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Gary Panks: a chat with one of Arizona's
most notable golf course architects

He is a soft spoken, unassuming, gentle man who at the age of 55 is recognized nationally as a most accomplished golf course architect. In Arizona, his designs have won him acclaim the world over.

Gary Panks, born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan began his career as a landscape architect in New York. In 1965 he moved to Phoenix for a position with the Maricopa Parks Department, where he designed inner city parks. In 1971, he launched Gary Panks Associates, a design/build landscape firm.

Gary's first important introduction to golf course design came with the development of Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Club in 1979. "I had done a nine hole course in Casa Grande prior to the Ahwatukee project but Ahwatukee really gave me my start. I believe my biggest breakthrough came when I was called upon to redesign the Phoenix Country Club in the early 80's. This project gave me credibility as well as many additional projects."

In 1985 Panks designed Silver Creek Golf Club near Arizona's White Mountains. I am very proud of the Silver Creek project. It will stand the test of time," Panks proclaimed.

What makes a hole on a Gary Panks design golf course memorable?" By its contrast to the other holes on the course," Panks responded. "I think the secret to a memorable golf course is the change of pace. After playing several holes that are heavily bunkered, golfers will remember a simple hole without bunkers that requires sound shots and good strategy."

What possibly adds to Panks' approach to his design is the fact that he is an accomplished player of the game as well as an architect. Over the years, he as accumulated sixteen amateur titles to his credit.

AZG: Do you get involved in the site selection as well as design of the course?

PANKS: That's the way it used to be in the old days. You would hire an architect and go to three or four different sites and he would tell you which was the best one. But that's not always the case today. Usually the developer already has the site and says, "we want a golf course here." They send us a topographical map and we use that to see how it might work. Then, of course, we go to the site with the developer and the land planner to determine just what their goals and objectives are. When we come to a meeting of the minds, we start drafting a number of routings. Sometimes we'll do as many as twenty different routings until we meet the developer's criteria to make his project work. There are often major changes in the routings, with tweaking here and there, to make it all come together.

AZG: Is this work done by a computer?

PANKS: No. Actually it's all done by hand and then it's scanned into the computer and put on disk for two major reasons. One, it's very convenient to send a disk to the engineer or vice versa. Then everyone has the same map in front of them. Secondly, it's good for changes. As you build a golf course, you can input the changes you've made in the field and usually there are a good number of changes - right up through the finishing touches. If you are working with a truly great site, there's a good deal more field work involved to make sure you are taking full advantage of the natural features and attributes of the site.

AZG: So even after you're into the rough grading you are still making quite a few changes in the course design?

PANKS: Yes. If we have any question in our mind about visibility of bunkers or how a given hole presents itself visually or the owner wants to see what it's going to look like, we do computer models for them that really show the detail from various perspectives. We do the same thing for the green complexes. The old traditional pattern with greens was that you had a 30[inch collar all the way around the green, then go the fairway cut or rough cut. Today we are varying this collar height from 30 inches to 30-feet in some instances. So now, if the player's ball comes to rest in a little grassy hollow, it is in a place where, instead of being in 2-inch rough and having to hit a flop shot with a sand wedge, there are options - to chip or hit a sand wedge or even putt the ball. And sometimes the putt is the best shot, if one has the touch for it.

AZG: What are the major trends or changes taking place today in golf course design?

PANKS: There will always be fads, but I think we went through a phase in the 80's of severe mounding and contouring. I think the real important change that is occurring today is a return to traditional values as to the way a golf course should be built. The new term is "minimalist design", which means creating a design that does not derive its character from lots of bunkering or a lot of water hazards - what I might call a low profile, softer type of golf course. I think there is a real need for that in our business today because there are so many golfers who find that type of golf course more playable and enjoyable. It also means that greens fees can be lower and people can go out and have a great time and have a couple of bucks left over for beer when they come in.

AZG: What would be the mitigating factor to giving a course character if it didn't have the features you just talked about?

PANKS: I think that one of the most important things that gives a golf course a lot of character is change in elevation. I don't mean change in elevation by having one flat fairway and then all of a sudden having a severe mound that does not tie in properly. I mean fairways that undulate up and down, maybe a little from side to side, with features around the green, whether it be sand bunkers or grassy hollows, where you have a change in elevation - not all in the same plane. I'm referring to changes in elevation that are easy to maintain and soft enough to the eye so that they are appealing. I think you can build a golf course with character incorporating some appealing elevation changes. I think you can build a wonderful golf course with nothing but grass and trees. I think you can build all the challenge you want into a golf course without a single sand bunker, and I'd like to do that someday.

