Who Deserves Credit for a Golf Course Design?

Pasatiempo Golf Club, designed by Alister MacKenzie and restored by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina

By Tony Dear

The recent publication of Golf Digest’s top-100 course ranking raised eyebrows and set tongues wagging. And rightly so, raising eyebrows and stirring debate is precisely what rankings are for, though cynics might insist there are less philanthropic reasons. As all credible grading is apt to do, this list launched a million conversations over the relative merits of each entry and its position.

But there was one aspect of the article that triggered a little extra discussion (in the LINKS editorial office at least)—the subject of credit and who deserves recognition for how a course looks and plays today. Print publications have finite space, of course, so it would be impractical to list everyone that had a hand in a course’s evolution. Golf Digest decided to mention just the original architect and the course’s current consultant or individual who carried out the most recent work there. In the case of Augusta National, that meant no reference to Perry Maxwell, George Cobb, or Robert Trent Jones; for Aronimink Country Club no JB McGovern, William Gordon, Dick Wilson, George Fazio, Jones, or Ron Prichard.

In January, Tom Doak said on Golf Club Atlas he is often credited with completing work for which he would never seek credit himself. “I’m not trying to minimize the work we’ve done, (be it restoring the original, or where his associates made small-scale changes but the owner used his name anyway),” he added. “But I didn’t design those courses.”

Doak acknowledges credit is a very thorny issue and rarely clear-cut but, in most cases, believes a great course’s original designer should stand alone. “It wouldn’t be fair if you listed every architect that’s worked there,” he says. “That would usually imply everyone is equally responsible for the quality of the course, and in few, if any, cases is the current consultant (or most recent restorer/renovator) responsible for the course being what it is.” Unless they are making radical changes so the layout is essentially a new design, says Doak, consultants or anyone else carrying out work there shouldn’t get a credit. “And you’d hope no top-100 course would want to make significant changes anyway,” he adds.

Pinehurst No. 4, designed by Donald Ross and renovated Robert Trent Jones, Rees Jones, Tom Fazio, and most recently Gil Hanse

LINKS columnist Gil Hanse sees it differently. “We never seek credit, and don’t stipulate in contracts that we require it,” he says. “But I can’t think of any instances, off the top of my head, where we didn’t expect it. The subject tends to come up at some point during the work. Fortunately, we’re in a position where we don’t need it, but I would say everyone involved deserves to be listed somewhere.”

That raises the question, of course, of how involved you need to be. “Does every laborer, or shaper, or guy that raked out the bunkers need to be acknowledged?” asks Hanse. “Probably not,” he says. “I would definitely credit my design partner Jim Wagner for his creative input. Beyond that though, the guys on the work crew, though extremely talented and artistic themselves, are working for the architect.”

John Zimmers agrees with Hanse, and actually takes it a step or two further. “I think everyone involved in the growth of a course deserves to be mentioned,” says the Superintendent at the Inverness Club who was part of Oakmont Country Club’s 14-year effort to remove thousands of trees added in the name of “beautification” during the 1960s. “The architect, club membership or the board, and the superintendent all play a big part in the end product,” he says.

Talking with other designers, you get similarly divergent opinions. Ron Forse, who together with Jim Nagle, has completed some of the most acclaimed renovations/restorations of the last two decades including work on an incredible 53 Donald Ross designs, says the architect certainly warrants a mention if their work has altered the way the course looks and plays. “In the past, we’ve been a bit lax at seeking credit,” he says. “But we’re making a concerted effort now to include it in contracts.”

Country Club of Orlando, designed by Donald Ross and renovated by Ron Forse

Really, says Forse, it all boils down to the nature of the work. “At the Country Club of Orlando, we put a ton of effort into the greens which had lost much of their character over the decades. They weren’t really Ross greens at all when we got to them, so we built what we believe he would have built. We got a lot of compliments, so yes, I think we’d deserve credit for that job.” At other sites where Forse restored elements to a well-defined original design he says no credit is necessary.

Brian Silva, another designer known more for exceptional renovation/restoration work than original designs, is firmly in the ‘no credit required’ camp. “If you have good aerials/photos/plans, then the hardest thing to do on a restoration, surely, is park your ego at the door,” says the New Englander. “Everyone has a different definition of what a restoration is, but I really don’t see the need to mention anyone beyond the original architect. Most of the time, you want your work to be largely unrecognizable. So, you almost don’t want anyone to know you’ve been there.”

Silva recognizes, and has no problem with, a club’s desire to be associated with its well-known designer. “The course wants to capitalize on the name,” he says. “But by listing people who restored or renovated an original Macdonald/Raynor course, for instance, it weakens the impact of Macdonald and Raynor’s original. Why would you do that?”

Credit, like Doak says, is thorny.

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Who do you think deserves credit for a course design? Just the original architect or everyone involved? Tell us your thoughts in the comment section below!