Everyone knows that less can be more, but
don’t try selling that idea to the fellow who
owns The Greenbrier resort.
Two years ago, Jim Justice was brainstorming about his resort’s next golf course. If hiring
a signature architect was a smart marketing
move, he reasoned, then hiring four of them
would be pure genius. So, that’s what he did.
He enlisted the “super legends of golf,” as he
called them — Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer,
Gary Player and Lee Trevino — to produce
a track that he hopes will bring a U.S. Open
championship to West Virginia.
Whether or not Justice, who took office as
West Virginia governor earlier this year, succeeds, his commission illustrates an impending
problem for golf development: The superstars
of golf architecture are growing older. Their
work remains in great demand, and they’re
still active globetrotters, but time is running
out for them.
Palmer died last year. He was 87. This year,
Nicklaus will turn 77, Player 82, Trevino 78.
Irish signature architect and Ryder Cup
hero Christy O’Connor Jr. died last year at the
age of 68. Peter Thomson, one of Australia’s
most prolific signatures, retired at the age of
87. A few months ago, Player put his stud farm
in South Africa up for sale, acknowledging
that he is starting to prepare for retirement.
The list goes on: Pete Dye will be 92 this
year. Robert Trent Jones Jr. will be 78. His
brother, Rees, will be 76. Tom Fazio will be 72.
Realistically, how many more cross-country
and intercontinental flights can any of them
abide? How long before they decide enough is
Then again, maybe such questions have
become irrelevant. Donald Ross, C. B.
Macdonald, Robert Trent Jones — their firms
disappeared ages ago. But times have changed,
and anyone who thinks that today’s namesake
practices will disappear may be mistaken.
For years, most of the superstar firms
have been preparing to operate without their
founders. Palmer turned his company over
to his daughter and her husband. Nicklaus,
Player and Fazio will entrust theirs to sons.
O’Connor’s is in the hands of his wife and
daughter. Thomson’s associates have gone their
separate ways, but Rees Jones expects his firm
to continue as Rees Jones Inc.
This large a changing of the guard has never
been tested in golf architecture, and many
observers are skeptical about the outcome.
“When a firm loses the person who breathed
the life into his art, it loses something essen-
tial,” said Dana Garmany, CEO of Troon Golf.
“I don’t see how these firms can be as success-
ful as they were when their founders were
Mike Keiser, the developer of Bandon
Dunes, is more succinct. “It absolutely will not
work,” he said.
Needless to say, the firms see things differently. They’ve been cultivating their brands for
many years — Greg Norman now fancies himself as “the Living Brand” — and they believe
they’ve secured a permanent place in the golf
industry. They equate themselves not with
individual artists such as Picasso or Monet but
with namesake corporations such as Disney,
Ford and Jack Daniel’s.
In fact, Palmer’s company intends to continue offering signature designs, even though
Palmer is no longer around to sign them.
“Nearly all beginnings involve one person’s
vision, and brands are built by teams of people
who carry that vision forward,” said Brandon
Johnson, a senior architect in Palmer’s design
firm. “Arnold Palmer’s vision was to create
courses that were beautiful, fun, profitable and
environmentally sustainable, and we intend to
continue building courses that exemplify those
With Arnold Palmer gone and other superstars of golf architecture aging, future
demand for name-branded courses appears uncertain. BY ROBERT J. VASILAK
ARNOLD PALMER’S daughter Amy Saunders, shown at right with her late father
and her sister Peggy Palmer, is now the face of the Arnold Palmer course design
franchise. She says the firm will open 20 courses in the next few years.