Tom Weiskopf on design influences, getting sober and the wins that got away: The Golf Magazine Interview

August 25, 2014

It isn't easy living down a nickname like the "Towering Inferno," but Tom Weiskopf is getting good at it. The talented, temperamental 1970s PGA Tour star turned course designer is practically giddy this warm June morning as he plays tour guide at the torn-up TPC Scottsdale Stadium course, which he's sprucing up for a November reopening. At the par-5 13th, Weiskopf shows off the new fairway configuration, complete with relocated bunkers. In a patch of grass near the green, he comes upon an outline of orange spray paint that resembles a coffin. "I wanted to build a St. Andrews–style 'Coffin' bunker at this hole," he says, "and I needed to show the [construction] crew what I meant." To demonstrate, Weiskopf lies down on his back, folds his hands and smiles. He's at peace. This is Terrible Tom Weiskopf? The 71-year-old is having more fun than a kid — a man in his element, completely enamored with the (literally) dirty design process.

After leading a tour of all 18 holes, the 1973 British Open champion sat down with Golf Magazine at Tom's Tavern, part of the Silverleaf Club, one of his many Scottsdale designs. Weiskopf reflected on some of his greatest achievements in public-access design, including Top 100 You Can Play stalwarts Troon North in Arizona and Forest Dunes in Michigan. The conversation veered from Weiskopf's design philosophy to his wildly uneven playing career to his battle with drinking. He also fielded the question of why — with 16 career wins and one major trophy — he's not in the Hall of Fame. If that can't get the Inferno raging, nothing can.

You almost single-handedly reintroduced the drivable par 4 into the vernacular. It's become one of the most anticipated and debated aspects of a modern U.S. Open setup. Where did the idea come from?

I was playing the 1970 British Open at St. Andrews. It occurred to me that under the right conditions, four of the par 4s were drivable: 9, 10, 12 and 18. I thought, wow — how is that any different from a reachable par 5, like the 13th at Augusta National? There's so much freedom off the tees at the Old Course, especially at 9, 10 and 18. I thought, if I ever get into the design business, I'm going to have to explore the drivable par 4.

How many drivable par 4s have you designed?

I've done 66 courses, and each has at least one of them. Drivable par-4s define a Weiskopf design, and they're harder to do than you think. Strategy is involved, both in the full tee shot and the layup. After 28 years of designing them, I've learned that the simple way is to use the largest, most contoured of the 18 greens, where putting, chipping and pitching all could come into play, depending on the pin placement. And if you lay up, I look at [the tee shot] almost like a separate par 3 — say, from 180 yards. The layup shot should be as interesting as the tee shot going for the green.

Which of the drivable par 4s that you've designed are your favorites?

Loch Lomond [the former Scottish Open venue] has a split-fairway drivable hole, the 14th. I like the fourth at Troon Country Club [Weiskopf's first design project, in 1984, with then partner Jay Morrish], which features three greens in one. It's an uphill hole, 290 yards, with no bunkers and a wash to the left. The downhill second hole at Snake River Sporting Club [in Jackson Hole, Wyoming] is a good one. Actually, I think short par 4s fit somewhere in the last four holes, but they work out best when they match the contour of the land. The 17th at Double Eagle [in Columbus, Ohio] is one of my best. Of course, I'll always pick the 17th at the TPC Scottsdale. That's passed the test. It represents a classic risk/reward situation and gives the player plenty of options. So many things can happen, and there are several different ways to play it.

Which architects were your earliest design influences?

