Bobby Weed is brainstorming. You can tell he's brainstorming because he's sprawled in a chair with his feet up on a big design table, his hands locked behind his head. If he had a cigarette dangling from his lips you'd think of Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. If he had a tumbler of bourbon within reach, you'd think of Paul Newman in The Verdict.
"Ten years ago," Weed says in his Carolina drawl, "you could just walk into a room, lay out your brand, and say, 'I'm going to help you sell lots.' " He smiles wanly, remembering the halcyon days when residential developers handed out six- and sevenfigure design contracts as though they were business cards. "But that don't fly any more. Golf has such a black eye today that developers are looking for every reason not to build a golf course."
It's a Friday morning at Bobby Weed Golf Design in Ponte Vedra, Fla. Outside, the occasional panel van or SUV pulls in or out of the striped spaces; twisty coconut palms wave in the wind above rooftops. Inside, it feels a lot like a realtor's office on a Sunday. There's no one at the front desk to greet visitors or answer the phone. Nobody is feeding blueprints into the flatbed scanner. No clients are admiring the framed photographs of Spanish Oaks Golf Club ("4th Best New Private Course of 2003"), Timuquana Country Club ("Site of the 2002 USGA Senior Amateur Championship") or StoneRidge Golf Club ("Best Public Course in Minnesota").
"I think the golf course design and construction industry has changed forever," crackles a disembodied voice on Weed's speakerphone. "You look at what's happening at Bonita Bay and other golf course communities where the golf operation is being shuttered or closed. Even when real estate stabilizes, buyers are going to have an inherent fear of golf course communities. You know how it is once bitten, twice shy."
The voice belongs to Chris Monti, Weed's senior design associate. "The bottom line," chirps the speakerphone, "is we'd better not count on building new golf courses any time soon."
Lowering his feet to the floor, Weed rises from his chair and plants his palms on the design table. He stares at the phone. "The day of the 800-unit master-planned community that features a sausage-link golf course routing, that's over. We overbuilt. We exceeded the demand."
It's so quiet in the office that you can hear the hammering of roofers a block away. "Yeah," Monti says.
Thus concludes the Gilded Age of golf course design. Jack Nicklaus, whose reported $2.5 to $5 million design fee for a "signature course" used to be catnip to developers, has laid off staff architects and cut his asking price in some cases to six figures. Rees "The Open Doctor" Jones, who typically built three or four big-budget residential and resort courses per year while mulling over which major-championship venue he would renovate next, now has only one mainland U.S. project on the drawing board. His hypercompetitive brother, Robert Trent Jones Jr., who has designed or remodeled more than 250 courses around the world, has close to a dozen courses under construction in Asia and Europe, but only two going forward in the homeland. A decade ago, the good folks at the National Golf Foundation (NGF) preached that the U.S. would need to open a new course every day to accommodate retiring Baby Boomers and Tigermaniacs. Now they can only watch in dismay as the action shifts to developing countries like China and India, where resort development, rising affluence and golf's new status as an Olympic sport provide more opportunity for growth.
Meanwhile, the American inventory of roughly 16,000 courses is left to weather the storms of banking failure and recession. "There's an undersupply of golfers," says Dr. Michael Hurdzan, senior partner at Hurdzan/Fry Golf Design in Columbus, Ohio. Or to be more precise, there's an oversupply of 7,200-yard "championship" courses by superstar designers like Pete Dye, Nick Faldo, Tom Fazio, Greg Norman, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. "If you go back now and look at the developments going bankrupt, I think you'll see that the big-name designer is part of all those," Hurdzan says. "Those guys got a big fee, spent money like it was water, and left golf courses that are expensive to maintain. They were doomed to fail."
