For more than 20 years Bob Harrison was lead architect for Greg Norman Golf Course Design in Australia, working on projects like the Moonah Course at The National Golf Club, Ellerston, The Glades, Brookwater, The Grand, The Vintage, Stonecutters Ridge and Pelican Waters. Since departing Norman’s company last year Harrison has established his own design business, offering clubs Australia wide his considerable expertise at a fraction of the fee charged when working for the Great White Shark.

Following my interview with Greg Norman, I caught up with Bob Harrison to ask about his new business and of the working relationship with his former employer.

INTERVIEW – Bob Harrison Q&A

DO – You worked as lead designer for Greg Norman Golf Course Design for over 20 years, and now run your own business, Harrison Golf. How are things different for you?

BH – Times are tough for a lot of businesses in this downturn. But there are a number of good prospects, and clients know from my past performance what to expect from me. And of course I have more control over the design fees I will set. It’s good to be independent, but it was also pleasing to have been trusted with the design in my former employment, and to have had a reasonable degree of autonomy, partly because of the geographical circumstances of the company.

DO – What were your chief responsibilities when working for Greg Norman Golf Course Design?

BH – My role started with the assessment of the properties and the development of a concept to suit each site.  This process varied from job to job. At Ellerston, for example, the first task was to work out where the put the golf course on a 75,000 acre property.  I remember driving around the ranch with the manager for 2 to 3 days before choosing the final site.  He wasn’t a golfer and thought that the best place for the course was probably on top of the extremely steep ridges.  But there was a beautiful, fast-flowing stream in the valley below, where I thought the course should go – and much of it did – even though it meant moving the polo ponies to new pastures and building a number of extensive bridges to link the paddocks beside the creek.

The next step was to develop centreline concepts, which is always an interesting part of design, and sometimes exasperating. It’s my nature not to be satisfied without looking at all sorts of alternatives, but even this process sometimes leaves you with difficulties. I remember at Ellerston being unsure of the best way to move from the major creek into the more upland section of the course. And the current 8th hole was Greg Norman’s sensible answer to this problem when we reviewed the staked centrelines. At Ellerston I was very pleased with many of the centrelines I had developed, but had also struggled with a couple of other holes in my attempt to keep the course walkable. In the site review Greg Norman ‘found’ the centrelines for Holes 12 and 13, which are very dramatic holes, but their inclusion did mean that the course was not walkable.

The detail drawings which followed were very demanding on some projects and more notional on others.  The objective on The Moonah at The National, for example, was to find great natural centrelines and the drawings I did were far less extensive than on most other jobs. The Glades, on the other hand, was a dead flat site in a flood plain.  After completing the centreline concept, I had to draw half-metre contours over the whole site to define the shape and features of the golf course. At the same time these drawings had to satisfy the requirement that the finished golf course and residential project must store the same amount of floodwater as the site did previously. I’d never drawn anything as difficult as this before, but it was a rewarding process to create ‘natural’, continuous shape for the course and satisfy the flood problem at the same time.

On all of these projects my next task was to watchdog construction, and this meant visiting the sites at regular intervals to finesse shapes and take best advantage of natural features. Good drawing is a necessary start, but it’s not enough by itself – you have to put the time in on site to get the best artistic and strategic results.

DO – Which were your favourite projects during those Norman years, and why?

BH – I was enthusiastic about all the projects, but I guess the favourites are the ones with the most beautiful, natural sites. The three that stand out would be Moonah, Ellerston and Nirwana Bali. The ocean holes at Bali were fantastic. It’s extremely rare to get cliff-top land along the ocean, and I spent weeks looking at alternative ways of using this land in order to make the best of it. The question then was what flavour to give the inland holes so that they didn’t suffer by comparison. Perhaps the most pleasing feature of my design work was deciding to construct rice fields in the roughs on the inland holes after all of the broad shaping had been done. The rice gives the course a Balinese flavour, and a wonderful look to the landscape. Bali was also a favourite because it’s one of my best combinations of dramatic shapes and scenery on the one hand, and interesting strategy on the other.

