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Go Gator! Steve Smyers Blazing Trail as Both Architect & Amateur Golf Star

By: Jay Flemma


It has to be great to be Steve Smyers. After all, he gets to devote his entire life to golf. His wife is a former touring pro. His son is a first-team All-American and a reigning Division II national champion. He has done golf design work at some of country's most popular public golf courses (like Southern Dunes), as well as some of the most esteemed private sanctuaries (like Isleworth).

Steve Smyers

He's been an official at a hole at Augusta National during the Masters. And he's a strong enough golfer to compete at the highest levels of American amateur golf (shooting a best-ball 63 at Winged Foot with his son at this year's Anderson Memorial). Steve is a current member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and serves as a member of the Board of Governors. He also served the United States Golf Association as a member of the Executive Committee from 2006-11.

But most of all, he's just a good-natured regular guy who, for all his successes, still maintains the old-fashioned American virtues of hard work, clean fun and living the dream via golf. So, as the song goes, "Reconvene, reconnect, raise a glass to the architect 'cause it turned out so much better than we ever did expect."

Here's my interview with Steve Smyers.

Jay Flemma: Tell us about how you first started playing golf.

Steve Smyers: I remember falling in love with it at a young age. There's a picture of me at 18 months old swinging a golf club. Dad sawed off a club and I started hitting Wiffle balls in a field not far from the house. Then when I was 13 we moved to Houston, and there was a golf course about a mile from the house. So I'd put my clubs over my shoulder and ride the bike up over the mountain to the golf course. There were a lot of kids there! So all of a sudden I had new friends and they all liked to play golf.

Then one summer they had the Texas State Open at that course.

The Third Hole at Twin Eagles

JF: Which course?

SS: Sharpstown CC in Houston . . . and there was a little Mexican guy there by the name of Lee Trevino. We all know what he ultimately became, but back then he was just a really friendly, popular guy who was defending champion, and so we watched him. Well he just went out and hit great shots all over he golf course - and no one knew who he was because he hadn't been on tour yet!

So then right after that they had the Houston Champions Invitational at Champions, where Jimmy Demeret and Jackie Burke were pros and owned the club. Ben Hogan would always come and play in the tournament, so I watched Hogan play. I'd stand there for hours and watch him hit balls, so I'm getting hooked on the game pretty bad!

And then the 1969 U.S. Open came to Champions and I got to caddie for Miller Barber! I was in the last group of the U.S. Open on Sunday.

JF: Walking down the fairways with a guy who had a shot at the national championship . . .

SS: Yep, and at age 16! Pinch me, man! Now up to that point I had never broken 78. But the Monday and Tuesday after the tournament I played in the Texas Youth Insurance Classic, and those two days I shot 70-69 and won the tournament! So caddying in the Open had a huge influence on me.

JF: What was the biggest effect it had on you those two days?

SS: The whole experience of caddying in the Open in the final group the last two days and with the guy who slept on the final-round lead it gave me a whole new perspective on the game.

JF: How did that translate into your tangible behavior on the course?

SS: It let me think differently, not only in course strategy but my own thinking. It was calming. And I listened to guys on the range and they talked about how to play the golf course, and about how important course management is, and the overall visualization of shots: if you believe you can visualize the right shot, you can hit it, and I was able to do that.

JF: Was that the quantum leap for you? Did you keep breaking par regularly after that?

SS: Absolutely it was the quantum leap in my thinking, but no, breaking par was not as easy back then as it is now. We have a totally different game of golf today than we did back then . . . same game, just played differently. But I did get to play in tournaments the whole rest of the summer.

JF: How is it a totally different game? Do you mean shot-shaping has declined?

SS: That's a huge part of it. I was talking with Lanny Wadkins last week, and I said we don't have the same number of ball-strikers in the game as when he and Trevino were in their heyday. Shot-shaping has declined, and there's a lot of reasons for that, it's not just maintenance - that's the biggest reason, but also equipment. But since I did the first formal study of green speeds at elite golf courses in America (it was at Merion in 1977), green speeds have nearly tripled, greens are getting mowed two or three times as often, maybe more. And where they once were mowed at one-fourth of as inch, now we mow them at 1/10th of an inch and we roll them.

And rough? Rough is integral to the game, but not six-inch U.S. Open rough where you can't find or advance the ball. Rough should be punitive, but you should be able to find it and advance it. For an elite player, he should be presented with a decision whether or not to go for the green. I like options in design and forcing guys to make decisions.

