The Good Life

A Master By Design: Tom Fazio

From Shadow Creek to Pinehurst, Tom Fazio Has Sculpted Some of America's Most Imaginative Golf Courses
| By Edward Kiersh | From 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.  

"A lot's been written about my designing holes on scraps of paper, drawing layouts on napkins, 'revolutionizing' course architecture; but forget it, that stuff is just media smoke," says Fazio, who's known for styling dramatically aesthetic courses that are still forgiving enough even for average players.  

"What I really do is to first analyze whether a piece of land is good or bad. I don't immediately see golf holes with bunkers, greens, etc.. Instead, I see a piece of paper that has natural contour lines on it, that has restrictions, property lines on it; then I start to think, 'Where do the holes go? If they have elevation, valleys, how should [they] be sculptured, and where [should] the green settings or tees be?' Determining where holes fit the best is easy, like breathing to me. I just do it, for it's life, living, surviving.  

"There are times, though, when a piece of land is extremely flat, as with Shadow Creek, when I have to dramatically change nature, create a whole new exciting environment. Land preservationists might not like my imposing my will on nature, but if I can create grand golf, courses with true variety and beauty, I'll work to change the land. I'm still the traditionalist who doesn't believe in gimmicks like railroad ties, moving a lot of earth if avoidable, any trick or deception that's just too penal in nature. I believe in a redemptive view of mankind, a tolerance which punishes golfers, but is forgiving enough that when they make mistakes they're not sent into Dante's inferno of oblivion."  

These commandments roughly serve as Fazio's golfing catechism, for there is no overriding theme at such diverse works as PGA National in West Palm Beach, Florida, and The Vintage Club in Indian Wells and The Quarry at La Quinta, both in California.  

"I've long admired Tom's artistic work," says fellow course-designer legend Pete Dye. "He runs the greatest organization in the business, and does courses that are just terrific." Golf Digest, which has honored nine of his courses in its "America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses 1999-2000," writes that "the regal settings of Fazio's designs, relying on ornate blends of woods and waterscapes, provide instant charm."  

Yet even though sages are quick to bless him as a natural, Fazio originally came to golf under duress. As a thin, frail child growing up in a blue-collar family in Norristown, Pennsylvania, he wanted no part of golf's proverbial torments, the drudgery of carrying his Italian father's clubs every Sunday, and worst of all, the pungent smells of Dad's DeNobili cigars that filled the 1949 Ford on the way to the course.  

"Boy, were those black things smelly," Fazio recalls with a grin. "As a kid, getting green and dizzy from that smoke, I wasn't too excited by cigars. Or with what awaited me at the course, my pulling those heavy clubs around after having to sit through another Sunday mass."  

His ardor for golf wasn't exactly heightened at family gatherings when relatives railed against Uncle George Fazio, who played the tour in the late 1940s and early '50s with modest success. Known for hanging out with showbiz types and "playboys" like golfer Jimmy Demaret at Los Angeles's fabled Hillcrest Club, George was branded the family's black sheep. Yet by the time Tom was in high school, he was spending his summers working for him, pulling weeds and raking bunkers at Philadelphia-area courses that his uncle was building.  

Having "no clue" as to what he wanted to do for a career, Tom was immediately molded into shape by his taskmaster uncle. "George would always tell me, 'Forget girls, they'll get you into big trouble.' Yet who had time for fooling around?" wonders Fazio. "While a good person, he constantly pushed me to excel. He was ambitious, the lovable dreamer always fantasizing about great projects, and while I bought into those hopes, the guy was tough. He'd remind me every day, 'Don't forget, make sure you work until dark tonight.' "  

Whether it was pouring asphalt, moving earth with a bulldozer, or eventually handling all of the company's finances, Fazio learned his lessons well at such Pennsylvania projects as the Waynesborough Country Club, Chester Valley and Moselem Springs Golf Course (in Reading) during the mid-1960s. Given "a great deal of responsibility early on," as his uncle "wasn't much of a details person," Fazio, barely out of his teens, steered the fledgling company towards success.  

