Bob Cupp and I met for lunch at his club in Atlanta last week to discuss the PBS documentary, “Golf’s Grand Design: The Evolution of Golf Architecture in America.” The documentary aired Friday, August 3, 2012; it’s now available on DVD from PBS. Bob was part of a team that collaborated on writing and creating the documentary. In the following conversation, Bob reveals how the project was born and produced over an 18-month period. In addition, Bob and noted golf architecture journalist Ron Whitten co-wrote the companion book to the PBS show, which is available for purchase on Amazon.com by clicking this link.
Golf Conversations: How did the idea for “Golf’s Grand Design” come about? Who approached you, Bob? Was it Tattaglia … or Barzini?
Bob Cupp: It was a guy named Michael Trimboli. He is the trustee for the Robert J. Stransky Foundation out of Buffalo. Stransky, evidently, was an industrialist. And Michael manages the Trust which has stipulations as all Trusts do. This one’s stipulation is that it will only donate to 501(c) (3)s or some sort of foundation.
GC: So I shouldn’t write him and ask if he’d like to buy my web site?
BC: Probably not. Maybe if you changed the dot com to dot org or dot edu.
Unless you can really prove you’re a non-profit.
GC: I don’t know about non-profit, but I can really prove I’m no-profit!
So Mr. Trimboli contacted…?
BC: First thing he did, was contact a friend of his named Marvin French. He’s one of the three founding partners of Pumpkin Ridge.
GC: The course you designed in Oregon.
BC: So Marv says, “I don’t know – let’s call Bob and ask him.”
GC: Mr. Trimboli was interested in golf?
BC: Oh, yeah. He wanted to do a documentary on golf architecture in America.
GC: So it was his idea?
BC: Essentially, the genius of it was his. He was assisted then and I think, egged on, by Marvin … who subsequently called me. We didn’t know how to create a documentary because that’s not my thing.
GC: When did Mr. Trimboli approach Mr. French?
BC: Oh, gosh … 2 to 2 ½ years ago. They really did conceive it in their minds. Then they called me and we talked about other names and I said, “A very good friend of mine has a degree and he happens to be one of the best in the business: Bill Coore. Bill graduated from Wake Forest, not as a golfer, but on an academic scholarship. He’s a country boy; he’s one of those guys that you hear him talk and the typical Yankee, like you…
He’s gonna say, “He can’t be too smart, he’s got a Southern accent.” I’m jesting, of course, but there are people like that.
GC: I resent being called a “Yankee.” I prefer “carpetbagger.”
BC: When I’m in New York or New Jersey at Liberty National … I’m from “Nu Joisey.”
GC: Joisey. Fuhhgedabouddit.
BC: “What are youse guys doin?”
GC: “Hey, Cupp! These freakin’ bunkers are eatin’ my balls!”
BC: That’s right. But when I’m over in Birmingham…
GC: You begin your sentences with a “Y’all.”
BC: It’s close. That’s just natural for me. I feel like a phony but I can’t help myself – I love language.
GC: Bob, when in Rome.
BC: I guess. But the genius of the thing was those two guys … mostly from Michael – whom I know as “Mike.”
GC: Mike and Marvin.
BC: Mike and Marv. Marv was already all over Bill Coore. He thought that was a great idea. One of their mutual good friends was a guy named Karl Olson who was the superintendent at Desert Forest. That’s where they live in Phoenix. Marv’s from Oregon but Mike was originally from Buffalo but he went to Phoenix.
GC: No one’s gonna stay in Buffalo if they don’t have to. No knock on Buffalo but those winters are cruel.
BC: They also wanted to include Billy Fuller because they knew Billy could make some inroads with people for various bits in the companion book to the documentary. Which, indeed, was the case.
GC: But the documentary came before the book, yes?
BC: It did.
GC: Continue please, sir.
BC: Bill, Billy, and I met with Marvin and Michael. And with the director of the PBS station, WNED. We all met at a golf show in San Diego. Michael’s contributions to WNED have been significant over the years.
GC: He’s like a Continuing Platinum Grand Circle Patron?
