Being a golf course architect demands a tolerably strong ego. In a sense, golf design is like playing God; you get to shape the earth to your ends. Even those who classify themselves as minimalists, by temperament and philosophy inclined to seek out and use natural features to create their holes, are doing so to a large extent. The land is the golf architect’s plaything; the golf course his legacy.
Earlier this year, I spent two fascinating days touring the rebuild of the Ford Plantation golf course outside Savannah, Georgia, in the low country of the south-east United States, with architect Tim Liddy. Liddy, a highly accomplished course creator in his own right, as anyone who has played any of his work will know, was acting as lead on site associate for Pete Dye, who originally built the Ford Plantation course back in the 1980s.
Liddy and Dye go back several decades and have worked together on many projects. Dye, as every reader will surely know, has, over the course of his long career, become one of the legendary figures in the history of golf design, and one of the biggest influences on today’s ideas about golf course architecture.
Talk to Liddy, Bill Coore, Tom Doak, Lee Schmidt, or any number of the successful architects who got their start working for Dye, and you’ll get a clear sense of what they learned from Pete: the importance of his hands-on approach to construction and his commitment to strategic golf come highest. Yet the golfing world as a whole knows Dye best for his signature aesthetic: extensive use of water hazards tight to fairways and greens, generally supported by railway sleepers, a reverence for straight lines, the wild mounding that often pays little or no heed to looking natural. Here’s what is most interesting though: none of Dye’s proteges has adopted his aesthetic, except when consciously trying to mimic him.
Walking the Ford Plantation site with Liddy, this became obvious. I would ask him about a particular feature. “Oh, that is me channelling Pete, I know he will want it that way when he next visits to review progress,” he would say, before gently hinting that, if it were his own project, he might have done things a little differently.
I find this ability to sublimate your own ego and get inside the mind of the man you are working for quite fascinating. It’s one that many, perhaps even most architects have had to learn at some time, given that few are able to get design jobs in their own name at the start of their careers. But there is a big difference between doing so in your youth, while your own ideas about design are still being formed, and doing so as a mature designer with a style of your own.
Of course, Liddy is not alone in this. Those architects who have made their careers working for signature firms spend their lives trying to mimic the style of the name on the letterhead; those who work for firms that use multiple signatures may have to define a style for each particular name. One of the ironies of the profession is that the famous Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama, constructed at the very end of Trent’s career, was mostly designed by Roger Rulewich, though after decades working for Jones, surely Rulewich knew his style better than anyone? Better, might one dare to ask, than the man himself? There is something particularly interesting about those designers who work with an architect long enough that they are able to say ‘Well, that is how he will want it, even if I personally would do it another way’.