Jeremy Slessor: View from the top

  • Jeremy Slessor EGD Interview

    Jeremy Slessor has led European Golf Design, the design company of the European Tour Group, for almost 30 years

  • Jeremy Slessor EGD Interview

    Slessor (fourth from left) with the EGD team at Marco Simone for the 2023 Ryder Cup

  • Jeremy Slessor EGD Interview

    Slessor was instrumental in the 2016 renovation of the West course at Wentworth

  • Jeremy Slessor EGD Interview

    When Zavidovo PGA National Russia opened in 2013, it became the 50th course in EGD’s portfolio. The firm has now completed over 70 projects in 24 countries

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Ironically, one of the most important men in the global golf architecture business is not known for practising as a golf architect.

Jeremy Slessor, for almost 30 years the managing director of European Golf Design, the design company of the European Tour Group, is perfectly qualified to design golf courses, having done a lot of it in his years working for Robert Trent Jones Sr, but spends his time running the EGD business, and mostly leaves the design work to Ross McMurray, Gary Johnston, Robin Hiseman and Dave Sampson, the four lead architects who collectively now make EGD one of the largest operations in the industry.

Read more: an interview with Dave Sampson ahead of the Marco Simone course hosting the 2023 Ryder Cup.

Like many in the golf architecture business, Slessor had a slightly complex route into the industry. “I started playing golf in my early teens and, when I found myself needing a summer job at the age of 15, I went to work on the greens crew at Wimbledon Common – I was a member of the London Scottish club,” he says. Wimbledon Common, where seven holes were originally created by members of the London Scottish Rifle Volunteers, who were stationed on the common, is regarded as the oldest course in England that has remained in constant use. The London Scottish club, officially founded in 1865, is England’s third oldest golf club, after Royal Blackheath and Royal North Devon.

“I worked on the Wimbledon Common course part-time while I was doing my A-levels, and then got a job at Royal Mid-Surrey, and after that at Royal Wimbledon, but I realised that the only way to progress was through the shoes of dead men,” he continues. “I looked at education for greenkeepers, but realised there wasn’t much available in the UK at the time. I knew that there were courses available in the US, but I didn’t know anything about what and where, so I wrote to Frank Hannigan, who was in charge of the USGA at the time, asking for help.”

That letter to Hannigan, who became the USGA’s fifth executive director in 1983, was the action that kick-started Slessor’s career, though in a rather surprising way. “I was at home one evening when the phone rang,” he says. “My mother answered it and called to me ‘It’s for you, an American’, and it was Mr Hannigan! He said, ‘I got your letter: I don’t know much about this sort of thing, but the head of our Green Section, Bill Bengeyfield, does. You should talk to him’. So, I did, and Bill told me, ‘These are the five schools you should apply to’. I followed his instructions, and was accepted by all of them! I had no idea which one I should choose, so I called Bill in California. He told me to go to Michigan State, and consequently that’s where I ended up.”

At the end of his time at MSU, another remarkable set of circumstances played a part in Slessor’s life. “Three months before I graduated, Robert Trent Jones Sr came to give a lecture to the students,” he recalls. “I lined up to shake the great man’s hand, and after I had introduced myself, he said to me, ‘You sound as though you come from England’. I explained that was so, and how I got there, and he said, ‘I came from Wales originally’. I thought to myself, well, I’m never going to get this chance again, and so I asked him if there were any opportunities within his organisation. He gave me his card and said one of his colleagues would contact me. A little later, someone did, saying, ‘If you can be in Orlando on such-and-such date, we have a construction project starting, and we’ll give you a job for three months’. And I ended up working for them for almost ten years. For the first seven, I worked in their construction operation and essentially lived out of a suitcase – I never had a proper base.”

After several years in the Jones construction team, Slessor had an opportunity to move into design. “I was doing a job in Boston, and the end of the construction season was approaching,” he says. “I got a call from Roger Rulewich, who said, ‘You’ll be finished there in a week. Rather than going to another job in Florida, can you draw?’ I said of course, and he explained that one of their draughtsmen had just quit and would I like to train to replace him. So instead of spending the winter in Florida, I spent it in the New Jersey office. After a while, they said to me, ‘We’ve got a few problems in the European office, will you go over and take a look?’ That was in 1989, and they had 11 projects in construction. They were doing design/build and had some issues with the contracts they had signed. Jones had a few options, including closing the operation. He thought about it and said, ‘I’m not ruining a lifetime’s reputation by cutting and running’.”

