Conversations with the Unknown Architect - Part 1

By: Tony Dear


Golf course designers are not created equal. There are some, admittedly few, who, on the back of a multi-major-winning career travel to the world's most exotic locations to build high-profile courses for deep-pocketed clients. These designers gets paid millions for their trouble and, though they might claim their "job" isn't nearly as glamorous as people think it is, they would of course be wrong.

The 15th Hole at Quarry at Giants Ridge (Mike Klemme Photo)

Then there are guys who get a few grand, including expenses and paid in installments, to rebuild a couple of tees at small, out of-the-way clubs whose meager resources force them to make minor upgrades one at a time. And, with 181 individuals listed as members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), 107 on the books of European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA), and many more that are active in the business but who choose not to be part of either organization, you can be sure that there's everything in between.

Having the opportunity to speak with golf course architecture's glitterati, the superstars that are able to pick and choose which jobs they take and whose substantial fees are non-negotiable, is always a thrill. They are given the means to create something memorable, something that might pop up on a top-100 list before long, and something you might be tempted to cross several states, even oceans, to play.

But for the dangerously-obsessed architecture nerd - he whose shelves are weighed down by obscure hardcovers he found on dusty shelves in tiny second-hand book shops - talking course design with the guy that has devoted his adult life to the subject is perhaps even more gratifying. Discussing the history of golf architecture with the architect that takes on virtually any job regardless of what he is being paid just for the love of it, the guy whose dearest wish is to see the land covered in golf courses that are affordable, accessible, easily-maintained and, above all, fun to play, is a singular treat not to be passed up.

These are the designers whose work often goes unnoticed or under-appreciated. They never become household names, even golf-household names, but the passion and enthusiasm they bring to work every day (at least those days when they have work) is undeniable. Here are four of my favorites:

No. 3 at Quarry at Giants Ridge (Mike Klemme Photo)

Jeff Brauer

How did you get your start?

I snuck on to Medinah when I was 12 and almost instantly knew I wanted to design golf courses.

My Dad saw a blurb in the Tribune business section about the ASGCA moving its HQ to Chicago. He brought home a large envelope of ASGCA articles and booklets on golf design, which I pored over. I noticed that (Ken) Killian and (Dick) Nugent were in the next suburb, and wrote them. To my surprise, they wrote back, offering to let me come in and see the office. They told me to take drafting in high school and work for landscapers and/or on a golf maintenance crew, and then to take landscape architecture in college, with side classes of aerial photography, turf management, business, soils and surveying, which I did.

When I came out of University of Illinois they felt obligated to hire me, since I had followed their advice, despite a low workload. What sealed the deal was sitting next to them at the state American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) banquet. That night I won the "Best Senior" Award and then the "National ASLA Certificate of Merit." Returning to the table with my second plaque, Dick said, "I'll see you Monday," with a resigned tone of voice.

The 8th at Quarry at Giants Ridge (Mike Klemme Photo)

Give us two pieces of great advice you've benefited from.

Too much to recall, but here are some:

From my Dad - If you can't express an idea in a few short sentences, it probably isn't that good an idea.

From Dick Nugent - No matter how unsure you are, you know more than they do.

From Pete Dye - "Never apologize for anything, tell them that was just the way you wanted it." (I told him I got some criticisms for bold contours at my first design, in Georgia. He went on to tell me that I should say, "If you want to be the best greens in Georgia, you have to be better than Augusta, so ours have more contour to be the best.")

If you were to show someone who'd never heard of you your best work, where would you take them?

I designed three courses in the Iron Range of Minnesota (the Legend and Quarry Courses at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, and Fortune Bay near Tower) which are 25 miles apart, and ranked in the top-100 USA public courses by several magazines. You could also go to Kansas, where I designed Firekeeper, Colbert Hills and Sand Creek Station.

What has been your favorite project, and why?

I loved the three projects in Minnesota because they were great sites, and I developed a synergy with the project managers which made things fun. Also, Wild Wing Avocet Course in Myrtle Beach was great and I am still good friends with then-superintendent Dave Downing. More recently, I teamed up with Damian Pascuzzo and Steve Pate to renovate La Costa in California, and that was also a combo of a great course, which made it professionally a great project, but also great fun to collaborate, which made it personally great and very fulfilling.

How did you survive the economic downturn?

I was pretty lucky in that we had one of the few new courses to open in 2011, Firekeeper with Notah Begay III, then last year there was La Costa. Now, I have three major renovations going, but I always had a major project, even in the slowest times. Of course, it wasn't like the glory days, and I did have to reduce staff down to a minimum of 3 - me, myself and I . . . but I have draftsman back on staff now.

How do you see the industry, and your place in it, evolving?

