The Philosophy of Tom Fazio

Twenty-five years ago, if you picked up a copy of LINKS (or any golf magazine), you would’ve seen a whole lot of bragging about how many millions of square feet of earth had been moved in the construction of any new golf course. That was the era of maximalist design, when golf architects were seen as world builders. Backed by deep-pocketed developers, few sites were unyielding enough to resist the dynamite and bulldozers (not to mention the imagination) that designers had at their disposal.

Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass was one defining design of this period; the other was Tom Fazio’s Shadow Creek. In transforming a swath of Las Vegas desert into a veritable Garden of Eden, Fazio and his client, casino magnate Steve Wynn, pushed the envelope of what was possible in golf architecture. With Shadow Creek as a potent calling card, Fazio rose to become the most commercially successful architect of his generation.

Beginning in his teenage years, Fazio learned his craft at the right hand of his uncle, former Tour player George Fazio. But the arc of the younger Fazio’s career was marked by a move away from his uncle’s philosophy. “George Fazio built hard, technical courses designed to expose flaws in your game,” says Adam Messix, club historian at Wade Hampton in North Carolina. “After Tom went out on his own, he began breaking into more strategic design, and then into landscape aesthetics.”

“If there is a special craft to designing golf holes, it might be a knack for creating proper spaces along the routes of play that encourage enthusiasm and feelings for the game,” Fazio wrote in his Golf Course Designs. Perhaps as much as any architect in history, Fazio possesses a holistic, almost painterly vision of how golf fits into landscapes. His holes frequently use framing devices—a flashed bunker, a turn in the fairway—to emphasize desired scales or maximize dramatic off-course vistas. He eschews classic hole templates and even his most difficult holes seldom present themselves in an aggressive manner. A few critics have noted how Fazio’s eye candy and soft, flowing contours can cause holes to blur together afterward, like waking from a pleasant dream and immediately forgetting its particulars. In the moment, though, it’s hard not to enjoy oneself on a Fazio design.

Shadow Creek is Fazio’s career-defining layout, but his best might be Wade Hampton, which showcases a number of great holes. The par fives that bookend the round jump to mind, as the first tee shot must be carefully fired down the right side to avoid flying through the fairway and onto a native-clad hillside, while the finisher requires navigating a minefield of bunkers on the right and a creek running the length of the hole on the left. Creating functional beauty on Wade Hampton’s severe site, though, is what makes it Fazio at his finest. “I don’t believe nature can make great golf all by itself. In hilly or steep terrain like that found at Wade Hampton,” he writes, “I think it’s pretty obvious that you need to shape the land forms to create a quality golf setting and to produce acceptable shot values. That’s where a golf course designer really earns his keep.”

Though his courses lie thick on the ground throughout the U.S., at heart Fazio is an architect of the Carolinas, having created dozens of courses within driving distance of his longtime home of Hendersonville, N.C. We especially like the South Course at Forest Creek in Pinehurst. This rolling yet eminently walkable Sandhills property gave the architect abundant opportunities to demonstrate his skill with angles, slopes, and counterslopes, and its bunkering nails the balance between aesthetic appeal and strategic merit. On the other hand, Fazio is remarkably unsentimental about natural settings. His focus is on getting the machines in and getting the job done, and his extreme confidence has led him to tackle high-wire jobs that few would even consider. As impressive as the blank-slate work at Shadow Creek is, his scarily accurate George Crump impression at the Short Course at Pine Valley might be even more so, especially when one considers how often “replica courses” turn out to be abject failures.

Fazio’s resume features plenty of “hidden gems,” but only in the sense that his long history of collaborating with well-heeled clients leaves much of his work settled deeply within the private realm. On the public side, the two 18s at World Woods received plenty of accolades in their early years. This resort in the hinterlands north of Tampa still offers plenty of high-quality Fazio golf at surprisingly affordable prices.

The long par-three 16th at New York’s Hudson National is pretty unforgettable, as the gorgeous river backdrop combines with an enticingly open green front. The 15th at Florida’s Black Diamond Ranch (Quarry) features wild visual overload, 80-foot limestone cliffs, and a snaking, lakeside bunker competing with fairway and green for the golfer’s attention.

Fazio’s Golf Course Designs, produced with co-writer Cal Brown, makes a solid addition to any golf library. Though the now 15-year-old volume could stand to be updated, it’s loaded with appealing images of many of the architect’s most famous layouts.