Rick Phelps graduated with a degree in environmental design from the University of Colorado. His Evergreen, Colorado-based Phelps-Atkinson Golf Course Design has created the Devil’s Thumb course in Delta, Colorado; the Panther Creek Country Club in Springfield, Illinois; Twelve Bridges Golf Club in Lincoln, California; and the Southern Woods Country Club in Hamosassa Springs, Florida. He also remodeled and renovated the Pinnacle Peak Country Club in Scottsdale, Arizona; the Pinehurst Country Club in Denver; and the Eagle-Vail Golf Club in Avon, Colorado.
I am a second generation golf course architect, but the route that I took to my profession is a bit unique.
By the time I was ten, I was working for my dad during the summer, spending a few weekends helping him with construction staking on two local projects in Colorado. My brother Scott and I took turns holding the survey rod and pounding grade stakes. I remember working on the Englewood golf course, which was one of the first golf courses in the United States to be built on an old landfill. We had to wade through all kinds of nasty things in order to set the stakes for the grading operation.
In my early teens, when my dad was really busy, I helped around the office by running prints, learning how to draft green details, and assembling bid documents for shipping.
As I entered my high school years, Dad started encouraging me to look in other directions in terms of a career path. In hindsight, I’m fairly certain he was trying to do two things: He wanted to make sure that golf course architecture was truly my passion and not just his; and he was probably trying to save me from diving into such a wildly inconsistent way of life.
As a result I spent two summers working with our next-door neighbor as a medical research assistant. I was doing some incredibly fascinating neurological research and learning a tremendous amount about neurosurgery, neurology and, occasionally, nurses! I was allowed to scrub-in a few times to observe various surgeries – an experience I will never forget.
I entered college with the intent of getting a BS in engineering while taking my pre-requisites for medical school. At the time I had thoughts of either practicing medicine or perhaps designing medical instruments. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I needed more of a creative outlet. I did not want my work to be limited by a mathematical formula or a textbook answer.
After transferring to the University of Colorado and entering the College of Environmental Design, I was fairly well convinced that I was destined to be a golf course architect. I did have one more interesting diversion, though. There was a job opening on campus for the sports director position at the campus radio station. I interviewed for the job and was hired! As a result, I spent two years as the play-by-play announcer for the Buffalos football broadcasts and also did some announcing for the basketball games. I was able to do an internship with the big sports station in Denver, 850 KOA, which allowed me to sit in the press box for a few Broncos games, help with player interviews (including John Elway), and even work as the field reporter for the state high school football championship. It was fun, but still not what I was most interested in as a career.
So, while it took me a good long time to make up my mind, I came to realize that by far the most enjoyable job I had ever been involved with was creating a golf course: a place where thousands of people could get outdoors and enjoy the wonderful game. Seeing a project evolve, from a few lines on a piece of paper through earthmoving and grass planting, to a beautiful playground for the greatest game ever invented, has to be the most rewarding work anyone can ever undertake.