DO – With a course like National Moonah, there must have been endless options in terms of routings and hole design, how did you ultimately come up with the final 18?

BH – There were, but we had to stick further inland – with Thomson Wolveridge being closer to the ocean. I had many alternatives for each loop of holes. By and large this was the right approach and helped run to ground the very best holes, but in retrospect, I think it’s possible to spend too much time on alternative ways of routing a course – the same as it is on a lot of creative endeavours. I’ve said before that I spent probably 600 to 700 hours looking at alternative centreline concepts on the ground and the drawing board before reaching the ‘final’ routing, which was staked on the ground for review. A month before Greg Norman came to the site, I’d convinced myself that the current 6th hole would be one of the best on the course, and by the time of the site review I had left it off the 18 hole rotation completely.

I think Moonah has terrific holes and deserves its status.  But I did stretch the routing of the course in order to reach the land at the far end of The National’s property, because that’s where the current 10th and 11th are located, and I was determined to include them – and also not to leave this land for Thomson Wolveridge! The last 5 holes are all magnificent, but they’re a very difficult proposition into the wind, and in a perfect world I would rather have one more change of direction and perhaps one very short par 4 in this group.

DO – Was Greg Norman’s level of involvement the same on each project, or was he more hands-on at certain times than others? And which did you prefer?

BH - His involvement varied, which is what you’d expect from someone whose priority was to play tournament golf, particularly in the early days. As a result, the projects were at different levels of advancement when he visited them, but we almost always reviewed both the staked centrelines on site after I’d done the initial planning and concept design, and the course during construction. On the other hand, I did not feel abandoned if a few projects (such as Bali) were well-advanced before he was able to inspect them.

DO – You obviously had access to some wonderful sites during your time at Greg Norman Golf Course Design, was that the best thing about working for a signature design company?

BH – Yes it was. The Bali, Ellerston and Moonah sites were really wonderful. I’ve also got a soft spot for The Grand. And it’s very unlikely that I would ever have been given such sites if I’d been working for myself.  On the other hand, you never know. As we’ve seen in recent years it sometimes takes only one project on spectacular ground to establish worldwide credentials, and I might have been lucky enough for this to happen.

DO – What was the worst aspect of working in a signature design environment?

BH – Perhaps the feeling that in some cases design input had not helped the result. I’ve mentioned some examples where I was thankful for it, but there were other times when, rightly or wrongly, I felt that it hadn’t helped, and I hadn’t been able to influence it.

DO – What were some of the more challenging projects you worked on, and which ones gave you most satisfaction?

BH – One way or another, all of the projects are challenging. If the site is fantastic, there’s the strong desire (and pressure) to make the best of it.  But unless you’re hopeless, you’re obviously going to do pretty well.  There’s no doubt it’s more difficult to achieve a fantastic result if you start with a featureless and physically difficult site, or one that is mountainous and, at face value, unsuitable for golf. In Australia the courses in this category tended to be flat and featureless. They were The Glades, Pelican Waters and Sanctuary Lakes. I’ve talked about The Glades, and there’s no doubt it’s satisfying to reach the outcome we did. Pelican Waters was similarly flat and subject to flood constraints, and once again it was rewarding to progress from the difficult, extensive drawing process, through construction, to a picturesque and interesting course. One of the most rewarding features of Pelican Waters for me was the development of the landscape. The north half of the project was covered in pasture grass, but at the south end the ground was sandy in nature and covered with heathland plants.  This sandy material was transported with all the plants in it to cover the roughs on the golf course after it had been shaped. With very little assistance from anybody, the heathland regenerated, and today it looks as if it had always been there.

As the landscape at Sanctuary Lakes continues to develop, and the course gets more and more recognition, it’s particularly satisfying to reflect on how difficult it was to draw all of the shapes for this course and then to make adjustments on site because impenetrable rock was found in places that hadn’t been anticipated by the engineers.

DO – Design wise, do you have any regrets about leaving Greg Norman’s company?

