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A Master By Design: Tom Fazio

From Shadow Creek to Pinehurst, Tom Fazio Has Sculpted Some of America's Most Imaginative Golf Courses
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

(continued from page 3)

"There was no split, no good-byes," insists the younger Fazio. "We just had a lot of bills at the time, and I kept doing the work, hiring all the people, and looking for stepping stones, like Pinehurst No. 6, which was then the biggest project in America and my way of celebrating getting married [in 1976]."  

The same year, developer Raymon Finch Jr. decided to entrust Fazio with a windswept property of saltwater marsh and sand dune hugging the shoreline outside Charleston, South Carolina. Speaking on behalf of his father, Raymon Finch III says, "We chose Tom because his courses, instead of feeling forced or artificial, blended with their surroundings so well, they seemed to emulate nature. He created such natural contours at our site, it was like Mother Nature had done all the work."  

Propelling Fazio into the spotlight, the rolling Wild Dunes Links Course was hailed by critics as "the ultimate in seaside golf," mirroring the glorious tradition of Scottish links golf. Those gorse-and-scrub settings, designed by such immortals as Willie Park Jr. and Old Tom Morris, defied the untrained eye, for unmanicured, they looked to be natural preserves without any formal starting or finishing points. In essence, such shrines at St. Andrews, Muirfield and Turnberry seemed to have been in place since time immemorial, and that's exactly the raw, untidy, even ominous effect Fazio created at Wild Dunes. He would later design similar links-type courses such as Lake Nona in Orlando (1985), Wade Hampton in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina (1986) and Raymon Finch III's Emerald Dunes in West Palm Beach (1990).  

"Tom is a master of naturalism who subtly blends his courses into the surroundings and gives them a spectacular unforced look," says William McKee, who developed Wade Hampton. "While these courses might sometimes look brutal and play like a roller coaster, going from easy hole to tough, he keeps the difficult hazards where they'll only impact the better player. There's nothing loud; just soft, rolling, curving lines, for he simply has this uncanny ability to create courses that have an evolved appearance. Courses with instant patina."  

Calling himself an "extremely lucky dirt mover," Fazio credits his staffers for his successes. "I've been blessed, for most of my senior people have been with me 12 to 25 years," says Fazio, a 7-handicapper who rarely has the time to play. "Attitude, integrity, loyalty, getting along with people--those are key qualities to me. They're the reason we get a lot of return business. We don't take shortcuts, which can, for example, lead to leaks in a sand trap. Instead, we respect clients, contractors, end users every step of the way."  

But even if his high-mindedness seems a bit old-fashioned, or out of place in an arena where the jousting among architects for contracts frequently gets ugly--from the spreading of rumors about rivals' design credentials and personal lives to the willful underestimating of construction costs--Fazio is also a progressive thinker devoted to "big ideas."   Besides scoffing at the notion that long-distance golf balls and space-age materials are threatening the integrity of the game ("they're only making golf easier and more popular"), Fazio, just as he was awed by his uncle's dreaming, is charmed by "visionaries who daringly push the normal boundaries, and thrive on challenges to do the impossible." Master builders like Mirage Resorts' Steve Wynn.  

When the casino magnate first started to think of developing a course on 360 acres of dead-flat desert land north of Las Vegas in the mid-1980s, Fazio wasn't very interested in the project. "There was no environment there, I didn't want to travel so far from my kids, and besides, I hear it every day from developers: they all talk about building the 'world's greatest course,' " Fazio says with a laugh. He routinely does "a dance" with prospective clients to determine if there's "a good fit." "I initially felt Wynn's site wasn't appealing, and the whole thing would just be too costly."  

But after Wynn worked with another architect, and wasn't satisfied with the design plans for his extravaganza, he relentlessly urged Fazio to reconsider. "The guy kept bugging me, and when I talked about his featureless, barren landscape, he said something that no one had ever asked me: 'What makes a great golf course? Environment.' I then said to myself, 'Holy mackerel, this guy is for real.' Urging me to create my own setting, I could immediately tell he was 10 times more brilliant than anyone I had ever met. That here was a creator, a true visionary who was unique, and could bring the wildest dreams to fruition."  

Though excited by the challenge of meeting Wynn's great expectations, Fazio was still confronted with an "ugly, harsh piece of terrain."  

"Since you only saw mountains on one side, with no other natural framework, I couldn't just plot holes," says Fazio. "We had to think about how the land was tilted, and while I usually don't like to do a lot of earth moving, we had to lower the desert floor. As for the sun, it was Wynn's idea to build small bodies of water through the property instead of big lakes which would reflect the sun. I generally welcome input from developers, and working with Wynn, who would regularly come to the site with Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan, was never boring. Together we created real art."  

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