Architect Interview: Bobby Weed Steps to the Forefront
After years of being on the fringe of the recognized architectural A-list, Bobby Weed is now exploding. His intelligent, highly strategic courses run counterpoint to the glut of cookie-cutter, beauty-over-brains products that have been modus operandi since the late 1980s. Now hes being recognized and mentioned in the same breath as Doak, Coore, Smyers, Hanse.
Though his career began in the 1970's working under Pete Dye, it's the work that Weed has done since 1995, when he opened Weed Golf Course Design, that is earning the greatest acclaim. One of his most prominent commissions came when he was tabbed to design The Slammer & The Squire course for World Golf Village (in tribute to Sam Snead and Gene Sarazin) in St. Augustine, Florida in the late '90s.
Several of his most recent designs have earned higher praise. The Old Farm near Bristol, Virginia, was named Golf Digests Best New Private Course for 2001. Stone Ridge Golf Club in Stillwater, Minn., and The Golf Course at Glen Mills School outside of Philadelphia have also garnered accolade.
His renovations of three Donald Ross courses, Timuquana in Jacksonville, Florida, Meyers Park in Charlotte, North Carolina, and University of Florida course (which was featured last year in a 14-segment Sports Illustrated piece called This Old Course), have been widely hailed.
Though working with Dye had perhaps the greatest influence on his career, many players might recognize him for the courses he produced as Chief Designer for PGA TOUR Design Services which appear annually on television: TPC at The Canyons in Las Vegas, TPC River Highlands (Greater Hartford Open), TPC at Summerlin (Las Vegas Invitational), and TPC at Tampa Bay (GTE Classic).
Weed is as personally involved on-site as nearly any living architect and his courses reflect his attention, especially in their intense and creative green complexes. He routinely sets his greens at unconventional angles (by modern standards), shapes them boldly and often irregularly, and builds contours that hearken to dynamic greens from the Golden Age. His bunker-work also recalls hazards of yore and reflects the site and theme of the land in more natural and intriguing ways than the stock computer-issued models commonly found in todays impersonal designs.
TravelGolf.com Senior Writer Derek Duncan spoke to Weed in January about his current hot-streak, his insight into contemporary architecture, and his thoughts on the importance of strategic golf.
Duncan: When did you know you wanted to design golf courses?
Weed: I grew up in South Carolina and my family was into farming and construction, so at a very early age I was pretty much thrown outside so to speak. My grandparents were big farmers and my dad was in the construction business so Ive been around equipment all my life and been around farming all my life. That really planted the early seed in shaping me as far as what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be outdoors and do something along those lines because growing up and being surrounded by all of that meant a lot.
I guess I got involved in golf probably around age ten. My dad had quite a bit of property and ended up selling some of it to a developer who built a golf course not too far from where I grew up and they never had enough land to build a driving range. When I was in high school I talked my dad out of some bean fields that were across the street from the golf course and I built a driving range by myselfof course he helped me on weekendsand I operated and ran it all through high school. Then I went off to college and played a little college golf, but we still own the driving range to this day, we just lease it out.
After I went to college, I kind of sat out for a while because I really wasnt sure where I wanted to go or what I was doing because I obviously knew at that early juncture playing competitive golf that there were a whole lot more better golfers out there and if I was going to stay in that business that Id better find a parallel to get into. Thats when I went down to Lake City (Community College, Florida) to the Tour School and from there got on with Pete Dye.
Duncan: So how often do you get to play now?
Weed: Not nearly as often as Id like, not near as often as 20 years ago. I probably average two to three time per month. But between business and family and everything else, time is pretty short. But its so important for an architect to play the game and understand how the game should be played. I go to these ASGCA (American Society of Golf Course Architects) meetings and I just cant believe the quality of golf that the majority of these people play (laughs). These guys are designing golf courses and Im watching this game of theirsI dont know.
Duncan: Can you talk about how it came about that one of your earliest jobs was working for probably the most important golf architect of the last 50 years?
Weed: I dont know, I just got lucky. We were working at Amelia Island and I got on with Pete on one of his jobs and he took me under his wing and we developed a great relationship.