“One of the projects was Vidauban in southern France, which was Jones’s own pride and joy, and which he was developing himself. It was one of the three best sites I’ve ever seen, but it was a mess. The original masterplan was 54 holes, hundreds of houses and three hotels – he saw it as his legacy project. But without Bobby [Jones’s son, Robert] it would never have happened. He saved that job. It was an amazing feat.”

Read more: GCA’s ‘On Site’ report of the Vidauban course following the recent renovation by RTJ II’s design firm.

Slessor returned to the US in summer 1990, and in spring 1992 he married – to an Englishwoman. “After we’d been married six months, she said to me, ‘I can’t live in Florida anymore, I need to go home’,” he says. “Jones had just agreed to do the first course at Celtic Manor, Roman Road, so I said, ‘I’ll go and run the job’. And eventually, taking on that project led to his big move.

“Ian Woosnam was appointed as touring pro for Celtic Manor, and I met his manager, who was a senior guy at IMG,” he explains. “I got to know him, and he asked me what I planned to do next. I said that I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t want to go back to the US and a transatlantic marriage. He said, ‘You should come talk to us, we’ve just started a design firm with the European Tour’, and after a while, I joined EGD to do construction. Schloss Nippenburg near Stuttgart was my first job with them. And two years later I moved into my present job – which I have now been doing for close to 30 years!”

Schloss Nippenburg is billed as a Bernhard Langer design, and in those early days, EGD dealt almost entirely in pro golfer ‘signature’ courses, an obvious strategy given its ownership. But in the last 15 years, that has all changed. Though the company still has a ‘Signature Design’ tab on its website, and Slessor says it would happily undertake such projects, the most recent project listed on that tab is the Plage des Nations course near the Moroccan capital of Rabat, a Colin Montgomerie signature design that opened in 2017.

“The fundamental shift happened from 2008 onwards,” says Slessor. “The financial crash happened, and Tiger had his troubles at the same time. I thought clients would start asking for a disrepute clause in their contracts, in case their signature player got into trouble, but it never happened. What happened was that clients became much more sophisticated and became much more aware of the relative value of marketing spend, and that there can be better ways to spend that money than on the relationship with a signature player. That’s not to say there aren’t that sort of opportunities, but the conversations about players are infinitely fewer than they were about fifteen years ago. But it does depend on the market. My feeling is that in Asia signature design is still relatively buoyant. Elsewhere, people are looking at the overriding brand for the resort, and quite often it seems to be the hotel brand.”

Nevertheless, signature projects or not, EGD’s business is buoyant. Its four lead architects are all highly accomplished, and even if the names of McMurray, Johnston, Hiseman and Sampson are not as immediately recognisable to most golfers as Montgomerie, Langer, Faldo or Woosnam, the profile which Sampson, for example, earned during the recent Ryder Cup as the designer of the Marco Simone course, shows that the firm need not suffer from the decline of the signature model. EGD, with four lead architects, has long been Europe’s largest golf architecture shop, and, since the financial crash of 2007-8, which reshaped the industry globally, it has become one of the world’s largest.

The firm covers most of the world, though it is not really active in either North America or Australasia, and Slessor says the current boom is happening all over. “Work doesn’t show any immediate signs of falling off, and frankly we’re not questioning the why,” he says. “It is almost impossible to predict where the next job will come from. We quite regularly have conversations in board about where we need to be concentrating on. And I always reply, take a look at our last hundred enquiries, and if you can draw any kind of trend from them, let me know. But the reassuring thing is that, increasingly, they are word-of-mouth referrals. We’re not getting many cold calls.”

Slessor himself says he is still enjoying work as much as ever, and has no plans to stop in the near future, though he is thinking about what form his ‘retirement’ might eventually take. “I’m 61 now,” he says. “My stock answer whenever anyone asks about retirement is that I’m doing something I absolutely love, with people I enjoy working with, and I will do it as long as that remains the case. I don’t intend to be Jones or Ron Kirby and work until the day I die, but I plan to keep going as long as EGD will have me. And even when I finish here, I wouldn’t mind staying involved in the golf industry somehow. Given that I started as a greenkeeper, I’ve sometimes thought about going back to that in a way!”

This article first appeared in the January 2024 issue of Golf Course ArchitectureFor a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.