Feature Interview with Tom Watson
March, 2009

1. How/why did you get into golf design business?

MY PASSION FOR DESIGN STARTED EARLY IN MY LIFE. I REMEMBER DESIGNING HOLES ON MY RED BIG CHIEF PAPER TABLET I WAS ISSUED IN FOURTH GRADE.

2. Discuss your initial reaction and thoughts upon first playing Prairie Dunes nearly thirty-five years ago.

THE FIRST TIME I HAD THE PLEASURE TO PLAY PRAIRIE DUNES WAS IN THE 1970’s AND AS I RECALL I PLAYED IT WELL.

MY FIRST MEMORY WAS ON THE SECOND HOLE, AN UPHILL SHORT PAR 3. I REMEMBER HITTING A ¾ FIVE IRON INTO THE WIND ENDING UP ON A SMALL PLATEAU NEXT TO THE FLAGSTICK, THINKING NOW THAT WAS A REALLY, REALLY TOUGH SHOT.

MY LASTING THOUGHTS WERE TWO: THE EXTREME PRIMARY ROUGH WHICH I EXPERIENCED AT MUIRFIELD IN 1980 FOR THE FIRST TIME REMINDED ME OF MY ROUND AT PRARIE DUNES. THE OTHER WAS THE SMALL HIGHLY CONTOURED GREENS WHICH IN THE KANSAS WINDS PROVIDE THE HIGHEST GRADE OF CHALLENGE TO THE GOLFER.

MY MOST RECENT VISIT WAS TO COMPETE IN THE 2005 US SENIOR OPEN WHERE I FINISHED SECOND TO ALLEN DOYLE.

3. How do you stack Prairie Dunes hole for hole against the most famous links in the United Kingdom?

PRAIRIE DUNES HAS TO BE INCLUDED IN ANY LISTING OF THE GREAT LINKS COURSES IN THE WORLD. THE COURSE HAS BEEN BUILT IN A SAND BELT WHICH LENDS ITSELF TO ITS LINKS CHARACTER. WHAT REALLY DISTINGUISHES THE COURSE IS ITS SMALL AND HIGHLY CONTOURED GREENS. ADD IN MY HOME STATE’S EVER PRESENT WINDS, THE COURSE IS ALWAYS A GREAT TEST OF THE GOLFER’S SKILL.

The tiny sloped greens combined with Maxwells interior rolls have flummoxed golfers for decades at Prairie Dunes.

The tiny sloped greens combined with Maxwell's interior rolls have flummoxed golfers for decades at Prairie Dunes.

4. Your first job in architecture was Spanish Bay which was a massive construction project. Discuss the enormity of this project and what you learned from Bobby Jones and Sandy Tatum.

WHAT A PROJECT WITH WHICH TO START A CAREER IN GOLF COURSE DESIGN.

MR JONES, MR. TATUM, AND I TOOK A PIECE OF THE CALIFORNIA COASTLINE, DEVOID OF ITS NATURAL COVER, AND TURNED IT INTO A CHALLENGING AND BEAUTIFUL LINKSLIKE EXPERIENCE FOR ANYONE WHO PLAYS THE GAME.

THE LAND HAD BEEN MINED OF ALMOST ALL OF ITS SAND LEAVING NOTHING BUT BEDROCK AND SUCCULENTS. WE CREATED THE LINKS LOOK USING A BASE OF DECOMPOSED GRANITE CAPPED WITH FINE SAND. UNFORTUNATELY FOR THE GOLFER, THE DUNES WE CREATED ARE OFF LIMITS ( BY GOVERNMENT DECREE) FOR GOLFERS TO TROD ON CREATING A MUCH MORE DIFFICULT COURSE THAN WE HAD ANTICIPATED. SOME DAY I HOPE LEVEL HEADS WILL PREVAIL SO THAT THE LINKS AT SPANISH BAY WILL INDEED PLAY AS IT WAS INTENDED.

