Playing GOD

The Almighty rested now and then, but today's in-demand golf course architects never stop
July 15, 1990

There was this piece of land north of Las Vegas that the client wanted golf course designer Tom Fazio to take a look at. Three hundred fifty acres, ripe for development. Soil a little alkaline—if you planted a tulip in it, the tulip would die, coughing and gasping, like Jimmy Cagney in The Roaring Twenties. But a great view. Heck, you could see all the way to Charleston Peak, 40 miles away, because the property was as flat as a coffee table and there wasn't anything growing on it.

"Not a twig," says Fazio. "It was boring, uninteresting, worthless, nothing, zero."

Fazio, an earnest guy with thick spectacles and a humble manner, told the client he wasn't impressed. He said, "This is probably the worst site for a golf course I've ever seen."

But the client was persistent. He envisioned a golf course on his land, and he didn't mind spending a few dollars for improvements.

So Fazio shrugged and went to work. Reportedly he spent $3 million to bring in water and electricity. He made 60-foot-deep cuts in the desert floor and bulldozed 3 million cubic yards of earth into mounds and ridges. He dug a half-mile-long creek bed and lined it with rocks and boulders trucked in from miles away. He built ponds and cascading waterfalls. He ordered 10,000 trees from the garden store and had them planted at a cost of $9 million. Finally, for $4 million more, he sodded the whole course to keep the topsoil from blowing away.

When Fazio was finished, a golf course that might have cost $3 to $5 million in Missouri or Tennessee wound up with a $37 million price tag. That includes tee markers and ball washers, of course.

Those who have played Shadow Creek say it's a wonderful course. You have to take their word for it. Fazio's client—Steve Wynn, chairman of Golden Nugget, Inc., which owns the Mirage Hotel and Golden Nugget in Las Vegas and other properties—doesn't let just anybody play it, only close friends and casino guests with seven-figure incomes. Even Fazio didn't realize how exclusive Shadow Creek was until he showed up one day to play a round with Wynn and found himself in a foursome with Donald Trump and Clint Eastwood. Pop star Michael Jackson followed them for a few holes on foot, but the course was otherwise deserted.

"A typical day at Shadow Creek," says another of Fazio's clients, "is two foursomes."

And some days, according to Fazio, nobody plays Shadow Creek at all.

Making deserts bloom is ordinary stuff in this, the Gilded Age of Golf Course Architecture. When developers hired Jack Nicklaus to design a golf course at Thousand Oaks, Calif., five years ago, they asked him to preserve the dramatic live oak trees on the property, many of them with trunks two to three feet in diameter. The course couldn't be routed around them, so Nicklaus had 30 of the trees transplanted at a cost of up to $100,000 each. Final tab at the Sherwood Country Club: $45 million (including clubhouse).

Other "high-end" golf course designers gleefully fulfill their clients' dreams by bulldozing Florida pineland into Scottish-style dunes; lopping the tops off mountains and filling in valleys; building holes shaped like guitars and Andalusian hats; laying sod over lava beds; and by restoring saltwater marshes and bird sanctuaries. If the dollars are there—and the dollars have been plentiful since the last building industry slowdown in 1981—the top architects are free to apply their imaginations to the limits that aesthetic judgement and environmental law allow. And sometimes beyond.

The numbers are revealing. Last year, 290 golf courses opened for business in the U.S., compared with 178 or so a year in the 1970s. Well over 300 will open this year, and the National Golf Foundation projects that 400 courses a year must be built this decade to keep up with demand—"a golf course a day" in industry jargon. Not since the Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture—the 1920s, when 300 courses a year were built—have architects been empowered to design courses with so little concern for cost and competitors. "There's less competition than I can remember in 26 years," says Fazio. "There's so much work out there you can't even return all the phone calls you get."

Outside the U.S., where a rising tide of Japanese cash and Hong Kong dollars is finding its way to golf course projects, the growth is even more frenzied. Nicklaus, whose design company now has a half-dozen courses underway in Thailand alone, says, "We'd never even heard of Thailand. Then three came through the door in a month."

