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An in-depth talk: Golf course architect Brandon Johnson

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If you’ve followed my GolfWRX career arc, you know that I’m a fan of golf course architecture. I’ve had the opportunity to interview Bill Coore and Tom Doak, discuss course strategy with Scott Witter, Chris Wilczynski, Keith Rhebb and others. Each one is a unique talent, and has left a decided and positive mark on the game of golf on planet Earth. However, this is the first opportunity that I have had to interview a one-of-a-kind golf course architect. I won’t say any more about why he is one of a kind; you’ll soon figure it out. Brandon Johnson currently works in the employ of the Arnold Palmer Design Company. Without any delay, enjoy nine questions with Mr. Johnson.

Castle Stuart new course architects Brandon Johnson (Glasses) and Thad Leyton.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself, and how golf came to be a part of your life.

BJ: I’m the son of an electrical engineer and school teacher, little brother to my sister, a devoted husband, a father of two wonderful kids, a special needs cat and someone who loves all kinds of good cuisine.

Music has always been a central part of my life. My dad played several instruments plus joined The Spiritual Renaissance Choir later in his life, my mom played the piano and has a beautiful voice, and my sister played the cello. My first desire was to play the saxophone like my Dad but when the saxophone section was full by registration time I decided to follow in my sister’s footsteps and play the cello.

The cello was my primary instrument as I played in organized orchestras from grade school through graduate studies and received a minor in music at NCSU along the way.  My parents arranged piano lessons for several years, enjoyed the instrument and wish to this day I had continued. One reason had to be my fascination with the drums. During my 9th-10th grade years I began playing the drums and joined two local neighborhood garage bands. Fun times!! As an adult I’ve enjoyed my struggle to learn how to play the acoustic guitar.

Playing and competing in sports has always been a hobby. Before golf started to consume all my attention playing organized soccer, baseball, or pickup basketball with friends in the neighborhood kept me active.

Golf became my main focus when I was 12. One summer day my friend invited me to play. We went to the now extinct Sharon Golf Club, paid our three dollar greens fee and dribbled the ball on the hard pan fairways all day. My fascination, intrigue and love for the game grew instantly and I proceeded to fill my summers, weekends and time after school at the golf course.

2. At what point in your life did you determine that golf course architecture was more than an interest?

BJ: Shortly after taking up the game, I developed a strong interest in seeing and learning about different courses. Playing and trying to get better was still the primary focus, and would be for several more years, but the seed had been planted. Like a lot of kids who played, my childhood dream was to become a PGA Tour professional. I missed that and being a rock star drummer by a mile!

Sketching and drawing was a hobby growing up and I owe that introduction and inspiration to my older sister who is the true artistic talent in the family. My sketch subjects were objects and themes I found interesting. Soon those drawings of still life scenes, cars, pretend inventions and cartoon figures, turned into golf holes from the coffee table book “Golf Courses of the PGA Tour” that my parents gave me for Christmas. New golf hole ideas and routings soon followed.

By high school I began to contemplate college options, potential career paths and interesting majors to pursue. Right or wrong, I was counseled to take technical drafting instead of continuing art classes. While not the ideal foundation for an aspiring golf course architect, it confirmed my suspicion that engineering and building architecture was going to be too rigid for me. Drafting class wasn’t a total loss as it was helpful in learning how to draw and read technical plans but more importantly to visualize, in this case objects, in 3D.

My interest in art, nature, architecture and love of golf led me to blindly pursue a degree in Landscape Architecture as a way to become a golf course architect.

In retrospect, I was fortunate to even get into the NC State School of Design. NC State was the only Undergraduate program that incorporated an interview and portfolio of artwork as part of the admissions process. Little did I know, it was a competitive program and they were searching for artistic talent. I cobbled together my sketches from 7th and 8th-grade art class along with one of my sketch routing plans to round out my portfolio of technical drafting drawings. The jury must have seen my love for golf and the excitement in my face when explaining the details of my conceptual routing plan.

Attending NC State would prove to be a wonderful experience and career-defining decision.

3. As you moved toward a career in GCA and design, which architects inspired you?

BJ: In golf course architecture my initial inspiration was sparked from two very different eras, Pete Dye, and later Mike Stranz, being the ultimate modern architects, and Donald Ross coming from golf architectures early defining era.