Alister MacKenzie made the biggest impression — and no, not with Augusta National. That came later. Ohio State's Scarlet course [where Weiskopf played his college golf] was a bigger influence. MacKenzie was a master of concealment and deception. He concealed pins behind bunkers by flashing the sand up, and he created deception by using big valleys in front of the greens, greens that often sat on top of a hill. MacKenzie courses demand great judgment. His style forced you to play every club in your bag, but any level of golfer could play his courses. I was always fascinated by bunkering. MacKenzie did great bunker work. I adopted his philosophy of using bunkers in three ways: directionally, as an aiming point; strategically, as a hazard to be avoided; and then a third way, also strategic, in which the hazard functions as a "saving" bunker that keeps you from winding up in a worse place, like water or out of bounds. A.W. Tillinghast's bunkering was fantastic. The George Thomas/Billy Bell bunkering at Riviera and Bel-Air was really well done. Of the modern guys, I've always admired Pete Dye, especially the course he did in Columbus, The Golf Club. He's so creative in his strategies, and his obstacles are always in the right place.

Name a course you love but didn't design.

I love the challenges of links golf, and Muirfield is the links I love the most. The continuous change of direction from hole to hole is the primary reason. Before Muirfield, other links were usually nine out and nine back, and if the wind shifted or the tide changed, you might get stuck with the same wind the entire round. At Muirfield, you can get a different wind for all 18 holes. Great courses have great balance, and there you've got maximum variety, with most of the holes going in opposite directions. And you see almost everything at Muirfield, with few blind shots. You've got nice changes of elevation, great bunkering, natural features, and it's a great walk. The course offers the perfect balance between toughness and forgiveness. As many holes go right to left as left to right, so it doesn't favor one type of player. That's the ultimate championship test.

It's been said that Jack Nicklaus designs courses that suit his playing style. True in your case?

I hope not. I try to keep a balance to the course. There should be as many bunkers on the left half of the course as on the right. It shouldn't favor one type of player. When I design, I don't get caught up in the way I play. I aim to provide playability, maintainability, memorability and versatility. The course should be challenging but fair, with minimal duplication of strategy. And I feel that the green size should be relative to the shot requirement. It's all about balance.

On the topic of your playing style, your high point was 1973. From May to July, you racked up five wins, including the British Open at Troon and a third-place finish in the U.S. Open. How would you describe the quality of your play that summer?

For the first time, I knew what Jack Nicklaus felt like for 20 years. The game was easy, fun. I was relaxed. It all started at Colonial [where Weiskopf won in mid-May]. I had unbelievable confidence, and I kept working, pushing. I had inspiration. My dad had died that March, and I felt like I'd let him down [with my play]. He had given me so much. I would talk to him occasionally on the course that summer, after he was gone, when things weren't going as well.

You were one of the longest drivers — the Bubba Watson or Dustin Johnson of your day. Is that why you were so in command at Troon?

I was driving it so well. I always went over a week before the British. They had hard, baked, bouncy conditions. Troon was a great driving course, but I didn't feel comfortable laying up all the time, winding up in the same spots that everybody else did. Then the rain came on the Sunday before the tournament. It rained every day after that, which fit my game perfectly. I could use driver. It played into my strengths. I was the first guy to win wire-to-wire in 40 years. The only time I got nervous was on the very last green. My caddie, Albert Fyles, told me, "You've got to two-putt to tie the great one." Arnold Palmer had the record at 276. I had a 30-footer and a three-stroke lead, so I wasn't worried about losing. I was thinking about the record. I just didn't want to three-putt. I putted it to 30 inches, and that's when I got nervous. Somehow, I knocked it in.

You must have a fondness in your heart for that course. You used to have a vanity license plate that read TROON, right?

Yes, I had it for years in Ohio and Arizona. I gave it to my son, Eric, on his 30th birthday.

You won six more Tour events after 1973, but never again with the dominance you showed that year. What happened?

I was hurt in '74. I had tendinitis in my left thumb and developed some bad habits trying to compensate for it. It affected me the first three months of that year. I tried medications, but they bothered my stomach. It took about six months, but I did play well that summer, and I had a really good year in 1975, with two wins. Why didn't I dominate after that? I don't know. I had trouble dealing with the fame. I had a hard time dealing with the press. My attitude was, "Just leave me alone — you don't need to know every detail about me." I didn't like the attention, people coming up to me when I was in a restaurant with my family. I guess I felt the pressure of finally becoming the player, the person, I wanted to be.

