Bob Cupp is a golf course architect extraordinaire, author, artist, furniture maker, ex-golf pro, and a very funny guy. In this wonderful interview, Bob talks about his years working for Jack Nicklaus Design, striking out on his own to create some unforgettable golf courses, and his take on the future of golf and course design. Several weeks after this interview was conducted, I drove to Bob’s home outside of Atlanta. He took me to lunch at his club and then we played a round of golf together at a course he re-designed. It was quite a treat to hear about all the changes directly from the source. However, much of Bob’s chatter occurred during my back swings and for this, I shall never forgive him.
Golf Conversations: Where did you grow up? What did your parents do for a living?
Bob Cupp: My youth was split between south Florida and central Pennsylvania. Because my Dad was a car dealer (for 55 years in Lewistown, PA), we traveled back and forth so he and Mom could play golf. He was a pioneer snowbird. My mom was also a player and a homemaker. Both were club champs.
GC: Did you play golf as a child?
BC: There were movies of me swinging a club at age 18 months.
GC: At a municipal course?
BC: We played all over the place, sometimes at private clubs and sometimes on publics.
GC: Did your parents encourage you to play golf?
BC: It was never a question. If there was a ball involved, I would play it. I played everything. I was a bit of an oddball in Lewistown since most of the kids did not play, which never bothered me. The funny thing is, they all play now.
GC: Were you good at the game?
BC: In my idealistic youth, I was a golf professional from 1967 until 1972, but I could not play well enough to compete with the talent of the day and was beginning to realize it.
GC: Did you take lessons or were you a “natural”?
BC: As a little kid and later from my peers. I was an athlete. A natural? Probably not.
GC: Did you break par at a young age?
GC: You went to the University of Miami; were you interested in a golf career at that point?
BC: No. I was a baseball player.
GC: What was your major at UM?
BC: Art, minored in music and history.
GC: You were a golf professional for a while; please explain how this came about?
BC: I was the art director at an ad agency in Miami at the time. I worked on a campaign for a privately owned public course. It might have been one of the first sales-oriented, pro-quality equipment programs ever.
My fee was 1% of the net and playing privileges, the latter being my real goal. The ads struck a nerve and the inventory went from less than $15,000 to more than $200,000. It was a home run. After a year, the course owner told me he could not pay the 1% because I would be making more than him. So he offered me the job of running the shop. By this time, I knew the teaching cadre very well, and my game was in good shape. It was he who talked me into becoming a golf professional.
GC: What was it like being a golf pro in Florida in the early 60s?
BC: Comparatively unsophisticated.
GC: Did you work at a private club?
BC: Eventually, yes, but I started at the public course first.
GC: When you gave lessons, did you have a particular instruction theory?
BC: The basics: mostly about being calm and letting the club do the work and trying to bring the club to the ball from the inside – or, as Jack used to say, “Hit up on it.”
GC: You came of age in the era of golf’s “Big 3”: Palmer, Player & Nicklaus. Did you have a preference among the three?
BC: I told my dad after I started doing design work around Miami and before the Nicklaus days, that the only player I would ever consider working with was Nicklaus, which would eventually take a very strange turn into reality. I had no idea what would eventually happen.
GC: Were there other touring pros that you admired or tried to emulate?
BC: Not really, but I really enjoyed the different swings in those days, and there were many.
GC: I understand that you also did a stint in the Army.
BC: Yes. I started out as an infantry second lieutenant, moving up to first lieutenant. I was moved to the Brigade level whereupon I also found myself transferred to the Adjutant General’s branch, working as the Brigade Assistant Adjutant.
One of my duties was to research and produce documents about the Army’s role in Alaska beginning with its 1867 purchase. (The Alaska Centennial was right around the corner.) This work eventually spawned my graduate project, twenty-four paintings — three by four feet — and four murals, four by eight feet. Some of them were still hanging in various government buildings as late as ten years ago. I would give a lot to have some of them back if they still exist. All I have are photos.
