BLA Student’s Design Skills Come to the Fore

Undergrad wins Mission Hills China golf course design competition

BLA student Riley Johns enjoys at game as his favourite golf course: Jack’s Point on New Zealand’s South Island.

When Riley Johns first snuck onto the local golf course with his teenage buddies, he was so green to the links that he didn’t have his own clubs. It took two years of hacking around with right-handed sticks before he realized he was a left-handed player.  “That knocked my score down right away,” he says.

This year, when the U of G landscape architecture student jets off with his still-secret foursome for an all-expenses-paid trip at an exclusive golf resort on China’s Hainan Island, he’ll get to play as many rounds as he likes on its existing 20 courses.

That’s not all. After the resort owner builds its new 18-holer on the island, Johns will hold a lifetime membership to the course. All going well, that course will feature the Guelph student’s grand prize-winning hole, modelled after Central American ruins.

In June, Johns was named the winner of a golf-hole design contest run by Mission Hills China. The company runs golf clubs, hotels and resorts in China’s fast-growing sports and leisure industry, including its property on Hainan Island in the South China Sea – described as China’s answer to Hawaii.

After hearing about the contest last year, he decided to draw on his design smarts and not-inconsiderable knowledge of golf course renovation to create three entries. Back home in Canmore, Alta., for the summer, he recalls: “They wanted wild and wacky designs for a new golf course to be built at Mission Hills. I hung out in Guelph and did this over the Christmas break.”

It was his first golf course design contest, but hardly his first exposure to golf courses. Now 27, he’s helped build and rejuvenate courses in Western Canada for about nine years.

Along with golf course architects, Johns has worked on five new courses, including Wildstone in Cranbrook, B.C. He’s helped restore classic courses from Canada’s “golden age” of the early 1900s, including the Donald Ross-designed Elmhurst club in Winnipeg and the Calgary Golf and Country Club designed by Willie Park Jr.

He’s expanded courses in Calgary and Fort McMurray, Alta., remodelled holes in Creston, B.C., and built practice facilities in Calgary’s Willow Park and Priddis Greens.

This spring, he completed bunker and tee renovations with Toronto-based architect Tom McBroom at Country Hills in Calgary.  McBroom also studied landscape architecture at Guelph, completing his BLA degree in 1975.

Johns grew up in Banff and Canmore and gained valuable experience working with his dad on land surveying. That background meshed with his growing love of golf. Having sorted out his right and left hands, he’s taken his 10-handicap onto courses in Canada and abroad.

His favourite is Jack’s Point on New Zealand’s South Island. “The views are unbelievable. There’s an amazing panoramic view of a mountain lake with snow-capped mountains behind the lake, native prairie grass right along the water’s edge and a lot of cool drop-off fairways; it’s just a really fun course to play.”

Back home in Canmore, he’s played the local courses but doesn’t belong to any clubs. “I can’t afford the membership,” says Johns, who hopes to land a requisite internship this fall to complete his degree.

He says the market for new Canadian golf courses has cooled. This spring he spent time in a northern Alberta camp, building lease roads through muskeg.

He’ll head to China for the four-day whirlwind this summer. So far, he’s promised to take his girlfriend (and sometime design muse), but he’s still playing coy with the remaining two tickets. “I’m keeping that a secret. Everybody’s buying me drinks. They’re going to find out the night before.”

For the China contest, he designed three holes. All three were shortlisted among entries from more than 30 countries; winning entries will be built in the planned icon course. Its construction date has yet to be announced.

Johns’s grand-prize winner is a par-five, 510-yarder called “Riches to Ruins.” The design uses bunkers shaped like prehistoric rock carvings and faux ruins of pyramids and monuments.

For his “Riches to Ruins” design, Riley Johns won a lifetime membership at an exotic course to be built by China’s Mission Hills on Hainan Island.

That’s a nod to Central America’s Mayan ruins. Six years ago, Johns bought some land and built a house in Nicaragua. Located on the Pacific coast north of San Juan del Sur, it’s his favourite winter surfing venue.

While at U of G last winter, Johns took an inaugural course in golf course architecture offered by Prof. Bob Brown, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development. Brown had expected about half-a-dozen students would sign up for the offering. Instead, he attracted about 30 BLA students in second, third and fourth years, as well as some master’s students.

“I think there’s a latent interest there that nobody had ever tapped into,” says Brown, who invited practising architects to give guest lectures. “People interested in landscape architecture tend to be interested in big open spaces and how they’re designed.”

Speaking of his student’s contest win, he says, “The international recognition is like a launch pad for him. He now can take that to any golf course architect in the world, and they can know they’ve got a quality person coming to work for them.”

Building golf courses or a vacation home in Nicaragua, Riley Johns is honing his skills in design and construction.