Feature Interview with the Emperor Tommy Naccarato

October 2012

1) How did you become interested in golf course architecture?

It came through art & architecture. Engineering also, as my Dad was a Right of Way Engineer for CalTrans for 40+ Years. The Architecture side of things came from my cousin, Tommy Pagliuso (who I was named after), who was an architect of great reputation. The art side of things came from my Grandmother who introduced me to oil painting at a rather early age. I continued this into High School, but then sort of put it aside when I started hanging around my neighbor’s drag car and that compulsion took over. I still oil painted once in a while, but then life just sort of got into the way.

So with that background of technical drawing, oil-painting and the love of building architecture, I was mesmerized by the surreal surroundings of golf courses themselves when I started playing Golf; the nature, and all of the other elements. Not long after, I found a book in the $10.00 closeout section of a book store called The World Atlas of Golf. I became transfixed with the artwork in that book, literally looking at each golf course routing and how it was featured in the book. I dreamed of seeing those places and I’m fortunate to say I have. These golf courses are like pictures in an exhibition for me. The power that they have from an artistic standpoint is deafening.

One of the key moments though, really came when I met this pretty good player at a club I had join back in the late 1980’s. We were on the practice green and we got started talking architecture. He then told me, “If you really want to go see good architecture, you have to go to New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. that will blow your mind!” That suggestion of course fit perfectly in what I had been learning in the World Atlas of Golf, and that pretty good player eventually made the PGA Tour! Patrick Burke and myself are the best of friends to this day!

2) Tell us about the month you spent living in St. Andrews in 1996.

Between the World Atlas of Golf and watching the many Open Championships, I very much wanted to see those great UK courses first hand. Then the day after the 1995 Open Championship, I went to my job and a group of fellow electricians asked me if I had ever played St. Andrews. After having to tell them that I had not, I just knew I had to find a way to do just that and took every overtime job I could find to save enough money into a St. Andrews fund. Eight months later, I was on a Virgin Atlantic 747-400 on my way to Edinburgh via Heathrow for one month abroad. It was a hell of an education.

If you love the sport, love the architecture of its playing fields and haven’t been there yet, then it’s imperative that you somehow explain to the wife, kids, boss and loved ones that you need to go to St. Andrews. There is something very mystical and entertaining about it. When you play, you just have to laugh at yourself – because you seem to go through every human emotion while playing The Old Course. It’s something to experience not for just one round and an overnight stay, but several days if not longer. One needs to develop a relationship with the course, whether its love or hate, and then watch it completely take all rules and throw them out the window. The golf course is spontaneous in its charms and you can’t possibly ever stop learning from it.

3) Describe your friendship with Desmond Muirhead. His book with Tip Anderson on St. Andrews is certainly one of the all time great – and most underrated – books on golf course architecture.

I feel very fortunate to have known this man and I miss him a lot.

When I would call and he would hear my voice when he picked up the phone, he would recite my name with a certain joy and glee. He had a way of making you feel really important, and when considering all of the people he knew, it was a great feeling.

It’s a real shame when people say that Desmond Muirhead was a blight on the world of Golf Architecture simply because of a certain style he embraced in the twilight of his design career. If you knew the man, you knew just how much he loved golf architecture and its history. He had strong opinions that Golf and daily life should co-exist and shouldn’t be separated from one another – that it should all intermingle. And that of course was all inspired by St. Andrews.

Desmond could also be very difficult at times. He was simply not a man of great patience because, in all likelihood, he was the smartest guy in the room intellectually. He didn’t tolerate buffoonery and he would express in no uncertain terms what he was thinking at any given moment.

It has been written and repeated a million times about Desmond being the intellect; a lunatic; a thinker that probably is whacked out on some kind of hallucinogenic. Those kinds of comments – and there were many of them like that – not only aggravated Desmond, but they hurt him greatly. But ask anyone that knew him personally, and they’ll usually have some amount of affection for this great soul. He was simply a man of fun and interesting character who loved life as large as you could get it. He also loved the celebrity that it bought him, and he was very much, as Brad Klein had aptly named him, “A Snake Charmer”. If you got into a conversation with Desmond, you couldn’t stop listening. You didn’t want to stop listening. He could command your attention at the slightest of will as you stood transfixed.