GC: When did you realize that you wanted to be a golf course architect?
BC: In all honesty, I did not become obsessed in earnest until I was first asked about doing a project for a man who knew I could both draw and play. It was a little par sixty on sixty acres and it played a gazillion rounds until it was finally plowed under for more houses. But it led to more projects and eventually to Jack Nicklaus.
GC: Did you seek out advice from other architects, golf pros, etc.?
BC: Yes. I knew [golf course architect] Ron Kirby well because his dad, Paul, and Paul’s wife, Alice Ballinger, were instrumental in getting me into the game. Ron worked hard for almost two years to convince me to work for Robert Trent Jones. I wanted to be independent, but when Nicklaus called, well, that was just over the top. I had to do it. I would have never been cheeky enough to call him, but a friend of mine (John Underwood), a senior editor at Sports Illustrated, had just done an article on Jack. It was he who told Jack about me and the next thing I knew, Jack was on the phone. I was flabbergasted.
GC: Why did you decide to study agronomy at Broward College?
BC: It was my greatest weakness. I wanted to know how it all worked. It helped a lot.
GC: What was the golf course architecture industry like when you left Broward College?
BC: I knew about the American Society of Golf Course Architects but also had heard they were not exactly nice to each other the way we are now. It is now a truly fraternal (women, too) organization that has a very high standard of honor.
GC: What did you do from 1968 until you joined Jack Nicklaus in 1972?
BC: I was designing a golf course for the military at Homestead Air Force Base and another near Doral called Costa del Sol (and there is not enough dynamite to blow it up). I was also planning several others including two in North Carolina.
GC: How did the call to join Nicklaus come about?
BC: I was sitting in my construction shack on the fourth fairway at Costa del Sol and he called. His voice was immediately recognizable. I almost fell off the stool. I was alone and there was a dragline running nearby. Funny how that is so vivid, but the year is a blur.
GC: Had you known him already?
GC: What did he say to you?
BC: That he wanted to start his own firm and he needed someone to draw plans. He hired Jay Morrish and me. Jay had been working for Desmond Muirhead who had a partnership with Jack at the time. I was to be the inside guy for planning and Jay the outside guy for construction. We were both titled Senior Designer and we worked like brothers for twelve years. We are still very close. I have always admired Jay’s style and his knowledge.
GC: Were you interviewed several times before getting the job?
BC: No. Jack gave me some work to do after our first meeting.
GC: Did you play golf with Nicklaus as part of the interview process?
BC: Nope. Not necessary.
GC: Do you remember what your salary was the first year you worked for Nicklaus?
BC: Not sure. I think it was around $20,000.
GC: What were some of the first courses you worked on with Nicklaus?
BC: Our first projects were Muirfield Village and La Moraleja in Spain.
GC: Were there other designers working for Nicklaus besides you?
BC: Just Jay Morrish.
GC: What was Nicklaus like as a boss? Demanding? Difficult? Generous? Did he keep track of the postage stamps?
BC: There is a very long answer, or you can have the short one to the above, which is yes. But the most meaningful trait to all of us who have been lucky enough to be around him, even up to the present, is his loyalty to us. It is something that has never been touched on in the trillions of words written about him. To a man, even when we had done something stupid, we were ready to walk through fire for Jack Nicklaus. What is interesting is that Jack doesn’t try to be that way, he just is.
GC: How much did Nicklaus know about the “nuts and bolts” of golf course architecture when you joined his firm?
BC: From the very beginning, he was consumed with knowing. It was not difficult to see why he became a great player. He devoured details, learned from us, and we did the same on tactical ideas coming from him. I dare say, if somebody handed him a topographic map, he would be at home with scale and routing templates and could eventually produce a set of plans.
