Former Tour players talk about the transition from the big stage to a small shop

Torrey Pines North No. 6

Former Tour players talk about the transition from the big stage to a small shop

Courses

Former Tour players talk about the transition from the big stage to a small shop

Tom Weiskopf hikes around Torrey Pines’ North Course like a schoolboy on lunch break. His 6-foot-3-inch frame carries more mass than it did back in 1984 when he left the PGA Tour as the No. 7 all-time money winner to take up a new career in course design. Since then, he has remained busy, first through a design partnership with Jay Morrish, a former Jack Nicklaus design associate, and the past two decades on his own from a home office in Big Sky, Mont.

Weiskopf, 73, has designed or co-designed 68 courses, including such top-100 tracks as Double Eagle Golf Club in Galena, Ohio (No. 38, Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses) and Forest Dunes Golf Club in Roscommon, Mich. (No. 96, Modern).

Here’s a guy who is no more than a handful of putts away from a seat in the World Golf Hall of Fame. He won 16 times on the PGA Tour, including the 1973 British Open, and added a U.S. Senior Open title.

But before that, Weiskopf said, he “was always analyzing golf courses,” including Alister MacKenzie’s Scarlet Course at his alma mater, Ohio State. “Once I got on tour in 1964, I always looked carefully at angles, at lines of play.”

Weiskopf’s first design job with Morrish was in Scottsdale, Ariz. “When we started Troon Golf and Country Club,” Weiskopf said, “I had a lot to learn: how to read a topographic map and figure out the ups and downs, doing drawings that conveyed a sense of strategy with the terrain.” But the part for which he was least ready and took the longest was simply learning what the construction equipment could do.

“There’s a big difference between what you can build with a D-6 bulldozer or backhoe and box blade,” Weiskopf said. “There’s nothing on Tour that will prepare you for that.”

• • •

When Tripp Davis made the transition from pro golf to architecture in the early 1990s, he at least had the benefit of graduate education in landscape architecture, for which he had returned to school after his playing career.

Davis, now 49, was a standout amateur golfer from the Atlanta area when he was recruited to the University of Oklahoma. His teammates in the late 1980s included Todd Hamilton, Grant Waite, Craig Perks and Glen Day, all of whom later won on the PGA Tour. Davis was good enough to be an All-American in 1989, the year his Sooners won the NCAA men’s golf championship.

Davis never made it to the big show. His two-year pro career was limited to the Hogan (now Web.com) Tour, supplemented by state opens. He never won, and a 1991 waterskiing accident resulted in strained tendons and ligaments in his left shoulder that left him on the competitive sidelines, contemplating his future.

“I loved competition, but I didn’t like doing it for a living,” Davis said. “I was only marginally good enough to play out there, and I figured there had to be a way to stay in the game without having to make putts for a living.”

While writing his master’s thesis on the environmental aspects of golf course construction, Davis became involved in the golf industry through a handful of modest renovation and nine-hole expansion projects where he worked for design/build contractors. Eventually, he won a public bid for a real estate project, Patricia Island Estates and Golf Club in Grove, Okla., in the state’s northeast corner. He’s not alone in admitting of his first solo project, “I had no idea what I was doing, but I was really good at faking it.”

The shift from knowledge of design principles to being responsible for fieldwork is a fundamental career change. It helps, he says, having good technical teams on irrigation, grow-in and earthmoving to rely upon. He also wasn’t shy about asking. The trick on golf course design is knowing what to delegate to engineers, hydrologists and shapers.

The success of that initial solo project led Davis to a modest but steady stream of work. The Tribute Golf Links in The Colony, Texas, was an ode to classical seaside links on an inland site. Next door, Old American Golf Club (with Justin Leonard) was based on classic U.S. courses. Both show a strong commitment to ground-game golf and to strategic bunkering where the ideal line is often right next to a looming hazard. In doing such work, he says, “being a good player is always a help because you can readily identify sightlines and then determine if they work in the field.”

At Oak Tree National Golf Club in Edmund, Okla., Davis undertook a restoration of Pete Dye’s 1975 gem, in the process upgrading bunkers and turfgrass lines while sharpening the lines of play. The result was a dramatic hike in the course’s ratings, from outside the top-100 Modern to No. 36 on the 2016 list.

Davis regained his amateur status in 1995, competed in high-profile events such as the Porter Cup, and has his sights set on the U.S. Senior Amateur in six years.

Meanwhile, Davis stays fresh dabbling with an extended writing project, an as-yet unpublished manuscript called “The Strategic Side of Golf Course Architecture.” It’s exceedingly analytical, with the emphasis on lines of play and how a well-designed golf course presents options. Between its history of architecture and its illustrations, many of them Davis’ own drawings, it offers a graduate-level look at how a fine player views his craft.

• • •

Success comes and goes differently in every sport, none more so than on the PGA Tour. John Fought walked onto the Tour in 1979 with a promising résumé, including a Walker Cup and 1977 U.S. Amateur championship. He won twice that year – back-to-back, in fact, at the Buick-Goodwrench Open and the Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic – and claimed rookie of the year.

