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TravelGolf.com Interview: Teeing Off with Palmer Course Design's Ed Seay

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Ed SeayArnold Palmer, due to his personality and magnanimous presence in professional golf, is credited with being golf's greatest ambassador. For nearly 50 years he's brought golf to average America, becoming a favorite figure and a symbol of the game's accessibility. This reputation surely is also enhanced by the fact that he has put his name on nearly 300 golf course designs throughout the world through his firm Palmer Course Design, which opened in 1971.

Those familiar with golf course architecture know that when you talk about an Arnold Palmer course, you are also talking about Ed Seay. In fact, most knowledgeable golfers and writers refer to the firm's products as Palmer/Seay designs.

Ed Seay has been Palmer's business partner and the practical, everyday force driving Palmer Course Design for 30 years. A graduate of the University of Florida (1961) with a degree in Landscape Architecture, Seay has been involved in all the Palmer courses, ranging over 20 countries, as well as a number on his own.

It's impossible to pigeonhole Palmer/Seay golf courses. You could play ten of their courses consecutively, ten constructed within five years of each other even, and not be able to tell that they were done by the same firm. Their courses rarely show any hardened signature elements or recurring trademarks. The best one can say in the way of categorization is that most of their designs strive for beauty and are accommodating to the average player, with features that flow easily into one another and show off continuous visual lines.

SawgrassIt seems true that Palmer and Seay approach each project without any preconceived notions or intents. As a firm they have, in a word, range. This is evidenced in the existence of their many lovely and straightforward courses contrast by some fairly intense designs such as the new Golf Club at North Hampton in Fernandina Beach, FL, where over 1.5 million cubic yards of earth were moved during construction.

Ed Seay makes it all happen. His résumé extends deeper than almost anyone's, and few in the business can match his affability and candor. With Palmer Course Designs at the height of its popularity, Seay is as busy today as he's ever been.

TravelGolf.com Senior Writer Derek Duncan spoke with Seay in late May about the dramatic new North Hampton, his partnership with Palmer, and his thoughts on the ever-changing nature of golf course design. These are the highlights from their interview.

Duncan: The Golf Club at North Hampton is a very bold design.

Seay: We had two opportunities there. One, we got a chance to put some of the golf holes in a core pattern where there's not real estate on both sides, or even one side. Two, we got a very good piece of ground. The soil was good to work with. It was sand, and we moved a lot of earth there.

Duncan: I was told over one million cubic yards.

Seay: A million and a half.

Duncan: Is that the most you've ever moved for a course?

Seay: Oh no. But that's a lot of earth to move on a flat surface. We've moved over 50 million (cubic yards) in Taiwan and Japan, but that's in the mountains.

Duncan: The King & The Bear (at World Golf Village in St. Augustine, an Arnold Palmer/Jack Nicklaus collaboration) has received so much publicity lately and has been described by many to be a "difficult" golf course and of real championship merit, but it seems North Hampton might even be more dramatic. Do you agree?

Seay: Well, we did them both so...they're two totally different styles. The King & The Bear is more or less wall-to-wall grass and North Hampton is more of a links style. The King & The Bear is more U.S.A.

Duncan: As was the case with North Hampton, if your firm is given the freedom to design any type of golf course it wants, will it, and you in particular, choose to do something dramatic?

Spring IslandSeay: Absolutely. I think the beauty of the sport, the beauty of the game, is that if you look at the overall picture, you never have the same playing field. They (the sites) are all different. Those of us in the business who are designing and building these things, that's the only place that we should be remiss is if we start duplicating or creating the same things over.

Duncan: I'm sure you've heard the criticisms levied against large golf course design firms that lament the fact that they actually aren't creative, that they simply have a repertoire of golf holes that they repeatedly lay out over whatever site they are on, that they build much the same course over and over again. Do you see this from your vantage point?

Seay: Do you think that's [merely] a repertoire of holes out there (at North Hampton)? Have you seen The King & The Bear? Well, The King & The Bear is totally different than any of the courses we've done in this area, and we've done six of them, and then North Hampton is totally different than that, and they were going on at basically the same time.

Duncan: How difficult is it to continue to create new holes and come up with fresh golf course ideas?

Spring IslandSeay: I don't know if it's difficult-it's the fun part, the part that turns the juices on if you will, to come up with something that you haven't done before.

Duncan: Is there one particular thought or idea that influences every course you design?