I can only name two other players who could do that: Tom Kite and Mark McCumber. Others can do some of it, but Jack knew a good drawing when he saw one and knew good stuff in the dirt. On the way back from a murderous weekend of approving greens for Bear Creek, Castle Pines, Annandale and Kiawah, Jack did something I would defy anybody to do. As Jay and I held the greens plans so Jack could not see them, he described every detail of every green in succession, seventy-two of them. If anybody says he was a figurehead in those days, they would be blowing smoke. Jack worked very, very hard at it and so did we. It was a glorious time.
GC: Any other interesting anecdotes you’d care to share about Jack Nicklaus would be welcomed.
BC: I have three stories I’d like to share with you regarding Jack:
1. I don’t know if he would remember this, but one day we were coming back from Europe on one of those ten-hour rides where sleep doesn’t work and we were talking about him hooking it out of bounds at the US Open on the sixteenth hole to take himself out of contention (don’t remember the year, but it was the US Open and he was in the hunt – not that this would be news). Anyway, somehow the conversation switched to my game and he asked how long it might take to get it in shape. I said neither one of us had that much time available.
2. Later we were working on a green. I had done a site drawing, a sketch because I didn’t have a camera (before the days of the digital camera – boy are we spoiled) and we talked about how a green might fit in that space. He talked and I drew. That’s the way it worked. He’s looking over my shoulder as I did what I call a horizon sketch, where you draw the sharp horizons only, like a mound behind the green or a grass line leading into the putting surface, or a bunker outline. It’s very basic stuff. When we had something he liked, he asked if he could use my pad. He had a pencil. He sat there making a thousand little cataleptic strokes, scratching and erasing until he held it up, then shoved it over to me and said, “With a little practice, I could learn to draw.” I have no idea why I said what I did, but it just came out; I said, “With a little practice, I could win the US Open.” That was the end of his drawing.
3. When my mom was dying and I was already living in Palm Beach, Jack sent her a note that said, “Bob and I get along just fine in spite of the fact you are a Palmer fan,” and he wrote “Palmer” in tiny letters. My mom said, “That’s very nice, but I still love Arnold.” That’s the kind of stuff he would do, and it was right in the middle of the time he was overtaking Bobby Jones’s major championship record.
GC: Which was your first Nicklaus course that you were really proud of?
BC: Muirfield Village, but I am proud for Jack and happy to have played any part.
GC: Which was your first Nicklaus course that received critical success?
BC: Muirfield Village and just about everything else we did.
GC: Nicklaus faded the golf ball in tournaments. Did he/you design golf courses that favored a left-to-right ball flight?
BC: For starters on that answer, he designed everything. Jay and I have the privilege of saying we were there, which is the way it should be. Jack worked too hard for us to take any credit. We have since had our days in the sun, but when we were there, it was his show and we all enjoyed what was happening.
As for designing “fader” courses … early on, his courses were pretty difficult and they were tailored somewhat to his playing style, but he was doing what he felt was right. This was not some subversive plot to give him an advantage, which I have read from time to time and which infuriates me. He had already proved that wasn’t necessary anyway because he beat everybody on every kind of course for years and years. Doing what he felt meant he was acting like an artist. I always loved him for that. Pete Dye does it, too. They are both my idols.
GC: Did you travel a good deal visiting sites or was that Nicklaus’s role?
BC: I spent almost a year in the shop. But after that, I went everywhere, which was fun.
GC: How did you learn about earth-moving equipment, irrigation, drainage, and all the other myriad factors that go into designing a golf course?
BC: I learned by doing it, but I had the secret: I was always acutely aware that water runs downhill.
That said, in my early days before Jack, I went to an owner and showed him some drawings of things that would improve his golf course. He said, “Great! Let’s do this.” I was ecstatic, and went to my car. But before I could back out of the space, I broke into a cold sweat because though I knew what to do, I had no earthly clue how. I look back at it now as a hilarious moment but didn’t think so at the time. Fortunately, reason set in and I found somebody to help, a good golf course contractor named Troup Brothers of Miami. It was a godsend and I guess my career was born.
