A new start for one of golf architecture’s powerhouses

A new start for one of golf architecture’s powerhouses
By Adam Lawrence

Thad Layton and Brandon Johnson are now the driving force behind Arnold Palmer Design Company, long one of golf architecture’s powerhouses. Adam Lawrence visited Old Tabby Links in South Carolina to learn more

The transformation that has hit the golf design industry since the global economy went west in 2008 has been most severely felt in the big-name signature design firms. The small number of practices bearing the biggest names were previously substantial operations, with multiple offices around the world, teams of back office staff generating plans and supporting the lead architects who were the firms’ key fee earners. Now, those firms are stripped down machines.

A shortage of work has only been part of the problem. The first generation of signature designers – Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer chief among them – are now at a stage of their lives where spending all their time on planes flying from client to client is becoming less appealing (though Player for one continues to maintain a ferocious schedule). Their personal brands are still strong, but with fewer of the resort and real estate driven projects that were their stock in trade, there is simply less to do. And, as a result, their design businesses are starting to take a different shape.

Take Arnold Palmer Design Company, one of the oldest and best regarded of the signature firms. Most of Palmer’s architects departed a few years ago, into retirement or to work for themselves, as the boss downsized his operation to reflect the new market reality, while at the same time moving it to Orlando, where he is based. Now, the firm depends on two architects, Thad Layton and Brandon Johnson, both by reputation exciting talents, but both certainly younger and less experienced than their departed colleagues.

But maybe this is no bad thing. The other challenge the older signature design firms face is adapting to an environment where the style of golf architecture they represented is out of fashion. And, based on a visit to one recent project, the rebuild of the Old Tabby Links on Spring Island in South Carolina, Palmer’s firm is adapting pretty well.

Part of a very high end residential development in the Low country of South Carolina, Old Tabby was built – primarily by longtime Palmer architect Vicki Martz – in the 1990s. What Johnson has done is to update the course, adding strategic interest and a more natural visual aesthetic,wholly in keeping with the Low country location – several holes play alongside the tidal marsh – of Old Tabby.

Take the difficult par four second hole. With a water hazard up almost the entirety of the right side and a small bunker protecting the front left of the green (and thus emphasising the benefit of hugging the water off the tee), the hole is strategically sound, attractive and plenty tough enough. It didn’t need the complex of mounds that previously occupied some of the space to the left of the green, complicating play for those that chose to play away from the pond with their approaches. Johnson has removed the mounds and substituted a gently contoured chipping area – and improved drainage in a previously wet area into the bargain – and in the process has rendered the hole less visually cluttered and more appealing.

Or the short par three third, which requires a carry, though not a long one, over another pond, to an extravagantly contoured green. Taking an extra club to steer clear of the water is a natural response to such a hole, but Johnson’s green, which bleeds into a rear bunker and a small hollow means that any recovery from behind the hole will demand a delicate shot. It is – again – both pretty and challenging.

The original routing has not been materially altered, and, on gentle Low country ground, represents a pleasant walk, with the unfortunate exception of a lengthy drag from the ninth green to the tenth tee. This is understandable, though: the designers were clearly keen to make the best use of the frontage onto the salt marsh, and it’s the kind of compromise that is often necessary on such properties. And the back nine, which is more open than the front, is splendid, starting with the par four tenth, which has a pond to the left of the green, but a merciful mound to the right, encouraging players to avoid the water and bounce their balls down the slope to the pin. Again, though, the green is heavily contoured: Johnson is clearly not scared of adding interest to his greens. Putting at Old Tabby, when the greens are running at their fastest, must be a fun challenge.

The eleventh might be the most interesting hole on the course. A short par four, it has two separate sets of tees, one to the right of the wide corridor, the other to the left. The fairway too is divided, by bunkers and a ridge, and from either set of tees, the player must choose whether left or right side offers the preferred approach. That decision will depend on length – the green is just about drivable for a reasonable number of players – but also on pin location. On a public course, the hole might just be a little too complex: first time out, it’s almost impossible to comprehend the range of options. But for a private club like Spring Island, it’s a perfect hole, which will continue to confound and entertain players of all standards for many years to come.

Another short four, the fifteenth, gives a tantalising glimpse of what might have been (and what might still be). Again, the hole corridor is extremely wide, and the huge and contoured island green (it’s so big, calling it an island is almost redundant) gives lots of short game interest.But Johnson dreams of building a new green off to the right and transforming the hole into another option-laden drivable four. It may yet happen.

At the par five sixteenth, the course returns to the salt marsh, and a visually striking climax. The par three seventeenth is the hole one-time visitors to Old Tabby will remember best, playing along a narrow spit of land with marsh on the right and water on the left. Again the green is significantly contoured, but what is most remarkable is that, despite all the water around, the tee shot is actually rather inviting. Rear pin locations,though, should only be chased by the very confident. For more, centre of the green and a nice safe three is a splendid result.

Old Tabby’s home hole, oddly, is the only place on the golf course where the housing that anchors the development is really obvious. Still,it’s a nice place to finish, with the green set alongside the marsh, and the welcoming clubhouse nearby. Long regarded as one of the Palmer firm’s best pieces of work, Old Tabby is the kind of course and club to which any golfer would be delighted to belong. 

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