Seeing the work of Pete Dye on PGA Tour telecasts, mainly TPC Sawgrass and Harbour Town growing up, sparked my interest in golf course design. I used to record the telecasts and replay the pros’ swings in slow motion, or pause certain positions, as a way to learn the golf swing and improve my game. When TPC Sawgrass or Harbour Town was on, I found myself looking at the architecture in the background of those still or slow motion images. What was so striking on the screen was radically different from the courses I had access to. I became hooked, even obsessed with the game, and the architecture that was influencing the shots required to play it. That spark of interest grew and led me to pursue golf course architecture as a career.

I came to know and appreciate the work of Donald Ross through one of his lessor known courses. He is credited with the front nine at Fort Mill Golf Club. (George Cobb designed the back nine) My friends and I first played Fort Mill during a practice round for a junior event named after my first golf pro Walter Renyolds. It was a fun and solid front nine with an efficient route over gentle terrain. Learning to tackle those slick, crowned, and tilted greens under tournament pressure was a daunting task!  We used to play there several times during the summers and also venture out to Lancaster and Chester also credited to Ross.

The work of Mike Stranz has been a huge source of inspiration too. His work stands in a category of its own with how dramatic, fanciful, artistic and daring it is. The visual presentation of his bold sweeping forms, contours and horizon lines, in my opinion, are some of the most memorable “created” holes in golf. His work is more than just optics as they are a blast to play and full of contour, variety and strategic interest.

I first saw Tobacco Road the day after playing Pinehurst #2 for the first time. (Years before the Coore & Crenshaw restoration) The two experiences couldn’t have been more different. I’ve seen several more Stranz original works and look forward to seeing all of them one day soon.

Inspiration can and should be drawn from all kinds of sources. The study of nature and landforms helps to inspire the creation of contours and features that best emulate it. As a student studying Landscape Architecture I was drawn to historic landscapes, gardens and urban city centers. Invaluable design insight and inspiration was gained from personal experiences at all the major English, French, Italian and Spanish landscapes. Even golf architecture’s current natural, links or rugged design vs the manicured or parkland experience can be traced back to identical debates early practitioners had concerning the ideal or preferred English landscape or garden.

Non-golf and non-landscape architecture inspiration helps expand the mind too. The building architect Anton Gaudi is one of my favorites, artists like the Impressionists, Salvador Dali, M.C. Escher, and music from the Baroque Era to the present, in my opinion, are all excellent sources of material to study that sheds light on how other artists use a process, creatively solve problems, and break away from confining historic norms and traditions to push their craft forward and develop new interpretations of their art form.

There is a plethora of interesting golf architecture in the world, old and historic to new and modern. It is important to look back, study and draw inspiration from historic architecture to discover and learn about the architects and courses of the “Golden Age” but that should not be a binding principle. Exploring modern and contemporary golf architecture is equally as important, maybe even more important if golf is to find and develop new horizons.

It is essential to keep looking forward as the game continues to evolve. The “Golden Age” architects defined the architecture of their time, Pete Dye ushered in a new era appropriate for his time and our generation should continue to look forward to discover the appropriate architecture for tomorrow. At some level, it will always be inspired by or in reaction to its history but the players and technology of today are different from the players and technology from 100 years ago. Golf architecture needs to creatively bridge the two eras to progress and I look forward to the fun challenge of developing my unique interpretation.

4. Your first stop was as design coordinator for The First Tee. What did that position include and what projects resulted?

BJ: After completing two internships at the PGA Tour Design Services office and one as a member of the construction crew at TPC Deere Run the position at The First Tee became available. Even though the industry was buzzing no one seemed to be hiring. I knocked on a ton of architect’s doors, made phone calls and sent numerous resumes but never got an answer. This was my only viable professional option to get into golf architecture at the time.

The First Tee was still an unproven and undefined concept when I started but it had the full weight of the industry behind it. My initial role was to serve as a clearinghouse and primary point of contact for TFT Regional Directors, their emerging chapters and the golf industry. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to be housed out of the PGA Tour Design Services office, learn from their staff and process yet be somewhat independent on TFT projects. I traveled the entire country consulting with our chapters and the local officials they were partnering with, evaluating all kinds of potential sites, creating and evaluating budgets, project schedules and anything else associated with setting up projects.  It evolved into a mountain of concept and construction plan production for all these different sites I was visiting. The effort and timeline required to getting a project from its inception to completion is arduous and long. Unfortunately, several really wonderful opportunities were never completed or moved forward after I left.