Apprenticing in my business, and you can have all the education background you want, but I really think (whom) you apprentice under and work under really creates that foundation. I [also] think construction is a great component of that foundation. I think to become a good golf course architect you have to draw from so many aspects of business, agronomics, of construction, of engineering, hydraulics, who youve worked with, you just draw from so many areas. I was fortunate enough to apprentice with Pete and work with him for many years. Gosh, only up until a few years ago have we not worked together doing something or other after probably a stretch of 17 years that we had been associated or been involved in something either directly or indirectly.
Duncan: To what degree did Pete Dye influence your design philosophy and in what ways have you diverged from his style of architecture?
Weed: Well, hes such a hands-on architect, and Ive tried to pattern myself in many ways after him to be hands-on, and realized early on that a set of plans was nothing more than a guideline and that the real golf course is developed in the field. I think its that hand-craft approach I inherited and the fact that he was not concerned about making changes as necessary to improve upon the product.
During the early phases of shaping it doesnt cost much to push that dirt around if youre on-site doing it. He would just continue to shape and mold it, and it never seemed that he would ever be totally satisfied until he just kept tweaking it. He always felt that any time he made any changes or tweaks that it was only making it better. So I learned at an early age that working the ground in the field and making changes, improving upon what you have, was only making it better. He was very adept at it and his creativity just seemed that it reached beyond anything Id ever seen. So I just kind of tapped into that and was never afraid to go out and try to create something different, quirky.
You know quirky was always part of the game in the past on some of the older golf courses, and frankly quirky, I think, is good today.
Duncan: The notion of quirkiness intrigues me because it is sort of indescribable yet can be so vital to a courses appeal. What is an example of quirky and what is something youve done on one of your courses that could be described as such?
Weed: Its something that you dont see on the next golf course, or something that you havent seen on the previous golf courses that youve played. Quirky can be in so many forms. It can be in the bunkering, it can be in the shaping. We shape all of our features ourselves. We dont have a contractor trying to interpret what we want because as soon as you do that you start losing what youre really trying to create. I typically float our all our greens myselfevery single green Im typically on. One of my guys will rough it in, and Ill participate in that, and I express to them what were going to be doing and at the same time I dont want to give him so much direction that he cant be creative as well. The guy thats shaping is just an extension of me.
So the quirkiness can come from the features, the shaping, it can come with the green falling away from you, it can be from a false front, it can be from the deception and the illusions we create from placing bunkers and pushing the back of the bunker up a little bit higher so that it takes away the distance relationship between it and the green to lessen depth perception. It all folds in to how were trying to create a golf course with more balance between physical ability and mental agility.
Duncan: Can a quirky quality be created or must it result from intrinsic qualities found in the property or even limitations in the land?
Weed: I think both. I think you try not to be confined. You have to work with what you have and improve upon [it], and certainly today with the equipment and technology that we have, and say in Florida with the typically flat nature of the ground, you basically have a palette to create and do anything you want to, but at the same time, at the end of the day I feel you want to try to create something that blends in. You know the greatest features are the ones that are indistinguishable from what nature has done. So in Florida a lot of times well take a flat piece of ground and we wont try to make it into mountains but at the same time well try to give it some character and accentuate what you have and what you have to work with.
Duncan: So when you design a golf course in Florida you need to move more land to create features than you do in other parts of the country?
Weed: Florida is a difficult place to work because of the environmental laws and the water quality and the retention requirements youre faced with. You see golf courses in Florida and wonder why theres so much water on (them). Well, a lot of that is requirements on the local, state, and federal levels.
[It] all goes back to drainage. Everything starts with drainageI learned that in farming and I learned that through Pete, that if it doesnt drain it doesnt work. Its as simple as that. It depends on where your water table is, depends on how much dirt youre going to move, how much earth-work youre going to have. Obviously the lower you can keep the water table the more freeboard you have and you have more to work with. A high water table typically means you may have to move a little more dirt.