Desmond loved the Old Course more than any course, and he explained that it was much of the inspiration for the very symbolism for which people hated him. It was born while studying that golf course, that town and its people. “Hell,” “Road,” “Hole o’ the Cross,” “Cartgate,” “Scholars,” “Principal’s Nose,” “Ginger Beer,” “Mr. Kruger,” “Mrs. Kruger,” – for example, all of them – stories behind their names, tales and lore.

So when people tell me that they hate symbolism, I’m of the opinion they should re-think that just a bit. Because in Desmond’s terms, saying you hate symbolism is tantamount to saying that you hate the Old Course, or courses with golf holes that tell a story or have a history behind them.

I was fortunate to visit Desmond a lot when he was writing his book on the Old Course with Tip Anderson, and I’d see the pages of other books underlined in red pen with notes of holes, shapes in and around the greens and how a ball would react going into the approaches. When all of the material was compiled for his book, I was fortunate to read the initial manuscript. And then a few months later, Desmond told me that Brian Morgan was doing the photos for the book and I just said to myself, WOW, this is going to be good, especially with Desmond’s unique cartoony-like drawings. Unfortunately, that I think is where Desmond fell short. He used another artist, instead of getting his daughter Romy to do it. Still, the book to me is about as descriptive as you’ll find by two people that love the course as much as I do.

4) He was quite a controversial architect. Given your love of classic golf, do you have mixed feelings about his designs?

Let’s make no mistake about it, Desmond was no Bill Coore. I think he would have admitted that he would never be able to hold his own in ‘Classic’ conversation, but, if you wanted to talk about the Old Course, I do think he could have easily held his own and possibly knocked you out.

I always think of this statement I remember that was once made by Tom Doak regarding Desmond:

“He rejected completely the idea that golf was about shot values, and threw all of this weird symbolism into the mix as the basis for his designs.”

Well, I can attest first hand to Desmond talking about how to make the ball run into holes and he had tons of options how to play different kinds of shots to eventually get you to the hole. Rejection of the idea that golf was about shot values? Not even close!

Quail Ranch was one of Desmond’s best I’ve played, but, unfortunately, it is a lot like a few of Tom Doak’s courses in that it no longer exists. I’m sure there are many here on GCA that played this golf course, which was situated on the side of a hill just East of Moreno Valley, California and overlooked a vast area of agricultural and desolate lands. One of the best ways to score on that golf course was to play a ground game into the holes, rather than trying to fly it in and get mixed up in troubles on and around the greens. At one time, it had some of the best – and I would suggest brilliant – defensive greens in Southern California outside of LA’s Big Three. Sadly, the conditions deteriorated out there, new owner after new owner took it over and made lots of changes which eliminated some of the brilliance of the course, and now it’s just a sea of weeds.

So while some of Desmond’s later design’s might not appeal to my eye from an aesthetic point of view, they do very much appeal to my thinking on what golf is and should be all about!

5) You’re now a union electrician living in Southern California yet you have become integral to the back office for several architects. How did this come to be? What services do you provide?

Between my physical issues and the electrical business becoming more and more of a young man’s trade, I became tired of the electrical business in which I have been involved since I was 19 years old. To be honest, it’s not what I really wanted to do, but it provided me with a way to make a living. I pay my monthly dues every month on a timely basis and, if necessary, I have my tools ready to work. But I like drawing and painting and taking photographs much more than I ever liked doing electrical work because of my artistic bent. And as I became very proficient with Photoshop and Illustrator, I found a medium and a niche on which I really enjoy focusing.

How this relates to the golf architecture industry is that I can do renderings of golf holes, both old and new, no differently than painting or drawing a picture – only that it’s done digitally – which is sort of ironic when you think about it and my life as an electrician. I’ve been working on my pencil drawing skills as of late, and I have also been working with watercolors a bit. In any event, the work that I do helps get the point across to clients, green committees and members and very much helps to describe the idea and helps them see it first before it ever gets started. What is ironic, I started this year working on Rio’s 2016 Olympic Golf Course for Gil, and just this last week, completed the second of two renderings for Glen Echo Country Club in St. Louis for Kye Goalby, which is the last club to host golf in the Olympics in 1904!