I LEARNED A LOT FROM MY FIRST GOLF COURSE DESIGN PROJECT. FIRST AND FOREMOST WAS THE DIFFERING THOUGHT PROCESSES ON WHAT CONSTITUTES A PROPER GOLF SHOT. SANDY, BOBBY, AND I HAD SOME DISAGREEMENT, BUT MOSTLY WE SHARED A FAIRLY CONSTANT VISION FOR THE STRATEGY.

BUD SEXTON BOBBY’S CONSTRUCTION MANAGER WAS VERY HELPFUL TO ME AS I BEGAN MY LEARNING PROCESS ABOUT MOVING/SHAPING THE EARTH AS WELL AS DRAINAGE AND IRRIGATION ISSUES. I WILL BE FOREVER GRATEFUL TO ALL OF THEM FOR GIVING ME A SOLID START IN THE BUSINESS OF GOLF COURSE DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION.

5. Please describe a favorite hole at the Links at Spanish Bay and what you enjoy about it.

ANYONE WHO PLAYS THE LINKS AT SPANISH BAY REMEMBERS THE SEVENTEENTH HOLE WHICH PLAYS SOUTHWARDLY IMMEDIATELY ADJACENT TO THE BEACH. THE TEE SHOT CANNOT BE HIT TOO FAR AND THE SECOND SHOT MUST BE PLAYED OVER A LARGE EXPANSE OF WASTELAND TO AN ELEVATED GREEN. IT’S THE MOST SCENIC HOLE AND UNDER WINDY CONDITIONS THE MOST DIFFICULT. A PAR HERE IS A REAL ACCOMPLISHMENT.

The majestic setting of the seventeenth green at Spanish Bay, as seen from the Inn.

The majestic setting of the seventeenth green at Spanish Bay, as seen from the Inn.

6. When you arrived at what became Cassique, the high to low point on the property was less than four feet. This, after all, is indeed the Low Country! What was the genesis for creating a crumpled, links-like landscape with ten feet plus of elevation change on many of the holes?

AT CASSIQUE THERE WERE THREE DISTINCT LANDFORMS WE WOULD USE FOR THE LAYOUT OF THE COURSE. TWO WERE NATURAL: THE MARSH AND THE FOREST WHICH MADE THOSE HOLES VERY EASY TO PLAN. THE FLAT 800X300 YARD TOMATO FIELD WAS THE REAL CHALLENGE. CREATING LINKS GOLF WAS MY FIRST AND ULTIMATELY FINAL CHOICE FOR THIS AREA.

The fifteenth green at Cassique juts into the marsh at the end of a reachable par five.

The fifteenth green at Cassique juts into the marsh at the end of a reachable par five.

7. The elevated clubhouse (which affords sweeping vistas) and ninth green are at least twenty feet above the natural grade of the ground. Where did all the fill come from?

WE CREATED A CHAIN OF LAKES THROUGHOUT THE PROPERTY FROM WHICH WE USED THE EXCAVATED MATERIAL TO BUILD OUR ELEVATIONS.

The grand clubhouse at Cassique lords over the course from its elevated perch.

The grand clubhouse at Cassique lords over the course from its elevated perch.

8. We all know the course where you achieved your first Open victory – is it safe to say that the bunkers eighty yards short of the sixth green at Cassique were inspired by the Spectacle Bunkers at Carnoustie?

EXACTLY THE CASE. IN FACT CHARLIE ARRINGTON WHO WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN THE FINE DETAIL AND DESIGN OF THE COURSE SHOULD TAKE CREDIT FOR INITIATING THE THOUGHT FOR # 6.

Editors Note: Charlie Arrington oversees land planning for Kiawah’s new neighborhoods and amenities. He is also KDP’s in-house golf architect, working alongside Tom Fazio on The River Course, with Tom Watson at Cassique, and with Greg Norman at Doonbeg Golf Club. Among his many other accomplishments, Arrington took responsibility for directing the site landscaping team at The Ocean Course in 1990.

9. Depending on whether one goes for the sixth green in two or in three, the pair of bunkers make the sixth green at Cassique blind. Some of your golf course architect contemporaries like Jack Nicklaus prefer perfect visuals with minimal blindness. Where do you stand re: blindness?

