Still on Course
Tom Weiskopf was terrific as a pro; he's turned out to be even better as a course designer
In 1990 Tom Weiskopf looked into his crystal golfball and predicted that the coming decade would see the best golf courses built since the late '30s, the golden age of course design. It was a daring and minority-of-one viewpoint. At the time designers were producing one sprawling, visually intimidating, punishing-to-play course after another, and the trend showed no sign of abating. The philosophy behind these "signature" courses was about as far from the subtle design brilliance of a Mackenzie, Ross, or Macdonald layout as you could possibly get. They were monuments to the course designers' egos.
As it turned out, Weiskopf was right. For the past nine years have seen the pendulum of golf course design swing dramatically back toward the philosophy of Mackenzie and Ross. The kicker is that some of the decade's—perhaps the century's—best examples of that philosophy are the work of Weiskopf and his former design partner, Jay Morrish.
Over the course of 11 years Weiskopf and Morrish created 28 spectacular layouts, six of which have been ranked in the Top 100 golf courses in the world: a percentage that no other designer or team has matched. This Weiskopf-Morrish shortlist of renown includes: Troon Golf and Country Club and the Monument Course at Troon North, both in Scottsdale; Forest Highlands Golf Club in Flagstaff; Double Eagle Club in Galena, Ohio; Shadow Glen the Golf Club in Olathe, Kansas; and Loch Lomond Golf Club in Scotland.
In 1994 Morrish retired from the partnership after a heart attack prompted him to cut back on his travel time and commitments; it was then that Weiskopf formed Tom Weiskopf Signature Designs, Inc. Since then he has completed the design of more than a dozen golf courses that are as fun to play as they are beautiful to look at, including the much acclaimed Ridge Course at Castle Pines North in Colorado, a fifth course at PGA West in Palm Springs, a second course at Forest Highlands, and the lavishly praised Pinnacle Course at Troon North, site of the Arizona Open.
Last spring I went out to Troon North to discuss design philosophy and the art of desert golf with Weiskopf. A few hours before my scheduled teetime at Pinnacle, Weiskopf took me for a tour of the course. As we drove to the first tee, I asked if he felt more at peace now—having achieved a level of respect as a designer that some feel was unfairly denied him as a Tour player. His playing career reached its apogee in 1973, when he captured the British Open at the Royal Troon Golf Club and Player of the Year honors. The last of his 15 Tour wins came as the eighties dawned. As his interest in competition waned, some writers unfairly pegged Weiskopf as a guy who failed to fulfill his promise on the links but whose blunt style and sharp tongue could be counted on to liven up a slow news day at the tournament.
"That's an interesting question," he allowed with a relaxed smile. "I know I had the respect of the players of my time and many of the reporters who took the time to learn what I was really all about. Frankly, I was never good at playing politics. If someone asked me what I thought about something I answered them, good or bad. I think that honesty hurt me a bit, but it was the way my father raised me."
He paused and smiled. "Designing and building golf courses that are beautiful to look at and fun to play gives me such deep pleasure and personal satisfaction. If I had a choice between playing in a tournament or going to view a beautiful piece of land where someone wanted to build a course, well, I'd be headed to see that land so fast your head would spin. No contest."
I've always loved Weiskopf designs for the way they naturally fit their landscapes. Holes rarely, if ever, seem forced, display great beauty, contain multiple shot options, and like the courses of the game's designer gods, Ross and Mackenzie, often appear to be tougher than they really are.
The Pinnacle's 390-yard first hole is a perfect example of the Weiskopf outlook. It's called Illusion and plays slightly uphill to a semi-blind green. From the tee, the driving line appears to be pinched to almost nothing by the desert and several wide bunkers. In fact, however, the fairway's main landing area is extremely generous, almost 80 yards wide, and the bunkers are primarily there to direct the player away from the desert floor. The green looks minuscule, but it sprawls over almost 7,000 square feet, hence the hole's name.
