Getting a start in golf course architecture is hard enough. But suppose you’ve managed that, and worked on some cool projects with some great people. How do you turn that into a career, and win your own work?
Golf architecture is a tough career choice. At no point in the game’s history have more than a few hundred people at once earned their living entirely (even largely) through designing golf courses, and there are many, many more who would surely like to. This level of competition tends to weed out those for whom it isn’t a true vocation.
Routes into the industry, as we have explored previously, basically fall into two categories. One can join an established, traditional design-and-contract firm, often as someone who mostly sits in an office and draws plans for more senior designers (a role unkindly known in the business as a ‘CAD monkey’). Alternatively, in some cases more glamorously but with its own downside, a lot of young people have entered golf design by way of construction, either for a traditional contractor or for one of the design-and-shape firms that provide, at least in part, their own construction crews for jobs – principally Coore & Crenshaw, Renaissance and Hanse.
In the last ten years or so, the second of these routes has offered significantly more opportunities to new entrants to the industry than the first, as design firms reacted to the 2007/8 recession by downsizing dramatically; now, the sole practitioner is by far the most common golf design firm, and if CAD help is needed, it can be bought in from paid-by-the-hour subcontractors. Nevertheless, there is still the odd CAD gig going in the (now smaller) number of larger design firms and several people who had previously been in that role have transitioned into fee-earner positions.
The question is how to make that transition. In some ways, if you are a young shaper/architect who has been working for a design-and-shape firm, it is probably a little bit easier: you will have spent several years out in the field, a place where you can network, possibly on quite glamorous jobs (although you had better be somewhat nomadic, because you probably won’t have a place you can call home for much of the time).
We spoke with six young architects, from both sides of the industry, to ask how they are turning their start into a lifelong career.
What was your first job in golf, and how old were you when you got it?
Riley Johns: A summer job working at a golf course – 16-hour days. I worked on the maintenance crew in the mornings and in the clubhouse kitchen during the afternoon and evenings. I was sixteen.
Jeff Danner: Does a lawn mowing job for the local pro when I was ten count? Compensation was free golf lessons. If not, my first golf industry job was in high school at a local muni called Pine Valley in Marathon, Wisconsin. I started with outdoor services, range picking, course set up, garbage collection and later moved into the pro shop. In college, I started working maintenance jobs.
Angela Moser: My first job in golf was in retail. I sold and fitted golf clubs, equipment and clothing. It was my after-school and weekend job that escorted me from the age of 16 until university, where I studied landscape architecture and had a taste for greenkeeping on the side.
Tom Kelly: I was a range picker, driving the little buggy around picking up balls while getting missiles hit at you from point blank range. It was great. On the same job I also lent a hand building a little par-three course at the range, although ‘building’ is a very loose term as smoothing out a few areas for greens was about as technical as it got. I was sixteen, it was my first part-time job.
Alex Hay: It was in the pro shop at Epsom Golf Club. I worked for the then head professional Ron Goudie, I was paid five pounds per hour. That was pretty good in 1997! I was sixteen.
Reda Chananne: Since 2015, shortly after I qualified as a civil architect, I have followed several trainings in the field of golf with the Royal Moroccan Golf Federation, notably in course rating. In 2018, alongside experts of the French Golf Federation I was invited to work on the Red course of Royal Golf Dar Essalam, Rabat. Right after the first phase of the renovation I had the privilege of presenting to HRH Prince Rachid, president of the Royal Moroccan Golf Federation, the results of the work and my ambition to become the first golf architect in the country. Thanks to his special attention, I was able to join the team in charge of the renovation of the three courses of the Royal Golf Dar Essalam. This meeting with HRH was key and unlocked many doors for me. At the start of the renovation of the Blue course and following a short experience in shaping on the Green course in Rabat, I met Cabell Robinson. Following constant exchanges with him, at the age of 30 I was hired to be his assistant on this project. It was a fantastic experience to have him as my first mentor and to learn about schools of design in golf course architecture.
What is your view on classroom-based education for golf architects?
RJ: A sensible starting point; but probably best if mixed in with a real-world project as well. Classrooms can be a good place to learn specific skills such as graphic communication or drafting, and technical tools such as computer software.
JD: I think it is invaluable. The curriculum didn’t focus much on golf in our landscape architecture programme in college, disappointingly. This led to me taking matters into my own hands. In my final semester, I was approved for an independent study for credit under the supervision of the department. I chose sustainable golf course design as the area of focus. The independent study allowed me to design my own curriculum with approval from the department. The opportunity allowed me to choose my own site and explore the design process for building a golf course. Having this on my résumé helped me land my first job as a golf architect after graduation.
TK: Very important but site experience is just as, if not more, important. We’d all love to spend days walking sites to find routings and ‘play in the dirt’ but the realities of most jobs require lots of work in the office to make sure the work done on the ground is efficient and helps keep clients and contractors happy and budgets in check… all the boring bits. Looking to the future, I’d probably expect this to become more important as technology and climate change lead to more remote working and less chance for quick visits to check on site work, unfortunately.