For 7 years I worked with TFT of Connecticut on multiple sites around Hartford, additional holes at existing courses, short courses, practice facilities, you name it. TFT Connecticut was connected to the PGA Tour event, TPC River Highlands and had plans for a statewide facility. Adjacent to the TPC River Highlands was an old quarry pit and field used for parking. We had some thoughtful and interesting plans to use that space for a facility that simultaneously fixed the inadequate practice facility at the club and other tournament set up issues as part of a joint partnership. Just as my time with TFT was ending the project was finally gaining momentum.

Coincidentally, they eventually completed the project with a former Palmer Design Associate that started with The Tour as I was departing. The driving range portion remained from my efforts but the configuration of the practice holes are different.

There is a similar story with TFT Chattanooga. I must have looked at six or seven sites and produced even more conceptual plans, budgets, schedules with them. We had an interesting brownfield site connected with a new community development project that would have included a wildly natural and fun 9-hole course and short game/short course and practice facility. I’ve always dreamt, even hoped, that one day I’d get a call that the project would move forward. It had the potential to be a model for how golf and great golf course architecture could be the catalyst for responsible environmental remediation, development and become a positive focal point for the community.

Milan Moore with PGA Tour Design completed the practice facility portion of the TFT Pueblo project that occupied a large portion of my time at TFT. I’m not sure if they ever completed the nine-hole course designed to accompany it.

There were tons of other interesting projects and odds and ends. A few projects of note did come to fruition. One larger project that I worked on was the Thunderbirds Golf Course, later renamed Vistal in Phoenix, Arizona. We completely redesigned an existing 18-hole course. Sadly, it no longer exists. The renovation of the municipal golf course El Rio Alvarez in Tucson, Arizona was another fun and successful project. Ken Kavanaugh and I worked together on revitalizing that local gem. I did some master planning and consulting for the City Courses in Shreveport, Louisiana and oversaw an extremely low budget greens project at Querbes. The additional master plan work on the other course(s) showed promise but they never materialized past the concept stage.

5. You made the move from TFT to Palmer Design. What compelled that decision?

BJ: Personally it was a very difficult decision to make because I really loved working for The First Tee, working with and learning from some of the most knowledgeable, passionate, and kind-hearted individuals I know who dedicated their lives to making golf a more accessible game.

We had a special group back then and I’m proud to have contributed to the cause. The bonus was developing so many wonderful friendships along the way, friendships that will last a lifetime.

The First Tee was growing rapidly and evolving in those early years. What was once a facility-based effort was now changing as the Life Skills programming was becoming the focus and backbone of the organization. Professionally, I had a once in a lifetime opportunity. One, to work for and directly with Arnold Palmer, a man I respected and admired and two, to grow as a designer/architect while also contributing to the company and its forward evolution by sharing my own thoughts, ideas and experiences.  There are not too many opportunities in this industry so, when Thad Layton informed me the company was moving to Orlando from Ponte Vedra Beach, FL and there might be an opening, I knew I needed to investigate the opening door.

Oddly enough a lot of the tradition-breaking proposals and designs we are seeing today that receive so much praise and attention, short courses, alternate route configurations, non 9 or 18 configurations, duel use spaces between practice holes/short game areas/driving ranges, putting courses and proper forward tee options, were all ideas and concepts TFT and its chapters were advocating for in its facility-based models. We received some resistance to these ideas. Some didn’t think it was “real golf”, others could not find a way to make the operations and economics work. I’m glad to see the public and industry embrace them more today. We have some fun and exciting plans in the hopper that would add to the conversation when the projects more forward.

6. How long have you been with Palmer design, and to which projects have you contributed most?

BJ: I started in August of 2006 so it will be 14 years in just under a month. Below is a selected short list of projects:

-NCSU – Lonnie Poole Golf Course (my Alma mater…Go Pack!)

