courses that have suffered the fate of this hypothetical FLW house.

So what's the answer? I would love to say down with rotating boards! We are stuck with them, at least for the time being. So what's a solution within the rotating board structure? We require "boarding school." We require a study, and we support a study. Imagine a club board that requires and uses resources to support the following for all board members:

  • A detailed study of the club and its history, spanning the course, facilities, governing structure, and decision making.

  • A detailed study of the club's golf course architect, including their portfolio of courses and design principles.

  • A detailed study of peer and aspirant clubs—with this list regularly revisited and revised—with organized visits to those clubs. I'm compelled to note that these visits are not trips of extravagance, golf, and booze. They are visits of intentional study, observation, and fact-seeking. In fact, they need not include a single struck shot unless for the purpose of studying the course and its strategic principles.

  • A contract that codifies the commitment to describe how any proposed changes are not only best for the club and its membership, but also how those changes are informed by the detailed study of the club, its course architect, and/or peer and aspirant clubs.

Some might think this is too much of a commitment. To that I say "That's the point!" A club should require that its representatives and leaders are committed to a sense of duty that honors the club and its history rather than to their personal desires and whims. A club should differentiate between those willing to put aside their visions if history and study says so from those that want to act because "I think it will be a better hole if ___." A club should promote those willing to put aside their egos, to ignore the desire to leave an imprint, and to leave the credit with those that came before them. A club should trust those that value the club and the game more than themselves.


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