There's a sports saying that goes, "Coaches get too much credit when the team wins and too much blame when they lose." The same could be said for golf course architects. When the course turns out brilliant, they're hailed as magicians and visionaries. When the results are not as favorable, criticism flows in from all directions. Everybody becomes an expert.
It's a pleasant idea to think of architects as artists, creators and visionaries. Some of them truly are - when allowed to express that vision. Many more might be if an owner would just give them an opportunity for expression.
Old Memorial Golf Club in Tampa is one example of an ownership group that understood its role. The course is designed on land that wouldn't suggest a great course, but owners (Outback Steakhouse founders) Bob Basham, Bob Merritt, and Chris Sullivan had the wisdom to provide architect Steve Smyers with the support and freedom he needed to transform a relatively flat site into a vigorous, charismatic golf course.
At exceptional sites such as Sand Hills or Bandon Dunes it was equally important for respective owners Dick Youngscap and Mike Keiser to first select the appropriate architects for the project, then encourage creativity in getting the most from the land. Had either owner meddled too much and insisted the course be something it couldn't or restricted the architect's hand in any way, those world-renowned courses wouldn't be what they are today.
Active, inspirational ownership is nothing new. In the era before golf courses were built as amenities to housing developments and before the age of the sprawling, campus-style resorts, many of the greatest American courses were the products of singular minds. It's hard to imagine what American golf would be without Henry Fownes at Oakmont, George Crump at Pine Valley, or Bobby Jones at Augusta National.
There does seem to be a resurgence in the last 15 or 20 years in the powerful owner. In addition to Keiser and Youngscap, men such as Peter Bailey (Cuscowilla), Herb Kohler (the Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run courses in Wisconsin), Jack Lupton (Honors Course), and Steve Wynn (Shadow Creek), to name a few, have provided just the right amounts of inspiration, encouragement and restraint.
Active owner involvement, however, cuts both ways. There are times when an owner can be too involved, or misuse vast sums of money.
Most architects will tell you that the typical design/construct relationship with an owner is a series of battles and compromises. But just because a person has money doesn't mean they have taste. An owner might want to renovate unnecessarily, have a bizarre feature installed, add bunkers that don't make sense, import invasive trees, or siphon extra land for the clubhouse and parking lot that is needed for the routing.
To some degree the owner is always correct: it's his or her money, after all. But when poor judgment threatens the potential integrity of a golf course - which is, we presume, the purpose of the project - it's the architect's responsibility to educate the owner of a better decision.
Some well-known architects won't compromise. They go to lengths to illustrate their vision to prospective clients, educate them on the land attributes or the historical importance of an older course if it is a remodel job. Often their sales presentations are illuminating to owners, who then jump on board enthusiastically. If they don't, these principled architects are willing to walk away from a job if necessary.
Conversely, there are architects in the business to make money and grow their firms, and therefore are more like contractors who will build what they are asked. Others can't afford to turn down any job and will do whatever they are paid to do. Nobody should begrudge either.
Ideally there will exist an expanding middle ground. In the absence of a Youngscap or Keiser, the more architects that are willing to walk away from jobs or fight the good fight to persuade an owner to defer to their professional abilities and judgments, the more the median golf course intelligence quotient might rise.
Turning down business is never an easy task, and most architects don't have the luxury of doing so. But many do, and should, when the integrity of the golf course and the design profession are at stake.
In the end it will always be an owner's decision to sponsor and enable either a good or mediocre golf course. That's the way it should be. But bad decisions are made in business all the time. Perhaps with a little more education and firmness across the board, fewer of those bad decisions will spill over onto the courses we play.
And the next time you see a feature on a golf course that makes you scratch your head, don't immediately blame the architect.
Simply select where you want to play, find a tee time deal, and golf now!