You were a professional golfer for seven years, competing in three U.S. Opens and two British Opens. What is one of your stand out experiences from that period in your life?
My top professional golf experience was probably the best round of my career. I was fortunate to qualify for the 1984 British Open at Saint Andrews. I was 25 years old and was playing on the first version of what is today’s Web.com Tour. I decided to go to Europe and try to qualify for the British Open, which I did. The qualifying is a two-round qualifier on Sunday and Monday. And by Monday afternoon I was in the British Open.
The British Open starts on Thursday, so I had two practice rounds. There’s no Pro-Ams in the majors, so I was able to play practice rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was playing very, very well and had finished second in an event. I shot the course record in the qualifying at a course called Lundin Links. So, I knew I was playing good golf. But I had shot 75-73 at Saint Andrews and made the cut on the nose.
On Saturday, I tee off very early and shoot 66. And at the time — this was 1984— the course record was 65. I was aware of that, but what was really exciting was, I get to 6 under through 16 holes, and the Road Hole is number 17. I hit every green in regulation that day, and that is not a big feat at Saint Andrews as other courses because the greens are giant. Yet, it is still an accomplishment. And then I three-putt 17. Of course, I’m disappointed.
Then I play a nice drive off of 18. It’s into the wind, so we’re not driving it near the green. I hit my second shot about two feet from the hole. The gallery there is a horseshoe just loaded with people. I got a standing ovation from the time my ball landed on the green until I marked it. They didn’t know who I was, but they knew my score. I literally got goosebumps. It was a moment. It was just a moment that you can’t…I’ll never recreate it. That was equal to the low round of the week. Tom Watson shot 66. Ian Baker-Finch shot 66. And I shot 66. So, to equal the best round of the British Open, and to do it with a birdie in the last hole, with the crowd recognizing it, was quite a thrill.
As a golf course architect, how do you make a golf course more playable for seasoned amateurs as well as for beginners?
So, every course that I work on personally, two things happen. The course gets harder for the best players and easier for the typical golfer or the recreational golfer. That is something that we’re really proud of, and I give that talk often. People look at me a little sideways like, “How can you possibly do that?” Yet, we’ve done it over and over and over for the last 20 years.
The reason we can do it is partially my background. I played golf professionally and saw golf at the highest level. Then I taught golf for three years back in the 80’s. I gave eight to ten lessons a day to recreational golfers, so I understand the difference in how a golf course impacts the recreational player and the top player. What impacts the best players is different than what impacts the recreational players that we’ll have at The Course at McLemore.
Most golfers play the game on the ground. The best players play it in the air. Because everybody else plays the game on the ground, what happens around the green’s complex is key. Allowing players to navigate, giving them an option where they can choose a challenging route or a more safe route—that gives them the impression that the golf course is fair. They might take the challenging route and be unsuccessful, but they don’t blame the course or the architect. They know it’s on them, as long as they have an option.
At The Course at McLemore we’re going to create options where people have an ability to challenge a hole or play a little bit more conservatively, but they’ll feel that the golf course is there for them. It’s fair, and it’s fun. So, that’s one of the things we’re going to do. The secret is on the ground. In this course, especially.
What are the current strengths of The Course at McLemore?
Well, I think the first thing that you notice is when you come down the entrance road, you get this view out over the 18th green to a series of hills in the background, mountains in the background. They’re just layered out there for you, so it just sort of ramps up your anticipation of what’s to come right there with that first impression. That’s very exciting. We have a good golf course. We have a dramatic site. We want to match those two things a little bit better.
“Number one is a bold start to the golf course. It sets a strong tone. I think it’s one that gets people excited.”
Are there some holes and fairways that are stronger than others at The Course at McLemore?
It’s interesting. The original designers took the 1st hole and the 18th hole and, they used the edge of the mountain on both of those holes. So, you begin dramatically and you finish dramatically. We actually want to take the first hole even closer to the edge. We want to make you stand there so that you basically do a 360 degree turn and say, “Wow!” That’s your start of the day. We want to do the same thing when you finish the round on the 18th.
So, on number one, you start with an elevated tee shot. There’s not a lot of fairway definition right now, and it’s actually quite tight and too intimidating, especially as a resort course. So, we’re going to make that a little bit more user friendly. We’re going to make it a little bit more defined, so people understand the hole. Then, when they get to the green’s complex, they’re going to go, “Wow!” That’s our goal to start the round. We do have some very dramatic holes as you play throughout the golf course. I think number two is an excellent hole. It’s, again, from an elevated tee, looks down into a valley that has a beautiful lake, and then the green sits across the lake on the other side.
It’s a bold start to the golf course. It sets a strong tone. I think it’s one that gets people excited. But then there are holes like number three, which is underwhelming. It needs to be uplifted to fit this role that we’re looking for with this property. A great golf course sort of ebbs and flows between challenges and opportunities. We will do that here. We will have plenty of challenging holes. We’ll also have plenty of holes that you can take advantage of to actually improve your score. But, all of that needs to fit together so it’s an experience that keeps the player interested. And each time he or she gets to a new spot on the golf course, they’re impressed. We will look at that throughout the whole golf course.
One of the things that I think you’re known for is your approach to bunkers. How do you compare to someone like Tom Fazio, whose bunkers are a little out there?
Tom Fazio bunkers are very dramatic. They’re very eye-catching. To me, they go a step too far in that they dominate the scenery. I believe the bunker’s job is to highlight the scenery. You want the greens to be the star of the show. We want the bunkers to highlight and lift those greens up, not dominate or overwhelm them. There’s a fine line there.
Our bunkers are going to make the golf look better, yet still paint this gorgeous picture. Then our bunkers are also very maintenance friendly, which to me, just makes perfect sense. What I mean by that is the sand doesn’t wash; the bunkers are very consistent. The player will find from bunker to bunker to bunker a consistent sand quality and performance. The shot values will be consistent. And the staff who has to take care of them will like it because there are no surprises.
“A great golf course sets a tone for a player so that when they enter the property and they get the first glimpse of the course, it grabs them in the heart or speaks to them. The Course at McLemore is that kind of property.”
Each location has its own unique terrain, climate, soil and conditions. How do you design a course to reflect its environment?
I’ve played over two hundred professional golf tournaments around the world, so I’ve seen a lot of golf. Each course I’ve played is unique. And when managed and understood properly, the land helps guide the design. For example, we currently have three projects underway in Atlanta. If you went to all three of them, you would know they were cousins, but they’re not brothers and sisters. There is an element that you go, “Yeah, they’re related, but they’re different.” They may look the same, but they will be different. You’ll see unique aspects to each course that are specific to the land.