Duncan: Youve had some recent success renovating some prominent older courses. How do you compare the satisfaction of remodeling an established site with building one from the ground up? You must enjoy renovations because theyve been a high-profile portion of your business.
Weed: Theres no question about that, although the strength of our business remains our new work. We supplement with select re-do work. Some people call it remodel, some people call it restoration, some call it reconstruction or redesign, but at the University of Florida we called it a startover. Timuquana in Jacksonville was a startover, Ponte Vedra (Inn) was a startover, and I think that is an emerging trend that Im seeing right now.
But we will take selective existing projects to work on, and we are pretty selective simply because, [as] was said a long time ago by Robert Hunter and Alister MacKenzie, theres as much money spent on bad construction as good construction. Thats very true today unfortunately. What we dont involve ourselves in are band-aid projects. Im very quick to tell clients this, that were not the guys to call on if you just want a few tees or a few bunkers [added] or something done over the top of your existing golf course. There are way too many other people who can do that work. We are only interested in doing something thats going to elevate the stature of the golf course.
For instance, at the University of Florida we took what we liked about the golf course and kept it and basically what we have now is a brand new golf course but you still recognize where you are. Its not like you go out there and you dont recognize anything about the property, like we flipped it and everything about it is 100% different. Much of what you see out there you recognize. You just like it better because weve created a theme, which I think every golf course needs to have more of. Theres more continuity, its very simple and straightforward, we respect a lot of the original routing because it was pretty good, although it had been changed.
The original routing was a 6-6-6 layout and its changed so much and thats the problem. It was a Donald Ross courseand whether it was or whether it wasnt is an arguable pointbut there was virtually nothing Ross about the golf course. We tried to bring some continuity back to the golf course and tried to instill a (more) strategic design and tie it all in to make the golf course flow to create more of a theme that includes the vegetation and the pine straw. We took a very simple approach because the ground had great topo, great roll to it, and some great trees and vegetation. We just tried to simplify that and polish it, polish it with good options and variety.
So while the staple of our business is new work, and we have a number of new golf courses on the drawing board right now, we will continue to be very selective in looking at projects that really want to go back and rethink their entire golf course. Were very selective about who we talk to and who were going to associate ourselves with on these.
Duncan: Is that to say that you generally will only be interested in a project if it is a start-over or renovation rather than coming in to do a pure restoration?
Weed: Were not going to say no to some restoration work but it has to make sense and it has to be to a degree thats really going to up [the quality of the course]we just finished at Ormond Beach at the old Oceanside Golf Course, a five year upgrade, and they have done everything weve asked them to do, and thats worked out pretty good. We will do restoration work but it has to be in the best long-term interest of the club. I dont want to be driven by a green committee that wants to make a mark for someone whos overseeing their golf course for a year or two. Its been well documented that green committees are [responsible for] the biggest demise of all golf courses. I dont need to expand on that, its pretty well true. I can typically go to most golf courses and tell you pretty close all the changes that have been introduced via green committees and tree planting programs and removing bunkers or putting (in) fountains or flower gardens. Its a lot of wasted money. I see so much money being wasted on band aid projects and I just dont want to fall into that.
Duncan: There is lively debate over how several Golden Age courses are currently being altered. Is it an architects responsibility to say no to tinkering projects such as these when green committees come calling?
Weed: No question. Ive been to great golf courses before where theyve asked us to do something to accommodate todays membership and Im like, You know what? Youre going to have to find someone else because Im not going to be written up and looked back upon as changing this great piece of property or this great golf course to improve your driving range or something along that line. So we will certainly turn down opportunities as well.
Duncan: At the University course you implemented a variety of classic green styles, ranging from the crowned, domed Donald Ross type that funnel into shaved chipping areas, similar to those also found at The Slammer and The Squire and many of your Florida sites, to some strikingly linear, boxy Raynor-esque models. Will you intentionally create a green in a classic style, or how exactly do you decide to shape a green?
Weed: The great architects of that time knew how to draw and design great golf courses that have stood the test of time, golf courses that are still great challenges today. Those architects of that era built greens that would test the player in a number of ways, on the mental side as much as any. You look at the greens of some of those architects, take C.B. MacDonald, and those are as good a set of greens as there are and challenging even today.