"Illusion is very important to a course designer," Weiskopf said. "That's not the same thing as attempting to trick a player. It's simply meant to encourage him or her to play the course more than once, in order to understand what must be done to achieve a good score. I spent years looking at and playing the great golf courses of the world, learning how the great designers used illusion and bunkers to create wonderful holes."
Weiskopf has been interested in classic courses since his years at Ohio State's famous Scarlet Course, a Mackenzie layout. "What may have kicked off my own interest in design, however," he recalls, "was the fact that Pete Dye was building his first golf course not far from Ohio State and he graciously allowed me to come out and follow him around like a puppy, asking ridiculous questions about why he did this or that. Pete was also a good player, and I've always felt that the best designers were good golfers—they naturally appreciate good shot values. Anyway, after that experience I began reading everything that I could get my hands on about course architecture—the writings of Mackenzie and Ross, Tillinghast and Macdonald. When I started to play the Tour I made time wherever I was to look at classic courses. It was a gradual thing. I wasn't formally schooled in design and didn't know beans about the technical aspects of golf course construction. Looking back, I regret I didn't switch to studying landscape architecture."
The next major influence on Weiskopf was Jack Nicklaus, who in the early '70s was building Muirfield Village in Columbus, Ohio, Weiskopf's hometown. "Here was a course being built specifically for tournament play. Jack invited me to come out and ask anything I wanted. By then I was well established on the Tour. He even wanted to know my thoughts on certain holes, and I was thrilled when he incorporated a few of these ideas into the course. After that I made several site visits to Jack's projects, which spurred my interest in the subject tremendously."
Weiskopf's formal entry into the design business came in 1984, when Phoenix developer Jerry Nelson called him out of the blue and asked would he be interested in consulting on the creation of Troon Golf and Country Club. "I told Jerry I'd love to work on the project but that technically I wasn't qualified to do the work. We agreed I would look around to find a real architect, somebody who could teach me about reading a topo map and the technical tricks of the trade.
"Timing is everything in life. At that same moment, after eleven years as a head designer at Jack Nicklaus, Jay Morrish was preparing to leave Jack Nicklaus and start his own business. Jay and I got together and hit it off right away. Jay was a very hands-on guy, and we decided that we would do only one or two golf courses at a time. We shook hands, agreeing to split the $90,000 design fee, fifty-fifty."
Troon won Golf Digest's Top New Private Course award the year it opened (1986), and a host of accolades followed. No designer—including Dye, Nicklaus, or Palmer—ever had a more auspicious debut.
The fourth hole is a beautiful downhill par-three, playing just a whisker over 200 yards. On the right flank the green is separated from a lake by three handsome bunkers, all of them bearing a pair of Weiskopf hallmarks: They have small grassy fingers (runners) in them, and they are gorgeously "flashed"—meaning they rise away from you—in a manner reminiscent of Tillinghast. They were some of the best-looking and most elaborate bunkers I had seen on a resort course.
"I think good bunkering does basically four things," Weiskopf said. "It should be strategic, meaning it helps you determine how to play the hole. It can also be penal, penalizing you for a wayward shot. Bunkers are also directional, showing you where not to play. And, finally, they are helpful, as in this case, providing a buffer between the green and the lake in an area where the average player is likely to slice a ball due to the length of the shot."
He pointed out that most of his greens, in the manner of the greats, have generous open fronts (you almost never have to shoot over a bunker to reach the front of a Weiskopf green) and expansive bailout and collection areas around the putting surface to snag wayward shots before they scamper off into the sagebrush and cacti. Weiskopf calls these fringes "freedom areas."
"Desert golf is essentially target golf," he said, "meaning you're shooting from one green spot to another, but if you think about it, all golf is really target golf. The brown landscape of the desert frames everything and makes the green seem much smaller. I think, for that reason, desert golf does not get the respect it deserves. The concept of integrating a golf course so naturally through desert terrain really isn't all that old—twenty or so years—so people are still getting accustomed to it. When you're used to parklands and traditional layouts, the desert can seem rather intimidating."