GC: Can you share any anecdotes about some of the more interesting clients you encountered during your stay with Nicklaus?
BC: There were some but it’s probably not appropriate to go there.
GC: How many courses did you design during your time with Nicklaus?
BC: It was probably around 80 or so. I didn’t keep a tally. I remember seeing his 100th in Albuquerque, and was impressed because it was a super track.
GC: Do you have a favorite?
BC: I loved ‘em all. Some were hard to build, some were easy, but they were always fun.
GC: When did you start thinking that you’d like to strike out on your own?
GC: Why did you want to leave Nicklaus Design?
BC: One day Jack told me he wanted to build a family business. This was on the heels of learning that Jackie was not going to follow in Jack’s footsteps as a player. He wanted us (me) to school Jackie, and I did. But that was the first time I thought my space there might be limited.
This was exacerbated by opportunities that were beginning to arise, and though I had never responded to these previously, two happened at once in 1984: Beacon Hall in Toronto and Port Armor on Lake Oconee.
I took the idea to Jack (Jay had already left to strike up a deal with Tom Weiskopf) and though he did not like it, he understood and said so. However, it took me a full two years to leave. He asked me to assume a position as an overall consultant; I continued with his work and mine at the same time.
During that time a friend told me it looked like the only thing more difficult than getting into the Nicklaus organization was getting out of it. Jack was kind to me; actually helped me to secure a project. And I returned the favor by calling him to ask if he would do the second course at Reynolds Plantation (Great Waters). After that, even after 1986, things would happen inside the organization that caused me to participate in some ways, mostly having to do with personnel.
I have revered Jack from the beginning — not because he stomped everybody as a player, but because he could and yet he was the most loyal and sincere boss one could imagine. He was, in short, an anachronism, and a fascinating paradox — a character that has yet to be defined in the press because they could not know.
Sadly, I don’t see him that much anymore, except like at our annual ASGCA meeting. He has said some wonderful things to the press about me and then he wrote the preface to my novel, which was great, great fun.
John LaFoy told a great story about Jack at our meeting in Ponte Vedra. Jack had just finished a panel consisting of himself, Mark McCumber and Steve Smyers, who are all members. The subject was technology, which was exceptional. John’s story told about Jack catching Grier Jones at the Honda Classic (5 shots in six holes or whatever). He said, “Jack knew he could catch Grier, Grier knew Jack could catch him and Jack knew that Grier knew Jack could catch him.” It was a hoot, and Jack was laughing as hard as any of us.
GC: When you left Nicklaus Design, did they throw you a going-away party?
BC: The annual Christmas party. (lol)
GC:: Beacon Hall in Toronto and Port Armor on Lake Oconee were your first two creations. Have you gone back to visit them?
BC: Both recently. Port Armor was number two in Georgia according to the Atlanta Journal for two years (you know who was number one), and Beacon Hall has been in the top ten in Canada for many years (Toronto Globe and Mail).
GC: Were there any changes from your original design?
BC: Back tees.
GC: Were you worried – financially – about working for yourself?
BC: Naturally, but the opportunities came so fast after those two courses that I never looked back. Those days are gone.
GC: Did you work alone or did you have assistants working with you?
BC: I had told myself that I wanted to remain small mostly because I enjoy the work. I have some alumni but mostly what happened was that Billy Fuller left Augusta National where he was the course superintendent and we struck up together under Cupp Design.
Billy’s expertise was agronomy, which grew to specifications and eventually to all phases of the work except that I drew everything. Billy is a totally amazing man and we were two guys doing what we loved and knew we could do it at the highest levels. For a few blessed years, my son Bobby was in there with us. He’s a talented guy and working now in the golf construction industry.
Our combined reputation was fun, but, just like when I was with Jack, it was not about the press. It was about having the work to do. I could have built into a very large operation like many of my competitors, but then I would become a manager of designers rather than a designer.
