Golf clubs in many countries are trying to find ways of coping with their ageing memberships. Although in some areas, such as Scandinavia, the relatively new-found popularity of golf means that the game’s audience is rather younger, in the old-established golf markets of the UK and the USA, the ageing of the golf population is a major problem for clubs. In some ways the same is true for golf architects. Few people acquire any traction in the industry until they have acquired a reasonable number of grey hairs, so ‘young’ in golf design terms means under the age of 40 or so. Even this isn’t precise though – there are architects who can legitimately be described as up-and-coming who are significantly older.
Architect Tom Doak, himself relatively youthful in those terms, despite his stellar track record, names a number of designers who are only now starting to get established and develop their own reputations, despite being in their late forties or even early fifties! And those that do start young often do so because of some family connection to the industry – it’s hard to imagine that bearing the name of Dye, Fazio or, on the other side of the pond Hawtree or Harradine would be anything other than a help in developing a career in golf design.
Doak’s success in the relatively early stages of his career, or the perhaps even more meteoric rise to prominence of Scottish architect David Kidd, who hit the headlines and the course ranking charts by building Bandon Dunes at the age of 28, are very much the exception to the rule. Even in Kidd’s case though, one should point out that, when Mike Keiser hired him to build Bandon, he was also hiring his father Jimmy, a well-known figure in the industry. As the project progressed, the younger Kidd’s role came further to the fore, and now Bandon Dunes is known as his course. Would he have got the job without his father’s experience and contacts? We shall never know.
Perhaps the most common way of getting into golf design, if one doesn’t have a previous connection to the golf industry, is to take a job as an associate in one of the larger architecture firms. But these roles are relatively scarce, and hotly contested. Most entrants nowadays have a background, or at least academic training, in landscape architecture (LA), though it should be noted that some high profile designers dislike the close connection that has built up between LA and golf architecture.
As a route to the top of the profession, though, it is debatable whether a long stint in a ‘signature’ firm – whether named after its star big name designer, or after the professional golfer who ostensibly does the design, is the best option. You may get access to big budgets and good sites at an early stage of your career, but how much influence will you get over the design of the golf course? And even if the final course does largely reflect your work, it will never be known as your design – so how will that help you build your reputation?
Danish golf architect Line Mortensen is one who has taken exactly the opposite route. A golfer since her childhood, and later a Danish international, the 36 year old Mortensen took the considerable risk of going on her own at a very early stage of her career. “I’ve played golf since I was four, so it’s always been a part of my life. I can’t remember not playing golf,” she says. “I ended up in the Danish team as a teenager, and even back then I had an idea that I’d like to do something within the golf industry. So I started a landscape architecture degree, thinking it would be the best way to get into the industry, and later went to work for an English firm of landscape architects.”
But Mortensen didn’t last long as an employee. “I guess I was lucky that golf was booming in Denmark because that made it easier to start up my own business,” she reflects. “I never really wanted my own business – really it just happened. A lot of the larger golf architect firms are businesses, not architects who are designing because they really want to. And if you really believe in what you’re doing it’s hard to work that way. You might be asked to do stuff you don’t believe in. So I felt I had no option but to go on my own.”
Mortensen takes the view that this self-reliance is more conducive to producing the best work of which she is capable. “You yourself decide how much time you want to spend on a project,” she says. “If you work for someone else you have to justify your time. I used to say I’d rather live off tomato soup than do a project I didn’t believe in. You take some huge risks behaving like that, but for me it means that I’m trying to do what I really care about.”
As well as trying to develop her design practice, until recently Mortensen was a lecturer on the masters degree programme in golf architecture at the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland. “I often used to tell the students that you can be as clever as you like but if you don’t have a bit of luck you won’t get into the industry,” she says ruefully. The Scandinavian golf explosion, which started gaining traction in Sweden during the 1970s and 1980s, and then spread to the rest of the region – represented her dose of luck. And the Scandinavian attitude to sexual equality – in an industry which has, until very recently, been completely maledominated – perhaps provided another.