I THINK THE BLIND SHOT, USED JUDICOUSLY, IS AN INTEGRAL PART OF THE GAME. IT BRINGS UNCERTAINTY, GUESSWORK, AND SURPRISE INTO THE EQUATION OF PERFORMING THE PROPER SHOT.

10. To that end, one of your Open victories came at Muirfield, which is a frank and straightforward course relative to other Open championship links like Royal St. George’s and The Old Course at St. Andrews. You still hold the scoring record at Muirfield at thirteen under par. What features from that course impress you?

THE PENAL BUNKERS AND ROUGH ARE MUIRFIELD’S LASTING MEMORIES FOR ME. MY FIRST AND FOREMOST THOUGHT ON PLAYING IT IN THE 1980 OPEN WAS TO STAY OUT OF THE BUNKERS AND THE ROUGH. I ONLY HIT IT INTO ONE BUNKER AND THAT WAS THE CROSS BUNKER AT # 17.

11. You have had great fun playing up the road from Muirfield at North Berwick. Tell us about this quirky links course.

NORTH BERWICK IS A GEM OF A LINKS COURSE. I WAS CAUGHT TRESPASSING MY FIRST TIME I PLAYED IT. I TOOK A FEW CLUBS OUT AND PLAYED A FEW HOLES ON THE SATURDAY AFTERNOON AFTER MISSING THE CUT THE PREVIOUS DAY IN THE OPEN AT MUIRFIELD. I WAS PROPERLY REPRIMANDED AND SENT BACK TO MY ROOM AT THE MARINE HOTEL WHICH IS ADJACENT TO THE COURSE. THE STARTER AND I HAVE HAD A GOOD LAUGH ABOUT THIS INCIDENT OVER THE YEARS.

The fabulous landscape of North Berwick with its one-of-a-kind sixteenth green seen in the bottom middle.

The fabulous landscape of North Berwick with its one-of-a-kind sixteenth green seen in the bottom middle.

12. If you were confined to playing either Muirfield or North Berwick, which would you pick and why?

I WOULDN’T PICK EITHER OVER THE OTHER AS GOLF COURSES SHOULD BE ENJOYED RATHER THAN RATED. BOTH ARE FINE EXAMPLES OF THE VARIETIES OF LINKS GOLF.

I HAVE NEVER BEEN ONE TO FAVOR A ‘RANKING’ OF GOLF COURSES, SIMPLY BECAUSE IT’S INHERENTLY SUBJECTIVE. TO ME, IT’S AN EXERCISE IN FAVORITISM BY JUDGES WHO HAVE DIFFERENT LIKES AND DISLIKES, AKIN TO THE FOUR STAR RANKING SYSTEM OF MOTION PICTURES. FOR INSTANCE, I GREW UP AND PLAYED THE KANSAS CITY COUNTRY CLUB AND THINK IT ONE OF THE BEST COURSES ONE CAN PLAY FOR A VARIETY OF REASONS. AM I BIASED? OF COURSE I AM. NEVERTHELESS THIS TILLINGHAST CREATION HAS TAUGHT ME SO MUCH ABOUT HOW TO PLAY A PROPER GAME OF GOLF WITH IT’S TINY SUBTLE GREENS AND NARROW FAIRWAYS THAT I WOULD PUT IT IN MY ‘TOP 20’ LIST.

13. What consulting work has Tom Watson Design completed at Ballybunion?

BOB GIBBONS, MY ON COURSE SUPERVISOR AND DESIGN ASSOCIATE OF TOM WATSON DESIGN, AND I SPENT OVER A YEAR TO RENOVATE AND BUILD SEVERAL NEW BUNKER COMPLEXES ON THE OLD COURSE AND THE CASHEN COURSE. WE ALSO CREATED SOME NEW TEE SPACE.

Editors Note: Bob Gibbons is president of Robert Gibbons Design of Wilmington, N.C. His designs include Yashima Country Club, Totiaj-ken, Japan; The National II, Parkville, Mo.; and The Conservatory at Hammock Beach, Palm Coast, Fla.

a. How did you get the job at Ballybunion?