BC: Whatever, yeah. I’m sure.
Mike is a very honorable guy, in spite of the fact that he’s an attorney. But we’ll try to get over that!
GC: Hey! Be nice!
BC: But the one thing that Billy and Bill and I were adamant about was Ron. We had to have Ron.
GC: Ron Whitten.
BC: Yes. If we’re gonna do this thing, we need that intelligence base which is significant. You know, Ron was a prosecuting attorney.
GC: I did not know that.
BC: In Topeka. And he wrote his first book with Geoff Cornish while he was still a prosecutor. This was in the 80s. Strange as it may seem, before that started, Ron came and visited with me at the Nicklaus organization. He really came to see Jack and Jack said, “Can you talk to this guy?”
So I did. Ron said he wanted to get into the golf business. I said, “You mean the design business?”
He said, “Yeah, I just love it. I love golf architecture. How do I do this?”
And I said, “I hate to tell you this – a man of letters like yourself – the best thing I can tell you to do is get into a construction project. Learn something about construction.” Darn if he didn’t go out and get a job with Wadsworth.
GC: Wadsworth Construction?
GC: What year was this?
BC: That had to have been in the 70s.
GC: He’d had enough of the law?
BC: I don’t know if he gave up on it but he was so totally consumed with golf course design that he knew he was not gonna be happy. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the law. He still does. But he has so many passions; he’s also quite a scholar on the Civil War.
GC: Ah y’all ruhferrin’ to the War of Northern Aggression, suh?
GC: Bob, was this golf course spared during Sherman’s march through Atlanta?
BC: It was just a field, I guess.
GC: Oh, you hadn’t laid it out yet in the 1860s?
BC: No, that was just a month or two before my time.
GC: I’ve been reading Ron’s architecture articles for years and years, but I didn’t know he’d been a prosecutor. Ah, but now the law connection makes sense: when he sees a golf course he doesn’t like, he stands up and says, “I object.”
BC: Actually, it really is close to that. [Bob opens the companion book]. The title for the chapter on MacKenzie is “Whodunit.” And Ron says in here, “I’m a big fan of mysteries – maybe because I was once a prosecutor – but mostly because half of my lifelong study of golf design has involved whodunits.”
This is not your usual magazine stuff. These are lifetime stories; sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re funny as hell, sometimes they’re sad.
GC: So back in San Diego, you had the big summit.
BC: Bill and I said, “We gotta get Ron.” I called him – he was already on his way to the show – and said, “We’re gonna have lunch.”
“What about?” he asked.
“Trust me,” I said, “you’ll like it.”
GC: So he took your phone call?
BC: Yes. He took my phone call. He didn’t hang up on me.
Which he never has done. I think I may have hung up on him one time.
GC: Once this documentary airs, you guys are going to have golf architecture groupies coming after you. They’ll be hanging outside the maintenance sheds waiting for you guys to come out.
Nothing sexier to women than a golf architect on a ‘dozer!
BC: At any rate, the original producer wanted to do a coffee table book. Beautiful pictures, a few words from a talking-head designer, and it was going to end up on PBS as a gorgeous golf course film.
But we had some issues with that. We didn’t like that type of presentation. We wanted it to be about our craft. And about how enjoyable golf is. How important golf is in the American fabric, if you will.
GC: You’d be helping the average viewer to understand golf course architecture. It wasn’t geared towards design nerds yakking about “shot values.”
BC: Precisely.We wanted the producer to portray people having fun playing golf.
GC: Love it.
BC: It’s a big deal.
GC: That’s why we do it!
BC: That’s right. That’s why you do it. In today’s world, that might be the most important thing that golf can do.
BC: I’m glad you see it that way.
GC: Of course! That’s why you play golf. To have fun! And you guys are the fun creators. Not to be confused with the job creators.
BC: No, let’s not talk about that.
GC: You guys – don’t take this the wrong way – you create the amusement park.
BC: This is true. However, one of the things that we have done – I think the golf courses tend to be a little bit difficult. Or some people would say – not a little bit – they’re really difficult.
