Early commitment helped Schmidt-Curley thrive in China

Brian Curley (left) and Lee Schmidt

Haikou, China – With U.S. golf-course development virtually nonexistent, many American golf architects have been piling up frequent-flier miles. These days, Brian Curley, principal in the Schmidt-Curley design firm, spends so much time in Asia that he’s now barking in Chinese to his dog when he’s ready for a walk. Such is the life of the modern-day golf architect that Curley and his business partner, Lee Schmidt, spend more than half their time in China, alternating three weeks on, two weeks off. 

“I don’t get my mail in China yet,” Curley said during a round at one of his courses here, “but I am as comfortable here as in America.”

Golf-course construction in China is booming (despite a government moratorium), and Schmidt-Curley is among its trailblazers. Of course, the firm’s commitment to the region was paved by its prolific work at Mission Hills. That’s where the low-profile pair gained notoriety within the industry as the master planners behind 12 courses at the Shenzhen and Dongguan complex. But they often took a backseat in the public eye to a host of more celebrated names, some of whom did little more than show up on opening day. That has begun to change, especially after opening 10 courses at Mission Hills Hainan, all under the Schmidt-Curley signature.

Schmidt and Curley began working together under Pete Dye in 1984 for Landmark Land Co. on projects such as PGA West, La Quinta Hotel Golf Club and Kiawah Island. After a seven-year stint as senior design associate with Nicklaus Design, Schmidt started his own firm in 1997 and partnered with Curley, who bought the Landmark Golf course-design office.

“We’ve been scratching and clawing ever since,” Curley said. 

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based firm has designed a number of notable courses stateside, including Southern Dunes, ranked No. 60 on Golfweek’s Best Resort Courses list. But the duo is the first to admit that their names lack the celebrity appeal or marketing buzz generated by some of their competitors. As a result, Schmidt-Curley has partnered with an array of tour pros, from Jose Maria Olazabal to Annika Sorenstam, and handled multiple projects for Fred Couples and Nick Faldo. A decade ago, half of Schmidt-Curley’s business consisted of such signature designs. That figure has decreased to 10 percent. Said Curley: “Our clients are saying, ‘We don’t need a Fred Couples name. Yours is fine.’ ”

The firm’s pivotal decision occurred in 2002, when despite government threats of a shutdown, Schmidt-Curley made China the geographical center of their international business strategy. Now they are considered the Johnny Appleseeds of the region. But at the time, some questioned their approach.

“People thought we were crazy for doing it,” Schmidt said.

Neither expected the business to grow so rapidly in Asia. When the firm designed six courses at once at Mission Hills Dongguan, Curley told his staff, “Take a picture, guys; this will never be done again.”

Soon thereafter, Schmidt-Curley was selected to build 10 courses concurrently for Mission Hills Hainan. With their firm’s brand name firmly established, the Mission Hills ownership eschewed the signature designer brand model. Ken Chu, vice chairman of Mission Hills Group, said that Schmidt-Curley understands the Chinese culture. Consider that the pair did not object to a Feng Shui master determining a site’s fate and acquiesced to a request to modify a series of bunkers patterned after Oakmont’s Church Pews. 

“They looked too much like Chinese graves,” Curley said. 

In 2007, Schmidt-Curley secured a 28th-floor penthouse office in Haikou on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. They have since opened a second satellite office in Kunming, in south-central China, approximately 90 miles from the border of Laos, which Curley predicts will be the next golf-course development hot spot.

“You can’t put an ad in the paper,” Curley said. “It’s all about connections, and you have to be here.” m

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