PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club


Tom Fazio discusses big budgets, the evolution of course design and why golf in the Ozarks should be on your radar

February 05, 2019
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Edward C. Robison III

You could illustrate Tom Fazio's illustrious course-design career with countless impressive stats and figures. Consider, though, that nearly a quarter of Golf Digest's latest ranking of America's 100 Greatest and Second 100 Greatest courses were designed by Fazio (46 of those 200—13 on our 100 Greatest and 33 on our Second 100). That's not even mentioning his remodeling work at America's No. 1 and 2 golf courses, Pine Valley and Augusta National, plus dozens of other top courses. Though most of Fazio's work has been done at private clubs, one of the public courses you can play of Tom Fazio can be found at Big Cedar Lodge's Buffalo Ridge Springs in Branson, Mo. During the PGA Merchandise Show, Fazio appeared at a luncheon to promote Big Cedar Lodge—including Tiger Woods' new course, which is set to debut either later in 2019 or 2020, and Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw's Ozarks National, which will open for play in Spring 2019. Being one of the most well-respected architects of his era, we give you the highlights of Fazio's comments on trends and other insights into course design.

Tom Fazio Quail Hollow

(Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Could you give people an idea of what Big Cedar Lodge is like?

"I feel like I could apply for a job on the Chamber of Commerce for Branson, Mo.—of all the places I've been, and I tell people, Herb Kohler is one of my best friends, the Pebble Beach crowd are all best friends: Of all the fabulous golf destinations in America, all the wonderful golf courses that have been built, you will not find anything that is so distinctive and unique as Branson, Mo., and Big Cedar Lodge. The whole place, every piece of it. And that's really what impressed me. When Johnny Morris took me around the hotel at Big Cedar Lodge, he showed me things like the door handles, light switches, all custom-made there by his people. I won't have enough time to discuss how great of an experience it is to be at Big Cedar Lodge. Not just the golf course I did but all the other experiences. You might've read about the big sinkhole that developed right next to the par-3 course at Big Cedar Lodge. Most people would panic if an enormous sinkhole developed at their property. Not Johnny. Most people try to fill up a sinkhole. Johnny develops it. If you go to the Big Cedar Lodge and all the great golf courses, the rest of the place is what makes it such a top-drawer experience.

"I have a lot of owners, and they do everything in a different way, but Johnny is physically driving out with his pick-up truck, meeting and discussing changes with our bulldozer operator. Our jobs, developing golf courses, even though some people might not think I care about costs, I do, but Johnny is the guy who really thinks about it, because he's paying for it. The thing about Johnny is you have to get him to stop. He wants to expand whatever it is. Of all my years in the golf design business, I've never met a person like him. He's such a hands-on, big-scale guy. You have to go and see it. Go out of your way if you have to, it will blow you away."

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Johnny sees golf as a way to complement the entire outdoor experience, like fishing, boating and spending time with your family outdoors? How would nature fit into how you look at golf course design?

"Certainly, that piece of the puzzle, the entire region has this table-top rock and these amazing rock formations and this fabulous Ozark lake, and there are fabulous things ... like Arnold Palmer's driving range, you don't want to leave. You just go, 'Wow.' Every place you turn, you won't believe what you're seeing. I know it sounds like a sales-pitch, but it's not—these are just facts. This place is so amazing. Johnny is the first guy to get there in the morning and the last person to leave. He's perhaps the most unique person I've ever worked for. He has this ability to push the envelope in no other way. These sinkholes and caverns, you can take golf carts and you can drive through most of these areas, like a family destination. It's an experience you've never seen before."

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How has course design evolved since your time in it?

"The industry of golf design and construction has elevated to a point, for me, in the decades I've been involved, it's shocking to me that we've evolved that much, relative to the expectations. People expect something new—as it is to rankings and comparisons. Anything that's new is always how you compare it to somewhere else. Someone goes and plays somewhere, and people want to compare it to Pebble Beach or Pine Valley. We've evolved to that—we expect the very best. So you get into the technical aspects and what makes it great, and some of that is conditioning and the playing conditions. We've now been emphasizing firm and fast, well does firm and fast mean? What that means is, if you're on wet terrain and a lot of rainfall in the area, you better have a lot of imported sand. The worst thing you can have is topsoil. We used to think topsoil was the best thing you can have—it's the worst thing when you're building a new course. What you want is sand to grow grass on it. So we've evolved from a course design standpoint, to the point where we're all using the same general practices, which are on the highest end, of course it's also expensive. But the technology has helped figure out the complicated ways to build golf courses on the most unique terrain such as Branson, Mo. with geological formations. In my opinion, you're gonna say this is as good as anywhere in the world. Yes, this is a world deal. We're talking about anywhere in the world."

Could you give a couple examples of Johnny Morris’ insights?

"I'll give you some of Johnny's bizarre side, too. He took this fence and it put it around the entire golf course. The course I did, originally called Branson Creek, he puts this fence around the course, and granted, this is the best fence you've ever seen by the way—hand-crafted and all the wood carved by local people. Buffalo are a big deal in this location—and he brings the buffalo in and puts them around the golf course fenced off. I mean, just remarkable.

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Edward C. Robison III

"One of the holes we had finished, the second hole—a slight dogleg left that plays down into the valley. And we were done with it. On the left side, is a steep slope. One day, Johnny is looking at it and he sees these rocks creeping out of the soil, and he says, ‘You know, that might be a feature we could look at.’ And I’m thinking, yeah OK. It’s out of play, about 120 or 130 yards left of tee. So he has a crew that starts cleaning the rock, cleaning the rock, over days and weeks. Hand-shoveling the dirt off the rock. And it ended up being amazing. The exposed rock makes the golf hole go from a 5 to a 10, as if there was ocean next to you, versus just a hillside. He just never stopped pushing it to the limit."

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Why is having the right owner so important?

"For me personally, I look for the right owner. None of this happens without the ability to get it done. Without the right owner, it doesn’t happen. You have a guy like Johnny Morris, he goes to the top. When a guy interviews me, I'm interviewing him. Because I know it takes an owner willing to get the project done. It's not about having a great piece of land. That's not the deal. It makes it easier. But for me, like Steve Wynn at Shadow Creek, he is the total opposite. He has a vision issue. He didn't want come out to the property—but he wanted to hear about every detail. Steve would sit and ask me, 'OK, tell me the elevation of the first tee.' This is all in planning, so we're working on paper. 'What's the elevation of the land 100 feet in front of the first tee?' 'What's the elevation 100 yards to the left or 100 yards to the right?' Through his mind, he could visualize everything given the numbers. Without Steve Wynn, there's no Shadow Creek. But it turns out to be as dramatic as it is because of him. So you need those kind of people."