I LOBBIED FOR IT WITH THE MEMBERS BECAUSE I THOUGHT THERE WAS A CONSENSUS THAT SOME IMPROVEMENTS COULD BE MADE TO ENHANCE BOTH COURSES.

b. Can you give specific examples of bunkers that needed to be restored and why?

WE CHANGED THE BUNKERING AS WELL AS ADDING A BACK TEE TO # 4, A SHORT PAR 5. INTERESTINGLY THE TEE SHOT IS HIT DIRECTLY OVER THE 3RD GREEN WITH THE NEW BUNKERS NARROWING DOWN THE LANDING AREA IN THE PROPER LOCATION FOR THE LONGER HITTERS OF TODAY.

WE ALSO CREATED A BLIND HORSESHOE BUNKER ON THE LEFT OF THE DRIVING AREA ON # 16 AS WELL AS A LOW PROFILE BUNKER COMPLEX ON THE OPENING HOLE OF THE CASHEN COURSE.

THE SECOND SHOT ON HOLE # 18 WAS GIVEN A BETTER VIEW FROM THE FAIRWAY SHORT OF THE ‘SAHARA’ BUNKER WHICH OVER YEARS OF THE DOWNWIND BUILD-UP OF IT’S BLOWING SAND HAD MADE THE SECOND SHOT TO THE NARROW GREEN COMPLETELY BLIND.

ADDING A TREACHEROUS POT BUNKER SHORT RIGHT OF THIS EIGHTEENTH GREEN CREATED A MORE DIFFICULT SECOND SHOT WHICH BEFORE COULD BE PLAYED OUT TO THE RIGHT WITH THE RESULTS ALWAYS IN FAVOR OF THE GOLFER. WITH THE NEW BUNKER, THE APPROACH SHOT HAS TO BE MUCH MORE ACCURATE ON THIS SHORT HOLE.

c. What was your approach to working on such a classic historical course?

THE APPROACH WAS TO DISTURB AS LITTLE OF THE NATIVE GRASSES AS POSSIBLE AS REGROWTH IS AT BEST A HARD PROPOSTION IN THE CLIMATE OF KERRY CO.

14. Your second of two green jackets at Augusta National came in 1981, though you finished fourth in 1997. You have seen A LOT of changes to the course over the past several decades. Which changes do you like?

THE CONDITIONING OF THE COURSE IS WHAT I LIKE MOST. IT IS AS CLOSE TO PERFECT AS CAN BE.

15. Which are you less fond of?

THE LENGTHENING OF THE COURSE WAS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, EXCEPT FOR HOLES # 7 AND # 17. THE NARROWING OF # 7 WAS NOT NECESSARY AND THE ADDED LENGTH IS NOT APPROPRIATE CONSIDERING THAT GREEN. IT’S SIMPLY NOT DESIGNED TO HOLD A LONG IRON APPROCH SHOT.

WHAT’S MISSING IS THE OPENESS OF THE ORIGINAL ROUTING BECAUSE OF THE ADDITION OF SO MANY TREES. THE CHARACTER OF THE COURSE I BELIEVE IS DIMINISHED WITH ITS RECOVERY SHOTS MADE SO MUCH MORE RISKY.

THE CHALLENGE OF AUGUSTA NATIONAL IS THE SET OF GREENS SO CAREFULLY AND MASTERFULLY CREATED BY MR. JONES AND DR. MACKENZIE. A MUCH MORE DIFFICULT APPROACH TO THE GREENS FROM THE WRONG DIRECTION WAS THE PENALTY OF AN ERRANT DRIVE.

16. Which are your favorite three links courses where you enjoyed competing (not just necessarily Open venues)?

MUIRFIELD, TURNBERRY, ROYAL BIRKDALE

17. You have designed the National Golf Cub of Kansas City as well as teaming with Weiskopf & Morrish at Shadow Glen in Olathe Kansas. In addition, such great courses as Sand Hills, Dismal River, Wild Horse and Ballyneal have been built in nearby prairie states as well. What are the possibilities in this geographic area for future courses? Should they be public or private?