But over the years, guys like Mike Riley, Bill Bergin, David Johnson and John Fought have gone on to successes and that feels very good. I’m pleased they have done well and it has been interesting to see how their work differs from mine. They are their own people and that’s the way it should be. They are also still my friends, by the way. Just two weeks ago, Billy was elected into the American Society of Golf Course Architects, an organization he never considered until he started his own design business a few years back when I started to slow down. Billy is a brother. We see each other all the time, go to the same church. He even married a dear friend. Life could not be better.
GC: Have you ever had a woman designer working for you?
BC: Unfortunately, no. I had women in the shop from time to time before the digital age, but none were trained designers.
GC: I’m not familiar with any women golf course architects? Are there any? Why such a dearth of women in the industry?
BC: Three are meaningful; Alice Dye, of course, Jan Beljan who was with Tommy Fazio for years and Viki Martz who is still with Arnold. All are members of the ASGCA. Alice has been our president.
GC: When you look up “prolific” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of you! Approximately how many courses have you designed over the years?
BC: On my own, 141 — not that many compared to some. I’m happy to have had that many. There might be two or three more depending on this rotten economic climate. If things got good, who knows how long I’ll last. We all ask ourselves that question no matter the field, don’t we? Don’t you?
GC: Among these, do you have any favorites? Why?
BC: That’s like talking about your children. Robert Trent Jones used to say, “The next one.” I don’t want to go there. We’ll leave it at that.
GC: You’ve collaborated with many touring pros, including Sam Snead, Tom Kite, Craig Stadler, Jerry Pate, Fuzzy Zoeller, Hubert Green, Fred Couples, Billy Andrade, and Gardner Dickinson. Any anecdotes you could share about them would be appreciated.
BC: There are probably thousands of stories if I ever got rolling, but I will tell you one about Jack that is a classic. He was playing in The Atlanta Classic and I had gone up there from Florida to meet him after his round for a little dinner in the room and then some routing work.
We boarded the elevator in the parking deck of the downtown hotel where he was staying, and started up. The elevator stopped somewhere along the way and two very old people, still wearing their day tags from the tournament got on, walking literally right into Jack. To say they were star-struck would be a gross understatement — they had just come face to face with the greatest player on the planet. It was a very embarrassing moment for everybody until the little man spoke up. He asked Jack with a trembling voice, “Do you know who you are?” It was pandemonium and Jack quickly relieved them of their plight by being exceptionally friendly and thanking them. It was a great moment.
GC: How do you collaborate with a touring pro when he knows nothing about golf course architecture? I guess I’m trying to understand what exactly does the pro bring to the project … besides name recognition and marketing muscle?
BC: Well, you have nailed what it is for so many of the newer players coming into design. However, they are not hamburger. I have never done a project with any player that did not bring meaningful contributions to the final product. Some participate more than others, but they are far from useless in the field. The idea for me was to take as much of it as possible to them in the form of questions, how wide is this? How deep is that pin position, how deep is that bunker? Before long, they are all over it.
But, people like Tom Kite are an exception. Tom, like Jack, is completely capable of every aspect of golf design. He, also like Jack, has worked at it for years. He understands scale, contours and numerous varieties of dimension. I once sent Tom all eighteen green settings complete with contours at a scale of one inch equals thirty feet. About a month later, in plenty of time, I received eighteen completed green plans. This was unprecedented, and the work was an “A.” He’s done that on every project we have completed together since. He could and should be a member of our society in that he has all of the necessary skills.
GC: Which pros have developed a real flair for golf course architecture?
BC: Jack, Tom Kite, Tom Weiskopf, Ben Crenshaw working with Bill Coore, even Arnold has deepened his involvement in the last ten years. There are others but I’m drawing blanks right now.
GC: The Old Course at St. Andrews is often held up as the gold standard of golf course architecture. Do you agree? If so, help the golf layperson understand why this is.
BC: Oooh. This goes very deep. The answer is yes, and I am going waaay out on a limb here. It is difficult for Americans to get it because The Old Course is nothing like America’s perception of golf, either visually or tactically.
