The man who works on most of the Open courses, Martin Ebert, on creating his own Old Course
What are your first memories of the game?
That was a long time ago and I am not sure my memory is good enough to remember! I think it may have been watching the Masters but it might not have been. I think I have failed with the first question! It must have been around 1978 I imagine.
Was there a big influence on you playing golf in your early years and where did you play most of your childhood golf?
Initially no as I believe I was self-motivated.
I started by going to Colnbrook driving range near Heathrow. My mum worked at the airport so I would be dropped off there – at my request rather than mum just finding something to do with me in the holidays! – and I would hit balls.
That led to playing the par-3 course in the middle of Sandown Park race course and nearby Moor Place, which I think was another par-3 course.
Mum and dad bought me a second-hand half set for around £10 but did not expect the fad to last that long.
In those early days, my Dad made efforts to start playing which was very good of him but, unfortunately, he did not really excel. I then graduated to paying a green fee at places like Laleham to sample its full 18-hole course.
My uncle was an influence on me as he played to a handicap of around 18 and I would go to caddie for him on some occasions.
I also started to watch the game on television and became a great fan of Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer in particular.
Was there a course or even an incident in your childhood-into-teenage years playing golf that left an impression on you?
I do think that watching the Masters at Augusta made quite an impression on me whether it was my first memory or not.
In some ways the Masters gets a bad press for giving golfers false expectations of how perfect their own courses should be but I do believe the tournament and the course have inspired a lot of people to start playing the game.
What made you decide you wanted to be an architect and how did you go about it?
I didn’t ever decide I wanted to become an architect, and, by the way, I prefer to refer to myself as a golf course designer rather than an architect as I have no qualifications as an architect.
I did decide that I wanted to have a career in golf in some form but I did not think that I could design golf courses.
What was your first entry to the industry?
That came about through a lucky break. I had organised the Cambridge University Tour of the United States of 1989 in order to celebrate the playing of the 100th Varsity Match against Oxford.
That led me to want to do something in golf. A good friend from the Cambridge team, Andy Mackenzie, knew that Donald Steel and Andy’s brother, Tom, who had started working for Donald a year before, needed some help.
I did not know what I was going to an interview for when I went to meet Donald.
I knew him more as a journalist than a golf course designer so I thought it could be to help him research his books but it turned out to be to work within the design side of his activities. It was the new course boom time after all.
Tom had been working for Donald for a year already and was snowed under with projects. I was in at the deep end!
Has there been one lucky break that really boosted your career in the early days?
That break to work for Donald there is no doubt. At the time I was about to sign up for accountancy as I had been struggling to get anywhere in the golf world after finishing at Cambridge.
My previous two jobs had been as a waiter at Foxhills Country Club – at least that had a connection with golf – and a night-shift shelf stacker at Gateways Supermarkets – in that order so things were going downhill!
I did have an offer from one or two accountancy firms but Donald said that I could have a trial for six months and always go back to the accountancy as the firms said they would keep the offers open.
Luckily – or maybe unluckily as who knows what would have happened if I had changed tack – I did not go back to the accountants.
Do you look back in horror at some fledgling work you did, or actually are you quite satisfied with your early days?
A mixture really. You learn so much over the years of course but, in general, I have been pleased with going back to projects which I worked on at the very start of my career.
That has been happening for a few projects in recent years which is a bit of a worrying sign of how long I have been in the business.
However, I have been pleased by some of the green shapes I come across and, perhaps, there is an argument that earlier work was less constrained.
What is the one piece of design work you’d still like to do?
I would like to design a new course on a flat piece of land which is pure sand.
Reshaping of the sand could produce a course which is Old Course in character. That would be a challenge of producing man-made nature which would be a fascinating one.
I would also like to help the Casey family with the possible development of another course at Rosapenna in Donegal, Ireland.
I did draw up a scheme, which I volunteered to do for no fee, which I believe would make the most of their new land. I think it is the best site I have ever seen.
Is there a project you were close to getting and just missed out on that you still lament?
That could be Rosapenna if the Casey family ultimately go with someone else.
Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery and do you ever spot little things you’ve done on courses elsewhere – perhaps even within architects in your own firm?
For a start, it is often the case that I will try to imitate features or shapes of old courses in my work but there is some great work being produced by some of the modern-day designers and that can provide ideas too. However, the old courses often provide the very best inspiration.
When it comes to copying my work, I am not sure I have been aware of that but Tom and I learn from each other’s work and projects there is no doubt.
How do you deal with criticism of your work?
I am very critical of my own work, constantly reviewing whether I have got it right. It does give me concerns and worries when I do feel as though the result should have been better.
However, the key is to work as hard as you can to get things right and consider every detail possible. It is also important not be afraid to make adjustments during construction if things do not seem quite right.
As far as other people being critical, everyone has a right to their own opinion and there really are no rules when it comes to golf course design, so opinions are likely to vary dramatically.
If a client has a criticism of a design, it is best to talk through the design process, what the reasoning for a particular feature is, whether, upon review, it is appropriate and if any change is required.
When it comes to ill-informed criticism, that is rather disappointing and often unhelpful.
Do you still love golf and do you still play golf regularly?
I love the game of golf, how courses can produce a beautiful landscape, hopefully an improvement on what was there before (though that is a tough one to judge and on what parameters should it be judged), meeting the people that play the game and who love their courses or projects and for continually fostering friendships which really do last.
I have recently enjoyed a 30-year reunion of old university team golfers which was great fun.
As for playing golf, I detest playing badly which seems to be happening more and more as time goes on and I play less and less.
So, on many occasions, I do not enjoy playing golf at all but that is interspersed with some very enjoyable rounds. I have found that I play far better after lunch and the lunch does not necessarily need to involve any food!
However, I do have my annual sequence of events which I really enjoy consisting of the President’s Putter at Rye in January, the Spring Meeting of The R&A at St Andrews, the Askernish Open in the Outer Hebrides in August (the scene of perhaps my greatest round when I shot 78 with two full submersions in the Atlantic!) and the Autumn Meeting of The R&A in September.
In recent years I have also played a few matches against the current Cambridge University team as my son Elliot is playing for them at the moment. We have had some great matches going either way.
There are also a few friendly games interspersed but, if I am really honest, if I have three hours spare, I would prefer to spend them cycling around the South Downs or somewhere else as beautiful.
It is hard to cycle badly whereas there seems to be unlimited opportunities for disappointment when playing golf!