Sitting down with architects, on paper, is an impossible task. More-often-than-not, they are on the road building golf, and when they’re home, that time should be dedicated to friends, family, and mandatory obligations. Yet Jeff Mingay has always made time for me, as he did in January 2023.
We decide to meet at 3PM at Bellwoods Brewery, but an unusually long line pushes us down Queen Street West to Bar Poet, a low-light bar likely not the best for an interview. Music thumps and Carbone-inspired spicy rigatoni continually brushes behind our backs as we meander our way through the various topics one addresses when you haven’t seen someone in a while. I suppose it makes sense that we get distracted with beers and bubbling conversation, pushing the interview questions back one IPA at a time.
I’ve admired Jeff’s work from afar for years, ever since I moved to Kelowna in 2014. It’s neither overbearing nor flamboyant, but I like it that way. Above all else, it is functional and plays beautifully. I like to use the word classy, because that’s what it is. Sophisticated works, too, and like a Golden Age great, it reveals itself over time; the subtleties continuing to undress themselves with further inspection and more rounds. Jeff’s architecture is perfectly suited for the restoration efforts of A.V. Macan in the Pacific Northwest, but his career’s start with Rod Whitman at Blackhawk (and subsequently at Sagebrush and Cabot Links) shows he can crank up the intensity if need be. He’ll take on a major Stanley Thompson restoration this year with Christine Fraser, while continuing to do his thing at other clubs like he did at Kelowna or Derrick, two unheralded golf courses in the Canadian golf landscape. No doubt a busy man, with multiple projects in four provinces and two states. At Bar Poet on a random Saturday in January, we dive into some project specifics.
Andrew Harvie (AH): Your career began under Rod Whitman at Blackhawk, Sagebrush, and Cabot Links. What did you take from his style, and perhaps how have you evolved from that?
Jeff Mingay (JM): Rod doesn’t have a style. Blackhawk, Sagebrush and Cabot are very different golf courses, stylistically. I try to do the same, something different at every site. I do think Rod has a philosophy that’s pretty consistent, though. More than anything, I learned how to build courses that function properly watching him work. Function basically means that the routing needs to produce exciting holes that get golfers around the property in an enjoyable manner. It also needs to be properly drained. And, there needs to be enough room for everyone to enjoy the course and at the same time enough challenge to keep better golfers engaged. That’s a course that’s got a chance to endure.
AH:Derrick is a very classy project, although subtle. What are some of your favourite spots on that project from an architecture perspective?
JM: I’m most proud of the routing at the Derrick. The routing had to be adjusted to resolve some safety issues and eliminate a number of awkward holes that consistently played too hard for high handicappers and too easy for better golfers. In the end, we went ahead with some unconventional solutions that I think made best use of the site. The front nine ended up with three par 3s, for example. The back only has one. As a result, the back nine is significantly longer than the front, and more challenging. The course doesn’t return to the clubhouse until the 11th hole, either. All of these concepts were initially questioned by a number of people involved with vetting early versions of my plan. And, rightfully so. But, here we are nearly seven years later, and that seemingly unconventional routing continues to work well for members of the Derrick.
AH: In my eyes, Victoria is your magnum opus in Canada, and perhaps the crème de la crème of restorations from any architect. I was particularly impressed with how synced everything was, working towards a common goal: the mowing lines were good, the tree work was executed perfectly, the bunkering sophisticated and strategic. When you started working there, did the club have a vision for what it is now, or did that grow as they continued to allow you to work?
Thanks, that means a lot, because Victoria Golf Club means a lot to me. It’s been a process. When I started working at Victoria in 2009, there was a lot of golf history on display around the clubhouse, but not a lot of talk about history and design pedigree relative to the golf course specifically. How the course developed into its present form is a fascinating history. The current rendition is mostly attributable to longtime club member and course architect, A. Vernon Macan. In preparation to start work on an improvement plan back in 2009, the first thing I did was research. A key find was a mid-1950s aerial that I believe depicts the course as Macan last saw it. There were a few more bunkers and a few less trees! Following some extensive study, I also came to realize that the course was arguably in its most interesting form, architecturally, at that time. So, that mid ‘50s aerial became the inspiration for most of the restorative-based work we’ve carried out at Victoria over the past decade and more.
