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Friday, November 04, 2005

Golf Course Architect Jim Engh - Playing the Enghles, Pt. 1


Since forming his own design firm in 1997, Colorado’s Jim Engh has won four “best new course” awards from Golf Digest, been named “Architect of the Year” in 2003 ahead of such luminaries as Fazio, Dye, and Doak, built a reputation for getting world class work done on time and under budget, landed one gorgeous site after another on which to build yet another epic layout, and has developed a legion of loyal fans not just in Colorado and former home North Dakota, but all around the country.

And yet somehow the golf industry and fans actually underestimate Engh and fail to truly appreciate him altogether.

You read correctly. Underestimate the winner of multiple best course awards.

Because Engh has had gorgeous canvases on which to work - pristine, unspoiled North Dakota and Colorado Canyonlands and mountain tops - the uninitiated attribute his success to the superficial. “He’s great because he has the most postcard holes?” queries one player meekly. “It’s really pretty, if a little wild…” he trails off, speaking of Lakota Canyon Ranch, my personal vote for Best New Public Course in 2004-2005.

Well Jim Engh is already an epic golf course architect. Fossil Trace in Golden might never have achieved the terrific multiple use of the site as a golf course and archaeological treasure without his tireless efforts to offer concessions to environmentalists. Redlands Mesa might be far more ordinary instead of a quintessential example of world-class green settings and ingenious routing. The Club at Pradera (on which Engh owns a home adjacent to the 16th fairway with his wife Monie and two kids, Brian (10) and Bailey (8)) may be the best private course designed in 2005 due to its collection of unbelieveably tempting par-5s and Pinehurst-like greenside chipping swales.

Yes, I think Engh will be one for the ages when all is said and done, but his secrets are “lines of charm,” “trapdoors and hidden staircases,” and “muscle bunkers,” not merely virgin North Dakota, pristine Coeur D’Alene, Idaho and incomparable Colorado. The result is fascinating golf courses loaded with options and refreshingly innovative routings (try five par-3s and five par-5s frequently). Only then can you add in the jaw-dropping natural settings especially gorgeous green settings a la Mackenzie and Engh’s penchant for making the most of the routing process and well, we have a monster on our hands. Deciding which Jim Engh course to play is like deciding between a chateaubriand and the double lobster tails.


“Anyone can place hazards in a way that par is an impossible task. It is the talented architect who can present holes that are genuinely challenging yet reward skillful play” writes Geoff Shackelford in Grounds for Golf. Engh takes this proposition to heart.

Like Alistair Mackenzie, Engh eschews the doctrine of framing (where the player is spoon fed what to do on the tee box and responds to the dictatorial will of the architect) and instead utilizes the doctrine of keeping a “line of charm” between the tee box and the hole. In other words, the direct line to the hole may be playable, even tempting, but there is also a boatload of danger right squarely in the direct line of flight to the target. Meanwhile, the other side of the playing field is wide and welcoming, but a longer way round. The player gets to pick how to play the hole – according to his talent and greed.

Engh is especially talented at designing tempting risk-reward par-5s. Many are short – reachable in two by many – but misses are punished mercilessly. “I’ll give a player a shot to reach a green in one shot less than regulation, but I sure won’t help him or make it easy!” he adds with an almost scandalized look as I note the par-5 green at 18 at Fossil Trace is not designed to be overly receptive to a long fairway wood approach. “If they want a putt for eagle, they have to hit two great shots to earn it.”

The foundations of Engh design philosophy are based solidly on the great design features of the great U.K. courses, which he has studied extensively even though Engh is still a modernist. Engh also employs the doctrine of deception. Rather than spoon feed the player the optimum line, Engh gives no indication where to play. Again the choice is left to the golfer to determine the line based on his talent and temptation.

Engh also has some Old Tom Morris and some A.W. Tillinghast in him as well. Speaking of Old Tom’s work in designing Machrihanish, the Good Dr. Mackenzie wrote in The Spirit of St. Andrews, “Some of the natural greens were so undulating that at times one had to putt twenty or thirty yards round to lay dead at the hole five yards away. These greens have all gone and today one loses all the joy of outwitting an opponent by making spectacular putts of this description.” Engh, like A.W. Tillinghast at places like Winged Foot and Baltusrol and like Mackenzie at Pasatiempo and Crystal Downs before him, has brought back wild green undulations, most notably at Fossil Trace. The result is an array of challenging and interesting courses that place heavy emphasis on smart strategic play as well as solid execution. All players, regardless of ability have different playing options on every tee box.

Coming next - Trapdoors, hidden stairs and muscle bunkers. See pictures below as well.