“I was the first woman to get into the European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA) and for a few years was the only one,” she says. “But coming from Scandinavia, I never experienced a problem with my sex until I moved to the UK. And going back to work there is very easy by comparison.”
Women, until recently mostly conspicuous by their absence among the ranks of golf architects, are starting to make inroads into the profession. While Alice Dye, the first female member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) may have blazed a trail, because of her partnership with her husband Pete, her career path wasn’t exactly normal. “I once interviewed Alice for an article I was writing about women in the profession,” says Mortensen. “She was inspirational, but she clearly hadn’t had to face a lot of the issues that I did.”
And Mortensen isn’t the only one. Other young women are now coming into the industry – former top Italian amateur golfer Virginia Costa has been working with Hurdzan/Fry on the I Roveri course near Turin, for example – and, it is to be hoped, the maledominated golf business may soon be less intimidating to women.
Croatian architect Ljubica Jovetic, who works in the UK for Swan Golf Designs, has also made it to membership of EIGCA. Project architect for Swan’s recreation of the old Donald Harradine course at Bled in Slovenia, as well as a number of other projects in the Balkan region, Jovetic told me of her experiences as a young woman in the golf business. “I once made a visit to a project and the contractor was about to start building a lake on the course,” she says. “I explained the need for a safety shelf around the perimeter, and of course it was on the construction drawings. A few weeks later I went back and the lake had been constructed without the shelf. I spoke to the client, and he said he had decided it wasn’t necessary. I explained forcefully that it was, and the lake was rebuilt. But I don’t know whether he’d have ignored me if I was a man.”
The downside of working in relatively young golf markets such as Denmark though, is that the audience may not be that sophisticated in its appreciation of design. And this is particularly relevant to Mortensen, who aspires to build traditional-style golf courses. “I finished a project last year where I did links-style revetted bunkers,” she says. “I did them really shallow, but the reaction I’ve had has been astonishing – people just don’t get it. It’s very frustrating to do something that’s totally traditional and not be understood, but that’s the nature of it when people don’t have that history with golf.” She is particularly frustrated that Danish planning regulations virtually eliminate the possibility of building courses on the country’s long and beautiful coastline. “In Denmark there’s lots of great land, but they don’t get why you would like to build a golf course in those dunes,” she explains. “We have a few courses that by accident came to be on a good site, but most are built on very difficult land.”
Dave Fleury, now a partner in the Roger Rulewich Group, set up by former Robert Trent Jones lead architect Rulewich after his old principal’s retirement, exemplifies another traditional route into architecture – course construction and maintenance. “My grandfather introduced me to golf at a young age, and as a teenager I started working on the grounds crew at my home course, Oakridge, in Massachusetts,” he says. “I went off to the University of Massachusetts to study plant and soil science, but I ended up as a double major – because my mother insisted I should get a business degree! I originally wanted to be a superintendent, and I interned at a number of high-end clubs. One of those was Garden City Golf Club, which at the time was doing a big bunker renovation process. I always found myself waking up with great vigour to get to the golf course – those days were really exciting. One of my bosses said to me ‘If you want to be a top-notch super you have to set yourself apart. If you could learn about construction that would do the trick’.”
Fleury therefore took a job working for the Nicklaus group as a construction foreman. “It was at that time I realised I was never going back to being a super,” he says. “The first project I worked on was Indigo Run at Hilton Head. After four or five more years with Nicklaus, my last project was rebuilding the greens at Shoal Creek in Alabama.” Wanting to move back to New England, he joined Rulewich in 1999, and became his partner a few years later.
One of the real advantages of starting with a firm on the scale of Nicklaus, Fleury reckons, is the resources available. “You have access to some of the best shapers in the business, and typically you have sufficient budgets to do the kind of thing you’d like to do,” he says. “I came into design through construction and so I make that connection between the designer and the guy in the field very closely. Probably about 30-40 per cent of my time I’m actually on a bulldozer shaping. You can’t discount the ‘soundboarding’ between designers and shapers.”
