Signature Designers

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By Sean Dudley

Adam Lawrence

What makes a golf course successful? Although we might like to believe that the quality of the golf experience is the only determining factor, evidence suggests this might not be the case. In most businesses, marketing is just as important as product quality, and there's no reason to surmise that the golf industry should be any different. 

Golf is a marginal economic proposition. Not all new golf developments survive and make money; indeed, probably a majority fail. So it's not surprising that commercial operators that choose to put money into golf projects seek every possible source of competitive advantage to make their course stand out.

It's in this environment that the question of 'signature' designers and courses has come to the fore. The issue can be broken down into two categories – finance and product. Do signature designers improve the financial prospects of a golf development? And do they have a predictable effect, for good or ill, on the quality of golf?

"The emergence of high profile signature designers has had exactly the same effect on architects as the televising of tournament golf had on the status of golf professionals," says Michael Pask of IMG. "Now architects are revered for the work they do, and the best-known are stars." That wasn't, he suggests, the case in the past, and a number of non-player golf architects have supported this view, including top names such as Tom Doak.

Pask denies that putting a signature to a golf course is simply an easy way for a touring pro to make more money. "We say to our guys 'If you want to be involved in this business, then you've got to be prepared to put the time in'. And nearly all our signatures have respected that," he says. "They get a kick out of it."

What complicates this issue is that architecture is never a purely solo activity. Even the most individual of architects are dependent on their construction crews, their shapers and their design associates to make their vision reality. But it is rarely the design associate, or the shaper, that takes credit for the golf course. Back in the Golden Age of design, architects such as Donald Ross knocked out courses at a frightening rate, in Ross's case sometimes without even seeing the site. Yet today these courses are credited to the famous architect. And not without reason: it was Ross's organisation and methods that allowed the course to come into being, and he is the one ultimately responsible, just as Old Master painters used members of their studios to apply brush strokes to their work, but are still regarded as the creators of the paintings.

French-based architect Jeremy Pern has some sympathy for this view. "Just because you haven't personally done something doesn't mean it's not yours," he says, citing the work of buildings architects such as Norman Foster or Richard Rogers – the actual design work on a project might be done by associates in a practice, but it is the name, style and reputation of the principal that is influential in winning work.

For that matter, the same is true of many professional firms. Go to Baker & Mackenzie or PricewaterhouseCoopers for advice and the likelihood of your work being carried out by one of the names on the letterhead is close to nil. Hire a smaller firm, and you may well find a partner running your account.Why should course architecture, another professional services industry, be any different?

But then Pern refers to another project, where the developer said of his expensive signature architect: "To see him more that three times, well, that's extraordinary for a high-profile designer like him."And there are innumerable stories like this around the golf industry. It is these tales, and – let's be honest – a degree of jealousy over the ability of signature firms to command high fees and win the best projects – that fuel the resentment of such operations among the rest of the industry.

And there's no doubt that the big projects still go, overwhelmingly, to the name firms. In emerging golf markets such as Dubai and China, the signature architect is king. The giant Mission Hills golf complex in China has ten courses, each of which is attributed to a different name designer. Large, well-known design firms such as Fazio Designs and Robert Trent Jones II hoover up projects that might otherwise have gone to up and coming architects.

How competent are the playerarchitects? This isn't a simple question. There are some golf architects who were touring pros – people like Mark McCumber and John Fought – who have devoted themselves full-time to architecture, and who have become members of the appropriate professional body, such as the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA). Jack Nicklaus too, for all that his is probably the ultimate signature in marketing terms, is widely respected for his architectural ability: others may not always appreciate his firm's work, but no-one doubts his professional competence.

Other examples, though, are less clear cut. Architect Mike Poellot agrees that touring pros can offer some value to a golf course beyond just marketing. "I did a project with Ernie Els – Whiskey Creek, near Washington DC," he says. "It's a public venue: we brought Ernie into it because he'd just won the US Open the year before and he was highly recognisable. As architects we get stagnated sometimes. Being a very modest player, I tend to relate to the 99 per cent of golfers out there. Sometimes, especially with the tremendous advancement in technology, we underplay the needs of the better players. I was laying out some diagonal bunkering on a fairway, and I was saying, maybe the average guy can carry 180 over this side, and we can stretch it to 220 on this side for the stronger guys. Ernie looked at me as if I was cross-eyed. He gave us some perspective on yardages that had grown beyond our expectations."

PGA tour professional Mark O'Meara, with a number of signature designs to his name, naturally plays up the role of the player-architect. "I hope what I bring is a deep understanding of love and of the game," he says. "I have played courses, great and not so great, all over the world and I have played golf with the full range of golfers, from the best professionals to the worst one-round-a-year amateurs; so I think I have a good idea of what works and what doesn't work. Hopefully, I have developed a good eye during construction as well, an ability to visualise what the hole will look and play like. If I can bring that knowledge and love to each course we design, as well as bringing a little marketing sizzle, then I am doing my part."

"Who is to say that Colin Montgomerie or Ian Woosnam don't know anything about golf course design?" says IMG's Michael Pask. "Of course they're not going to be sitting over a drawing board or a CAD machine. But they bring a philosophy and a system of beliefs. Together with a golf architect, they can create a project that matches the developer's needs, achieving a very high quality of product."And Pask is passionate about his clients' commitment to their design work. "I will defend our work to the hilt," he says. "If anyone says 'They don't put any time into it', then I'll bite their heads off." Pask also points out the historical importance of the playerarchitect, citing Old Tom Morris,Willie Park Jr and James Braid as examples of men who successfully merged the roles of professional golfer and course designer. Today's player-architects vary widely in expertise and commitment: some may see signature design work as merely an opportunity to make extra money, but plenty of others, such as Greg Norman, have built fairly sizeable businesses, employing a number of full-time design associates. And some of the more dramatic developments of recent years, such as Norman's course at Doonbeg in Ireland, have been designed by such firms.

