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Published: Sunday, 6/11/2006

His courses take shape by design

In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in The Blade's sports section. Blade sports writer Dave Hackenberg spoke with Art Hills, a renowned golf course architect. Hills, a Toledo native, was running a local landscaping firm when he bought a listing in the phone book that advertised his services as a golf course architect.

That phone book ad still exists and so do 180-plus courses that he and his colleagues at Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates have designed over the last four decades. They exist in 32 states in the U.S. and in 10 foreign countries. Hills' firm has also done renovation work at about 130 courses.

His local resume includes original designs at Brandywine, Bryan Orchard Hills, Detwiler Park, Giant Oak, the Legacy, Maumee Bay State Park, Red Hawk Run in Findlay and Stone Ridge in Bowling Green. He has done major renovation work at Inverness Club, Toledo Country Club and Ottawa Park as well as lesser re-designs and master plan work at five other area clubs.

The 76-year-old Hills and his wife, Mary, have seven children. He grew up next to Ottawa Park on his grandfather's truck farm and greenhouse property, attended Old Orchard grade school and DeVilbiss High before graduating from Dexter (Mich.) High School. He has an undergraduate degree in horticulture from Michigan State University and a post-graduate degree in landscape architecture from the University of Michigan.

Forrest has been Hills' right-hand associate for 27 years and his name recently was added to the company's title. Hills/Forrest and Associates operates out of a renovated farmhouse on Bancroft Street just west of Toledo, and employs a staff of 15.

"I WAS HIRED by a landscape gardening company in July of 1957 and by winter they'd gone broke. So I bought the remnants of that business and started my own landscaping firm. Things got slow in the winter and I'd always thought it would be fun to design a golf course. So, in 1965, I put a little listing in the Yellow Pages under 'golf course architect.' Amazingly, within several months, the people at Orchard Hills in Bryan called me about adding nine holes. They checked my references, which included no course design, and still hired me.

"Within a few weeks of that, a builder named Paul Evans was working on a project called Byrnwyck that is now known as Brandywine. It was the first golf course community in Toledo. Paul had some vague idea that I knew what I was doing, so that job surfaced.

"Within a year, the city of Toledo decided to build a course at Detwiler Marsh. A friend of mine, Mike Porter, was the director of natural resources. He and [then-mayor] Harry Kessler made it happen. So there I was. A little listing in the Yellow Pages led to a nine-hole addition, a new golf course community project and a municipal course. It was pretty amazing.

"My fees were very low. I think I did the job at Orchard Hills, including all the site visits, for $1,500. I charged the city $10,000, maybe a little more, for Detwiler. Today, a typical fee is $500,000 or thereabouts. I remember my first really big job was Weatherwax, a 36-hole facility for the city of Middletown, for $50,000 back in the early 1970s."

"THERE IS NO basic formula or design for what we do. I don't think there can be because there are a lot of different terrains. Plus, everyone has different visions. For example, nobody would design the second hole at Pine Valley [in New Jersey]. You hit a 300-yard drive and you're staring at the face of a hill that's 40 feet high and the green's up on top. But it's a much-talked-about hole that's part of a great golf course.

"The greens at Crystal Downs [in Michigan] are so severely contoured that an architect would be run out of town if he built greens like that today. The National Golf Links on Long Island has all kinds of unusual holes. St. Andrews has seven sets of double greens and it's an absolute delight to play. The point I'm making is that if there was a basic formula or a set of rules some of the great holes and great courses would never have been built.

"I pretty much approach every job and course design with the same attitude. Each piece of land is a blank page and we have the opportunity to design the best golf course ever done. We have a chance to do something special and distinctive. We don't always achieve it, of course, but we always have the opportunity.''

"I GOT involved with a lot of work in Florida. It was sort of a fluke. Shortly after Mel Woelfling, the great Toledo district player, died prematurely in the late 1960s, his father was on a committee to develop a golf course in Cape Coral, Fla. I was approached and asked if I was interested. Since then, I've done about 50 courses in Florida, close to half of them in the Fort Myers-Naples area. Now, we work all over the U.S. and have a number of overseas projects, too.

Given the choice, though, I'd just as soon do projects close to home. Maumee Bay [1991] was the first since the late '60s. I welcomed the opportunity to do The Legacy and I think our firm did nice work at Red Hawk Run and Stone Ridge. Steve Forrest did most of the work at Red Hawk and it's a wonderful looking course."

"RENOVATION WORK probably amounts to 15 or 20 percent of our activity. I like doing them, but it takes a lot more time and it's probably more difficult than doing a new course. A new one is a blank sheet of paper and you're usually working for one person. With renovations, you're dealing with committees and 300 or 400 club members, and that's a lot of people to satisfy.

[When asked about his renovation work at Inverness Club, in particular:] "I think the USGA and the PGA of America are missing the mark by not bringing another major championship to a terrific golf course with tremendous support facilities. We stretched it to 7,250 yards. I guess I just don't know what the criteria are at this point."

"I THINK Pete Dye is my favorite designer of this era, at least based on the courses I enjoy playing most. Of course, Donald Ross is a legend and I always enjoy playing his courses. Some of [A.W.] Tillinghast's courses were equally good. One guy that a lot of people aren't familiar with was Seth Raynor, who did Camargo Club in Cincinnati and was in large part responsible for Chicago Golf Club. He did some wonderful work."

"I HAVE SEVEN children and when you ask me about my favorite courses that I've designed it's like asking me to name my favorite child. I can't do it. But there are some, I guess, that are special.

"The Dunes at Seville [Brooksville, Fla.] was built on some beautiful sand dunes and I like that a lot. There's Bay Harbor up near Petoskey in northern Michigan and Longaberger Club [Nashport, Ohio], and I always felt that Shaker Run [Lebanon, Ohio] was a good course. There's a course called Hawks Head up in [South Haven] Michigan, and Shepherd's Hollow [Rochester Hills, Mich.] was built on land owned by the Jesuits and is probably as beautiful a piece of land as I've ever worked with. Then there's Big Horn [Palm Desert, Calif.] which is pretty neat."But, who knows, maybe the best is yet to come. We're getting ready to start a project in La Paz, Mexico on a peninsula surrounded by the Sea of Cortez. It's rolling, desert-type vegetation and there's never more than 20 feet of elevation change. It's going to be a little like St. Andrews."

"WHEN GOLFERS walk off of one of my courses I would like to think they enjoyed the day and had some fun. I'd hope they thought the course was visually attractive. I used to think a lot about the strategy of a golf course but I've concluded that the vast percentage of golfers don't judge a course that way. Did they have a good time? Did they like it visually? If they walk off and answer 'yes' to those two questions, then I feel we've done a pretty good job."

Contact Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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