SUNSET BEACH, N.C. - Getting Tim Cate to talk about Tim Cate is about as easy conquering one of his "Big Cat" courses at Ocean Ridge Plantation. You know the ones - Tiger's Eye and Panther's Run. Oh, and by the way, The Thistle Golf Club and The Players Club at St. James Plantation;Tim Cate designs, one and all.
Since 1993, Cate has meticulously constructed some of the Grand Strand'smost decorated courses. Nevertheless, the question remains. Who is this guy?
"I am a registered landscape architect and a land planner," Cate says,eschewing his golf course architect title. "I went to school for landscape architecture and eventually got interested in golf course design."
The Grand Strand is overflowing with courses designed by the big names: Nicklaus, Fazio, Dye, Byrd, Palmer, and Strantz. None of these heavy weights has been more prolific than Cate over the past decade. When his latest labor of love, Leopard's Chase, opens sometime in 2005, Cate will have 108 golf holes to his name.
"It will take what I did at Tiger's Eye to the next level," Cate says about Ocean Ridge's fourth and final course.
But will it take Cate's career to the next level? The question rolls off of the Atlanta native like hard putt on a slick green. With a successful local practice and two daughters, Cate isn't interested in floating his name around the country for new projects. Nor does he seem to care about being perceived as one of the industry's "hot" names.
Still, a man's got to make a living.
"I have some remodeling projects, and I just did a nine-hole addition to a course in Atlanta," Cate says. "I did the new nine on the Members Course at St. James and I am bidding on a project in Virginia. But I don't like hanging around in airports and flying in planes. I did that with Willard andI don't want to do it again."
Willard would be Willard Byrd, one of the Southeast's most prolific golf course architects. Cate took a job in Byrd's Hilton Head office after graduating from the University of Georgia and a brief stint in a landscape architecture firm. In 1993, he opened a satellite office for Byrd in Little River. Two and a half years later, at the urging of some friends, Cate hung his own shingle.
"It was tough, because when you work for Willard, you are his enemy and when you leave him you are even more of an enemy," Cate says.
Shortly after he left Byrd's fold, Cate says the diminutive designer cornered him in a parking lot at Ocean Ridge.
"He pulled up and got out of the car with some thick file," Cate says with a chuckle. "He is a little, little man. And he starts pounding this file saying, 'boy, I got a file on you.' I have no idea what he was talking about."
Unlike former Byrd protégé Clyde Johnston, Cate says he and "Willard" got along well enough to get by. Mentor and student even shared the occasional glass of wine. Not exactly greeting card material except Byrd, a deeply religious man, was known as a tee-totaler.
"He even bought me a truck to get around in," Cate says.
When it came to golf course design, though, the two were often at odds.
"He liked to design these really municipal looking courses, and I didn't want to go that route," Cate says. "I thought there was more to it (golf course design) than that."
For Cate, the essence of the craft is routing holes and attention to detail.
"Once you learn the mechanics, it comes down to how well you can look at apiece of property and route a golf course through it," he says. "The routing plan is the most important part of the end product. But the golfers are going to notice the details."
Those details are on full display at Tiger's Eye. Cate's elaborate bunkers, massive coquina boulders and uncanny ability to frame green complexes played a large part in the course being named to Golf Digest's 2003-04ranking of America's Top 100 Public Courses. At Panther's Run and the Player's Club, where he wasn't afforded as generous a budget, Cate's routings take full advantage of naturally occurring wetlands and elevation changes.
While it's not mentioned in the same breath as Tiger's Eye, The Thistle Golf Club may be one of the truest testaments to Cate's talents. Tiger's Eye sits on one of the choicest tracts in the county, with 60-plus feet of elevation changes, pristine lakes and thick strands of pine trees. The Thistle's 27linksy holes, however, are routed through a pancake flat site with only small patches of trees. The strength of Cate's design holds strong, despite the lack of natural beauty.
"There is a blend between the traditional Scottish experience and Tim's understanding of the natural features of this area that makes this course what it is," says Thistle golf director Dan Oschmann.
Developers and golf course owners also catch a break with Cate. Because of his relative obscurity outside of the Grand Strand, and because he works primarily alone, Cate maintains reasonable design fees.
"I am not at the million dollar a golf course guy, but I feel like I can deliver just as good of a product," Cate says. "Look at Tiger's Eye. I think that is as good of a course as you'll find around here. My golf courses are popular and staying full during these down times in this ultra competitive market."
Cate should know. He's been known to hang around the 18th greens and 19thholes of his courses listening for player comments as they walk off the course or settle in for a post round cold one. Not that any golfer could pick him out of a lineup.
Cate - a forty-something - is a mere babe in golf architecture years. With more designs like Tiger's Eye and the Thistle, he won't be just another face in the design crowd for long.
June 19, 2003