But architect Ronald Fream offers an alternative view. "In most cases, name brand pro-signature designers cannot read a scale ruler, a topographic survey map or visualise greensite contouring," he says. "Computer design cannot replace one's ability to mentally conceive and visualise golf course sculpturing. The signature is a front man for some young apprentice or project design architect who might have only a few years' on-the-job training and limited experience. These factors generally lead to stereotyped, common results."

A common complaint from architects is that the involvement of signature designers forces up costs. Erik Larsen, managing director of Palmer Course Design refuses to accept this view. "You can't say that player-architects cost more than other top firms – the cost is roughly the same," he says. "Our costs are on the higher end, I accept that. But we are fuelling the work that's been done now, typically real estate developments, and we've driven up fees for everyone else in the business. Standalone golf developments fail much of the time. It takes very inexpensive land and a very practical design for a non-real estate funded golf development to make money. Standalone golf is going away. Development golf works, because you have captive play. There are still high-end private clubs being built, but it is development golf that drives the industry."

For Larsen, the issue is not about player architects versus professional architects: rather it is about architect brands. Especially in the context of housing-driven projects, he asserts, name architects add value. "Firms like Fazio, Trent Jones and us: I doubt there is much difference in value added by the architect," he says. "But the evidence is that a branded firm adds over 25 per cent in value compared to a non-branded architect. There are several studies that support this view."

Golf, Larsen says, is the king of amenities for residential communities. Other recreations such as tennis being a prime example, are now seen as must-haves; but a great tennis complex will not add any significant value for the developer. Golf, by contrast, really adds value – a highly regarded golf course will attract customers, and provide a genuine source of competitive advantage.

John Fought straddles both sides of the player-architect debate. A former US Amateur champion and two-time PGA Tour winner, he was forced off the tour by injury in the 1980s. Training as an architect with former Nicklaus associate Bob Cupp, he later went solo and has amassed an impressive portfolio of newbuild and remodelled courses. "The problem with those guys is that they don't understand how everything works – the drainage and the irrigation," he says. "Players have a hard time doing it. I know myself, you can't do both, it would take too much time away from your play." Again, Fought emphasises the marketing angle: "The real value of players – unless you're a Ben Crenshaw or a Weiskopf – is to sell lots. Nicklaus and Fazio, they're signature designers too. Presales are the key. Players get people to come out, but once the golf course opens I don't think they care so much. Once the golf course opens, it doesn't matter who the architect is. Resort golf, for example, is dependent on repeat business, people who want to go there year after year."

Former ASGCA president Jeff Brauer has gone on record as saying that few golfers even know who designed their course. If this is true, then maybe, as Brauer suggests, the money that went to pay the signature designer should be spent on the physical plant of the golf course.

Mike Poellot says that developers tend to take the safe option. "Hiring a name is based on a formula," he argues. "If you're a developer and you are risk-averse risk, it's safe, it's predictable, and you can make some good financial projections." But he also believes that, as more players get into the signature business, the marketing benefit falls. "The name game is not as big an issue as it was 20 years ago. Having Joe Pro do your golf course was unique, but now it's as though there is a Starbucks on every corner. It ceases to be unique. And usually the big names have multiple projects, so they have many designers and you don't know who will be designing your golf course.

"For a non-signature architect, your project could be critical to his future success, so you will get tremendous bang for the buck. I'm doing a project in the Dominican Republic. The client acquired a new piece of property and considered the big names – Fazio, Nicklaus and the like. But ultimately I got the project because of my commitment to make it high priority on my agenda."

Poellot also sees the other side. "I've been working on a project in Monterey called The Preserve GC," he says. "I was hired to design it in concert with Sandy Tatum.We worked on that golf course for five years. It's a 20,000 acre property, a nature reserve.We laid out a magnificent golf course with some very innovative water reclamation features. Then the marketing guys came in and said, time to start selling lots. The buzzword at the time was Fazio. The course was intended to be promoted as a collaboration between Fazio, Tatum and me. But I've only once seen the collaborators listed properly. It doesn't bother me though, because no-one can take away from me the joy I had doing that project."

To answer the two questions we set at the start is complex. There is evidence, especially in the context of housing-driven developments, that signature designers, whether touring pros or top end design firms such as the Fazio organisation, can provide a marketing boost. But the issue is not clear-cut. Such projects, by their nature, are likely to be well-funded, both for development and marketing costs. And, as the soap magnate Leverhulme said, although you may believe half of your advertising is wasted, it's hard to know which half. There are plenty of counter-examples too. Neither David Kidd nor Tom Doak were household names when they broke ground in Oregon, but that hasn't hindered Bandon's success.

As far as quality of golf is concerned, the question is fraught with difficulties. Some say that signature firms favour caution, and that world-class courses flow from the brains of iconoclastic designers who surround themselves with the best people, irrespective of marketing value. Others, though, will have it that great ability as a golfer confers some magic on an individual, and will elevate courses they help design as a result. Here, perhaps, the anti-signatures are on firmer ground.We know from long experience that playing and coaching ability are not necessarily linked; why should design talent go hand in hand with Major championships?

This article first appeared in issue 4 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2006.

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