-Pure Scene – Kunming China

-Bay Hill Renovation (It was a team effort but Thad and I took the lead)

-Wexford Renovation

-Spring Island – Old Tabby Links Renovation

-PGA National – Palmer Course Renovation (2007 and 2018)

-Lakewood National (Commander and Piper Courses)

7. Which have been your favorite holes, or parts of holes, that hold your signature?

BJ: I’m glad you didn’t restrict me to just one favorite course, hole or feature! It’s nearly an impossible task to distill the canon of interesting architecture and features down to “one” favorite.

It is even challenging to compile a complete list of favorites as something you, or others, find worthy of inclusion will invariably be left out.

I recently wrote an article for the July 2020 issue of Golf Architecture Magazine about a select few of my “Favorite Features” that I’ve studied and experienced over the years. One or two of them might not be typical or obvious while others should have wide consensus.

Having a “signature” might not be accurate but there are strategic principles that form and guide my thinking and thoughts or ideas I enjoy discovering on properties or incorporating into holes. Below is a short sample:

-“Meaningful Width”

– Greens and green sites that use angle, contour and a variety of pin locations that influence tee shot and approach shot decision making

-Contending with obscured or blind approach shots. Especially when they are the consequence of avoiding challenging the ideal line due to a well-placed hazard or feature.

– Contours the feed, collect and shed the ball

Favorite Holes

#8 Wexford – It is one of the shorter Par 5 holes at Wexford. The majority of players should be able to get close to the green in two and those with slightly above average length should experience a high rate of success going for the green in two, especially when the course is playing firm and fast.

I’ve always been drawn to this hole for its simplicity and how subtle and nuanced the strategic requests are yet how important it is to recognize those clues, plan, and position shots accordingly or deal with the potentially disastrous ramifications of being out of position.

The foundation of my changes during the 2011 renovation were simple. Nudge the green slightly to the right, eliminate the large, flat fairway bunkers that only gobbled errant shots, and convert that space to fairway. These simple moves now incorporated an existing stand of tall pine trees found just beyond the landing area on the right and injected layers of strategy the previous version lacked.

A small singular bunker signifies the ideal line down the left side of the fairway. This opens up the best view and angle to challenge the three center line cross bunkers for your lay up or attempt to reach the green in two. Tee shots that drift too far right risk being partially blocked out by the trees or having to negotiate over hanging limbs to get back into position.

The small square shaped green, with an elevated front left pin nestled against a front left bunker is gently pitched going away from the player. A medium depth swale fronts the right portion of the green. A counter intuitive leave long will avoid tricky recovery situations and allow the player to use contour to their advantage.  The same contour that defends the aggressive play in two or the deft pitch after a lay-up.

#12 Pure Scene

Working in China was fun, interesting, challenging and one of the most enlightening experiences in my professional career. There is a long back story to completing the course and this hole, one that I won’t expand upon here. After a frantic call from our client explaining how new government regulations would drastically change our routing during the middle of construction and that we needed to be on site in two days, we found this hole.

A short to mid length Par 3 with the beautiful Lake Dianchi in the background. I like how the back left pin location just dangles on the cliff edge.

 #15 Pure Scene

 Another hole with a long back story resulting from a different set of circumstances that forced us to depart from our original routing.

This short drivable par 4 has a massive and inviting fairway with a green at the final destination that ranks as one of the smallest I’ve ever built. (#9 at Wexford is another contender) The narrow sliver of green sits on the edge of the hill/cliff side with an infinity view to the country side beyond. The prevailing wind will play a factor here assisting tee shots down the right side for the better angle while also bringing the far cliff edge into play. Contours allow tee shots to drift farther off line long and/or left resulting in short, down prevailing wind pitches to a very narrow and shallow green. Long left approach and recovery shots to a back pin must navigate confounding contours. Bold and smart plays will lead to success here.

 #11 Old Tabby Links

We altered this hole the most during our 2012 renovation of Spring Island – Old Tabby Links.

This hole provides the membership with variety and choice. We kept the left and right tee options but made sure they looked and played different. We retained the original yardages on the left tee complex and shortened/converted play from the right tee angle into a drivable Par 4. Width, centerline bunkers, obscured views from select angles, and pin locations that bring different contours or features into play depending on the angle of approach make this hole interesting and fun to play.

