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Golf course architecture is in good hands, but what does the future hold?

Shane SharpBy Shane Sharp,
Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - There could come a time in the not-so-distant future when you are just as likely to tee it up on a course designed by Paul Albanese or Craig Schreiner as you are one wrought by Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus. Sure, you will always be able to sample world class tracks from Tom Fazio and Pete Dye. But you will also be able to test your mettle against offerings from Steve Smyers and Jeff Brauer.

Once the elder statesmen of golf course architecture put away their pencils and topographic maps, it will be up to the next generation of designers to carry on the profession. All they will be expected to do is forge environmentally sound, technically flawless layouts that are simultaneously player friendly and tour ready.

Fortunately for golfers everywhere, there is a solid crop of talented rookies in practice from coast to coast. And these newbies are anything but green. The golf course architecture field is more akin to a Major League Baseball farm system than it is NBA draft. The rite of passage into this venerable profession can take years and there are literally no overnight success stories.

"A young golf course architect is 40-years-old," says John LaFoy, a former president, vice president, secretary and treasurer of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. "You can count them on one hand, the guys that are established in their early 30s. For one thing, there's a lot of schooling. And then there is a long apprenticeship. It is an extremely competitive market out there, and potential clients have to be ready to trust you."

LaFoy, like so many golf course architects, is a student of the game's rich history. He's widely regarded as an expert on Donald Ross and he's renovated courses originally designed by Allister Mackenzie, Robert Trent Jones Senior, Seth Raynor, A.W. Tillinghast, Ross and Charles Blair MacDonald. But as an influential member of the ASGCA he also has a keen eye on the future of the profession.

"One guy I am really impressed with Paul Albanese," LaFoy says. "He was the captain of the Cornell University golf team and majored in golf course architecture. He is a brand new member of the society, and he is one of those guys that left a really good impression on me."

Albanese currently partners with Raymond Hearn in Plymouth, Mich. The duo has design credits in Michigan, Kentucky, the Bahamas, Egypt, New York, and New Jersey. Their Twin Lakes course in the Great Lakes region earned a "Top 10 You Can Play" rating from Golf Magazine in 1997, and their dramatic fifth hole at Mistwood Golf Course in Romeoville, Ill., was an honorable mention in Golf Digest's "America's Best 18 Holes, the New Generation."

"I have heard great things about Paul, but the guy I hear the most about is John Harbottle out west," says architect Clyde Johnston, a long-time member of the ASGCA and former protégé of Willard Byrd. "I also like what Art Schaupeter, who used to work with Keith Foster, is doing. He is very talented. I have read a bunch of stuff about Tripp Davis, and he'll be a good candidate for the association. He is willing to work with any budget, and he's a real good player."

Johnston and LaFoy's list of up-and-coming designers is formidable, yet it still doesn't include white hot names like Tom Doak, Todd Eckenrode and perhaps the youngest and hottest of them all - Scotland's David McLay Kidd. The St. Andrews Links Trust recently announced that Kidd will design a new public access course at the home of golf. Kidd - just 34-years-young -- shocked the golfing world and wowed the critics with his work at Bandon Dunes along the Oregon Coast.

"Rare, fairly rare," says Lakeland, Fla. based architect Ron Garl about Kidd's success at such an early juncture in his career. "But he got a good site, and he got to build a golf course in the style he was used to building."

Garl shouldn't be that surprised at Kidd's success, however, given that he has produced his own honor student in Steve Smyers.

"Now, Smyers is a great player and he's going to be a great one," says Garl.

Smyers body of work is impressive and his credits include three mainstays in GolfWeek's 100 Greatest Modern Courses list: Wolf Run in Indianapolis, Southern Dunes near Orlando, and Old Memorial in Tampa. He also played on the 1973 University of Florida national championship team with Andy Bean and Gary Koch, so the former Gator great has a good idea of how to design a course that challenges low-handicappers.

"Steve Smyers is making a name for himself around the Southeast and so is Stan Gentry, who used to work for Hale Irwin," says Johnston. "Farther west, I think Craig Schreiner is doing good work around Kansas City, Missouri and Pete Dye's right hand man, Tim Liddy is up and coming."

Both Johnston and LaFoy agree that the profession is in good hands. Yet both believe some hard times could lie ahead.

"If you try to get in the business right now, its going to be hard," says Johnston. "There's a slow down in golf and the economy. When I went to work for Willard (Byrd) in 1974 he had laid half the office off by 1975 because of the lack of work. Some of us could face that situation again at our firms."

LaFoy says he's not concerned about the number of young people interested in pursuing an education and career in golf course architecture. He's more pre-occupied with keeping the future talent pool stocked.

"One of the biggest misconceptions about this business is that it is easy," LaFoy says. "If you can draw and have talent, then sure, art is easy. I get letters from car salesmen and computer salesmen who want to be golf course architects, but they might not have talent. Attracting people is easy. The problem is the opposite. Attracting talented people is the challenge."

For the time being, at least, the talent pool is both deep and wide.

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

 
Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Steve Smyers

    Pamela James wrote on: Sep 5, 2010

    What a croc!!! I live at a recently "redisigned" course by Smyers. What he did to a really good course that simply needed reworking of the greens and some drainage was, in my opinion, criminal. He has no concept of retirement communities nor of handicapped players. If he were designing a course strictly for the Phil Mikelson's and Tiger Wood's of the world he might get by. He doesn't however, he designs and renovates retirement courses. If you can't go to the green from a fairway bunker then the design is contrived. When the opening round was played at the "new" course at Plantation Bay Golf and Country Club I remember Fred Funk asking Smyers, "did you design all this", Smyers responded, "yes". Fred then asked him, "what were you on". The combination of an owner who knows nothing about Golf and a designer who thinks the "more sand the better" has resulted in a totally non-playable course here in Daytona Beach. Not what I would call a good designer but more of a "hack".

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