Robert von Hagge: light and shade

Sean Dudley
By Adam Lawrence

Adam Lawrence talks to the veteran American architect about his long career and his faith in the pursuit of beauty.

The business of golf course design, for whatever reason, has always attracted its share of colourful characters.

In the early days of the profession, there was Tom Simpson, who famously wore a cape and would turn up at courses in his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, or John Morrison, for whom the reader should turn to the marvellous pen-portrait in Henry Longhurst’s My Life and Soft Times.

In the modern era, there is Florida-based architect Mike Dasher who, as I have personally seen, uses a veteran motorcycle and sidecar to make his way around construction sites, and the Frenchman Robert Berthet has built courses to resemble the human body, or a seventeenth century fortification. The late English designer Desmond Muirhead (see our Pioneer column from April 2008) would richly warrant the description ‘eccentric’ for his golf holes based on art, mythology and sculpture. But even these must accept that the American architect Robert von Hagge is a leading contender in the colour charts. No other golf architect, we may safely assume, ever had a side job as the Marlboro Man.

Von Hagge, whose father was a course superintendent who, at one time, worked with Donald Ross, got his start in the business working for the post-war architect Dick Wilson, who in turn learned the business working on the construction of Shinnecock Hills during the course’s early-30s redesign by William Flynn and whose best courses include Pine Tree in Palm Beach, Florida.

Wilson also built the famous Blue Monster course at Doral, to this day a regular stop for the PGA Tour. His reputation, nowadays, is tarnished to a degree by the stories of his heavy drinking. But von Hagge, while admitting that the drinking legends are not without justice, says that Wilson was an extremely talented designer. “I admired Dick Wilson so much,” he says. “He was the only real competitor to Robert Trent Jones at the time, and he had a fresh, different look. Before he started drinking, he was the first one who created feathering in bunkering instead of having the round edges. He did that because Jones used round edging. Anything that Jones did, he was against! Jones was the enemy!

“I met Dick at the opening of the NCR golf course in Dayton, Ohio. He invited me into the press tent because I said I wanted to talk with him. I said I wanted to be a golf course architect someday and he said ‘When you get out of school, come see me.’ When I went to work with him, there were two of us young guys in the firm, me and Joe Lee. Joe spoke good Spanish, so he got all the projects in the Caribbean, and I got the rest.

“Dick started to drink heavily, and in the last couple of years I worked for him, I was doing most of the work on my projects myself. He was volatile as hell. Every time he would show up on a job I was nervous for a week knowing he was coming. You never knew what he was going to do or say. It was too bad, because that last three or four years I really missed him. I didn’t like what Joe did, and I thought we were getting a very boring look. Every time I tried to do something more interesting, Joe would veto it. After he would sober up, Dick was the nicest, kindest guy to talk to. But by about four in the afternoon, it was over.”

Once, during his time with Wilson, von Hagge had an odd encounter with a couple who went on to change the path of golf design. “I used to pick Dick up at his house and we’d go to the office,” he says. “One day he wanted to see what I’d been doing at Pine Tree. Pete and Alice Dye were out there measuring the green with levels and what have you. Dick went crazy – he thought they were copying what he was doing, even though he wasn’t doing it! But you can’t copy a green, I don’t care how close you are.

“Dick and I had a big argument about the future of golf. He didn’t believe in joint golf and housing developments, and he was all about pure golf. He didn’t even want to build ladies tees – we used to add them ourselves. I thought ‘To hell with this’ and so I went to night school and learned a little about planning, and around Christmas 1962 we had a big parting of the ways.”

Establishing his own business came easy to von Hagge. The Florida market was booming at that stage of the 1960s, and high-profile jobs were quick to come along. “I got lucky, because the Boca Raton club was bought by a developer who didn’t get along with the membership, which was almost entirely Jewish,” he says. “So the members looked for another site – which became Boca Rio – and I got the design job. It became one of the wealthiest clubs in the US, and helped me get going.”

Over the years, von Hagge’s courses have spread around the world, his start covering projects in far-flung markets for Wilson probably doing him no harm. But some of his most famous works are two courses in France. One, the now perpetual site of the French Open, Le Golf National, was designed in collaboration with Frenchman Hubert Chesneau, and is a considerable transformation of a previously flat site into what can only be described as a supercharged version of a Scottish links – except that, as well as the humps and hollows of the links, the Albatross course features large-scale water hazards to ramp the difficulty level up even further.

The other, Les Bordes in the Loire Valley, is perpetually rated as one of Europe’s best courses – the respected Peugeot Golf Guide scores it higher than any other course in France. “I got a call one day from a man with a very heavy French accent,” says von Hagge. “He told me he had a hunting lodge that he wanted to make a golf course. He said ‘I’d like to see you next week so I’ve arranged a first class Air France ticket and I want to talk to you about the project.’ We get some odd inquiries so I called Air France, and sure enough I had a ticket.”