Weiskopf moves as little soil as possible, preferring the land to dictate routings. His cardinal rule, however, is to forgo creating a course around one drop-dead gorgeous hole. "I have a photographic memory for great holes I've played around the world, but I think it's the poor designer that builds a hole that resembles another great golf hole. The trick is to find the golf course that lies within each particular terrain and create a course that is as natural to the site as possible."
I asked how his Loch Lomond, which is woven along the shores of the legendary loch north of Glasgow, stacked up in that respect.
The course took Morrish and Weiskopf almost three years to build; and since opening in late 1993, it has won virtually every accolade the golf world bestows. It has even cracked the vaunted Top 50 in the world list—unheard of for so young a golf course.
"Funny story there," Weiskopf said. "A dream come true for me. One afternoon at Troon Golf Club this guy approaches me and asks if I would like to build a course in Scotland. Says he has this incredible site by the most famous loch in Scotland. Said he'd been talking to the Nicklaus people, but Jack had yet to call him back personally. That sort of miffed him. He asked me if I'd be interested in taking a look, and I said without hesitating, 'I'll be there in a week.' Timing, as I say, is everything. Jack never called the guy, and I got the job.
"The site was simply awesome. It took my breath away—an old estate with gorgeous soil and mature trees, abundant water and gentle rolling elevations, right beside the lake. No houses anywhere on it, a pure golf club. I don't know if I'll ever have a situation like it again. You are fortunate if you get one in a hundred opportunities like it."
Weiskopf and his family lived on the site for two summers. Just prior to construction Jay Morrish suffered his heart attack. "Everything I knew I'd learned from Jay, who is still probably the technically finest designer in the world. But at one point we had a situation which required us to redraw the routing a bit. By then Jay was recuperating and unable to travel, but I discovered that the superintendent on the project, Dave Porter, was an engineer with similar training and phenomenal technical skills. Dave redid the Loch Lomond drawings without missing a beat." Later Porter would become Weiskopf's lead architect.
The sixth hole at Troon North's Pinnacle Course, a short par-four playing just a shade under 300 yards, shows Weiskopf in a moment of brilliance. The tee shot here canbe played with everything from a four-iron to a driver. A large "helpful" bunker left keeps errant layups from running into an outcrop of large rocks, while similar bunkers to the right prevent faded shots from flying off into the desert. A player who has the moxie and strength can fire his teeball through a narrow saddle of fairway to the open-fronted green. Bunkers behind the green prevent overcooked shots from finding the sagebrush.
We watched a foursome play the hole, three of whom went for the green in one swipe. One of them hooked his ball left into the rocks and had to declare an unplayable ball. Another found the pesky penal pot bunker just shy and right of the putting surface and took two more pokes just to reach the green. The third only narrowly escaped disaster by catching the rough far left, while the smart guy in the group played a three-iron safely to the 100-yard mark and wedged up for birdie.
"Don't you love a hole that gets inside a player's head like this?" Weiskopf quietly asked with obvious pleasure. "That's what a good golf hole does." He explained that Jay Morrish didn't believe in short par-fours before he and Weiskopf hooked up, but Tom's memories of driving all four of the short par-fours at St. Andrews, over the course of several British Opens in the '70s and '80s, convinced him, and ultimately Morrish, that every course should have one. His own field studies of the layouts of golf's golden era supported this contention. "If you look at the courses of Mackenzie and Ross and the others, they almost always had short par-four holes on them. Why? Well, for the good player it's an opportunity to have a go at eagle, while for the average guy it's a golden chance to reach in regulation and putt for birdie."
In a similar vein Weiskopf also tries to build a reachable par-five into each of his designs. "But I also build a par-five nobody can reach. The idea is to promote shot variety. Wind plays a major factor in that decision. I always try and route holes into or with the prevailing wind. Crosswinds can really play havoc on golf shots, particularly in places like the desert. I also try and make sure that, whatever the wind conditions, a player can reach a putting surface and hold a shot. If you have to spin a shot in order to hold a green, that's a poor design, in my view."