AH: I think a varied approach to all education is best. The classroom is an important aspect of golf architecture, especially for learning and respecting the history of the game. On the technical side, one thing I’ve noticed is that you remember things more easily when in the field. I used to spend hours amending construction details using CAD, but it wasn’t until I saw them implemented on the ground that they became ingrained.
RC: Training in golf architecture in a school is highly important. Having experienced the profession first, on-site, for three years, I had the honour of becoming the first Arab to join the EIGCA educational programme. In architecture as in any other art form, there is both theory and practice. I had understood that during the three years that I spent on site. While I had accumulated a lot of knowledge and ideas during that time – everything was a bit jumbled up. The educational programme allowed me to conceptualise, better understand and reorganise those ideas and put everything in its place in my mind.
What aspects of the job can be learned in a classroom, and what needs to be done on site?
RJ: Basic construction theory with regards to drainage, irrigation, turf and grading could be learned in a classroom up to a certain point. Anything that required more site-based creative expression or troubleshooting, such as routing, clearing, earthworks, shaping, finishing and grassing, is probably best learned in the field with time and experience. Nothing can replace the wisdom of a mentor.
JD: Just about every aspect of designing something for the built environment requires equal parts of classroom training and real-world field experience. Every line we draw or concept we envision impacts things on the ground. Still, if you never get the opportunity to see how it translates to the field, it’s harder to understand the real-world influence of the idea. Reversely, suppose you are working exclusively in the field. In that case, it is difficult to have a well-rounded understanding of the contextual influence of the idea because you are working in a microcosm at any given time. They call it planning for a reason. Even the ‘field architects’ start with sketching or planning to understand the bigger picture of what they are proposing. There is no substitute for proper technical training, and there is also no substitute for experiencing first-hand how a site receives the design.
AM: My personal opinion is that you cannot separate education into classroom and on-site. It is not black and white. Much experience and more profound understanding are lost by reducing it only to either way. A combination of both would be ideal. Educating the history of golf course architecture and its incredible designs and different design strategies is easily taught and discussed in class. Still, site visits to the best golf courses are mandatory (and more fun) to understand and study the ground and how they stand the test of time.
The very same goes with construction. Understanding topo maps and what your sketched lines on paper mean for drainage and the response of the ball on-site is essential to draw them in the first place.
On a broader scale, teaching the application processes through school projects would be fantastic if escorted with the specific government bodies to understand what they seek in those plans. Working through a whole project is vital for understanding the complexity of our job.
TK: I believe the technical side of the job is still probably underappreciated by those outside the industry. As well as mastering the artistic and technical skills of the design itself, a good architect needs to have a broad knowledge base with an understanding of agronomy and maintenance, construction techniques, drainage, irrigation, civil engineering and more, most of which require some ‘classroom’ work to learn.
AH: Understanding contours and controlling surface water is vital to a golf architect’s work. I think aspects of that can be learnt in the classroom. Drawing skills are also very important, we often sit with clients and masterplanners and need to be able to communicate our ideas well with a scale ruler, pencil and tracing paper. In terms of understanding exactly what you are drawing, when working on a grading plan for example, nothing can beat seeing a good shaper bring your vision to life. On the more relaxing side, getting out and seeing golf courses is probably still the best way to learn. However, I’m not sure my wife and kids believe me when I tell them that when I am playing golf, it is actually research and development!
How do you get projects as a young architect?
RJ: Keep busy, do your best work, and hope the phone rings.
JD: Nobody will tell you it is easy. It is all about relationships. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some very well-established and recognised architects and designers. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to try. There is no secret recipe. You must find opportunities for exposure and pursue them wherever possible. One acquired skill is vetting what opportunities are worth your time and best-suited as a worthwhile endeavour. Sometimes the most challenging part is saying no. Nobody likes to turn down work, ever, but it takes discipline to understand when an opportunity isn’t a good fit and let it go.
AM: Ironically, you need the experience to get projects, but need projects to gain the experience. So, get to work and acquire the knowledge. It doesn’t matter what course or level you are involved in, learn the equipment that is being used and stay focused and interested. If you notice that it is not the most outstanding project, stay positive because even a terrible experience is an experience of what you want to avoid in the future. The reputation and recommendation of your work will spread and hopefully you will get the right email.
TK: I’m maybe in an enviable position to many young aspiring architects as I work in one of the bigger offices around these days so I’m not constantly trying to win my next project on my own. But at the same time, given the size of most of our projects it’s a leap suddenly to expect to be given the lead on a full 18-hole project with minimal experience. I just need to keep pestering Jeremy [Slessor, EGD’s managing director] and prove my ability with any small opportunities I get and I’m sure they’ll start to fall on my desk eventually!
AH: It’s a slow game. You have to be very patient and not get despondent when you miss out on work. Learning from the jobs you don’t win, and asking for feedback regularly has been useful for us in Canada.
As a newcomer to the industry, how did you go about building your network?