"It was shoot from the hip in those crazy days," says Fazio, "since with the lack of environmental and insurance limitations, there was a lot more room to improvise and to leave your mark."  

Though paying the phone and credit card bills was still a juggling act, the Fazios soon became known for fashioning attractive courses that were profitable for their developers. As one of their early patrons says, "The Fazios came up with a budget, and no matter what, they stuck to it."  

But the Fazios weren't only solving drainage problems and routing holes in the 1960s. Once the company started to show a profit, Tom, though still feeling he was "a country bumpkin," was dispatched around the United States to meet with well-known prospective clients. On one jaunt to Los Angeles, he joined his uncle at Hillcrest, and somehow managed to resist all sorts of "fancy cigars" in the company of George Burns, Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers. It wasn't until 1967, while in Las Vegas, that his cigar education finally took a more hands-on turn.  

"Not knowing a thing about gambling, I ventured into a casino and stumbled across this tall Texan who was piling up the chips," Fazio delightedly recalls. "The guy kept winning, so I started to put my chips wherever he put his. I won, too, and feeling drunk on success, I immediately bought this big cigar in a glass tube. Up until then, I'd only been smoking those wooden-tip things, Hav-A-Tampas, so I wasn't too experienced in the finer things of life. I puffed and puffed, and nothing came out. This Texas guy, who undoubtedly thought I was crazy, then bumps me on the shoulder and says, 'Sonny, you're really making me nervous. Why don't you try biting off the end of that sucker?' "  

Overcoming his embarrassment, Fazio went on to buy "real cigars" in drugstores (mostly glass-tubed maduro panetelas) and to turn down DeNobilis or other "small, Italian ropes" that were constantly offered to him by Philadelphia contractors. "A good cigar, whatever the brand, came to signify true relaxation to me, a wonderful, transcendental feeling which was always uplifting."  

Though quickly dismissing any great knowledge about cigars, Fazio smoked at job sites, in his car on the way to meetings "to help me gather my thoughts," and invariably with friends over cocktails. His new, pricier cigar habit also reflected the Fazios's improving finances, as they parlayed their reputation for sticking to budgets into a thriving business.  

"The course which really gave us a big lift and launched us into the 1970s was Jupiter Hills [north of Palm Beach]," says Fazio, who opened an office near the project in the late '60s that is still maintained today. "Along with the glamour of Palm Beach, which always captures widespread attention, my uncle did the course in collaboration with his friends Bob Hope and William Clay Ford, two great guys who gave us the freedom to sculpt, twist the land, to do real art."  

Fazio has since styled masterpieces throughout Florida, including courses at Black Diamond Ranch, Pelican's Nest, Osprey Ridge, Pablo Creek, Jonathan's Landing and the Long Point Golf Club. But it was at Jupiter Hills, a 366-acre expanse with loblolly and sand pines, and sweeping elevation changes, where his bold imagination first flourished and dazzled a growing group of media golf course critics.  

As Bradley Klein raved in Links magazine in 1996, "What remains most memorable about Jupiter Hills is how easily the bunkers fit. The Fazios built a number of shapes into their traps--butterflies, flashed ovals, and cloverleafs. By cutting the bunkers into the native slopes, the Fazios were able to soften the feel of uphill climbs while avoiding blind shots altogether. The design team also utilized native dunes vegetation to offset the dense tee areas, fairways and greens. Here was dramatic evidence of what has come to be called 'the Pine Valley look'," in tribute to the short course at Pine Valley in New Jersey that Tom Fazio designed in 1990.  

The Fazios continued to score triumphs at Butler National near Chicago (1972), Bay Tree Golf Plantation in Myrtle Beach (1973) and the National Golf Course outside Toronto (1974). But since golf architecture lacked the mystique it holds today, George grew increasingly interested in real estate development, and left the design business to Tom.  

"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."  

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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