A new course comes out and if it’s hard, supposedly it’s a fine golf course. That isn’t the case. And we know that’s not the case.
GC: I agree with that.
BC: The ASGCA knows that’s not the case.
GC: And you are the sitting president of said organization.
BC: Uh, yeah. Whoopee.
GC: Let me see you throw your weight around here at the club a little bit, Prez.
“Hey, waiter: I’m Bob Cupp and we’re out of Sweet n’ Lows!”
BC: Yeah, gimmee some Sweet n’ Lows! At any rate, there are a number of people across the world who are not members of the ASGCA. The European Institute of Golf Course Architects has a number of excellent people. The Australians have an interesting crew of about 20.
By the way, this year we’re all going to gather for our second meeting. This time we’re going to Long Island. Last time we went to Australia.
GC: Long Island? Where on Long Island?
BC: The National Golf Links. Shinnecock.
GC: Good. I thought you were going to Eisenhower Park in Westbury. There’s a Jack-In-The-Box on Old Country Road there…
BC: That’s the place where we could have our banquet!
GC: Bob, I’m not the kind of guy who invites himself to places, but this National Golf Links/Shinnecock trip sounds perfect for me.
BC: Ahh … uhh.
GC: Your enthusiastic response is duly noted. Let’s move on.
BC: The important part of what happened early on was that Ron and Bill and I and Billy and Karl…
GC: What’s the producer’s name?
BC: John Grant. We took issue with the idea of a rotogravure type of documentary.
GC: You wanted to show you guys in action … how a course gets crafted.
BC: Yes. And to John’s credit, he’s not a golfer. And the video that he has done will make you feel good.
GC: What was the next step after the summit meeting in San Diego?
BC: Right out of the box, it was “How do we get the video into the right mode?” And after a lot of discussions back and forth, we ended up with a script that I essentially wrote. But not without Bill’s and Ron’s compliance.
Our script went to Grant. And he then proceeded to call us and say, “Can you get me at National Golf Links? Can you connect me with Augusta National? Can you do this? Can you do that?” And we connected him with everybody that he wanted to be connected with.
GC: When did you start writing the script and how long did it take you?
BC: That took a 3-4 month period. Then we learned that PBS documentaries always have a companion book. Bill, Ron, Billy, and I — all of us have writing experience. Bill said, “Guys, I’m too busy.” He was in Tasmania running around.
So Bill said, “You and Ron do this. I’ll help you whenever I can.”
So the book is a true collaboration. I say true because it’s written in the dialogue form where each one of us weighs in on every story. Some of the stories emanated from me, some from Ron, and some from both of us.
There’s a wonderful story in here about Nicklaus. It’s a 2-part affair: one is an experience that Ron had with him, one of them is one of the millions of Nicklaus memories that I’ve dredged up from the 70s.
I sent the draft out to Jack and his response was amazing. Something like, “It felt good to read that.” And then he said, “What about so and so?” He did his usual adding on.
He loves golf course design. And this chronicles his entire design career. How it started with Pete.
You read this book and you will know a lot about the process of golf course architecture. Because each chapter addresses a subject like routing. The chapter about Donald Ross is all about routing a golf course. The subject is Seminole. Seminole is on 140 acres; it’s one of the great golf courses on the planet. And the reason is: it’s a masterful, unbelievably wonderful routing. And it caused Ross to do two par 5s in a row. And the clubhouse got situated in just the right spot so the sun’s never in your eyes.
GC: The companion book is done in a dialogue format. What’s the documentary’s format?
BC: It has a lot of people talking. It’ll have Jack explaining something or Ben Crenshaw, who’s quite good on camera. Everybody we could get on. And this is not all ASGCA members. Tom Doak and David Kidd aren’t members but how could you not have Kidd and Doak in the documentary? They are both of them gigantic. And they are deserving of recognition.
Doak, not so much for the work he’s done, which is wonderful. But when you read this, you’ll see that Doak made a lot of progress because of not what he did so much as the way he did it. He’s an educator. He is a collaborator. And he created some outstanding designers not the least of which are Jim Urbina and Gil Hanse.
