Tom Fazio was named the Top American Golf Architect by Golf Digest in 1991, and in 1995 received the Old Tom Morris Award given by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the game. Fazio says he got an early start in the golf course design business from his uncle, George Fazio, and his contemporaries such as Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret, and Sam Snead. Tom Fazio has done restoration and redesign work on famed courses such as Augusta National and Pine Valley, but his original works are renowned destinations: the ocean courses at Pelican Hill; Corales at Punta Cana; Black Diamond Ranch; Old Overton, the National Golf Club of Canada; Emerald Dunes; Jupiter Hills Club; Lake Nona; PGA National Resort & Spa; World Woods; Butler National; Caves Valley; Dancing Rabbit, Edgewood Tahoe; Shadow Creek; Pinehurst #4, #6 and #8; Wade Hampton; and his home course, Champion Hills, in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
Q: Where and at what time of day do you find your inspiration? When are you most creative? How do you awaken your muse?
A: I can’t even think of the answer. I wake up with high energy and I go to sleep with high energy. I don’t believe in being tired. I don’t believe in jetlag. No ups or downs. My personality is even-keeled. I’ve been doing this for so long that it’s my job and I love it, but I don’t think about it in other terms.
Q: Do you remember ever being nervous about a job? Do you still get nervous?
A: The only time I get nervous is when I have friends involved in a project. I was nervous when Peter Ueberroth forced me into the Pelican Hill Golf Club project in 1988. Ueberroth was the Major League Baseball commissioner and he was CEO of the Los Angeles Olympic Games. I really didn’t want to design those Pelican Hill courses, but Ueberroth would not take no for an answer. My family was in North Carolina and I really didn’t want to travel west to do it. I thought it was a difficult site. It was spectacular – both eighteen-hole courses at Pelican Hill would be on the edge of Pacific Ocean in Newport Beach, California’s “high rent” district – so expectations were extremely high.
Q: At what stage in a project is the moment of satisfaction most palpable?
A: After people have played the golf course and my friends and critics start talking about it. After the fact, it’s not about me, it’s about the facts: do people like it? When it comes to design in the field, I can talk myself into anything and justify it. So can my clients. But the truth comes when the course is open and other people review it. The golfers know best – that’s the real market. If the players don’t like it, it isn’t successful. Sure, most of the golfers don’t know what resources I had available to me, or what my limitations were, but no one wants to hear that story. It’s the final product that counts. The proof is in end results, regardless of what you started with.
Q: At what moment does your work feel like a job, and at what moment is it most like a pleasurable passion?
A: I never remember a moment when it felt like a job. It’s not. We refer to projects as “jobs,” but we don’t call what we do a “job.” The fun factor is so high. The reaction we get to our involvement in every project is so satisfying. And they’re all different.
We ran into a guy named Weldon Wyatt at Sage Valley in Graniteville, South Carolina. He had a literally endless amount of acres. He asked me how many acres we’d like to have for the golf course, and told me if we wanted more than he had, he’d get us more! It was like being a kid in a candy store!
Take Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina. They had a PGA Tour event, the Kemper Open, from 1969 through 1979. George Cobb did the original design in 1961, but the course wasn’t very well liked by the players. So the question became, how do we renovate it? A great renovation is harder than creating a new course, but we did it. In the end, after we implemented renovations in 1997 and 2003, the PGA Tour returned and the Wachoiva Championship is one of the best-attended events in golf. That is very fulfilling.
Q: At what point in your career did you realize that people in the golf world truly accepted and valued you?
A: Never. I’ve never thought about it that way. I grew up in golf, so my career has never had a beginning or end. My uncle was a tournament player and my father was a club professional. I knew great players like Ben Hogan, Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead, and Gene Sarazen. I was young, and then I grew up watching players in the Jack Nicklaus era, and some of those players – Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Weiskopf, and Gary Player to name a few – became my competitors in the golf architecture business. But most of my competitors are my friends. Pete Dye is a good friend. It’s not really competition. They’re doing their thing and so am I. It’s life.
Q: Was working on the Augusta National Golf Club the most delicate and high-profile redesign and renovation you’ve done?
