Ernie Els, a four-time major champion, won the 2007 HSBC World Match Play Championship at the Wentworth Club in Surrey, England, host of this week’s BMW PGA Championship.
The club, a sprawling complex of three 18-hole golf courses and a plenitude of amenities, was working to refresh the West Course, which hosted championship golf. Els was the architect in charge of the work.
Wentworth is the home of the European Tour, which runs the DP World Tour, and has hosted this week’s flagship event since the 1980s. (Three times, Els finished as runner-up in the event.)
The West Course was originally designed by Harry Colt nearly 100 years earlier. Colt was one of the early 20th century’s great golf course architects. He worked on some 300 courses, including the original routing of Pine Valley, often the top-ranked course in the world.
But the game had changed, and Els, who was known for his smooth swing, was brought in to restore some of the original challenges that Colt had created — but that longer-hitting pros had rendered obsolete. One of the key fixes was rebuilding all the greens so they would have the firm bounce and fast speed that pros are used to.
Ten years after that victory at Wentworth, Els finished the renovation. “There’s certainly no other golf course in the world that I know as well as Wentworth’s West Course, so you could say we were the logical choice,” Els said. “Obviously to have that opportunity was an honor, not just professionally but personally, too. I’d say I fell in love with the West Course before I’d even played it, seeing the World Matchplay on television, watching some of my heroes.”
What Els had been asked to do, though, was something that has faded from popularity: be a tour pro who renovated a course.
Pros once lent their vast playing knowledge to golf course design projects — often with an enormous real estate development attached — but when the economy cooled in 2008 and new golf course construction dried up, so, too, did pros’ involvement.
Golf course design is now in an era of star architects, such as Tom Doak and Gil Hanse, whose vision for the game focuses more on purity and enjoyment than on creating overly penal courses that will frustrate amateurs and most likely never host a professional tournament. The original golf course boom in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, however, was fueled by great golfers like Willie Park Jr., who won the British Open twice, and Donald Ross, a pro from Scotland.
Despite the recent trend, pros still maintain a role in course design, even if it is a very different one from decades past. It’s more in the collaborative mode of Els at Wentworth than the splashy one that saw golf stars of the 1970s and 1980s like Lee Trevino, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Don January and Billy Casper lend their names to developments.
“If someone’s been a good golfer, people believe they probably know everything about golf,” said Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion and a director at the design firm OCM Golf. “Some do; some don’t. But when I’m meeting members, I think it helps when I can wax on the virtues of the 13th hole at Augusta National because I’ve played there. It makes it easier.”
His firm has worked on major restorations of courses in Australia and is currently working on Medinah Country Club’s Course 3, which will host the 2026 Presidents Cup, a series of matches between the United States and an international squad. (Ogilvy played three times on Presidents Cup teams.)
But he has two partners in the design firm who know the intricacies of building a course. “It’s better to have three minds in there,” said Ogilvy, who won 12 times on the PGA and European Tours. “They’re routing and designing it. I’m working on a lot of the playability stuff. What would tour guys hit from here? Will guys go for that shot or get scared?”
That intuition, particularly on the psychological part of the game, is valuable to designers, said Bobby Weed, an architect who worked with 17 PGA Tour player consultants when he build out the Tournament Players Club Network, a group of courses designed to host professional tournaments.
“What I liked was their input into what scared them on a shot,” said Weed, who was mentored by the designer Pete Dye. “I liked to understand how they’re thinking, what their process was. It’s so different from the amateur golfer.”
He said not every pro was as involved or knowledgeable and that some got more credit after the course opened than they deserved. But many of the pros who have helped design enduring courses relied on a solid team under their brand name. Jack Nicklaus had Bob Cupp and Jay Morrish. Greg Norman had Jason McCoy. Ben Crenshaw had Bill Coore.
“The first thing the pros bring is their name. They’re much more famous than any of us who never played professional golf ever will be,” said Doak, an architect who worked with Nicklaus to build Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y.
“What they bring is much more focus on the individual golf holes and the strategy of the individual golf holes. What they don’t bring is the perspective that everyone who plays golf isn’t out there trying to shoot their career best.”
Large destination courses are still being built, but many course designs these days are renovations — and they often lack the budget of a large, tournament-focused club like Wentworth.
“The pendulum has swung toward architects because most of the market is being driven by remodeling,” Michael Hurdzan, whose course designs include Erin Hills in Wisconsin, which hosted the U.S. Open in 2017, said. “That means you’re going into an existing facility and fixing someone else’s mistakes with a limited amount of time, a limited amount of money and 300 critics who are members. It takes a lot of time, a lot of hand holding.”
One such example is the Medalist Golf Club, in Hobe Sound, Fla. It’s a tough, popular course among pros. When it was built, Norman was given top billing as the architect, with Pete Dye second. But when the club underwent a renovation, Weed, who has worked closely with Dye, was called in to do the work.
Some pros understand that their skills lie elsewhere in a project.
Mathew Goggin, who played in 279 events on the PGA Tour, is developing Seven Mile Beach, a golf course in his hometown, Hobart, Australia. But he is clear that being a professional golfer does not make him a great architect.
“I’m smart enough to know that I’m not smart enough to design a course,” he said. “You let the design team do what they do. I think you’re doing a disservice to golf-course architecture unless you really do it. I have no expertise in it whatsoever. What am I going to say? ‘Move that bunker over there?’”
And good architects know what to listen to. Goggin said he complimented the architect, Mike DeVries, for creating what even Goggin thought was a really hard hole at Seven Mile Beach. DeVries listened and redesigned it. He wasn’t building it for a PGA Tour pro.
Goggin said he used his reputation as a great golfer from the area to push the project along. “I used my profile to get a meeting with the government ministers,” he said. “I showed them the success of Barnbougle Dunes [a course in Tasmania], and we talked about how destination golf has an economic impact.”
There are advantages architects get from working with pros that they can’t get elsewhere. Doak designed Memorial Park with Brooks Koepka, and the course hosts the Houston Open on the PGA Tour. With the help of Koepka, a great ball striker, it was much easier for Doak to see his vision come to life.
“On the resort courses or the member course, you visualize the shot you expect to see — and you sometimes wait months to see it,” he said. “At a course for a tour event, you really only have to wait two or three groups to see it.”