Favorite Features or parts of a hole

#4 NCSU – Lonnie Poole Golf Course – We found and utilized the natural ground contour as the main strategic feature of the hole. One can ride the ridge, past the left cross bunker onto the green with a well-placed shot or have that same ridge shed balls further left behind the bunker or right into a swale leaving a tricky angled pitch.

#5 NCSU – Lonnie Poole Golf Course –  The combination of utilizing the bold, natural rolling terrain, protruding right tree line and extended fairway cut to the far right and left extremes creates, in my opinion, a fun tee shot where local knowledge is key. (The original fairway line extended farther right then the one they mow currently) One can be lulled to sleep here thinking there is gracious space at the landing area but favoring the left half with a well-positioned ball, or blowing it over and/or past the tree line if you’re long enough, are the best plays.

#5 Lakewood National-Commander Course (Back Right Pin and Green surround) – The main defending feature of the green and complex is the back right, thimble sized, dome with a devilish pin location on top. No bunkers guard this green, just the long pond down the left side of a fairway that is plenty generous for one to confidently avoid a watery disaster. A ridge tumbles down beyond a diagonal cross bunker on the right, approximately 85 yards out, providing a safe and effective way to avoid the lake while still accessing the green and front pin locations. The fun, challenge and decision making begins when that feeding ridge is over played and balls funnel down behind this back dome.

During the Korn Ferry Suncoast LECOM Classic a Feb 16, 2019 tweet on my account and Thad Layton’s, my design partner, shows the dilemma of being on the wrong side of this contour. What the video does not show is 1) His playing partner, who was in the exact same spot, successfully nestle his recovery next to the hole for a birdie. 2) The mental deliberation both players went through to try and figure out the best play.

Position is key as I’ve utilized this dome contour from a different angle to escape being out of position on the lake bank and feed a ball down to the back left pin next to the water.

8. Describe for us the perfect place to build a golf course. 

BJ: First, I know some stunning sites in the U.S. and in different locations around the globe that we believe would be perfect or “ideal” ground for golf. They just need the right partners, organization and/or investments. As an architect always in search of ideal projects to devote all our time towards and channel our passion and creativity into, I’d be missing an opportunity if I didn’t float those opportunities into the universe!

The first instinctive thought, and where the majority of golf architecture might fall back on, are origins in wind swept, sandy dunescapes with wispy fescue and marram grasses blanketing rumpled and wrinkled terrain that’s been perfectly sculpted over decades by nature’s masterful touch. It is hard to find fault with this setting.

Adding a raucous ocean battering a shoreline of both rocky cliff edge and sandy dunes to anchor the site and serve a dual role as the ultimate hazard and sublime vista only makes it better.

Ideally, the accompanying landscape palette would be native yet unique. A palette so full and rich with variety that evolves across the site. The routing would take you on an exploratory journey of the sites highlight reel, incredible views overlooking the most majestic, distant and unspoiled landscapes, intimate and cozy outdoor rooms whose features almost engulf you and then burst into another stunning landscape.

There are other factors to consider though.  Climate – my preference would be a location with majority days of sunshine, warm, but not too hot. Certainly not muggy or humid. Mild to cool mornings that warm up to comfortable temperatures where shorts or lose long pants are comfortable. (68F – 78F) Perhaps a bit of breeze that, depending on the season or global weather patterns, doesn’t produce a predictable prevailing wind.

Taking your question a little further into a dream scenario, a place where the summer solstice was the norm and not a one-day a year occurrence would be perfect! This would allow for the maximum number of rounds to be played. Players could structure days to take advantage of the daylight, play nine before the work day starts and nine or 18 in that wonderful glow of evening light.

The added bonus of no flies, mosquitos, no-see-ums or other tiny biting insects that cause distress would really make it perfect! Do you know such a place?

One of the reasons I believe golf is the ultimate game and chess match is that our field of play is constantly changing. Chess is a wonderful cerebral game filled with an infinite number of combinations and strategies, but the board and pieces remain the same. The natural ground upon which we play and compete in golf embodies so much variety and character. Ever changing weather conditions play a pivotal role in every golf round thus making the physical, mental and strategic requests that much more complex. Exceptional golf architecture, and how it interprets the varied ground upon which it rests, is a beautiful process and one that creates several versions of the “perfect” location. Inspired architecture on stunning foothill terrain with wildflower fields and snow-capped mountain backdrops on glacier formed contours (with cool water running over smooth pebbles in a creek bed) can be every bit has beautiful and captivating as architecture on a course intertwined in the rugged desert landscape or the traditional ideal seaside links course with massive dunes, marram grass and fescue waving in the breeze.