A: I’ve done work on Winged Foot since 1971 and Oak Hill since 1975. I’ve been a member at Pine Valley for thirty-five years and it has been a great honor to be involved in additions at historic clubs such as Pine Valley, Merion, Rivera, Bel-Air, and Cypress Point. My involvement with Augusta National gets a lot of attention because it is the most high-profile. Augusta National is, after all, the only course in the world that has held a major championship each year since 1934. The great thing about Augusta is they are dedicated, committed people. Look what they’ve done decade after decade. Even the press votes the Masters as their favorite tournament to cover.
Augusta National has set a standard, but working on every one of those courses was an honor. When I was a kid, I never would have dreamed of being a part of those clubs. Now, if I never did anything else, working with those clubs would constitute a dream career.
Q: Were there any golf course projects you turned down or lost the bid for that you still pine over or regret?
A: During the golf boom – there were two booms in the 1980s and 1990s – there were a lot of opportunities to design golf courses around the world. I didn’t do that because I had children and I didn’t want to travel and be away from home that much. But I’ve never looked back. It was the right thing to do.
People made offers and my answer was often “no” before they could finish making their offer. It’s self-centered and unkind to turn down someone’s generous offer. No one likes to be turned down. I always let potential clients know my thoughts well in advance and didn’t let things get to the stage that I would have to turn down an offer. I made certain they knew my intent so they understood that my decision making was totally based on timing and the location of their proposed golf course.
Q: From which client did you learn the most about business?
A: Raymond Finch, the client for whom I created Wild Dunes in South Carolina, had a lot of influence on me. In 1981, he was in Washington working on the Ronald Reagan presidential transition team. He’d come back from D.C. and want to talk golf when we were building Wild Dunes. I didn’t want to talk golf. Oh, sure, it was a great site on the ocean, but I wanted to talk to him and find out about the White House and why interest rates were 21 percent. I’m a political guy. I love to be “on the inside.” He had insights business-wise, and I loved to listen to that.
Steve Wynn, the famed Las Vegas casino developer, wanted to build great golf settings on land he had in the desert. I told him we didn’t have the suitable environment to do so. Wynn simply answered, “Well, let’s build the suitable environment!” He’s obviously a “can-do” guy who thinks outside the box.
William McKee was twenty-eight years old when he decided to found Wade Hampton Golf Club in North Carolina. He didn’t have resources to do it, but he took a financial risk. He borrowed against his whole future! And he succeeded. To be a part of that is fabulous.
To see the energy these people have was fabulous. There have been so many of them in my career. Things are always written about entrepreneurialism and the “American dream.” Many of these developers were undercapitalized but they took risks, took chances, and remained dedicated, committed and a little lucky. The common denominator these people had was that they were positive-minded and looking toward the future.
The future will be different for me. Our resources are better. Our knowledge is better. We build golf courses so much better than we used to. The expectation level is higher than ever.
Having my son Logan involved in our Jupiter, Florida office is great. He’s pushing me to do things I resist doing because he wants to do them. Golf is a game of tradition, but in America, it’s all about “what’s next.”
Q: What drives your designs?
A: My goal is to give golfers a feeling, a picture of the setting, so they say, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen or experienced.” I want them to say it again on the next hole, and the next hole after that. By the time they get to the fourth hole of one of my courses I’d like them to think it may be the best place they’ve ever been to or seen. And then it just gets better. By the time they reach the ninth hole, I want them to say, “Obviously, this is the best nine holes I’ve ever played in my life.” Then, by end of the eighteenth hole, I want them to think it was the best course they’ve ever played and ask when they can play it again.
Q: What contribution has America given to golf course design?
A: We’ve become a green society. Unfortunately, that is being pushed: green. When you think about green, it is a color and a texture that requires moisture and in some cases fertilizers. We get green programmed in our minds. If we could accept golf in the color brown and program in our minds that brown is good, we could do things differently in terms of design and maintenance. But unfortunately Americans go to play golf in Scotland, Ireland, Australia and some of the old, arid environments and they see rough-hewn courses on windswept land, brown and sparse, and they talk about how great it is. Then they go back to their home courses in America and if they see some brown spots, they think the greens superintendent is not doing his job. It’s incredible how our minds are like that.