CHARLOTTE, N.C. - There came a time when he decided that Mexico was for him. The year was 1975 and golf course architect Robert von Hagge was on his way to design nine new holes for the Punta Verde golf course in San Luis Potosi.
His puddle jumper plane hummed like a buzz saw trying to clear the 14,000-foot Sierra Madre Mountains outside of Monterrey. Finally when it did barely attain sufficient altitude, the plane squirted between peaks and the thermals and up and down drafts like a hummingbird caught in a hurricane.
"It kept me in a constant fear and prayer mode," says von Hagge. "I did not know Mexico or the Mexican people very well at that time and I often thought (then) what am I doing here and why am I doing this?
These were legitimate questions. At the time, von Hagge had a successful international firm in Houston with a glowing reputation for designing playable, challenging golf courses. He had lineage and connections galore in the U.S. - his father, Ben von Hagge, was a consulting associate for Donald Ross who had in turn, used his connections to secure Robert a spot in the Naval Academy. After his stint in the academy and graduating from Purdue University with a degree in landscape architecture, the young von Hagge hooked up with his mentor, renowned course designer Dick Wilson. By the early 1960's, von Hagge was humming along quite nicely in his own shop.
It would have been easy for von Hagge to stay the heck out of Mexico. Building golf courses south-of-the-border in the 1970's was about as easy as going to a crap shot in Puerto Vallarta drunk on Tequila and walking away a rich man. You could count the number of Mexican construction firms versed in golf course building on one, small hand. And as von Hagge quickly came to find out, cultural differences would be as much of a challenge as the severe shortage of front-end loaders and bulldozers.
"I soon discovered that the Mexican people will not bother to give you project updates," von Hagge says. "Gringos are used to reporting even if nothing has changed and the project is moving ahead as planned. The Mexican people feel that reporting everything moving along according to plan is a waste of time. They are also reluctant to advise about any negative factors or events, which will often occur during productions and can be the most damaging. They simply do not like to deliver bad news."
Bad news. The two words were hardly in von Hagge's vocabulary anyway. His first job after leaving the friendly confines of Wilson's firm was to convert a solid waste dump in Boca Raton, Florida into the type of golf course Thurston Howe the third might join. He was paid $25,000 to redesign the Boca Rio Golf Club, and von Hagge couldn't have been happier.
Fast forward to today and von Hagge looks back on that first plane ride into San Luis Potosi and his first job at the Boca Rio Golf Club with a philosophical appreciation. Such perspective is easy to come by when you are the king of golf course design south-of-border. With 11 courses to his credit von Hagge and his partners Rick Baril and Michael Smelek are the most prolific golf course architects working in Mexico today. Their latest project, El Tigre Golf Course at Paradise Village in Nuevo Vallarta, is going over like a cold margarita on a sultry, Mexican summer day.
The irony is, Von Hagge's popularity in Mexico is inversely related to his professional status in the U.S. Had the Chicago native not focused so much of his professional efforts abroad, his name may be mentioned in the same breath as Pete Dye, Tom Fazio and Jack Nicklaus. It is easy to forget that von Hagge designed the Blue Monster at Doral Country Club in Miami and more recently, the TPC Woodlands in Houston. Essentially, von Hagge swallowed his ego like the worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle, eschewing American critical acclaim to become the industry's leading international course designer.
Regrets? Hardly. When von Hagge talks about the future of golf course design, not a sentence goes by without a mention of his beloved Mexico. And who can blame him? If you've ever seen the Sierra Madre foothills disappear into Palmar Bay near Ixtapa or the desert meet the sea in Los Cabos, it's hard to get excited about another flat piece of marsh land in Florida or South Carolina.
"The future for golf (and new courses) for Mexico is virtually unlimited," he says. "This is due to the magnificent properties still available in abundance and the present ease of the political and environmental permit process."
Von Hagge has come a long way since that $25,000 job in Boca Raton. Today his international fees for course design come in around $1 million. You get the feeling, though, if the project was somewhere deep in the heart of Mexico and the puddle jumper was fueled up and ready to go, von Hagge would pay a million bucks just to be there.
July 9, 2002