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Don Knott




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People in the Game: A Day in the Architect’s Office
Chatting it up with Don Knott and Gary Linn, of Knott-Brooks-Linn

Golf Today
February 2002

By Bob Weisgerber

That’s what it started out to be, a day in the office of well-known golf course architect, doing the fly-on-the-wall bit where you get the “inside story” on what goes on behind the scenes. We agreed on a day that was close to Christmas, when things wouldn’t be frantic, and they weren’t. In fact, it provided lots of opportunity not only to see what was going on but to ask the more general questions about things you can’t see but which you know are central to the design and renovation of golf courses.

But first, let’s meet the principals at this respected golf course design firm. Both Don Knott and Gary Linn were formerly long-time lead designers on the staff of Robert Trent Jones, Jr., where they each did a number of top-level courses in the U. S. and overseas. These are not ordinary courses, they are nationally known and much sought out by knowledgeable golfers. Knott and Linn have “been there” and “done that” and they know whereof they speak when it comes to design ideas and environmental concerns.

I asked Don Knott which of his many courses he thinks represent a mix of quality golf, scenic interest and variety, as well as playability and fairness to all skill levels. He came up with a “short” list of 17, which included six from the United States:
The Links at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach, CA
Desert Dunes GC, Desert Hot Springs, CA
Prince GC, Princeville, Kauai, HI
The Orchards GC, Detroit, MI
Long Island National GC, Riverhead, NY
Winchester GC, Auburn, CA

Selecting these six must not have been easy because Don left off some with “Best Course” status and others that are regularly used for PGA tournament and off-season televised competitions. He also left off Celebration GC, near Orlando, FL, which is one that I enjoyed a lot when I played it several years back.

Knott has also designed International courses that many golfers never see outside of travel magazines and promotional ads, but they are often the most spectacular of all, including
Pine Lake GC, Nishiwaki, Japan
Meadow Springs GC, Mandurah, Western Australia
The National GC, Cape Schanck, Melbourne, Australia
Katsura GC, Hokkaido, Japan
Regus Crest CC-Grand Course, Hiroshima, Japan
The Mines, G and CC, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Les Domaines de Vidauban, Var, France
Gulf Harbor GC, Auckland, NZ
Spring City Resort, Kunming, China

Gary Linn has a number of “Winners” to his credit as well, both within the U.S.A. and elsewhere. A few of my favorites include
Cordevalle GC, Morgan Hill, CA (not a weak hole on the course)
Wailea Golf Resort, Maui, HI (it’s Hawaii, after all)
Chateau Whistler GC, British Columbia, Canada (mountains, rushing streams, wildlife)

On the Drawing Board
Finding the office is a bit like looking for a lost ball that is only a few yards off the fairway (in this case 233 Castro St., Suite 3, in Mountain View, CA) but once found the office appears to be a comfortable, roomy, working environment. Knott and Linn each have back-to-back desks and large stand-up drawing tables. Rolls of plans are tucked in storage bins within easy reach. Drawings for in-process courses are unrolled on drafting tables, awaiting the final touches of the architect’s inspiration. Back in one corner of the suite is the cubicle where Steve Schroeder, the Chief Operating Officer, hangs his mementos.

Partitions throughout the suite are decorated with gorgeous photographs of golf holes created by the Knott-Linn team. Computers await occasional visits to check incoming e-mails and generate responses.

Linn is robust, smiles easy, and sometimes plays “hooky” to coach an occasional basketball game. Knott is slim, reserved in manner, with a quiet voice and earnest way of expressing his ideas. The missing partner in the firm on this day is Mark Brooks, the prominent touring pro and past winner of the PGA, who wasn’t there when “the fly” was visiting. No doubt he was playing golf somewhere or reading what he calls his favorite book, “Golf Architecture in America (1927) by George Thomas.

In-process projects were in evidence throughout the suite. Linn was working on drawings for a major remodel of a course called Mountain Shadows, in Rohnert Park, CA. The course had severe drainage problems requiring lots of subsurface work and it needed a make-over, with new bunkering, in keeping with an upscale hotel close by the course.

Meanwhile, Knott was deeply involved in designing a new course, called Dublin Ranch, being constructed in Dublin, CA. On the day of my visit, he was engaged in calculating how some thousands of yards of excess dirt left over from grading for homes in the development could be productively utilized at various spots on the courses. Don was carefully calculating how the added dirt could enhance his already existing routing, thereby saving the developer the cost of transporting it elsewhere.

Nearby lay some site photographs and a preliminary routing for a potential golf course in Idaho that could become a true links with sand dunes and natural terrain, if and when enough financing comes through. And that is another part of the golf course architect’s day, helping developers and financial people decide on the feasibility of a particular property for a modern golf course or golf complex.

Chatting about the Idaho property brings a sparkle to Knott’s voice and eyes. It is easy to see that he sees the potential for a “true” golfing experience, not unlike Scotland, where the sandy soil drains quickly and swirling winds become a factor.
Knott speaks fervently when he talks about breaking out of stereotyped expectations about “acceptable” golf course design. He bemoans the emphasis on 7000+ yard courses, meticulously balanced in their distribution of par 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s across the nines. If you are a developer and you’d like to build a course with just 6, 11, or 15 holes, Knott is ready to be your man.

While a developer can ask for (and receive) immaculately groomed fairways and greens, Knott reminds us of the origins of the game when it was “an obstacle course over natural terrain.” It seems odd, we agreed, that American and Japanese golfers love to travel to Scotland and Ireland where natural terrain and conditions are essential characteristics of most courses, but then come home and expect their own courses to be lush and orderly—where run-up shots are impractical.

Gary Linn holds a BA in landscape architecture from Kansas State University and he has spoken at numerous conferences. Don Knott also has solid academic credentials—top honors in landscape architecture from U. C. Berkeley, where he also earned a Masters in Architecture. Perhaps more meaningful is the fact that he was formerly President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and is an acknowledged expert on environmental issues in golf course design and development.

Chatting with Knott is easy. He readily shifts between being hunched over the drafting table (eyeglasses placed off to one side) to giving a thoughtful answer to a probing question, to answering the phone and dealing smoothly with the seeming “crisis” at the other end. I suppose he must be “flappable” under certain circumstances but they surely weren’t evident to the fly on the wall.

Our conversation was wide ranging, encompassing such topics as carving playable fairways out of the sides of mountains in Japan, seepage of underground water from substrate water tables, numbers of tees and the limits on their placement due to topological constraints and housing set-backs, and of course, there was plenty of reminiscing about experiences at this or that course.

Knott is clearly a man who loves his work, takes it seriously, and is resourceful in his approach to the many, many technical barriers that come along.

He is also a patient man, for you have to be when you’re a member of a team that includes so many “players” who share a common goal of building something beautiful and functional, while at the same time making sure that it is feasible financially and an environmentally sound project.

It is enough to keep you really busy, so it helps if you love what you do. Knott and Linn do just that.


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Photography Courtesy of John & Jeannine Henebry

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