New column on TW Design

My new column on Tiger Woods’ attempt to crack the golf design business (oh yes, it’ll be tough to find clients), is now up on Check it out here.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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  • RT….I know what I am talking about.

    The phenomenon of PGA player becoming golf course designer is fairly recent. Yes Jack and Arnold have been at this for the last 20 or so years, but others have only just started. As you also know, great golf courses are not necessarily created but evolve over time. Many of today’s really great golf courses have been around a long time, and the maturing process (the growth of trees, the constant tinkering of the course over time, etc) is what eventually makes great properties. You, however, seem to think that great golf courses are delivered instantly. That is just never the case. Take a look at Golf Digest’s top 100 courses in America. There is no golf course in the top 10 that was designed after 1933. The maturing factor is a really big factor that you discount.

    I don’t think that you recognize that golf courses are a product of a lot of different forces and objectives. Sometimes the very best properties are not necessarily the best properties for golf courses, as the properties selected serve other objectives such as development of housing and hotels. Unfortunately, the architect can only work with the land he is contracted to design. Many times PGA players design courses with multiple objectives in mind. That does not mean that they are bad designers but only that they work with the property they are contracted to design. That also does not mean that the designs are poor. They might be great designs within the limitation of the properties.

    Thirdly, if you use the Golf Digest list as a benchmark you will see the names of Crenshaw, Weiskopf, and Nicklaus. Not bad, particularly if you buy my first argument that golf courses are more a product of evolution. Golf courses tend to become great rather than are born great.

    Finally, you also need to understand that the PGA Tour players turned architect have been restricted by environmental regulations that architects in the first 70 years of the last century didn’t have to worry about. So, again, there is an uneven playing field in terms of not only property choice but what can be done with the property.

    Having said all that, my opinion is that golf course design is largely over rated. The factors that make great courses are property features (ocean, mountains), budget, competing objectives (housing and other development), mother nature, maintenance, and evolution over time, etc. All these factors weigh more on what makes a great golf course than design.

    If you don’t believe me, ask your architect buddes. They will say the same thing. However, the media who don’t really understand the process and business tend to focus all their ink on ‘design’ because it is a sexier topic. Design is a small part of what makes a great golf course.

    So, you guys don’t have a clue.

    Ask some architects. They will confirm what I just said.

  • Alf and Sammy:

    Okay, here we go.

    1) If you look at the Golf Mag world list, there are actually a handful of courses that have been created in the last 20 years that are on the list (Sand Hills, Pac Dunes, Cape Kidnappers).

    I’m not sure what this has to do with anything, or where I said great golf courses should “be delivered instantly.” Find me a place where I’ve said that.

    Surely golf courses evolve, but not always for the better. I think you’ll find some of the best courses (like Pine Valley, Jasper, Banff), were heralded as great from the start. In other cases courses that were once great have been tweaked beyond recognition or have been so overgrown with trees as to no longer resemble the strategies and aesthetics their designers originally envisioned.

    2) If you consider all of the courses with PGA Tour players’ names attached, only Nicklaus, Crenshaw and Weiskopf actually have courses in the Golf mag Top 100. Not bad, of course, but considering how many players have “designed” on great locations only to create average golf, it isn’t a stunning success.

    Finally, this from your comments:

    “Having said all that, my opinion is that golf course design is largely over rated. The factors that make great courses are property features (ocean, mountains), budget, competing objectives (housing and other development), mother nature, maintenance, and evolution over time, etc. All these factors weigh more on what makes a great golf course than design.”

    I’ve spent more than my fair share of time with golf architects over the last 10 years, or my architecture “buddies,” as you say (I’m not sure if you always mean to come across as hostile, but that’s the way most of your comments translate). There is some truth in the fact great sites create great golf. But sometimes great sites (Fox Harb’r, for example) can equal average golf or worse. Beyond that, of course there are a variety of factors in every design. I don’t recall saying there were not (and we’re so far away from talking about TW Design here that this has gotten silly). However, all courses tend to be judged by players in the same way. Golfers don’t really care about budgets, houses, maintenance, etc. What they care about is whether a course is bad, average, good or great. And those factors can contribute to how a course is received, but I don’t believe most people consider a course’s construction budget when they play it.

    We can have an honest debate about this, but saying “you guys,” (whomever that is) “don’t have a clue,” is just ridiculous. I don’t even no who you are (or whether your email works, I’m suspecting you post under a fictious name — nice). But I do have a pretty good clue on this one, though I’m not sure how the debate ended up here.

  • Robert

    A few weeks ago, Tiger mentioned wanting to work on ‘great pieces of land’.

    I think he’s already figured out the most important factor in creating/designing a good golf course.

    I think some Keiser copy-cat will soon offer Tiger that great piece of land, maybe on the California, Oregon or Washington coast.

    I think Tiger will hire/work with a very fine and seasoned designer, quite possibly someone with experience on the Oregon coast.

    I think Tiger’s frst course will be a public one (albeit high-end), and that it will soon be hosting a tour stop or a major championship.

    After that, he may well go the way of Palmer, Player, and Nicklaus, with numbers overriding (for the most part) quality, and with most being private or tied to high-end housing.

    I don’t begrudge him that, though: as much as I want to see more public and affordable courses being built, I don’t see ANYONE building those courses (not even the minimalists/traditionalists, who seem to want every course to be like NGLA or Pine Valley, or Sebonak); why would I hold Tiger to a higher standard than those who claim they care about the future of the game?


  • To get back on the Tiger track…what would happen if Tiger built an affordable public course? Could a revolution be afoot?

    As for the quality of design, how does one determine a good course from a bad one. Anyone who plays a wide variety has their own favourites. Those who stick to 2 or 3 courses don’t know any better and choose their favourite amonf those.

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