JF: Isn't it a good thing then that we have graded rough now? It tempts golfers into a dangerous shot that may cost them, or they may hit a great shot and escape?

SS: When Mike Davis came up with that it was my first year on the competition committee and I loved it. If rough is maintained to a certain degree, you reduce maintenance costs too. Now also they have to thing about how the ball will roll or bounce after it lands and that's a valuable component in design. Now when you grow rough you aren't just taking away playing angles, you've just put another element in play into the game and done it creatively.

JF: Now wait a minute though - aren't they almost bastardizing the concept of fast and firm now? I mean the USGA, PGA Tour and PGA of America, and even the R&A at Muirfield this year, they used fast and firm to suppress scoring where it's really supposed to allow average golfers the option of using the ground game?

SS: Well I don't think the goal is to suppress scoring. There was a mix of opinions, Padraig Harrington loved it.

JF: Yes, but Paddy likes hard courses. He says the harder the course, the more guys will psych themselves out before the tournament even starts.

SS: Well the USGA wants a difficult championship. They can get things over the top occasionally, but I think their agronomists now do a great job of getting it to the edge but not going over.

JF: But there have been times where they have gone over . . .

The 5th at Twin Eagles

SS: Yes, but not the majority of the time, and certainly not from 2006 forward.

JF: Has the cost of rough index gone down?

SS: The cost of rough index?

JF: The stat Frank Hannigan used to cite is telling: the number of strokes you lose when you go off the fairway or miss a green.

SS: I can't speak to that, but the goal of the USGA is to identify a great ball-striker. Justin Rose at Merion is a perfect example. And Phil Mickelson too, and he said he is hitting as good as ever has. The tournament identified the best ball-strikers. Yes, there is a point that it can get too firm and too fast, and you can get too much roll, and that results in driver-wedge . . . and driver-wedge golf doesn't identify the best golfer or the best ball-striker. A good golf course is a total examination - every club in the bag.

JF: Why must it identify the best ball-striker and not the best golfer?

SS: First, you want to test emotions as well as golf shots. How well can a guy that can handle pressure. And we want to identify precision. And that's what this year's U.S. Open and PGA Championship were. Dufner is also one of the best ball-strikers in the modern-day game.

JF: Yes, but on both of those occasions, they won on a rain-softened golf course - not a fast and firm one, and sometimes when they go overboard, like at Oakland Hills, you get a hodgepodge leaderboard and guys all trying not to make bogeys instead of playing golf for the title. At both this year's PGA and the 2008 PGA the rain actually saved the tournament, and great players could hit the gas pedal and play golf for the title. So does the PGA or USGA's use of fast and firm go over the line too much?

SS: No, because the goal is to keep the surfaces firm enough so that if you miss the fairway you have a price to pay. You can spin the ball out of the fairway, but not the rough. And the greens are maintained so the ball will release and stop on a shot from the fairway, but not from the rough. And also, the graded rough means a ball that misses by a little isn't punished as badly as a flat-out miss. You are penalized appropriately for the amount by which the fairway.

JF: Tell us about the national champion Florida team of 1973 and the tournament that year.

SS: We had such a great group of guys on that team: Three guys that played in the U.S. Open (Andy Bean, Gary Koch and Phil Hancock), one guy on the Walker Cup team (Koch) and 10 of us that all qualified for the U.S. Amateur.

JF:Where was the championship that year?

SS: Inverness, in Toledo. We had such a strong team, I didn't get to go to the national championship tournament. Fred Ridley and I used to laugh because we were always fighting it out for the sixth or seventh slot.

JF: As a guy who played last man for both Deerfield and Trinity, I deeply sympathize. (Laughter)

SS: Fred got the last laugh - he went on to win the U.S. Amateur two years later in Richmond, Virginia.

JF: Tell us about being runner-up in the Coleman.

SS: That was 2008. What a year . . . I'm in my third year of being on the executive committee, I had two teenage boy, and I had a project in Iceland - a great site! - and another one right outside Dubai right on the ocean. So I was trying to spend as much time with my boys, but here I am on committees and traveling to far-flung places and I couldn't fit in too more obligations. But I'm very fortunate to get invited to some of the greatest amateur tournaments in the world - the Coleman at Seminole, the Crump at Pine Valley, and the Anderson at Winged Foot. I have an absolute love affair with Winged Foot, by the way . . .

