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Q & A: Golf Course Architect Arthur Hills

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PETOSKEY, Mich. -- Arthur Hills has designed dozens of courses across the world in a career that spans more than four decades. Currently, his company, Hills & Forrest International Golf Course Architects, has stayed busy with remodeling work in the United States and several new courses abroad, including projects in China, Russia, Morocco and Sweden.

Hills, a former captain on his college golf team at Michigan State, has created such courses the renowned Bay Harbor in Northern Michigan as well as the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay in California and Longaberger Golf Club near Columbus, Ohio, to name a few. The 83-year-old's designs represents modern architecture – lots of target golf and risk-reward opportunities. I sat down with Hills to discuss design elements and the state of the game.

GC: What did you study in college to prepare you for your career?

Hills: I studied agriculture and agronomy. I was going to go into the family agriculture business, so I went into the landscape contracting business. Then I wanted to know more so I commuted up to the University of Michigan and I did get a degree in landscape architecture. Those two major areas of studies were really good tools for me.

GC: Do you have a favorite classic architect?

Hills: I like the designs that Donald Ross has done. His courses were playable for everybody because most of the holes he designed were open in front. I think that's good because that means everybody – the 15- or 18-handicapper – can play them. And the good player's still got to hit the ball near the cup.

GC: Who do you like among your contemporaries?

Hills: Pete Dye. I think he designs every hole and every shot with strategy in mind. And I like the aesthetics on most of his courses. I think he knows the game very well.

GC: What do you try to accomplish in your designs?

Hills: (Like Dye,) I try to make them strategic.  I like to do risk-reward on every shot. On the tee shot, we're always trying to get it so if the player hits in the ideal shot, he's going to have the best access and angle into the green. On the second shot, it has a lot to do with cup placement and the players' judgment of their ability to play. I mean if you've got a cup that's off to the right or left, is the guy going to go for the cup or the middle of the green, 15 feet to the right or left of the cup?

I'm also trying to make the course attractive by taking advantage of existing features if there are some on the site. I try to make it so people will enjoy and tell their friends and come back basically.

GC: Do you have philosophy on bunkering?

Hills: I like to use fewer bunkers rather than more bunkers – maybe 40 to 50. I like every one of them to be strategic. I feel it's redundant to use three or four where you could use one or two. 

GC: What about movement on greens?

Hills: It can vary, but I think you want to create cup placement areas 30 to 40 feet in diameter. Then there can be movement between those cupping areas. Within the cupping areas, I like to keep the contours very simple, maybe 2 percent plus or minus a little bit. Not too tricky. I don't know; I watched the PGA last weekend and there's ample difficulty to make an 8-10 footer under pressure, and those are the best players in the world vs. all of us weekend players who not as skilled.

GC: What are your thoughts on minimalist designs?

Hills: I don't know how to measure that. I don't know the definition of that word exactly or how that's interpreted on the ground.

GC: Among the courses you designed, what are your favorites?

Hills: That's hard question to answer. I usually say, do you have any children? Tell me your favorite child.

But I like Bay Harbor a lot. I think that turned out quite well. I like the course we did up at Boyne Highlands (the Hills Course) is pretty good, too. We just had a course rated in the top 100 in the world by Golf Magazine, which kind of surprised me. It's in Portugal. It has views of the Atlantic Ocean that maybe contributed (Oitavas Dunes, just outside of Lisbon).


Boyne Highlands

The Hills Course at Boyne Highlands Resort in Harbor Springs. 


GC: How important is it to have a great setting?

Hills: It helps a lot. I did a course called The Dunes, north of Tampa, and it was an absolutely beautiful hilly sand dune piece of property. But we have done courses on properties flat as a tomato field, too.

GC: What are your thoughts on the trend of lengthening courses?

Hills: I read an article just yesterday once again approaching the idea of making the ball so it wouldn't go so far. And I think that's a lot better solution because 95 percent of the golfers – maybe more than that – are never going to go to the back tees on a 7,400-yard golf course. On the other hand, you can have a 500-yard par 4, and the tour guys are going to hit a driver, 5-iron or something. So to answer your question, I think it would good to cut the ball flight back so courses didn't need to be as long.

GC: Do you like shorter courses?

Hills: I grew up playing golf on a 5,500-yard course, Ottawa Park, owned by the city of Toledo (Ohio). I started playing when I was 8 or 9. I didn't know it was a short course. It was fun and still very popular. When we started playing, in 1942 or '43, it cost 25 cents to play before noon for a kid, 50 cents after lunch.

GC: Is cost to play one of golf's biggest issues?

Hills: It costs a lot of money for a person who's starting to play golf. Sure, fees can be as little as $25, but for a kid, that's a heck of a lot more money than 25 cents. I think if they could make it so kids could play golf for a dollar or two, they'd get a lot more people playing. It's just incidental to their life. They don't get hooked for a while. 

GC: What are you favorite courses?

Hills: I think St. Andrews is my favorite. I also like Merion a lot and Oakmont, and I like San Francisco Golf Club a lot. With St. Andrews I just like the way it flows and its openness. Of course they've got gorse. I just like it. It's a neat place to play golf. Merion, I like all the greens complexes. You've have to hit some really precise shots around that course. Oakmont, I feel the same way. The Individual holes are very, very attractive to my eye. San Francisco Golf Club – I just thought it was very pretty -- the terrain, the cypress trees, the bunkering; I think is very beautiful.

GC: Do you still play much?

Hills: I play all the time (Hills' handicap is currently 17).

GC: What was it when it was its lowest?

Hills: One. I played in college on my golf team (Michigan State). You didn't have to be very good back then to play on the golf team. But I played for three years and had a lot of fun doing it.