In Japan, where 13.7 million golfers compete for tee times on courses capable of handling only 400,000 per day, the figures defy common sense. American architect Michael Poellot, who has built 30 courses in Japan for a formidable $2.5 billion, says a typical course there costs $150 million. Last year, he built one for a brain-clouding $260 million, not counting land and clubhouse. "The fees that we can command in Japan are awesome," says Poellot. "I've got eight designers working, but we're at the point now where we just have to say no. We can't keep the guys working nights and weekends anymore."

Predictably, the golf course explosion has made stars of a handful of architects. But developers today demand not just a golf course designer; they want a designer label. Robert Trent Jones started the trend in the 1960s with trade magazine ads that featured his John Hancock over the slogan "Give your course a signature." Now it's de rigueur to have a credible name on the back pocket: Robert Trent Jones Jr., Rees Jones, Robert Cupp, Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf, Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay.

To say that the biggest names are in demand would be an understatement. In March, a group of Japanese investors bent on hiring superstar designer Pete Dye offered him $500,000 just to listen to their pitch. Said a disbelieving Dye, "If somebody's crazy enough to pay $500,000 to shake my hand, they belong in a nuthouse." He declined the offer.

Currently, the most-sought-after cachets belong to Dye, Nicklaus and Fazio—three men of divergent styles and business practices. Dye, at 64, is a hands-on, tractor-driving builder with what one colleague calls a "Herb Shriner, country-lawyer manner, played to the hilt." Fazio, 45, is a warm, self-effacing family man who turns down far-off work and flies to projects in a private plane so he can be home in time for dinner. Nicklaus, 50, is the empire builder: a charismatic executive with mahogany-paneled offices, a hierarchy of "design associates" and a built-in publicity generator—his worldwide reputation as a tournament player.

Of the three, Dye seems to have the most gremlin in his bloodlines. A typical Pete Dye course has several holes that are penal in character, with precipitous slopes, bottomless bunkers, parallel water hazards and tiny greens designed to repel golf balls. On a Dye course the maxim of early-20th-century amateur designer William C. Fownes Jr., who laid out the course at Oakmont—"A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost"—is sometimes altered to "A shot well played should be a shot lost anyway."

A capable amateur golfer in his youth (he lost a semifinal match of the 1956 Trans-Mississippi to 16-year-old Nicklaus), Dye designs courses for match play, where a triple-bogey means only the loss of a hole, not a tournament. This has made him less than a favorite with touring professionals, who must contend with Dye's quirky bounces and harsh hazards in million-dollar stroke-play tournaments. In 1982, when the touring pros held their first Players Championship at Dye's Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra, Fla., the greens were so unreceptive that Tom Watson asked, "Is it against the rules to carry a bulldozer in your bag?" Nicklaus griped too, saying, "I've never been very good at stopping a five-iron on the hood of a car."

The enduring comment on a Dye course, though, was made by a nonprofessional: Rotund former House Speaker Tip O'Neill took heroic stroke after heroic stroke from a basement-level bunker at greenside at the PGA West stadium course in La Quinta, Calif., during the 1987 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Finally, O'Neill picked up his ball and hurled it onto the green. The rest, as they say, is history.

"PGA West, to me, is one of the greatest golf courses ever built," says Fazio, "even though a lot of people don't like it. There was nothing there, but three or four years later it's world-acclaimed and you have to stand in line to play. Pete really did a job for his clients."

Dye's road to renown was largely fortuitous. In the 1950s he was a successful insurance salesman and chairman of the greens committee at the Country Club of Indianapolis, where he supervised a major replanting of the course. Intrigued by the challenge of course construction, he quit insurance and built a nine-hole course in Greenwood, Ind., assisted by his wife, Alice, a top amateur golfer. For a few years the Dyes were content to build low-budget municipal courses, but Pete's status climbed a notch with the completion of Crooked Stick (Carmel, Ind.) in 1966. That course, he admits, was influenced by the work of Robert Trent Jones, who dominated golf course design for two decades with his 7,200-yard, multiple-tee, multiple-pin-position layouts.

