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THE EVOLUTION OF GOLF COURSE DESIGN
(Excerpted and revised from Golf In The Upstate - Since 1895)


What profession could be more rewarding than that of the golf course designer? Working in the out-of-doors in beautiful, natural surroundings shaping a course that will be enjoyed by golfers for many years to come . That would be hard to beat. One must be extremely imaginative to walk a tract of land, study a topographic map, envision a layout, then engineer and build a course that will challenge all levels of golfers.

The earliest golf courses were built, not by man, but by nature on linksland. The linksland were places where river estuaries flowed into the sea. The rivers, over time, deposited rich soil over the sand allowing a bent type grass to grow. The sandy sub-soil was good for drainage. These natural settings were perfect for the playing of golf. Grazing livestock and wild game kept the grass short enough to form a turf suitable for play. Bunkers were depressions where livestock would dig in and burrow against the cold, blowing rain and howling winds. The players would choose the more ideal spots for the putting surfaces.

The earliest golf course designers were mostly Scottish golf professionals. When greenskeepers came into being, many of them also doubled as course designers. Everyone just assumed they knew more about that sort of thing. Golf course design was not a general practice until a growth in the popularity of golf occurred in the British Isles. This occurred after the introduction of the more durable and affordable gutta-percha ball in about 1848. This new rubber-like ball cost the golfer at that time only about a shilling compared to four shillings for the featherie. The "gutty" also allowed the use of clubheads made of iron which would not slice open the ball as they did with the more fragile featherie. The first course designers would work on-site without drawings and would lay out a course in a matter of a few days. They used the natural contours of the land as construction equipment was not available to move earth. They basically selected green sites and then routed the course in and around the thick, prickly vegetation called whin or gorse plus the sandy dunes.

Royal Dornoch (above) in Scotland is a good example of the original links style golf course (Courtesy Google.com).

Modern golf course architecture was probably born in England around the turn of the century. A few designers successfully built courses at inland locations in an area known as the Heathlands, about 50 miles southwest of London. This was an area of "waste land" covered with heather, Scotch fir, pines and rhododendrons. This group led by Willie Park, Jr., H. S. Colt and Herbert Fowler cleared land, removed trees and shaped the terrain in their designs. They built hazards and used trees in their design. Willie Park, Jr. was the first to build elevated teeing grounds and greens. His Sunningdale course incorporated what is believed to be the first man-made pond used as a hazard. They had the cleared areas on their courses prepped and seeded taking great care in their selection of grasses. These gentlemen were pioneers and laid the foundation for modern golf course design.

This practice of designing and building golf courses matured into a very demanding and exacting occupation especially following World War II. Today's architect must be knowledgeable in turf technology, agronomy, underground drainage engineering, irrigation, horticulture and, of course, design theory and construction techniques. Sitting around the grill after a round of golf, a discussion of the great golf architects is just as likely as talk of the great players of the game. We talk about, hear and read a great deal about the great courses of Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie and A. W. Tillinghast from the early half of the last century plus the more contemporary designers, Tom Fazio, Pete Dye, Robert Trent Jones, Arthur Hills, Arnold Palmer and certainly the most prolific, Jack Nicklaus. Five gentlemen who have called the Upstate of South Carolina home have certainly made their mark in golf course architecture locally, regionally and nationally over the latter half of the Twentieth Century; they are John LaFoy, Tom Jackson, Russell Breeden, Willie B. Lewis and the late, George Cobb, Sr.

George W. Cobb, Sr. (1914-1986)

George Cobb was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1914. As a young man he developed a fondness for the game of golf and became quite good at it. He went off to Athens to study at the University of Georgia where he decided on landscape architecture as a field of study. He played on the school's golf team as an extracurricular activity. Upon his graduation in 1937 he went to work for the National Park Service until America found itself in World War II. Cobb joined the US Marine Corps and was sent to Camp LeJeune in North Carolina. When the local commandant decided the base needed a golf course a search of personnel records turned up the fact that Cobb was not only very adroit at the game but had also received a degree in landscape architecture. He was summoned and ordered to design and build the course. His only experience at golf course design was at a summer camp as a lad of 10 when he laid out a few holes using tin cups for the campers to play. So not knowing the first thing about designing a golf course, Cobb got permission to retain the services of a noted course designer of Scottish descent, Fred Findlay, who was living in Virginia. Young George teased that Findlay, considered to be a leader in course architecture at the time, could be blamed should the top brass not care for their layout. Cobb assisted Findlay and served as construction superintendent. The project was a success so a second course was ordered. Once again he and Findlay worked together on this project. Working under Findlay was certainly a cram course in golf architecture for young George.