In my mind, it takes a lot of courage to have an associate who’s working for you, to make you look good, and pass off your own deepest, inner thoughts about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and why you’re doing it. This is absolutely the perfect version of apprenticeship.
GC: If you love the game of golf – and in your case, love the art of golf course design – I would think you would want to pass on your knowledge to the next generation.
BC: Yes, but not everyone feels that way, Robert.
GC: Does the documentary have any “action,” such as demonstrating how a bunker is shaped?
BC: The actual activities are not deeply covered but we only had an hour. I think what John Grant got into an hour is exceptional. And it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world for him. He was a television producer who had these golf people telling him what to do.
John followed the eras of golf design: the pre-turn of the century, the post-turn of the century … then it migrates into the golden era of architecture, the Depression and the war years. There’s the post-war era and Robert Trent Jones. And what a difference that made to golf design because Jones and his owners created residential golf courses … which also gave us golf carts. And the game changed tremendously because of that. For the better? If you watch what we say in the documentary, the answer is, “I don’t think so.”
But it’s part of life. So then we went into the 70s and Jones’s thing became superseded by Pete. And Pete Dye was gigantic. The number of people that he has sent out there is staggering.
There’s a story about Pete showing some other designers something in the dirt. And when he was done telling you what he wanted to tell you, he’d kick the dirt so you couldn’t go back and look at it!
GC: What happened after the Pete Dye era?
BC: It went into the Nicklaus era and into what we eventually titled – and this is one of the key parts of both the video and the book – the “Age of Extravagance.” The poster child for the “Age of Extravagance” ended up being Shadow Creek.You make something out of nothing. Or Liberty National – it was a dump. It was an expensive project because it’s right there in New York and you have all the agencies and the permitting; land’s kind of expensive in that part of the world.
GC: And corned beef sandwiches for the crew.
BC: Oh, boy.
GC: It’s $12.95 for a sandwich up there.
BC: The whole idea was we’d gotten to a point where the products we were doing weren’t economically viable, fiduciarily speaking.
GC: Watch your language, Bob. I’m running a family web site here.
BC: I’m sorry. I forgot.
GC: Don’t you think Shadow Creek was an anomaly? It was a loss leader for Steve Wynn so he could give his high-rollers another excuse to gamble millions at his casinos?
BC: It’s not the only one. How many golf courses got built in the desert where a lot of money got spent? How many golf courses got built in Florida where a huge amount of money got spent? Anywhere for that matter. Look at Donald Trump.
GC: Must I?
BC: But then what happens? Sandhills. A 180. We’re going back where we came from. Bill and Ben talk about how the land was. And Ron talks about how he grew up in Nebraska and how he always wanted to see golf in those sand hills.
Did you know that Ron almost designed Bandon?
BC: Keiser wanted him to do it and Ron turned him down because he had a new wife and a young family.
GC: He felt that way because of his family or because he’d never done anything like that before?
BC: All of that. All of that.
GC: I’d shit in my pants if I’d never designed a golf course before and here I’m given this land overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
BC: Precisely. Interestingly enough, Mike Keiser also had a very good friend named Jimmy Kidd who’s a golf course superintendent.
GC: At Gleneagles.
BC: Yes. And his son David. He told Mike, “David could help us at Bandon.” David went in there 2 or 3 times and as he told me, he didn’t even know he had a job until one day he learned he was the only one out there when they were building things.
I don’t know if this is in the book, but David said, “If somebody would have asked me to build a golf course in the desert or on a mountain, I’d have been in trouble. But this was links and I was right at home.”
GC: How long did it take to produce the documentary?
BC: About 18 months.
GC: I’m looking forward to seeing it. Thanks to you and all of your collaborators who’ve made it happen. And after watching the documentary and/or reading the companion book, folks, go play golf and have some fun!
And this was fun. Thanks, Bob.
BC: You’re welcome.
Interested in golf course architecture? The American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) has an informative website that’s deserving of your time. Click here to pay them a visit.