When the subject is golf course architecture, school is always in session for Ben Crenshaw and Davis Love III. When the Crenshaws and Loves go out to dinner, Julie and Robin talk between themselves, knowing Ben will have photos of his latest designs to show Davis. Once, Crenshaw and Love were paired together during the Barclays Classic, played on Westchester Country Club’s West Course, regarded as one of the best on tour. Waiting to putt on the second hole, Crenshaw began dissecting the green contours for Love and the two became so involved in the impromptu lesson that the third player in the group had to walk up to them and ask, “Aren’t you going to putt out?”
Architecture style and understanding, like the game itself, have been passed down through generations of professionals since the mid-19th century, from St. Andrews pro Allan Robertson to Old Tom Morris to today’s best players. When Crenshaw, the current dean of the school of hands-on player-architects, talks, Love is not the only student.
“I think Crenshaw and Bill Coore are probably the best designers in the business today,” says Phil Mickelson, who authored the acclaimed Lower Course at Whisper Rock Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. “I look to Ben for how bunkering should be, how to utilize the natural environment and how to make a golf course look like it’s been there for many, many years.”
Besides Love and Mickelson, Tom Lehman, Brad Faxon and Nick Faldo are emerging as the next generation of player-architects who are avid students of great courses, determined to leave a legacy of thought-provoking layouts that truly carry their imprint rather than simply their names for marketing purposes.For this new breed of player-architects, quality over quantity is the rule, and they’re as intimately familiar with the topography of their designs as they are with the launch angles of their tee shots. Like Crenshaw, the passion they bring to their second careers can match or even exceed their love of playing the game.
For some, that passion had been building even before reaching the PGA Tour. Love, for example, developed an interest in design at the feet of another mentor, his late father, renowned instructor Davis Love Jr. “My dad was always interested in the design of the course where he was the pro,” Love recalls. “I had graph-paper sketchbooks that I would draw my holes on, and I would copy pictures of old design drawings.”
Like Love, Lehman doodled holes as early as his grade-school years. In college, he then contemplated a different type of architecture. “I sat down with the dean of the architecture school at the University of Minnesota and we were talking about my plans,” says Lehman. “He asked what I was going to do besides study. I told him, ‘play golf.’” Lehman wound up making a good career move, but he is gradually returning to his first calling as he devotes more time, Ryder Cup captaincy duties notwithstanding, to his design business—again, in the tradition of Crenshaw, whose time-intensive, hands-on approach doesn’t permit him to build more than one or two courses a year. “If there’s someone who thinks they can do this sitting in their office, they’re wrong,” says Faxon. “Fifteen years ago it was very easy to sign on to a project, lend your name, show up for opening day or groundbreaking and paste your name onto something without doing much work. Those days are long gone.”
If you’re looking to check out an architect’s credentials, don’t bother with his list of projects or his plans. Look at his feet.On a beautiful fall morning, Love and his brother, Mark, arrive in a pick-up and park next to what will be the second green of Ricefields, an environmentally sensitive layout scheduled to open this fall on coastal Georgia’s Hampton Island. Love steps out, wearing his architecture uniform: golf shirt, jeans, cap and a pair of well-worn Timberlands caked with mud from a previous site visit. Over the next couple of hours, Love adds another layer of earth to his boots as he works with his team to refine and reshape several holes.An avid hunter, Love always enjoyed walking a raw site before a project starts, but has since found the construction process to be his favorite aspect of design. “I love going out there when there’s a really good shaper and build a little green in the dirt, then have everyone play with it and discuss it,” Love says. “Then you go on to another hole and come back in a few hours and see what the shaper’s done, and say, ‘You got it.’ That to me is the most fun. It’s not sitting in an office and looking at plans.”
The fun increases exponentially when player-architects are presented with sites like those Crenshaw received at Sand Hills and Bandon Trails (along with a client who understands good golf design). Faldo may have found such a landscape in Cottonwood Hills, which sits just two miles from Prairie Dunes Golf Club in Kansas.The six-time major champ and ABC announcer is also working on a Caribbean project called Roco Ki, set on a stunning piece of Dominican coastline, that could well vault him to Crenshaw-like status among architecture aficionados worldwide.
