Lee Wybranski — proprietor of Lee Wybranski Art & Design — has created and renovated many of golf’s most distinctive logos. He has also designed posters, prints, and original art work for The Masters, US Open, the Open Championship, the PGA Championship, and many other tournaments and venues. Read on for the following golf conversation with this talented artist.
Golf Conversations: I love your artwork, Lee!
Lee Wybranski: Thank you.
GC: I wish I was there with you in Flagstaff. I’d like to touch your fingers.
LW: I appreciate that. Thank you.
GC: How old were you when someone said, “The boy seems to have some talent!”
LW: I was one of those kids who was always drawing. I kept drawing all my life because I used to get told by teachers, parents, and friends how good I was at it. In the beginning, it was comic books and superheroes. In my teenage years, it was athletes and rock musicians.
I went to parochial school for twelve years with no art training. So when it came time for university, I decided I wanted to pursue art. It was a talent that everyone acknowledged but had been neglected in school. I went to Syracuse University and got my B.S.A. and have been working one way or another as a professional artist since graduating from college.
GC: Where did you grow up?
LW: Outside of Philadelphia in Havertown, Pennsylvania, about a mile from Merion Golf Club. After college, I moved to Philadelphia and lived and worked downtown from ’92 to 2009 when I moved out here to Arizona.
GC: Did your lack of formal art training present some challenges at Syracuse?
LW: I definitely felt behind. When you’re applying to art schools, you’re not just showing up with your SAT scores. You have to bring a portfolio. I was a little sheepish at that time in life. A lot of the kids who went to public school had big oil paintings and big portfolios filled with very polished-looking work. And I had a bunch of pages from my sketch book put into a portfolio that we bought on the way to the interview. I was a little bit intimidated but that wore off pretty quickly. I jumped in with both feet and by the middle of that first semester and after seeing what other people were making, I felt like I could stand up next to anybody.
GC: You had to show your work to be accepted at Syracuse. It’s not like, “here’s my tuition, take me.” They saw something in your work that they liked, right?
LW: I’ve always been a pretty competent drawer. I felt like that was my strength; it remains my strength as an artist to this day. I’m not the most painterly artist. The brush and the squishy paint is not my comfort zone, so much as the line and the composition. I was a very good student academically; I was not interested in going to an art school exclusively. I wanted to go to a university with a good art program. My SAT scores and grades helped and the portfolio was probably competent enough that they gave me a shot.
GC: While you were at Syracuse, what were you thinking about for the future?
LW: Like most 18-year olds, I wasn’t so forward thinking. I switched my majors: I started out in Advertising Design, then I went into Illustration, and I ended up in Art History just because it afforded me the greatest flexibility of study.
At freshman orientation, the Dean of the art school told us, “A year after you graduate, less than 10% of you will be working in the arts.” I found that to be a challenge as well as off-putting. But I was motivated by it to the point that it’s one of my clearest memories from college. I was more or less determined at that point in time that no matter what I was doing after college, making pictures was going to be how I made my living. I wasn’t so convinced that I was going to be a brilliant gallery painter, or a children’s book illustrator, or a video game animator. I just had the determination that I was going to find a way to make my living in the world of images.
GC: When did you graduate from Syracuse?
GC: What did you do after graduation?
LW: I was at my folks’ place for a few months, and then I moved to Center City Philly. My first professional work was with this fellow who had a business doing architectural renderings and house portraits. Very traditional pen-and-ink architectural drawings of estates and small institutions on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia. I did that for three years but wasn’t so serious about it. I thought I’d sock away some money and buy a Eurail Pass and go visit the great museums like you’re supposed to do.
But an entrepreneurial spirit awoke in me that I was previously unaware of. I diverted my attention from getting away to Europe and that’s what led me into golf.
GC: How did you get into golf?
LW: I had a partner and we decided to bring my portfolio of work that I’d done for private homes to the golf and country club community. As you probably know, a lot of the great clubs in the Northeast have great old clubhouses. I thought, “Where are there opportunities where people have a strong, emotional attachment to a building?” The two things we thought of were college campuses and golf and country clubs.
I hadn’t any great love or interest in golf at the time. I just thought it would be something different. We scheduled presentations to a number of top-20 Metropolitan clubs. Winged Foot was my first commission in golf to do a drawing of their clubhouse.
Golf being such a status-driven game, you get a job like Winged Foot on your resume, all of a sudden a lot of other clubs are a lot more willing to see you.
GC: What would motivate Winged Foot to want a drawing of their clubhouse?
LW: My previous business was a “one-and-done” endeavor. We needed to find an opportunity where we could [sell] reproductions. So at a golf club, people would buy prints or posters or copies of the original art work through the golf shop.
GC: These were only available to members?
GC: Was the original black-and-white?
LW: Yes, black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawing. Before too long, I was getting requests from clients who said, “We love your work, but can you do something in color for us?”
GC: I suspect you replied, “Yes!”
Speaking of color, did you know that Jack Nicklaus is color blind?
LW: I did not know that.
GC: I don’t believe he can see the color green. He would have been happy with the black-and-white drawings.
GC: You cold-called these clubs?