Seay: Yes. Be as varied and different as possible. Try not to repeat anything on any given golf hole or golf course. That's the difficulty in explaining and in designing-when you draw a given green complex with bunkers and mounds and you turn that over to a bulldozer operator and he interprets that drawing and you say, "That's really good," well you can bet the next one he's going to do is going to have 2/3 of the characteristics of the one he just did, regardless of what you drew. It (the design) has to be so dramatically different because he knows you like that. You have to make sure you give him a license of creativity, a pride of authorship to use his ability to have some fun and determine a different look. Some of the best stuff we've ever done was the interpretation of that bulldozer operator.

Duncan: So many of the par five holes on Palmer designed courses offer risk/reward, gambling opportunities. Is it fair to say that this is a trademark of your courses?

Seay: We like a 340-yard par four where you can drive it. If you want to cut the dogleg and carry the bunkers or the water or whatever, you can [choose] to hit the ball that way and roll it right up on that green. Same thing with a par five. We don't ever try to close somebody off. It's a matter of not trying to go beyond the skill of the player.

I've always thought that when you...go out and play if you hit the ball 94 times and you score 105 then you've knocked a couple out-of-bounds, left a few in the bunker, three-putted a couple of holes, knocked some in the water. However if you've hit the golf ball 94 times on a different golf course and score 120, the course has got you. There are some penalties there that you are not able to negotiate, and that's what we try not to do.

Duncan: At Palmer Course Design, who sets the agenda and gets final, or even initial, say in what any given design will be?

SawgrassSeay: Myself or Arnold. We don't dictate that. Every job we have I assign a project architect. He would make more visits than anyone else...[He] would make a visit every three to four weeks, I would go in about every third of fourth visit with him, and we also have a project coordinator and associate designer that we also assign to each project. The owner basically has from three to five people he can talk to about his job.

Duncan: I'm sure you get this question quite a bit: How involved is Arnold Palmer on any particular project?

Seay: From day one, from the time I hang up the phone or get a letter back that we've been hired or have been selected to do a job, I tell him the basic concepts of what we've talked about and we give him a layout and then we go over the grading plans and then we go into construction. Once he understands what we're doing we then bring him on site, not to show him a hole in the ground or a pile of dirt, we show him a roughed-in golf hole, so he has an idea of the complexity of each hole. We try to have at least four to six or seven holes at a time for him to look at.

Duncan: Your lead designers must need to know your mind and Arnold Palmer's mind.

SawgrassSeay: Sure, but as I say, I've never tried to sit on them nor has Arnold. We want them to be as free and varied (as possible), and probably if there's a strength in our courses it's that very few people are going to be able to go out and walk on our golf courses and say we did it.

Duncan: How many projects does your firm have on the board at any given time?

Seay: Right now 61.

Duncan: What is the time frame for completion of all those?

Seay: That will probably take us through three years. Last year we opened 13 projects. In 1997 we opened nine, 1998 we opened seven, 1999 we opened five, 2000 we opened 13.

Duncan: Obviously business is growing for you. Do you see the increase in golf course construction continuing to rise in the near future?

Seay: I do, I don't see any slow down on it. I do see more accessible golf courses [being built]. There will always be those people that want to build a [private] club. Those are going to happen. But more and more you're going to see resort courses and courses that are accessible that you can drive right up to, like North Hampton.

Now when they build North Hampton out it will not surprise me that those members get together and go over to M.G. (Orender, President of Hampton Golf, Inc.) and say, "We want to buy this golf course from you," and they'll turn it private. That's what happens most of the time.

Duncan: What prompted you to get into golf course architecture?

Seay: Absolutely it was curiosity. My degree was in Landscape Architecture. We had a project that involved a golf course (and) the dean of the college was very, very sticky on research and preparation before you start design, therefore you'd have better read every reference book known to man. It was an eight-week project and if he even saw you in the design studio before four weeks you didn't have a prayer of passing that course. He just knew you didn't have enough time to study what you were doing.

In 1956 there were about 8,000 or 9,000 golf courses (in the country) and I couldn't find one piece of literature about how those suckers got there. That's what got my interest. I said, "These things got here somehow." I did a little snooping and asked the dean how do you get into this business.

When I graduated from college I went into the Marine Corps and when I'm getting ready to get out of that there were only 29 members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. I wasn't elected into the ASGCA until 1968.

Duncan: Early in your design career who were the architects that made the greatest impression on you?

Seay: There was one particularly who I worked for who taught me the way to design a golf course and understand construction, and I think he was to date the finest American golf course architect who ever lived. He died in 1977 but to me, to this day, he's still the very best. That was Ellis Maples. I was with Ellis for five and half years before I opened my own company.