AH: What makes Victoria special, other than the obvious setting?
JM: Victoria golfers have been playing on that same site at Oak Bay since 1893, but it wasn’t until about 1925 that Vernon Macan put together the current routing. His routing is special. By using a couple crossovers between holes and consecutive par 3s on each nine, Macan effectively fit what is really one of Canada’s great courses on about 78 acres. The greens are great, too. It’s easy to get distracted by the setting, and we’ve gotten a lot of compliments on the bunkers over the years, but there’s a wonderful collection of putting surfaces at Victoria as well.
AH: With the CP Women’s Open heading to Shaughnessy in 2023, you quietly altered the par 3, 17th. What should the players expect at the penultimate hole, and what makes that such a great par 3?
JM: The 17th at Shaughnessy is a cleverly simple short hole. When he laid the course out during the late 1950s, Vernon Macan placed a tiny titled green over a natural ravine that bisects the hole on a diagonal. The Pacific Ocean is on the horizon in the distance beyond the green. It’s a beautiful site for a par 3. The putting surface slopes in one big sheet rather aggressively toward the ravine on the right. Take it at a pin on the right side of this tiny green and you’re flirting with the ravine. Miss left, and you’re facing a speedy downhill chip or putt. The concept is so simple that I suspect it was perceived as plain by some Shaughnessy members at some point, because at some point huge mounds and squiggly bunkers were installed around the 17th green. We eliminated those mounds and bunkers a few years ago to restore Macan’s clever concept.
AH: You have recently been hired on at Richmond, which is what I consider a bit of a lesser-known club in Vancouver. What makes that property special?
JM: There was nothing special about the Richmond site until Vernon Macan showed up during the early 1950s! It was a dead flat, poorly drained farm field. Macan built Richmond with a minuscule budget. While hardly doing anything else to the site, he built extraordinary greens. Artfully contoured turtlebacks that repel balls the way those famous greens at Pinehurst No. 2 and Augusta National do. Like St. Andrews, too, a number of Richmond’s greens feature a gentle rise to a flat plateau with a fall off behind which demand that golfers control their ball to score well. Another brilliantly simple concept that endures. Richmond is a fascinating depiction of what’s possible on flat ground with a relatively small budget.
AH: With regard to Richmond, what is the main objective?
JM: The course was renovated 20 plus years ago. Unfortunately, part of that work involved adding bunkers and mounds around greens where there used to be slopes spilling off to short grass areas below the putting surface. My main objective is to restore those Macan-designed green sites by removing bunkers and mounds, and getting the place drained. If we’re able to get that done, I think Richmond might draw a bit more well deserved attention from Vancouver area golfers.
AH: Beaconsfield is an exciting project, given its notability in Canadian golf and Stanley Thompson’s presence, notably in his bunkering style. How does this project differ from perhaps some of the other golf courses you’ve restored?
JM: It was late in this career, during the early 1940s, that Thompson revamped Beaconsfield’s old Willie Park Jr. course. Beaconsfield’s not a Thompson original. Along with making some necessary alterations to the routing relative to a highway expansion, Thompson rebuilt the greens and re-bunkered the course in a very distinctive fashion I haven’t seen elsewhere in his portfolio. The bunker edges looked naturally broken. Thompson’s shapes seem to mimic eroded blowouts in sand dunes. Thompson’s original bunkers at Montebello kinda looked the same, but not exactly. Beaconsfield is rightfully proud of its Thompson heritage, so we’re going to re-establish that Thompson flair.
