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Favorite Designers: John Fought

By: Tony Dear


Editor's Note: In each month of 2011 Cybergolf correspondent Tony Dear will cover his favorite course designers and explain why he rates them so highly. Now up: John Fought.

John Fought

Seven years ago, I played a course called Washington National in Auburn, Wash., without having the slightest clue who designed it. New to Seattle, I'd not heard of the course before and had little time to read up on it before arriving at the 1st tee.

"This is fantastic," I said to my playing companion after only a few holes. "Who designed it?"

"John Fought," was the reply.

"John who?" I said.

John Fought may not be terribly familiar to anyone just off the boat, but golf aficionados will know him well. Those of a certain age might remember him winning all four of his matches at the 1977 Walker Cup at Shinnecock Hills and then, a week later, beating Doug Fischesser 9 & 8 in the final to win the U.S. Amateur at Aronimink. Students of the game will probably recall that in 1979, his rookie year on the PGA Tour, he won the Buick Goodwrench Open and Anheuser Busch Classic in successive weeks during September, helping him to Rookie of the Year honors. And those who really are up on their golf history and of a certain age, may even recollect his coming in fifth at the 1983 PGA Championship at Riviera, where Fought recorded his best finish at a major.

I'm not quite of a certain age yet, so didn't really know this John Fought. But after playing Washington National, it was clear he knew how to design a golf course.

The 17th at Windsong
(Courtesy of www.peterwongphotography.com)

Turns out Fought, an Oregonian who had earned an accounting degree the same year he won the Amateur, had worked in Washington State before. Trophy Lake Golf and Casting, on the other side of Puget Sound near the Naval town of Bremerton, had opened a year before Washington National and had likewise acquired a strong approval rating.

The pair shares a common beauty typical of courses in the Pacific Northwest. Besides that, both possess bold, visible, often deep-bottomed bunkers scooped out of mounds and rises in the ground. Large greens with sufficient movement to create interest rather than the excessive contouring many modern-day designers use to protect holes are also common to both. They courses are walkable, allow run-up shots and feature a lot of slightly elevated greens where the golfer that misses them faces a variety of interesting short-game shots.

A founding member of the Donald Ross Society may well detect a similarity between his hero's designs and those of the Portland native. Sure enough Fought, now 57 with three children and four grandchildren, lists Ross as perhaps his greatest influence. "I love Donald Ross courses," he says. "Aronimink was the first of his I played - during the '77 Amateur. But while I enjoyed it immensely, I didn't really understand why."

Facing the challenge of Aronimink and Shinnecock sparked an interest in golf course architecture, but back in the late 1970s Fought was envisioning a long and successful playing career. As a former U.S. Amateur champion and, at 25, the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, Fought was being considered a potential star capable of winning more than one major championship.

"Sure, I wanted to be a great player," he says. "But it wasn't long before I started drifting out of the professional game. I had a disc problem that was initially misdiagnosed. In fact I had a lot of neck and back issues. Plus my wife and I wanted to have kids, and it got really difficult after they were born. I wouldn't have traded that for anything, but I was done as a player by the end of '85."

Fought remembers that the last time he played as well as he would have liked was at the 1985 Chrysler Team Championship where he and partner, former BYU teammate Pat McGowan, lost in a five-team playoff. He played only four official tournaments in '86, missing the cut each time. In '87 he played 11 times, missed 10 cuts and withdrew from the other event after an opening 81.

But while injuries and the arrival of children certainly didn't help his playing cause, Fought's burgeoning interest in course design was taking his mind off his game. "At the PGA at Riviera, I became aware of the quality of George Thomas's greens. I was being drawn to the 'Golden Age' architects like William Flynn, Albert Tillinghast and H.S. Colt, as well as Ross and Thomas. I began studying the subject, reading books by Thomas, Alister Mackenzie and Robert Hunter."

During rounds with Jack Nicklaus, Fought had often asked the "Golden Bear" about his design business. "I played with Jack a few times in the early '80s and told him how much I wanted to see a great course in the Portland area," Fought says. "He introduced me to Bob Cupp, who was part of his design team at the time. Bob eventually went out on his own and I began apprenticing for him. I got to know Bob really well and was able to follow him to a lot of great sites where he was working."

