Constructing a future in course design

Clyde Johnston worked on the original 18 holes at Heather Glen Golf Links with Willard Byrd Their names have become as synonymous with the game of golf as the legendary figures and champions that tread upon the hallowed grounds they’ve carefully created.

Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross, Robert Trent Jones, Pete Dye and Tom Fazio are as recognized in the realm of golf as Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

Today, course design is hardly an afterthought. It has become an almost religious experience for those associated with the game and if ever there were a guaranteed way to attract visitors to a course, attaching a great name is it.

However, if your last name doesn’t reflect a certain pedigree for golf course architecture or you haven’t won a major championship, breaking into the field might be a tougher task than teeing it up on the PGA Tour.

“It’s a difficult field to break into, especially now,” said Clyde Johnston, a Hilton Head-based course designer who is a member of the elite American Society of Golf Course Architects. “Courses were overbuilt in the mid-90s when there was a big run of construction. Now the market is real soft.”

A shrinking market for a profession with already limited opportunity is bad news for hopeful architects and designers dreaming of breaking into the exclusive trade.

Johnston says while the market is now at a standstill, the game of golf certainly won’t be disappearing from public view anytime soon and more opportunities will eventually present themselves.

“I think you have to be good at what you do,” he said. “But if you’re talented and persistent, you can still get into the business.”

If you’re still adamant about entering one of the job markets most competitive and select fields, here is a look at some of the steps and necessary sacrifices one should prepared to make.

Landscape Architecture – it was then and remains today as the most direct and related path to someday drawing up plans for your own 18.

Constructing a career in course design Simply defined the concentration is the art, planning, design, management, preservation and rehabilitation of the land and the design of human-made constructs.

A number of large universities, in particular many schools in the Southeastern and Big Ten Conferences, offer degree programs in Landscape Architecture.

This background gives a designer the unique vision needed to transform a virgin piece of land into a picturesque setting.

“It’s more about aesthetics now then it was 30-40 years ago,” Johnston stated. “I attribute that to the Landscape Architecture backgrounds which have had a lot of influence. “It became an art form in the 70s and 80s.”

Turf Grass Management is another recommended area of study but the accompanying subjects that are useful is a broad list.

Engineering ability, specifically Hydraulic engineering which works with pumps and motors is desired. Also helpful are Agronomy, the science of soil fertility and drainability, and Agrastology, the science of turf culture.

But why stop there? A perspective designer might also want to brush up on his or her chemistry, cost accounting and knowledge of earth-moving equipment and its operation.

That sounds like a lot, but with a steadfast dedication it is possible to achieve over four or five years in a university setting.

Now here comes the hard part and maybe the most difficult of the extensive list of desirable skills mentioned up to this point – a thorough understanding of the game, including its history and rules.

For Clyde Johnston, a 1973 graduate from North Carolina State University with a Bachelor of Environmental Design in Landscape Architecture, his upbringing was well-suited to his eventual career path.

Clyde’s father was Clement B. “Johnny” Johnston, a PGA professional and one time golf coach at Wake Forest from 1947-51 where he coached the legendary Arnold Palmer.

Johnny Johnston also dabbled in golf course architecture, designing several courses for no fee, just to promote the game of golf. His preliminary work for a municipal course for the city of High Point, N.C. and the construction of a golf course nearby were key factors in Clyde’s decision to pursue golf course architecture as a career.

Clyde recalled days in the basement of his childhood home, peering at his father’s topographic maps of golf courses. He spent some time working with his father on construction sites and at the age of 13, piloted a tractor over a rocky terrain that he would eventually set about clearing by hand to make way for a soon-to-be fairway.

Little did Clyde Johnston know at the time, but this was the beginning of his specialized training.

“One day we were in the basement when my dad looked up at me and said, ‘one day you could make a career out of this’,” Johnston recalled.

After graduating from N.C. State in 1973 it would be another 14 years before Johnston opened his own design firm.

Post-college, the overwhelming majority of golf course architects work as apprentices for established ASGCA members for 10 years, usually more. Their first sole golf course normally occurs while they are in their mid-30s after substantial experience working for a seasoned architect.

Clyde Johnston's current project is a new course at Woodside Plantation in Aiken, South Carolina Johnston trained under the watchful eye of Willard C. Byrd where he worked on the initial 18 holes of the Heather Glen Golf Links in Little River, SC.

After a series of apprenticeships, Johnston left his position with Byrd’s design firm and embarked on his own career; a move that is considered the hardest step along the way that often is not financially beneficial at first.

“I left my job with Willard Byrd on March 1st and come December, I couldn’t pay the mortgage,” Johnston said. “Finally I was hired for a project and basically got two design commissions in the span of a week and never looked back. I came real close to not making it.”

Now with many successful years of sole design projects under his belt, Johnston fondly looks back on his past with a sense of relief and accomplishment.

“It’s a nice feeling to be able to look down that road and consider how many brand new courses and renovations I’ve done.”

Johnston has designed a number of renowned courses including Heather Glen, Old South Golf Links just outside of Hilton Head Island, River Landing Country Club in North Carolina and Cherry Blossom Golf Club in Georgetown, Kentucky.

While Johnston is one of the success stories, odds of becoming a world-class golf architect are very slim.

Out of the roughly dozen aspiring young architects that have worked under Johnston since his design firm started operation in 1987, he estimates that only one member of that group is still remaining in the business. Others left because they didn’t see a future in the business or didn’t have a knack for it.

However, Johnston is hopeful that when his time in the business draws to a close he will find a suitable person to carry the torch.

“I’d like to leave a legacy behind,” he said. “Someday I’d like to have a partner. I hope to find a young man capable of taking over someday.”



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