American golf architect Forrest Richardson profiles his mentor, who played a key role in developing golf in Hawaii
“I’m riding my bike down to a golf course designer’s office,” I told my mother. In the 1970s it was easy to get approval for such jaunts, and it was just as easy for parents to accommodate such freedom. Times have changed; kids now live on a shorter leash. Riding a bike anywhere, let alone to meet an adult unknown to your parents, is an event worthy of great scrutiny. Thankfully, my youth came in a different time.
When I met Jack Snyder (he preferred to be called Jack) it was at the side door of his Phoenix home. It was 1973. He worked from his house as a one-man office. When he said ‘we’ he meant his corporation, and that included exactly two people: Jack and his wife, Ruth. That first meeting eventually fuelled my growing passion for golf course architecture. It marked the beginning of a friendship and mentorship that lasted 33 years.
The Snyders were great people. Ruth passed away a few years before Jack, who died in 2005. Jack often related to clients how I ‘pestered’ him during my high school days, dropping by to look over drawings and ask questions about golf course design. Jack would always open the story with the same line: “Forrest would ride up our driveway, and my wife would yell ‘Jack, that kid on the bike is here again.’” So began my life studying golf architecture under a very special man.
There is a lot to tell about Jack Snyder. He literally grew up in a family devoted to golf. His father, Arthur A. Snyder, began caddying for William C. Fownes, Jr. at Oakmont Country Club in 1907. Arthur, with whom I will always cherish meeting, was a pleasant grandfather type who seemed never to have a bad word to say. This obviously rubbed off on his three sons, Jack, Jim and Carl. Each inherited the gift of good nature, humour and integrity from their father, I am certain.
But, besides this good nature, the three Snyder boys also inherited golf — or perhaps golf inherited them. In 1927 the Snyder family moved in to an old farmhouse located on the grounds of the Alcoma Country Club in Pittsburgh. More precisely, the house was in the middle of the club. “It was just 20 feet off the edge of the fourteenth hole,” recalled Jack. “And on weekends it really got bombed with balls.” During our trips together I recall many stories Jack related about his youth growing up on a golf course. Among them, a game the boys played where they would make up ‘courses’ by playing from tees to greens on holes clear across the golf course. Perhaps this pursuit of finding interesting challenges and routings is where Jack developed his love for golf design.
Jack’s real interest, that is the interest in design and not just playing the game, was honed at Pennsylvania State University where he studied landscape architecture. It was at Penn State that he combined the family’s heritage in golf with the aspects of planning, landscape design and agronomy. In his senior year, Jack taught a class in golf course design to his fellow students. As part of this class he drafted a plan of Oakmont Country Club, where his father became introduced to golf and where the Snyders would often venture out to play the game. Jack’s old plan of Oakmont — a record of the course in 1939 — was recently found among old plans and papers in a storage shed. After handling hundreds of rolls of drawings, I picked up a tightly wrinkled plan that looked as if it had not been unrolled in decades. To my surprise was a well-preserved blueprint labelled ‘Oakmont Country Club Golf Course.’ By piecing together the recollections of family and friends, we determined the source and approximate date of the plan and have since made the print available on a limited basis (see www.golframes.com)
Everyone should be remembered for something. In Jack’s life it would be difficult to arrive at just one project or one legacy to relate. And so, I have decided to provide ten remembrances for this article. They are in no particular order, nor is the list by any means complete. For there was so much to appreciate about Jack Snyder, that ten bits just do not seem to do his life justice.
The Complete Golf Course Architect — Unlike many golf course architects, Jack Snyder had solid backgrounds in the formalities of landscape architecture, agronomy, greenkeeping and golf construction. Combined with his upbringing in a family devoted to golf, he was literally prepared for anything in the world of golf design. I cannot say this about many of those practicing today. While Jack would be the first to downplay his background, perhaps calling it luck or fate, I think we can all look at a career such as his and realize how much there is to learn. Yet, one of Jack’s greatest qualities was that he never ‘knew it all’ and was always asking questions, listening and hungry to learn even more. I fondly recall him having to listen to all-knowing construction experts waxing on about greens and bunker construction, all the time wondering whether these ‘experts’ had any clue that Jack’s father helped construct many of the bunkers at Oakmont, or that Jack had been building golf greens since the 1940s. Not to mention that all of these greens were still in use and had never been rebuilt. Of course they didn’t know.
The (Golf) Family Man — Jack’s stories would often focus on his two girls, Judy and Jean. Not far behind were his tales of moving to Hawaii with Ruth, the recollections of the Snyder boys growing up in a life of golf and the lessons passed down by his father. Golf ‘families’ are a rarity these days, so when you run across one I recommend you do your best to get adopted. I always felt the Snyders adopted me, at least in small doses.
