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Interview: Designer Clyde Johnston

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

HILTON HEAD, SC – If you’ve played golf in the Carolinas, chances are you’ve walked the fairways of a Clyde Johnston designed golf course. Johnston is known for his ability to turn out a playable layout at an affordable price, and you can bet that this talent hasn’t been lost on developers.

In contrast to Tom Fazio and Pete Dye, Johnston is more of the workingman’s golf course architect. His father, Johnny “C.B.” Johnston was the golf coach at Wake Forest back in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, and helped recruit Arnold Palmer to what was then a tiny Piedmont college.

Johnston learned the craft from his father, initially, but went on to study landscape architecture at North Carolina State University, and to work for legendary course designer Willard Byrd in Atlanta.

During his 13 years with Byrd’s firm, Johnston worked on a variety of different courses throughout the southeast. Working on anything from routing holes to shaping bunkers, he began to assemble a yeoman-like knowledge of the south’s varied terrain and even more varied personalities.

In 1987, Johnston finally decided to open his own shop. Today, what was once a tiny one-man firm is now a bustling office with three full-time associates, and a “who’s who” of golf course projects and clients. Johnston has developed a reputation among course owners and superintendents for being easy to work with, and his known for his appreciation of what it takes to build and properly maintain a sensible golf course.

Contributing Writer Shane Sharp sat down with Johnston to pick his brain about the golf course design business, and the future of the game.

SS: What attracted you to the golf course design business?

CJ:I grew up in golf. My dad was a golf professional that played golf at Wake Forest when it was Wake Forest College. His senior year he was named golf coach and became the first full time golf coach at Wake back in 1947. He actually helped recruit Arnold Palmer. When he got back from the Korean War, he got back into the golf business.

He designed courses for people for nothing, so I kind of referred to him as an amateur designer. I used to watch him because he had a design table down in the basement. We built Plaster of Paris and chicken wire models, and that is what spurred my interest in it. I went on to NC State because my dad thought that landscape architecture was good for the business side of it. I went to Atlanta to work for Willard Byrd for 13 years and then decided to set my own shingle out in 1987.

SS: What unique challenges and opportunities do the Carolinas offer a golf course architect?

CJ: A lot of variety, from the mountains to the shores in North Carolina and there is some variance in South Carolina, too. It is diverse terrain from one end of the state to the other. That dirt down in Myrtle Beach is some of the worst damn dirt in the world. I have finished eight courses in Myrtle Beach and only one of them has had good soil, and that was Glen Dornoch.

SS: What direction is golf course design headed, and is it the right direction?

CJ: All the fancy golf courses are getting built and costing 10 to 12 million dollars and that is the wrong direction for golf. There is a game of one-upsmanship among real estate developers. We need to get a handle on delivering courses that are more playable and affordable. It is the average golfer that supports golf courses, not these high-end guys. There is no way I could afford it, so I am glad I get to play free.

SS: Are there any really good sites left in the Carolinas and around the U.S. for building a golf course?

CJ: Its not that the sites are bad, it’s just that things are more difficult in the larger populated areas. You have to assemble lots of tracts to get a piece of land that is developable. I have to believe that there are some really good sites left out there. You just have to get access to them and be there when somebody was ready to sell. Used to be that the architects helped the owners in selecting the land, but now it’s more like whatever is available. But the technology we have available to deal with things like drainage makes it easier to deal with. The case in point is Myrtle Beach.

SS: Can you name of couple of your favorite courses that your firm designed?

Glen Dornoch and Wachesaw Plantation East in Myrtle Beach, and Old South and Old Carolina in Hilton Head. But I am kind of proud of them all, really.

SS: Could you name a couple of your favorite courses that you firm didn’t design?

CJ: I don’t have to go very far from where I am sitting to name them. I have never really been a Nicklaus fan, but Colleton River is a really neat course that is really playable. I played Harbor Town for the first time yesterday after they refinished it, and it is a classic. Belfair is incredible with its two Fazio courses.

SS: What are some Clyde Johnston trademarks that golfers can look for?

If anything, if anyone ever notices, it's not in the green shape or bunker shape. I just try to make them challenging yet fair for the average player. The courses from the back tees will be a challenge for the better golfers. I like to start out easy and finish strong. Holes 16, 17, and 18 will always be difficult.

I use different bunker styles from course. I don’t hide too many things, but I don’t flash bunkers up too high. I like to tell people that I did not go to the penal school of design. I may have a hole that is hard, but its not going to be penal. I like to analyze the site and see what nature has given me. It makes the course fit in so much better.

SS: What has changed the most in golf course design over the past 20 years?

Design itself has changed quite a bit. It has become more of an art form. The internal structure of golf, the drainage and the irrigation, has gotten much better. Now we have a multitude of contractors that all they do is build golf courses.

Thirty years ago you would just grab the local boys and see what they could do. The golf cart won’t go away, but there has been more of an emphasis placed on walking. The mid range guys like myself have always stressed playability because playability equals maintainability. Fazio and Dye don’t because the owners usually have enough money to maintain their courses.


Ocean Harbour Golf Links, Calabash, NC
Jacksonville G&CC , Jacksonville, FL (With Fuzzy Zoeller)
Oak Point Golf Course, Johns Island, SC
Andover Golf & CC, Lexington, KY
Island West Golf Club, Hilton Head, SC (With Fuzzy Zoeller)
Southerness Golf Club, Atlanta, GA
Old South Golf Links, Hilton Head, SC
Eagle Harbor Golf Club, Jacksonville, FL
Covered Bridge Golf Club, Sellersburg, IN (With Fuzzy Zoeller)
Angel's Trace North Course, Calabash, NC
Angel's Trace South Course, Calabash, NC
Chestnut Hills Golf Club, Ft. Wayne, IN (With Fuzzy Zoeller)
Wicked Stick Golf Links, Myrtle Beach, SC (With John Daly)
River Landing CC, Wallace, NC
Forest Greens GC, Dumfries, VA
Fox Den Country Club, Statesville, NC
Wachesaw East GC, Murrells Inlet, SC
Glen Dornoch Waterway Golf Links, Little River, SC
Old Carolina GL, Hilton Head Island, SC
Brunswick Plantation, 9 Hole Addition, Calabash, NC
River Bend Links, Tunica County, Mississippi (just south of Memphis, TN)
Timbergate Golf Club, Edinburgh, Indiana (with Fuzzy Zoeller)
River Landing CC; Third Nine Hole Addition, Wallace, NC
Norwood Park GC, Southwell, England
Hampton Golf Village, Cumming, Georgia
Springfield Golf Club, Fort Mill, SC
The Legends GC at Parris Island, Parris Island Marine Base, Beaufort, SC

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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Dates: December 11, 2017 - March 31, 2018
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