As an architect I love being inspired by the site and the challenge of finding and unlocking golf holes on that precious land and interpreting how ideal golf could be played over it in new fresh forms.

      

9. What question have we not asked, that you wish we had? Ask it and answer it, please.

BJ: A few years ago, Digital Links Magazine asked, “As an African-American, have you ever experienced any difficulties working in the golf industry?” An appropriate question three years ago and perhaps even more timely in today’s social and cultural climate. While I appreciated the question, and that someone generally cared about my experience, I also struggled with the question. It was a short answer interview format, this was the first time any writer or journalist asked me such a question, so I wrestled to answer this question that needed a more robust and contextualized conversation surrounding it.

I won’t expand upon that original answer here, nor ask another question, but I will use it has reference and context for a broader statement because the greater, more contextualized conversation goes far beyond my personal experiences.

 “There were many pioneers in golf’s history who blazed trails, broke down cruel access barriers and endured tremendous hardships to play and enjoy the game they loved as equals to everyone in society. Golf owes them a huge debt of gratitude. Everyone has to overcome obstacles and blockades in life, I’ve had my fair share, but because of those heroic efforts my personal experience and exposure to the game was much different than theirs. I’m fortunate to have had so many generous people help, support, encourage and guide me from day one to the present. Any success I’ve experienced can be attributed to their helping hands.

While our society has evolved we must still recognize that we are not perfect and this wonderful game of golf that we love and are so passionate about, can and should, be more inclusive and representative of the world’s rich and diverse cultural, ethnic, racial and gender makeup.

I hope to help make this a reality.”

As you reached out to me to participate in this interview our nation, and eventually the greater international community, was engulfed in the raw, emotional reaction to the brutal and unnecessary death of George Floyd. The country was just beginning to tear off the final scabs of racial injustice and inequity wounds that have festered below the surface and plagued our countries history for too many generations.

This event sparked an unprecedented national conversation and collective grappling with our countries historical and current understanding of how race, racism and racial inequity continues to influence and shape every sector of our society. A modern realization that the racial, ethnic, cultural, religious and socio-economic divide still exists and is wider than most believed, experienced or cared to realize until now. This is a hard truth and reality to resolve but one we must all face in order to move forward, together, and forge a new history that will be unburdened by its past.

The game of golf is beautiful. The game of golf is elegant. The game of golf is a connector. Wonderful friendships and experiences that cross racial, ethnic and cultural lines are formed and nurtured through participation in the game. There is nothing wrong with the game of golf. Unfortunately, the history of golf and its governance, is as equally entangled with the racial inequity and injustices of its time as the rest of our nation.

Yes, golf and its governing bodies have eliminated the nonsensical segregation rules and clauses that once wrongfully guided our pure game. That was an obvious and easy first step but not one that crumbled the foundation behind those practices or eliminated the impacts that years of inequitable treatment caused. Unfortunately, the continued government, management, operation and economics that structure our great game continue to be tainted by its history of racial, ethnic, religious and gender exclusion practices whose remnants still remain embedded within despite recent efforts to change.

Golf needs to fully reconcile its history of racial exclusion and reluctance to evolve in a multi-cultural society. Only then can we fully understand how the residue of past laws, practices and social, cultural and economic biases continue to stifle meaningful forward progress. When this occurs golf will be freed to move forward and thrive like never before.

I encourage the greater golf community, public golf and private member participants, elite players to the long handicap, and industry leaders to the wider golf market to help transform this game we all claim to love so dearly, into a welcoming, inclusive, vibrant game that is rich with the diversity and talent of our world. A game and structuring industry that supports golf and leads society to be a better version of itself.

Is this too much to ask of a game? A sport? NO. Not a sport as beautiful as golf. Not a sport whose participants extol the virtues of sportsmanship, integrity, honesty and personal enforcement of competitive rules. It is not too much to ask of a sport that raises BILLIONS of charitable dollars for communities and causes around the globe. It is time for the collective golf community to demonstrate how, through sport and the life long bonds created from it, will play a vital role in eradicating systemic racism and lead change towards a peaceful, diverse and inclusive society.