"At that time, Mr. Jones was so dominant," Dye recalls. "I decided if I was ever going to be known in the game, I had to do something different."

Dye's "something different" was the Harbour Town Golf Links at Hilton Head, S.C., which he built in 1969 with—and this is ironic—young Jack Nicklaus as codesigner. (Dye, the clients believed, lacked name recognition.) At Harbour Town, Dye envisioned what Trent Jones would have done...and then did the opposite—small greens, short tees, tight fairways lined with tall pines. "And I just laid it flat on the ground. I tried to go as far away from what Mr. Jones did as was possible."

Since Harbour Town—which, according to another golf architect, "really changed attitudes" about golf course design—Dye has planned and constructed a number of memorable, if controversial, courses, including a string of resort layouts for the Landmark Land Company (Mission Hills, La Quinta, Oak Tree, PGA West and Carmel Valley Ranch in California; Palm Beach Polo in Florida). Because he likes to "massage" a course personally, Dye takes on only two or three projects a year, living in rented houses and supervising construction from a field trailer. His earth-moving machines—also rented—are operated by a dozen or so young men with college degrees in agronomy, eager to learn the business. "I've never really expanded," says Dye, explaining his failure to exploit the current boom.

Since September, Dye has mostly fussed over a new links course at hurricane-ravaged Kiawah Island, S.C., which will be the site of the 1991 Ryder Cup matches. A short, cheerful man in khaki pants, windbreaker and thick-soled boots, Dye races around the site in a Jeep Cherokee, plowing through bulldozed dirt and splashing through ponds. One minute he is shielding his face from windblown sand, instructing a young apprentice in the operation of a backhoe; the next, he is supervising work in the marshes, where flocks of birds swoop in the sunset. "If I just take care of the fundamentals, this should be a great course," he says of the Kiawah project. "There's no reason for it not to be."

But if it isn't, Dye will revisit Kiawah, as he does most of his "finished" courses, to recontour a green here, build new tees there and generally tinker with it. Says Dye, "I spend 90 percent of my time going back to fix my mistakes."

If Dye represents the architect as nomad, Fazio represents the opposite extreme—a man whose success permits him to turn down projects more than two hours by air from the Blue Ridge Mountain town of Hendersonville, N.C. When the Disney Corporation asked him to build a golf course for its new theme park near Paris, Fazio said sorry, too far. "I don't have an airplane for ego," he says, referring to his twin-engine Turbo Commander, hangared at the nearby Asheville airport. "I just want to spend more time with my kids."

Fazio's kids number six—three boys and three girls ranging from five to 12—and he and his wife, Susan, spend a lot of time hauling the youngsters to ballet and music lessons, riding stables and various sports events. The walls of his sparsely furnished office are decorated with family photos. Fazio has a maximum of six courses under construction at a time, with three to five in the planning stages. A sign on the firm's drafting room door—WHAT PART OF NO DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?—may refer to the five or six prospective clients a week he says he turns down.

There is no Fazio "style" as such, no trademark touches like Dye's railroad-tie bulkheads or Desmond Muirhead's surrealist bunkers. "My whole program is custom-tailored, custom-fit courses," he says. If a client has good ideas, Fazio welcomes them and incorporates them into his design. At Shadow Creek, it was Wynn's idea to make the water hazards long and narrow because the desert sun reflecting off large bodies of water can be blinding. Says Fazio, "Steve made it a better course than we would have made it by ourselves."

Fazio learned the business as a teenager in suburban Philadelphia, while working for his club-pro father, Sal, and his uncle, George Fazio, a onetime touring professional who designed such successful courses as Butler National, near Chicago, and Jupiter Hills in Florida. Tom joined his uncle in the business in 1962 at 17, became a partner in '73 and by the early '80s was operating on his own (George died in 1986). His best-known courses—Barton Creek (Texas), Wild Dunes (S.C.), The Vintage Club (Calif.) and Wade Hampton (N.C.)—are challenging and dramatic, but not as punitive as Dye's or as biased toward high-ball hitters as some of Nicklaus's courses. "I'm not into perpendicular hazards," says Fazio, a six handicapper. "It creates more air golf."