Design-build seems to be gaining some momentum, mostly, I think, to minimize the role or cost of design. But then some clients are asking for more construction management to prove fiscal responsibility - different construction methodology for the same goal of making sure every dollar nets you a dollar or more. I believe the trend towards bigger names taking on smaller projects to continue, making it hard for everyone else. But, there is always a place for a hands-on designer taking on personally motivated projects.

As for me, it's less than 10 years to retirement. My goal is to "hang on." I considered dropping out and having a second career, but basically, after 29 years on my own, I fear I am unemployable, plus, there is nothing I really want to do other than golf design.

In terms of pure design for renovation, I think we are all learning to replace only what needs replacing and being careful not to rip out and rebuild everything just because we could a decade ago when money was flowing.

Goodwood (Photo by Clive Barber)

Martin Ebert

How did you get your start?

I spent a year organizing the Cambridge University Golf Club's 1989 tour to the United States in 1989 when we visited Pine Valley, Shinnecock Hills, The National Golf Links, Baltusrol, Merion, The Country Club, Winged Foot, Garden City and Maidstone. It was wonderful to see how these great courses were simply eased into the environment. I received a Master's degree in Engineering and began searching for a position as a golf course architect. It was a tough search, but in 1990 Donald Steel provided a welcome opportunity to assist him. We worked in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Holland, Portugal, United States, Spain, Sri Lanka, Norway, Cyprus, Pakistan, Canada, Finland, France, Brazil and Sweden, which obviously meant I needed to assess sites quickly and accurately and to get on well with a wide range of clients, constructors and consultants. When Donald shut down his company in 2005, I joined Tom Mackenzie, who had also started with Donald, in setting up our own design firm. As a member of Woking GC, Royal Worlington and Newmarket and the R&A, I have obviously benefited from being able to play superbly-designed courses.

Give us two pieces of great advice you've benefited from.

They weren't directed at me specifically, but I often remember the words of the great Alister MacKenzie. "Economy in course construction consists of obtaining the best possible results at a minimum cost," and "The chief object of every golf course architect worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself."

If you were to show someone who'd never heard of you your best work, where would you take them?

Goodwood GC, on the glacial moraine to the north of Toronto, built on a fantastic piece of sandy/gravelly ground where the owner, the late Gordon Stollery, asked for a traditional-style course for the modern-day game. I think the detail of the greens and green surrounds makes it distinct from the vast majority of modern-day courses, which tend to make golfers feel like they have been in a 12-round boxing match with the course and course architect.

What has been your favorite project to date?

I have two which I would term favorite. The first was Victoria Golf and Country Resort in Sri Lanka, which I designed while working for Donald Steel & Company. My father was born in Sri Lanka and the site boasted the most wonderful views over Victoria Reservoir. We only needed to include 10 bunkers, such were the natural qualities of the terrain. I have been back several times to play and it is paradise. The second is Askernish, in the Outer Hebrides, where I assisted with the restoration of the Old Tom Morris Course, which had fallen into disrepair and where virtually all of the greens have been fashioned just by mowing out.

How did you survive the economic downturn?

We have a lot of new course projects but they are yet to get to the starting line. However, our business was always strong in the existing-course market, and we have advised five of the nine current Open Championship venues (Turnberry, Royal St. George's, Royal Lytham and St. Annes, Royal Troon and Carnoustie), which has enabled us to maintain a fairly high profile. Our Goodwood client has commissioned us to redesign the South Course at Angus Glen, and we hope this will lead to other existing-course commissions in Canada and the U.S. A lot of the great old courses in North America were designed by architects from the UK, so why not get a British architect familiar with their philosophies to advise on improvements and restoration?

How do you see the industry, and your place in it, evolving?

In terms of how the industry is evolving, it seems to us that the higher quality clubs and courses continue to prosper. There will always be a demand for those. The medium-level clubs need to keep investing to make the golfers want to keep returning. Golf is taking longer to play while everything else in life is getting faster. Hence, golf rounds need to get shorter so there must be a market for shorter courses and courses with nine holes. We need to embrace the ladies and families at clubs as this is a large potential market of new golfers and will keep the male golfers playing. Environmentally, the courses need to keep improving and operating to better practices. Asia must still be the area of growth. There will still be great new courses to build as there are always going to be people with the passion and money to build them. However, the design principles need to return to more traditional values to make them financially viable or at least less financially unviable.

Wolf Point

Mike Nuzzo

How did you get your start?

After earning an aerospace engineering degree from Boston University, I worked at the world's largest aerospace company and became a lead engineer designing, integrating and testing huge deployable antennas for geosynchronous global telecommunications satellites. But I wanted to design golf courses so took a risk and got out of aerospace. I was reading Dr. Michael Hurdzan's "Golf Course Architecture: Design, Construction & Restoration" (1996), specifically the pages on CAD (Computer-Aided Design), and my eyes lit up. With extensive experience of CAD, I knew it would be my best approach with an architect. For six months, I spoke frequently with Baxter Spann of Finger Dye Spann, Inc. (FDS) in Houston, and it just sort of progressed from there.