If say Gil or Jim Wagner are in China or Rio with no time, they can tell me via email what they would like me to do to a drawing and I can email them back a digital rendering expeditiously. And the fact that I can incorporate their distinct (and classy) style into the digital rendering is quite helpful as well. I take great joy in helping the architects – Jeff Brauer, Todd Eckenrode, Kye Goalby, Doug Nickles, Geoff Shackelford (to whom I owe more than a great deal of gratitude, because if it weren’t for Geoff I would still be stuck at square one) and Jim Urbina more specifically – and hopefully what I do can help make a difference in their getting work. My #1 rule of thumb in working with these great people is to never discuss the others’ business and to prove to them that I’m true to my word.

6) Gil Hanse mentioned you in his acceptance speech for the Olympic Course in Brazil. How will you be involved in the Rio golf project on a go forward basis?

I can’t begin to explain how proud I was of Gil and Jim both. They have worked their asses off for this brilliant ray of light. It couldn’t happen to two better people and I know that success won’t change them.

I knew we had a great looking presentation, to be presented by a handsome and very likable good guy who is in fact capable of creating a golf course worthy of a gold medal, but I really didn’t think we stood a chance going up against Nicklaus’ star power. So when the announcement was made, I was over the moon and I am grateful that I could play a small part in that success. It was one of the happiest moments in my life!

I can’t help but think that Gil’s inspirations for this course are going to be both California and Australian-influenced, not different than how the great links of Scotland influenced those styles of courses. Just another step in Golf’s Grand Design!

As soon as the Olympic flame is extinguished in that last day of the Games in 2016, this golf course will become for the people of Rio de Janeiro and the rest of South America. And in that regard I will never forget when Chairman Peter V. Ueberroth, upon the closing of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, said that the tremendous amount of money that came from those games was going to go into a foundation for kids and amateur athletics. The entire thing was going to amateur athletics!

Little did I know that it would someday be a great inspiration and resource for me as well. You see, Mr. Ueberroth’s words were the actual beginning of the LA84 Foundation, which houses one of our most important resources in the golf history community, the Ralph Miller Golf Library, as well as an outstanding digital collection which many of us use every day. This is why I think it’s important for all of us, if we are golfers and students in the truest and sporting sense, to do our part to contribute to the legacy that the Olympic course will be attempting to sustain after the 2016 games are over. You have an extra set of clubs? Old golf balls? Try to make sure they end up going to Rio, so they get into Brazilian kids’ hands who more than likely don’t even know they want to learn how to play the sport yet.

When our generation is looked back upon 85 years from now, it’s my hope that we are thought of with the same reverence I do when looking upon the growth of the Sport in America from the 1890’s to the early 1930’s. This has to be about sustainability, and not just in the golf course maintenance practices, but also with respect to the growth of the sport throughout in South America and the rest of the world.

When you see and hear Gil talk in interviews about the course, he mentions the word “legacy” a lot, and we as a team all believe that needs to happen. We have to help grow the sport by building a rock solid foundation from which it can grow, and hopefully that’s exactly what Rio’s 2016 Olympic Golf Course will be. Gil says it might not be the greatest golf course he’s ever designed, but certainly it’s going to be the most important. And I couldn’t agree more. The bottom line is that I’m honored and feel privileged to be a part of the team, and I will do whatever it is I can to help when I’m called upon.

7) Why did you leave GolfClubAtlas.com and start Max’s Lounge in 2009?

That’s a very good question, because I love GolfClubAtlas.com and it was an important part of my life for many years, but perhaps too much so!

The first time I left was in 2007, simply because it was time. It was taking up too much of my time – I do as everybody knows have an addictive personality! – and I was sort of frustrated with the direction of the site as well as with the loss of camaraderie amongst many of the site’s participants. From my perspective, a particular thread absolutely decimated the site’s once cordial values, and so went any chance of it ending on a more positive note. When a thread escalates to the point that certain members would rather see the other side dead – and I mean literally dead – you know that you’ve outlived your usefulness. (*Note: This was written before the untimely passing of Tom MacWood.)

I forewarned all of those involved – at least the significant participants – that this would not be a good thing for the site or for them personally. And in truth, it wasn’t a good thing for me either. Of course, this wasn’t my site, it belongs to you and Ben, but sometimes when you get so emotionally attached, you can lose sight of the most important things – like sitting down for a round of drinks to talk about great golf courses. The type of discussion that I feel that not only made this site, but also very much created our everlasting friendship despite our differing opinions on how to run the website.