Fazio's newest design is more than a golf course—it's a blueprint for his own lifestyle. This spring he seeded Champion Hills, a development course he routed through a wooded mountain site outside Hendersonville. This will be his course. He is part owner of the course and is building a house in the woods nearby. He envisions his children caddying, cutting grass and waiting tables in the clubhouse dining room—the kinds of things he did as a kid. Fazio is also looking for office space on Hendersonville's Main Street, a small-town commercial strip straight out of a Frank Capra movie. "I just like the idea of a Main Street," he says, sipping coffee in a Hendersonville cafe on a weekday afternoon. "I enjoyed living in Florida, but it worried me that my kids were exposed to so much wealth."

Dye and Fazio, with their work shoes and dusty Jeeps, give the impression that employing them is like hiring a local contractor for an addition to the house—make that 10,000 additions. Nicklaus sees his role differently. He is a corporate CEO. There appear to be almost as many board feet of hardwood in the paneling of his new offices in North Palm Beach, Fla., as in the trees lining the fairways of Muirfield Village (Ohio) or Shoal Creek (Ala.), two of his better-known creations. Jack Nicklaus Golf Services, the golf course division of Golden Bear International, employs 66 full-time staffers and has field offices in London and Hong Kong. Nicklaus has under contract 11 "design associates"—that's Bear Talk for staff architects—five agronomists, six production staffers...so many support people, in fact, that the operation hums with the efficiency of an ocean liner under the command of an unseen skipper. "Jack is the designer," division vice-president Tommy Sasser quickly points out. "We only have one designer."

You might take that with a grain of salt. Nicklaus's "summary of golf course projects" for March listed 25 courses under construction, including layouts in Indonesia, Belgium, Scotland, France, Taiwan and Japan; and 44 clients under contract, including eager check writers in Spain, Guam, Australia and Zaire. If Nicklaus is supervising the construction arid drawing the routings for all those projects, then some impostor must have finished sixth at the Masters and won the Senior TPC. Actually, Nicklaus has always been open about the fact that he is not a golf course architect. "I am a golf course designer," he says. "I employ architects."

The distinction means little to his clients, who pay an industry-high in the U.S. of $1 million per design for their piece of the Nicklaus mystique and marketability. Not bad for a guy who can't read a topographical map. "The top of the market is always there," says Golden Bear v.p. Mark Hesemann. "There's always a market for quality."

It's a carriage-trade marketing strategy in what is essentially the dirty and noisy business of earth moving, but it has worked for Nicklaus. If anything, his reputation for cost overruns ("The only guy who can exceed an unlimited budget," someone once said) has enhanced his image. "I've got a reputation for spending a lot of money," Nicklaus says, "but I spend it up front so you don't have to spend it later."

Even that is debatable. Nicklaus, like Dye, has been criticized for building courses that are costly to maintain. But there's no question that Nicklaus's clients have something to show for their money; his layouts are invariably drop-dead beautiful and exquisitely kept.

Ironically, while the top course designers haven't been able to satisfy the recent crush of clients, they have found themselves increasingly under attack from outsiders. No-growthers see the golf course as a "development engine" and the architect as a salesman with his foot in the door; where there is a golf course, they say, shopping malls and tract homes are sure to follow. Environmentalists praise the parklike character of golf courses but bemoan the destruction of wildlife habitats and fret over water usage and chemical contamination from turfgrass fertilizers and herbicides.

Golfers themselves increasingly complain that the new courses are too difficult and too costly to play. Tour professional Paul Azinger asks, "Do the architects realize how much we hate the new courses?"

