Feature Interview with Thad Layton
August 2018

How did you become interested in golf architecture?

While my dad would identify more as an outdoorsman than a golfer, he’d take me out now and again to the local muni in my hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi. I’d beat it around for a few holes and start to lose interest in favor of driving the cart. It wasn’t until a random round with my grandfather in the hills of Tennessee that something clicked. Looking back, I believe my newfound attraction to the game lay in the distinctly different landscape on which this course was situated … the severity of the topography was such a departure from the courses I knew back home and opened my eyes to what a golf course could be. I was hooked.

I came back home with a gifted set of hand-me-down clubs and played or practiced every day, setting my sights on making the high school golf team. While my bid to make the team my freshman year was unsuccessful, this initial failure gave me a singular focus to improve. After redoubling my efforts, I made the team the following year. While competitive golf was appealing, the best part was the access to courses that I’d never played. In addition, my dad was great about taking me to play new courses to feed my growing interest in golf course architecture. In my 15-year-old mind it was the perfect profession, combining three things I loved: sport, the great outdoors, and art.

I subsequently got my hands on a copy of Doak’s Anatomy of a Golf Course and started to appreciate all the thought that goes into designing a worthwhile course. After graduating, I journeyed to Alabama to play golf on scholarship at Mobile University  but I left after one semester for an opportunity to join Ranger Construction and build the new Arnold Palmer course at The Bridges Golf Resort in Bay St. Louis, MS. I was on the ground from the initial clearing to the last sprig of Bermuda hit the ground. After the course opened, I was more rabid than ever in my quest to become a golf course architect and transferred to Mississippi State to pursue a degree in landscape architecture. I badgered my newfound contacts at Palmer Course Design relentlessly for an internship and they gave me a shot in the summer of 1997. That was the beginning of my career at APDC that continues to this day.

In addition to the Anatomy of a Golf Course, what else influenced you? Other books? Particular courses? Certain people?

While at MSU, my affinity for golf course architecture found a sympathetic ear with professor Jim Perry. He helped me convince the head of the landscape architecture department that a trip to the West Coast to study the courses of George Thomas and Alister Mackenzie was a good idea. I got the green light and made a call to Ed Seay, then head of Palmer Course Design, to see if he could make a few introductions for us. The following week my jaw dropped when I received an itinerary from Ed’s secretary that included Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, LACC, Riviera, and Bel Air CC. It was a formative experience that gave me an appreciation for the timeless works of Thomas and Mackenzie – my two favorite architects to this day.

Returning to Riviera Recently to play one of my favorites courses by one of my favorite architects

Shortly after signing on full-time with Arnold Palmer Design Company, we were working on a project with fellow Ponte Vedra Beach neighbor PGA Tour Design Services. Through that collaboration, I befriended two other aspiring architects – Brandon Johnson and Joe Walter. It wasn’t long before we were conspiring a trip to Scotland to see where it all started. Through our respective contacts and hand-written letters to clubs throughout Scotland, we cobbled together an itinerary that included 16 rounds in 14 days. While it was impossible to fully appreciate the full weight of all we saw, it made me question most of what I’d learned about golf architecture to that point. Courses like Prestwick and The Old Course made me question the unwritten “rules” of golf course design. If blindness and wild contours were verboten in modern golf architecture, why were these features so damn fun to play?!

On the first tee of The Old Course in 2001

What three courses would you most like to see that might help stimulate design ideas?

Of what I’ve seen to date, Royal County Down, Pacific Dunes, and Brora captured my imagination most. County Down for its incorporation of natural land forms to create strategic optics (blindness);  Pac Dunes is a master class in modern golf course design – its setting, routing, shaping, strategy, and rugged beauty aggregate into a golf experience that never fails to inspire; and Brora resonated with me for the opposite reasons as it seemed to be the most raw and least “architected” course I’ve ever experienced … 36 spots just level enough on which to tee off and putt-out cloaked in a sea of inexplicable and untouched contours.

The magnificent natural subtlety of Brora and it’s admirably devoted maintenance crew.

Of those I haven’t seen, Shoreacres, Crystal Downs, and Prairie Dunes are on my list of must see courses in North America. Outside of the U.S., there are entire regions (the Australian Sandbelt, the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and the Heathland courses around London) that I’ve yet to explore.

