Walking the reimagined Glenway with design associate Sara Mess

There aren't many women in golf course architecture but this Eagle School teacher is one of them.
Golf course architect and teacher Sara Mess stands in the dirt at Glenway where she is helping remodel the course.
Photo by Jerry Huffman.
Golf course architect and Eagle School teacher Sara Mess is part of the team helping reimagine Glenway Golf Course.

I have seen and heard a lot in more than 50 years as a golfer and more than 40 as a journalist, but I never dreamed one day somebody would tell me the fourth green at Glenway Golf Course was modeled after the 14th green at Royal Dornoch Golf Club.

It happened earlier this month, while I was walking Glenway with a woman named Sara Mess.

Royal Dornoch is in the Highlands of Scotland and routinely ranks as one of the top 10 golf courses in the world.

Glenway, at 3747 Speedway Road in Madison, is a 9-hole city-owned golf course routinely ranked as the best course close to the Village Bar.

As Mess and I approached Glenway’s fourth green, she made the reference to Royal Dornoch.

“The 14th at Dornoch is Michael’s father’s favorite hole,” Mess said.

“Michael” is Michael Keiser, who with his wife, Jocelyn, is funding the extraordinary renovation and reimagining of Glenway, which aims to upgrade the course while making it more environmentally friendly and accessible, even to non-golfers.

“Madison’s such a progressive city,” Keiser told me in January, for a column announcing his vision for Glenway. “I think it would be cool to have a progressive golf course, one that’s inclusive and designed architecturally for all golfers. Most golf courses are designed by men for men.”

The Keiser name is revered in global golf circles. Michael’s father, Mike Keiser, developed Bandon Dunes on the Oregon coast, now one of the world’s top golf destinations. He passed the baton to Michael and Michael’s brother, Chris, who developed Sand Valley in central Wisconsin. It brought Michael to Madison.

Years earlier, when Michael was 14, his dad took him to Scotland and they played 36 holes at Royal Dornoch. That’s when Michael fell in love with the game.

If you’re rebuilding the greens at Glenway, why not fashion one after a famous green at Dornoch?

“It’s known as Foxy,” Mess told me that day, grinning. The new fourth green at Glenway is nearly 10,000 square feet.

I was privileged to get a tour of the course — scheduled to open next year — from Mess, who with Keiser, Craig Haltom and Brian Schneider make up the formidable design-build team redoing Glenway.

There aren’t many women in golf course architecture, and Mess isn’t full-time: she teaches first and second grade math at Eagle School in Fitchburg (and for the past six years has coached the Oregon High School boys golf team).

But Mess has worked closely for years with Tom Doak, one of the world’s leading golf architects. Doak designed the celebrated Pacific Dunes course at Bandon Dunes and is currently working on the Lido, a highly anticipated third course at Sand Valley.

Mess met Doak through a college internship. Originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana, she attended Michigan State University, played on the golf team, and majored in math and chemistry. She took a golf architecture class — “I really didn’t know there was such a job, she says” — and liked it enough to apply for the summer internship with Doak, who had an office in Traverse City. After graduating, she worked for him on jobs that took her to Scotland and the state of Washington. She assisted Doak with two books, “Getting to 18,” and the just published “The Making of Pacific Dunes.”

Mess loves the creativity involved with designing a course more than bulldozing the land to complete the job.

“Designing a golf course, the initial routing, is like a puzzle where you don’t know what any of the pieces look like,” she says. “You’re probably going to have 18 holes, par is probably going to be 69 to 73, but how the pieces look and how they interact is decidedly up to you.”

Full-time golf architecture jobs are scarce — and the nearly constant travel is a deterrent for Mess — but she will likely always keep a hand in.

When she heard about the Glenway project earlier this year, she texted Doak, asking if he might talk to Keiser about involving her — after all, she was in town. (It was a job at Epic Systems Corp. that first brought her to Madison a decade ago.)

“They let me come on board,” Mess says.

She has been an asset, working on setting the teeing areas, which will include beginner, intermediate and advanced boxes. Every hole will have a new, larger green, and there are other, more subtle changes: holes four and five are now slight doglegs. The second hole is changing from a par 3 to a short par 4.

I thought about Glenway’s history while we walked. It opened in the 1920s. George Vitense was the first pro. Steve Caravello — nine times a Madison city champion — got his start in the game caddying for Vitense at Glenway.

Glenway was the first course I played (after the Vitense Par 3), more than 50 years ago. It was the course where my son Quinn beat me the first time. He shot 37. He was 9.

As Mess and I approached Glenway’s new seventh green — her favorite hole on the course — she said the boomerang-shaped green was “loosely based” on the seventh green at Crystal Downs in Michigan.

“An Alister MacKenzie design,” Mess said.

MacKenzie, of course, also designed Augusta National, home of the Masters.

So: Royal Dornoch, Augusta National and Glenway in the same sentence. I love it.

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