AZG: When you do bunkering, are they largely for a visual aid identifying the direction and playability of a hole as well as being hazards?

PANKS: A lot of bunkers we put on a hole are directional. They help define now a hole should be played. But, they also say to the golfer, "Don't come over here, this is not the way to go." Typically our average course has 40-45 bunkers, and that's low by most standards. Many courses today are being built with over 100 bunkers. I know one course that has 42 bunkers on just one hole. I think, for an architect, bunkers can often become a crutch, a lazy man's way to designing a golf course. Too often, architects get to where they say, "I don't know what to do here, let's just sprinkle a few bunkers around and go on to the next hole." This can result in higher construction and maintenance costs.

AZG: How do you decide on the style of course you are going to design?

PANKS: You have to listen to your clients and recognize their needs. Are you designing a golf course for a retirement community, a resort or a private golf club? They each require a different design concept and treatment. A retirement course need not be as long, the hazards not as severe. It should be playable and user friendly. The resort course is the one you want to build a lot of character and beauty into. You have to be careful not to make it too difficult because the golfer who is going to play 2-3 times may just have left a snowbank in Chicago and not touched his clubs in three months. And that makes the design job more difficult. You still want to build a course with a lot of character but you have to keep it user friendly. The private course gives you a bit more license. On the average, you have a member who is a little bit better golfer. Because of their frequency of play, they come to know the course pretty well so you can drum up a little more challenge into that type of course.

AZG: What do you see for the future?

PANKS: I think we will see a resurgence of shorter and even more executive length and par three courses. The game of golf has become immensely popular, especially with younger age groups and women. Now you have more family participation in the game. You have more young fathers who are avid golfers that do not have 6 hours to take out of their Saturday to play golf. I think you'll see more short and executive length courses being built and becoming very successful, especially in the large metropolitan areas. There'll be great opportunity for many types of facilities.

AZG: How is course design affecting the woman golfer today?

PANKS: The game of golf can be very difficult when you consider the average woman hits the ball 135 yards off the tee. But women are a rapidly growing segment of the market, so we do something at our courses of which the ladies have been very supportive. We have 4-5 sets of tees on each hole so that if it's 7,000 yards from the pro or tournament tees, it's 6,600 yards from the championship tees and that's plenty of golf for 99% of us. Then we go to 6,200 yards, where most golfers should be playing from, then to 5,800 yards for senior men and stronger women players on down to 5,400 yards for most of the ladies and junior players.

AZG: What is the greatest obstacle facing your industry today?

PANKS: I think the environment. Not really an obstacle, but something all of us are far more aware of today than we were twenty years ago. Today, I feel we've learned how to work with the environmentalist and vice-versa. The environmentalists have come around and have begun to accept the idea that golf courses can be an attribute to the environment, and architects realize the value of nature - and that's been a blessing in building a good spirit of cooperation. I think suitable and affordable land for golf courses is a major obstacle for golf course development today.

AZG: It appears there's a trend for larger, more undulating greens today. Is that a new trend that's here to stay?

PANKS: I think that was a trend in the 1960's. Robert Trent Jones, Sr., was noted for doing large greens on many of his courses - some in the 10,000 square foot area. Today, our greens average approximately 6,500 square feet. That's a large green, about 2,000 square feet larger than that in the 40's and 50's. I don't see greens getting much larger than that in the future. There's really no good reason to build them much larger. The emphasis on undulation in greens has become somewhat of a fad. In some cases I think the architect gets a little carried away. The more the undulation, in most cases, the fewer suitable pin positions you can get out of a green. So it stands to reason, if you're going to build a good deal of undulation into your greens, you probably are going to be building larger greens in order to get the six or seven good pin positions you should have. With the high cost of maintaining greens, we should be careful about that.

AZG: What is your greatest gratification from building a course?

PANKS: Naturally, it's when people appreciate your course. Not just the expert players, but when men and women of average ability go out of their way to compliment the course. The other wonderful bonus is all the great people one works with along the way.