So yes, we appreciate those greens and study them. We draw golf courses that give the player options, particularly around the green. We dont want to necessarily give them an easy up and down but we want them to think about how theyre going to play that shot and make them decide what club to use. Its not that the up-and-down is all that difficultit depends on where the pin isbut with the way we try to design our greens, all of a sudden youve got a chance to pitch it, chip it, flip it, punch it, or putt it. With a variety of ways the shot can be played so it allows you to be creative, and if the player doesnt get the ball up-and-down, theyre going to second-guess their decision and think that they made the wrong choice and that grinds on you. So we try to make the player think about his shots and how he is going to approach the hole from the mental side.
If we have anything in common with the architects from the past in the way we design greens its that we will design, small, hand crafted greens. When you work with us were on site all the time and no feature can be signed off on, and theres nothing that can be grassed, until weve signed off on it. And chances are were going to continue to tweak it right up until the time its grassed, and if were there all the time and were doing it while its [in progress] it doesnt cost any more.
Duncan: On your recent designs theres a type of small, shallow bunker thats unlike anything else Im seeing in modern architecture, particularly in Florida. Its a low-profile depression bunker, no lips, sometimes pressed or tilted against a slope near a green and usually no larger than a throw rug. They are odd and quirky and eerily effectivewhat is your thinking in creating these peculiar divot or scab bunkers?
Weed: Well, I guess it all goes back to variety. You dont want all your bunkers to look the same and you want to give them different depths. Were not afraid to put bunkers where people hit the ball. I think thats what adds so much interest to the game and helps create a strategic style. If you look at our golf courses, we do not typically put bunkers left and right of all of our greens. Theres always a bailout side so you can miss the green if you need to.
As far as bunkers go, we have bunkers of all different shapes. We do try to have walk in bunkers for ease of maintenance and also to allow the ball to roll into them. A lot of times these small bunkers are larger than they appear technically because weve shortened the grass around them so a ball can effectively catch a slope and roll into one of them.
Everything we do is based on strategic principles and trying to take strategic design to the next level to accommodate todays technology.
Duncan: Perhaps you learned it from Pete Dye, but you see the value of the short par four and include at least one on virtually every course you design (notables: 14th at The Slammer & The Squire, 17th at University of Florida, 12th at Fleming Island, 1st and 12th at Amelia Island Plantation Ocean Links). Since longer players have an advantage on longer holes, is the short par four one of the better ways to combat technology?
Weed: We love to design a short par four. I will say that we dont want to succumb to making length the determining factor. We still like the short par three and the short par four that has a lot of options and where theres a lot of additional risk and reward involved in the decision-making. Its also very exciting to play from a set of tees where there is an opportunity to drive a par four. So that short par four continues to hold a lot of interest for us, and on the opposite end of that we have some very long par foursit all goes back to variety. But we do find ourselves building more and more short par fours, drivable par fours, short par threes, and we may be taking away some par fives and building more par 71, par 70 golf courses.
It all comes full circle, back to options and variety and strategy. Well put a bunker on the direct line to the hole and what that does is worry the better players because now it becomes a matter of how your going to get around that and they cant always be sure of the shot, whether its going to carry it, skirt it, or stay short of it.
Duncan: You mentioned technology. Can you talk about how its changing architecture?
Weed: The technology is a concern. Im concerned over the fact that technology is diminishing the overall skill in the game, which is the essence of what the USGA is supposed to be protecting. Because frankly, in my opinion, 300-yard drives are commonplace today and believe it or not were just around the corner from 400-yard drives. Its getting more difficult to protect the golf courses because the gap between golfers is widening, and we dont know how high the ceiling is. The gap has never, ever been wider between the best golfers and the worst golfers, and that makes it difficult to design golf courses that challenge all golfers. But thats our challenge and there has never been a more exciting time be in golf course design than today, because you know what? We have to rethink everything [we know] about golf course design, but we need a little assistance from the USGA and the Royal & Ancient.