RJ: Slowly and over time. I tend to let the networking happen organically rather than planned or forced. It’s a small profession which is helpful, and golf has a special way of bringing like-minded people together anyway.
JD: Persistence, persistence, persistence. There are roles to play in every firm, and sometimes there isn’t always an inherent opportunity to get in front of people and interact to create those relationships that are so important for finding work. So, for example, if you are just starting out in a firm and want to be more than a draftsman or ‘office employee’, you need to ask for opportunities and prove that it benefits the business. It can be tricky because the firm’s needs must come first, and you may find much of your time being spent on deliverables. For me, taking the initiative to be inserted into situations where I could meet people and form relationships was vital. Attending trade shows, participating in a panel discussion, giving presentations, writing articles and using your voice to gain exposure are just a few ways to accomplish this.
AM: My network started with having one contact in the industry. My fellow student Anton Ortner (Olazabal Design) got me my first CAD monkey job. Over the years, I met and got introduced to a wider circle, but the game changer was when I pulled all my courage together and reached out to the people I was inspired by. Now I understand that the golf industry is one big family and you will meet most of them over time. It will come naturally once you are in it.
TK: It started off with lots of letter writing and thankfully there were a few kind people who responded with advice and even offered some work experience early on. After some seasonal greenkeeping work which came out of one of those work experience visits, I was then lucky enough to work for MJ Abbott for six years who work with a wide range of architects and consultants from across the industry, which was a fantastic experience, providing plenty of opportunities to interact with some of the best in the business. The EIGCA and BIGGA events have also been vital. The annual EIGCA conference is a great event and well worth the effort of attending having seen it from both sides of the fence now. Sometimes I forget but generally the golf course industry is very friendly and reaching out to ask a question every now and then, even to a stranger, can often reap rewards.
AH: I’ve been fortunate to work with EGD and Tim Lobb thus far in my career, building a good network has happened naturally. Latterly, I’ve become more involved with the EIGCA and ASGCA via their Associate Programmes, which has resulted in my network expanding more.
RC: Joining the EIGCA allowed me to enlarge my network considerably. For the last four years I have been travelling a lot to work on projects. But like everyone else, in the last two years I was affected by the global pandemic. I was not able to have other work opportunities due to the global situation and travel restrictions. I had to come back to my country a little earlier than I had anticipated. It has now been more than a year since I created my company GolfDesign Morocco.
The idea is to offer local services that adapt to the financial level of the clubs, especially after the pandemic. In Morocco, only two or three big companies are working in the construction of golf courses. At this moment in time, I do not consider them as competitors. I am more focused on creating a new market on a reduced scale, which gives precise answers with reduced budgets to the clubs.
How important to you is being regarded as the architect of record on projects?
RJ: Very important if you designed the golf course. I view g My first job in go olf designers not dissimilar to musical artists; the artist should always be credited to the album/golf course they create. This recognition plays a big part in how they get their next project.
JD: It used to be much more important than it is now. Most people get into this business with the romantic notion they will build a body of work that bears their name in perpetuity. I’m no different, but the reality of golf course architecture is that no one person is ever solely responsible for the design, construction, and evolution of a golf course. However, it is human nature to want to be recognised or acknowledged for doing a great job, whether they are the architect of record or not. I like receiving a pat on the back for doing great work that provides my clients with a return on their investment while providing healthy, active, and engaging experiences for the golfers. But also, something that serves a more significant benefit to the surrounding environment and community. The real legacy is not the architect of record. It is the work, and it is for the people who experience the work after we’re gone. We benefit from the fact that the works of MacKenzie, Ross, Dye, Tillinghast, Colt, Simpson, or whoever lives on, but they aren’t here to bask in their fame. Indeed, they don’t care! Nothing in this world is permanent, and inevitably, golf courses need to evolve and change over time to serve a useful purpose. While long-lasting for some, the legacy of a name is still just temporary, it eventually fades. That is something we can’t control after we’re gone. Credit and recognition are excellent, but it is not why I have dedicated my life to this work.
AM: The original designer deserves the credit. I am still waiting on my first solo design, but am proud to be involved with so many newbuilds and restorations. I would never want to take away from the designer’s original idea for the sake of putting my name on it.
TK: I’d hope this isn’t as much of an issue as it probably used to be, and I know here at EGD we are keen to make sure those responsible get the praise they deserve. I’m not one to seek the limelight so having my name on record is probably most important to build a résumé to seek future projects. It’s not a good look for the industry when deserving people are struggling to prove to potential future clients what they were and weren’t responsible for, so I hope that isn’t something I ever have to deal with.
AH: Not at all to be honest. Along with seeing a design come to life, working closely with the individuals involved with each particular project is the most rewarding part of the job. I’m not too concerned if the wider world knows if I was involved in a project design wise, I’d almost rather golfers are able to enjoy the work of Lobb + Partners without knowing we were there.
RC: In architecture, the success of a project is linked to the presence of multidisciplinary teams. Being a signatory on a project is just a representation and a tribute to all those who work with me. I firmly believe that my future as a golf architect is based on the evolution and success of the teams around me.
This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.