May 14, 2007

This One's for Gail

How a real estate mogul with disabilities motivated architect Jim Engh to create courses every short hitter can enjoy.

Engh and Gail Liniger, co-founder of RE/MAX, look at the blueprints for Sanctuary, the course he designed for her game.

Jim Engh looks like a Colorado guy, which he is. Jeans, vest, Merrell shoes, a white 4 x 4 Dodge truck. He's also a guy's guy. Goes on a golf trip to Ireland twice a year with buddies and colleagues; gives his wife, Monie, a diamond as a thank-you for putting up with his jaunts; is happy to throw back a Guinness or two at any time; has a reputation for 300-yard-plus drives; and currently boasts a 2.8 Handicap Index.

At 47, he is also one of golf's hottest course architects. Engh has worked on more than 150 courses worldwide and his Colorado-based firm—the James J. Engh Golf Design Group—which he started in 1991, has won more awards in the last 10 years than any other design firm, including Jack Nicklaus' and Pete Dye's. From 2001 to 2003, courses designed by the company have won an unprecedented three Golf Digest awards in a row (Best New Public Affordable, Best New Public Upscale and Best New Private), which explains why, in 2003, Golf Digest also named Engh Architect of the Year.

Engh would be the first to admit that certain golf architects (he won't name names, but it's clear he's thinking of current and former tour players) forget what it's like to be merely mortal, and that sometimes they design golf courses that way. "I'm more interested in what the 25--handicapper has to say about the experience than a tour pro," he says. "There are a lot of golfers who aren't as good as the guys designing courses. If your only goal is to put a golf course out there that the touring pros can play, you're missing the boat."

Noted course architect and author Tom Doak agrees. "In general, I think architects design for people they're familiar with, and a lot of tour player designers have trouble relating to the average golfer, man or woman. They can't visualize how hard it is for them."

"We talk about the best players in the world, and we're talking about maybe 1,500 people," says LPGA Hall of Famer and ABC sports commentator Judy Rankin. "But recreational golf can't be about those people. Experts talk about how the ball goes too far now, but most of the people I know say the ball doesn't go far enough. The golf industry is trying to get women into the game and keep them in the game, and having golf courses that are 'fun' ensures that."

So what turned a long-hitting guy like Jim Engh into a friend of the forward tees? A woman, of course.

Her name is Gail Liniger. She's 61 years old and has an impressive business resumé, lots of cash and indomitable courage. In 1973 Gail and her husband Dave co-founded RE/MAX, the real estate company with 119,000 sales associates in over 6,400 offices worldwide. Shortly after marrying in 1984, they both took up golf.

This was no small undertaking for Gail: In the fall of 1983, she almost died in a seaplane crash. The Linigers, who live near Denver, Colo., had been in Bracebridge, Ontario, for a convention; afterward some colleagues invited them to their lakeside cabin. There was only one seat available on the plane. Dave insisted that Gail take it. The flight to the cabin was uneventful, but the plane stalled on the return takeoff and crashed. Gail, who has no memory of the accident, suffered a brain injury that left her with a paralyzed left arm, a dropped left foot and loss of left peripheral vision in both eyes. (To this day she wears a brace on her left arm to keep the muscles from constricting and a brace on her left leg to support her foot.)

Still, Gail was determined to continue her life as before. Months of rehabilitation and outpatient therapy followed; several doctors told her she would never walk again. Not only did she prove them wrong, she learned to play golf swinging with one arm.

For Gail, golf became the perfect escape from the office and long grueling workweeks. She loves the outdoors and the camaraderie and the competitive challenge of the game. Gail and Dave had been members at the Country Club at Castle Pines, but Dave had something else in mind: He was in the process of buying land for their collection of Arabian horses. Now, he decided, he wanted to build a golf course for Gail and himself.

Dave Liniger and Jim Engh were friends—they had met while playing in a tournament at the Country Club at Castle Pines—and Dave offered Engh the job. The course, which would be called Sanctuary Golf Course, would be more than private; it would have only two members, Gail and Dave Liniger. Engh was given one overriding mandate: Make it fun for Gail. The course would eventually win Engh his first award: Golf Digest's No. 1 Best New Private Course in 1997. But first, it would change his thinking.

"Dave wanted a place for Gail to be able to play and enjoy it," recalls Engh, sitting in one of the plush leather chairs in Sanctuary's 23,000-square-foot clubhouse. Gail sits beside him. "With the rugged terrain we have, that was a bit of a feat," he adds. "It forced me to sit down and think about players who don't hit the ball as far as others." Engh had two main considerations. "One was allowing them to hit greens in regulation. On older courses, [short hitters' tee shots landed] 150 yards behind the good players' shots. They would have to hit it again and again, sometimes needing their three best shots [to reach the green] on a par 4. Having a chance to putt for birdie, that's the essence of the game; that's what makes it exciting and fun for most people."