BH – It had often occurred to me that whenever I left I would almost surely be leaving a number of projects unfinished. I’m probably not alone in this, but I’m always tightly attached to all the projects, and it was always going to be a wrench to leave some of them unfulfilled. The Eastern Golf Club is one of these, and my understanding is that much of the design work I had done has been changed, with the exception of the layout of the upland holes.  Stonecutters Ridge is a little different.  A large percentage of the work at Stonecutters was finished when I left.  It’s a course in two halves – one half in the flood plain similar to The Glades and Pelican Waters, and the other half on rolling upland country integrated with a housing development. Over the years I think I’ve always been associated with the effort to create ‘MacKenzie style’ bunkering, even when constructing in poor clay country. I believe, artistically, this work probably reached its pinnacle at Stonecutters. Vince Flemming did most of the shaping at Stonecutters, and I have enjoyed working with him for more than 30 years, including on many of the projects mentioned.

DO – Were you surprised that after you left, Greg Norman closed his Australian office altogether?

BH – Yes.

DO -  Now that you are out of the system, how do you view ‘signature’ design?

BH – I think the main motivation for the modern version of ‘signature’ design was marketing. It’s not peculiar to Asia, but the biggest impetus certainly came from Asia, where ‘brand’ is perhaps more important than it is elsewhere. It’s probably not a coincidence that one of the biggest players in the early part of the golf boom was Japan, where brand awareness is part of the culture.

That’s not to say that all really successful golf professionals will make poor designers. But it certainly doesn’t follow that they’ll make good designers – perhaps in the same way that good footballers, for example, don’t always make good coaches.

DO – You obviously have a unique insight into the business of signature design. From a client’s perspective, what are the advantages and disadvantages in employing a signature design company?

BH – I’ve mentioned the perceived marketing advantages of signature design. This might be changing – at least on two fronts. Over the last 10 years in America there’s been a move away from the type of signature design that is involved with prominent professional golfers. And in Asia the worm is turning to some extent, because it appears that Chinese developers are divided between those that like the ‘signature’ idea and those that don’t.

There are a number of disadvantages for the client. Firstly the design fee, which is often humungous. Secondly, the energy required to deal with very famous people and the egocentricity which often accompanies them.

DO – As many people are aware, you spent the last few years working at the New South Wales Golf Club, designing the new 18th hole and adding areas of exposed sand around the course. Is redesign work a passion of yours and a focus for your new business, or are you primarily looking to attract new course clients?

BH – In my new business I anticipate that there will be some redesign work and some new projects, and I am passionate about both.

I worked on New South Wales for 10 years. It was exciting to be involved with one of the country’s best courses, but also a serious responsibility. Working on a hole or two in isolation is often more difficult than working on a brand new project. I believe the outcome on the 18th, for example, was a really good one. On the other hand, one of the appealing features of revising the 18th was how bland it was before the redesign work started, and the feeling of confidence that the new version would be much better than the old one.

DO – Now the sales pitch, why should golf clubs or developers in Australia employ Bob Harrison?

BH – I’m passionate about golf course design, and I will give you my best effort if you’re my client – partly because that’s appropriate, and partly because it’s fun and it’s what motivates me. By and large I think my dealings with clients have been friendly and reasonable. So I suspect that if you’re a future client, you’ll probably enjoy the interaction. While my fees are appropriate, they’re not overly expensive. So I’m not going to break the bank.

However, none of this would be enough by itself. My track record in design is substantial, and many of my projects are well-regarded and ranked highly. And this covers all sorts of projects which include:  free-standing courses such as The National, Ellerston and The Grand; courses attached to resorts such as Nirwana Bali, Pelican Waters and The Vintage; and courses in residential developments such as Brookwater, Stonecutters Ridge, Pelican Waters, The Vintage, Sanctuary Lakes and several in Asia.

Some of the sites were beautiful. Some were bland and difficult. Some even had major constraints such as flooding. And I think they all worked out well.

So you might consider employing me if your project falls into any of these categories.

Darius Oliver, Architecture Editor