MOBILE, Ala. - Golf architect Earl Stone is a throwback to yesteryear.
The 77-year-old Mobile resident is definitely "old school" inhis architectural style - designing playable golf courses - and the way heconducts business.
He's still a one-man crew, without the help of apprentices orassistants, which are now the norm with big name design firms.
Stone doesn't travel the country seeking out the next site for an awarding winning course like Pacific Dunes in Bandon, Ore. He doesn't have a Web site promoting his work, which includes five courses that have been awarded four stars (or better) by Golf Digest.
He just waits patiently for the phone to ring for his next job.
Frankly, he's so stuck in the past that rival architects grumbleabout how little he charges.
"Other folks complain I do work too cheap," Stone said recently."Whenever I quote my fee, I've never had anyone tell me it was too high.Jerry Pate is always on me to raise my fees. He said I'm bad for everybody'sbusiness."
In reality, Stone is good for golfers everywhere. Buildingcourses cheaper means affordable green fees.
But more important is Stone's mantra on golf design. He doesn'tbuild courses as trophies to himself (an accusation some other designershave brought upon themselves).
He builds every course with the 18-handicapper in mind. He's rejected the movements of modern design that says golfers crave courses with blind shots, forced carries and cavernous bunkers. In the world of golf architecture, Stone is the antithesis to Pete Dye, who is often considered the No. 1 architect in the world and infamous for his "Dyeabolical" designs.
Stone has designed roughly 40 courses in his career, all but one in the Southeast, including more than 15 in Alabama. He boasts a trio of fun, four-star designs near Mobile and Gulf Shores, including TimberCreek in Daphne; Rock Creek in Fairhope and his favorite, Peninsula Golf and Racquet Club in Gulf Shores. Although Rock Creek is the only to receive 4 ½ stars, Stone likes Peninsula best.
"It has been the most successful on the bottom line," Stone said. "It hasmade more money for owners than any of my others. The reason it has mademoney is people like to play it and then they come back again."
Stone takes pride in being every bogey golfer's best friend. He's glad some designers are getting back to basics after more than a decade of manufactured courses.
"Nicklaus has begun to come around (and design more playable courses),"Stone said. "Some of those guys design courses that are so hard, especiallyin South Florida. There's a couple places I know of where courses are addinga third 18-hole course just for the members because the others are too hard.When a man works all his life and retires to play golf, he doesn't want toget beat up. Maybe when he was 40 he was a 10-handicapper, but not now."
Stone got into golf course architecture like many of hisgeneration. He fell into it by accident. Decades ago, there weren't anycollege courses specializing in course design.
Stone grew up near Gainesville, Fla., and joined the Navy in1943. When he returned from World War II, he attended Auburn University,where a friend introduced him to Dr. Jean Netter, then dean of the turfgrass program at the University of Florida.
Stone started working with course irrigation systems and othermaintenance duties when Netter helped his career take off.
"He said why don't you become an architect," Stone recalled. "Isaid that would be nice if I was qualified. At the time, there were about 25of them (nationwide). He said 'You are as qualified as 15 of them. You aregoing to learn from experience. See if you can bluff your way through. Whenyou figure things out, you can go forward.'"
Stone's first job was a nine-holer at Lake Forest Country Clubin Daphne in 1957.
"The course looked like the budget you had, which was nothing,"Stone laughed. He's added 18 more holes to spruce up the site since then.
His first 18-hole effort was Mississippi National in Gautier, Miss., in 1963. Since then, he's become a regular on the Gulf Coast, with nine courses in Mississippi. He's built five state park courses for Alabama. His northern-most venture is the Hopkinsville Country Club in Kentucky.
Stone's most talked-about trademark design characteristic shows up on No. 13 at Rock Creek, a 495-yard par-5. There, subtle ridges funnel stray shots back into the fairway, much like Eagle Mountain in Fountain Hills, Ariz.
"Golfers will hit a tee shot going right or left, and they yell out 'HelpEarl!'" he said." Better golfers fuss about it. They reject it. They hitone down the middle, and the guy who hit up on the bank will watch it rolldown right next to the one in the middle."
He also doesn't like building forced carries from the women's tees.
In today's golfing world, the word playable often translates toboring, but Stone adds more doglegs to keep his courses strategic.
Andy Ray, the director of golf at TimberCreek, said golfers appreciate Stone's sensitivity to making a round enjoyable, not torture.
"(His courses) are not intended to host major PGA championships," Ray said. "They are built for the average golfer to enjoy and have a good time. If you want to make it hard, go to the back tees. Golf is supposed to be fun."
Although he's not currently working on any projects, Stone saidhe's still going strong.
"When I turn 87, then I'll think about slowing down," he said.
March 12, 2004