I’VE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY OF SPENDING SOME QUALITY TIME STUDYING THE SAND HILLS AND THINK THE LANDFORM FOR GOLF IS AS SPECTACULAR AS ANY I HAVE EVER SEEN. IT IS MY SINCERE DESIRE TO DESIGN A COURSE IN THIS AREA WHETHER IT BE PUBLIC OR NOT.

WITH THE CRITICAL NUMBER OF SAND HILLS GOLF COURSES INCREASING TO THE POINT WHERE A FUTURE ‘GOLF TRAIL’ MIGHT BE CONSIDERED, A NEW GOLF VACATION DESTINATION COULD BE REALIZED.

18. The economic climate is presently miserable for new course construction across the United States. What elements are needed for it to be re-invigorated?

NEW GOLF COURSE DEVELOPMENT MIRRORS THE ECONOMY, SO IT SHOULDN’T SURPRISE ANYONE THAT THERE IS A REAL SLOWDOWN.

WITH THAT SAID I AM A FIRM BELIEVER THAT GOLF’S FOUNDATION REMAINS SOLID AND THE GAME WILL CONTINUE TO BE POPULAR FOR A VARIETY OF REASONS, NOT THE LEAST OF WHICH RESTS IN THE LAP OF TIGER WOODS.

19. For much of your playing career, you were a phenomenal putter and scrambler around the greens. Name a particular green complex (that you didn’t design) of a par three, par four and par five that you never tired of playing and what you enjoyed about each one.

PAR 5 – #15 AT AUGUSTA

WHAT MAKES THIS SO INTIMINATING IS THE POND FRONTING THE GREEN. A CHIP SHOT FROM OVER THE BACK TO THIS SLOPING GREEN CAN EASILY TRAVEL TOO FAR AND END UP IN THE WATER. THE APPROACH SHOT THEREORE MUST BE HIT THE PRECISE DISTANCE OR THE GOLFER WILL EITHER END UP IN THE WATER OR FACE THE WATER WITH HIS/HER NEXT PLAY.

PAR 4 – #6 BALLYBUNION (OLD COURSE)

THIS SHORT PAR 4 HAS NO BUNKERS AROUND ITS GREEN, BUT IS AN EXAMPLE OF HOW A RAISED GREEN CAN BE ALL THAT’S NEEDED FOR A PREMIUM CHALLENGE.

PAR 3 – # 17 PEBBLE BEACH

OCEAN, SAND AND UNEVEN LIES ARE THE RESULT OF AN ERRANT TEE SHOT TO THIS TINY GREEN. I WOULD PICK THIS LAST ON THE LIST!

20. From an architectural perspective, what were your three favorite courses that you played on the PGA tour and the Champions Tour?

PGA TOUR

PEBBLE BEACH, HARBOR TOWN GOLF LINKS, RIVERIA CC.

CHAMPION’S TOUR

PEBBLE BEACH, FIVE FARMS, SONOMA CC

21. In regards to Pebble Beach, it’s a course where you have achieved great success highlighted obviously by your historic 1982 US Open victory there. What are your thoughts on the changes to the golf course since then, such as the new bunkers, new tees and the entirely new fifth hole?

THE COURSES HAS REMAINED CURRENT. THE CHANGES AT PEBBLE BEACH HAVE ACCOMPLISHED THIS OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS. THE NEW 5TH HOLE, THE ADDED LENGTH TO A NUMBER OF HOLES, AND NEW BUNKERING HAS, IN MY OPIONION, NOT DIMINISHED IN ANY WAY THE ORIGINAL CHARACTER OF THE COURSE.

THE CHANGES AT AUGUSTA NATIONAL ARE A DIFFERENT STORY. THE ADDED LENGTH TO HOLES 7, 17, AND 18 HAVE MADE THE APPROACHES TO THOSE GREENS TOO DIFFICULT. I WOULD VENTURE TO SAY THAT MR. JONES AND DR. MACKENZIE WOULD AGREE.

The End