Like a marriage, a successful partnership is all about accentuating the positives. Graeme Webster and Brian Phillips have followed this policy to great effect. The pair have forged a formidable partnership building a reputation for creating golf courses that not only excite but also test golfers of all standards. "I've always had a positive side," says Webster. "Which means we try to build exciting golf courses; courses that people will come off and want to go back out and play. We like to include a lot of variety and plenty of challenges." Despite a shared enthusiasm and a positive approach, Phillips admits they don't always see eye to eye. "There's a bit of yin and yang between Graeme and myself, so we don't always agree on everything. We have different thoughts, but we always come to agreement," says the 38- year-old architect, who's based in Norway. "We've only ever had one disagreement on a project when we were discussing whether to blast the corner off a dogleg. It was the only time we've agreed to disagree. Luckily the hole didn't have to be built that way as the course was rerouted." This single discrepancy in an otherwise exemplary partnership is perhaps testimony to the close bond the pair has built up since they first met nearly eight years ago. In fact, they may be more akin to each other than they like to think. For instance both are avid sports fans with football being their favoured tipple, and both have competed at the highest level –Webster was a scratch golfer at 15 and a member of the Scottish youth squad while Phillips played semi-pro squash receiving sponsorship from Dunlop. Both married foreign brides who are now heavily involved in the business and both came into design after pursuing alternative careers, as 48- year-old Webster explains. "My schooling was geared up for becoming a PE teacher," he says. "I got my qualifications but didn't fancy going through the training and then not getting a job, which was a common problem at the time." At 18, Webster began his career proper at King Links Golf Course in Aberdeen under the watchful eye of head greenkeeper Gibby Wright. A year later he was asked to join a project team going out to Germany to renovate Munchener Golf Club. Having learned a lot about the course construction industry, the young Scot returned home two years later to fulfil his ambition of playing professional golf.
"When I came back, I realised I couldn't play golf full time; I needed an income. So I got a job as head greenkeeper at Old Meldrum Golf Club although, if the truth be told, my dad and my grandfather did all the greenkeeping while I nipped off to play golf." He soon adopted his father's work ethic and was appointed construction manager at the newly formed Newmachar Golf Club, working on the Hawkshill Course with Dave Thomas. It was the first time Webster had worked with bulldozers, and he obviously had a talent for it, as Thomas took him to Spain where he enjoyed five years in the sun before returning to Scotland in 1991 to set up Glen Andrews with local turf producer Andrew Smith.
The company grew and started taking on bigger projects including a joint venture with Norwegian construction company Veidekke where a certain Brian Phillips had taken the reigns of a fledgling golf course construction division. Born in Burnley, Phillips had started off in the army as a qualified land surveyor for the Royal Engineers, although his time in the forces was shortlived. "We were in Norway in 1992 when I met my future wife and I thought 'sod this' and left a year later," he explains. "She bought me out." Following his wife's generosity – £350 to be exact – Phillips applied for a work permit and secured a job at Veidekke in 1994. Norway was going through a golf boom and four years into the job he was asked to set up a golf division, his only credential being his handicap. In reality, Phillips had only taken up golf seriously when he joined the army although his free-falling handicap had made him consider teaching. But he had already been bitten by the course construction bug, helped in no uncertain terms by Webster's enthusiasm for the job. The seeds for Niblick Golf Design had been sown.
Sadly in 2001 Glen Andrews went into voluntary liquidation, and the inaugural collaboration between Webster and Phillips came to an end. Despite this, Webster was retained as the architect for Veidekke's next project; a move that delighted Phillips who was already thinking about switching from project management to design.
Encouraged by Webster and others, Phillips temporarily relocated to Scotland and enrolled in the masters programme at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. An intensive year of studies and two mortgages later, the biggest gamble of his life paid off when he graduated in 2003 with a MSc in golf course architecture and the coveted Barenbrug Prize. Webster, who had kept in touch with Phillips, soon approached the newly qualified architect about setting up Niblick Golf Design which would service the European market while Team Niblick, a separate golf course design and construction company owned and run by Webster and his wife Sonia, would concentrate on the Scottish market A series of commissions to design and build 18-hole golf courses, nine-hole extensions, remodel existing holes and construct practice facilities followed. With Sonia and Hege running the administrative side of the company, the pair have time for their hands-on approach to golf design. "We spend a lot of time walking the ground and studying aerial maps to get the best routing," says Webster. "When the machines are on site, we're there a hell of a lot. That hands-on approach allows us to incorporate as much of nature as we can and enables us to get the best from the land. I don't think there can be many other architects who spend as much time on site as we do." Their presence, Phillips suggests, is invaluable not only because they can create contours and shapes in the field but they can also identify what is likely to work and what won't. "Because of our construction background, we know what can and can't be built which gives us a big advantage over other companies. We save clients a lot of money that way. For example, the students I teach on the EIGCA diploma course often comment on how expensive it is to blast rock. The reality is that it's not if you crush the rock on site and use it for your paths and to float fairways," he explains. "You've got to come up with solutions. We're working with very tight budgets at the moment, so we have to use our imaginations to come up with different ways of creating quality golf courses with the money we're given." For Webster that means focusing on green sites and, if necessary, reducing the number of tees, which he argues can be increased at a later date. "We make green sites," he says, "we don't just make greens.
If we've got a client with a limited budget who can only afford 450 sq m greens, we'll still strip out 3,000 sq m to ensure they'll get playable areas around that green. It's for playability, it's for excitement and it's for the challenge." He cites the striking Kvinesdal course in Norway as a prime example. It was recently voted by the Norwegian Golf Union's magazine as the most beautiful course in Norway. This kind of accolade has helped win commissions from Stavanger Golf Club, the country's second oldest 18-hole golf course, and Forbes of Kingennie, a family resort which recently opened a nine-holer designed and built by Webster as well as a Cairngorms putting green devised by resort owner Mike Forbes to emulate the rugged mountain range.
The acclaim also secured work with Jack Nicklaus at the 1,500-acre Ury Estate near Stonehaven in Scotland. "Just imagine meeting your boyhood hero and working with him," says Webster. "Just being a part of his team is great. I wasn't sure what to expect, but he's just a gentleman. You can see he's in love with his profession because he's on site until dark. He's one of the top three architects in the world, which is where we'll be when we get the right budgets," he says wryly.
For now, Team Niblick will be handling the construction of the golf course at the impressive £40 million Ury development.
It's a role involving input from a group of specialists that form the backbone of the company. "We've got a team that has worked together for years," says Webster.
"They know what we want and they're all dedicated to quality. They're the best in the business." The team's engineer, agronomist and construction manager work alongside a dedicated artist who produces evocative paintings to illustrate the team's designs. It's yet another example of how the Niblick team strives to be different by delivering a service that's inspiringly unique.