Duncan: From the design standpoint, is the best way to defend the golf course through increased strategy and confusion rather than length?
Weed: Yes, youve got to continue to give those players options and make them think about different routes and create interest around the greens. With strategic golf, on a typical two shot hole, if you challenged the longest hitter off the tee in the past he was rewarded by having an easer shot into the green. We have to rethink that, because today with all the added length and players hitting the ball so much farther, if you [entice] him to hit the ball as far as he can all youre doing is giving him a double reward. So we have to rethink and reposition bunkers, and while we want to challenge those long hitters now instead of rewarding him, were going to have to tighten up his second shot too.
Duncan: When you designed the TPC courses for the PGA Tour would they give you instructions regarding what types of courses or features they wanted, for example would you be asked to design a certain hole in anticipation of making the pros play particular shots that might create drama and excitement?
Weed: Yes, and really what that was, was they were taking the approach of design by committee, and basically what we found out was that that approach doesnt really work. In design, when you get that many people involved it can be very difficult. But at the same time, it was an incredibly rewarding experience because it gave me a lot of opportunities and exposure and it was great working in that corporate structure and seeing the inside of a business. But at the same time, great golf courses arent designed by committee.
Duncan: A few years ago you had the opportunity to go back to Amelia Island Plantation where you started to add another nine holes and touch up some of Pete Dyes original 27 holes.
Weed: Yes, I did an internship there back in the seventies and worked for their golf course superintendent Ron Hill, who I would consider another mentor and was as influential as anybody else in shaping my career. He allowed me to expand my agronomic skills and my maintenance skills while at the same time he introduced me to Pete. At the same time I met my wife there, although I didnt meet her until the late eighties, so going back to Amelia Island, I have some pretty special and fond memories.
Duncan: Much of the land you were given at Amelia Island to complete the Ocean Links course was typical woodsy North Florida and flat, but not all of it. You were able to route it out to the dunes and the Atlantic for what are now two of the most memorable holes in the state. Is that the most visually rich property youve ever been given?
Weed: Youve got to face the fact that every golf hole cannot be the signature hole or have the best ground, so what you try to do is take advantage of the part of the property that gives you something to work with. Anytime youre near the ocean you have a maritime influence and there (at Amelia Island Plantation) youre in those secondary dunes and I think it was outstanding because you have the hammocks, the maritime forest, and then to break out and be right there along the Atlantic Ocean, and to have that many holes on the Atlantic is very unique. So that was a great site, but then again, if you just had the inland property [to work with] it would still be pretty special because of the vegetation.
Duncan: A number of your courses, particularly in Florida, are on flattish and rather unremarkable soil, but what are some of the better sites youve been able to work on?
Weed: Obviously the sandier sites offer you more of an opportunity. Its really important to have a good owner that lets you make the most of whatever the site is, who understands the game and doesnt handcuff you. Thats where your pleasurable experiences are. So I guess if I had my ideal situation, it would be working for a knowledgeable owner building a core golf course on a nice sandy piece of soil.
Duncan: Which of your courses comes closest to that experience?
Weed: The course we just finished in Austin, TexasSpanish Oaksis certainly one of our best golf courses. Its in the hill country on outstanding property, in fact it was quite rocky and very rough. But it has a fantastic owner and we had a chance for a top quality, core golf course. We had excellent rolling terrain, excellent vegetation, and an owner who would not compromise anything.
We recently finished a heathland-style course up in Minneapolis, the first time weve been up in that area, and half the site was a sand and gravel quarry and the other half was a horse farm. Once again it was a core golf course with an owner who was not willing to sacrifice anything.
Duncan: What one of your favorite golf courses, not necessarily designed by you, that nobody knows about?
Weed: Theres a course in Jupiter (Florida) that I did with Pete Dye back in the 80s called Cypress Links thats one of the best golf courses weve ever done, and nobody knows about it really. Its a great property with great vegetation, and we put a par three there, number 17, and the back tee is over 260 yards and its got to carry water. I really think that Cypress Links is one of the top two or three golf courses in Florida.