Not the type to put his name to a development and take half the cash, Fought was becoming utterly consumed by design and grew increasingly absorbed the more he was able to contribute to Cupp's projects. "John wanted to do everything, even the drawings" Cupp told Golf World in 2005. "The next thing I knew, he was dragging me all over the place and we ended up opening an office in Portland which John ran."

No. 15 at Sand Hollow

Pumpkin Ridge in North Plains, Ore., 20 miles from downtown Portland, opened in 1992 and was the course (actually there's two) Fought had long dreamed of building. Having grown up at Tualatin Country Club, a nice but shortish course on a small acreage south of downtown, Fought relished the opportunity to build something grander and on a much bigger scale. The design credit went to Cupp, but he always acknowledged the part Fought played in its creation.

For his part, Fought credits Cupp with enabling him to think more like a designer rather than as a player. "I learned a lot from Bob," he says. "Maybe not the specifics of designing an actual hole, but all the other parts of the job which might not seem so glamorous but which are essential to every project. He taught me about the business, how to draw up plans, the construction side. He taught me the process."

Fought adds Cupp got him thinking about the crucial two or three feet under the surface, and taught him about the engineering that goes into the successful construction of a golf course. "And we talked a lot about routing, which is surely the most important lesson of all (on his website, Fought says that if the routing plan isn't correct then nothing else matters.) He showed me how a golf course works. He was my mentor and gave me a very solid baseline."

From working with Cupp, Fought went to work as in-house designer for OB Sports and then formed a partnership with Tom Lehman with whom he built 36 holes at the Gallery in Marana, Ariz., Somerby in Lehman's native Minnesota, and another Minnesota classic - Windsong Farm, which Fought regards as the most enjoyable job he's had.

"That was one of the great, but rare, moments when everything comes together," he says. "The developer was on the same page and it was a lovely site. There were a few governmental issues but we sorted them out. It's just pure golf, like Ridge Creek in California or Sand Hollow in Utah."

Sand Hollow has been named the best course in Utah every year since it opened and was on the cover of Golf World's "Best Courses" issue last year. Built on a dramatic sandy ridge a few miles east of St. George, the Championship Course is one of two at the Sand Hollow Resort where Fought moved just 78,000 cubic yards of dirt, an incredibly small amount given the 3 million or so routinely displaced at new 18-hole facilities during the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

That, says Fought, was the worst period in the history of golf course architecture. "It was unbelievable how much dirt designers felt compelled to move," he adds. "They'd basically design the holes back in their office then come out to the site where they would move however much earth it took to build their holes."

It's a method that Fought insists still exists despite the profound shift towards so-called minimalist courses. "There are still some huge land-movers out there," he says. "Rees Jones, Tom Fazio and Jack Nicklaus to name three. I looked at the site for the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain courses in Marana, Ariz. I thought it had just the right amount of movement and undulation to make a fun and interesting course. But when Jack came in he said the place was basically too flat to make a good course and said he'd have to move a lot of earth. The hotel management wanted Jack to use my plans, but you can't tell Jack what to do."

Of his contemporaries, Fought likes Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw best, but adds that Keith Foster is highly underrated and John Harbottle deserves more recognition. He also likes a lot of what Tom Doak and David McLay Kidd are doing, but says the contours of their greens are sometimes a little over the top.

Gallery South

Another place he says is over the top is Augusta National, which he'd like to see look more like it did back in the 1930s. "Augusta National is very important and I love everything about the Masters," he says. "But I just wish the course was a bit more authentic, a bit more Mackenzie. People don't realize how much Robert Trent Jones is in there. And now there's a lot of Tom Fazio, too."

Fought doesn't want to see the course go from one extreme to the other with brown grass and shaggy bunkers, but he is disappointed the integrity of some of the holes - the 7th and 11th in particular - has changed so dramatically down the years. "I understand why the club lengthened the course; they had to," he says. "But it would look so cool if a few of the edges were allowed to grow a little rougher. The course has basically been sterilized."

Doak would probably be a prime candidate for the job if Augusta National ever did decide to revive the Mackenzie motif, but having established a reputation for excellent restorations himself, Fought might also be considered. In 2005, after sifting through numerous documents showing Ross's plans for the course, he followed owner Peggy Kirk Bell's instructions to the letter in bringing Pine Needles in North Carolina back to life in time for the 2007 U.S. Women's Open.

