2004: Friends by Design
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Ed Seay was there for Arnold Palmer’s final Masters.
For 33 years, Ed Seay has been there for most of Palmer’s milestones. Despite battling heart irregularities and cancer, Seay wasn’t going to miss this one. He would be – always has been – a loyal soldier in Arnie’s Aging, Amazing Army.
Since 1971, Seay and Palmer have been partners in Arnold Palmer Course Design in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Seay is the designer, Palmer is the experienced set of eyes. The formula has worked so well that hundreds of golf courses bear their signature.
More than business, though, it is social and golf experiences that bind these two men.
“Lynn (Seay’s wife) and I were with Arnold and Winnie (Palmer) at the Senior British Open at Royal Portrush (in Northern Ireland),” Seay said. “We were driving back from dinner one night. Arnold fell asleep at the wheel. We were going around a curve, and the car started drifting into the other lane.
“I was sitting in the front passenger seat. I hit him on the shoulder and grabbed the wheel, but I was too late. The car went down an embankment and stopped in some grass. We looked around, and we realized it was a golf course.
“Arnold said, ‘Son of a (gun),’ and drove around the fringe of this green, up the slope, and back onto the road.
“I told him, ‘Arnold, 10,000 people drive off the road every year, and you’re the only one who ends up on a golf course.’ ”
Seay, 65, has been writing his memoir, and he has a lifetime full of memories upon which to call.
“My father loved golf,” he said, “and he played at Hyde Park in Jacksonville (Fla.). My family moved to the beach (Ponte Vedra Beach) in 1949. I remember my father badgering me to go play golf, but I always had something else to do.
“I played a little golf in college (University of Florida, where he received a degree in landscape architecture), but not a lot. In the Marines, I had a colonel who was a golf fanatic. We played all the time, and I realized what a pea brain I had been. Why didn’t I listen to my father?
“I went straight from the Marines to (golf course designer) Ellis Maples. Joining Ellis was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Palmer and Seay met at a Maples course that had been designed by Seay.
“It was a little benefit tournament in Winston-Salem (N.C.),” Seay said. “Arnold saw me and said, ‘I like your course. Come walk with us.’ ”
In 1971, the two started Arnold Palmer Course Design. Their first course was in Tokyo, and they have been worldwide travelers since.
Reflecting candidly on his professional beliefs, Seay talked about his efforts to avoid a trademark design feature on Arnold Palmer courses.
“We fought very hard not to have one,” he said. “That being said, most people do identify beach bunkers (with a pond or lake running into the border of a bunker) with us. But you have to know exactly what the fluctuation of the water level is.”
On his design philosophy: “I just don’t like to see all those confining elements. In some ways, we’ve lost the game of golf and created an obstacle course.
“I say that if you want it the same every time, go join the military. If we can’t keep that marvelous flexibility of getting from point A to point B, we’re lost. The more options you can give a player, the better the golf course. It’s about getting to that green and having some fun doing it.”
On architect Pete Dye: “Pete tried to bring Scotland and England over here and got bizarre with the railroad ties. If we’re doing something over and over and over, we’re not turning our brains.
“Pete’s really, really creative, but God bless Alice (his wife). If she hadn’t been around, he would have starved to death. She made it playable; the contractors made it playable.”
On Maples, his mentor: “I think Ellis is the best American architect who ever lived. He was easy to talk to. He understood land forms. He just knew land, and he could fit golf into it. He was phenomenal.”
On tour players who declare themselves architects but have no experience: “Look at these guys. They win a golf tournament, and they’re going to tell you how to solve Iraq the next week.”
Palmer, while offering observations and suggestions, invariably allows Seay or their associates to perform the heavy lifting in design.
Seay’s memories often are full of fun.
“We were in Hawaii one time,” he said. “We started drinking mai tais before lunch. We were drinking mai tais after lunch. Arnold said, ‘Do you think we can get on the golf course now?’
“I said, ‘Duh.’ He said, ‘What did you mean by duh?’ I told him, ‘Arnold, I know you’re not pretentious, and you never have been, but don’t you think you can get on any golf course you want anytime you want?’ ”
So Seay made a call to the golf course.
“All of a sudden Arnold’s going, ‘Can we play in our bathing suits and drink mai tais?’ The man in the golf shop said, ‘You can play any way you want to.’
“So we teed off in bathing suits – no shirts, no shoes, drinking mai tais. He approached every shot as I’ve seen him approach every shot I’ve ever seen him hit. It doesn’t matter whether it’s on a practice tee, in Europe, in the United States, in a tournament or just getting ready for the shootout (a weekly game at his Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Fla.). Every shot is always just like it was the second shot on No. 18 at Augusta. There is no messing around with Arnold. When it is time to hit a golf ball, this is always something you take seriously.”
There was no question about Seay attending this year’s Masters.
“To be with Arnold at a special time like this,” he said quietly, “nothing could keep me away. Nothing.”