Who are among your favorite authors on the subject of golf course architecture?

When I’m wrestling for the right words to communicate a design idea or process, or just looking for moral support from guys who long ago traveled the road I’m trying to navigate, I find myself reaching for anything penned by Simpson, Hunter, or Mackenzie. Their writing was so vivid, chock-full of the kind of empirical wisdom that could’ve only been gained through years of experience and a healthy sense of humor. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the writing and the courses of that time were as equally full of character. When they can so clearly articulate their thoughts on design, it implies that they know their subject matter intimately. Ultimately the architect needs to communicate his ideas in 2 important ways … to paint the vision to sell the job and to convey this vision along with the technical details to the team executing the work in the field.

How do you define a good golf experience and what do you incorporate in your designs to foster those concepts?

In just one word, I’d say Variety. A good course is one that never grows stale, no matter how many times you play it. The shots it asks you to hit are always changing due to vagaries in pin location, weather conditions, and your abilities. On the great courses, if you look close enough, there is typically more than one way to get it to the hole.

Variety is one of key design tenets through which we evaluate every design decision. It starts with the routing, where we strive to take the golfer on a journey through all the interesting parts of the property, building context and authenticity along the way. If done right, every design feature then flows from the route as a response to the terrain on which it lies. Mother nature has always been the best design generator and the architect who harnesses those natural features into the strategy gives himself a chance of creating a noteworthy golf course.

Sometimes, the landforms just aren’t there and need to be manufactured to insure continuity. That is where the best architects separate themselves from the rest by having an understanding of the geomorphology of the area in which they’re working and the artistry to move massive amounts of earth if necessary to create a landform big enough to look like it has always been there.

Tell us about working with Arnold Palmer. What were his design tenets? How did he influence you?

After our headquarters moved from Ponte Vedra to Orlando in 2006, I got to see and know Mr. Palmer much more. He was so much fun to be around and he made everyone in his orbit feel like they were the most important person in the room. While I learned a great deal from him about golf and golf course architecture, the most valuable lessons he modeled were on how to treat people and live a life of significance.

While he wasn’t one to dive deep into the finer points of golf course architecture, he desired deeply for his courses to be beautiful and fun to play. Within this broad framework, he encouraged his architects to creatively solve the unique challenges inherent in every project, fostering a sense of loyalty and authorship from his team along the way. That is why I think each of our courses is distinct. While our process and our golf courses continue to evolve, Mr. Palmer’s core principles of fun and beauty are still at the heart of every course we design.

Sharing a laugh with the Boss onsite in Scotland in 2015

Talking about fun, have you seen Tralee? Thoughts?

How did Palmer and Ed Seay interact? Did you ever see them really disagree? 

Palmer was a true world traveler. Did he ever mention courses that he especially liked and/or ask you to emulate certain features from a course?

Can you tell us what is happening at Castle Stuart?

Arnold Palmer saw the game change before his eyes at the annual Bay Hill tournament. Players drive it eighty yards farther and 7 irons fly 200 yards at sea level. What did he think – did he feel equipment had gotten out of hand?

What modifications did you make to Bay Hill in the 21st century to help it continue to produce the drama for which it has become known? 

What is a sleeper hole at Bay Hill that you really like that a viewer on television might not fully appreciate? 

Future plans for the company?

In the wake of AP’s passing, there were more than a few folks that wanted to write us off. Our message to our clients then and now is simple – we’re not going anywhere. Mr. Palmer left us in a very strong position with a legacy of nearly 300 successful courses that value the Arnold Palmer Design Company brand, a brand we’re uniquely qualified to curate. Furthermore, we’re doing some of the best work we’ve ever done. Just like Arnold Palmer who stayed relevant throughout his entire career by trying to get better than the day before, we have the same philosophy of never-ending improvement. There have been examples in other industries of the brand outliving its founder and if we’re do great work that embodies the principles of our founder, there’s no reason that we cannot repeat the successes of other industries in the realm of golf course architecture. The brand remains strong and we see golf course design as an integral part of perpetuating Mr. Palmer’s legacy by continuing to create great courses that bear his philosophy and his name.