JF: Well, duh . . . (Laughter)

SS: So I finished second in the Coleman, got to the semis at Winged Foot, and won the Crump (all senior division).

JF: Would you like to play in the Travis?

SS: I love Garden City, it's just a fabulous golf course, I'd love to play in it. I've played Garden City, and I've been invited to the Travis, but I just never had the chance to play in the Travis.

JF: Why is it important to study Garden City architecturally?

SS: It's just so natural the way it fits with the land. The fairways and greens flow so perfectly. Its strategies are brilliant and all emanate from the ground undulations in the fairways and green contours.

JF: How about 15? The Wall Hole?

SS: I hit it dead left on that hole, I remember that. (Laughter)

JF: What makes for a well-designed golf course?

The 7th at Twin Eagles

SS: The course needs to fit the land. You need to make it fit and flow with whatever nature gives you. The reason Mike Kaiser has had phenomenal success is that, number one, he picks sites that have the best content - the terrain, the natural setting, soil, climate, vegetation, drainage, edges, all of it . . . and what stronger edges are there than the ocean?

JF: It's compelling.

SS: You bet it is! So as architects we first try to design the context - the natural context I mean. First, do we need to create a strong edge? Or can we utilize the existing features naturally so that they feel right? Then the next thing is to create the trip or journey - i.e., the routing of the course, that takes you too the most interesting and exciting places on the property in the proper sequence.

JF: How do you do that? (Sequence everything properly. . .)

SS: Just listen to your body and feel how it reacts to certain parts of the site - how long you want to stay and enjoy the view or how quickly you want to leave. That will tell you what is best to the golfer. The best parts of the site will jump out at you. I also won't try to force a rhythm of holes based on a sequence that doesn't feel right with the property.

JF: You mean the doctrine of symmetry? Which mandates two par-3s and two par-5s per side?

SS: Exactly. That's just forcing in a puzzle piece where it may or may not fit best. Now a great course not only has a great setting and takes you on a great journey, but a course can't be great unless it offers the ultimate examination into a golfer's ability and talent. One, it's gotta ask you to hit all the shots with all the clubs. Two, it has to give the golfer non-verbal cues via the land, so you can read your options and, therefore, understand the strategies. Read the golf course and you'll understand how the architect wants you to best attack.

JF: So what courses do you go play to study those aspects best?

SS: Pine Valley is the ultimate in that examination. Also, there's nothing like the Old Course. I have a real personal connection to Royal Dornach as I played my first British Amateur there in 1985. And I love Prestwick. I played the amateur there in '87 and I'm going back there in a few weeks.

JF: What about public courses in the USA?

SS: The best is Bethpage Black. It has history, and it has hosted championships because it's so demanding.

JF: What do you like specifically?

SS: The second green sits way high on that hill, so that's a tough approach even though it's short, you have to drive it in the fairway. Three is a long, brutal, par-3 - it's a tough shot and it has a diagonal angle, and of course there is the great bite-off tee shot at four as well.

JF: What holes or architectural features of those courses do you try to emulate and where can we see those in your work?

SS: Well we try not to "emulate," but we learn from their ideas. We try to find where those ideas would best fit the property we're given. If you fit your shapes and patterns to fit in and emulate the landscape, that's what's most pleasing to the golfer, and they can read the golf course to best attack it.

JF: What shapes and patterns do you mean?

SS: Well the third hole at Twin Eagles is very much a Seth Raynor style of design.

JF: Because it's geometric?

SS: Yes. He did geometric shapes because they jump out at you visually. It's visually stimulating.

JF: But wasn't it also a strategic thing though? Putting in many different angles for playing/attacking the hole?

SS: Yes, and three at Twin Eagles is a great example of that too. The strategy of the hole comes from both these shapes and the prevailing wind, a crosswind from the right. The fairway is wide, but because of the green's shape (and the wind) the hole locations determine the correct side of the fairway from which to approach.

JF: I also see a thumbprint in the green a la a "Short." That's Raynor-esque too . . .

Steve & His Son Scott Shot 63 at
Winged Foot West in 2013 Anderson Memorial

SS: That's the soft thumbprint. The big thumbprint is at number seven! Now I also grade the fairways and greens to match the wind conditions and to match the shots. If you're trying to attack a back-left pin there, the fairway and green is graded to slope from golfers right to left to promote a draw to get back there. So you have to do the math to plan and execute the right shot. But all the grades correspond to the strategy.