He did a similarly fine job at another Ross course - Rosedale in Toronto, and recently completed work at Dallas Country Club in Texas where he turned an unspectacular Tom Bendelow layout into a course that Ross himself would have appreciated by eliminating half the bunkers, giving those that remained grass faces, raising all the greens, and making the tee boxes rectangular as was common in the early half of the last century. He has also breathed life back into Phoenix Country Club, the Country Club of Jackson (Mississippi), Angel Park in Las Vegas, Riverside Country Club course in Provo, Utah - where he played while attending BYU, and DC Ranch in Scottsdale, among others.

Currently, he is working on the Gene "Bunny" Mason-designed Glaze Meadow Course at Black Butte Ranch in Central Oregon, which he says needed a lot of work after the trees had encroached on parts of the course they really shouldn't. "The trees had gotten in the way and the views had been lost," he says. "So we're changing pretty much everything, opening it up to take advantage of the surrounding mountains and meadow."

Charles Kingsbaker, Black Butte Ranch's director of sales and marketing, says Fought was the obvious choice for the restoration after he presented a very desirable plan that would turn the 6,400-yard sleeper into a 7,100-yarder with vastly improved playability. "John's brother Jeff is our director of golf, but that really had nothing to do with our decision," he says.

"John had a great pedigree having done such a fine job at Pine Needles, and he was really the only one of the four architects we interviewed who talked about bringing back the views the course had when it opened in the early '70s."

Kingsbaker says Fought has taken out at least 800 trees, added several grass-faced fairway bunkers, remodeled all the greens and tees and replaced the aging irrigation system. "In May of next year, guests will return to what is basically an entirely new course," he adds. "It will have the look and feel of a much older course; one that Donald Ross might have designed himself."

While work at Glaze Meadow continues, Fought is hoping proposals for a course in the Dominican Republic, where he would work alongside fellow Mormon Johnny Miller, get off the ground. And a project in the Pinehurst, N.C., area is also a possibility, albeit a remote one.

What excites Fought the most right now, however, is a possible development on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge called Sundoon that first came to light 15 years ago but which has since fallen afoul of financing, environmental and permitting issues numerous times since.

Charles Kingsbaker, Black Butte Ranch's director of sales and marketing, says Fought was the obvious choice for the restoration after he presented a very desirable plan that would turn the 6,400-yard sleeper into a 7,100-yarder with vastly improved playability. "John's brother Jeff is our director of golf, but that really had nothing to do with our decision," he says.

"John had a great pedigree having done such a fine job at Pine Needles, and he was really the only one of the four architects we interviewed who talked about bringing back the views the course had when it opened in the early '70s."

Kingsbaker says Fought has taken out at least 800 trees, added several grass-faced fairway bunkers, remodeled all the greens and tees and replaced the aging irrigation system. "In May of next year, guests will return to what is basically an entirely new course," he adds. "It will have the look and feel of a much older course; one that Donald Ross might have designed himself."

While work at Glaze Meadow continues, Fought is hoping proposals for a course in the Dominican Republic, where he would work alongside fellow Mormon Johnny Miller, get off the ground. And a project in the Pinehurst, N.C., area is also a possibility, albeit a remote one.

What excites Fought the most right now, however, is a possible development on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge called Sundoon that first came to light 15 years ago but which has since fallen afoul of financing, environmental and permitting issues numerous times.

"I think we're finally closing in on a positive decision now though," he says. "Klickitat County meets on May 5th to discuss the plan. The county council, the City of Dallesport, the Governor's office, the FAA (the course would be adjacent to the Columbia River Gorge Airport) and even the Department of Ecology, which blocked everything we put in front of it to begin with, are all behind us now. But there is bound to be an appeal made by an environmental group. There always is."

The course at Sundoon would be laid out on rough, sandy ground and, says Fought, would play much like an inland links. He says the site is so good the course could one day compete with Bandon Dunes and Chambers Bay for attention.

That's what Fought's courses end up doing wherever they're built; they demand attention. Not because John Fought is a famous Tour star (although he could have been) with a multi-million-dollar marketing machine behind him, but because his courses are invariably . . . well . . . . really, really good.

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 web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.