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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

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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."  
Once 2.8 million cubic yards of dirt were moved, natural-looking ridges and other elevation changes created, and 21,000 mature trees planted, Wynn opened his dramatic, much-heralded Shadow Creek showpiece in 1990. Golf Digest soon added the private paradise with rocks, imported animals and waterfalls to its Top Ten list. (To play the course, you must rent a suite at the Mirage or Bellagio hotels and pay the $1,000 greens fee.) Bradley Klein, extolling the course's "stunning vertical transitions--213 feet in all," compared Shadow Creek to a "desert mirage, a theatrical set piece," while Michael Jordan paid Fazio the ultimate compliment: "You do so much great work, I'm going broke joining all the clubs with your signature."   Now that his name was gold-plated at the heady pinnacle of the profession alongside Nicklaus and Pete Dye (designers he greatly admires), Fazio had ample reason to celebrate Wynn's offer to style another course in Biloxi, Mississippi. But did he light a victory cigar?  
"That's just not me," insists Fazio. "While Shadow Creek never fails to amaze me, as it looks like it's been there forever, it was still just another job. Besides, even if cigars should be treated as a reward, I like to enjoy them in the privacy of a few close friends or by myself to savor the moment.  
"Maybe I'm again the conservative for thinking this way. Cigars just shouldn't be an everyday thing. They're peaceful, symbolic of inner joy. Yet I also feel guys should have the freedom to smoke in restaurants or bars as long as it doesn't bother anybody else. Cigars are one of life's true pleasures, and there's no need for any smoke or health police."  
Though Fazio rarely smokes around his three sons and three daughters, who range in age from 14 to 22, he enjoys unwinding with cigars and whiskey among his closest pals at biannual dinners in Philadelphia. "We've established a Port Society, 30 of us, which has given us the excuse to play golf, get the best Cuban Montecristos, or Cohibas if we can, have this fancy black-tie dinner, and drink until the late hours," Fazio says with a grin. "While I do everything possible to get home every night from job sites [owning a Grumman Commander helps him in this regard], this is one event I never miss. It's a time for sharing stories over great cigars, and bonding, being with special friends."  
After reminiscing about these occasions, Fazio switches on another Christmas tape and walks through his sprawling, 20-room house set on 110 acres outside Hendersonville. "All of this happened because golf's been very good to me," he says. "There's nothing I want or aspire to having. Yet I would like to be transported back in time to sit down with Donald Ross to talk about architecture. He was such a genius when it came to detailed shaping and sculpturing."  
Golf design is not Fazio's only passion. He has established the Hendersonville Boys and Girls Club (a home for about 400 disadvantaged youngsters), and often does renovation projects in return for a donation to the charity. Stories also circulate in the golf world about his doing work for certain clients and never sending them a bill.  
"While I love golf design, I have to do something to help all the kids out there who need guidance and opportunities," says Fazio. "That's my dream, to get all of my rich friends involved in doing something for these children. This won't be a piece of cake like designing courses. But I'm still confident we can enrich their lives, help some of them lead the same American Dream life I've enjoyed."  
Meanwhile, Fazio continues to design some of America's top golf courses. In recent years, he has completed such projects as Maroon Creek in Aspen, Colorado (1994), Estancia in Scottsdale (1996), a TPC course in Myrtle Beach, which opened this February, and The Stock Farm for financier Charles Schwab in Hamilton, Montana, which was set to open in August.   The Myrtle Beach layout was a joint venture between the PGA Tour and Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, an organization that offers golf packages to the resort area. The project is likely to win international recognition, predicts developer Tom Baugh. "Tom is a Picasso who'll be remembered in 50 years as one of the great architects," says Baugh, "for he has this rare gift of making bunkering, subtle green contouring, landforms; all the colors blend together. Just give him a blank canvas and he'll work spellbinding magic."  
Fazio laughs at the suggestion that his work will stand the test of time, insisting that "design is not a fixed art. Though courses are done, conditions change. Environments evolve. Golf design isn't the Mona Lisa or the David," Fazio says, "and if my courses have to be tweaked, so be it. My ego isn't out there."  
He still hopes to weave other bewitching masterpieces at the Forest Course on the Monterey Peninsula near Pebble Beach, an environmentally sensitive project that has already occupied him for eight years ("it might be another six before we deal with all the regulatory issues"), and at Golf Digest's 18-hole, 2,300-acre site in northern Palm Beach County.  
"It's a homecoming of sorts for me, and because there's so much glitz attached to working in Palm Beach for Golf Digest, this project has to be special," says Fazio. "Now I only hope this facility signals another chapter in my evolution as a designer, one that carries me into the next century."  
This new "chapter" begins in earnest once his three remaining children at home leave for college over the next four years. Relishing the thought of enjoying "all sorts of new freedom," he's looking forward to working in the Far East and Europe, and to completing another 100 courses. "I'm only 54, I'm just getting started. In four years, I'll have no self-imposed limitations. I intend to meet more neat clients, to enjoy cigars and whiskey with them, and to be part of golf's Golden Age."      
Edward Kiersh is a freelance writer based in Florida and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.
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