RemembranceOctober 4, 2019

Golf course architect Dave Bennett, one-time partner of Lee Trevino's, dies at 84

Dave Bennett, one of the Old School golf course architects who drew volumes of blueprints and took pride in sticking to a construction budget, no matter how small, passed away in Round Rock, Texas on October 2, 2019. He was 84.

A 1958 graduate of Texas Tech, earning degrees in landscape architecture and park administration, Bennett worked for the Texas Highway Department for seven years, during which time he helped write legislation requiring all landscape architects in Texas be licensed by the state. The law was finally enacted in 1969 (following intense lobbying efforts by Bennett and others) and Dave was one of the first to be granted a license. He was issued No. 007; he later joked he now had “the license to kill plants.”

Dave Bennett

Bennett was an accomplished amateur golfer, but rejected the idea of turning professional because, as he said, “if your caddie can beat you, you have no business turning pro.” Instead, he became a golf course architect, joining the Austin firm of Leon Howard as a draftsman, but soon progressed to design partner. For five years, Bennett worked with both Leon and his brother Charles Howard (who at the time specialized in irrigation plans), mostly on low-budget municipal projects like Applewood in my hometown of Omaha (it’s now called Johnny Goodman Golf Course), Hindman Park in Little Rock and Elm Fork Municipal in Dallas (now remodeled and renamed Luna Vista).

In 1970, Bennett left the Howards to form his own company, jumping on the idea of retaining a PGA Tour pro to serve as a design consultant and publicity magnet. He did one course with Terry Dill, then got Lee Trevino, fresh from Open victories in 1971, to join him.

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They did half a dozen projects together, from Kentucky to Colorado to Arizona. Trevino recalls two in particular: Arthur Pack Golf Course (now called Crooked Tree), a public layout built in the desert north of Tucson with plenty of desert left in place, right down to cactus in some bunkers; and Santa Teresa Country Club, across the New Mexico state line from El Paso, a 36-hole residential development project in which Trevino was an investor. It was built in 1975.

“I really didn’t offer much help to Dave,” Trevino said recently, “because I didn’t know much about designing courses. I knew what I liked, but that was about it. He was good at what he did. He didn’t need much from me. But I did help at Santa Teresa. I was off the tour, recovering from back surgery, so I went out to the project and they were laying cart paths, not with concrete but with hot chad. So I climbed on a steamroller and started pressing that stuff down. I did 13 holes of cart path in one day. That was probably a record!”

Santa Teresa is closed now, sold for back taxes in 2018. It failed, Trevino feels, because the concept was flawed. Few people in Texas, which has no income tax, wanted to relocate and live in New Mexico, which has an income tax, he says. The club needed home sales to survive, but it never achieved enough.

In 1977, Trevino switched agents, who convinced him they could get him a better deal than he had with Bennett. After that, Bennett never sought another Tour consultant, confident he could land important projects without a marquee name. It was a struggle at first; he continued doing low-budget city courses like Gateway Golf Course, now Keeton Park, in Dallas, built in a dead-flat flood plain-pecan orchard. Built without bunkers, which he felt wouldn’t drain, he made it tough by surface-draining everything into 15 lakes. For decades, it had the reputation as the hardest municipal in Dallas, in part because of its drainage problems, which have improved considerably since it first opened in 1979.

The National Golf Club of Louisiana, which opened in 2010, was one of Bennett's finest designs.

He got a big break in the early 1980s when he was hired to design a second 18 for Prestonwood Country Club, now The Clubs of Prestonwood. Given a healthy budget, he was instructed to produce a championship venue (this was the beginning of the slope-rating era, remember, when tougher was considered better), and he delivered with The Hills Course, featuring 13 water carries, big, rolling greens and a long par 4 that required an approach shot over a ravine dubbed “The Pit of Doom.”

In the late 1980s, he did his first project in Canada, the 36-hole Country Hills Golf Club in Calgary. To build its first 18, now called the Talons Course, he first had to coordinate the excavation of 1.5 million cubic meters of material from the site that was needed to construct an adjacent highway corridor and surrounding residential homepads. Once it was dug out, he laid out the course within the gigantic bowl below the highway and homes, one of the more unique settings in golf, its edges considerably softened over time. He later added a second 18, the Ridge Course, on higher ground.

Bennett probably did his best work in Louisiana, at Cypress Bend, a resort 18 wrapped around fingers of the Toledo Bend Reservoir, and at National Golf Club near Lake Charles. I played National soon after its opening day in 2010, and wrote of the experience: “Within 10 minutes of exiting I-10, I was in a dense pine forest, where the town of Westlake, flush with tax revenues from oil companies, had developed a course bearing an audacious name, the National Golf Club of Louisiana. So far, there are very few homes along veteran architect Dave Bennett’s lovely municipal layout. Bennett did all the right things here: carved away enough pines to provide elbow room off every tee. Dug 15 ponds to generate dirt to gracefully elevate tees, landing areas and greens above the water table. Mixed up the bunkering to give each hole a unique look.”

The National proved to be Dave Bennett’s last design. A longtime member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, he retired to a home in Allen, Texas, north of Dallas, then later relocated to Round Rock, near Austin. He was at his home when he passed away peacefully, his wife of 54 years, Linda, with him.