When did the first Arnold Palmer design open – Fifty years ago?! I know you have been busy renovating Old Tabby on Spring Island in South Carolina. Tell us about that project. How old was the course and what needed to be done? We’ve only hear rave reviews.

Does your work there represent the kind of renovation that is required within the portfolio of Arnold Palmer’s 300 courses?  Is your philosophy/approach to renovation different on courses that aren’t Palmer designs? 

What course that you designed with him are you most proud of?

AP was always passionate about growing the game. As one of his younger architects, I seemed to get some of the more remote assignments. Brazil, Uruguay, and Kazakhstan are some locations where I had the honor of helping place the first Arnold Palmer flag in that country.

My very first job as lead architect came in 2004. This responsibility came a bit earlier than I expected and might have had something to do with the project’s remote location- Kazakhstan. But this was the opportunity to prove myself and I grabbed it by the horns. On my first trip there, after deplaning in Almaty, a small army greeted us with machine guns and I knew that this was going to be different. Our man on the ground, Ian Gannon, collected us at the airport and shared some bad news with us on the way to the job site. Our lead shaper had been turned away at customs and of the 8 WWII-era dozers on site, only two of them were operational. Importing supplies and finding local labor proved to be equally challenging but the team persisted and we put together Kazakhstan’s first 18-hole course that would later go on to be the perennial host of a European Challenge Tour event. I look back and laugh about all I thought I knew back then and what I learned from that experience.

The course I’m most proud of would be Fazenda Boa Vista … it was a turning point for me and when I felt like I found my groove. The land had potential and holes on the front nine were routed down low along the Sorocaba River and the back nine ascended over 200 feet into steep foothills. I spent over 100 days on site working with the team of Pro Golf Brasil led by my friend Antonio Miranda to put together a beautiful set of greens complexes that blend seamlessly into the landscape. The bunkers were works of art executed by Jeff Stein and finished  by Brett Hochstein. Strategic width and slope combined with a fast and firm maintenance regime provide an inland links feel. Environmentally, we preserved native pasture grasses throughout the course that provided contrast and required no irrigation. I’ve played it a few times now and have to say its one of the most fun courses we’ve ever built.

I think the course is an exemplary model of the quality of golf that can be achieved when you have ample corridors and stands as a testament to how we’ve gotten better by moving closer to the design-build model.

#9 Fazenda Boa Vista- An extreme cross-slope was adapted into a fine Redan inspired par 3

How have you evolved to the design build model?

You’d have to be in denial not to recognize that almost every course of significance built in the past two decades has been executed with some variation of design-build. Back in 2007 when I saw Bill Coore bouncing around the Sugarloaf Mountain site on a sand pro, I thought wow, here is one of the legends in our business personally finishing his own greens … in his sixties! Right then and there I decided to learn how to run equipment.

At its highest level, golf course architecture is sculpture, not drawing. While there is a time and place for thoughtful planning, detailed drawings and specifications, there is also a time to put the drawings aside and get in the dirt to take it to the next level. Like McLuhan’s theory,“the medium is the message,” drawings can become the message or put another way, an end instead of a means to an end. An over-emphasis on drawings limits your ability to respond imaginatively to the challenges and opportunities on-site because your mind is trapped to all the sunk costs you’ve made on paper. Clients may pay for tidy drawings, but in the end, no-one plays the drawings.

The transition toward design build is the biggest change at Arnold Palmer Design Company over the past decade and one that, I think, would surprise most people. My typical time on-site now averages around 100 days. I can run just about any piece of equipment and feel comfortable enough on a dozer to perform some of the work when necessary. More importantly, we’ve been bringing on proven talent to help implement our work and contribute to the field design process. Like the music industry where collaborations create fresh new sounds, we’ve found that partnering with other shaping specialists leads us down new pathways, yielding a better product.

The author shaping the floor of a new waste bunker on the surprisingly rock-riddled site at Naples Lakes CC, Naples, FL.

What style bunkering do you favor?

Whatever best fits the site and the financial/maintenance realities of the golf course. I’ll admit that I’m predisposed to a meandering, broken bunker edge but that look isn’t for every property. After all, what would NGLA be without its steep grass faces and flat bottoms, Royal County Down without its fescue fringed edges, or St. Andrews without its iconic accordion-like revetment bunkering? In the end, it’s all about context.

Green styles?

