Golf's greats have designs on another sort of immortality
Like most fourth-graders, Tom Watson used to doodle and daydream at his desk. "I sketched incredibly long par-4s, with everything uphill," he says. "Come to think of it, they were like what architects design today."
Watson's schoolboy fancies came to life in 1987, when he collaborated on Spanish Bay at Pebble Beach, Calif. Two years ago he designed the Tom Watson Golf Club in Miyazaki, Japan. He is one of more than 40 current and former Tour golfers now playing architect, from Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie. Even D.A. Weibring has a design firm. The player-designers, who charge from $200,000 to $2 million per layout, are gobbling up a growing slice of the architectural pie, to the dismay of longtime designers like Ron Fream. "Just because you can hit a four-iron stiff, that doesn't mean you can create a course," says Fream.
In Pete Dye's view, attaching a golf star's name to a course is often a matter of marketing. "Nobody thinks Arnold Palmer invented Pennzoil," Dye says. "He endorses it. The golf professionals endorse their courses, too." Lee Trevino, for example, has leased his name to a design group. Among former players only Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Weiskopf and a few others have earned their stripes as designers.
The 134-member American Society of Golf Course Architects screens its members for experience and training in landscaping, horticulture and agronomy as well as course construction. Only two players, Nicklaus and Mark McCumber, are ASGCA members. "My brothers and I were building our first course when I got my Tour card," says McCumber, the lone player-designer whose work as an architect predates his pro playing career.
Weiskopf joined forces with Jay Morrish to build the esteemed Troon and Troon North in Scottsdale, Ariz., as well as his own favorite, Loch Lomond, the first course in Scotland designed by an American. "All golfers are frustrated designers," says Weiskopf. "Overall, I enjoy building courses more than I ever liked playing." The 1973 British Open champ has learned to read engineering plans with an expert's eye, and like many pros he has a nearly photographic memory of courses he has played.
"That memory can be a plus or a minus," says Morrish, who has worked with Nicklaus and Weiskopf. "Some players can only see new situations in terms of holes they remember. That makes you an excellent editor but not necessarily a good author."
Nicklaus, who is known for letting the bulldozers move tons of earth before he does much of his work, has won raves for such designs as Muirfield Village, Desert Mountain and Desert Highlands. His stature as a golfer turned auteur is nothing new, says designer Brian Silva. "Many early architects were playing pros. Donald Ross was one of them, and we revere him like no other architect," says Silva. Yet with exotic, temperamental strains of bent-grass to deal with and EPA regulations affecting every inch of fairway and green, course design is hardly the game it was in Ross's era. "Golf professionals don't have the technical background they need to solve all the problems they run into," Dye says. "The ones who do good work either hire or affiliate themselves with people who know the technical side." Nicklaus employs several other ASGCA members. Weiskopf brought engineer and agronomist David Porter onboard after splitting with Morrish in 1993. Crenshaw works with Bill Coore, and Palmer relies on Ed Seay.
Does that mean the stars are mere figureheads? Only if Ross was a figurehead, too, for many of his courses were actually the work of his underlings John McGovern and Walter Hatch. " Ross's design in Whitinsville, Mass., is often called one of the best nine-hole courses in the country," Silva says, "but people who have been there forever will tell you that Hatch did it. Ross never set foot on the place."
—John F. Lauerman