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Blade Runners

Digging into the nomadic existence of the shapers behind golf-course architecture’s biggest names
Guiding flags in dirt. Photo: Lexey Swall

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Shape: noun and verb. By fortune of the weird alchemy that is the English language, we find ourselves with many words that perform this double duty, and they often find their way into the nomenclature of a particular craft. Even with that knowledge, the term “shaper” seems a curious one when we consider the ease with which the bulldozer and excavator churn our earth, move our rocks, cut our land. To shape would seem to impart delicacy—hands that carefully sweep wet sand into a turret or clay into a vase. There is nothing gentle about the bucket or blade as it gashes the earth, and yet those lush, almost placid fields of play on which we golfers alight have been manipulated by the overpowering strength of one person in a machine.

Shovel
Shaper’s shovel. Photo: Lexey Swall

The following four shapers are behind many aesthetic features of familiar courses that decorate Top 100 lists. Their bosses are the names you know: Coore & Crenshaw, Doak, Hanse. At its heart, shaping is a kind of child’s play in the sandbox on a grand scale. A peek into their work reveals that, despite the heavy machinery, it’s more art than science and requires as much trial and error as working out your driver swing with hundreds of balls on the range. They share a common ethos and similar methodologies; the end goal is to create something unique and beautiful that holds, engages the eye and challenges with strategy. Or, as Michael McCartin put it, “You want to build something cool.”

ANGELA MOSER, ROBINGEN, GERMANY

Golf Course Shaper Angela Moser in her office
Photo: Michael Haggenmüller

The list of prominent female shapers in golf-course architecture measures all of one, but what Angela Moser brings to the projects she works on isn’t something as archaic as a woman’s touch. Once a top junior player in Germany, Moser noticed as she traveled to tournaments that she was far more interested in the courses than her own game (which is still fantastic). She scored an internship with Tom Doak in 2011 and began working with him at the Renaissance Club in Scotland. All shapers start at the bottom, performing finishing work. That means dragging bunkers on a sand pro or even grabbing a rake. Some days her job was simply to move rocks by hand. 

She was carried by a passion for the game and her belief that the shaper who cares about golf will always make a better hole. “My first internship was with a construction company in Germany, and none of the guys had played golf before,” she says. “That was incredible to me—and not in a good way.”

As she grew into the work, Moser made the discovery that has kept her in it: A shaper’s job isn’t defined by simply doing what the architect says. It’s not that rigid or hands-on, Moser says, in the sense that the architect is asking you to replicate something in his mind’s eye. An idea is presented—almost like an outline—and the shaper goes to work.

She’s able to express her own ideas because the architects she works with aren’t creating schematics as much as presenting concepts of holes and shot values they want to see. Doak in particular is known for actively seeking input from his shapers and encouraging their creativity. “The great thing about working with Tom and his guys is that you get to bounce ideas off of them and get feedback right away on what you’ve done,” Moser says. “As a shaper, they give you the opportunity to put your own idea into the ground.”

Spraying the lines
Routing the plans. Photo: Lexey Swall

She was on the team that put one of Doak’s wilder ideas into the ground, spending months in Northern Michigan working on the Loop at Forest Dunes Golf Club, a mind-bending, completely reversible track. In 2018, she spent eight months on the renovation of Los Angeles Country Club with Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner—a decidedly different place to wake up than the wilds of Michigan. Regardless of where she works, Moser’s goal is always the same: “We have a saying that we’re working to be unemployed.” The idea is that architects chase the next course appointment, but shapers often aren’t sure of when the next job will arrive.

From the outside, that uncertainty and what could be seen as the tedium of the day-to-day work can seem unappealing. But Moser believes the work is no more tedious than that of the sketch artist who shades with the pencil or the writer who scratches out sentence after sentence. When asked about her best day, Moser reflects on building tees at the Renaissance Club without any heavy equipment and drops into the reverie of second person: “You’re just lost doing your work…and I love the landscape, and you’re in the middle of the dunes, building this tiny little tee pad. The tide goes out and the tide comes in. You see the lobster ship coming in, putting the traps out, then eventually making their catch. There’s something about nature that is so fantastic it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or the sun is shining or you have a double rainbow. It just feels absolutely right to be there.”

NEIL CAMERON, SAINT-LAURENT-NOUAN, FRANCE 

Neil Cameron, French golf course shaper
Neil Cameron, French golf course shaper. Photo: Courtesy of Les Bores Golf International

“I like to cook, so the kitchen is the first thing I check out.” Neil Cameron has a specific list of what’s most important to him when he sets up shop to spend more than a month on a job site. He’s explaining it from Ireland, where he’s working at Narin & Portnoo Links. Soon he’ll be heading off to a job at Les Bordes Golf International just outside of Orléans, France, as part of the team for a new Gil Hanse design. He Skypes in from his recliner—looking right at home, though he hasn’t been back to his native Scotland in more than six months. The cooking is a way to make everything feel more like home. After the kitchen, watching soccer is the next priority. Not so much a problem in Western Europe or the U.S., but during his time at Tokyo Golf Club, a good VPN came in handy. Then there’s his guitar and bagpipes. He says he’s a bit rusty, but has rededicated himself this year because in the evenings after work he doesn’t want to idle away the time in front of a screen.