Now also look at number five, the Reverse Redan. Look at the shape of this green!

JF: It looks like the seating for a concert venue.

SS: I call it the Windshield Green. Here's the strategy: if you're going to go at this green in two, you have to challenge the bunkers on the left side. So you must hit it over the edge of the bunkers, or if you can hit a big draw, take it at the right bunker and draw it in. It's downwind and reachable, but you must hit two precise shots.

JF: Plus the green is shallow, so you'll give a guy a chance to hit it in two, but not help him.

SS: Exactly. Now there's two other plays off the tee. One is a 3-wood (so you don't drive it in the right fairway bunker), or the other play is even shorter, but you've turned it into a true three-shotter. Plus it's also a split fairway on the second shot. The green is a Reverse Redan, sloping away from the player from the left. There's tons of options. Now here's number 7 . . .

JF: Look at that green . . . it's so Raynor! A perfect square and with a thumbprint too.

SS: It's elevated, so the best way to attack is with a short-iron, but to do that you must fit the drive in the tightest space, especially with the big fairway bunker on the right. The fairway gets wider as you come closer to the tee, so your next option is to lay back and have a longer shot in.

Now I always try to give players the option to safely play away from the target. The best course management I ever saw was in 1970 at St. Andrews when Jack Nicklaus laid up short of the green three times at the Road Hole and still made par all three times. The greatest player of all time in the game's greatest championship on arguably the greatest hole of all time: it was the greatest display of discipline and course management I ever saw, Nicklaus said that was the most difficult thing to do in golf - play away from the target. I always give people the option to play away from the target, even though they seldom do it.

JF: Pete Dye does all the time . . . on almost every hole. You are aiming anywhere but directly at the green.

SS: (Chuckling) I remember my first job . . . I was in Indianapolis building Wolf Run at the same time Pete was getting Crooked Stick ready for the PGA Championship. Now Pete's one of the great experts at knowing how the elite players think and hit the golf ball . . . sort of like Sherlock Homes putting himself in the mind of the criminal to catch them. So he's going to do what he can to mess up their heads.

So at the eighth hole, a wonderful par-4 Cape hole around the lake, there's a beautiful oak tree behind the green that framed the green nicely. Well besides re-doing the greens they were also taking out the oak tree. So I mentioned to him, "Why? You have great framing with that tree . . ." and that's when he said, "That's exactly why I'm taking it out."

JF: Of course! The doctrine of deception!

SS: Exactly . . . he really plays with your mind as a competitor. And he's especially good at designing courses where shorter hitters have just as much of a chance as long hitters.

JF: Examples?

SS: Well, the Honors Course in Tennessee. You have to golf your ball and control it too. I tried to do that at Old Memorial and Wolf Run. And also, look what happened at the U.S. Amateur this year in the final. The winner was 30 yards behind the runner-up on every hole, but the shorter hitter won because he was the most accurate and controlled his golf ball the best.

JF: What other courses do that?

SS: I really like Champions in Houston, the one by Ralph Plummer, the famous Texas architect of the '50s and '60s. Coore and Crenshaw, of course - I really like their Bandon Trails course. It has great strategies and shot-making all rolled into one. You must read that course properly. They gave you the ability to read the grades and pitches of the ground. If you read the ground there, the strategies all come together.

JF: What other architects have influenced your work?

SS: One of the biggest was my first trip to Australia and seeing all the Sand Belt courses by (Alister) Mackenzie down there. I went down once a year for 10 years just to play all those courses. His courses have a nice mix of short and long holes and make you hit every club in the bag. An elite designer must build a course where you hit every club to test the best golfers, and nothing showed that better than Merion this year. Everyone talks about Merion being long.

JF: It's a long course, with a mix of very short holes.

SS: Absolutely! And Merion identified a great ball-striker, one of the best of this generation, Justin Rose.

JF: I had one problem with Merion, though, and that was the set-up on the final day. I thought they could have eased up on the pins on Sunday so that the guys could play go out and play golf for the title instead of tip-toeing around trying not to make mistakes. Look at the British Open by comparison. A truly great player made a Sunday charge for the ages to win. There was no such excitement at Merion. The guy that fell the least down the leaderboard won, not the guy who soared the highest.

