Nobody polarizes opinion in the golf course design world quite like Tom Fazio. Whilst many in the industry embrace his trademark dramatic bunkering and tight fairways, minimalist design aficionados are often highly critical courses than Tom Fazio has designed, claiming they are excessively grandiose and force golfers to play holes only one way.
Whichever side of the fence you find yourself in the debate, there’s no getting away from the fact that Fazio has been one of the most prolific architects during the past 50 years.
His name is attached to a plethora of high profile courses and developments. These include the No.4 and No.8 courses at Pinehurst and several prominent redesigns, including Riviera Country Club in LA and Augusta National in Georgia.
Fazio’s firm also recently finalised a deal to renovate the Kasumigaseki Country Club’s East Course in Tokyo. This course is due to be the host venue for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Interview with Tom Fazio
Golf World Editor Nick Wright sat down with Fazio during his recent visit with his son to Waterville, South West Ireland, for the annual World Invitational Father & Son Golf Tournament.
“I got my first opportunity in the business working for my uncle, George Fazio, who was a tournament golfer in the World War II era. In the 1950 US Open, he tied Ben Hogan and Lloyd Mangrum but lost in an 18-hole play-off. I always thought if my uncle had won that tournament, his status as a player would have been greater, he would have competed more frequently and my life would have been significantly different.”
“Instead, he focused on the next stage of his career, which became golf course operations then the design business. My father was George’s oldest brother. He had no sons of his own and so he took me under his wing.”
“The course design business was all very similar in those days. In the early 1960s, the architects designed and built the course. Typically, a client would give you a budget of about $10k to $15k per hole, so you were designing and building golf courses for about $200k. If you could go back and interview the great architects from the past, they would probably all tell you that they would have done something different if they had been given more resources.”
“Just imagine how AW Tillinghast would have reacted if he had been given a Caterpillar D8 bulldozer, or if he had seen Tiger Woods hit a golf ball in his prime. Never in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined that, five decades on, I’d be building golf courses where clients would be spending upwards of a million dollars per hole.”
“Three key things from that era have stuck with me throughout my career. First, create real value for clients. Second, attention to detail is important. And third, spend money wisely.”
“Just because you have a budget of one or two million dollars per hole doesn’t mean you automatically have to throw money at a course.”
“The philosophy of building courses has changed, though. In the early stages of my career, you built a course with some of the basics then you could allow it to mature.”
“Today, instead of planting small trees, you’re planting big trees. You’re lining bunkers to keep the sand in place when it rains. You’re bringing sand from Portugal or France to get the exact colour you want. You just wouldn’t have thought of doing those things 30 years ago.
“People have been critical of me for not working internationally, but my family always came first. If I’d had to travel extensively internationally when my children were young, I would have changed professions. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do that because I have always had more than enough work to keep me busy in the United States.”
“And besides, America is a huge country. Go to Texas and you’re dealing with flat terrain and wind. Go to the coastal areas of the Carolinas and you’ll find links-type land. Go to Nevada and Arizona and you’ve got the mountains and desert. Plenty of variety.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to work through two major golf booms, too. In the late ’60s, early ’70s, some 300 courses were built each year. The same thing happened 1992-2007. Living in Florida and North Carolina, I was spoilt for work, averaging four or five a year.”
“In the 1980s, I had many offers to go to Japan to create golf courses. The Japanese are wonderful people who love the game, but I never went. It would have required too much travel and too much time away from home. At the time, the Japanese were always in the news for purchasing iconic properties, including Pebble Beach and The Rockerfeller Centre in New York.
“There was an article in a golf magazine back then that said, ‘There are three things not for sale in America – Augusta National, Pebble Beach and Tom Fazio.’ Well, the Japanese got one but not the other two.”
”I always planned to go to Japan once my kids were grown and I could travel there with my wife. But the culture has changed and very few courses are being built there now.”
“Having said that, my son Logan recently signed our first Japanese project which is the 2020 Olympic Course. He has been there eight times. Travel is a young man’s game.”
”I’m often asked what is my ideal piece of land, but I don’t have a particular passion to design a course any place. I do have a passion for quarries, though. They’re fun to work with and the steep elevations give them great potential. But every project starts with the people.”
“When we visit potential clients, we’re not going to see if we can find the best site or the best piece of land, we’re checking out the people who will be hiring us and to see if we are compatible partners. If we don’t feel we blend for any reason, we just pass on the opportunity.”
”I can’t remember my very first design project, but one of my first was Waynesborough in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. My uncle was still a great player and had other concerns, so he would show up, give me instructions and be gone.”
“I was 19, and responsible for all of the hiring. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
”When I worked on the renovation of Pinehurst’s No.4 golf course, the press and the media created a lot of hype. They claimed we were tearing up a Donald Ross design, but the truth is Pinehurst No.4 wasn’t really a full Donald Ross course. Ross actually spent most of his time and efforts on No.2. As a result, No.4 was a conglomeration of holes that many people were involved with over a period of time – and the owners knew that.”