Ellis was a golf professional and he worked for Donald Ross at Pinehurst, and his dad built the first four courses at Pinehurst, Frank Maples. Ellis became interested in design and D.J (Ross) was looking over his shoulder and guiding him into the design end of it, and he understood the (concept of) playability as well as anybody I've ever known. When I joined him it was pure luck that he needed somebody at the very moment I was getting out of the Marine Corps. I learned a great deal from Ellis. I started my own company early in 1971 and I began working on Sawgrass down here and a couple of courses in Georgia, then Arnold called me in September and that's when we went on our first job together in Japan.

Duncan: What are some of your favorite courses around the world?

TraleeSeay: I guess my favorite is Royal County Down (Ireland). I guess my second favorite would be Cypress Point, and then Pine Valley. But I'm always amazed when I play Cypress, no matter if it's back-to-back days or ten years apart, it's absolutely stunning when you go around that golf course. And I've played so many other really nifty golf courses that are little country clubs out of the way that only have 180 members but they're still fun golf courses. You can see a lot of golf courses that have never been touched, they were still built back in the 1900's and 1920's and 30's with drag pans and mules, and they're just as much fun to play-probably more fun now because the turf industry has gotten so sophisticated.

Duncan: What courses have you seen built in the last 15 years that you think will still be significant 50 years from now?

Seay: I think the work that has been done in the last 20 or 30 years, the modern architecture from 1960 on, is every bit as good if not better than the earlier courses. I know they're built better. The methods and equipment we have to build them and the results of that construction are much more solid. The designs are more creative. Back in those days they would go out and pick the site that was best suited to a golf course. Starting in 1960, and even in the 1970's, you were running out of that luxury of picking the site. You were handed a site and [told] "Let me see you go do it." You had to be creative. You had to take a site or a portion of that site that wasn't necessarily ideal (and build a golf course on it) because the developer took the good stuff and the golf course designer and the architect got the crap. So if you weren't any good, it showed in the golf course.

Duncan: When you build a golf course now, how important is the site and the natural features with which you are working?

SawgrassSeay: Not as important. Of course when you get a (good) natural site it's rare and it's wonderful...but take that site up at North Hampton or The Plantation or even The King & The Bear-it was dead flat. There was nothing there. So, what is it? The client (has got to be) willing to spend the money, let the designer go out and be creative and do something (with the land). That's the difference.

Duncan: Do you believe there are still great gold sites available in America?

Seay: Oh absolutely, they're out there.

Duncan: Can they ever become golf courses?

Seay: I don't ever know, for the simple reason of [the] environment. If in fact they are coastal, it would have so be a very special case, or if they've got environmentally sensitive lands or areas within the site, that's going to prohibit it. There are a lot of variables we didn't have 30 years ago.

Duncan: In your mind is there an ideal, or a dream golf site? Can you imagine the perfect landscape on which someday you'd like to build a golf course, and what is that? Or have you already done that at Tralee (Ireland)?

TraleeSeay: We've had a couple of great sites over in Ireland. We did Tralee on the coast and we're going back and doing that again. It was marvelous up at Spring Island in South Carolina with 600-year-old oak trees in the low country in the tidal marshes. It's an absolutely spectacular site. That's the kind of site you get excited (about), you're so concerned about not to screwing it up. You're trying to put something soft and really nifty in there that's still really fun to play.

I think that if you had me write a description I would say (it would be) a coastal site. Big dunes.

Duncan: In this country that site is pretty rare.

Seay: They're gone. There may be one or two that pop up, but when you get them you just cherish doing them. Now you've got to like that style of architecture and playability. When you enter those kinds of situations you're throwing another element at the player and at the game, and that element (is) the elements: the wind and the rain and the blowing sand-it's a different environment to play golf in. When they played golf down here at my golf course, Sawgrass, they played the TPC here (in) '76, '77, '78, and '79, the first year they had 35 knot winds, the second year they had 45 and 50 knot gusts, and that was common. They moved inland, just exactly a half a mile away, the highest winds they've had at Sawgrass (The Stadium Course) have maybe been 10 or 12 knots. It's a whole different ballgame.

I'm saying the ideal site because I like that look, I love that dunes look.

Duncan: What is the best golf course you've done, or your favorite?

Seay: Sawgrass-that was under water. Twelve of the eighteen (holes). We could never do Sawgrass today because the Environmental Wetlands Act for the State of Florida was enacted during construction of that golf course in 1973.

Spring Island is a great one. There's one up in Wisconsin called The Bog. There's one out in California which is probably as fine a desert course as you'll ever see called The Tradition at La Quinta. We just finished one in Minneapolis called the TPC at Minneapolis/Twin Cities. It's a terrific track. North Hampton. I'd stack that-you let that grow in like it should be and we get that proper dunes look, and get all that soil amendment out of those dunes, they sprayed it in order to hold it, but you let all that start to deteriorate and get that wind-swept, natural look by the end of this summer, I think it can hold its head with any of them.