On holes 10 through 15 Weiskopf demonstrated how the use of steeper elevation changes from the tee to the green seemed to bring the desert landscape right into the heart of the golf course. When I commented that this was a design element I first encountered on the famed South Course at the nearby Boulders, Weiskopf smiled and explained with a laugh that there was a widespread misconception that he'd designed that course. "I cannot tell you how many people congratulate me for it. But The Boulders was Jay's project entirely. I learned a great deal from looking at how he used the desert there so effectively."
As we paused by the 17th green to examine a three-tiered putting surface I wondered aloud why modern designers don't build greens as small and as challenging as they did 70 years ago. "Very simply, foot traffic," said Weiskopf. "Those greens used to be anywhere from thirty-five hundred square feet to six thousand, tops. Now to hold up to the kind of traffic an average resort course gets (we annually average almost eighty thousand rounds on the two courses here at Troon North) a green must be at least seven or eight thousand square feet, often much larger.
"I have said this before: I think if Ross and Tillinghast and Mackenzie were working today they wouldn't build courses much differently than we are building them. For one thing, the environmental aspects of creating a course now are immense, often determining where and how a golf course is built. A lot of those great old courses simply couldn't be built today. Also, in most cases today, you need a residential component in order to support a golf club—and very often you don't get the choice piece of land for the course. Then there's what I call the "interest" clock. That was much slower fifty years ago. Builders had time to shape and create courses without the pressure of an opening date. So the courses had more of a handmade quality to them.
"Old courses traditionally had a lot of blind shots, in part because they did not have the equipment to move land the way we do, but also because they could add that element to shotmaking without fear of the lawyers—meaning, of course, lawsuits from people who are struck by balls. A hole is only blind once in your memory. I love the blind-shot holes of England and Scotland, but you don't see them anymore because nobody wants the lawsuit."
We'd come to the finale of the Pinnacle Course, a magnificent par-four playing directly toward Pinnacle Peak. From a hilltop tee the hole drops into a wide fairway valley, sweeping back up to a large, semi-blind elevated green. About 300 yards out a bristling white cross-bunker defines the outer limits of the fairway. This hole has been hailed as one of the finest finishing holes in the Southwest, and Weiskopf admitted it was one of his favorite creations.
"Here's an example of how devoting a little more time to a golf course can improve the quality of the experience," he reflected. "You see a lot of cross-bunkering in Scotland but not in the United States. I'd nearly finished this hole when I suddenly got the idea of using a large, visually dominant cross-bunker to give it more drama and definition. That bunker is unreachable, but it gives you illusion of danger and something else to think about."
With my own teetime minutes away, I asked Weiskopf whether it was important to him that people enjoy playing a Tom Weiskopf course. "Absolutely," he replied as we started down the cart path to the fairway. "It's critical to me that people like my courses—the people I build them for, and most of all, the people who play them."
He then shook his head and laughed. "I guess I've changed a bit in that regard. In my playing career I created a lot of controversy by the things I said. And now I don't seem to create any controversy. I let my golf courses do the talking—and everybody seems happy."
Best Desert Courses
Carefree-Scottsdale is now America's desert golf mecca, with nearly 100 courses. Here's my rundown of the best. Green fees for the following courses range from approximately $50 in summer to as much as $225 in winter. Room rates are double occupancy, high season (usually late December through April).
Adobe Course At Arizona Biltmore Country Club
After Troon North, it was wonderful to play this old-fashioned resort course of wide-open fairways and large greens. (The sister Links Course is more difficult.) Plus the putting course is the best in the valley, and the hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was recently renovated and is superbly run. $330-$1,200. 800-950-0086.
Still the benchmark for golf resorts, especially now that its casitas have been renovated. The North Course is tougher, though the South Course is more renowned for its spectacular routing deep into the desert landscape. $565-$765. 800-553-1717.
Grayhawk Golf Club
The pair of courses at this 1,600-acre residential community have come into their own in the past few years. The beautiful Talon Course, a David Graham-Gary Panks collaboration, plays just a whisker over 6,900 yards from the tips, while the adjoining Tom Fazio-designed Raptor Course is slightly longer but has a slightly smaller slope rating (136 versus 141). 480-502-1800.
