The great collaborator: an interview with Rod Whitman

  • Rod Whitman
    Bandon Dunes Golf Resort

    Rod Whitman, centre, with, from left, design partners Keith Cutten and Dave Axland, and clients Chris and Mike Keiser, on site at Bandon Dunes

  • Rod Whitman
    Ryan Vold

    Whitman’s first solo design, Wolf Creek in Alberta, has a natural, minimalist appearance, with low profile dune styling, and marked his entry into Canada’s ‘top course’ lists

  • Rod Whitman
    Evan Schiller

    Cabot Links, laid out by Whitman on the site of a former coal mine, on the coast of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence

  • Rod Whitman
    Steve Rankin

    WAC Golf designed The Nest, a ten-hole short course on the highest point of the Cabot Cape Breton property

  • Rod Whitman
    Thornburgh Resort

    Whitman, Axland and Cutten are currently working on projects for Cabot and at Bandon Dunes

Richard Humphreys
By Richard Humphreys

On the banks of the Trinity River, some 80 miles north of Houston, Texas, a meeting took place in 1976 that would set the direction for the career of one of Canada’s foremost golf architects.

Rod Whitman, then a student at nearby Houston State University in Huntsville, was looking for work. Just 30 minutes away was the newly built Waterwood National course, the focal point for a new community development. The young Whitman enquired about joining the greenkeeping team; the extra income would help see him through college. Waterwood’s superintendent at the time? Bill Coore.

Coore had got his start from Pete Dye a few years earlier, on the construction team for Oak Hollow in North Carolina. He’d then gone from job to job, for both Pete and his brother Roy. But at Waterwood, one of Roy’s designs, Coore had stayed on as superintendent.

That first meeting would lead to a positive working relationship at Waterwood. Not only was Coore sharing his new-found expertise in turf maintenance, but the course required some reconstruction work too. This gave Whitman his first experience of shaping.

By the spring of 1981, and with several years of work at Waterwood under his belt, Whitman would – on Coore’s recommendation – make the short trip west to become an intern designer and run the construction crew for Pete Dye’s new course at Austin Country Club in Texas.

“Pete was always on the road,” recalls Whitman. “One time, I went to pick him up from the airport in Austin. It was late at night and Pete was nowhere to be found. A janitor told me that the last plane in or out was just leaving.” So, Whitman headed back to his digs, where the caretaker told him Pete had just called, from the airport. “I said I had just left the airport and Pete wasn’t there!” says Whitman. “Back I went, and I found Pete on the sidewalk, sleeping. Turns out that he had woken up on the plane just as it was leaving. He told the stewardess that he was supposed to have gotten off in Austin, so they taxied everyone back to the terminal to drop him off. He was a bit grumpy and tired when I was finally able to collect him. In fact, he told me that the next time I came to pick him up and he wasn’t there, I was to come onto the damn plane and get him!”

Dye famously mentored many of today’s leading architects – including Coore, Tom Doak, Bobby Weed, Tim Liddy and Brian Curley – each of whom absorbed some of his philosophies in their own work. “The most important thing I learned from Pete was how to contour greens and their surrounds,” says Whitman. “Golf course design works from the green back to the tee. Watching him try to set up angles of shots was hugely influential. He wanted players to have to shape their shots.

“Other ideas he imparted throughout our time together include his methodology of working with the land, his on-site presence of working with the crew to build his visions, and his knowledge that the best modern architects benefit from being on site attending to the details of the design.”

While at Austin, Whitman got his first solo design opportunity, back home in Alberta. His college friend Ryan Vold asked if he would design a course his family was planning on its ranch near the small town of Ponoka. Over five years Whitman would build 27 holes (he returned in 2010 for nine more, to make two full eighteens, the Old and the Links) on the sandy site. While Whitman moved plenty of earth, his work at Wolf Creek was applauded for its natural, minimalist appearance, with low profile dune styling and pot bunkers.