There are, though, few vacancies in golf design, even among the largest firms. Texan Mark Voss, now a senior designer with Robert Trent Jones II’s practice, admits he was fortunate to come on to the job market at a time the organisation had an opening. Voss is also an anomaly in that he has no long history in golf. “I went to a high school that played every sport but golf, and I only started to play golf while I was in college studying landscape architecture,” he says. “When I graduated – along with two other guys who got into the golf design business, one of whom I'm still close friends with, I got an introduction to the RTJII organisation, and it was at that time that Kyle Phillips left the business to go solo. So I was lucky enough to get the chance to join the company, and I’ve been here ever since.”
The 34 year old Voss is, unsurprisingly, another advocate of the larger firm approach. In a tight market, as the golf business, especially in the US, has been for that last few years, size, he says, is very important. “At the moment, our business is probably about 30 per cent in Europe, 30 per cent in Asia and the rest in the domestic market,” he says. “For smaller firms, especially those that are largely regionally based, the last few years have been tough. But we’ve had the luxury that we’ve been able to transition from market to market, and that means I’ve had the chance to get established and build golf courses even in difficult times.”
Voss says that working on a wide variety of projects is helpful for learning the job. “The jobs you learn the most on are usually the most difficult, whether site or client related,” he says. “Everybody always strives for that perfect site but I think the ones where you really learn are the ones where you take a poor site and make something great.” And certainly working for Jones has given him a wide range of experience in a relatively short time. Voss’s CV includes the recently completed Al Badia project in Dubai, courses in China, Korea and the Philippines, and he is currently working on developments in Spain and North Africa, as well as back home in the US. “Dubai is an astonishing place to work, because right now it seems as though money isn’t a consideration. Your imagination is the only limit on what can be done.”
Another Texan without a long-term background in golf, the Dallas-based architect Gary Stephenson, can attest to the benefits of both the large and small practice route – although, paradoxically, he has never worked for a big firm. Rather, he has built up his business in collaboration with multiple major winner, Phil Mickelson. The pair built Whisper Rock Golf Club in Arizona together back in 2001, and now Mickelson has decided he wants to be more involved in the signature design business, Stephenson is continuing to work with him, as well as pursuing projects on his own.
“Growing up in Texas, football is king, so golf was something we did for enjoyment,” he says. “My family came from Austin, and one time my brother was injured in a football game. Doctors told him to play a lot of golf and he had Harvey Penick as a teacher.”
“I come from a medical family, and I originally wanted to become an orthopaedic surgeon,” he continues. “But right before the end of high school, I changed my mind, and decided I wanted to work outdoors. I got a biology degree, then re-enrolled at Texas Technology University to study landscape architecture. When I graduated, I went to work with David Gramm and Gary Panks and was fortunate to work on some good projects in the Scottsdale area.”
Stephenson’s involvement with Whisper Rock and Mickelson came about by accident. “In 1996 I moved back to Dallas to open a satellite office for Gramm and Panks, but then they ended their partnership,” he explains. “A client already had Phil working on the project and asked whether I’d like to work with him. I consider myself very fortunate to have worked with Phil. He talks about hitting certain shots that I just don’t think about, and it makes me consider the course much more carefully. I remember when we were building Whisper Rock, and we were discussing the thirteenth green. Phil looked at a possible pin position, and said the green needed to be changed – if he was going to hit a wedge into that pin there needed to be four feet of space behind it so the ball could spin back. I would never have considered that otherwise.”
But Mickelson isn’t the only golfing great Stephenson has worked with. “Probably my biggest influence is Byron Nelson,” he says. “He and I and Steve Jones were working on a project up in Idaho six or seven years, and being able to talk with him about the changes in golf was astonishing. It was so fascinating being able to talk to someone who’d been playing golf since the 20s about the way the game had changed.
“Byron said to me ‘Gary, we’ve got to get the game of golf back on the ground. In the past, you had to have lots of imagination, play lots of shots, but now it’s all aerial, and it’s less interesting.’ That’s governed my thinking ever since. One of the things that I try to do in my golf courses is to give people options. Look at the wide range of people playing the game. If the only option round the green is a flop shot, well, lots of people can’t play that shot. Let them chip it, pitch it, putt it, even kick it!”
This article first appeared in issue 8 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2007.