This was obviously a life altering experience as Cobb decided to pursue golf course design as a profession upon his departure from the Marines. His first solo venture was a course he designed and built in 1946 for the Marine Corps this time at the Cherry Point Air Station in North Carolina. He entered into a private golf course design practice following the war but this stint was short lived as he was called up again by the Marines during the Korean War in 1951. Following this second tour he re-entered the golf course design business and settled in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Some of his earliest projects included Fort Jackson Golf Club, Columbia, SC, 1949; Carmel Country Club, Charlotte, North Course, 1950 and the University of North Carolina's, Finley Golf Course, 1951.

In 1955, while working on the Country Club of Sapphire in the western North Carolina mountains, he received a call from Francis Hipp of Greenville who was spearheading a project to develop a new country club in that Upstate community. Hipp and his brother Calhoun met with Cobb to discuss their proposed golf course and accompanied Cobb on September 2, 1955 to preview his work at Sapphire Valley in Cashiers, NC. The Hipps were so impressed that they returned to Greenville and announced to their partners that Cobb was their choice. By May of the following year he was busy with the design of the Green Valley Country Club course. Within a couple of months the charter members and developers of Green Valley offered Cobb the directors position of Hollyridge Corporation, the project development company. His job was to oversee the entire project including the layout of lots around the golf course that were to be reserved for members. With this offer, Cobb moved his family from North Carolina and made Greenville his home where he was to remain the rest of his life.

Cobb continued to work with the Green Valley development for a couple of years eventually becoming the club's general manager in 1958. But soon his golf design business became so demanding that he returned to a full time practice. By 1960 he had eight courses either under design or construction in this state alone. During the balance of his career his body of work would include well over a hundred courses plus redesigns, expansions or remodeling of many more.

A highlight of Mr. Cobb's career was most certainly his association with Augusta National Golf Club. He befriended the legendary, Bobby Jones, in the late 1950's and became the course design consultant. He and Jones worked together to design further refinements to the great course during the 1960's. When a decision was made to add a nine hole, par 3 course, Cobb was the person they turned to for its design and development. He also collaborated with Jones on his book, Golf Is My Game by doing all the hole-by-hole illustrations of Augusta National used in the book.

Mr. Cobb gained his greatest pleasure, perhaps, from the design of resort courses that golfers found both attractive and enjoyable to play. He believed these courses should be fun and playable, not overly challenging for the vacationing golfer seeking relaxation. Some of these courses include the Sea Marsh Course at Sea Pines Plantation, Hilton Head Island, 1961 and the Ocean Course, also at Sea Pines, 1967; Myrtlewood Golf Club, the Pines Course, Myrtle Beach, SC, 1966; The Surf Club, Ocean Drive Beach, SC, 1960; Shipyard Plantation Golf Club, Hilton Head Island, the Clipper and Galleon nines, 1970; Fripp Island, SC, now known as Ocean Point Golf Links, 1964; Port Royal Plantation, Hilton Head Island, Barony Course, 1964, and the Robbers Row nine, 1965; Red Wing Lake Golf Club, Virginia Beach, VA, 1971; Oak Island Country Club, North Carolina, 1962.

In 1971, Cobb made his trusted assistant, John LaFoy a partner in the business and the two of them collaborated on all projects over the last 15 years of Cobb's career and life. When Cobb began to develop health problems in the early 1980's, LaFoy handled the bulk of the work. George W. Cobb passed away in 1986 at the age of 71.

