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Hailing the regional architect

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

There was a time in American golf when course design was a hobby and not a career. "Architects" were usually players who laid out holes because they were more familiar with the game than anyone else. Far from the high-stakes business it's now become, where a handful of architects command enormous salaries, architects in the early years often worked for free.

Today golf course design is a global operation. Name recognition and brand awareness is almost as important in architecture as it is in hamburgers or automobiles. The busiest practitioners fly around the world and work with millionaires and staggering budgets. Nice work if you can get it.

As consumers we play our role in the name game by traveling hundreds and even thousands of miles to play sensational Jones and Nicklaus courses, paying outrageous sums to belong to a club with a Fazio label, and obsessing over the rumors of the latest Dye or Coore project.

And why not? This is the stuff that gets the blood boiling, the realm where golf masterpieces are created. We'd also rather talk about a Philip Johnson skyscraper than the recently redesigned storefront façade at the strip mall, or the new Frank Gehry museum over the new bus terminal downtown.

Most architects, however, don't market their services internationally and aren't handed dream projects with any kind of regularity. In fact most struggle to make a living, taking jobs wherever they can get them. That means working locally and with minimal budgets, often rebuilding bunkers and tees at some dilapidated course. Most would kill to work just once at a site like Bandon, Oregon or have at their disposal half the money that goes into a typical Tom Fazio or Rees Jones project.

Yet such regional architects are the lifeblood of the industry, and not just the design industry but the entire golf industry. Most of us don't have the access, time, or money to play Top 100 level courses with any kind of regularity, so we get in most of our rounds locally. And who designed the neighborhood course? It might have been Art Hills, but there's a good chance it was built by someone you don't read about in a magazine and can't identify by just a surname.

It's doubtful that any career-minded architect appreciates being labeled as "regional" - golf course architecture is already a difficult and thankless enough job without being stereotyped - but it's important to now and again swing the spotlight away from the marquee and onto those who have helped give definition and character to their particular areas.

With apologies to all those left off this list, here's a shout-out to a few architects who deserve attention for the contributions they've made to various regional flavors.

Jeff Brauer - A swath of his courses cut though the center of the Midwest (recent notables include Giants Ridge in Minnesota and Colbert Hills at Kansas State University), but Brauer will most likely be recognized for his work in Texas; it's difficult to play golf in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and not end up on one of his courses.

Lloyd Clifton and Clifton, Ezell, Clifton - Clifton is one of the elder statesmen in Florida golf and for some reason one of the most under-recognized. His name appears on dozens of courses between Daytona and Orlando, some dating back to the 1950s. In almost every case they remain thoughtful, distinct, and enduring. His current company, which includes his son and Ken Ezell, is one of the secret weapons in Orlando-area golf.

Lester George - George may not remain hidden for long due to the praise that the Kinloch Golf Club near Richmond, Virginia received in 2002, but prior to his emergence as a national name he was known by insiders as one of the best emerging architects in the mid-Atlantic states. Here's hoping that George's ultra-strategic style travels well.

Ron Garl - Garl's portfolio is actually quite wide-ranging, including new designs in Costa Rica and Canada, but the level at which his courses dominate the landscape of Florida's west central region is simply astounding. If Art Hills is ‘The Prince of Naples' then Garl is most certainly ‘The King of Ft. Myers.'

Tom Jackson - North and South Carolina are full of "big name" design tags but Tom Jackson's body of work there can be viewed as the platform that allows them to stand; take away his workhorse designs and the regional scene might begin to seem pretentious and even forbidding.

Clyde Johnston - Like Jackson, Johnston's Carolina designs are the backbone to a region rich with golf options. His simple and stylish courses are not only frequent, they're the one that people play. His peers admire him too, as Johnston was recently elected President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects.

Kelly Blake Moran - Moran began his career designing courses for Robert von Hagge, often in Central and South America. Today his individual work has shifted to a new base in Pennsylvania where his contemporary designs are helping to inject a much-appreciated dose of accessible golf into a traditionally exclusive golf region.

Robin Nelson - Nearly every major architect takes a turn building a course in the fantasy landscape of Hawaii, but Robin Nelson has virtually set up camp in the state. Nelson's output in Hawaii and the Pacific Rim crushes the competition, and if it weren't for his work there the locals might have to check into the resorts to play golf at all.

Dick Phelps - Perhaps no one can be more accurately described as a regional architect as Phelps for his Colorado work. His work is so ubiquitous that it's possible that some Coloradoans have never played on a course designed by anyone else. Mariana Butte, Foothills, Saddle Rock, and Grand Lake remain some of the state's most beloved courses. Today Phelps works with his partner, son Rick Phelps.

Earle Stone - Life along the Gulf of Mexico is quiet and relaxed, and those terms could also describe Stone's lovable courses. The Dean of the Gulf region has been defining golf in those parts for ages and, like most on this list, Stone's are the designs that the people who live there play.

Mike Young - Young has literally carved his niche in North Georgia where the scenery is beautiful but the terrain is often too rugged for seamless golf. His public access courses however, from Wolf Creek near Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta to Cateechee near the South Carolina border, express the intense qualities of the land with grace.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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