To the layman, a golf course is a grassy area where people with too much time waste their days chasing a small ball around. To the golfer, they are a beautiful place where he/she can go unwind for a few hours and spend time with some friends while doing something they enjoy. To those of us that build them they are works of art, nightmares, labors of love, headaches… our babies. Many people when they see a beautiful track think that the maintenance superintendent is doing a good job. And they will be right. Others more in the know will praise the designer for his vision. It usually is well deserved. I have even seen some people tell the golf pro what an excellent job he is doing. But nobody, and I mean nobody, except for those involved in building courses, thinks of the shaper.
What is a shaper? I am so glad you asked. A shaper is a person who is fanatically passionate about his job. A shaper is a person who works meticulously, usually for ten or twelve hours a day, interpreting the designer’s ideas and sculpting them into the earth. A shaper is someone that must please many people at once. Though the Architect is the designer of the course, usually the builder fancies himself a visionary and throws his two cents in. The owner always, always has his input, I have even seen the owner’s wife make design decisions, the owner’s son make design decisions, the owner’s dog… you get the idea. At the end of the day the shaper must make them all happy.
A shaper is also a gypsy. Travel is the name of the game. Sometimes working in six different countries in one year is not uncommon. Shape some bunkers here, tweak a putting surface or two there, good shapers are in demand. When a designer finds a shaper that can consistently put his ideas into the dirt his life is a lot easier. Everyone saves money in that case. Nothing more painful to me than watching a shaper struggle to grasp a designers vision as he builds something over and over again only to have Jack, Greg, or Robert tell them it just isn’t right. It can happen to just about anyone. We all have bad days. Versatility is important, in your work, and your style of living. Sometimes your bed may be in a 5 star hotel, other times it may be a hammock between two palm trees. Sometimes the latter is more appealing. Fear of flying is not allowed,, Up and down, three or sometimes four connections a day. Jumbos to Cessnas, Heathrow to Huntsville, just don’t lose my bags please.
Watching a good shaper work is like eating Crispy Cream Doughnuts, an absolute joy. To a gifted shaper with twenty years in the saddle the machine becomes an extension of himself. No need to think about shifting gears, steering or lifting the blade. His only thought is the percentage of slope on the front pin position of the green, are the bunkers visible from the tees, and how can we make the hole work and still save those trees on the left? It seems no two shapers work alike. Some prefer working with the bigger machines. It is very exciting roughing in a par four in one day sitting on a new D8, running wide open, or as we like to say,”WFO.”. Making every move count, moving huge amounts of earth, this is where the shape and flow of the land really come together quickly. Others prefer the smaller finishing machines, reaping the rewards of attention to detail and leaving a polished product for the designer’s inspection. Truly good shapers are equally adept at both, as well as getting a putting surface to within millimeters with a sandpro and even a hand rake.
. Due to their experience quite often shapers assume control over much of the construction process. Directing the mass excavation, marking drainage and bunkers, the list is practically endless. Some of the best began at the very bottom of the food chain. On a shovel or rake. In my opinion, these are the people with the most to offer a project. They know every step involved in creating a 18 hole, living, breathing golf course. Oh yes, golf courses are alive. Especially in the construction phase. Everyday they grow and evolve, misbehave and then make you proud, very much like a small child. Shapers know this child better than anyone, they have watched it emerge into the world, take it’s first steps, struggle through adversity, and hopefully with some talented guidance become what it’s creators had dreamed of.
So the next time you step up onto the tees and the view that greets you makes your heart skip a beat and takes your breath away. Think of the person that poured two thousand hours of their life into the eighteen holes about to challenge you. Actually that is a conservative estimate. Most shapers lie awake at night going over things in their head, trying to visualize how they can make a green better or how to handle the massive amounts of run-off flowing down a fairway. Now, give a little thanks, tee up and may the Golf Gods be with you.
My name is Steve, and I’m a shaper.