What does it say about Tom Fazio that the finest work to come out of his studio might be a public course in Florida that you can play for $50? It doesn’t square with closed-door, big budget design extravaganzas we usually associate with Fazio, does it?
He’s never built many public courses to begin with, much less affordable ones. I’d also be curious to know what all those owners who invested tens of millions of dollars for their ultra-exclusive Fazio club think when they see a course at least as good as theirs (and in most cases much better) delivered in such naturalistic and modest terms.
For my time and money, Pine Barrens at World Woods Golf Club, part of a 36-hole stand alone golf complex an hour north of Tampa, is as good as Fazio gets. Largely because of a really good, sandy strip of rolling pine forest there’s a gutsiness here that’s often missing in his work. It doesn’t seem labored; it doesn’t seem produced. Fazio’s team did work to chunk out huge sections of the topsoil to draw forth deep, rugged, defining sand caverns, but everything necessary to make a great course was right there for him without the need for a massive landscape overhaul.
The irony here is that this is an architect who often chooses projects and clients (or chose, as he’s entered semi-retirement phase and shed much of his staff) based principally on budget and has professed the quality of the land is secondary since he’s more eager to manufacture his own vision than coax out a course based on what the site gives him. Yet Pine Barrens, all sand and slopes and scrub, required little of the total industry and full site massaging he’s built his career on and will still go down one of his most timeless creations.
In fact, given Fazio’s architectural dominance over the course of the last several decades, it might be surprising how few of his courses will have lasting relevance 50 years from now.
Perhaps their reputations will evolve in time, but his best courses will likely be viewed more as influential than important. During a very crucial and costly period in American golf his work was at the vanguard of the total imaginative design movement that demonstrated the marketability of highly stylistic golf spectacles, often at the expense of the organic.
To a degree that hadn’t existed before, his work placed a wide and widely emulated emphasis on soft beauty and perspective, a kind of repeatable visual presentation based as much on art and psychology and human desire as anything actually found in nature. The pinnacle of this, of course, is Shadow Creek, a monument to engineering and fantasy role-playing that, in converting a bare desert floor into a lush dream of forest, streams, reflection ponds and grass, turned premium golf course development into a schwartz-measuring contest for nearly 20 years.
Fazio realized that for the modern player the scenery surrounding the hole was as critical to the overall experience as the strategies within them—and therefore could justfiy whatever he built. One gets the sense that he strove to deliver as much pleasure to those merely looking at his holes as to those playing them. If his sites didn’t have the necessary views and landforms on hand to set a proper scene, he made them.
This approach meshed perfectly with the business and entertainment largesse of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and I can’t think of another designer who benefited more from that era’s peculiar ethos of boundlessness as Fazio did. No doubt those owners who might soon bristle at the sensuous economy of Pine Barrens realized they were paying premium prices for things that has little to do with golf shots–it’s their money.
Nonetheless, the future will judge Fazio as a visionary and an artistic success who was also a prime mover in pushing a non-sustainable model of design and developmental excess that, when the bubble burst, helped send the real estate and golf industry into an economic spiral from which it may never recover. Ultimately, his tableau is full of Cleopatras, Titanics and Avatars and not many Casablancas, The Graduates or Fargos: or in other words, courses big on set pieces and spectacle, short on substance.
Pine Barrens is is a rousing exception. The compact, dizzying routing turns constantly and touches every corner of a tight property making it seem much more spacious than it really is. Though the holes are often landmark in scale—the par-5 4th is an iconic hole, visually and strategically—the routing and level of detail in the greens and bunkering draws you in closely. Pine Barrens is the most intimate golf course I’ve seen from Fazio.
The par -3 3rd, a short iron across a reflection pond, is a little too pretty for this course and is the only hole that seems out of place, even though there’s noting feminine about the back-to-front, side-to-side tilt of the green. The par-4 5th and 8th holes utilize the sand features expertly to create variations in angles and depth perception, and the run from 12 through 15—including two hulking par-4’s, a schizophrenic but fascinating alternate route par-5 and a fantastic drivable risk/reward par-4—is as good a run of holes as your going to get in Florida. I’ll even throw the 16th in there too, a mid-length par-3 that’s carved down into an amphitheater of sand and pine trees with another severe side-sloping green.
The last two holes form a rather meager finish but almost everywhere else this is a course of substance, texture and strategy. Future generations will wonder why we didn’t see more courses like it from Fazio. (94)
Architect: Tom Fazio