Another factor in my leaving GCA was that I got involved again in drag racing, which I have been passionate about since the age of 11 as many of my friends participating on your website already know. Around the first half of 2006, my friend, legendary drag racing chassis builder Steve Plueger, had taken my advice – perhaps begging and pleading is more accurate – to get involved in a sort of new “old” drag racing class of nitro-burning funny cars that honored the cars from their golden age of the 1970’s. It took about a year and a half to build the car, assemble four motors, procure an armada of spare parts, and develop a committed crew to go part-time racing for 9-10 weekends a year. It was more like a full-time job. Famed Northwest drag racing legend Bucky Austin both sponsored and drove the car and, instantly, we became the car to beat for three years. We couldn’t lose! At the end of that second season, I was completely burned out and told Steve it was time for a break and, thus, my short return for a bit back to GCA.

Which leads up to your question as to why I started Max’s Lounge in 2009. At that time, it made sense to me to try to restore the original type of site we originally had at GolfWeb/Traditional Golf. I didn’t want to compete with GCA; I just wanted to create a site where people could and would get along despite their varying and often very different opinions. So it wasn’t going to be a site that anyone or everyone would fit into. Another thing that bothered me was that many of the incredible cadre of superintendents that at one time participated on Golf Club Atlas – all of them from famous to semi-famous clubs here and abroad – were no longer participating in the Discussion Group. I wasn’t sure why they disappeared, but after asking around it became clear that the problem was about anonymity. They couldn’t post without fear of a boss or member or club green committee member calling into question their participation on the internet.

So it just clicked: Private site by invitation only, with a commitment to do whatever I could to protect anonymity. And, thankfully, it worked. Many of the superintendents have returned as I suspected, as did a number of golf writers and golf architects who wanted to participate without having their views and opinions trumped by a certain cult-favorite architect. Three years later, we are still in existence – sometimes not so perfect, but mostly happy nonetheless. Just like a charming corner lounge or pub where we can discuss not only architecture, agronomy, rules, aerial photos, tournament golf, equipment and the like, but a myriad of other topics as well. And I think that the participants feel comfortable freely expressing their thoughts and opinions because they know what is said in Max’s Lounge stays in Max’s Lounge!

I want to reiterate that the premise of this site was to merely be an alternative or a supplement to GCA.com for those who believe that there is more merit to having a beer and a laugh with a buddy than an argument that accomplishes nothing. It’s really that simple! I know that there are people that want to compare the two sites, but in reality there’s one that is well-watched and respected and the other is just different and more under-the-radar, and I like that.

8) How is it running a Discussion Group? What are the highs and lows?

Of course we’ve had a few hiccups, but for the most part it has been smooth sailing without many highs or lows. Probably the result of having what I would characterize as an even-keeled culture. All of the Loungers know how important it is to me that we maintain a high level of decorum and respect, so it’s pretty much a self-policing environment and I really haven’t had to do much moderating at all. That’s not to say that there haven’t been a few times when I’ve had to put out a fire or two between a couple of our participants, but that’s nothing that I wasn’t accustomed to from my prior experiences on Golf Club Atlas!

9) Unlike the Discussion Group on GolfClubAtlas.com, the one at Max’s Lounge is private. Only members can view the content. What are the pros and cons of running it that way?

Well, the obvious con is that the conversation of architecture gets lost if it isn’t in the open. But the good thing is that there is a certain fraternal attitude that takes place in Max’s Lounge. Loungers feel like they belong, but they know they will be asked to leave if they don’t respect our simple rules which they fully understand. So that’s why we have virtually no dissension amongst our participants and I really like that when it comes to running a website. It’s far from perfect, but, I think I have proven to myself that I can in fact run a peaceful and productive website. There is no doubt in my mind that it would be better if we were all capable of taking varying opinions to heart and make it open to all, but unfortunately, and I know you can attest to this, that just doesn’t seem to be possible without a large degree of moderating and censorship. It’s just a shame how far some people will go to prove that they’re right, even when they know they are wrong, or to argue just for the sake of arguing when often times there really is no right or wrong. Let’s face it, some people just like a good argument for whatever reason and they will strike out at others, often times in a nasty way, for just that purpose. We’ve all been guilty of this at one time or another, but the trick is to remain cordial, forgiving and, most important, humble.

10) If you were Ben and me, what would you change about GolfClubAtlas.com?

