For firms such as Arnold Palmer Design Co.
— legacy firms, let’s call them — many chal-
lenges lie ahead, because signature architec-
ture has historically been linked to the power
of charismatic personalities. During the next
decades, that power will be tested.
The most successful golf course architects
aren’t necessarily the ones with the most talent.
Talent takes a person only so far, in golf design
or in any profession.
The truth is, the most successful golf architects are the ones who can sell themselves most
effectively. And when it comes to selling, the
“super legends” of golf are in a league of their
own. They’re the ultimate closers.
To illustrate: Before he died, Palmer initiated
a project in the Cayman Islands. At crunch
time, he closed the deal as a Jedi master might.
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I want
you to build this project for me,’” one of the
developers told a local newspaper. “And I
couldn’t say no.”
Without their founders, the legacy firms
won’t have such forces at their command.
Developers have lots of good reasons to
cozy up to fame. Brand-name architects boost
the value of real estate, offer comfort to lenders, draw attention to new golf markets (It’s
no accident that Nicklaus designed the first
course in Turkmenistan.) and lure vacationers
to places they wouldn’t ordinarily visit, such as
Bulgaria, or even Missouri. They can also have
a positive effect in the most important place of
all — the board room — simply by showing up,
smiling and shaking a few star-struck hands.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the top
brands add the kind of sizzle to promotional
efforts that lesser-known architects, no matter
how talented, simply can’t match.
“If I hire someone like Nicklaus or Palmer,”
Keiser said, “it’s in large part because I know
that I’m going to stand next to them for at least
three photos: One at the groundbreaking; one
during construction; and the third when the
course opens. Those photographs become a
vital part of my marketing campaign.”
To gauge how the legacies might fare with-
out their namesakes, consider the firm founded
by Robert von Hagge that now operates as von
Hagge, Smelek & Baril. Robert von Hagge died
in 2010 at the age of 83.
Although he was never as famous as the
superstars he routinely competed against, he
produced (or co-produced) a number of well-
regarded golf courses across the planet, in par-
ticular the Albatros track at Le Golf National
in Paris, the venue for next year’s Ryder Cup;
and Les Bordes, which some critics believe is
France’s best course and was intended to be
“the Augusta National of Europe.”
them larger ownership stakes and changed
the firm’s name to reflect their contributions.
From that moment on, every VHSB course
bore the names of all three architects.
“We wanted to be the first firm that sustained itself,” Smelek said.
The transition didn’t go smoothly, however. Von Hagge died two years into the Great
Recession, and the work that was supposed to
keep Smelek and Baril occupied slowly disappeared.
“We believed that prospective clients would
have seen how closely we were involved in the
company, and that, therefore, the company
would carry on,” Smelek said. “But the projects
weren’t there, and they haven’t been there.”
The problem, as Smelek sees it, was a perva-
sive belief that von Hagge was the artist, and
his associates merely artisans.
“The perception we always fought,” Smelek
said, “was that the company was Robert von
This is the perception that legacy firms must
overcome if they intend to compete effectively
against living, breathing architects. When
people go to the theater, they want to see the
star, not the understudy. And while a super-
star architect is usually given the freedom to
do things his way, an associate will be forever
“The associates in these firms are going to
be playing in the same ballpark as the rest of
us,” said David McLay Kidd, a boutique archi-
tect. “Without a signature to sell, they’re going
to live and die on the strength of their own
When it comes to thinking about the future,
the “super legends” aren’t alone.
Kidd, for example, will turn 50 this year,
and he understands that his associates, Casey
Krahenbuhl and Nick Schaan, will gradually
assume more responsibility for the firm’s work.
Formal plans haven’t been drawn up, but the
issue will eventually be addressed.
“They’ve been very loyal to me,” Kidd
said, “and I want to make sure they can have
successful careers after I’m gone.”
ROBERT VON HAGGE,
who designed the
Les Bordes Golf
Club (shown here) in
France, brought in
Mike Smelek and Rick
Baril as partners to
keep his firm’s