2005: Steve Smyers - Feeding a passion
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
At first, it was enough just to play the game, and Steve Smyers did that well. He competed as a teen-ager in tournaments against Ben Crenshaw and qualified for the U.S. Junior Amateur. Later, he received a golf scholarship to the University of Florida and was a member of the team that won the 1973 NCAA Championship.
But the Virginia native wanted more once he earned his B.S. in business administration.
“I had this tremendous passion for the game,” he says with a slight drawl. “And I had to experience golf in different ways.”
So, he turned to course architecture, initially as an assistant to Florida designer Ron Garl and then as the head of his own operation. In time, Smyers, 51, built a thriving design business as well as a reputation as one of the brightest architects of his generation. All told, he has laid out or revamped 40 courses on five continents and currently has 10 in some form of development. Two of his solo efforts – Wolf Run (No. 19) in Zionsville, Ind. and Old Memorial (No. 71) in Tampa, Fla. – are on Golfweek’s list of America’s Best Modern Courses, and his most recent remodeling project was at the tony Isleworth Country Club outside Orlando, where the membership includes Tiger Woods and Mark O’Meara.
But even that did not sate Smyers, and seven years ago he accepted an offer to serve as an adviser to the all-important Equipment Standards Committee for the U.S. Golf Association, where the rules and regulations involving clubs and balls, among other things, are promulgated.
And he never stopped competing on the golf course, even after he married the former Sherrin Galbreith, an Australian who played from 1984-97 on the LPGA, and became the father of two boys, Trent and Scott. He has played in 17 USGA championships as well as three British Amateurs and is a regular on the “Cocktail Circuit,” teeing it up in exclusive mid-amateur tournaments at places such as Pine Valley and Seminole.
“It’s that passion for golf that has driven me to do so many different things in the game,” says Smyers, a lanky, dark-haired fellow with a smooth swing and a gentle manner.
That passion makes him unique in his sport: a top amateur player who also is renown as a golf course architect and respected for his thoughts on perhaps the most critical issue surrounding the game.
“Certainly, there have been some great professional golfers who went on to become bona fide architects, but on the amateur side, I don’t think there is anyone in recent memory who has gone as far as Steve,” says USGA president Fred Ridley, the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion who played with Smyers on the Florida golf team and is not only a friend but also handles the legal affairs of his old teammate’s design business. “And he’s been a great contributor to the Equipment Standards Committee.”
Smyers got into the game as a young boy, and it helped that when his golf-playing parents moved from Alexandria, Va., to Houston, he had something to pass the time as the new kid on the block.
“I didn’t know anybody when we got to Texas, so I just threw my bag over my shoulder and went out to this club my Mom and Dad had joined,” he says. “It was a game I could play by myself.”
However, the affable Smyers quickly made friends, and one of those was the son of legendary tour player Jack Burke Jr.
“John Burke was my age, and he started bringing me out to Champions Golf Club, which his father and Jimmy Demaret had founded,” Smyers recalls. “I got to listen to those two tell stories, and also watch Doug Sanders and Lee Trevino practice. I even saw Ben Hogan when he played there.”
Champions also became an important part of Smyers’ golf legacy when it hosted the 1969 U.S. Open. He applied to be a caddie (at a time when the USGA did not allow PGA Tour caddies to work its championships) and got Miller Barber’s bag. As luck would have it, Barber not only led the event after 54 holes but also played the final round with eventual winner Orville Moody, with 16-year-old Smyers at his side.
“I loved it, and it actually inspired me as a player,” he recalls. “Up to that point, the lowest score I had ever shot was 78. But six days after caddying for Mr. X, I went out and shot 70. Then, my next couple rounds were in the high 60s. And that summer, I won a junior tournament in Texas and qualified for the U.S. Junior.”
Smyers play was good enough to garner three scholarship offers – from Houston, Texas A&M and Florida – and he opted for Gainesville, where his teammates included Ridley, Gary Koch, Andy Bean and Andy North.
“I was mostly No. 7 or 8 on the team and didn’t do very much,” Smyers says. “But I played a lot during my senior year.”
And it was after that senior year that Smyers found his way into architecture. He took a job with Garl’s firm in Lakeland, Fla. in 1976 and stayed there until 1983, doing whatever he could to learn that part of the game.
Eventually, he decided to hang his own shingle, and his big break came when a Midwest dentist named Jack Leer asked Smyers to design a course at a club called Wolf Run.
“Jack was great friends with Pete Dye, and he wanted a great course,” Smyers says. “But he was afraid he and Pete would not be friends any more if they worked together on that project. Also, he thought he could make it more cost-effective if he did not have a name architect. So, he called me.
“Now, Pete had been a bit of a mentor to me, and he was building Crooked Stick in Indianapolis at the time I was working on Wolf Run. He would come out to see me every now and then to give me some fatherly advice. It was not an easy site and took four years to complete. But I think it turned out pretty well.”
Indeed it did, and its high ranking help draw other work Smyers’ way, and earn the praise from people throughout the game.
“Steve is such a good player, and he understands the strategy of golf so well,” says architect Rees Jones. “And that’s why I appreciate his work. He looks at everything from a player’s standpoint, and not just a great player. He also wants to take care of the higher handicap and always gives him a route to the hole.”
Smyers is a traditionalist when it comes to course design. His work has been most deeply influenced by the great classic architects, especially Alister MacKenzie. He likes a game played on firm and fast ground that forces players to be creative and adheres to a “brown is beautiful” philosophy; lush green grass, in his view, does not necessarily make a great golf course. He says he tries to take away the formula from design and return feel and creativity to the game, going beyond the basic look and features of a hole in an effort to bring out its subtleties as well.
That philosophy appealed to a broad audience in golf, and Smyers was able to build a solid business in short order. Most of his clients were individuals like the dentist in Indiana, and they gave him fairly free rein in his designs. The architect never had the greatest property on which to work, and he was frequently forced to make the most out of mediocre terrain. But it made Smyers a better designer, and it only enhanced his reputation.
However, things changed somewhat with the recession at the turn of the last century as well as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and a goodly portion of his private work suddenly dried up.
“I had to shift gears quickly,” Smyers says. “I had to reintroduce myself to developers and go after a different market from the one I had established for myself. I also had to get back into remodeling.”
Smyers appears to have made that transition seamlessly. But he has yet to snag what he says he has never had, and what he wants most: “A great site in a great setting.”
Surely, that will come to him in time, as has so much else in golf. His passion for the game, as well as his many talents, should carry him through again.