The World of the Golf Course Designer
During the construction of Red Tail Golf Club, in Devens, Mass., a crewmember named Billy Drake and the course’s architect, Brian Silva, were out walking a half-finished fairway. The two men discussed bunkers, mounding and irrigation lines to the accompaniment of distant cracking sounds. A moment later, they both heard—and Silva actually felt—the whoosh of bullets flying by. “Are we being shot at?” Drake asked. Indeed they were. An oblivious young hunter was somewhere nearby, squeezing off rifle rounds. Silva, long accustomed to golfers’ visceral responses to his work, responded drily: “I can understand the guy wanting to shoot me after he’s had a chance to play the course—but, geez, not before it’s finished!”
The son of a golf course construction worker, Silva, now 56, began his career in course architecture to the patriarchal New England–based designer Geoffrey Cornish, who later took him on as a partner. Most in the profession would envy Silva his multiple awards, his steady employment and his considerable fees—$400,000 for a new-course project and $250,000 for major renovations. For Silva, those achievements are deeply gratifying, but they’re leavened by an angler’s regret about the big one that got away.
A hole on the Red Tail course
“The people who reach the top of this profession have a lot of natural ability, and they’ve worked hard at their craft,” says Silva. “For any hardworking, talented architect who doesn’t reach the pinnacle, there’s always that one dream assignment they never got: the chance to design on an incredible site with a huge budget and a client who encourages creativity. Those jobs are your one sure way to break the glass ceiling and move up.”
The designer hierarchy
Golf-course architecture is primarily a regional business, with a handful of designers (career architects who were never stars on the PGA Tour) finding their way to global fame. Tom Fazio and Pete Dye fit that description, taking up where the late Robert Trent Jones left off. Below such heavyweights and their seven-figure fees is a second tier that includes Tom Doak, the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and British course crafter David McLay Kidd. One more level down, we find the likes of Brian Silva, who earned Golf World magazine’s Architect of the Year award in 1999, but is no longer choosy about his gigs during the current course-building downturn. “Any phone call these days is a good one,” he acknowledges.
Like Florida condos and suburban malls, golf courses rode the real-estate boom too hard and became overbuilt. In 2008, there were more golf-course closings than new-course openings, a double whammy that hurt the job market even as it raised the possibility of painstaking creations disappearing from the landscape. Waverly Oaks, a boldly shaped Silva course in the hills and hollows of Plymouth, Mass., was recently slated for redevelopment—not because it wasn’t popular and busy, but because the acreage it occupied caught the eye of developers who wanted to build an East Coast version of a major Hollywood film and TV studio. That deal has reportedly fizzled, but Silva was never distraught at his course’s potential demise. “In this business, you’re sympathetic with your client’s interests—or at least, you should be,” he says. “Reporters called me about the shutdown of Waverly Oaks, and I could tell they expected to hear wailing and gnashing of teeth.” But Silva didn’t oblige, viewing the matter philosophically. “I got an opportunity to design the course, golfers got a chance to play it and enjoy it, and then the owners who hired me and gave me free rein were offered a financial windfall by selling out. I’m OK with all that.”
Golf architects will often function as de facto general contractors, advising their clients on which construction companies to hire, who will supply turfgrass seed or sod and which nurseries to buy plantings from. At Red Tail, Silva even linked his would-be clients with business partners whose assets would make the project possible. “Two guys who were operating an old nine-holer on base property contacted me,” Silva recalls. “They wanted to retain me as architect of a new 18, but their first question was, Did I know anyone who might team up with them?” The architect picked up the phone and found two more principals who wanted to get involved, which enabled Red Tail to move forward.
Reviving an aging course
Like most course designers, Silva has scheduled renovation and restoration jobs in the gaps between new-course assignments. His reinvention of Brookside Country Club, in Canton, Ohio, was honored by Golf Digest as the Best New Remodel of 2005. Restoring ancient courses originally authored by Scotsman Donald Ross is a Silva specialty. When Silva and crew were finished at the Mt. Washington Hotel course that Ross built some 95 years ago, Golfweek ranked it as the No. 1 public-access golf course in New Hampshire.
At Brookside, also a Ross creation from the so-called Golden Age of American course design (1911–1937), Silva employed the present-day stealth weapon of restoration work: a chainsaw. Years of ill-considered tree planting and the unchecked spread of existing stands make deforestation a modern necessity. The beneficiaries—golfers who play the course—seldom realize the need for it, so they usually panic at the thought.
“In the Brookside project, we cut down nearly 800 trees,” says Silva, “but the renovation plan I submitted hardly had the word tree in it. We didn’t want to ignite controversy.” The result, which is normal with overgrown parkland courses, is more obvious “muscle” to the ground features and a grander, more inspiring visual feel throughout. “When we were finished, the members couldn’t believe how much more open and scenic the course was. There were no more poorly selected evergreens blocking the hardwoods.”