Paul Albanese, ASGCA, (Albanese & Lutzke) has come a long way from the Cornell University student who knew he wanted to do something in the golf industry for his career. Remembering his father’s advice, “Do what you love and success will follow,” led him to a life in golf course architecture. He reflected on an impressive career with Hometownlife.com.
Q: Do you realize every person who has ever gripped a golf club wants your job?
A: Yes, I recognize I’m in a pretty interesting, unique field. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to do this for the past 27 years. When I first started, I said I was just going to ride the wave as long as I could and, before I knew it, this became my career.
Q: How did you get to where you are now in an incredibly competitive field?
A: I’m asked a lot on airplanes how I got this job. My set answer is “forklifts.” When I was in college at Cornell, the engineering students visited a forklift factory as part of the curriculum. When we were there, I noticed how all of my classmates were so excited about forklifts — except me. They were clearly more passionate than I was about forklifts and engineering in general. That’s when I had an epiphany: My father always told me, “Do what you love and success will follow.” I was on Cornell’s golf team and I loved golf and I knew I wasn’t going to make a profession out of hitting the little white ball in the hole. So I added an architecture degree with my engineering degree and said, “Let’s see if I can make a run at (a career in golf course design).”
Q: What are the main steps required to turn farmland into a golf course?
A: One of my first jobs was Hunter’s Ridge in Howell … and that’s exactly what it was: turning 160 acres of farm fields and a dairy farm into a golf course. The owners called and said they didn’t have a lot of money, but they wanted a golf course built on this site. In today’s world, it’s not so much about getting a piece of land and turning it into a course; the golf course is part of a bigger picture … like a resort, a casino or a residential development. It’s very rare these days to see a standalone golf course.
Q: What is the standard time it takes to build a course from beginning to end?
A: A lot of times, the project will be on the board for up to 10 years due to delays brought on by financing, things like that. If there are no delays, it takes about a year for the planning and design process. For the actual construction phase, it takes two good weather seasons in the Northern Hemisphere and one season in the south.
Q: What are the challenges you face when building a course?
A: The site conditions are huge. If you have a difficult site — for instance, we just opened a course in Vietnam that is built on the side of a hill — it can be hard to build. There were rocks everywhere. On the other hand, I’ve built courses on pure sand that were really easy. It was like playing in a sand box.
Q: What are the working conditions like in Vietnam?
A: It’s more modernized — there are Starbucks and cellphones — but it’s still incredibly behind the times in a lot of ways. For instance, here we mechanically mix all of the sand together to make what we call greens dirt. Over there, it’s all mixed by hand and they plant the entire golf course by hand. They have tons of labor and a lot of people to employ, so it’s inexpensive. It’s very old school.
Q: Do you have a favorite course that you’ve designed?
A: My courses are like my children, actually, so I don’t really have a favorite. I love them all. That said, I really love Hunter’s Ridge, which I did 25 years ago, and it’s stayed the same through all the years. We used a much different style back then, so if I had to do it over again, I’d probably change some things up.
Q: What’s your favorite course that you didn’t design?
A: My tried and true answer is St. Andrew’s in Scotland. It’s considered the birthplace of golf. Just the character of the town, the history and the design … there are seven sets of double greens, which make it unique, plus it’s just such a beautiful setting.
Q: Do you have to be a good golfer to design courses?
A: It helps to at least be a decent golfer, because you’re better able to understand shot values. If you can’t play the game, it’s hard to envision the some of the shots. You don’t have to have a single-digit handicap, but you should be decent.
Q: Given what you do, is your own yard immaculate?
A: The two jokes in the golf business are that golf course designers don’t play nearly as much as people think they do, because we’re so busy traveling and working, and our landscaping isn’t nearly as nice as the landscaping on our courses.