Duncan: What's changed the most in golf course architecture since 1971? Is it the environmental restrictions?

Seay: That, the environmental requirements, and the equipment we're using.

Duncan: How exactly does the newer equipment aid you? Does it mean you can build courses more quickly?

Seay: We can build faster, more solid, more soundly. I mean everything works in the favor of construction. [It] also allows you to do some things that they couldn't back in the old days. I hear so much nowadays about how you can build golf courses without moving earth, about how you should do more with less, well that's a bunch of crap. You may not have to move a lot of dirt but you make more with less because the site allowed you to do that. But if you get a flat site you'd better move some dirt because otherwise you wouldn't have much.

Duncan: Are there designers in the business who you think simply crank out the same holes over and over again?

Seay: Not like they used to. Back in the old days, yes.

Duncan: What are the old days to you?

Seay: The '50's and '60's. In the early '70's. I think in the '80's we got absolutely nuts. But that's not totally the designer's or the architect's fault. We got so difficult in the '80's, but that's when the ratings came in and (so did) a lot of Pete's (Pete Dye) courses, which were very creative, but you couldn't play the sum bitches. He'll tell you that. But he was asked to do that because the guys put such marketing emphasis on the ratings. And if you look closely at how golf courses are rated some of the aspects of the ratings have nothing to do with golf or the playability of the game. I mean, do you have caddies? Are the greens and tees within 150 feet of each other? What's that got to do with it? It's got nothing to do with it because when the owner says, "I want a lot behind this green and I want a lot across the street next to that tee," there automatically is 360 feet. That's a football field or more between them and you haven't got anything to say about it.

Duncan: You talked about how the design game has changed in the last 20 and 30 years. How do you see golf course architecture evolving over the next 10 years?

Seay: I think it will stay more in line with what we're doing now. We're going back to a little more traditional golf, we're getting wider and softer, we're not getting so radical, but we're creating some really different and varied golf courses. The sites are getting more consistently the same.

The BogThere's going to be a few breakthroughs [concerning outstanding natural sites], but...I don't know that they'll happen like we've seen in the last 15 or 20 years. But when you take companies like ours, [then] you read that the young bucks on these jobs (every day of the week) -when I first started in this business I was on every project I had probably two or three times a week, just going from job to job to job, just making sure I was watching it and dogging it, watching it and dogging it, and it suddenly dawned on me: you know why I could do that? That's all the work I had. Now you get 60 jobs and you know, I travel 9½ months out of the year, and our guys are on the job.

If you have a competent, good, experienced contractor and you know what you're doing as an architect and you draw those plans and write those specifications you can turn it over to them and let them go, and then go out there and make sure they've done it right. Now I'm not saying that you shouldn't go out and look at it and tweak it...but there's no way that we want, if you will, a trademark. I don't want somebody to go out there and saying, "Arnie and Ed did that. That's a Palmer course there." [If that happens it means] we got lazy and started to do something over and over and over.

This was pretty cool-I played golf with Ron Whitten about two weeks ago at Scioto (Ohio), and he said to me, "Well there's one nifty thing that I really like about your golf courses," and I said, "What's that Ron?" because he knows how I feel about the ratings and (that) we've never played that game, we've never gone after it, he said, "Well, when you talk to people about playing your golf courses they say, 'We love the Palmer courses because they're fun to play.'" Now if that is a trademark I'll take it all day long.

It's a game. Years ago a fellow wrote an article about us and it said 'The Palmer-Seay Fun Machine,' and I liked that. I like people to say they had a good time on [our] golf courses, say, "We could play on your golf course every day." To me, that's the trademark I want.

SawgrassI don't think either Arnold or myself care to have the ogre-I mean to build a tough golf course. Any golf course we've ever done, you let me set the pins and put the tee markers back and cut the fairways, I won't change a thing on the golf course except mowing patterns in the fairway and greens...and there's just a handful of the 300 that I've been involved in that you couldn't hold a major championship on.

Think about it. You let the rough grow to six inches, you let the fairways grow tight in to 85 and 90 feet, stimp those greens at 12, you water the fairways and don't water the greens, and you can hold the U.S. Open or PGA there.

Duncan: That sounds like a U.S.G.A. set-up

Seay: That's exactly what you've got. Now you can take any golf course and make it tough, but our idea about golf is not to make it tough, but make it fun. Hell, Arnold got in [hot water] over that (illegal Calloway) ERC 2 driver and all he said was, "I think it will really be fun for people to use." We wasn't proposing it for the tour or professionally. I mean can you imagine the guys whose career drive is 180 and all of a sudden he hits it 225? That's the fun part of it.

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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