Mickelson receives weekly offers to put his signature on a project, but he is determined to avoid the “rent-a-pro” image, and his selectivity is why he’s waited four years since Whisper Rock opened for his follow-up design, Palmwood, an exclusive retreat featuring a 7,850-yard layout an hour from Mickelson’s San Diego home.“The property is a huge factor in my selection of a project,” says Mickelson. “I prefer to do high-end projects that allow me to provide a great golf experience and not a course set up just for homesites to surround it. I like to keep it as natural as possible and move very little dirt.”
When it comes to shaping the site, the new breed strives for varied, timeless and challenging routings and designs that defy the kind of characterization in which some player-architects take pride (and by which some developers are mysteriously comforted). To the notoriously studious Faldo, the lure of great design is in the strategizing, not the cultivation of a certain look. “It’s like a giant, physical game of chess played outdoors on an ever-changing stage,” he says.
Like sponges, the new breed soaks up information from various sources, Crenshaw foremost among them. “I know spend a great amount of time planning and routing the course,” says Lehman. “I think that’s what made the architects of the past so good, too. They were geniuses at using contour as a strategy. Too often we think of strategy in terms of where you place the bunkers or where the water is. But so much of it comes down to how you use contour in the fairways to reward drives or in how you subtly slope the greens.”
Love is struck by the attention to detail displayed by Crenshaw and Coore, who do not use plans but work with a band of traveling artisans from project to project, crafting the holes as they go and allowing the bosses to tinker with bunker placement and green design. Love also studied two of the best at work in his own backyard, grilling Tom Fazio during the redesign of Sea Island’s Seaside course and Rees Jones during the construction of Ocean Forest.
“I always knew what I liked and didn’t like,” Love says. “The hard part is the ‘why.’ Why can’t we go over there? Why can’t we build it like this? I’d say I liked that green right there or that style of hole, but I didn’t know how to build it.”
Growing up playing short, quirky New England courses like Rhode Island Country Club, Eastward Ho and Kittansett, Faxon developed some definite ideas about course design and its effect on golfers. “I didn’t know back then who did the courses,” he says. “I just knew they were fun and that’s what always made me love playing there. A good friend of mine is Seth Waugh, the CEO of Deutsche Bank, who is a member at a lot of great courses. He’s big on the fun meter. That’s what I want to do. I want to make courses where people say, ‘I love playing there.’”
After years of contemplating a design career, Faxon’s first project was the Bay Club, a lay-of-the-land private course that he co-designed with Brad Booth 30 minutes from his Rhode Island home. “I’m so glad I started with a guy like Brad, who’s been in the business for a while,” Faxon says. “He let me throw out suggestions, no matter how stupid.”
That kind of partnership is crucial for the success of any player-architect. Just as Crenshaw and Coore are a package, Love pairs up with his brother, who went from caddying for Davis to become the head of Love Golf Design, and is assisted by veteran architects Bob Spence, Paul Cowley and (on a part-time basis) Forrest Fezler, formerly a partner of the late Mike Strantz. Faldo, whose Faldo Design projects take him around the world, employs his own architectural staff in London and works with select “like-minded” partners, notably Americans Steve Smyers and Brian Curley, and Australian Tony Cashmore. Lehman briefly worked with former tour player John Fought before launching the Lehman Design Group, where he is aided by former Fought associates Chris Brands and Josh Taylor. Mickelson also teams with an architect partner, Gary Stephenson.
At Ricefields, Love, his brother and the rest of the team approach the third green, where they are contemplating the subtle shaping of the putting surface. Love envisions it as a punch bowl—a rarity in modern architecture and a reflection of his increasing propensity for classical design features.
After some discussion and a lot of pointing and arm waving, a crew member hops onto a backhoe and starts moving dirt like a kid in an oversize sandbox during recess. Love sees his vision take shape, smiles and nods. School was never this fun.