The NGF doesn't monitor distressed golf properties, so you have to do a little digging to check out Hurdzan's claim. Exhibit "A" is last September's collapse of the Bonita Bay Group of Naples, Fla., which had to temporarily close two courses at TwinEagles (one of which hosted the Champions Tour's ACE Group Classic) and then proceeded to default on an initiationfee- refund guarantee, which forced some 8,000 members to raise millions to save courses by Fazio, Nicklaus, Player, Bob Cupp and Arthur Hills. Exhibit "B" is the legal miasma surrounding resort developer Edward Robert Ginn III, who holds the dubious distinction of hosting a PGA Tour event, the 2008 Ginn sur Mer Classic, on a Tom Watson-designed resort course that now is closed two days a week. Exhibit "C" is the millionaires-only Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Mont., where a bad loan sent the resort and its scenic Tom Weiskopf course spiraling into bankruptcy. Exhibit "D" is...well, you get the idea.
Actually, neither NGF statistics nor word-of-mouth convey the true severity of the American golf bust. But consider this: Tom Faziothe most accomplished and acclaimed contemporary golf architectis now playing golf five days a week.
"The rumors are that I've retired, but that's not true," says Fazio, who since November has been teeing it up regularly on a four-course rotation near his winter home in Jupiter Island, Fla. "I have retired from the day-today operation of my company"a tacit acknowledgment that his clients aren't fooled when their calls are diverted to his 31-year-old son Logan. Fazio freely admits that the golf depression has forced him to lay off half of his design team. "My staff was at 24, and now it's 12, what it was before the boom." He shrugs. "There's just not as many projects to do."
That shouldn't be a surprise, given how many projects Fazio has already done. He demonstrated that in October when he invited this reporter to join him for a round near his summer home in Hendersonville, N.C.the gimmick being that we would play three holes on six different Fazio courses in a single day. None of the layouts, which straddle the mountainous border with South Carolina, were built on easy terrain, but any of the six could be offered up as proof of Fazio's claim that the last two decades have produced more great courses than any other period in history. "It has to be the greatest age of course design," he said, as he piloted a golf cart down a perfectly manicured par-5 past three-bedroom chalets. "Not because I happened to live in it, but because we've had unlimited resources"capital, labor, technology"and the accrued knowledge of how to do things." His eyes darted left and right, taking in the bumps and swales.
"But if you look at the numbers now, it's over. We have all this inventory that was built over these decadesbecause of low interest rates or whateverand that inventory is going to take a while to get sold. The boom has become a bust." Applying the brakes, Fazio stopped the cart by his ball, which had found a perfect lie on his perfect fairway. "Nobody has to feel sorry for me. Or for Jack Nicklaus or Pete Dye or Arnold Palmer. We were very well compensated and got the opportunity to build spectacular courses in some spectacular locations. And now we're going to have a hiatus from that." Fazio slid out of the cart, pulled a wedge from his bag, and stared through his thick spectacles at a flagstick planted on one of his perfect greens.
"But that's just life."
Nobody's saying they've built their last course. Jim Engh of Aurora, Colo., whose success with mountain and prairie sites has won him national acclaim, has a job ready to go in Montana and another in the sand hills outside Kearney, Neb. Neither of those projects, however, will pay him what Fazio gives to charities every year. "I thought I had gotten to the point in my career where business would just come in the door," Engh says. "But now we have to fight for our clients."
"Fight" is probably the wrong word. To keep working, Engh has to underbid successful rivals while convincing developers that they'll still get a quality course. The median cost for design and construction of an 18-hole course, he explains to clients, is around $4.5 million. Anything above $5 million is "high end," but if you want to build a Trump-worthy layout on the Bonneville Salt Flats, you'd better get ready to spend millions more for soil, sand, water, pipes, sod, trees, electricity, and the machinery and men to assemble them into a marketable product. "There are $20 million golf courses, easily," Engh says. "Just for the construction."
But there's no longer a demand for those Rolex-quality courses, he points out, because the real estate dive of 2007-08 sharply devalued the lots and houses that line the fairways of both existing and future golf developments. The low-budget course, on the other hand, is starting to look better to developersparticularly if it is, to use the current buzzword, sustainable that is, environmentally friendly and efficient in its use of natural and human resources. "We'll just have to accept less-manicured courses," Engh says, adding, "I think that's fabulous. I like to see a little purple and brown in the grass."