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Ronald Montesano writes for GolfWRX.com from western New York. He dabbles in coaching golf and teaching Spanish, in addition to scribbling columns on all aspects of golf, from apparel to architecture, from equipment to travel. Follow Ronald on Twitter at @buffalogolfer.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. CP

    Jul 19, 2020 at 3:07 pm

    Great interview! Johnson answers are so thoughtful and genuine. It would be nice to see pictures of each of the holes he talks about so we could see the features he mentions.

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Opinion & Analysis

The differences between good and bad club fitters—and they’re not what you think

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Club fitting is still a highly debated topic, with many golfers continuing to believe they’re just not good enough to be fit. That couldn’t be further from the truth, but it’s a topic for another day.

Once you have decided to invest in your game and equipment, however, the next step is figuring out where to get fit, and working with a fitter.  You see, unlike professionals in other industries, club fitting “certification” is still a little like the wild west. While there are certification courses and lesson modules from OEMs on how to fit their specific equipment, from company to company, there is still some slight variance in philosophy.

Then there are agnostic fitting facilities that work with a curated equipment matrix from a number of manufacturers. Some have multiple locations all over the country and others might only have a few smaller centralized locations in a particular city. In some cases, you might even be able to find single-person operations.

So how do you separate the good from the bad? This is the million-dollar question for golfers looking to get fit. Unless you have experience going through a fitting before or have a base knowledge about fitting, it can feel like an intimidating process. This guide is built to help you ask the right questions and pay attention to the right things to make sure you are getting the most out of your fitting.

The signs of a great fitter

  • Launch monitor experience: Having some type of launch monitor certification isn’t a requirement but being able to properly understand the interpret parameters is! A good fitter should be able to explain the parameters they are using to help get the right clubs and understand how to tweak specs to help you get optimized. The exact labeling may vary depending on the type of launch monitor but they all mostly provide the same information….Here is an example of what a fitter should be looking for in an iron fitting: “The most important parameter in an iron fitting” 
  • Communication skills: Being able to explain why and how changes are being made is a telltale sign your fitter is knowledgeable—it should feel like you are learning something along the way. Remember, communication is a two-way street so also being a good listener is another sign your working with a good fitter.
  • Transparency: This involves things like talking about price, budgets, any brand preferences from the start. This prevents getting handed something out of your price range and wasting swings during your fit.
  • A focus on better: Whether it be hitting it further and straighter with your driver or hitting more greens, the fitting should be goal-orientated. This means looking at all kinds of variables to make sure what you are getting is actually better than your current clubs. Having a driver you hit 10 yards farther isn’t helpful if you don’t know where it’s going….A great fitter that knows their stuff should quickly be able to narrow down potential options to 4-5 and then work towards optimizing from there.
  • Honesty and respect: These are so obvious, I shouldn’t even have to put it on the list. I want to see these traits from anybody in a sales position when working with customers that are looking to them for knowledge and information…If you as the golfer is only seeing marginal gains from a new product or an upgrade option, you should be told that and given the proper information to make an informed decision. The great fitters, and I’ve worked with a lot of them, will be quick to tell a golfer, “I don’t think we’re going to beat (X) club today, maybe we should look at another part of your bag where you struggle.” This kind of interaction builds trust and in the end results in happy golfers and respected fitters.

The signs of a bad fitter

  • Pushing an agenda: This can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Whether it be a particular affinity towards certain brands of clubs or even shafts. If you talk to players that have all been to the same fitter and their swings and skill levels vary yet the clubs or brands of shafts they end up with (from a brand agnostic facility) seem to be eerily similar it might be time to ask questions.
  • Poor communications: As you are going through the fitting process and warming up you should feel like you’re being interviewed as a way to collect data and help solve problems in your game. This process helps create a baseline of information for your fitter. If you are not experiencing that, or your fitter isn’t explaining or answering your questions directly, then there is a serious communication problem, or it could show lack of knowledge depth when it comes to their ability.
  • Lack of transparency: If you feel like you’re not getting answers to straightforward questions or a fitter tells you “not to worry about it” then that is a big no-no from me.
    Side note: It is my opinion that golfers should pay for fittings, and in a way consider it a knowledge-gathering session. Of course, the end goal for the golfer is to find newer better fitting clubs, and for the fitter to sell you them (let’s be real here), but you should never feel the information is not being shared openly.
  • Pressure sales tactics: It exists in every industry, I get it, but if you pay for your fitting you are paying for information, use it to your advantage. You shouldn’t feel pressured to buy, and it’s always OK to seek out a knowledgeable second opinion (knowledgeable being a very key word in that sentence!).  If you are getting the hard sell or any combination of the traits above, there is a good chance you’re not working with the right fitter for you.