Give us two pieces of great advice you've benefited from.

I've gotten great advice from some of the best in the industry, like Tom Doak, Charles Joachim (superintendent at Champions GC in Houston) and Mr. Jackie Burke Jr., but the best professional advice came from Don Mahaffey, who said keep it practical, focus on the golf and know your markets. Also, "There is no greatest golf course, only greatest golf courses." There are so many different levels of golfer so what might appeal to one man might be no fun at all for another.

If you were to show someone who'd never heard of you your best work, where would you take them?

I've only built one new golf course - Wolf Point Club. I would take them there to see what is possible if one puts golf before all other things. In my opinion, all the best and most memorable golf courses put the game first.

How did you survive the economic downturn?

I am surviving, but the last few years have certainly been slow. It is difficult to be in different markets - new vs. renovation vs. international. I've looked at a project in China because someone was interested in my work, but there is no way I could go and set up shop or begin going to the China golf shows looking for business. Someone has hired me for a project in Tasmania, Australia, because they came to see our work in Texas. I've survived by working closely with those that respect my work and focusing on our local market. The industry will not come around to our thinking - it is too different. But the clients that do choose to work with us will have the best chance for success. I am heavily reliant on good planning especially with technology - GPS and a form of computer design - which gives us more freedom and time in the field.

How do you see the industry, and your place in it, evolving?

Since real-estate dollars are no longer propping up the industry, I see the remainder of the industry evolving to ask more questions. In the past many decisions have been made because of traditional accepted practices, not because of evidence and results. We have proved at Wolf Point and other recent clients that many different solutions will work, but they won't fit for every client. Farmers don't try to grow rice in Minnesota, they work with what they have. And we treat golf courses the same way, creating interesting golf holes practically without any preconceived ideas about design, construction, irrigation or maintenance.

La Costa

Damian Pascuzzo

How did you get your start?

I arranged an interview with Bob Graves just after I got out of school in 1981. We spent a nice afternoon together, but he didn't have enough work to bring anybody on at the time (he was working by himself). Just about one year later, he called me to see if I was interested in a two week gig as a draftsman. Of course I said yes, and after that he was never able to get rid of me. Eight years later the firm had grown to 12 people and he and I became partners as a precursor to his retirement.

Give us two pieces of great advice you've benefited from.

I have picked up bits and pieces of design philosophy over the years from lots of different people, some of the ideas conflict with others, but I think sorting all of these philosophies out and applying them to a specific project correctly is part of what a good golf course designer does. One of the things that has stuck with me over the years is very simple but very true, and that is to design with your customer in mind. The days are long gone when a designer could let his artistic side run wild with little to no attention to the business side of the equation Bob was always focused on "the people who pay the bills." A few years ago, Jay Morrish was nice enough to review some of my work and spoke with me about the importance of angles and the strategy of golf holes.

If you were to show someone who'd never heard of you your best work, where would you take them?

I would have to take them to Monarch Dunes to play both the Old Course and the Challenge Course. The Old Course strikes just the right balance between drama and intrigue without being overwhelming to the majority of golfers. Steve and I wanted to place a lot of emphasis on the shots around the green and less emphasis on overall length. It's also the only example I know of a natural, rough-edged, fescue-laden golf course built within a community of production homes. They would also have to play the Challenge Course so they can experience fun and interesting golf in a non-traditional package.

What has been your favorite project to date?

I honestly have loved them all, but if I must be specific . . . La Costa Champion's Course because of its golfing legacy and our attempt to revive Dick Wilson's original design; Monarch Dunes because of the creative freedom provided by building the entire course out of the native sand; La Quinta Country Club because it was my first chance to renovate a well-known private club; The Ranch GC because it was carved from a historic dairy farm in New England and the golf layout had the priority over the housing layout; Indian Pond CC because it was my first new private club and it was located on Boston's South Shore just north of Cape Cod.

How did you survive the economic downturn?

When Steve Pate and I joined forces in 2003, we decided we were not interested in building a big staff but rather in maintaining a hands-on approach, even if that meant limiting the number of projects. That has helped us over the years because we have been able to keep a low overhead. Since the mid-1980s I have been fairly CAD literate and a bit of a tech junkie, so leveraging the technology that is available helps also. The other half of the story is that we just work hard, and I think we are particularly good at understanding our clients' needs.

How do you see the industry, and your place in it, evolving?

Changes in golf generally come at a glacial pace, but this economy is forcing the smart owners and developers to think differently about how to operate and how they spend money. We have to show our clients new ways to think about the golf course and help them get the most value out of the money they spend on it. Part of that is exploring new ways to get people into the game, and keep them in the game. The other part of that is environmental sustainability.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.


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