This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.
The restoration of original golf course designs from the pre-World War II era has become relatively big business. A number of contemporary golf course architects exclusively work at reversing the effects of natural evolution and redesign at aged courses these days, restoring bunkers, removing trees, expanding green surfaces and widening fairways back out to their original parameters.
Restoration was not, though, part of golf’s lexicon in 1983 when Texarkana Country Club asked golf architect Ron Prichard to have a look at improving its historic course. Texarkana Country Club is a stone’s throw over the Texas state line in neighbouring Arkansas. Following stints working as an associate to golf architects Joe Finger, Desmond Muirhead and Robert von Hagge, Prichard had recently established his own practice based in the Woodlands outside Houston.
By 1945, at the conclusion of the Second World War, most of the pioneer golf architects in North America had died. Custodianship of their golf course designs had disappeared, too. Finger, Muirhead and von Hagge were part of a new legion of golf architects who filled a post-war void and subsequently ushered in a new design philosophy. Led by Robert Trent Jones, and his infamous redesign of Donald Ross’s South course at Oakland Hills Country Club in suburban Detroit, a new era of progressive architects, including Finger, Muirhead and von Hagge, were looking forward, not back.
“Joe definitely represented the new American school of golf architecture,” says Prichard. “He was brilliant… an engineering graduate of MIT and a decent golfer, too. But Joe never went to Scotland or studied the great American courses that preceded his work. He really had no interest.” Muirhead also told Prichard that none of his predecessors influenced his work. “Desmond’s influences were modern artists,” Prichard adds. “He was influenced by people like Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore… sculptors. Desmond thought of himself more as a land sculptor than a golf architect.”
In contrast to the works of their predecessors, Finger, Muirhead and von Hagge emphasised length and difficulty. Inspired by Jones’ work at Oakland Hills, which was carried out in preparation for the 1951 US Open, this new legion of architects favoured comparatively narrow courses flanked by penal hazards off the tees. They elevated greens to thwart terrestrial approach shots. During the 1950s, the ‘best’ golf courses were considered to be the longest, most difficult ones. Existing layouts were being redesigned accordingly. The power of televised golf had an effect, too. Beginning in the 1960s, television brought views of a dashing young Arnold Palmer and the lush, leafy fairways of Augusta National into millions of golfer’s homes. Suddenly, golf course owners and club members wanted their courses to be like Augusta. Theirs was a skewed perspective, though. Early television technologies could not accurately convey the massive width of Augusta’s tree-lined fairways.
This is the environment Prichard was working in during the 1970s while mostly supervising the construction of new courses designed by Finger and Muirhead. But Prichard’s thinking couldn’t have been more different from his bosses’. “Growing up in northern New Jersey, the history, architecture and art of New England had a big effect on me,” he says. “I developed a pretty strong sense of history at a young age. I find that too many people these days think that we’re now the best at everything. Unfortunately, not enough people recognise the genius that preceded us. It’s too often forgotten.”
Led by his strong sense of history and an admiration for the works of his predecessors, Prichard took advantage of his travels while working for Finger and Muirhead. He visited many of the most admired courses throughout the United States and quickly realised that some great architecture from pre-World War II was being damaged, destroyed and, in some cases, lost entirely to natural evolution and so-called progress. This led Prichard to start thinking seriously about golf course restoration. Not only did he sincerely believe that restoration was the right approach to improving many courses originally designed by pioneers like Ross, but it was potentially a good business strategy relative to differentiating himself from his competitors at the time. Still, Prichard’s career has been more of a mission than a business interest. “I knew early on that I wanted to restore golf courses,” he says. “I wanted to help people appreciate and celebrate the heritage of their historic golf courses.”