Cameron prefers a 20-minute ride to work, as a way to wake up before he climbs into the excavator and arms himself with his earbuds. The commute allows him to contemplate that day’s work, to get a sense of what he hopes to create. He’s been with Hanse and Jim Wagner for 11 years on a nearly exclusive basis, and though his work situation has been steady, his personal life has been nothing but nomadic. He admits this career path has strained many relationships. Shapers like Cameron find themselves on the job for six, eight, sometimes even 12 consecutive weeks before they get any downtime. “You’re looking for normality, and usually the only normality you can get is in the four walls of where you’re living,” he says.

Cameron believes that when he solves the housing piece of a job’s puzzle, everything will run smoothly, but when he doesn’t, “It’s not good. It begins to eat away at the job and the people you’re working with.” And while these variables are largely controllable—comfortable digs, good location, high-speed internet—the loneliness of the job is real. “I’m good at enjoying my own company,” Cameron quips, but he means it. He points out that when he’s in the U.S., his American counterparts can often work two weeks, then take some time off to see friends and family, but he can’t.

Yet Cameron has thrown himself into the job. He can’t resist the chance to be part of something special in a game he loves. Cameron believes most shapers share that passion, to the point that if they are working on a high-profile job, they are often jealous of others who have high-profile jobs of their own. It’s an insatiable appetite to create golf courses, along with the opportunity—and ability—to solve the problems that each new piece of property presents. “The job is generally the same from site to site, but each and every work site gives you unpredictable circumstances from a macro-detail point of view, which is really what keeps me engaged in the work,” he says. “I think if that changed, the enthusiasm to travel would begin to diminish.”

Despite his years of experience, Cameron is careful to qualify that he doesn’t know everything about golf-course design. But he’s learned from two of the best in the business and done his homework on the greats, like Alister MacKenzie and Donald Ross. With that experience and knowledge has come a freedom, a bit of rope from Hanse and Wagner, to explore his creative side. And that is what makes 10-hour days in the excavator and long nights by himself worth it: “I’m happy to be at work on a Monday morning at 7 a.m. after a long weekend, when most people have the Monday blues.”

MICHAEL MCCARTIN, ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA 

Michael McCartin, Golf Course Shaper
Michael McCartin grew up playing Washington Golf and Country Club in Arlington, Virginia (pictured throughout the story), and now he’s manning the bulldozers, meeting with club members and working on the permitting as part of Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design’s renovation of the facility. Photo: Lexey Swall

Michael McCartin’s 4-year-old son provided the background noises during an off day at home. The scene is an embodiment of what McCartin has sought to do with his career. Though his passion to eventually run his own shop led him to knowing more about golf-course architecture at 17 than some golfers will learn in a lifetime, he never wanted that to come at the sacrifice of having a family. His most recent project, a renovation of Washington Golf and Country Club in Arlington, Virginia, is a career trifecta: close to home and family, shaping duties on the course and a few extra business-side responsibilities.

“I’ve gone from an intern at Ballyneal on a rake all the way through to Streamsong, where I built greens and was there from day one until the end and played a much bigger role in the project,” he says. That breadth of experience gave him enough confidence to make the leap to take on projects personally, but McCartin wasn’t willing to run to the ends of the Earth to chase down work. “I wanted to have a family,” he says. So McCartin now has two jobs: working for a startup in healthcare, plus his moonlighting gig as a shaper and golf-course architect. By balancing the two, he’s been able to take on projects that satisfy his unique demands, but he knows some high-profile international opportunities have been missed. These are the kinds of sacrifices McCartin has made in order to maintain a semblance of normal family life and to be there to help raise his kids instead of living out of airports and hotels. “That’s not to say I wouldn’t take some great project on a great piece of land,” he admits. But the reality is that the plum jobs are not going to lesser-known architects like him. Famous architects, unlike great athletes, don’t age out of greatness. If anything, they get better over time. 

