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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

In the offices of Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Arnold Palmer, legendary victories over water, wind and earth are celebrated with mounds of minutely detailed topographic maps, photos of emerald green Shangri-las and gushing letters from the likes of Gerald Ford and George Bush. Typically, these are all-business sanctums honoring The Game, decorated with trophies and plaques mirroring golf's de rigueur seriousness, the magic and mysticism of St. Andrews, Pebble Beach and other fabled golfing citadels.  

Another sort of workplace is found in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a Hendersonville, North Carolina, retreat where the otherwise bruising business of golf course architecture takes on a whimsical, rather surprising character. Mistletoe hangs from a vaulted ceiling. Red stockings are draped over a fireplace. Bing Crosby is singing "Silent Night," and instead of the usual encomiums to the designer's artistry, a brightly lit Christmas tree, sparkling with red, green and gold ornaments, towers overhead. There are so few golfing artifacts in this cheery mahogany-and-cherrywood den, visitors would scarcely know they're in the company of arguably the world's preeminent course designer.  

"I'm a Christmas fanatic. I just love Santa Claus and the Yuletide's good cheer," extols architect Tom Fazio, 54 , hitting a switch that immediately fills his library with sounds of Nat King Cole singing "The Christmas Song." But even though dozens of gaily wrapped presents are strewn about the room, the bearded one and his reindeer won't be making an appearance this day. It's only mid-July, what Fazio calls "my warm-up period before I really get serious about Christmas," an obsession his wife and children view with amusement.  

While Fazio may be a bit quirky, a singular personality who turns down invitations to play golf with presidents and refuses to join the parade of American golf course architects working abroad for small fortunes, this dirt devil extraordinaire is not to be laughed at. After styling more than 175 courses, including Steve Wynn's vaunted $60 million Shadow Creek playground in Las Vegas, four Pinehurst layouts in North Carolina, the River Course at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, and Loews's equally celebrated 36-hole Ventana Canyon retreat in Tucson, Arizona, this modest 37-year veteran of golf's designing wars is more than at the top of his game. Now that Donald Trump, Charles Schwab, Peter Ueberroth and Golf Digest magazine are tabbing him for projects, Fazio is walking in the hallowed footsteps of Donald Ross, A. W. Tillinghast and Alister MacKenzie, golf's pantheon of Rembrandts.  

"I'm just having fun and doing a job, blending art with science to produce beautiful places people can enjoy," says Fazio, who despite his penchant for understatement, is buffeted with hundreds of million-dollar job offers annually, and is a three-time winner this decade of Golf Digest's "Best Present-Day Architect."  

"I started as a worker, continue to be a worker, and by no means do I want to bring course architecture to any new level," adds Fazio, sitting next to a desk covered with mounds of paper and an assortment of cigars his clients have sent him. "Yet working at places like my new Forest Course at Pebble Beach [California], the TPC layout in Myrtle Beach [South Carolina], and World Woods in Brooksville, Florida [named one of America's 10 best public courses by Golf Digest's architecture editor Ron Whitten] is still a great adrenaline boost. Golf design is just a creative, neat thing to be doing; for every time I put all the puzzle pieces together and complete a project, I continue to be amazed."  

In a world dominated by glitzy marquee personalities, most of whom have calculated "price point" strategies and grandiose egos, Fazio's low-key professionalism is also amazing. The golf design business, a $150 million-a-year industry that's been spawned by the 400-odd courses in the United States that are built or expanded each year, revolves around the sex and sizzle that's generated to sell pricey real estate, fashionable resorts and $250,000 memberships in exclusive clubs. Nowadays a tony "signature" course costs about $10 million to develop, and rising powers in the trade, such as the PGA Tour, former Blockbuster Video kingpin Wayne Huizenga, and REIT Golf Trust of America, expect the Normans and Nicklauses to exude Hollywood star megavoltage.  

But fluctuating between a minimalist throwback to Donald Ross (who famously promulgated "God created golf holes; it's the duty of the architect to discover them") to a total site manipulator vigorously working the land at such once-featureless expanses as Shadow Creek and Galloway National in Atlantic City, Fazio steers away from the romance spinmeisters use to hype splashy projects.  

While the $1.5 million-a-course Jack Nicklaus flies around the world to stage posh cocktail parties to celebrate grand openings, and the charismatic Robert Trent Jones Jr. likes to compare himself to Mozart and Beethoven, insisting "the land speaks to me, as all my courses are like symphonies with crescendos, lulls, and different rhythms," Fazio is a measured "blue-collar" American Gothic anachronism.  

He stubbornly rejects farflung projects that would take him away from his wife, Susan, and their six children for extended periods (tenaciously wooed for months by a group of Japanese businessmen, he finally spurned their $3 million offer with: "What part of the word 'no' don't you understand?"). Yet even more unceremoniously, he dismisses the slightest notion of his having any larger-than-life talent, vision--or hubris--it takes to confront hostile mountains, deserts and swamps to solve jigsaw puzzles that test varied golfing skills.  


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