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Golf's Land Sculptors

Cigar Aficionado picks the top ten course designers in 2004
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

Hundreds gathered by the bay, right about where the first hole would be, to listen to the men who would shape the land into a world-class golf course. One was Jack Nicklaus, the best player the game had ever known, who on this day stepped again into his role as a golf course architect. The other was Tom Doak, who stepped into the role of golf course architect two decades ago.

After a light luncheon under a tent, Nicklaus and Doak and the course's developer, Mike Pascucci, took to the dais to explain plans for the great course, to answer questions about style and philosophy. Immediately to the east was the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, the first 18-hole course in America, which was, at that moment, hosting the United States Open Golf Championship. Immediately to the north was the National Golf Links of America, the first true championship course in America. Surrounded by greatness, this piece of land, on the South Fork of Long Island 100 miles from Manhattan, was no doubt destined for greatness itself. Nicklaus and Doak, golf course architects, had been given the job of fulfilling that destiny.

It's a big job, fulfilling greatness. That's why, over the last two decades, golf course architects have become big deals. That's why the hundreds gathered to listen to Nicklaus and Doak lay out their plans for the Sebonack Golf Club, a private club that will be right at home among the other very-high-end private courses in the East End of Long Island. That's why the big-name architects get fees in the millions and their names on the scorecards. The art of pushing around dirt has never been so well regarded or so well compensated.

The profession has been around for a while. The term "golf course architect" was first used by Charles Blair Macdonald, who founded and designed Sebonack's neighbor, the National Links of America. When the course opened in 1911 it was like no other in the land. Most courses, including the first Shinnecock course, which opened in 1891, were rudimentary, laid out by members with perhaps the help of an imported Scottish professional. Macdonald, from Chicago, was schooled at St. Andrews, Scotland, where he gained a keen sense of the game. When he designed the National—and it was a design in every sense of the word—he incorporated features from Scottish golf holes. The National was a marvel, and still stands the test of time.

In the early part of the twentieth century, men like Donald Ross, A. W. Tillinghast and Alister MacKenzie roamed the land, laying down courses like Pinehurst No. 2, Winged Foot and the Augusta National Golf Club. Now it's men such as Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus, Rees Jones and Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Tom Fazio who are leaving marks across America—and across continents. Their names are associated with courses such as Whistling Straits, Muirfield Village, Atlantic Golf Club, Princeville Golf Club and Black Diamond Ranch.

To be sure, the modern architect has much at his disposal, like accomplished assistants and a team of dirt shapers who render what's on paper from what the land provides. Only Pete Dye is an accomplished small-equipment driver, but the key to achieving the dream of the developer and the goal of the architect is a melding of dozens of people who share a sensitivity to the land and to the game.

Since it is fashionable to rank golf courses—Golf Magazine, Golf Digest and Golfweek do it regularly—we thought that we would try our hand at ranking golf course architects. It is no easy undertaking, and because we are ranking a top 10, we will leave out many architects who are doing superb and distinguished work. Greg Norman has increasingly expanded his golf course design business with the likes of Doonbeg and The Course at Wente Vineyards to his credit, but he doesn't make the top 10. Steve Smyers, Brian Silva, Kyle Phillips and even the great Arnold Palmer are among those who have done excellent work without making this list. But a list of 10 is like out-of-bounds markers—if you are out by an inch, you're out.

These rankings, done in consultation with Golfweek architecture editor Bradley S. Klein, are wholly subjective. You could consider criteria such as sensitivity to land, routings, hole variety and such, but it really comes down to impressions. So here is a list of the architects who have made the deepest impressions on us.

1 Pete Dye
Pete Dye isn't just a piece of work, he's all work. There may never have been a golf course architect so intimately involved in his work, one so passionate and dedicated. So what if some find him just a little crazy. What Dye has created is not only a portfolio of memorable golf courses, but also the environment in which all modern architects thrive. He has defined golf and golf courses by this statement: "Golf courses aren't natural. If they were natural, they wouldn't be golf courses."

Dye's reputation—and the foundation of modern architecture—can be traced directly to the building of Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, in 1969. Harbour Town, which Dye did in conjunction with Jack Nicklaus, was a break from the repetitive styles of post—Second World War architects Robert Trent Jones and Dick Wilson. Though Jones and Wilson did excellent work, much of it was predictable: runway tees, wide fairways with bunkering at 260 yards, big greens protected by wave bunkers.

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