When Golf Club Atlas first came online back in the late 90’s, the one major rule of order was to act no different than you would if you were in the clubhouse at NGLA or Pine Valley. In other words, behave like gentlemen, and if someone was out of line then they would be dealt with. In the early going, when there were no more than 50-75 people actively participating on the site on a daily basis, everyone seemed to get along a lot better and there was little need for moderation – hands off really. But the site grew to the point where you would have needed to significantly increase your level of moderation – and expulsions! – if you wanted to preserve that initial level of camaraderie and harmony. But you didn’t have the time to do this – heck, you didn’t even have the time to actively participate in the Discussion Group as you once did (and it was far better off when you did, so one suggestion that I would like to make is that you do that more if possible) – and you even asked me to take on that thankless responsibility of moderating which you very well know ultimately contributed heavily to my leaving the site. You know that I think it’s very important for widely varying views and opinions to be expressed, and I think that GolfClubAtlas.com serves as a great vehicle in that respect and I am proud to have participated along the way. I think it’s great that GCA.com has grown to where it is today, but I would merely suggest that you and Ben should just eliminate participants who either add nothing to the site’s content or have proven that they are incapable of conducting themselves in a gentlemanly fashion. And when your participants come to understand that they will in fact lose their privileges if they fall into one of those two categories, I’m confident that the discourse in the Discussion Group would become more civil and respectful. No arguing without reason and without the thought that the two parties of opinion could put bags on their shoulders and go out and enjoy a round together as friends, despite their differences. Hey, I love Pat Mucci, – I truly do!! – but even he knows that he wouldn’t last at any of the great clubs at which he is a member if he ran around telling his fellow members that they were morons – even if he’s right!

11) Los Angeles has numerous classic courses built during the Golden Age of golf course architecture. Several including Wilshire, LACC, Riviera and Annandale have had significant restoration work performed in the last five years. If practical, which three courses would you like next to see return to their classic design roots in Southern California?

Obviously Riviera would be at the top of the list. The changes that have gone on there are simply deplorable. It’s well on its way to being just like Bel Air, where the only significant architectural feature remaining from the brilliant design is the routing, and who knows if something isn’t in the works to change that too. You can only hope that somehow, someway, the politics will shift and the powers that be will come to their senses and see the brilliance of this once masterpiece of Golf Architecture. Perhaps a trip out to The Los Angeles Country Club to see how bold the North Course has become again could possibly help. But at LACC, they were fortunate because the features were still there and just needed to be brought back to life. The club should be saluted and respected at every juncture, as well as preserving the legacy of Captain Thomas, and as well, Edward Tufts. Unfortunately, the brilliant features at Riviera are literally being dug up and the landscape itself is being altered by the owners and their hired hands. So it will be more difficult to restore those features, making it all that more critical to have the right people involved. Oh, if only I could make my dream come true of putting Riviera in the hands of Ken Bakst and Geoff Shackelford!

Another course worthy of a sympathetic restoration is Lakeside, but unfortunately that won’t happen. Here we are talking about some of the most brilliant architecture on the planet. The land movement that Maxie created there would make a Fazio blush! We aren’t talking minimalism in any sense, but he did what he needed to do to make it interesting in a way that’s natural looking for the site that was once a Apricot nursery on the side of a river and a lake. You cut down those inane pine trees and open up the very nature of the course, making it less isolated and more open….increase the green sizes back to their original dimensions….get the architectural intent back into the holes; eliminate bunkers….and suddenly, Lakeside would not only be a very fun course to play, but a must see place in the World of Golf!

At Wilshire Country Club, if they could ever get the go ahead and resources to restore the creek bed in its entirety… and to restore the 3rd green….well, you’d have guys putting it on a high pedestal and calling it Garden City Golf Club-West. They recently just got done with another phase of work….taking down trees and reclaiming the fairway left on 18….and I’m excited to see it real soon. I have a real affection for Wilshire, as well as Lakeside. I also have a love for Oakmont and Annandale where, despite not going for restorations on sites where it wasn’t feasible due to previous floods, fires or freeways running through some of the original holes, the architecture is still very good.

There is another course that I would like to bring to everybody’s attention and that is Woodland Hills Country Club, formerly Girard Country Club. It has a really great routing by Billy Bell, who took over for John Duncan Dunn and created one of the most fun and quirky courses in his repertoire. The club has been undergoing a complete redo by Geoff (Shackelford) and I think people should put it on their charming hidden gem list for SoCal. More work needs to get done there; I think the club needs to let them take some trees down but, when it’s completed I think people will get a better look at the talents of “Wee” William Park Bell.