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The great golf marketing conspiracy theory

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

It occurred to me the other day while playing the signature hole on a championship course with 18 signature holes - one that claims to have been designed by a big name PGA Tour star but wasn't.

Golf course marketing can be such a large crock of you know what, you couldn't even stir it with a 580cc driver. Signature this, championship that, play where the pros play and on and on. Golfers are being sold everything but the course these days, and it is almost as if they don't care. Some of these marketing ploys even work on golf writers and editors who are quick to accept the public relations poppycock as gospel and pass it along to unsuspecting readers by way of objective "editorial."

Shame on us for not digging deeper and uncovering any and all truths. Damn those deadlines. But the great sell continues to spread like a virus, and writers, readers and all golfers are subject to infection.

It's not like this is a new concept. Robert Trent Jones Sr. was a master marketer, single-handedly creating the notion of a signature hole in the early 1960s. Scorecards across America came off the presses flaunting photogenic par 3s, 4s and 5s that may or may not have had anything to do with the rest of the layout.

Case in point being the Dunes Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The par-3 9th hole, with its picturesque backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, is the one hole attached to all the club's marketing materials. Meanwhile, the remainder of the course sells strategy over scenery. A championship course at its best, assuming that term has any tangible value anymore.

Jones - beyond reproach in his overall contributions to the game - did usher in an era of selling persona over project. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have become the most proficient (or should we say prolific) at this business over the past two decades. The King and Bear became so adept at the practice, there's even a course monikered in their honor at the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine.

It is naïve to blame the "player/designers," however, for the industry's addiction to the big name. Nicklaus, Palmer, Gary Player, and Ray Floyd just supply what the market demands. What's amazing is how sophisticated the farce has become. A base level, Nicklaus designed course may not even make it's way onto the Bear's Blackberry.

For a few (hundred thousand) dollars more, Nicklaus will guarantee "x" number of site visits, a couple slick photos with plans in hand, and even a ceremonial tee shot at ribbon cutting. Meanwhile back at the ranch, a team of crack designers bang that bad boy out in less than 12 months with little or no credit.

This is not to say Nicklaus doesn't know his design stuff inside and out - his involvement in landmark courses like Harbour Town Golf Links is underreported. But business is business and 270 design credits keep the Golden Bear golden.

Palmer has been open about his involvement, or lack thereof, in many of his projects. Time was, a Palmer designed course essentially meant an Ed Seay designed course. Then it was almost as if Seay himself became the marketable name, even if it was Vicky Martz, Erik Larsen or Harrison Minchew doing the design work.

Then there are the owners who want to market the fact that their course was wrought by a "hands-on" architect with dirt stains on his shirt from all the field work and coffee stains on his teeth from all the late nights. Pete Dye has made a career out of this market niche, or more accurately Dye's career has been made because of it.

The most recent design rage is minimalism, proof positive that golf course owners will do anything to keep up with or blow by the Jones (or Nicklauses or Palmers). Under this scenario, up-and-coming architects are handed the keys to kick-ass pieces of property and paid handsomely for doing less. Who says these designer types aren't brilliant?.

So it is with baited beer breath and worn out laptops that we scribes await the debut of golf course architecture's version of strange bedfellows. Nicklaus - the consummate hands off earth mover - is teaming with Tom Doak - the reining hands-on minimalist - on a new upscale private course on Long Island called Sebonak Golf Club.

Owner/developer Michael Pascucci committed to Nicklaus before stumbling upon Doak's white hot Renaissance Golf Design. On the surface, it appears Pascucci had the decency to honor his initial commitment to Nicklaus' firm. But the fact that we've already got our golf shorts in a wad about one yet-to-be-built private course in an area of the country with a six month golf season reeks of the great golf marketing machine.

Which begs the question: if we know we're being set up, can we still be fooled? Hard to say. Just send us our press releases and invitations to opening day. I've got $100 on the Golden Bear nailing a still hard at work Doak with his first tee shot.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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