To demonstrate what the next wave of course design might look like, Engh shows visitors around the Four Mile Ranch Golf Club in Canon City, Colo. Completed in 2008 on a design and construction budget of $3.2 million, the 7,053-yard, par-72 public layout is anything but scruffy. Routed through desert foothills, Four Mile Ranch is as green and lush as any Palm Springs resort course. On the practice range, however, golfers smack their warm-up balls from manicured grass to a target field of rocks and gravel that's covered with desert scrub. ("A grass driving range," Engh explains, "is seven to 10 acres that you have to irrigate. That's about 20 percent of your total turf acreage.") In another cost-cutting measure, Engh designed his course with no bunkers, figuring rightly that boulders, pinon groves and arroyos would provide more than enough visual stimulation and strategic hazard for anyone.
The biggest savings, however, came from the developer granting Engh the freedom to route his holes over the most suitable terrain before the housing was sited. The result is a course that meanders over some 200 acres 50 more than the average development coursebut that doesn't have a pricey infrastructure of concrete cart paths and subterranean drains. "We didn't disturb the natural contours, so it drains naturally," Engh says.
Granted, Four Mile Ranch's fairways will be soggy after a storm, and you might not be able to use a golf cart for a day or two. But those are the kinds of concessions that Engh sees golf architects making in the next decade. Instead of installing drains every 150 feet, contractors might space them 300 feet apart. Sod, at roughly 25 cents per square foot, will no longer be the kneejerk solution for grassy banks; the superintendent will stabilize his soil with pre-seeded netting, or a shaper will come in and simply soften the grade with a bulldozer. "Without all the bells and whistles," Engh concludes, "we'll be forced to find creative ways to still provide people with a sensational golf experience."
Engh isn't the only designer who's chanting the "less is more" mantra. "You can't rely on the 7,200-yard, par-72 golf course any more," says Hurdzan, who has long promoted responsible land management. "We should be looking at more 5,400-yard, family-style courses with six sets of tees." Hurdzan recently told a client that he should build a sixhole, sand-greens course. "The game will be healthier if everybody plays," Hurdzan says, "not just the wealthy."
And then there's 77-year-old Bill Amick of Daytona Beach, Fla., gadfly emeritus and former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Way back in 1986, Amick constructed a 4,169-yard course (Eagle Landing, in Hanahan, S.C.) that was specifically designed for the limited-flight Cayman Ball pioneered byironicallyJack Nicklaus. "I still think there's potential for a form of golf that takes less time to play, is more affordable and is not so discouraging for beginners," says Amick, adding with a wry smile, "But no one ever listens." Only now they might. As the housing market began to flame out, one major developer asked Amick to submit a proposal for a course and clubhouse that would be smaller and cheaper than originally planned. "It's not a trend yet," Amick says. "But the number of golfers and the number of rounds played plateaued around 2002. That puts a damper on lavish golf developments."
Asked if the still-lively Asian and Eastern European golf markets could help provide a counterbalance to the doom-and-gloom of most domestic forecasts, both Hurdzan and Amick say yesand no. "There were maybe a hundred courses in China in 2000, there are 300 now, and there will probably be a thousand by 2018," Hurdzan says. "The danger I see is that the developers and golf architects will go out and make the same mistakes in Asia that they made here in North America. They'll build mostly big resorts and private clubs. They won't make it a people's game." If they aren't careful, in other words, the developing countries will replicate the boom-to-bust cycle of a certain Middle Eastern emirate, where lavish golf properties are in dire economic straits. Exhibit "A" is the Greg Norman-designed Earth course, the second of four planned championship courses at Dubai's Jumeirah Golf Estates. Fans at the $10 million inaugural Dubai World Championship in November walked past scores of vacant villasa ghost town of irrational exuberance. Exhibit "B" is Al Ruwaya, the first creation of fledgling designer Tiger Woods. Announced with great fanfare in 2006, the 7,700-yard desert course has yet to move past the mirage stage, with only a few holes completed. Exhibit "C" is...well, you get the idea.