Sometimes, when I see things that happen at US clubs from time to time, the thought crosses my mind that no American should be allowed to join a club until they have done a one-year apprentice membership at a club in Scotland, Ireland or England.
They would soon learn that making suggestions about course improvements is very private stuff. Taking it public is grounds for dismissal. It all stems from the concept of “playing the course as you find it and playing it where it lies.” We have become a nation of doers-over, eliminating pesky things, and basically cheating. That, at the end of the day, is not golf.
Okay, so you eliminate a bunker somewhere, but they still can’t get up and down. I’m not making fun of anybody, but the purist values of golf are not in making courses easier; it lies in competition, whether it’s an Open or a Nassau for three bucks.
It’s not about how easy or how pretty it is. It is how you manage your weaknesses and strengths, or, as it has been comically put, “How you pit your skill against your opponent’s luck.” Come on, everybody: Forget mulligans. Forget “Hit ‘til you’re happy.” Forget playing your own selection of tees. Play it as you find it. Learn what the game started out to be and still is in hallowed places like The Old Course.
I really don’t want to offend people who love the game and I apologize if I am doing so. But speed of play is a big deal, and continuing to move along rather than hitting another ball is crucial to playing time.
One might also think that in playing the course as you find it advocates a concept that would diminish my industry’s well being. I do not believe it does because technology is doing that for us. Technology, the ball and the drivers in particular, have obviated most courses.
So, I have probably skewered myself, but until one has taken on the Old Course or Prestwick or any of those on the Open rotation or even those off the beaten path, playing it down and counting strokes and posting a true number, and then injecting the appropriate humor, you do not truly know the game.
GC: Did the links-style golf courses of the UK influence you?
BC: Yes. And heaths, which is basically a links without an ocean.
GC: Which of the UK courses rank among your favorites and why?
BC: Not in order, I would mention The Old Course, Prestwick, Ballybunion, Royal Portrush, Royal County Down, Muifield, Troon, Cruden Bay, Dornoch, Turnberry, Suningdale, Burma Road (Wentworth), Carnoustie — can I stop now?
GC: The course you designed with Tom Kite, Liberty National Golf Club in NJ, was built over contaminated land and took 17 years and $250 million to complete. If you had known what a Herculean task it was going to be when you started, would you have accepted the commission?
BC: I would have killed for it. However, it did not take 17 years, only a paltry 13 (Tom and I were boys when we started that deal). The cost is actually a moving target. Let’s just say it is somewhere between $200 and $300 million.
GC: They’re going to have to sell a lot of cashmere sweaters in the pro shop to recoup that investment!
BC: This needs to be said: Were it not for Paul Fireman’s love of the game and his incredible talent for quietly managing people, plus the existence of a bunch of global oil companies and other corporations that had environmental liability (paying fines), Liberty would still be a nightmare.
Tom and I owe Paul an enormous debt. In our minds he should be given a medal for meritorious service to mankind in cleaning up a colossal mess and turning it into an icon. He never once said he wanted this or that on the course (other than no thirty-foot waterfalls). He only told us he was sure we would do everything in our power to make it the best it could possibly be. It was, along with a gigantic sense of accomplishment, particularly with the FedEx event, a life lesson of the first order.
GC: Which contemporary golf courses do you admire that you didn’t design?
BC: In the US it would be: Pebble, Augusta, Seminole, Shinnecock, Merion, Pinehurst #2, San Francisco Golf Club, Chicago Golf Club, Cypress, Bandon (Kidd Course), National Golf Links, Winged Foot West – - – so many good ones. I’ve missed many.
GC: What’s your take on the state of the golf industry and golf course architecture?
BC: Today, an industry does not exist in America except to a barely traceable degree.
GC: What obstacles do you see on the horizon?
BC: Many. America’s perception of golf will change. Costs will come down, which will greatly change style. This, of course, will not be the case for the truly elite clubs, but XYZ CC will no longer look askance at a brown spot in the fairway and seek to lynch the superintendent because the bunkers were not all raked or the greens were not running at 19.