Six years later he injured his neck, was misdiagnosed, floundered competitively and started to worry about supporting his young family on something more   reliable than PGA Tour earnings. If he was seeking job security, he could have chosen better. There’s not much guaranteed in course design for a former player, unless your name is Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer. An accounting degree from Brigham Young would help him in business, but after some sustained conversation with former Nicklaus associate Bob Cupp, who was about to go out on his own, Fought began to see course architecture as a possible career track.

When you’re good at counting things, you can do a business plan for a golf design project: budget, workflow and quantities. But you also have to understand strategic and aesthetic principles. Cupp encouraged Fought to start thinking about why he liked or disliked a particular hole.

“I began analyzing from a completely different perspective,” Fought said. “The look, the slope, bunker conditioning, greens diversity – I started to tear apart golf courses. I also stopped thinking about my own game and learned about the actual people who are playing it.”

Fought became Cupp’s apprentice, with initial work focusing on a new project near Fought’s hometown of Portland, Ore., that had aspirations for a U.S. Open. It was called Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, in Cornelius, with two 18-hole courses, Witch Hollow (private) and Ghost Creek (public). The project was widely acclaimed, securing for Fought a place on Cupp’s design staff until establishing his own Scottsdale-based firm by 2000.

That’s when Fought undertook his first major restoration, the Donald Ross-designed Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C. The work required intensive historical research, during which he realized the course had lost its strategic character because of a narrowing of fairway corridors from tree overgrowth. Modern golf ball distances also had rendered obsolete Ross’ shot values. What used to be a fairway upslope that braked tee shots could now be carried easily.

Using his understanding of shotmaking, Fought found enough room through back tees to restore the relevance of those upslopes. Along the way, he also learned to value Pine Needles’ ground-game rollouts. It would become a major element in his 2004 design of The Gallery’s South Course at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz. Those short-game areas would be even more central to a total overhaul of a rundown Phoenix muni called Maryvale Golf Course that reopened in 2015 as Grand Canyon University Championship Golf Course.

Having a hometown project like that was ideal for Fought, who was able to be onsite constantly. Like the Tour pro who practices every shot beforehand, most of what looks like genius in golf is really a function of sustained labor.

“Ninety percent of design is work,” Fought said. “The rest is inspiration.”

• • •

When U.S. Kids Golf Inc. bought Longleaf Golf and Country Club in Southern Pines, N.C., in 2012, the intent of company owner Dan Van Horn was to promote the game as an inclusive, multi-generational activity. Besides changing the facility’s name to Longleaf Golf and Family Club, he hired former PGA Tour player Bill Bergin out of Atlanta to undertake a facility reassessment.

The result has been a graduated set of teeing grounds, at 600-yard intervals from 3,200 yards to 6,800. Bergin also designed an innovative six-hole short course called Bottlebrush that opened recently. And he concentrated the club’s previously scattered short-game practice elements – putting greens, chipping areas – into a more centrally located space around the clubhouse so parents easily could monitor their kids.

That kind of attention to everyday play is not usually something former PGA Tour pros readily acknowledge. Bergin, from St. Louis, was a four-time all-SEC golfer at Auburn. He graduated from the Florida mini-tours to the PGA Tour, where he had his card for the 1985 season.

He and Bob Tway were good friends and fellow groomsmen, and Bergin’s famously detailed yardage books – amended to show intricate lines of play and carry options – occasionally would find their way into Tway’s bag.

When Bergin, now 57, lost his Tour card in 1986, he took a teaching-pro job at Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta. The daily experience of instruction proved formative; he was able to see how real players hit the golf ball, and how they made their way around the course.

He also started tinkering in design, learning more about agronomics and spending time with Atlanta-based architect Cupp, who welcomed him as a volunteer intern before gradually allowing him wider responsibility (and modest pay). With his undergraduate business degree in hand, Bergin was good at budgeting and planning. And as a Tour-level golfer, he also enjoyed an advantage over academically trained landscape architects. Cupp, Bergin recalled, told him more than once, “I can teach you golf course design. I can’t teach you golf.”

By 1994, Bergin, at age 35, was on his own, with one assistant and a small family to support. The work trickled in, then started flowing, and today Bergin has an impressive portfolio that includes new projects (Country Club of Winter Haven in Florida and Chariot Run Golf Course in Laconia, Ind.), and major restorations, both classical (Chattanooga Golf and Country Club in Tennessee) and modern (Mirimichi Golf Club in Millington, Tenn.).

• • •

At Torrey Pines, Weiskopf has reworked some of the same ground over which he won his first Tour event, the 1968 Andy Williams-San Diego Open Invitational. Back then they played an 18-hole composite of Torrey Pines’ two courses, including three holes on the North Course. Locals always favored the North Course for its scenic splendor and greater ground contours compared with the better-known South Course (home to the 2008 U.S. Open). But its maintenance had slipped, with greens shrunk to circles and bunkers that drained poorly.

The newly upgraded Torrey Pines North, with $12.3 million of new irrigation, drainage, bunkers, greens, tees and cart paths, occupies the same basic routing of old hole corridors. The nines have been reversed, to create a more dramatic finish.

For the job, Weiskopf moved to nearby Del Mar, which enabled him to spend four or five days onsite each week, from sunup to last light. In his jeans, cap and work boots, he was not a former major champion. He was just one of those guys trying to figure out where the dirt should go.

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