While I’m starting to mellow a bit, I still find myself erring on the side of too much vs not enough on the spectrum of green contour. If you don’t have the occasional complaint about your greens, they’re probably boring. I’m of the opinion that contours should affect strategy and shot selection, therefore slopes must be legible from where your hitting the approach. The Redan or Biarritz are obvious examples hoe contour influences shot selection. Even for those playing the course for the first time the strategy is clear – and that’s why I think they work so well. In the modern era where green speeds erroneously equate quality, the challenge is to build greens that effect strategy without going over the top.

I’ve heard Mr. Coore talk about “effective green speed”, meaning the combination of speed and slope, as a more wholistic measure of green speeds than stimpmeter readings. If you can get buy-in from the client and superintendent on the front end of a project to this concept of “effective speed” you set yourself up for a more interesting set of greens and simultaneously take pressure off the superintendent, the turf, and the maintenance budget. A well-contoured set of greens rolling at a 10 will give you all of the interest and challenge you need.

A subtle green complex properly anchored into its surrounding contours, #10 Las Piedras, Punta del Este, UY

What are some overrated features that you wish developers/architects would move away from?

As Mark Twain said, “When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect”. With that in mind, I’ll be the contrarian on the latest craze in our industry – WIDTH! While I’m an advocate of the strategy and fun that width can stimulate, the deafening chorus in favor of unfettered width has made me rethink its wholesale application. The spate of new destination courses appears to be in an arms race over who can go widest. I’ve played a few of them now and cannot get over the sensation that I’m consuming empty calories. Where is the variety when every hole is 70 yards wide? Where is the interest when you can indiscriminately send driver on every hole without worrying about anything more than a compromised angle or distance?

At the highest level accuracy off the tee under pressure matters when identifying the best players. Even at the club level, placing a premium on getting one in the fairway may require clubbing down and leaving a longer second shot. I think of this carry depth as the “longitude” to the “latitude” of horizontal width. Say what you will about Pete Dye courses, they have loads of strategy within the confines of their relative narrowness. When it comes to width, I think we’ve reached the tipping point and it will be interesting to see where the industry goes from here. If there’s anything for sure in this business, it is that tastes will continue to evolve.

That’s a great point. What about green size? Some of the great names in golf like Pebble Beach and Prairie Dunes thrive on greens that are 4,000 square feet or less but no one seems to build them anymore. Do you see opportunities to build such greens? ( I really like the look of the new ninth at Bay Hill’s Charger nine).

Since opportunities for new designs are quite limited and many architects have turned to restoration/redesign.  what are your thoughts about that process.

Most of our current work consists of remodels and renovations. While typically more difficult than building new, redesigns can be more rewarding because of the new life they breathe into a membership and a community. While there are a handful of new courses being built on some epic sites around the globe, how many more of these can the retail golf market sustain? Don’t get me wrong, while we’d love our chance to show the world what we could build on a big pile of sand near the ocean, we think the most fertile opportunities to grow the game exist closer to home. Rebooting tired courses in urban areas with quality golf course architecture will undoubtedly provide the most benefit for the greatest number. Everyone deserves access to well thought out strategic design and it certainly doesn’t cost anymore to build!

Our most recent work at The Royal Golf Club is a good example of what can be achieved by reinvesting and revitalizing struggling urban courses. Developer Hollis Cavner brought us in to work together with Annika Sorenstam in reconfiguring the old 3M Tartan Park Golf Course into a better 18-hole version of the previous 27-hole complex. We re-routed parts of the course, removed loads of non-native trees, stripped down the sand area to just 23 bunkers in total, added scores of strategic width, and re-contoured all the green complexes. The course improvements were funded by converting the additional acreage into developable land and the course has experienced a renaissance in the local community.

Recycled railroad ties support the bunker face on the steep sloped approach to the par 5 second at Royal Golf Club, St. Paul, MN

Just 23 bunker! Nice – the Huntercombe of the Mid-West! Where do you think bunkering is superfluous in modern architecture? 

What has been the feedback? I presume that maintenance savings and quicker rounds are part of it?

Why should someone hire you?

I’d simply ask someone who hasn’t played any of our recent work just to go out and play something we’ve done in the past 5-7 years and ask yourself one thing: Did you have fun?