Wailea — In the late 1960s Jack ventured to Hawaii to consult on some bermudagrass issues. What stated as work for one club, escalated to several contracts. In the early 1950s the Snyders had not only moved to Arizona, but they were busy building courses and went on to develop Snyder Bermudagrass, a seeded variety that still exists today at many older courses. It was this expertise that prompted clubs throughout the West to seek the Snyders for input on their turf issues. Eventually Jack moved to Maui, Hawaii to take over the grounds at the Kaanapali Resort. He later created the executive course (Kaanapali Kai) there and would go on to design six major projects in Hawaii, more than any other designer at the time. Among them was Wailea Blue, a new hole layout at the far end of a dusty road on the forgotten shore of southern Maui. Wailea has stood the test of time as a graceful, classic course. Jack left ancient stone walls and outcroppings of natural lava well before it was fashionable. He crafted a second course, Wailea Orange that, although unearthed to make room for two new courses, is still regarded by many as one of Hawaii’s best designs ever. To say that Wailea and Hawaii meant a lot to Jack is an understatement. His personalized Arizona license plate ‘WAILEA’ sums it up quite well.
The Drafting Table — When I met Jack I can still visualize the old oak Mayline drafting table where he stood to explained his plans, topographical maps and the design strategy of his holes. That table sits just to my right today. It speaks volumes. When I listen carefully, which is not always the case, it reminds me to make time for the interested young people who will one day assume our roles in golf architecture.
Mountain Shadows — In 1959 Jack got a call about a small project at the base of Camelback Mountain, a rugged Phoenix landmark. Small may be an understatement. To be precise, what would become the 18 hole Mountain Shadows Golf Resort was barely 100 acres and this was to include a 200 room hotel, 75 single family homes, a tennis centre, and a golf course. Adopting fellow designer William Mitchell’s ‘Executive Golf Course’ mantra, Jack crafted a wonderful short course with two par fours and 16 of the most diverse par threes one can imagine. The course was well before its time. Low impact (just 49 acres in total), a small turf footprint and it only takes one and a half hours to negotiate.
‘Golf was meant to be fun’ — Jack repeated this to clients, colleagues and to me. It was his mission statement and trademark.
Papago and William Bell — While Jack was like most of us, preferring his own design autonomy, he was open to collaboration. In the early 1960s he lost out to Billy Bell (William F. Bell) on the design for a new City of Phoenix course: Papago Park. However, it was not long before city officials feared a potential fallout from having Bell make only a few trips from California to oversee the shaping. Bell called and negotiated a deal to have Jack serve as the on-site man for the project. Jack agreed, but not without some fun in the process: “I told Billy, ‘Fine, I’ll do it, but only under the condition that anything the city likes I get credit for, and anything they dislike will still carry your name!’” Jack told me that the two men had good fun in their meeting to solidify this arrangement with the city. Bell apparently retorted that Jack’s request would be honoured, but that he would reciprocate of course, blaming Jack for anything not to the city’s liking.
Oakmont — Not many people realize that one of Oakmont’s most famous holes, the eight, was shaped by Jack Snyder. Jack was hired by Oakmont as Grounds Superintendent in 1951 to get the course in shape for the PGA Championship of that year. Conditions had deteriorated in the late 1940s and Oakmont needed help. The Snyder reputation gave the club the change they needed, mostly a new approach to turf care and maintenance. Among Jack’s contributions during this short time was the redesign and rebuilding of the 8th green. Lew Worsham, the 1947 US Open champion, was head professional at Oakmont during Jack’s tenure. One of their projects was to add a forward tee at the long eighth. “I asked Lew how many times he could hold the green there,” related Jack. “He said ‘Just one in four,’ so we decided to raise the back right as part of the work. We wound up rebuilding the whole green using native sand from the Allegheny River.”
This piece of Oakmont history is often swept aside, but the large Sahara Trap and the menacing back bunker would be dramatically different had Jack not softened the hole when he did. Because of the difficulty, Oakmont may well have completely removed the hole had Jack and Worsham not intervened to make it play better when they did.
Grace Under Fire — One thing I learned from Jack was his self control. Even when faced with the worst of situations (a builder not doing the best job, a client considering bringing a ‘name designer’ into a project, a superintendent profession to ‘know it all’) he was always professional and stood for integrity. This is not to say he would not unleash the feisty Scotsman. I saw that every so often, and it was an especially good fireworks show. But always, Jack was the epitome a professional. His ego was in check, and for a golf course architect that is a rare find.
The Box Left Behind — I wrote about Jack on my way back from the Golf Industry Show in 2005. As my flight landed in Las Vegas to make a connection the phone call I dreaded came through: Jack had passed away. One of my thoughts is still just as clear today. It has to do with what we leave behind besides our work, a list of projects and old records and plans. In my writing I suggested we also leave a ‘box full of stuff’ such as our smile, out wit, our respect, our passion, out ethics and the way we went about treating people. Jack left a very full box, one extremely rich and full of inspiration. More than anything, I hope we can all take from it some things for our own lives in golf.
Forrest Richardson, ASGCA worked in collaboration with Jack Snyder from 1985-2005. Richardson is the principal of Forrest Richardson & Associates with offices in California and Arizona. His current projects are located in Mexico, Sweden and throughout the Western United States. He is the author of four books on golf course architecture.
More About Jack
www.golfgroupltd.com — Along with a more detailed history, you can view a video produced to celebrate the life of Jack Snyder.
http://golfarchitects.lib.msu.edu/snydera/index.html — The Michigan State University archive of golf course architects. Resources include articles, scans of old plans, a complete biography and other links.
http://www.golframes.com/products/productDetail.php?id=23 — the Oakmont Country Club plan drawn by Jack Snyder, c. 1939.
This article appeared in issue 21 of Golf Course Architecture, published July 2010