There will be other problems. The cost of water and hence the use of it will make courses hard and fast. This is happening as we speak in Australia. My sincere hope is that as these things come to pass, America will rise to the occasion. We have to get ego out of the game. The three-letter word the industry desperately needs to add is: fun.
Finally, the permitting process must change. Golf is not the toxic weapon of the Republican Party. Golf is solid and sustainable environmental suitability. As soon as we can rid ourselves of the “across the aisle” attitudes, things will begin to change.
Golf can no longer be a gravy train for the permitting agencies, but then again, that is part of a much larger problem. Then there will be many new courses, most of them public, and with fees that work.
Golf on the other hand must continue to be mindful stewards of the earth. We must go biological. We must adopt sustainable turf types and simple management practices. If so, the new courses of tomorrow will look like the old ones of yesteryear, in a simpler time, before we were all inflamed by the press about this or that sensational negative story (which sold a lot of ads). Life could be so good.
There is a formula that for every million dollars spent in development of a course, an operator can get $10 in greens fees and still turn enough of a profit to make a living. Three million, which is entirely possible, means a $30 fee. America can make this happen.
Let the truly elite clubs do as they please. These are people who have worked hard to earn their privacy. Leave them alone. Get over it. In the future, those clubs will be as small a percentage of all courses as their members are of the general population.
The untapped market in golf is the general public that has heretofore resisted the game because of cost and image. I don’t buy that it takes too long to play golf in spite of cyber-land’s hold on our youth. Kids will play if there is an affordable place.
More golf has huge benefits to the environment (and if you don’t believe that, you need to check the present records and recommendations of the EPA and their exhaustive studies over many ears).
The social benefits are also exceptional — plus, it adds to the economy. Government at all levels must adopt golf for what it has been proven to be. As it has been so cleverly said, golf has the ability to serve people, planet and profit. We must now work together to: find suitable land; convert that land to oxygen-generating, nitrate-filtering turf; shape edge-habitats that make the environment work; and turn otherwise fallow land that is usually a liability on several fronts, into a functioning piece of the American economy.
Go public. Make courses that are FUN — not 8,000 yards. Make fun courses on 100 acres instead of 300. Spend $3 million rather than $30 million. Forget having a masseuse on the practice tee. Forget golf carts. Forget green speed. Forget perfect lies. Forget stiff morays about dress codes (but at least keep it decent). Forget rolling it over and mulligans.
Think of the wizened old caddy, clearing his throat as his American charge teed a second ball on the first hole at Muirfield. The American said, “We call this a mulligan in America. What do you call it?” The old man looked at him coldly and said, “Three.”
I have to stop. This could go on ad nauseum.
GC: Tell us about your role with the American Society of Golf Course Architects.
BC: I’m on the executive committee. I am its treasurer and will be its president in 2012 and 2013, God willing. This organization is, as you probably suspect, facing some difficult times. So far we have lost very few. People are members for numerous reasons, the biggest one being camaraderie. We are finding that our membership wants to be there. In this down-time we just enjoy getting together and talking about all the work nobody has . . . At least we can still laugh. A number of us go to China or South America or Europe, Africa, wherever, chasing work around the world. If you thought this was fun, it’s not right now.
GC: How would you counsel a teenager who wanted to pursue a career as a golf course architect?
BC: Right now, in all good conscience, I would tell them it might not be advisable. However, if times improve and the young person is determined, I would have to tell them first and foremost that they need to understand the game, and preferably, play it well.
Then I would tell them to attain academic proficiency in several disciplines: a degree in Civil Engineering with a minor in Landscape Architecture or the reverse, but you need both. You might substitute Landscape with Agronomy. You will need expertise in all.
Next, you must understand the creative process, setting goals and finding the paths to their realization, and so on. Artistic talent is a must. They must understand what terms such as “composition” really mean, learn how light and shadow work, how lines tell.