The three nine-hole layouts here are more challenging than you'd expect, but the draw is the hotel itself, which has a gorgeous setting against Camelback Mountain, and service that rivals that of The Boulders. $475-$1,225. 800-888-8234.
Talking Stick Golf Club
The North Course, a true Scottish-style links (par 70, 7,133 yards), wanders through a treeless sea of native grasses. It's tough though: During the recent Tour qualifying held here, only six out of 78 players shot under par. The South Course is a more traditional track (par 71, 6,833 yards), woven through 4,500 trees, and features small Winged Foot-style greens—the reason it's ranked as more difficult than the North. Book an early teetime: This is the busiest upscale daily fee in the Valley of the Sun. On the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation but managed by Troon. 888-876-6687.
Wildfire Golf Club at Desert Ridge
This daily-fee course, a few miles west of Grayhawk, wanders over the flattish Sonoran landscape and is more forgiving than the desert tracks at Troon North and Grayhawk. 888-705-7775.
The Short Course: New & Noteworthy, Picks & Pans
Tourney Forged Progressive Cavity Back Tour Iron
The revitalized MacGregor Golf Company scores bigtime with this innovative club, which combines the feel of classic forging with the forgiveness of perimeter weighting. The hitting area is 11 percent larger than in traditional forged clubs, and the long-iron cavities are deeper. $750 per set in steel. 800-841-4358.
Triton Golf Tour And Hi-Performance Balls
In major independent lab tests, this little-known ball dramatically outscored all of the famous names. Ditto in my tests. Tour balls are $45 and Hi-Performance are $37 per dozen. Available in four versions: Tour, Hi-Performance, Distance Control, and TLB (The Ladies' Ball). 800-465-3616.
"Golf flippers," one of my pals called these odd-looking spikeless saddle wing-tips, which have a proprietary "wide track" rubber outsole studded with 136 cleats. But they helped my game by improving my balance. If tipping over in your swing is a problem, Cyclonic may be the answer. $90. 888-540-9699.
Tobacco Road Golf Club
I recently had a chance to play this highly publicized and controversial course in the stark sandhills of North Carolina. Its designer, Golf Digest Architect of the Year Mike Strantz, a Tom Fazio protégé, boasts that he doesn't care if golfers find his courses too hard. Tobacco Road proves his point. It's a relentless series of forced carries, blind shots, and huge, funky wraparound greens—in an ugly landscape, no less. Greens fee: Mid-November through mid-March, $48-$68; through mid-May (high season), $75-$85. Tobacco Road Golf Club, Sanford, NC; 877-284-3762.
Four sets of tees, gorgeous routing through forest and fields, and thoughtful management make this new resort in Greensboro, North Carolina, the state's best-kept golf secret. And the $70 greens fee makes it one of the best bargains anywhere. The 250-room hotel is well run, but note that it caters to conventions. $179-$950 (bi-level suite). 336-294-1800; fax 336-856-9991.
Tour Edge Lift Off Iron-Wood
This utility club, designed to replace low irons, has the best features of iron and wood, including a maraging-steel face for better rebound, an ultrathin stainless-steel "wood-like" body, and a 50-gram copper/tungsten sole insert. The club looks odd but swings beautifully, offering great forgiveness and minimal turf drag. I'm in love with the #2 Iron-Wood, using it to hit everything from 200-yard approaches to chips just off the green. Available in four lofts. $200. The company's metalwood series is also one of the best I've ever tested. Driver: $400; Any Lie Fairway Woods: $200. 800-515-3343.
In January the 210-room Four Seasons Resort at Troon North opens, only 1.5 miles from the Pinnacle Course. Hotel guests will have priority on both Troon North courses. Rates: $475-$3,500. 10600 East Crescent Moon Drive. Reservations: 800-332-3442.
James Dodson is Departures' contributing editor for Golf.