SS: Well, remember also that at Merion those greens were constructed when green speeds were much slower - 4 or 5 on the Stimp, so in today's world, to find suitable hole locations for a national championship on a lot of those greens you might have only a handful of places to select from. Plus, Rose didn't play defensively. He hit it dead-straight every hole. He played it brilliantly. Those two shots he hit on 18 with Mickelson on his heels were amazing. So clutch. You had to hit the fairway on 18 and Mickelson couldn't do it, but Justin could.

JF: Tell us about Isleworth.

SS: I had to design in the same corridors that Arnold Palmer built, but they are completely different golf holes. I first worked on it in 1992. I changed a few holes and redid all the greens and surrounds. Then in 2002, they called me saying they wanted to redo the irrigation and change the grasses, and did I have any thoughts on how to improve the course. So we went around the course and I gave them my thoughts and we ended up coming up for ideas for redesigning the entire course. I remember it was December 23 at 7 p.m. and Mr. Lewis's entire staff came there for our presentation. He asked me how long will this take and I said it'll take 30 minutes if you hate it, and six hours if you don't. We were there three and a half hours.

JF: Tell us about some of the best holes and their architectural pedigree.

SS: There are many ways to play every hole, it's up to you to manage yourself and the best course manager is the guy who has the best chance to win. You get options on every single hole.

JF: Examples?

SS: 18 is a perfect example. It's a dogleg right. There's a lake on the right-hand side and a bunker - a big Pete Dye bunker, one of those huge geometric waste bunkers, only mine's not geometric. It's 480 and if you challenge the bunker on the right you have a flat lie, and if you shy away the fairway slope from your left to right - so you'll have a longer shot with a longer club from a downhill, side-hill lie. Then there's 17, a par-5 of 590 yards, but it's a bite-off hole sweeping from golfers right to left and then the inside of the dogleg is a series of hollows and hummucks of rough behind, so you;ll have an awkward lie and have to deal with a series of cross-bunkers to traverse on the next shot.

JF: Why is it important for golfers to study golf course architecture and design?

SS: So they can learn to read a golf course. Great architects show you ways to play the course, but they also require great players to make the right decision and then execute it according to their strengths as a golfer. And the right decision is more important than hitting a good shot. If you make the right decision, you're fitting a round peg into a round hole. The wrong decision - no matter how well executed - may be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

JF: What's the weirdest thing you've ever had to deal with as an architect?

SS: I was out walking a site by myself and I had a herd of cattle charge me!

JF: Where was this?

SS: Years ago in Richmond Virginia - River's Bend. I was walking the property, and they started comin' at me, and I ran like hell because there was a bull or two in there. So I high-tailed it over to the top of a mound on a little peninsula near the water's edge, where there was this mound. Well, I realized they had me cornered, so I ran to the top of a mound and grabbed this big stick that was nearby and screamed at them. I waved it at them and hollered, but they had me cornered . . . and then they just stopped cold, right there in their tracks. So I ran away. I high-tailed it over to this farmhouse on the property, and I knocked on the door. The farmer was there, and he said "Well those are Brahma cattle. They are mean buggers." (Laughter)

JF: How much is too much for a public round of golf, and how do you know when you've overpaid?

SS: That's a tough one. Some try to charge a fortune because they want to deliver "the experience." If a golf course isn't getting the rounds, then they may be charging too much, golf is so market driven. What you can demand in NYC is not what you can demand in Hutchinson, Kansas, or Lakeland, Florida. Generally, golf is affordable though. There are public courses in every community that are reasonably priced, and you can shop around for in-season rates too that are more affordable. There are plenty of good $20 courses in Florida, even in the summer.

JF: What's your next life goal?

SS: My last 10 years have been for my family and with the USGA. Now that my kids are about to be out of college (one is already), I really want to focus even more on architecture. One thing I'd like t do is get a great landscape setting like Mike Kaiser gets. I think we have one in South America right now. It's wonderful . . . it's not dunes, but we are coming out of the mountains where they meet the ocean right on the Equator. It's right on the Pacific, and the finishing three holes are right on the water or play right towards it. And the rest is unique in terms of land: there's a jungle, we traverse a ravine, and we go into the foothills of the mountains, we even play along the side of a river! I'm hoping this will be spectacular and will be a springboard for similar jobs in North America.

JF: You get the chance to call your 15-year-old self and give yourself one minute of advice, but you can't tell yourself you're you or that you're calling from the future. hat advice do you give yourself?

SS: Learn as much as you can, take good care of yourself, and be polite to everybody.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.