There is no precise curriculum for golf architecture unless your father has enough money to endow a chair at a major university. Then they may be able arrange the special conference of a degree with that name.
After you have done all of these things, get a job with a golf course builder and get dirty. Learn what it looks like in the scale of twelve inches to the foot. Then you would be ready to apply for a junior position with an established firm where your education really begins. In retrospect, I may have been better off going with R.T. Jones. I made huge mistakes on my own. But Jack came along before I self-destructed. In that regard alone, I will always be grateful.
For those out there who may take offense at me outlining such a difficult path, please keep in mind that while there are probably eight to ten thousand landscape architects in America and many, many times more civil engineers and many agronomists, there are less than 200 golf course architects in north America and many of them work for larger firms. There may be less than 300 in the entire world.
You can see, this is not an easy achievement. However, it is a passion for perhaps millions — anybody who ever hit a ball more than twice. Go for it. Let me know if I can help you in any way — and I will certainly try, provided you can prove your mettle.
Finally, it’s not the key to immediate wealth. If you’re looking for money, you might be better off at the NFL Combine, or go to Q-school. Golf design is a real job and your income will grow as you produce. Hopefully, a time will come that you can set up tee shots, place bunkers and shape putting surfaces. But like anything else, you will have to pay your dues. It is not impossible and I have seen many do it in the face of gigantic odds. Maybe you are one of them. I just want you to know the numbers.
GC: How often do you play golf these days?
BC: Sometimes twice a week. I walk and carry my bag. I am seventy-one.
GC: How’s your game?
BC: I play often at my neighborhood club, Capital City Brookhaven. I also love to go to Settindown Creek, Hawk’s Ridge out to Port Armor (now Reynold’s Landing), Druid Hills and others. Brookhaven is a par seventy and my fantasy is to shoot my age. I may have to change that to fairways and greens in regulation because I cannot, with any putter (or any club for that matter) make the ball go in the hole. I’m driving it well and hitting eleven or more greens regularly — but I cannot putt. If you know of any substance that can cure this, please let me know. I would be forever grateful.
GC: You’re one of the true Renaissance men of golf: you draw and paint, build furniture, sing, play the guitar and cello. If you hadn’t been an architect, would you have pursued one of these creative outlets professionally?
BC: I am an illustrator. That would have probably been my path. I’m not a good enough musician to have survived in that business. It is truly a hobby. Building furniture or blacksmithing is wonderful relaxation, but making a living at either would mean I would have had to marry well or something. I am fortunate to have married well, but not because she has money. She is the perfect mate for a wacko like me, going on twenty-five years, and it has not been long enough.
GC: You’re also the author of The Edict, a Novel From the Beginnings of Golf. What was that experience like?
BC: For starters, I am a reader. Books are my constant companions. The story of The Edict was one of those things that just floated to the surface. Every time I have seen and played the older courses, I cannot help but wonder about the countless people over centuries that had stood in that same place in the same situation trying to accomplish the same goal.
All of a sudden, golf becomes a part of the litany of our existence. I love the game; love what it does and how it affects the souls on this planet. The Edict storyline emerged as I wandered the Old Course and when I was searching for the original Oakhurst Links in West Virginia, America’s first course and club that can and has been found.
I’m not saying I believe in ghosts, but being in those places, if one cannot feel the presence of the immensity of the past, they are missing something valuable. The book was a great thrill, and the research was personally rewarding. Random House (Alfred A Knopf, actually) is an amazing publisher. I was so lucky to have drawn a golf-wise editor in Gary Fisketjon, ex University of Oregon player. The Edict became one of those things, probably on the order of the call from Nicklaus, that was my extreme good fortune.
GC: SOUND OFF — Bob, use this space to say anything that’s on your mind.
BC: I may have said all I can, but your questions are so insightful and I wanted you to know that I appreciate what you asked. You got my motor running. Thank you.