The Origin Story
At the time of Granite Bay Golf Club’s inception, stadium golf in the United States was in vogue. While it was widely accepted that some of the world’s greatest courses were both fun and challenging to play, the 1980s and early 1990s ushered in an era of course design where the term “challenging” was misinterpreted—or at the very least misrepresented—by modern layouts that were unilaterally defined by their inherent difficulty. In the opinion of Mark Parsinen, Granite Bay’s leading developer (and the creative mind behind the club’s noteworthy golf course), “Challenge is more about arousing keen interest than simply being difficult.”
Parsinen, a lifelong skilled golfer, recognized that golf can be both exhilarating and maddening, but that the game was also undeniably fun. He also rightly observed that “some courses are more fun than others.” With Granite Bay, Parsinen aspired to create a golf course that, above all else, inspired fun. He desired a course that allowed players of all ability levels to enjoy their rounds and to have an opportunity to recover from the occasional poor shot.
“I built it for people like me who loved golf,” he said, “whose skills were suspect or were never honed in the first place, whose spare time was precious, and who wanted to find some pleasure in the time they spent playing the game of golf.” Parsinen also opined that the club’s members, “rather than being humiliated by their inevitable errant shots, would appreciate opportunities to recover and to some extent have a chance to redeem themselves.”
These principles were hardly revolutionary when the club opened for play in 1994. They were the doctrines, the dogma, and the guiding tenets that golf’s most revered architects of the Golden Age adhered to; and they were the architectural creed that Parsinen learned through reading the manuscripts, essays, and books that those Golden Age architects penned almost a century ago. The works of Mackenzie, Tillinghast, Colt, and Macdonald are at the core of Granite Bay’s inspiration, but so is their philosophical approach to let the natural terrain and topography of a site dictate the flow of the course and the general character of each hole.
After visiting many of those classic golf clubs—walking the ground and playing the courses—Parsinen better understood what golf, at its core, was meant to be. When he returned to Granite Bay’s site, he walked the property every day and created dozens of routing plans before finally uncovering the best layout that not only flowed seamlessly from one hole to the next but also most effectively took advantage of the site’s best views. Even the design and décor of Granite Bay’s clubhouse was inspired by the timeless architecture of clubhouses belonging to elite and historic private clubs along the East Coast—institutions with recognizable names like Merion, Baltusrol, and Winged Food.
When Parsinen and his partners conceptualized Granite Bay Golf Club, they also disregarded the era’s predominant strategy of developing a course around superlative real estate opportunities—in other words, routing a course in such a way that it maximized the number of prime fairway lots. In Parsinen’s estimation, if a club’s core course could be designed and built properly, utilizing land of high quality and strong character, the club would hold greater value than if its financial focus was rooted in high-end real estate.
And when a course is routed over that type of land, as Granite Bay is, the end result is a compelling golf experience. “A course can be like that great book that’s a page turner,” Parsinen once said, “where every shot that you hit gives you a feeling that you’re going to be able to find your ball and figure out a way to do something good.” Such a characteristic is what the late course developer called “sustained hopefulness.”
In that regard, Granite Bay succeeds for the same reasons that Scotland’s historic golf clubs have succeeded. It respects and celebrates the land upon which its course was built. In fact, the importance of the land is something that course designer Robert Hunter addressed in his seminal book, The Links, published in 1926. “Here was terrain to be battled with—terrain which called forth skill, adroitness, finesse, power, daring, and other fine qualities possessed by the athlete and the sportsman,” Hunter wrote. “Here were the great dunes to be carried, problems to be met and solved, masterly strokes to be made, dangers to be faced…a path strewn with pitfalls on this side, a route secure but long on the other. These were the attractions which first drew men to the links and which have held them there ever since.”
Those same allures have enthralled avid golfers at Granite Bay Golf Club for almost 30 years, and they’ll continue to do so for decades to come.
Here are a few of their stories to take you back to our roots.
“I was a golfer first,” says Jim Fitzpatrick, acknowledging that he played a bevy of sports growing up but golf was his first love and the sport that he always came back to. Not surprisingly, Fitzpatrick was determined to carve out a golf career in some form or fashion. On the heels of a promising period of competitive golf played as an amateur, Fitzpatrick dedicated more than 10 years to making it out on the pro tours until, as he recounts, “something finally clicked.” That moment, he says, was the realization that he would never make a living as an aspiring tour pro.