With his first design came Whitman’s first entry into Canada’s ‘top course’ lists – and the Wolf Creek layout has since been joined by his Blackhawk, Sagebrush and Cabot Links layouts.

After Wolf Creek, Whitman continued working with Dye, as a design associate. He was involved in the greens rebuild at Crooked Stick in Indiana and the renovation of Oak Tree in Oklahoma.

Then in the late 1980s, Europe called. Coore had been approached by Bernard Pascassio, a French tour professional, to design a course among the vineyards of the Bordeaux region of France.

“Bill approached me to help with the construction and to supervise some of the works,” recalls Whitman. “We built the Château course, and the ownership wanted the same team to build a second eighteen. Bill turned down that commission but recommended that I be retained to do it.”

His Vignes course for Golf de Medoc was followed by 27 holes in Germany, at Schloss Langenstein, in the south of the country near the Swiss border.

“Working in Europe was a great challenge,” says Whitman. “The foreign language and culture were hurdles, but the food was incredible! The European lifestyle was definitely more relaxed than what we experience here in North America.”

Despite his growing list of top-class layouts, Whitman never took to self-promotion, so his work could be a bit stop-start. “Jobs were scarce at times, but fortunately when I didn’t have my own work Coore & Crenshaw helped keep me busy,” he says. “I also took on small renovation projects when I could fit them in.”

Those Coore & Crenshaw jobs included Klub Golf Rimba Irian in Indonesia, Talking Stick in Arizona, Friar’s Head on Long Island and Old Sandwich in Maryland. In 2009, Whitman was back in Canada again to collaborate with developer Richard Zokol, a former tour pro, on the Sagebrush course in British Columbia. The course was closed for several years due to the club’s financial difficulties before reopening under new management in 2021 and is rightfully receiving great acclaim. Shortly after designing Sagebrush, Whitman designed Cabot Links on a former coal mine along the coast of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in the small town of Inverness, Nova Scotia, for developer Ben-Cowan Dewar.

“Ben had great faith in my abilities to produce something special,” says Whitman. “I also had a great team around me so that I could focus on the shaping that is integral to the course’s design.”

Cabot Links is arguably Whitman’s greatest success. It is unmistakably a links layout, Canada’s first, with every hole overlooking the ocean and five running directly alongside it. Whitman shaped crumpled fairways and carved out pot bunkers, some lined with sleepers, included a double green and even the occasional blind shot. A destination resort to compete with Bandon was in the making, enough so to attract the interest and investment of Mike Keiser.

“Quite simply, a lot of work was put in to make Cabot Links as successful as it has become,” says Whitman. “Ben worked tirelessly to make sure we had the resources to keep going. In his own words, it never entered his mind that it wouldn’t be successful. The continued success of Cabot is certainly in large part due to his efforts, and of course those of Mike Keiser.”

A new collaboration was borne from Cabot Links – being the first project that Whitman worked together with architects Dave Axland, another Coore & Crenshaw protégé, and Keith Cutten. Axland and Cutten also worked on Coore & Crenshaw’s Cabot Cliffs, the second layout at the resort, and by the time Cowan-Dewar and Keiser were ready for a third, a 10-hole par-three course, the three architects had joined forces to create their own practice.

“WAC Golf emerged from long term relationships which I already had with Dave and Keith,” says Whitman. “They were both heavily involved with Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs. Dave partnered with me on The Nest, with Keith running the job. It seemed natural to take that partnership forward. Whitman, Axland and Cutten was formed because of great mutual respect and a history of being able to work creatively together.”

Keiser and Cowan-Dewar clearly appreciate the firm’s talents. WAC Golf has been appointed for their Cabot Revelstoke project in the mountains of eastern British Columbia, and Bandon Dunes has followed suit for its second short course.

“We are going to try and build a few more special projects,” says Whitman. “My goal is to continue to build golf that will endure, and others can appreciate.”

This article first appeared in the April 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.