The restaurant’s background music hums so gently in the distance its melody is hardly perceptible as Rick Robbins eyes a cheeseburger that’s been placed in front of him, shifts his lithe frame to find comfort in a hard, straight-backed chair and begins metaphorically whistling a familiar yet barely recognizable tune of his own.
Two decades after the Cary-based golf course architect and native of the Tar Heel mountains departed the comforts of the Jack Nicklaus design umbrella and set out on his own, Robbins now finds himself a 60-year-old, first-time grandfather designing golf courses during a period of time when the economic downturn and its trickle-down effect on golf and the architecture industry has forced some of his better-known counterparts to shutter their operations. Yet, here he sits, modestly explaining to his lunch companion how inconceivably busy he is right now.
If Mother Nature behaves herself on the other side of the world and things go according to plan, by the end of 2011 Robbins will oversee the ribbon cuttings at three new golf courses in China all of which bear his name yet are about as varied in topography, climate and locale as possible. One is in north China near the Korean border, one in far south China, on Hainan Island and finally, for good measure, one right in the center of the country near the old capital of Nanjing.
In addition to those projects, Robbins also has signed contracts to design a 27-hole master planned resort west of Xiamen, a 45-hole resort near Duijianyan in west China and, most thrillingly for Robbins, he has done a preliminary design for The Shanghai Golf Training Center, which will include a TPC-style tournament course, full practice range with short-game practice facilities and a nine-hole, par-3 course.
“Helping create facilities that will assist growth of the game in China is incredibly satisfying,” Robbins says. “The facility will be reserved at certain times for use by schools for training kids to play, much like our First Tee program in the U.S., and may be very instrumental in helping create China’s Olympic team in 2016.”
Domestically, Robbins has kept busy at his home course, Prestonwood Country Club, where since 1993, he and his family have inhabited the two-story home he helped design on the 14th fairway and where for the past two years he has overseen renovation of the club’s green complexes. “It is really strange,” Robbins admits, “to have your work either be a two-minute cart ride or an 18-hour plane trip.”
Reaching down toward his plate for a potato chip as he talks Robbins’ right hand trembles slightly yet perceptibly. It was the same type involuntary tremor his wife of 31 years, Ginger, began noticing a few years earlier when the two would sit together late at night watching TV. Concerned, Robbins visited a neurologist and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the progressive degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that leapt into public awareness in 1991 when actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed.
Given that Robbins’ family history of Parkinson’s includes a grandmother and uncle, the diagnosis did not represent the devastating surprise for him that it does for many. Though there is no cure for Parkinson’s, medications and multidisciplinary management can provide relief, and Robbins said he exhibits none of its symptoms when holding the two chief weapons of his trade: a pencil and a golf club.
Yet, all the circumstances combined beg the question: With a life-altering medical diagnosis freshly hanging over his head and the golf industry suffering its worst stretch in two decades, how on earth is Rick Robbins in the throes of the most successful period of his professional career?
The answer begins along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the tiny town of Blowing Rock, N.C., where Robbins’ grandfather, Grover C. Robbins — an entrepreneurial nurseryman and developer who oversaw the landscaping of New York’s George Washington Bridge — served as one of Blowing Rock’s first mayors in the early 1900s. The elder Robbins and his three sons would later develop Blowing Rock’s popular family tourist attraction, Tweetsie Railroad, along with the Beech Mountain Golf and Ski Resort, Hound Ears Club and The Elk River Club.
But the winter of 1960 brought with it 72 inches of snow to the North Carolina mountains. “Thought I’d never go back to school,” says Robbins, whose first job as a teenager was dressing up in Indian garb and robbing the Tweetsie train. “My father just said, ‘Enough’s enough.’ He packed up the family and moved us south to Pinehurst.”
Robbins’ father, Spencer, had accepted a night auditor job at the storied Pine Needles Lodge & Club where he later would become the manager of operations and work closely with a pair of the state’s legendary golfing legends, Peggy Kirk Bell and her husband, Warren “Bullet” Bell. Passing his summers often playing 36 a day with his older brother, Rob, on Pine Needles’ revered Donald Ross design was the period in his life when Robbins fell in love with the game of golf. “The Bell’s told us we could play as much golf whenever we wanted,” Robbins says, “as long as we kept out of the way of the members and guests.”
Robbins became proficient enough to play golf in high school, but by the time he entered North Carolina State University School of Design in 1969 he was focused on the business side of the sport. After graduation, he was discovered by one of golf’s truly unique characters, international golf course architect Robert (Bob) von Hagge, who had trained under Dick Wilson as an architect in the 1950s before teaming up with Australian golfer Bruce Devlin to form von Hagge & Devlin, Inc. — the firm that hired Robbins as an apprentice in 1973 to work in their Florida office and learn more about golf course design.
