Jonathan Gaunt talks about his life as a golf course architect and his latest course design overlooking one of the world’s most famous Cathedrals
Yorkshireman Jonathan Gaunt has been designing golf courses for over a quarter of a century.
His golf footprint can be found on four continents and his portfolio includes renovating classic courses, building resort courses from scratch in Morocco and Argentina to sculpting layouts for elite private members clubs and homely pay-and-plays.
He is currently working on a new 18-hole championship course at Ramside Hall Hotel and Golf Club in North East England.
The course overlooks the historic city of Durham and its world famous Cathedral, called by travel writer Bill Bryson “the best Cathedral on Planet Earth.”
Which golf course architects do you admire the most?
This sounds a bit clichéd, but Alister MacKenzie. That’s not just because he’s the most influential, having worked all over the world, but because he’s also from Leeds, my home town since I was 2yrs old.
MacKenzie designed, or tweaked the design of so many courses around Leeds that I had no excuse but to be influenced by him.
Harry Colt also worked in Leeds and I am certainly influenced by the work he did, particularly in relation to bunker placement.
Also, architects from the “Golden Era”, such as: Willie Park, Tom Simpson, John Abercromby, Herbert Fowler, Stafford Vere Hotchkin, Sir Guy Campbell and James Braid – the list goes on.
I like them all and they happen to have been the architects of the courses I’m currently redesigning, restoring or remodelling throughout the UK.
I also like the contemporary work currently being done by Ben Crenshaw, Bill Coore, Gil Hanse, Tom Doak and Martin Hawtree.
In your opinion, what makes a golf course great?
A – I think it is the special quality that makes a player focus his/her mind on the golf course itself. OK, the surroundings can be attractive and the views impressive, but if you can’t remember all of the 18 holes you’ve played in the bar after you’ve finished, the design hasn’t worked.
Presentation of a course makes a big difference to me in design terms, and to be “zoned-in” with the green-keeping team is important. They need to be clear of your objectives from the point at which the grass starts growing and work with you to make your vision of a great course come to life.
How would you describe the new course you are building at Ramside Hall Hotel and Golf Club?
This new course at Ramside in Durham is “moving up a level” in relation to the first 27-holes I built there in 1994.
Since then, I’ve travelled through 4 continents, designing and building golf courses of all standards, from pay and play to resort courses with hotels and residential developments, on sites you’d consider “challenging” and on others that are ideal.
I’m more open-minded and better versed in my craft.
By “moving up a level,” we have used state-of-the-art computer software to design our new Hilltop course.
This has enabled us to “model” the course in 3D before we even start construction, then fine-tune the design “on-screen” to make the featuring more sympathetic to the existing landscape and topography.
Staying ahead of nature
We have been able to design the surface water drainage system so that the green-keeping team, led by Roger Shaw, will know exactly where to expect water to flow, most importantly, designing-out potential washed-out bunkers and flooded greens.
In our design we have created attractive drainage swales and hollows that aim to keep all main playing surfaces in play, even after storms, whilst providing a great contribution to the aesthetics and strategic design of the golf course.
This is “state-of-the-art” design, which will still provide the golfer with all the traditional and historic shot-values which would be expected on the best golf courses of the world, such as the “pitch-and-run” shot.
Our greens and fairways shaping will be subtly contoured to allow fair, yet challenging golf to be played.
From a design point of view, what are the most interesting features of the land you are working with?
The course is sited on and around a hilltop which was previously farmland near Durham City.
This land has intrigued me ever since I inspected it about 12 years ago with the late Mike Adamson, who built the hotel and golf resort at Ramside.
The mature native woodland, the dramatic changes in elevation, the fast-flowing burns, free-draining sandy soils and the low-lying marshland all offer the golf course architect both challenges and opportunities.
Mike Adamson loved par 3’s and thought they should be memorable and exciting.
He was inspired by the five short holes at Brancepeth Castle Golf Club in County Durham, a Harry Colt-designed course in mature historic parkland.
There, the par 3’s play across deep ravines, each one inspiring both fear and excitement in the golfer. This is the characteristic we are aiming to achieve on the Hilltop course at Ramside – on holes #4, #6, #12 and #18, each is a different kind of par-3, each will be memorable in its own way.
But this is only one fifth of the course. The site has high elevation, open exposed areas, secluded valleys and sloping hillsides and will offer players the best of inland golf experiences.
The 360 degrees views from the site take in the rolling rural landscape, looking West towards the wide open spaces of the North Pennines and in the middle-distance, Durham Cathedral and The Angel of the North – iconic, stunning and awe-inspiring landmarks.
How good do you think this course will be?
It has potential to be one of the top-5 inland courses in the North East of England.
It measures in excess of 7,200 yards from the back-tees, but can be reduced down to just over 5500 yards from forward tees – it is multi-functional, with numerous teeing positions, enabling the course to be attractive to all levels of golfer, men and women, young or old.
Are golf courses being made too long these days?
It’s a difficult question to answer as a golf course architect. We are asked by our clients to aim to make our courses “technology-proof”, which is not in our hands – it’s the equipment manufacturers and the governing bodies who control this.
I’m a great believer in making the game easier – encouraging golfers to score better and reduce their handicaps – these are the players who will enjoy playing the game the most.
If the golfer feels as though he’s spent 5 hours in a boxing ring after walking off the 18th green the golf course has failed.
The design is such that great emphasis is put, as it should be, on the best placement of tee shot and approach shot into the undulating greens – exciting and thought-provoking golf.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
Gaunt Golf Design Ltd is involved with over 30 golf course developments at the present time, from brand new courses like Ramside Hall Hotel and Golf Club, to restorations and remodellings like those at Ferndown Golf Club, Dorset, and Ilkley Golf Club in Yorkshire.
We are also putting the finishing touches to a new course in Morocco at Oued Fes.
It’s an 18-hole resort course with housing, 5 hotels, retail, leisure and spa. It’s currently under construction and due to open for play this month, May 2012.