McCartin’s lone solo project to this point is the fantastically fun and highly regarded Schoolhouse Nine in Sperryville, Virginia. The par-3 course sits in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains and features a great complement of design features, including knobs fronting greens to mess with depth perception, open aprons and just-enough-contoured greens. McCartin built the course almost entirely by himself, as well as taking on less-sexy tasks like meeting with local officials to approve construction permits. He assumed similar responsibilities in the fall of 2018 at Washington Golf and Country Club, where he is working with Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design. The club was founded in the 1910s and later remade by William Flynn. Most of that Flynn work has been lost over the years—and can’t be recovered—but the bones of the course were enticing enough that Doak’s firm took on the job with some encouragement from McCartin, who played the course growing up. McCartin’s payment for this project, in part, has been clerical responsibility away from the course, which has meant less time in the dozer. He’s been meeting with club membership and handling zoning permits with government officials because he wants to have the experience of running every part of a job. But he knows where he’d rather be. “My background is in shaping and it killed me to not be more involved in that,” he admits.

When asked to explain the lure of shaping, he has a characteristically thoughtful reply: “First of all, you’re building something that’s functional. You’re building a field of play and it needs to do whatever it is intended to do, because it will be used. The second problem—and the part that attracts me—is you’re trying to be artistic and build something that is fun and interesting to play, but also nice to look at.”

He goes on to explain that the functionality of a golf hole or course is an “engineering problem” at the outset, but it requires a creative solution that will engage the golfer. Common sense, sure, but most things need to be laid out flatly to be clearly understood. What piques a shaper like McCartin is that the engineering component is often easy to solve—e.g., a green must be 16 inches deep, per USGA guidelines—but there are no rules on how that green looks, and that’s when McCartin brightens. He immediately brings up the first green at Washington G&CC and the creative freedom of working with Doak’s team. “I always assumed I’d be building a big bunker short left of the green and the green would tilt left to right and be pretty narrow and long,” he says. But as he built the bunker, a mound came together on the left and there was a steep drop-off on the right. This contrasted with what he had envisioned; as he studied the land, he saw there was an option to go up and over the mound. Exhilarated by the discovery, he ended up shaping a completely reimagined hole with no bunkers when initially he thought it would have three: “I saw you could create an entirely different hole, depending on where the flag was, instead of what I first saw, which would have required everyone to play the hole the same way every day.”

RYAN FARROW, BANDON, OREGON

Ryan Farrow, Bandon, Oregon
Ryan Farrow, Bandon, Oregon, Photo: Lingling Zhang

Ryan Farrow is still awed by a Pacific Ocean sunset. He’s home after a long day at the Sheep Ranch, the near-mythic course that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are bringing into the mainstream fold of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. Farrow can’t say much about the project, but reveals that there are holes along the water that are the best sites he’s ever seen for golf. He admits the setting sometimes humbles him. 

His wife is cooking dinner and Farrow is discussing his day and his life. His chase for work has taken him around the globe; he spent four years in China—his longest stint living anywhere in the decade since he graduated college. While there, he worked for the firm of Schmidt-Curley after having been an intern with Doak during the summer between his junior and senior years. He was only 21 when he began working in China; now, at 31, he still looks young for his age. Something of a shaping prodigy, he was entrusted by Lee Schmidt to give the shapers their instructions, which didn’t sit well with his elders. “I was working with A-shapers, guys who make 12, 13 grand a month, and I’m trying to tell them what to do and they were like, ‘You know what? I’m not listening to you.’” It didn’t matter that Farrow had already been with the firm three years and knew what Schmidt preferred; his youth worked against him. Eventually, timing would conspire against him as well: He worked up to be a design associate on a project, but that opportunity, along with the firm’s prospects in China, dried up with the global recession.

Farrow says that in a way he peaked early, but he found his way back into high-level shaping. Still, the early going was rough. Working with Coore & Crenshaw at Sand Valley, Farrow thought his excavator skills would be up to snuff. After a day of practicing with the equipment to pick up rocks, he found himself off the fourth fairway, out of play, turning the soil because there was a layer of organic over the clean sand and they wanted to bring that sand up to the top of the profile. Farrow got the bucket too close to the machine on one of his passes and it became unstable. “The bucket hits the side of the machine and makes a loud bang,” he says. “The glass starts to slowly crack, and then the cracks run. It was like a 

movie. I jump out of the machine and all the glass crashes to the ground. I thought I was going to get fired.”

But the crew chief gave him a pep talk, regaling him with stories of other shapers crashing into clubhouses, and put him back out in the equipment the next day. Work still needed to get done. You just keep moving on the crew, it seems, and as Farrow’s spent more time with the Coore & Crenshaw team and on the equipment, he’s learned that it’s all about proportions, explaining that the narrow “picture frame” of the machine’s window can be deceiving and insular, cutting a shaper off from the scale of what they’re trying to create. Like the Hanse and Doak crews, Coore & Crenshaw’s instructions are as inexact as this: “Bill will say, in reference to bunkers, ‘I need a big guy, a small guy and a medium guy over there.’ Then I get to work.” The final product will be some combination of those freeing words, years of playing the game, hours of studying the legends, time in the machines and a mind full of shapes.