Hate is too strong a word, but there are signs of a backlash. Ron Whitten, architecture editor for Golf Digest, sees a renewed appreciation of older styles in his magazine's Top 100 U.S. courses: "In the 1987 survey, our panelists were enamored with late-20th-century 'grab you by the throat' architecture—the real severe slopes, dramatic, penal designs. The 1989 survey saw the resurgence of older, classical styles." Examples: the courses of Donald Ross, Alister Mackenzie, A.W. Tillinghast, Perry Maxwell.

On the other hand, says Whitten, real estate developers and resort owners probably don't share his panel's enthusiasm for classic courses. "Donald Ross would not have been a very good development golf course architect. It's much easier to sell glitz—deep bunkers, waterfalls. No subtleties."

"Television is the driving force," says William Amick, designer of Perdido Bay and Killearn in Florida. "Golf courses are now designed to look good on TV."

Or, he might have added, in magazines. Modern courses, with their mounds and deep bunkers, photograph well in the late afternoon. Pictures of waterfalls and island greens help fill hotel rooms and sell homesites. "There comes a point, though," says Amick, "when you can't build a more dramatic course to get attention."

Overall, though, the craftsmanship of the new courses is impressive. And if the architects seem too willing at times to pander to their moneyed clients, maybe it's because they remember when there were no clients. Fifteen years ago, a more modest building boom collapsed and left golf architects with idle bulldozers and lots of time to play golf. "If you are in the real estate or golf design business, the Depression was not in 1929," says Fazio. "It was in the mid-'70s."

A less serious slowdown in 1981, caused by 21% interest rates, underscored the point: Booms are often followed by busts. Doomsayers in the business point to today's troubling indicators: volatility on the Japanese stock exchange, which could slow Japanese development; new savings and loan regulatory legislation affecting a major U.S. golf developer, Landmark Land Company, which used its own savings and loan institutions to finance most of its 23 resort courses; and forecasts that oil prices may rise again. "Golf courses are petroleum-intensive in construction and maintenance," explains Amick. "As petroleum goes up, it's got to have an effect on us."

Nonetheless, the mood was upbeat, almost euphoric, when the American Society of Golf Course Architects members gathered on California's Monterey Peninsula in March for their annual meeting. With business so good, the often fractious architects were the model of collegiality, playing golf by day and warming themselves with cheery projections by night.

"This growth just amazes me," said Fazio. Poellot, predicting a third wave of new course construction in Japan, said, "I pinch myself every day and say this can't be real. When's the bubble going to burst?"

Nicklaus, enjoying the cocktail-hour bonhomie of his colleagues in their ASGCA plaid blazers, stood on the patio of the Inn at Spanish Bay and watched the sun go down over the Pacific Ocean and the Links at Spanish Bay. Or maybe he was simply gazing, like stout Cortez, at the new world of markets beckoning from across the water.

"I can't physically handle all the work anymore," he said. "Up to this point I've had my hands on everything we do, but now I want to turn it into more of a design firm, not just a Jack Nicklaus company." His son Jackie is already handling three projects, and his design associates will soon be building signature courses of their own. It is the only logical response to the world's suddenly insatiable appetite for golf courses.

"I don't know how long this is going to last," Nicklaus admitted, "but I do know this: You gotta make hay while there's hay to make."

TWO PHOTOSPAUL BARTONMuirhead: Surrealist bunkers at the par-3 7th at Stone Harbor. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINFazio: Whatever the client wants, and an office on Main Street, U.S.A. PHOTOGOLFOTO PHOTOJOHN DAVID FLECK PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINDye: After Crooked Stick, a hands-on approach to "something different." TWO PHOTOSUSGATillinghast (top left) and Mackenzie (left) preceded Jones Sr. (with his sons). PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTOUSGARoss: A renewed appreciation for his classic, subtle layouts. PHOTOPGA/WORLD GOLF HALL OF FAME[See caption above.] PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINNicklaus: The designer as CEO and superstar with the biggest name in the game. PHOTOGOLFOTO[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)