Greg Norman: The Ultimate Globetrotting Golf Course Architect?

Greg Norman: The Ultimate Globetrotting Golf Course Architect?

Almouj Golf at The Wave in Muscat, Oman.
Courtesy of John McKenzie

Seven years ago, Greg Norman told me, “I truly believe that my career was a stepping stone to something else.” I scoffed, even as I was well aware of the Shark’s interests in turfgrass, clothing, wine, luxury yachts and countless other diversions. Golf course design was yet another of those side businesses and in pre-recession days, Norman had the accelerator jammed to the floor. Back in 2006, he had 48 projects in development on five continents. Even with the slowdown, however, Greg Norman Golf Course Design survived — and is prospering anew. Is Norman the ultimate globetrotting designer? Let’s look at the record.

Greg Norman hung his golf course design shingle in 1987. Since then, his company has completed projects in 23 countries. Currently, he has courses under contract and/or development in nine other countries. That’s extremely impressive, not only for this modern era of limited openings, but also for making inroads in non-traditional golf areas, such as Jordan, Panama, Russia and Croatia.

Norman’s portfolio is noteworthy, but he’s not No. 1 for global reach — yet. Certainly, he’s blown (or flown) by the original globetrotting architects, Alister MacKenzie and C.H. Alison (who were actually partners for a brief period in the 1920s). Traveling by boat, MacKenzie was the first truly international architect, leaving his home in England for course projects in Australia and New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada and Argentina and Uruguay. The lesser-known and very underrated Alison was best known as H.S. Colt’s design partner in London, who famously ventured to Japan in 1930 and laid out or influenced that nation’s best courses. Alison handled the bulk of the firm’s U.S. projects, including Sea Island, Kirtland and Milwaukee Country Club and late in his career, added a fistful of South African courses to his ledger.

The most famous globetrotting architect for a generation had to be Robert Trent Jones Sr. Taking advantage of airplanes and his formidable marketing skills, Jones crafted courses in 23 countries over a career that spanned six decades. Averaging 300,000 air miles a year (many, sadly, in the days before frequent flier programs), Jones (or his office) worked in such far-flung outposts as Japan, Colombia and in every civilized country in Europe.

Picking up the globetrotting mantle from his dad was Robert Trent Jones Jr. According to the RTJ2 website, Jones’ firm has existing or ongoing projects in 38 countries, on every continent except Antarctica. Credit Bobby for building the first course in Russia, in 1975, back during the USSR Cold War days.

The Robert Trent Jones II firm is far from slowing down, though it’s been joined in the international arena by two of history’s greatest golfers, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Nicklaus can boast of courses in 36 countries (and in 39 states, just three behind Trent Jones Sr.) Coincidentally, Player designs have also reached 36 countries, and he’s been particularly active in old Eastern Bloc states such as Bulgaria and Poland.

Greg Norman has plenty of years left to catch history’s most traveled designers. Give him credit for bringing championship golf to the Arab state of Oman, where the Almouj at The Wave in the capital city of Muscat is one of the world’s great undiscovered seaside courses. Kudos, too for Norman being the most prolific creator of great courses in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, he falls just short of winning golf’s greatest globetrotter status. When you combine tournament golf and design, that award goes to Gary Player. If we’re talking strictly about design, it’s a virtual tie between father and son, Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jr. If I’m picking just one, however, golf course architecture’s greatest globetrotter is Robert Trent Jones Jr. and his Robert Trent Jones II design firm. If I could, I’d gift them a solid gold bag of airline peanuts.