Referring to your playing career, you once said, "I didn't utilize the talent God gave me." Why do you think you underperformed?

Golf was never the most important thing. It was an avenue to get me to the things I really enjoyed. Customized shotguns and rifles, the finest scopes — golf led me there. Also, it was my personality. I just wasn't driven. When you realize what it takes to play the game properly, it's too late. My problem was that I wanted to play perfectly. Nobody can be perfect. If I shot 66 or 65 but played sloppily, it didn't mean much. I wanted to hit the required shot every time. I couldn't stand mediocrity.

With 16 wins, including a British Open — plus a Senior major and a successful design career — how much does it irk you that you're not in the World Golf Hall of Fame?

It's something I can't control, and I made up my mind 10 years ago that I'm not going to worry about things I can't control. All I know is that the guys I played with and competed against — I earned their respect. In my day, I was the fourth leading money winner of all time, one of the best players out there. That's all you can do.

Which bothers you more — not being in the Hall of Fame or not winning the Masters?

Give me the Masters over the Hall of Fame. I know I had those four [runner-up finishes] in the Masters, including that famous one in '75. But I was only close to winning two of those. The U.S. Open was the one I really wanted to win. That was the more important tournament to me. I had a great run, with four consecutive top-4 finishes from '76 through '79, but I couldn't get it done. Winning is what it's all about. You talk about guys like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan as athletes who want to win every single time. Well, so did Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Raymond [Floyd], Hale [Irwin]. Trust me, they wanted to beat you bad.

How did your career as a player influence your career as an architect?

I wouldn't be the designer I am if I wasn't the player I was. I have a photographic memory for golf. I saw the greatest players play their shots on the greatest courses and witnessed the rewards for a properly played shot. I learned from that.

How did your temper come to define you and your career?

If you play well, the media will get to know you. The media figured there had to be a reason I didn't look happy when I hit a bad shot. It had to be because I had a temper, right? But my reactions weren't from temper — just absolute frustration. Sure, I threw clubs. I threw them in college, too. I stuck my club in the ground plenty of times on Tour. But my frustration was directed internally to me. I'm not a mean guy, not an angry guy. I am a moody person, though. Always have been. I was honest and outspoken, open and up front. Maybe that was the trouble.

You quit drinking in 2000. Would you have won more if you had given it up earlier?

No doubt. Nothing good ever comes out of drinking too much. It affects your nervous system, your stamina, strength, decision-making. Bad things happen when you've exceeded your limit. I knew I had a problem. I just never had enough moxie or courage to do something about it. If you're not sure if you have a drinking problem, you have a drinking problem. It was a gene passed down. My dad was an alcoholic. His brother died from cirrhosis of the liver.

What was the turning point when you decided to give up alcohol for good?

The morning of January 2, 2000 — not January 1, mind you, I was still hungover from New Year's Eve — I woke up at my place at the Yellowstone Club in Montana. Back in the day, a cheeseburger, a chocolate milkshake and two or three aspirin was my hangover cure. I just looked at the mountains and said, "Why do I do this to myself?" Everything bad that had happened in my life was caused by drinking. I'm in this beautiful place, and I said, "I'm not going to do this anymore. I'm going to take up skiing. I'm going to start this afternoon." It was a difficult six months. Then one night, I was at this bar. It's closing time, and my buddies are bouncing off the walls, acting like idiots. And I thought, "I've been one of those guys." I've never had a sip of alcohol since.

You've seen many great swings, and you're known for speaking the truth. So who wins in a match between Jack and Tiger, at their best?

Tough question. It's close. I played only once with Tiger, back in 2003 or 2004. He's extremely impressive, the most impressive player I've seen since Nicklaus. They're similar in so many ways: long off the tee, terrific with long irons. Tiger gets the edge with the wedge and short game, Nicklaus the edge with the putter and course management. I've never seen anybody except Nicklaus and Hogan hit the best-percentage shot all the time. Tiger was more aggressive, bolder, even reckless, but he could get away with it, because of his superior short game. It depends on who picks the course. I'll take Jack in a playoff.

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