Back at Weed Golf, Bobby Weed reduces his forecast to a sound bite: "We think the next great golf courses will be built over the top of existing golf courses."
Weed accepts that the recession has tripped up Nicklaus, Fazio, the Jones boys and, yes, Weed himself. But the recession will end. The bigger problem, he says, is with the existing U.S. inventory of 16,000 courses. Many of these operations are clubs that have aging facilities, dwindling membership and deed restrictions that don't allow for alternative land use. To survive, they must renew or upgrade their courses, but members are increasingly reluctant to shoulder heavy assessments for capital improvements.
"You're then left with a golf course that doesn't work," says Weed Golf's Chris Monti, "and a piece of land that probably can't be anything else. The result is a bunch of members or home ownersor perhaps the original developerwho are on the hook." To drive home his point, Monti issues a dire warning: "Every deed-restricted golf course community is a potential ticking time bomb."
To cope, Bobby Weed argues, golf architects have to get more involved in the financial and operational aspects of golf. As an example he cites his recent overhaul of the 45-year-old Deltona Club, north of Orlando, Fla. Under its old name, Deltona Golf & Country Club, the housebound and increasingly unsightly track had devolved from private to semi-private to public before falling into the hands of a Virginia investor. "They hadn't had enough money over the years to even clean up the debris from hurricanes," Weed says. "They cut all these pine trees down and just bulldozed them to the side, making the fairways narrower and creating a fire hazard."
Pursuing a philosophy he calls "repurposing," Weed recommended that the Deltona driving range be moved and the sprawling clubhouse, pool and tennis complex demolished to create a 17-acre parcel suitable for development. Weed then got unanimous approval from the city commission to rezone that parcel for 300 age-restricted condos, the sale of which generated enough money to pay for Weed's redesign of the course within its existing corridors. "We gave it a lot of eye candy"most notably the sprawling waste bunkers that give Deltona its high-end look"but we dramatically reduced the costs for irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides. And now they've got a golf course that can compete with anything in central Florida."
So, let's just go ahead and put "repurposing" into the time capsule, along with "cheaper," "shorter," "not so green," "less challenging," "easier to maintain" and "sustainable." In 20 years or so we can dig it up to see if the golf architects of the aughts decade were riding time's arrow or being slain by it.
Tom Fazio, for one, sees the impending period of frugality and downsizing as a logical correction after decades of free-spending by developers. But he's not sold on the idea that golf must become leaner and meaner to survive. "You can buy a Kia for seven or eight thousand dollars," he observed on our scenic drive between two of his Carolina courses. "But how many people buy them? How many people want them? Do we ever go back to the way things were?" He also dismissed the idea that future courses will be as brown and bouncy as a rural landing strip. "Back in the seventies we had this same discussion. There was a recession and costs were going up, so there was an article in a golf magazine: 'Let Your Course Grow Shaggy!' So we did that for a while." He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "But all of a sudden we had growth and development, and everybody forgot about it."
Fazio wasn't trying to deny that the current recession is a "world changer" for the golf industry. "We'll see course closures, we'll see mergers, we'll see some converting from private to public. And then for the next 50 years, we'll probably only add maybe a hundred golf courses a year to the supply. Now, that may sound bad compared to 350 or 400, but still...." His voice trailed off.
What we won't see, Fazio went on, is a window of opportunity for the next generation of course designers, the unremembered heirs of the Gilded Age. "My son Logan is very talented and he's been in the business for 11 years, so he's looking forward to keeping the Fazio name going. But I know so many young people who would love to be in golf design." Fazio shook his head, remembering how he had worked on some 30 courses for his uncle George, and how Dana Fry and others had learned the trade from him. "There's a lot of them, I'm sure, who are out of work."
He sighed. "This downturn is not good for people."
Just then we came through a mountain pass and started our descent into a wide, wooded valley that was a riot of golds and yellows in the afternoon sun.
"But it's good for me," Fazio said, the scenery restoring his customary cheer, "in that I get to play golf."
Just a few miles down the road, he didn't have to add, was a really, really, really good golf course.