The Gilded Age of golf course design is dead

January 23, 2010

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 Fazio—the
most accomplished and acclaimed
contemporary golf architect—is 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 decades—because
of low interest rates or whatever—and
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
developers—particularly 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
course—but 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
by—ironically—Jack 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 yes—and 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 villas—a 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 owners—or perhaps the original
developer—who 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.