At Sanctuary, Engh scaled the yardage from the forward tees, which at most courses tends to range from 5,300 to 5,500 yards, back to 4,600 yards. "This made it much easier to play and much easier to keep the ball in the fairway," he explains. Still, he cautions, "shorter and easier is one thing, but if a golfer can't hit a ball to a certain area, they miss a lot of the visual aesthetics; the shots become harder and the second dimension of the experience isn't as exciting or as detailed."

"On uphill shots, I moved the tees way up," he says. "Because the forward tees were near the fairway, it was much easier for Gail to physically reach. She really opened my eyes."

Gail, who tries to play at least once a week, now celebrates two birthdays each year: the date of her birth and the date of her accident, because "I'm still around and I want to celebrate. So I'm really 22!"

As she and Engh chat, with Pikes Peak in the distance, Gail talks about the beauty of each hole, the views from the tee boxes and the varied wildlife. She invites me to play Sanctuary that day. But when I suggest that we play together, she gets shy and says, "I'm not very good."

"I don't think I've ever told her this," Engh says. "It's terribly inspiring for me to go out and watch her play." He recalls a round he played with Gail at Sanctuary, and his amazement at how she swings the club with just her right arm. "She shot 112. She has this determination that if there's a hill in her way, she's going to get up that hill and get her ball and hit and get on. There's nothing but positive attitude coming out of Gail."

When asked about her best golf moment on Sanctuary, Gail eagerly obliges. "June 30, 2002," she says. "Dave and I were on No. 6, a par 3. I got up to the tee box, thinking, 'I need to do everything right and keep my arm out straight, don't peek.' I was hitting a 5-wood and it ended up being a 97-yard shot that went straight into the hole." She explains that initially she thought her ball had rolled off the green, but when her husband saw what happened, he pointed at the cup. "I was jumping up and down with joy, and then I started crying," she says. "It's something I never thought I could achieve with one arm."

Jim Engh's role as a champion for women golfers may have been an unlikely twist of fate, but his career as a golf course architect wasn't. The town he grew up in, Dickinson, N.D., had a nine-hole course that his father, the local John Deere dealer, built with some friends in 1958, the year Engh was born. His father, a WWII fighter pilot, didn't take up the game until he was in his 30s but managed to win two state senior tournaments. His mother, too, was a good player. Engh crashed his first golf cart at the age of 1½ and can't remember not having a club in his hand while growing up. He still returns to Dickinson every Labor Day for Heart River Golf Club's (now 18 holes) annual tournament. This will be his 29th year.

Engh studied landscape architecture and turfgrass science at Colorado State University and began his career in course construction in 1981, working on projects with established architects such as Dick Nugent, Ken Dye, Rees Jones and Arthur Hills. In 1986 Engh joined the renowned British design firm Cotton Pennick as director of golf course design and construction; the company was later acquired by IMG, and Engh developed courses for IMG in Europe, working with names such as Bernhard Langer and Isao Aoki.

Over the years, Engh developed his own ideas about architecture, and many of his favorite themes are in play at Sanctuary. For instance, there are large bowled greens that collect and hold the ball, so that while it's not overly difficult to get on the green and two-putt, a one-putt is a huge victory. He makes holes look more intimidating than they play. Even his few forced carries are relatively forgiving; on the 11th hole, Engh offers a narrow edge on the left side of the fairway so shorter hitters can bail out. "There's this stigma that golf has to fit into rules that someone somewhere who nobody knows established once," he says. "You can't do this. You can't do that. I don't believe any of that. I think you throw the rules out the window so you can open your mind to new ideas when they come along and implement them without fear of what people might say."

Fortuitously, there have been ancillary benefits to Engh's Sanctuary design. Each year, the Linigers open the course for charity functions; last year, 23 events were held at the club, netting about $6 million for various worthy organizations and causes. "The majority of women who play the golf course for charity play from the forward tees," says Sanctuary head professional Rudy Zupetz. "They have a good time because they have a chance to hit greens in regulation. It gives them the opportunity to experience the game like a more accomplished player." Zupetz offers his wife as a prime example. "We've got a couple of little kids at home and she doesn't get to play a whole lot, but she can still enjoy this course."

For Engh, designing for shorter hitters isn't just altruism, it's good business. He understands that it's not about making the tees woman-friendly per se, it's about making the course golfer-friendly—beginning golfers, young golfers, old golfers—which means just about everybody who's not wagging a big stick. "I'm selling an experience, and it has to be fun. If you start to hate the golf course because it has become your antagonist, then you're not having fun any more. If you're embracing the course even if you're not playing well, you're still going to have a good time."

Engh disputes the notion that a friendly golf course is a boring golf course. "There's a difference between a course that becomes your friend and a friendly golf course," he says. "You have to kind of earn the respect of each other to become friends."

At Sanctuary, Engh is proud to report that the course has earned the respect of the only person who matters: Gail Liniger. She teases him good-naturedly about the difficulty of his par 3s, like No. 5: It has a huge ravine that demands a carry of about 90 yards. Engh explains that it was inevitable due to the terrain. "I used to take my max score on that hole," Gail says, "but now I'm starting to get across."

As she prods him about the scrub in front of the tee on No. 6, Engh retorts, "So what's your best score on that hole, Gail?"

Gail beams. "A one."