The Player: Justin Leonard

The Player: Justin Leonard
Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

When professional golfers get into the course design business, it can mean a number of things.

Too often, it just signifies the player's desire for a quick payday: a top professional whose name will help market a course can make big money for doing very little.

There are exceptions to this trend though. Some professional golfers, even while continuing to play a full schedule of tournaments, have devoted much of their time to studying course design, and have gone on to play a significant role in the projects designed in their name. And others, as their playing careers start to wind down, have parlayed the power of their names into dedicated design practices.

No-one can know what sort of a player-designer an individual pro will be until he has been involved in a number of projects.

But certainly, not leaping straight into the business at the first opportunity ought to be taken as a good sign. 1997 Open Champion and three-times US Ryder Cup player Justin Leonard has perhaps waited longer than some of his Tour compatriots; at the age of 36 he has joined forces with Oklahoma-based architect Tripp Davis, firstly on a project in Colorado, and now to build the second course at the Tribute golf facility outside Dallas.

Davis's original course at the Tribute was, as the name suggests, patterned after holes the architect had seen during his distinguished amateur career. But unlike many of the replica courses now springing up, he didn't choose just the most famous holes – how many readers are familiar with the fourth at Moray Golf Club in Scotland, the model for the course's eighth hole? After the Scottish-themed Old Course, Davis and Leonard are now working on the New Course, which will be inspired more generally by holes from classic American courses.

"It had to be the right project at the right time and with a designer I felt comfortable with," says Leonard. "The Tribute project was just that. I knew Tripp when he was playing golf for the University of Oklahoma. He's challenged me to think about why I like certain holes, and then to be able to take that from paper to the field and see it come to life." "Justin and I have known each other for years," says Davis. "Up until just a few years ago I was still very interested in playing at a very high level on the amateur circuit, and obviously Justin was, and is, extremely active on the PGA Tour. We have talked for a good while about design ideas, mainly as avid golfers and friends, but we also discussed that if we did start a partnership it would be with the right project – both inspirationally and at the right time that would allow him to focus with me on details. We're not necessarily trying to be the next Coore and Crenshaw team, but we both admire the approach they take as much as we admire the work they have done. I have always kept a small project load and have been very intimately involved with minute details and getting my hands dirty. I wanted Justin to go through the same, mainly so he would look back on the work with pride and appreciate the process." "The New Course has definitely piqued my interest in course design," says Leonard. "Yet I have a full-time job playing golf. But this is something I enjoy doing. I think a lot of that has to do with the people I work with on a project. I do look forward to getting involved with other projects and courses, but much like this project, it has to be the right project with the right people at the right time. I am not looking to become a designer full-time.

This is something that I enjoy doing. Tripp and my relationship throughout all of this has been great and I look forward to working with him more." Leonard reckons that too many designers fall into the trap of building multiple tees and assuming that will provide the variety of challenge a good course needs. "I play a lot of pro-ams and I know what the 15 or 25 handicap player is thinking when he stands on the tee," he says. "Our objective is to try to get that golfer around the course while challenging better players with a variety of shots and options. This diversity can be accomplished by designing multiple, strategic options into each hole. There should be more than one way to play the hole, even from the same tee box, with each option possessing unique risk/reward values." Davis backs up his new design partner.

"There is too much emphasis on presentation and not enough importance placed on strategy and rhythm. I often say too much style and not enough varied substance," he says. "A number of courses being designed today limit golfers to only one advantageous way to play the hole, if that. They fall back on four or five sets of tees to make it playable for golfers of all skill levels. For a golf course to provide the highest level of interest and variety, the strategy of each hole should take on differing forms, noting that length is not what should make a hole a challenge or full of interest."

This article first appeared in issue 15 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2009.