Cobb's courses close to home and familiar to many include, of course, Green Valley Country Club in Greenville, 1958 plus Greenwood Country Club, nine holes in 1950, additional nine in 1958; Spring Valley Country Club, Columbia, 1961; Holly Tree Country Club, Simpsonville, 1973 with John LaFoy; Keowee Key, near Seneca, 1977 with LaFoy; Cobb's Glen, Anderson, 1975, with LaFoy. As mentioned he renovated the entire Riverside Course at Greenville Country Club adding seven new holes, a practice area plus a nine hole, Par 3 course.

John B. LaFoy

John LaFoy was born in Forest Hills, New York in 1946 but his family moved to Greenville, SC when he was a child so he was raised and went to school in Greenville. One of his close friends and a school mate was George Cobb, Jr. the son of the golf course architect. When it was time to head off to college, John chose to matriculate at Clemson University where he began studies in architecture. Upon receiving his degree in 1968 he was asked to work as an apprentice in Mr. Cobb's golf design business. John became the envy of many in the design world as he accompanied his boss to Augusta National on several occasions. Shortly, John was pressed into military duty and signed up for a three year stint in the Marines.

Upon his return from service, LaFoy once again joined the Cobb firm and it was only a short period of time before he was made a partner. From this point forward all the courses designed by the Cobb firm were a collaboration of Cobb and LaFoy. One of LaFoy's most extensive projects during this era and one he must be proud of is the scenic Linville Ridge C.C. built on a mountain top in North Carolina. Mr. Cobb was ill at this time and most of the design and construction supervision was handled by LaFoy. Together Cobb and LaFoy designed and built numerous courses throughout the Southeast many of which have been previously listed.

Upon Mr. Cobb's passing in 1986, LaFoy took over the design firm. In the intervening years, LaFoy has continued to design new course projects plus has developed a strong course remodeling business. He has worked on well over 40 courses in 10 states and Bermuda. He has remodeled several South Carolina courses including Greenville Country Club's Riverside Course, Forest Lake C.C. in Columbia, Fripp Island's Ocean Point Links, the Country Club of Spartanburg, the Country Club of Charleston and Florence Country Club. He is currently long range planning consultant for Greenville Country Club. Two recent projects include Kiskiack Golf Club in Williamsburg, Virginia completed in 1997 and Quarry Oaks Golf Club in Ashland, Nebraska finished in 1996. Quarry Oaks was selected as one of the Best New Courses in America for 1997.

LaFoy is well known and highly regarded by his peers in the business. In 1999 he will serve as president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. This organization was founded in 1948 by Donald Ross in Pinehurst and has the leading architects as its members.

Thomas R. Jackson, Jr.

Another golf architect calling the Greenville area home is Tom Jackson. Born in 1941, Jackson is a native of Pennsylvania but went to college at the State University of New York at Farmingdale where he earned a degree in horticulture. Seeking to continue his education he enrolled at the University of Georgia where he earned a second degree, this time in landscape architecture. Tom seemed to know what he wanted to do with his career early on and upon leaving Georgia he took a job in 1965 with Robert Trent Jones. His earlier assignments included the supervision of construction of several Jones courses being built in the Southeast. In 1968 he signed on as an apprentice and assistant to Greenville's George Cobb where he gained loads of experience. Within another three years he felt it was time to venture out on his own and hung out his own shingle in 1971. Since going into private practice, Tom has designed, remodeled and supervised construction of over 60 course throughout the Southeast.

Jackson is, perhaps, just now coming into his own in the 1990's as a reputed course designer. The dramatic Cliffs of Glassy Golf Club, near Landrum, completed in 1992 was an incredibly challenging project as the course was carved out of the very top of Glassy Mountain. This venue has gained Jackson notoriety by being selected by Golf Digest course raters as one of the top four most scenic golf courses in America, behind Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and Augusta National. The Carolina Country Club in Spartanburg, completed in 1985, has also been well received. In 1987 he remodeled the front nine and designed the back nine at Sapphire Lakes near Cashiers, NC which is another dramatic, yet fun mountain layout. His par 3, 12th hole measures 248 yards from the back (top) tee and features a 100 foot drop in elevation, seemingly straight down. You just don't find many golf holes like this one.