Robbins worked there for more than a decade and von Hagge, who passed away in October 2010, became a mentor and close friend. “Bob’s design philosophy of producing courses that were visually exciting with a strong emphasis on shaping that made light and shadow an integral part of the design became something I have tried to incorporate into my work,” Robbins says.
Like many American golf course architects and land planners, much of Robbins time today is spent on projects in China. Unlike many of his peers, however, Robbins did not just arrive in China coincidental to the downturn in work in the U.S. He has been active in the region for almost 20 years.
Following his work with von Hagge and Devlin, Robbins moved to Nicklaus/Sierra Development Corporation and helped in the development of many Jack Nicklaus Communities; and later at Golden Bear Design, where Nicklaus asked him to help him jumpstart a new office in Hong Kong serving the 30-plus projects Nicklaus had in the region at that time. Nicklaus tapped Robbins as his Senior Designer in Hong Kong and the Far East, and Robbins lived there for two years, designing courses in exotic golf destinations like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and Sri Lanka.
“I walked through the gates of the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah, and (Nicklaus) was practicing on the putting green,” Robbins says. “He called me over and offered me the job in Hong Kong. I called Ginger from the golf course and said, ‘Have I got a surprise for you.’”
By the time Robbins left Nicklaus Design in 1991 to start his own firm he had secured numerous contacts in the Asian region and gained immeasurable knowledge of the culture. Through the mid-1990s, he remained very active in Asia with occasional exploratory trips to China to look at potential projects. In 2001, soon after the September 11th disaster, Robbins attended a golf show in Beijing where he was struck with the realization that China had suddenly discovered golf and that there was tremendous potential for growth.
It was at that first golf exhibition that another important piece of the puzzle fell into place. Robbins met a young lady who not only spoke both major dialects of Chinese — Mandarin and Cantonese — but her English speaking and writing skills were excellent. Making matters even better, she had taken courses in golf turf grass agronomics and played the game well, and her employment at that time was in translation and writing of articles for Golf Magazine (China) and Golfweek.
Robbins immediately saw great potential in working with Ms. July Nie (Nie Xiao Min) and they have been business partners ever since. “Having a local Chinese partner that can handle not only the translation duties but has tremendous contacts in the golf industry; who can keep me from doing things that might offend a client and who can get me around the country with little effort is a true asset,” Robbins says. “It makes doing business in a place with a completely different cultural background much easier both for me and for our clients. They always feel that there is someone available that they can speak to about any issues in their own language and on their time zone.”
Robbins also credits his overseas success to the example set by his father of how to treat other people in his operation of theme parks, and management and development of golf resorts through the years. “Those occupations involve a lot of contact with many people of all types each day, and his ability to treat every person he meets with respect and friendliness has helped me deal with the varied cultural issues faced by international business,” Robbins says. “No where is the ability to work with people more important than China where doing business deals depends more heavily on relationships than almost any other factor. Being able to get along well with clients and have them feel comfortable with you will often outweigh price as a consideration.”
Robbins says the other factor in his success has to do with basic things that work well everywhere. “Being responsive to their needs by keeping to schedules and knowing what they need for governmental approvals is one,” he says. “The fact that I spend considerable time in China and work with all aspects of the design personally so the clients see the principal of the firm and can form a personal relationship with me is also beneficial.”
Robbins now has his name attached to golf courses and master plans in 24 states of the U.S., and 11 countries around the world. Surprisingly, he even credits the Parkinson’s diagnosis for his prolific work. “It is why I am going as hard as I am now,” he says. “Mine is on a very low scale of development. Unless something happens to progress it, I should be in good shape for 10 to 15 more years.”
His peers are recognizing his years of hard work and his design talent, as well. Robbins was appointed to the Executive Committee of the prestigious American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) last year where he currently serves as Secretary. In May, Robbins takes the mantle as Treasurer and will become the third N.C. State grad to hold the title of President in 2013, following Clyde Johnston and current ASGCA president Erik Larsen, the executive vice president of Arnold Palmer Design Company. “Rick Robbins is a talented professional of the highest ethical standards,” says Larsen. “I applaud my fellow Wolfpack alumni for his success in our profession especially as a pioneer in China. I am honored to call Rick a friend.”
Looking back, Robbins said his chosen field of work has provided him a scrapbook of memories. He worked closely with Nicklaus and many of the legends of the game. In a frightening irony, he was supposed to be on the plane flight that took the lives of Payne Stewart and five others, but Robbins changed his travel plans at the last moment. He has walked along the Great Wall of China, and meets regularly with provincial governors. “I tell people I’ve never had a job in my life,” Robbins says. “It’s been a profession and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
(Note: A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Business North Carolina Magazine.)