So, who should design your golf course?

Corporate Golf World

So, who should design your golf course…Signature designer or course architect…A Nicklaus or a Kyle Phillips? James Norman investigates the very different benefits each brings to a course design project.

When Mark McCormack started to turn Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player into major companies in their own right, one key element of that strategy was a golf design division. It started a trend that today means you can play a Ballesteros, an Els, a Faldo, a Norman, a Montgomerie and even a Woosnam design. Tiger’s first course is only a few years away in Dubai.

Many traditionalists find the principle of the tour pro-turned-designer ‘bad form.’ In their eyes, it is just pure commercialism. The player gives his name to the project; a golf architect does all the work, the tour pro tweaks the design when he sees the project, often with the media in tow, only a couple of occasions before opening. Then when the course opens for the public the pro gets an Oscar for the best impression of a golf architect and receives a big cheque in the process.

Mark Chapleski, who runs the Middle East Division of Troon Golf – the world’s leading golf operations/management company with over 185 courses worldwide – sees it differently; “The debate will always rage on this subject. It’s emotive for the architects. Tour pros have a major role in the development of golf as they are the ‘face’ of the industry to 97% of the golf market. It is highly appropriate for them to be involved with course design. However, the key is to get a good balance between the input of the tour professional and of the design team that works with him. If that balance is off, then some tour pro signature designs can lack quality.

“Because someone is a very good golfer it doesn’t mean he can be a great designer. It takes time to learn the ‘art’ and that is why it is critical for the active tour professional to have a strong design associate working with him, especially when he is still active in his playing career. Having said that, some active players put a lot more heart and soul into the design aspect than others and ultimately that shows in the end product.

“Ernie Els is a great example of a player who is hands on. Here in Dubai, Troon has been working with Ernie Els Design for the past 18 months on The Dunes course at Dubai Sports City and it is turning out fabulously. The Big Easy has made six trips here in total and walked the entire course on several occasions. When course quality combines with a pro’s name, it’s a very strong mix as we have seen with the The Montgomerie, Dubai which is now one of the most popular Troon golf courses in the world”

The best of the tour pro designers is undoubtedly Jack Nicklaus. He has three courses in the Top 100 of the world rankings according to Golf Digest magazine’s 2005 ranking. There is no Faldo, Player, Palmer or Norman in the list. The only other tour pro is Ben Crenshaw, who is widely regarded as a great architect following his work with partner Bill Coore. It is interesting to note that Nicklaus is a member of the Golf Course Architects Society of America, which requires a rigorous application process, and only a handful of players have earned that distinction. So in Nicklaus’s case the line between tour pro designer and architect is truly blurred.

Today there are 255 Nicklaus golf courses worldwide where you can play. There are many more to come. Nicklaus has used his brand cleverly so that there are varying degrees of Nicklaus, from his own signature courses to those designed by his sons or his team. His company even worked in the past on course designs for the likes of Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia. The next “great” Nicklaus design is undoubtedly Monte Rei in Portugal, which opens later this year. It stands a very good chance of becoming one of Europe’s top-ranked courses.

Golf architects are a funny breed; part golfer, part mathematician, part artist. Many are good golfers. Most are not good marketers. Some of them are not keen on tour pros and their involvement in their industry. They are usually the ones who feel that they have not received the recognition that they deserve.

Golf architects rely on the quality of their design for their brand recognition. In the last century, the British led the way: Alister Mackenzie (Augusta, Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne) and his partner Harry Colt (Wentworth, Sunningdale, Royal County Down) were at the fore of this movement. Today the Americans, Pete Dye, Tom Fazio, Tom Doak and Kyle Phillips are the elite. The former two are household names amongst golfers, particularly in the US. The latter two are the next generation who are looking to have a greater international reach than their elders. Amongst many great designers, Dye (81) is famous for his work on Whistling Straits in Kohler and the TPC as Sawgrass. Fazio (62) is famous for Shadow Creek, Pinehurst and Los Cabos, Doak (46) is known for Pacific Dunes and Cape Kidnappers (both in the Top 50 in the World), whilst Phillips (48) is renowned for Kingsbarns and The Grove.

A leading golf architect brings a special dimension to a commercial golf proposition. Put simply, it is all about the quality of the golf course. Yes, they do reach a tipping point where the architect’s name brings certain expectations and recognition. But, at the end of the day, it is all about how the elite of the golf world interpret the design, which then leads to the rest of the golf world usually following suit.

Adds Chapleski: “The great modern course designers do not necessarily come from tour player backgrounds, however it is more difficult and takes them longer to establish themselves as their only avenue to the general public is quality golf design. However, a great golf course design can bring pure integrity to a development without the name of a well-known golfer. The high quality design increases the popularity of the venue and thus the perfect example of this.”

So if you want to build a new course which route is best? Well, a tour pro definitely brings marketing to a design. The argument goes that they also bring incremental revenue. Indeed, according to independent reports, including the Golf Research Group and Norton Consulting, a Nicklaus course generate the greatest returns compared to other named designers, when all measurable aspects such as retail value, memberships and green fees are taken into account. A golf architect brings a pure golf experience which is more about the golf course itself. The golf course then shapes the commercial proposition. In simple terms, it depends on the project.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply