Forrest Richardson studied golf architecture throughout the Fife region of Scotland. He learned under the direction of his mentor, the late Arthur Jack Snyder, a past president of ASGCA. Together, they collaborated for twenty years, completing more than seventy courses. Forrest established his own firm, Forrest Richardson & Associates, in 1988. The firm, based in Phoenix, Arizona, has completed new work, including The Hideout in Monticello, Utah; Phantom Horse Golf Club in Phoenix, Arizona; Olivas Links in Ventura, California; Coldwater Golf Club and Wigwam in Arizona; and The Links at Las Palomas in Sonora, Mexico. His historic renovations include the Arizona Biltmore’s Adobe Course and Wailea Old Blue on Maui. He has authored three books on golf course design.
This is a lesson in site economics. I could probably fill a book with stories about my time in the Soviet Union, working with a team of planners, construction executives, and resort architects trying to figure out the master concept and plan for a 30,000-acre peninsula. I remember the crab leg dinner I ate in the sauna at Brezhnev’s mansion (Brezhnev was not there). I can still smell the fumes from the enormous helicopter that ran on diesel fuel …and the cigarette smoke of its three pilots who sat down and lit up just a few feet away from the fuel tank.
Maybe my most enduring story—or lesson—is about the site we worked on: an amazing 30,000-acre peninsula jutting into the Sea of Japan and lapped by blue waters to the south and the calm ripples of a bay to the north. We were there, as our client pointed out, “to plan the Pebble Beach of Asia.” And we eventually did.
Our approach was to create a destination that would draw the golfing population of Japan, which was a mere hour’s plane ride away. This amazing land was in Asiatic Russia near the maritime submarine port of Vladivostok. The chief planner was Vernon Swaback, an acclaimed architect, visionary, and author who had worked with the legendary designer Frank Lloyd Wright. Swaback started his own practice in the desert of Arizona, where he has planned several large resorts and communities: each something to behold in the creativity and comfort they reflect.
Swaback pointed out how we needed more than golf at what became known as The Peninsula. “The destination will require activities which will keep guests at The Peninsula for longer stays,” said Swaback, “especially when the weather is not conducive to golf.”
As the plan unfolded, the team had sketched a fishing marina, a recreational boat marina, three resort lodges, a major spa, hunting grounds, and as many as 108 holes of golf spread over seven miles. The courses were clustered, some sharing a clubhouse while others stood alone as eighteen-hole layouts with individual themes. There were as many as twenty credible ocean holes among the courses. Two in particular, I remarked, would be nearly as special as anything Seventeen-Mile Drive in Monterey, California, had to offer.
It was a breathtaking and ambitious plan. Everybody was enthusiastic about taking it to the next step. But as the plan progressed it became clear to us that the absence of infrastructure was perhaps an insurmountable obstacle. The site would require a nearby airport, a desalination plant (for drinking and irrigation water), and the construction of a new road, if not for access by guests, at least for the purposes of delivering goods from Vladivostok, which is some three hours away by truck. All told, the bill — even before development — had the possibility of exceeding $2-billion.
Eventually, the Soviet Union became the Russian Federation. The Iron Curtain was lifted, and what little was left of the economy took an even greater beating. Not only would there be no help from the Russians, but the uncertainty of doing expensive business in such a tenuous political and economic climate was unappealing to investors.
Through planning and site evaluation, we determined exactly what any good planning team would conclude: the project was not viable. It was a painful realization, but maybe one day it pay off. After all, the land is still there — and so are the plans!
The trip to Vladivostok, in the Soviet Union, involved nine Americans: a planner, two developers, two golf course management executives, a construction executive, two golf course architects, and an interpreter. Our charge was to investigate a large uninhabited peninsula, really an island, and determine the viability of turning it into a destination resort with multiple golf courses.
Before we left home, we asked the Russians to send us a copy of the topographical map of the land. The idea was for us to study the site and form general opinions before getting there. But no map arrived before we left.
When we arrived in Russia, one of the first questions asked was about the topo. “Topo is coming soon,” was the reply. We believed this, and spent the next twenty-four hours adjusting to the time change a world away.
The next day arrived, but no topo. And then the second day. The third. And then a fourth. We had eaten plenty of Russian cuisine. We drank plenty of Russian “mystery juice,” and sipped plenty of Russian vodka. Each of these was a precious commodity. The topo, apparently, was even more precious. So, too, was the ability to actually visit the site. Our hosts took us to virtually every corner of Vladivostok and the surrounding countryside, except the site itself.
The fact that we were in Russia trying to design such a major project and had neither visited the site nor been given topographical maps began to disturb us. While the developers met behind closed doors to discuss financial issues, the architectural and design contingency toured buildings, fisheries, and technical schools. When we inquired as to when we would visit the site, we were told the weather was not right for the helicopter. When we asked about the maps, we were told that they would soon be ready.
Our requests for maps were beginning to get old, for us and for the Russians. Finally, in the context of a financial discussion, one of the developers made a strong plea that we all really needed to get to the site and take a look at the topographical maps. This seemed to work, likely because developers tend to talk finances and finances tend to mean business. So that evening we were informed that we would visit the site in the morning, by helicopter. The anticipation mounted.
We did take off in the morning, all nine members of the design team and an equal number of local officials, in a massive beast of a helicopter, which could transport forty-five soldiers. But, due to windy conditions, we could not land. We did manage a great flyover of the property, and it was absolutely breathtaking, but we still needed maps!
That night—the end of our fifth day in Russia—we conspired as to how to get maps. It was like a secret meeting of the nine Americans, plotting about who to ask next…and wondering why it was so damned hard to get a topo map.
We cooked pasta for our hosts; we had brought it from the states complete with meat sauce. They apparently had never before enjoyed such a delicacy and were grateful for the cultural enlightenment. It must have worked: they told us that the next morning we would drive to the site, and they promised we’d have the maps.
This did, indeed, happen, and arriving at the site at last was a magical experience. Finally, we were on the site and not hovering in a military helicopter at 1,000 feet. Our motorcade made its way across dirt trails, and for the next several hours we absorbed the site and its tremendous potential. Toward the end of the afternoon we arrived at an old mansion, which had been used for bombing practice during World War II.
As we explored the ruins, we noticed a man in a trench coat unfolding a small map. At last! The topo! The topo, though, we would learn, was government property and as such it was closely guarded, which is why it took so long to get to us. In fact, it was stamped “Cherenko” (Secret). On the way back home a few days later I had the terrifying realization that I technically had a secret Russian document in my briefcase. I feared for a moment I might be detained by the Russians and accused of spying!