CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Todd Jester has a business administration degree from Ole Miss and a landscape architecture degree from Mississippi State. Aside from being dreadfully confused about who to root for in the state's annual Egg Bowl (Bulldogs vs. Rebels), this educational background has given him a refreshingly honest approach to golf course design.
"I look at golf as a business and I try to create value for the owner," Jester says by phone from his three-man office in Jackson, Miss. "I think I could build a top ten golf course for the raters, but you still have to get golfers through the gate. I am basing my work on trying to create a quality experience and an entertaining experience for the golfer and a profitable experience for the owner. I don't care what anyone says, we are in the entertainment business."
The 35-year-old Jester developed his business and design philosophies working for Palmer Maples, Jerry Pate and Jack Nicklaus. He credits Maples for giving him his start in the business, Pate for showing him how to look at the big picture, and Nicklaus for teaching him the importance of vision and strategy.
Jester recently hung his own shingle, appropriately dubbed Jester Design. He has a cozy office, a burgeoning client list and even a business development partner named Tom Sawyer (the sign of a charmed life if you were born and raised in the Delta state).
But it wasn't always so glamorous.
Jester was convinced the best way to approach golf course design was to first learn how to build and maintain one first. While attending classes at Mississippi State, he worked on the maintenance crew at Old Waverly in not-so-nearby West Point.
"I'd wake up at 5 a.m. and mow the greens, get to class by nine and then be back to the course to rake bunkers that afternoon," Jester says.
His work ethic and diligence paid dividends by his senior year at State. The Nicklaus Design Group offered Jester an internship with its design production team in North Palm Beach, Fla. He accompanied the Golden Bear to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to assist with the design of Punta Mita where he learned a thing or two about optimism.
"I am looking at this rock outcropping wonder how in the heck we are going to route a hole through it and Jack just takes one look and lays it all out for us," Jester says. "In his mind, he doesn't see obstacles, he sees potential."
The internship eventually led to a full time position with the Golden Bear's design shop. In 1998, Jester returned home to Mississippi to serve as the design coordinator for Grand Bear Golf Club at the Grand Casino in Gulfport. The signature Nicklaus spread is often credited with putting the Mississippi Gulf coast on the golfing map. The course's setting amid the haunting cypress wetlands of the Biloxi and Little Biloxi rivers has made Grand Bear one of the most sought-after rounds on the South Coast.
This despite a major meteorological setback during its construction.
"What most people don't realize is that we had Hurricane George come through while we were doing it and it took out 3,000 pine trees," Jester says. "It was actually intended to be a much tighter golf course and Jack wanted it to have a parkland style setting. When you get on the back side, the routing is the same but some of the shaping had to change."
Grand Bear was to be Jester's final project with Nicklaus. As the course reached completion, Jester was introduced to Pate and accepted a position as his senior design associate and construction manager. He worked for Pate for three years and was an integral part of such award-winning designs as Ol' Colony Golf Club in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Rancho La Quinta Country Club in La Quinta, Calif.
"Jerry has as much talent as anyone in the business but he gets overlooked because he was such a solid player," Jester says about Pate, who won the 1976 U.S. Open, served as an analyst for ABC, CBS and the BBC throughout the '90s and now plays on the Champions Tour.
Pate and Jester were two peas in a pod - a couple of Southern boys looking to design good golf courses for good clients, all while having a good time doing it. But just as Pate dabbled in projects outside of his native southland (he hails from Alabama), Jester has turned his attention to the West Coast.
"There's just not a lot of high end stuff here in Mississippi so I have focus on the West Coast," Jester says. "The Gulf Coast is extremely hot, what with all the casinos and the population growth. But to be honest, I have been so wrapped up in California and Jackson I haven't been able to pursue much down there."
To wit, Jester's two most recent projects were in California. He designed a new short game practice area and renovated two holes on the East nine at the venerable Los Angeles Royal Vista Golf Club. At the Jack Tone Golf Club in Ripon, Jester renovated the course's 16th, 17th and 18th holes.
While he's yet to sink his teeth into his first solo, 18-hole design, the time is drawing near.
"I am so early in my career some of the things I have going will take a while to pan out," he says. "I am working on a project here in Mississippi trying to fit a golf course and development into a 275-acre piece of land. It is a challenge, but with New Urbanism we managed to fit 310 lots in there with zero lot lines. I enjoy the land planning aspect of it as much as anything."
Lives: Jackson, Miss.
Looks like: Christopher Reeve
Favorite designers other than Jerry Pate and Jack Nicklaus: Donald Ross and Jay Morrish
Fast Fact: Due to confusion over Ole Miss/Mississippi State allegiance, refuses to attend the annual "Egg Bowl" grudge game on Thanksgiving Day.
January 11, 2004
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.
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