AH: Your portfolio includes A.V. Macan restorations out in the Pacific Northwest. How does Stanley Thompson’s architecture differ from Macan, and how have you adapted to that in construction style, research, or presenting your vision?
JM: Philosophically, I think Thompson and Macan were of the same mind. Inspired by the great links, they both consistently aimed to create courses that function properly and cater to the enjoyment of all golfers, regardless of playing ability. Thompson was definitely more artistic, though. Or at least he typically exhibited more flair. Macan’s work is equally interesting in many cases, but it’s typically a bit more utilitarian than what you’d expect from Thompson. Macan’s typical style is definitely not as flashy.
AH: For Ontarians, Cutten Fields is an exciting project to peel back the layers of Jeff Mingay that the PNW has gotten to know so well. When is the completion date?
JM: I’m really excited about Cutten Fields. We’ve been working out there at a steady pace over the past few years rebuilding greens, bunkers and tees with a great team led by superintendent Bill Green and golf course construction extraordinaire Mark Hughes. It’s basically an in-house project that’s going to result in a new course. Every tee, green and bunker has been touched. With a couple more greens to shape and a handful to finish, the final push starts this spring. There might be some play over all 18 renovated holes this fall, but the entirety of the new course will really be sharp come spring or early summer 2024.
AH: I want to touch on Lethbridge, a bit, because it is my hometown and the club I grew up at. When you’re pitching in a smaller market, and perhaps a club that is more budget conscious, how do you balance wanting to improve the golf course from an architecture perspective, while also potentially finding ways to help the club save money?
JM: This is certainly something I’ve thought a lot about at Lethbridge, and elsewhere. It’s a challenge trying to find ways to minimize the cost of required renovation work and reduce future maintenance costs without detriment to the interest, challenge and appearance of the golf course in question. But, it’s so important to many clubs. A good place to start is always the bunkers. Way too many courses feature superfluous bunkers. Lethbridge was no exception. Bunkers are ridiculously expensive to renovate and maintain these days. So, every bunker should have a definite purpose. Otherwise, why spend on renovation and future maintenance? Fill it in instead, be done with bunkers that have no purpose.
AH: Rivermead is complete this year, which has always been in the shadows (metaphorically and literally) of Royal Ottawa. How can an architect like yourself help elevate a club, or perhaps distance itself from comparisons of its nearby competitors?
JM: There are so many courses in various states of disrepair that simply improving function often goes a long way toward elevating one course over another in a particular market. If a course drains well, golfers will get out quicker after rain. If the greens aren’t shaded, they’re likely going to be in better shape than greens at neighbouring courses. If corridors of play are adequately wide, golfers aren’t going to lose too many balls. Simple stuff like that is where it starts. Of course, function also relates to playability. It’s a bit cliché these days, but courses that challenge better players and at the same time accommodate everyone else will always be more attractive than the rest. At the end of the day, though, the most important thing is to excite golfers with a beautifully stunning landscape that presents a variety of interesting looks and reasonably challenging shots to play throughout the course of a round. The functional stuff can be learned. The creative part isn’t easy to teach.
AH: Is there a project you haven’t yet done that you want to in Canada? Where is it, and why?
I think there’s a market throughout Canada for more unconventional stuff. Most golf markets don’t need another ho-hum 18-hole course. How about a quality nine-hole layout for example? Or a par 3 course featuring really good short holes comparable to those on any big course. A few years ago, I looked at a project where we re-imagined a run-of-the-mill 18-hole layout that isn’t financially viable as a regulation nine-hole course complimented by a seven-hole par 3 course and extensive practice areas. At another private club site where an upgrade to 27 holes is in planning, we’re contemplating converting nine holes into a short course to better serve a wider demographic of golfers. In this case, the thought is 18 holes complimented by a short course might be more appealing for potential members than the current 27-hole configuration. Thinking outside the box excites me.
To learn more about Jeff Mingay, readers can view his website here.