Final thoughts

Great fitters with great reputations and proper knowledge have long lists, even waiting lists, of golfers waiting to see them. The biggest sign of a great fitter is a long list of repeat customers.

Golf is a game that can be played for an entire lifetime, and just like with teachers and swing coaches, the good ones are in it for the long haul to help you play better and build a rapport—not just sell you the latest and greatest (although we all like new toys—myself included) because they can make a few bucks.

Trust your gut, and ask questions!

 

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Podcasts

TG2: TaylorMade P7MB & P7MC Review | Oban CT-115 & CT-125 Steel Shafts

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Took the new TaylorMade P-7MB and P-7MC irons out on the course and the range. The new P-7MB and P-7MC are really solid forged irons for the skilled iron players. Great soft feel on both, MB flies really low, and the MC is more mid/low launch. Oban’s CT 115 & 125 steel shafts are some of the most consistent out there. Stout but smooth feel with no harsh vibration at impact.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Improve your transition for better wedge play

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In my opinion, one of the most misunderstood areas of the golf swing is the transition from backswing to downswing, but I don’t read much on this in the golf publications. So, here’s my take on the subject.

Whether it’s a short putt, chip or pitch, half wedge, full iron or driver swing, there is a point where the club’s motion in the backswing has to come to a complete stop–even if for just a nano-second–and reverse direction into the forward swing. What makes this even more difficult is that it is not just the club that is stopping and reversing direction, but on all but putts, the entire body from the feet up through the body core, shoulders, arms and hands.

In my observation, most golfers have a transition that is much too quick and jerky, as they are apparently in a hurry to generate clubhead speed into the downswing and through impact. But, just as you (hopefully) begin your backswing with a slow take-away from the ball, a proper start to the downswing is also a slower move, starting from this complete stop and building to maximum clubhead speed just past impact. If you will work on your transition, your ball striking and distance will improve, as will your accuracy on your short shots and putts. Let’s start there.

In your wedge play, your primary objective is to apply just the exact amount of force to propel the ball the desired distance. In order to do that, it makes sense to move the club slower, as that allows more precision. I like to think of the pendulum on a grandfather clock as a great guide to tempo and transition. As the weight goes back and forth, it comes to a complete stop at each end, and achieves maximum speed at the exact bottom of the arc. If you put that picture in your head when you chip and putt, you will develop a tempo that encourages a smooth transition at the end of the backswing.

The idea is to achieve a gradual acceleration from the end of the backswing to the point of impact, but for most golfers, this type of swing is likely much slower than yours is currently. I encourage you to not be in a hurry to force this acceleration, as that causes a quick jab with the hands, because the shoulder rotation and slight body rotation cannot move that quickly from its end-of-backswing rotation.

Here’s a drill to help you picture this kind of swing pace. Drawing on that grandfather clock visual, hold your wedge at the very end of the grip with two fingers, and get it moving like the clock pendulum–back and through. Watch the tempo and transition for a few moments, and then try to mimic that with your short or half swing tempo. No faster, no slower. You can even change how far you pull the club up to start this motion to see what happens to the pendulum tempo on longer swings.

An even better exercise is to have a friend hold a club in this manner right in front of you while you are practicing your chipping or pitching swing and try to “shadow” that motion with your swings. You will likely find that your transition is much too fast and jerky to give you the results you are after.

If you will practice this, I can practically guarantee your short-range transition will become really solid and repeatable. From there, it’s just a matter of extending the length of the swing to mid-range pitches, full short irons, mid-irons, fairway woods, and driver–all while feeling for that gradual transition that makes for great timing, sequencing, and tempo.

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