Prichard arrived at Texarkana Country Club five years before Rees Jones’ restorative-based work at the Country Club at Brookline outside Boston was showcased during the 1988 US Open. Jones’ efforts to restore William Flynn’s work at Brookline is held up as one of the first attempts at a sincere restoration of an original golf course design. At Texarkana, Prichard learned that the club’s William Langford-designed course had been reworked on at least two occasions since it opened for play during the mid-1920s. Prichard was given Langford’s original plan for the course. He claims it was immediately obvious that the boldness and creativity of Langford’s original design had been lost. So, rather than reinvent Texarkana again, Prichard decided there was a genuine and worthy opportunity to take a restorative-based approach to improving the club’s course.
“I’m not immensely proud of what I did at Texarkana these days,” Prichard says, three decades later. “I was still trying to figure out what I was doing and how do it properly.” Byron Nelson was impressed, though. Nelson, a Texas native whose storied career as a touring professional is legendary, was familiar with Langford’s course at Texarkana and effusive in his praise of Prichard’s restorative-based work, there. The two remained lifelong friends until Nelson’s death in 2006.
Through his golf affiliations in Texas, Prichard also became well-acquainted with 1981 Open champion, Bill Rogers. During the mid-1980s, Rogers introduced Prichard to a prospective Tournament Players Club development near San Antonio. Prichard still speaks highly of the course’s potential, but it was never built. A few years later, the PGA Tour gave Prichard another chance near Memphis. With input from major champions Hubert Green and Fuzzy Zoeller, Prichard designed TPC Southwind, which has hosted the PGA Tour’s FedEx St. Jude Classic annually since 1989.
Since, Prichard has mindfully restored many of America’s pioneering golf course designs from the pre-World War II era: from Maine (Portland Country Club) to Florida (Mountain Lake), Boston (Charles River Country Club) to Iowa (Cedar Rapids Country Club) and New Jersey (Mountain Ridge Country Club). “I’ve never gone into a meeting trying to sell anything,” Prichard explains. “I’ve only ever tried to offer some wisdom about the importance of preserving and, when necessary, restoring what’s been damaged, destroyed or lost. I’ve simply tried to convince these old historic clubs that in some cases they’ve made some mistakes that should be reversed.”
Expressive and opinionated, Prichard is modest. He’s never had a stomach for self-promotion. There’s no Ron Prichard Golf Architect website, no business cards or other promotional materials to be had. All of Prichard’s projects have come via word of mouth referrals, which he takes great pride in. Now in his mid-70s, Prichard is as passionate about his work as ever. “I’m trying to slow down a bit,” he says. “But I still enjoy what I do. I love working with clients who are fun and will listen and, hopefully, learn. I take pride in delivering work that they’ll take pride in, and along the way demonstrating that maybe I do know a little more than the average green committee member at most clubs.”
A graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, where he studied economics and fine arts while lettering in golf, Prichard is a true artist. “Ron intricately sketches features on paper to give shapers, like me, an exact three-dimensional image of what he wants to accomplish,” explains Tyler Rae, who has mentored under Prichard as a golf architect and feature shaper over the past seven years. “Ron’s method is similar to Tom Simpson’s, the way Simpson sketched his holes and green sites and bunkers during the 1920s and ‘30s.”
Prichard’s hand-drawn sketches are sought after by golf course architecture aficionados, along with a collection of beautiful golf course master plan renderings he’s produced with his closest friend and long-time collaborator, Marilyn Milner. Prichard and Milner met in Texas during the early 1980s, about the time he was establishing his own practice. “Marilyn’s been the key to my success,” Prichard says with sincere joy.
“My work has been really gratifying,” he adds. “I enjoy working with people. I’ve appreciated every opportunity I’ve been given to teach golfers to appreciate the history of their golf courses, and to encourage them to celebrate and preserve that heritage.”
There are more famous courses than William Langford’s original design at Texarkana Country Club. But it was there, in Arkansas, that for the first time, a contemporary golf architect looked back to guide a golf club into its future.
Jeff Mingay is a golf architect based in Canada, while Vaughn Halyard is a filmmaker and was greens chair during a Prichard-led restoration of his Donald Ross-designed home course.