LW: Yes, it was my partner at the time that would make those calls. He was a good salesperson. In that first year, we did Saucon Valley CC, Caves Valley Golf Club, Atlantic Golf Club, National Golf Links of America, Salem CC. Just a lot of great, top-tier places. A few years later, I was on my own and I was making the cold calls myself.
GC: When did you approach Winged Foot?
LW: I believe it was 1995.
GC: How did you branch out from clubhouse drawings to logos?
LW: When the clients started asking me if I could do color work, I taught myself how to paint in watercolor. I did plenty of painting in college, but it was mostly oil. I was attracted to watercolor because it was quicker. I’m more of a drawer as an artist, so I felt a kinship with watercolor because you’re still working on paper.
In the late ‘90s, I taught myself to paint in a style that I liked and started doing a lot of landscape work. Then a gentleman named Billy Ziobro, the Director of Golf at Forsgate CC in New Jersey, hired us. A few years later, he was hired as the Director of Golf for Atlantic City CC which had just celebrated its centennial. My work always had a traditional bent to it, and he asked for help with the club’s branding and printed materials. In 1999-2000, we re-branded the Atlantic City CC; we re-designed their logo and designed their new scorecard.
We did hand-painted yardage guides for the golf course. And I created a 3’ x 5’ painting of the golf course for their reception area. It was big, full-package deal that we did with Billy at Atlantic City. It came off very well and to this day it’s some of my favorite and strongest work. That was the first club logo that we got involved with and that started that ball rolling.
In the fall of 2002, we were working with the USGA on our first US Open logo which was for 2004 at Shinnecock.
GC: The phone started to ring after that?
LW: Yes. There were really no logo specialists in the game at that time. A lot of the technology that the golf professionals were using was 10, 20, 30 years behind in terms of current industry standards for advertising or embroidery or promotional products. We were able to bring my aesthetic and training to bear on the visuals.
GC: Did you do a lot of updating of club logos?
LW: There was a lot of that. We did a renovation project at Merion. We did some work at Cypress Point, and Winged Foot.
GC: Logos, posters … do you have a preference for one or the other?
LW: The posters and the logos are the two things that I feel I do best. I don’t enjoy as much the traditional golf landscapes. I feel like they don’t afford me as much opportunity to be creative. I feel there are a lot of great artists out there – like Linda [Hartough] – who are real specialists in that genre.
Posters and logos are similar in the sense that it’s a strong, visual communication. A simple, bold message. You can’t have a lot of clutter in a logo if you want it to be the size of a quarter. So you have to really strip things down to their bare essence. You have to communicate things as simply and boldly as possible. That’s very similar to poster design because posters originally were advertising. It forces you to be creative in your problem solving which is a part of my job that I enjoy very much.
GC: When the USGA hires you to create US Open materials, how much lead time is involved to create a logo and/or poster?
LW: The logos are done years in advance. The logos get used on all sorts of marketing materials, and for selling corporate hospitality. The host club starts selling US Open logoed merchandise anywhere from two to four years in advance of the tournament.
Right now, we’re just wrapping up 2021 at Torrey Pines. 2020 has been in the can for quite a while. I start the next year’s poster work as soon as this year’s US Open is over. I was just out at Shinnecock last month doing my field work for next year’s poster.
GC: What does field work entail? Are you walking the course? Are you playing golf? Are you drinking in the grill room all day?
LW: I generally walk the course with a camera and a sketch book for a couple of days. I usually schedule two days of time. I’ll investigate the golf course with a golf cart and a ladder. Typically, I’ll try to arrange a tour from the head pro or the superintendent.
GC: A ladder?
LW: A ladder is very helpful; an 8- or 10-footer which I’ll strap on to the back of the cart. Lots of times, getting up 8 feet will really increase the drama of the image considerably.
GC: I know they’re all your babies, but do you have any logos that are your favorites?
LW: Atlantic City Country Club is one of my favorites. Metedeconk National Golf Club in New Jersey. Waterville Golf Links in Ireland. The 2008 US Open logo for Torrey Pines. Typically, the US Open logos don’t offer as much creative leeway because the venues have very recognizable marks already. Torrey, at the time, did not have a highly recognizable brand mark, so we were able to take more liberties there and that one came off very, very well.
GC: I was looking at your web page and saw your signature at the top of the page. Would you say that that’s your logo?
LW: With more and more people knowing me for my poster work, we thought just putting my name out there as much as possible would be more strategically advantageous for our firm. I’ll sign 10,000 posters during the course of a year for customers, fans, and patrons.
GC: 10,000??? You’d better insure that hand with Lloyd’s of London! You’re a busy fellow. Are you doing all this work yourself or do you have some people helping you?
LW: We have a small firm here. We’re about 4 ½ people, meaning we’ve got four full-timers and a consultant who works with us. It’s me, my wife who’s the business manager, a senior designer who works on everything, and then a studio manager who assists with art and print production.
GC: Lee, your work is lovely. I’m a big fan. If you get a chance, please go to my web site, take a look at my logo, and tell me what you think.
LW: I’ve been on your site in preparation for our call. I was more reading the content than looking at the mark. I’ll have a peek and give you a free opinion.
GC: It better be free!
LW: It’s been a pleasure; hope to meet you in person this January at the PGA Show.
GC: Take care.