One of Jackson's early projects in this area was the Pebble Creek Country Club layout built in 1974. He has since added two additional nines giving this club 36 holes of golf. Other courses known to area golfers include Links O' Tryon, Willow Creek, Stoney Pointe and Hunters Ridge in Greenwood, Hickory Knob State Park in McCormick, Cheraw State Park in Cheraw, plus seven courses in the Grand Strand area. They include the River Course at Pawleys Island, Myrtle West, Buck Creek, Carolina Shores, River Hills, River Oaks (Bear course) and Arrowhead. The largest project Jackson has completed to date is Sandestin Resort in Destin, Florida where he has designed 45 holes of golf on this 2,400 acre development. Tom's sons, Ridg and Reece, have joined up with their dad and are well on their way to becoming experienced golf course designers. Two new courses in this area by Jackson Golf, Inc. include Brookstone in Anderson County and Lakeside at Lake Russell.

Russell F. Breeden

Russell Breeden is one of the senior golf course designers in America as he turned 81 in March of 1998 and was still hard at work. Russell moved his family to the Greenville area in the mid- 1960's moving from his home state of Virginia. He, like George Cobb, had learned the profession working as an assistant to the reputable old Scot, Fred Findlay of Virginia. He ventured out on his own in 1961 and since then has over 100 designs to his credit. Russell has often supervised construction of his courses and his wife claims he is perhaps more at home on a bulldozer or tractor than at the drawing board. He has been known to do much of his own grading work. Like his mentor, Findlay, he is a hands-on golf course architect.

Russell's sons, Glen and Andy, worked with their father for a time with Andy more active in the design and build phase. Andy has credit for collaborating on several of the Breeden designs in the 1980's. He has since left the business.

There are several of his courses around the area and the state familiar to many. Some of his layouts include collaborating on Bonnie Brae in Greenville and Carolina Springs in Fountain Inn He designed Hejaz Shrine Club in Greenville, Lan-Yair Golf Club in Spartanburg, Mid-Carolina in Prosperity and Wildwood in Columbia. In the beach area Russell gave us Robber's Roost and Possum Trot in Myrtle Beach plus he did the routing for three nines at Bay Tree.

William B. Lewis

William B. Lewis of Pickens, known as "Willie B." to most, entered into golf course design and construction by accident in the early 1950's. Born in 1924 and a native of Easley, Willie B. studied textiles at Clemson. Early on in life he had helped his father who bought old farms in need of work and repair and rejuvenated them for sale. Riding the tractor Willie just felt he had a knack for working with the land. He and his college roommate would do landscaping work on the weekends to generate pocket money. As he puts it, "The girls liked us because we always had a little spending money." This must have paid off as Willie courted and married a beautiful lady who had been first runner-up for Miss South Carolina. Eventually he entered the landscape business on a full time basis. When he and others decided to build a country club in Pickens he was asked to build it since he was in landscaping. He knew he needed help so he contacted a golf pro, a Canadian, living in Georgia by the name of Bob Renaud and the two of them laid out what was then County Country Club (later changed to Pickens C.C.). Willie did all the construction. Renaud stayed on for a while as pro-manager.

Willie was eventually introduced to George Cobb and they first worked together on C. C. of Sapphire with Willie doing the grading work. They followed that up with Green Valley Country Club. From there Willie got more involved in course design and eventually went out on his own after about six years with Cobb. In 1970 he moved his business to Sarasota, Florida where he spent four years before moving back to Pickens. Before coming back he sold all of his heavy equipment and got out of the course construction business focusing on course design.

Courses he designed or collaborated on in this area include Smithfield C.C. in Easley, Southern Oaks G.C. in Powdersville and Rolling Green near Easley. Other courses include Glen Cannon G.C. in Brevard, Blue Mountain at Wolf Laurel, Bald Mountain at Lake Lure and the Great Smokies Hilton golf course in Asheville. Willie is most proud of the Bent Tree C.C. in Sarasota which was the site of a LPGA tour event for several years. He has always continued his landscaping business along with his involvement with golf course design and construction.

Breeden, Lewis, Jackson and LaFoy continue to design and build. Of course, Cobb's courses are still being enjoyed by thousands each and every year

Golf In The Upstate - Since 1895
Thomas Finley
Olde Sport Publishing

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