A brief stint working at an international course design firm soon followed, though it predated Fitzpatrick’s work as the operator of a golf course in southwestern Oregon. Eventually, Fitzpatrick landed on his true calling as a golf artist, and he’s dedicated more than 25 years to the passion.
As an artist, Fitzpatrick has traveled the world, visiting prestigious and heralded golf courses, studying their topography, admiring their terrain, and learning their backstories. When he met Mark Parsinen and learned of the late course developer’s desire to build a California golf club that embodied the same design principles that have inspired such reverence for the best Golden Age courses, Fitzpatrick realized that he could help.
“Mark was a voracious reader; he read all the books written during the Golden Era—Tillinghast and MacKenzie and H.S. Colt and all those guys,” Fitzpatrick explains. “He had all this knowledge from architects throughout the history of golf and he wanted to showcase that.
“I was able to communicate with Mark and take him to these places that he had read about,” Fitzpatrick continues, “so he could see what those golf courses were actually like and take that information and bring it into his design at Granite Bay. Robert Trent Jones Jr. [and Kyle Phillips] may have designed the course, but Mark was on property every day and he really did a lot to the design to keep it the way he envisioned it.”
When Dave Cook, one of Granite Bay’s founding members, reflects on the club’s inception, he good-naturedly admits that his original—albeit unofficial—responsibility had less to do with routing the golf course or conceptualizing the holes. “My role,” he says, “was to try to harness the creative genius of Mark Parsinen.”
Cook was first exposed to the game of golf as a kid (his father served as the golf coach for a Bay Area high school), but Cook didn’t actively take up the game until his thirties. At that time, his career in real estate development was beginning to blossom; and because some of those initial development projects were residential clubs centered on golf, Cook found himself on the course more regularly—both walking with golf architects during a course’s construction and also as a player.
In the early days of Granite Bay’s genesis, Cook leveraged his real estate and title experience to steer aspects of the club’s development through the state’s approval process. As he recalls, on golf trips with Parsinen—many of them designed around gathering inspiration for the look and feel of the impending club and course that they intended to build—Cook would often spend time reviewing technical studies that would allow them to execute their vision, while Parsinen would pour over the written accounts of some of golf’s most prolific, Golden Age architects.
Even the rounds of golf that Cook and Parsinen played together were dictated, at least partially, by an analysis of the land around them and the merits of each hole as it was played. “You couldn’t go play a golf course [with Mark] and just play a golf course,” Cook says. “On every tee box and every shot in the landing area, you were looking at the architecture and asking, ‘What were they trying to do and what would I have done?’”
Today, Cook continues to live full time at Granite Bay and considers the club’s classically inspired layout his home course. “The joy and satisfaction of walking the course—the memories on every hole about arguing [with Mark] about a rock outcropping that should’ve been saved or taking out a tree,” he says with a chuckle, “all of those things are still with me when I’m out there playing.”
Mark Parsinen was born to Finnish parents in Minnesota, and he inherited from them a trait known as sisu, which in Finnish loosely translates to “steadfastness and determination.” Naturally, the game of golf attracted him, both as a player and as a caddy. “Sisu was hammered into me from birth,” he once recalled, “and golf seemed a perfect match insofar as [it required] perseverance in the face of imperfection.”
Parsinen, who served as the lead developer of Granite Bay, harbored an unrelenting passion for the experience that the sport of golf provided players of all ability levels, and he took a scholarly approach to better understanding what made a great golf course truly exceptional. “We believe the most cherished courses in the world keep each golfer in his or her competitive ‘hunt’ throughout the entirety of their round of golf,” he declared, “while also providing a pleasurable forum for friendly and companionable banter. We have taken our lead from great courses of this nature and the robust playing experience they elicit.”
The late golf developer’s sisu is best exemplified by the approach that he took to create a course layout at Granite Bay that not only maximized the site’s best parcels of land (and the views that those parcels provided) but also to create a course that could incorporate as many of the Golden Age design principles as possible. Almost 30 years after the course was built, founding member and co-developer Dave Cook still has the dozens of alternative routings that Parsinen sketched. “I look at some of these routing plans today and I laugh,” he says. “You’d cross the pond six times with different holes. It would’ve been pretty silly, but it reflects his intellectual approach to everything. He was struck by all these statements and design philosophies from those classic architects and he wanted to incorporate as much of that as possible into this modern course.”
Together, Parsinen and Cook—with course architect Kyle Phillips as the leading expert—designed Granite Bay to be a modern course that reflected and embraced a style of play that defined the sport during the early 20th century. Of equal importance, they wanted to create a course that could be manageable and enjoyable for the average golfer without being too easy for a skilled player.