That man was Marcel Bich, the founder of the Bic ballpoint pen and disposable razor empire, and one of France’s richest men. His ‘hunting lodge’, in reality a large estate in the Sologne, western France, was to become Les Bordes. “I flew out to France the following week, and was met and taken to his property,” says von Hagge. “I met Bich, who told me that, at the age of 72, he had been advised by his doctors to take more exercise, and so had started playing golf. He became passionate about the game, and that’s when he decided to build his own course. He said ‘No-one should speak of important things on an empty stomach,’ so we had dinner. There was a butler who served us, but once he had done so, he sat down and served himself! Bich had lots of art on the walls. There was one self-portrait of Rembrandt that looked familiar. I said ‘That’s just like the original’, and he said ‘It is the original!’ After dinner, he said ‘Tomorrow you will see my land’. I took out my pen to write some notes, and he immediately said ‘If you’re going to use a pen you might at least use a Bic!’ In fact he was very keen on writing – he told me that I should always write to him and his wife in longhand, because he was interested in analysing handwriting.

“We went out to his property the next day, and started to build the course after that. It was a very international project. We had a Japanese management company for the construction management, we had Portuguese and Japanese shapers, a US architect. He was so proud that it was so international, and said ‘We’ll call it Golf International Les Bordes’.”

International is a good word to apply to von Hagge’s career in general. Since the early days of his business, he has worked all over the world. This he attributes to a combination of curiosity and good sense. “I’ve always wanted to know what the rest of the world looked like,” he says. “But also, in the US, every time the economy went down, the first thing that suffered was housing – a lot like today. I had a shot at going to Japan, and we cultivated that market. And the market in Europe was good, thanks to that phone call from Bich!

"I had an office in South Florida, one in Australia, one in California. We had 30-odd people and 40 projects going, in the Bahamas, California, all over, but then the bottom dropped out of the market. I was a relatively wealthy guy at that time, and within a year I was borrowing money just to make payroll. After that I just wanted to do enough work to support cashflow, but no more than I could supervise personally. So I closed the offices in Australia, California, and Coral Gables and decided to get central in the US. We had two projects in Texas, The Woodlands, which would later become a TPC course, and Crown Colony. That’s when we moved to Texas.”

Von Hagge’s key associates, Mike Smelek and Rick Baril, have been working with him since the beginning of the 1980s, and became partners in the firm in 1995. In 1989, though, the company’s office was hit by lightning and burned down, resulting in a complete loss of plans, documents, contracts and pictures. “I got a call telling me that the building was on fire and jumped in the car, heading for the office,” he says. “But I drove down a street that was underwater and completely flooded my car, so I never made it to the office.”

Back in the 1960s, von Hagge recognised the importance that real estate development was going to play in the future of the golf business, but he says it’s important for architects to understand how to balance the needs of course and homes. “Developers know golf enhances real estate, but sometimes we have to play the bad man in their eyes,” he says, explaining that the architect may have to resist the developer’s desire to put too many houses on the property. “When you get out of bounds because there are homes on both sides of a golf hole more than five or six times in a round it becomes ridiculous. But the social cachet of golf remains strong in America, even for those that don’t play. If you buy and live in a certain country club it says a lot about you. The one-upmanship here is immense.”

Von Hagge’s design style is resolutely modern, as a quick look at Le Golf National would show, and few would argue that his firm’s courses look ‘natural’. The word that often comes to mind, though, is ‘artistry’. “We believe in vertical expression,” he says. “Great golf courses are beautiful golf courses. The only eternal thing is not grass or trees but the light of the sun. You have to create the shadow, hour by hour and to understand how the light will fall on the features you create. It’s very painterly.

“If a roll or a mound is shaped, the colours and shapes and how you use them define the shot and make it unique from moment to moment. We try to create every shot experience to be something you won’t see again. One of the first things we do when we see a new property is to say ‘Are there ugly things in the background and, if so, what can we do to hide the ugliness?’”

Von Hagge says that each course contains within it three different experiences, for good golfers, hackers and ordinary players. “We are creating a tactical examination for those three levels of ability,” he says. “After all these years, we have a 21 point checklist. There are elements to a golf shot – the first two are trajectory and direction. The last and least important is distance, because it’s the most damning. Even with the improvement in clubs and balls most golfers have little or no control over distance.

“Every shot situation should be one where the golfer walks up to the ball and has his breath taken away. It should be a ritual experience. In the average round, you spend only eleven and a half minutes actually hitting the golf ball – so the architect’s job is to make the rest of the time on the course as pleasurable as possible.”

Now in his early eighties, von Hagge continues to play an active role in his firm’s work, although, naturally, he isn’t racking up the air miles to the extent he used to – something he, in part, regrets. “I miss a lot of the dirt, the rain and the mud, squeezing something out of primitive circumstances,” he says. “But I see nothing but growth, for our firm and the rest of the industry, because the world is becoming so small. For instance, on the Cote d’Azur in France, the real estate market is nuts. Look at the north coast of Africa, Morocco and Tunisia. From Gibraltar to Suez is 900 miles and most of it is beautiful sand dunes. Mexico is the same, and we’ve got 14 courses finished there. I think the future is unlimited.”

This article first appeared in issue 12 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2008.