PALO ALTO, Calif. - Over the past decade or so, two seemingly incongruous
industries - Indian gaming and the sport of golf - have demonstrated
dramatic growth in popularity and revenue. At first glance there might seem
to be little in common between reservation-based economic development and
an activity sometimes perceived as "elitist." But as the larger and more
successful Indian casinos continue to expand into full-fledged resorts,
golf courses have become more common on the menu of choices offered to
patrons of tribally owned casino/resorts.
Since time immemorial, respect for land and environment has been an
important cultural tenet held throughout Indian country. Today, tribal
governments desiring a foothold in the golfing industry seek to offer their
patrons not only a challenging golf experience, but an aesthetic and
environmentally pleasing one as well. This is where Robert Trent Jones II
Golf Course Architects (RTJ2) enters the picture; the internationally
renowned company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is poised to help more tribes
achieve both goals.
"Apart from the fact that we're a very major brand name in the industry,
we've got a reputation as the pioneering environmentally friendly design
firm," said John Strawn, RTJ2's chief executive officer.
In a recent interview with Indian Country Today, Strawn explained that
company founder (and son of the legendary Bobby Jones) Robert Trent Jones
was instrumental in the creation of the first wetlands on a golf course,
which took place in the early 1970s in northern California. Since then,
RTJ2 has strictly adhered to what Strawn characterized as a "standard of
behavior" in its course design philosophy.
"Some golf designers, like artists, have a style," Strawn said. "If you see
a Van Gogh, you know it's a Van Gogh; if you see a Picasso, you know it's a
Picasso. With Robert Trent Jones, our golf courses are always very eclectic
in appearance because we always try to make them fit the site. We're not
going to put the same course at Turning Stone in upstate New York that
we're going to put on Cochiti Pueblo in the dry desert Southwest."
Instead, RTJ2 takes a site-specific approach, crafting each golf course to
fit the lay of the land rather than disturb the land to make the course
"fit." The company retains a strong interest in keeping wildlife habitats
and wetlands undisturbed as well. In the end, Strawn said, such
site-specific courses operate more efficiently.
"That's always been our approach and it seems to be very much in keeping
with most of the tribal groups' desires and approach," he continued.
"That's one of the things that's made us have a good working relationship
with the Indian nations we've worked with."
While Strawn declined to comment on the specifics of RTJ2's several pending
projects in Indian country, he spoke proudly of two existing tribally owned
golf courses designed by RTJ2: the Cochiti Pueblo golf course in New Mexico
and the Kaluhyat Golf Club in central New York.
The 25-year-old Cochiti course, he explained, is a "standalone" golf course
- meaning it is not associated with a hotel or casino. For cultural
reasons, Cochiti has eschewed involvement in gaming.
"It continues to be regarded as one of the best golf courses in the
Southwest and is always rated among the top daily fee courses in the
country," said Strawn. "It's absolutely gorgeous - one of the prettiest
places on the planet - classic high-desert mesas, incredible panoramas."
Kaluhyat, which opened in August 2003, is located adjacent to the Oneida
Nation's Turning Stone Resort and Casino and is one of five courses
operated by the nation. (Indian Country Today is also an enterprise of the
In June 2004, the course received from Audubon International the
prestigious distinction as a Certified Bronze International Signature
Sanctuary, recognizing Kaluhyat's commitment to environmental sensitivity
in its design and appearance. The challenging course features wetlands,
wooded areas and open spaces, and many types of wildlife are present in and
around the course.
The January 2005 issue of Golf Digest magazine named Kaluhyat one of the
"best new upscale golf courses" in the United States. The magazine surveyed
some 800 low-handicap golfers for an evaluation of the shot values, design
variety, scoring resistance, "memorability" and aesthetics of approximately
150 courses that opened around the same time. Kaluhyat earned a rating of
44.109 out of a possible 50 points.
Golf Magazine and Celebrated Living have lauded Kaluhyat as well.
Strawn told ICT that working with tribal governments has been a positive
experience for his company.
"While there's definitely politics, it's a different kind of politics," he
observed. "It's not about victory or power so much as it is about cultural
preservation and making sure that the projects are in keeping with the
historic cultural goals of the people. So we try to be really sensitive to
these kinds of issues when we make presentations to a tribal council or to
a leadership group.
"We try to be as sensitive as possible to taking in all points of view and
to listen really carefully," Strawn continued. "It's true that we're
experts in golf course design, but that's a fairly limited expertise. We
want to make sure that we're paying attention to what the overall setting
is, what the overall goals are and to make it an integrated process. We've
learned a lot in the projects that we've had the opportunity to work on.
It's been quite interesting."
Strawn noted that tribal decisions to move forward with golf course
projects are not constrained by the same types of bureaucratic and
permitting issues that often slow the company's projects with private,
non-Indian developers. But this is not to say that there is no regulation
or concern on the tribes' part - on the contrary, intense tribal interest
in land stewardship make the opposite true.
"In the case of the Oneida Nation, for example, once they made their
decision to move they were able to move very quickly," Strawn noted.
"Because of their culture and history [tribes in general] are typically
extremely sensitive to land-use and environmental issues. So there's
already a built-in protection in the development process."
Going forward, Strawn waxed enthusiastic about RTJ2's "informal
association" with Notah Begay, the outstanding Navajo golfer. Begay was a
collegiate teammate of Tiger Woods at Stanford University and has enjoyed
success on the Professional Golfers' Association Tour.
"Notah is very interested in giving back to tribal peoples and organizing
youth programs," Strawn said. "We've been working with [him] to offer our
services collaboratively - that would involve Notah's being a collaborator
with us on design and also us helping design teaching facilities where he
would have input."
With courses in some three dozen countries, RTJ2 is already a force in
international golf; look for the Robert Trent Jones II team to become a
major player in tribal golf courses in the coming years.