“I remember walking and playing the course with Mark,” Cook recalls, “and even during the design, he was mindful of providing high-risk shots for the low handicapper while making sure that the high handicapper had opportunities to bump and run the ball onto the green. That’s perhaps the case even more so now after Granite Bay’s recent renovation.”
When Granite Bay Golf Club was first built, the parcel of land that had been dedicated to the golf course had such raw potential that when the final routing plan was formalized, only 50,000 cubic yards of dirt needed to be moved. It was deemed a natural course, one with an appearance that often convinced visitors that its 18 holes had been built upon the land almost a century ago.
In time, however, Granite Bay’s golf course evolved—both naturally and through discreet, albeit purposeful, manipulation—until the club’s ownership ultimately decided a comprehensive renovation was necessary. Originally, Robert Trent Jones II’s course design firm masterfully created the course (under the lead supervision of Kyle Phillips and with plenty of insight and direction from lead developer Mark Parsinen). When it came time for Granite Bay’s recent makeover, however, the reins were passed to ClubCorp’s senior vice president of agronomy Jay Abbott and Salvador “Sal” Rodriguez of Diamond Golf International, an experienced course builder and shaper who has worked for every notable contemporary golf architect throughout his career.
The most notable aspect of the course’s renovation is one that members aren’t likely to notice, at least not at first glance. The club’s fairways were replanted with Santa Ana Hybrid Bermuda, a drought-tolerant species of grass that naturally fits into the Northern Californian climate and also provides a more consistent playing surface throughout the year (especially when compared to the mix of cool-season turf that had dominated Granite Bay’s fairways for more than a quarter of a century). Beyond the grass’s conformity to the local climate, it also provides a noteworthy change to the golfing experience at Granite Bay—the course will now play firm and fast, just as Parsinen, Phillips, and the rest of the club’s founding principals had originally intended.
Where Granite Bay has visually changed the most is through a concerted trimming of wild areas, not to mention overhanging and infringing tree limbs. In some cases, entire trees were removed. (Depending on your perspective, you’ll either be glad or frustrated to know that the blue oak which resolutely guards the middle of the 10th fairway was not impacted during this renovation.) According to Matt Dillon, the golf course superintendent, one of the original, prevailing design philosophies at Granite Bay was to never force players to hit entirely blind shots. “You should see all edges of the hazards and all edges of your green when you’re approaching the hole,” he says. “You shouldn’t have obscured vision.”
Now, thanks to work done during the renovation, that founding mantra once again prevails.
Perhaps even more significantly, every bunker on the course was profoundly impacted, so much so that some were removed altogether. In its foundational state, the course at Granite Bay was home to 75 bunkers, a number that has since shrunk to 68. Of greater significance, the surface area and the depth of the newly constructed bunkers is, in Dillon’s estimation, 30 percent smaller and shallower than those that existed before. So even though the location of the vast majority of fairway and greenside bunkers hasn’t changed, their composition is entirely new.
“The renovation has really accentuated the traditional style of the bunkering and enhanced the course’s visual aesthetic,” says Dave Cook, one of the club’s founding members.
Particularly around the green, these new bunkers better reflect Parsinen’s original stance that in most cases nothing good ever happens to the average player inside a bunker. Now, not only is it easier—most of the time—to hit out of the course’s greenside bunkers, there are also more closely mowed collection areas where mid- to high-handicappers can use their putters to hit recovery shots.
“A putt from 40 feet through a big contour is difficult,” Parsinen once acknowledged, “but the average player with a putter in his hands is hopeful. To be without hope is a bad thing in golf.”
Overall, Granite Bay’s course layout hasn’t changed. The tees remain in the same position, although some tee boxes were extended farther back to allow the course to surpass 7,000 yards in length. The fairways still adhere to the original shapes. And the greens, which have been reseeded with creeping bentgrass, all sit in the identical footprints of the original putting surfaces, which means some have broadened by as much as 10 percent.
In other words, the changes that have strengthened the course will allow new members and visitors to experience the same natural golf course that earned Granite Bay such a sterling reputation. The same can be said for existing members, even if they’ll first need to rediscover (and relearn) the breaks and rolls of each green.
“I think that it’s stunning,” Cook says of the 8-month-long project that incorporated all of the aforementioned enhancements. “When you stand on the first tee, it still feels like the same course.”