Palmetto Championship

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'Feed The Ball'

This major champion explains why his design philosophy has little to do with the pro game

March 31, 2021

Excuse us if we occasionally fall into the trap of thinking that tour players who design golf courses have a tendency to design to their own games. Ben Crenshaw, steeped in tradition and golf history, has managed to shatter this illusion in his groundbreaking work with partner Bill Coore, but it was often said that Jack Nicklaus was the only one capable of playing a Jack Nicklaus design, particularly his early courses. George Fazio, Bruce Devlin (in his work with Robert von Hagge), Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Weiskopf—to some degree they’ve all viewed the process of designing or consulting on courses through the eyes and temperament of the high-level player.

Tom Lehman made it to the height of the game—rising to No. 1 in the world and winning the 1996 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. He has now been involved in course design for more than 20 years. Though he has worked primarily with partner Chris Brands in Arizona and his native Minnesota, his most acclaimed work is the Dunes Course at The Prairie Club near Valentine, Neb. Roaming across the vast, open space of the Nebraska sand hills, the Dunes Course is wide, bold and unpredictable, completely anathema to the controlled, analytical mode tournament play at which Lehman excelled.

Lehman’s ideas about golf design hew more toward the philosophies of early 20th-century architects who embraced natural landscapes, ample space to maneuver shots and exciting ground and green contour. While he still believes the ability to score well depends on the golfer being able to hit the appropriate line, his designs offer grace and forgiveness to those who don’t.

Lehman, who still competes on the PGA Tour Champions, joined the Feed the Ball Salon podcast to speak with Architecture Editor Derek Duncan and golf course builder Jim Urbina about how both links golf and U.S. Open golf require players to hit their line, the growing chasm between tour professionals and everyday players, the scourge of too many tee boxes in contemporary golf, the attractiveness of courses with fewer than 18 holes, quarter and half-shot penalties and discovering the holes at The Prairie Club.