“I was brought in to bring the course up to the standards of the others in the portfolio. It wasn’t a renovation at all. It was a new course in a location where there was an existing golf course.”
”I have worked with Augusta National for more than 30 years. I have a year-to-year contract. The so-called ‘Tiger-proofing’ that made the headlines a decade or so ago was not done for Tiger at all – it was to counteract the effect of ball technology. Augusta has always had a long-range master plan for course improvements.”
“The club is unique in that it is the only course where the world’s best have showed up every year for more than 80 years. That has enabled them to chart and record where the ball lands and rolls on most if not all of the holes. Recent course enhancements, including the positioning of the new tees, have been based on decades of facts and statistics.”
”It’s not widely known, but many of the recent innovations in golf course maintenance were pioneered at Augusta. Take the sub-air underground drainage system that pulls water out of the ground. If that wasn’t invented at Augusta, it certainly was perfected there.”
“Another example: At one point, Augusta National would remove the sand from its bunkers when the course was closed from May to October because it would get stained red when the heavy summer rains washed it down into the clay underneath. They did this for many years before they came up with the idea of placing a liner between the sand and the clay so that they could keep the sand in the bunkers. That’s common practice now at many courses around the world.”
”One of the idiosyncrasies of our business is that, if it’s old, people like it better than if it’s new. Prestwick is one of my favourites to play. You’re playing blind holes, hitting over this and across that.”
“It’s a bizarre experience but people love it. It’s the same with the Old Course. You hit your ball where your caddie tells you and it ends up in a bunker. Totally unfair. If these were new courses, people would hate them. You couldn’t like them if you tried.”
”In many ways, there’s a lot of ‘BS’ in course architecture. Everybody has an opinion and many want to find meaning that simply isn’t there. The reality is that while you’re trying to pioneer golf holes into the land, others are thinking you had a philosophy before you even arrived.”
“At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the end result. Where’s the 1st tee, what’s the course record, and how great do I feel when I leave?”
”Back in the late 1980s, I was pitching for a big design job in Las Vegas. During the interview, a question came up that I had never been asked before. “What makes a great golf course?” The person grilling me was a very smart guy – an English major who had studied course architecture and who possessed an IQ that was off the charts.”
“I wasn’t really sure I knew the answer, but somehow the words came out. “What have Pebble Beach and Cypress Point got? The ocean, crashing waves and the beauty of Carmel Bay.”
“Pinehurst has rolling hills, tall pines and awesome sandy turf. Pine Valley has dramatic elevation changes, sand slopes and a variety of vegetation. It’s all about the environment.”
“Eventually, I plucked up the courage to say, ‘The problem with your site in Las Vegas is that there’s simply no environment.’ The interviewer looked at me and said, “So why don’t we build an environment and put a golf course in it?”
“When I blurted out, “Do you have any idea of how much that would cost?” he pointed his finger at me and said, “That’s not your job. My job is to pay for it, your job is to design, think and create. I’m paying for it so let’s never talk about money, OK?”
“The interviewer was Steve Wynn, the famous casino owner and entrepreneur. And the golf course we were discussing would eventually become Shadow Creek.”
"I’ve always liked the idea of Tour players designing courses. It brands the course designer’s name, which is good for my business because I have an established reputation. I’m not so sure about whether it’s good news for younger up-and-coming designers, though.”
“In a tough economy with fewer projects, who’s going to get the business – the ex Tour Pro or the unknown designer? But this is not a new scenario. In the 1970s, during the golf course boom, you had the likes of Don January and Gardner Dickinson designing courses. So it’s nothing new.”
”The only thing I’m really concerned about with the way the game is headed is all young people hit it so far these days. Go to any college in America and you’ll see the guys blasting the ball way over 300 yards. Even the girls are hitting it between 260 and 290 yards.”
“At a PGA Tour event this year, I saw Justin Rose hit a 354-yard drive. He had 100 yards left into a 454-yard par 4. A hole of that length used to be a long slog a decade or so ago. Now it’s drive-wedge.“
”Golf is still a game of par, but the boundaries have moved. There’s no way that a score of 72 is level par for your average Tour player. When you see a player at the top of the leaderboard in a tournament at 22-under-par, that’s 22-under relative to our par, not his.”
“At your average course with four par 5s, of which three are reachable with a drive and a mid-iron, the par for a Tour player is closer to 68. Do the maths over four rounds and you’ll see that the player is actually six under, not 22 under. Big difference.”
”As architects, we can take the driver out of a golfer’s hands. It’s simple. But golfers like hitting the driver so our clients don’t want us to do that.”
“They don’t want us to take the driver out of play for their members because of the position of a dog-leg or a hazard. So we have to protect courses using angles.”
”Agronomy dramatically increases the cost of building a new golf course. “And it’s what you don’t see that’s expensive. It’s not the elevations and the contouring; it’s the desire to have the best greens, the best fairways, the best grass, the best bunker sand and the best tees. There’s nothing wrong with a brown golf course, but that can be a difficult concept for a developer or a course owner to sell to a new membership.”