Why many course-architect partnerships never go the distance

A few weeks before finalising this bumper 204-page Top 100 Courses edition of Australian Golf Digest, the treacherous Bass Strait was making waves of a different kind. Among the serene seaside dunes of perhaps this country’s greatest feat in modern golf-course architecture – Cape Wickham Links – confusion reigned over the brainchild behind the King Island showstopper. What was widely understood to be a collaborative effort between American course architect Mike DeVries and Australia’s Darius Oliver (a former architecture editor of this magazine) had suddenly taken a peculiar shift. Various golf media outlets, and architects, were publicly acknowledging the No.3-ranked layout in Australia (spoiler alert!) to be solely a DeVries design, sparking outrage from Oliver and a right of reply.

“I never wanted to write this story,” says Oliver in a detailed statement titled ‘Cape Wickham Links – The Inside Design Story’ published on his website planetgolf.com. “But a number of Australian and American publications have recently decided to credit Cape Wickham as a solo Mike DeVries design. DeVries played a role, no doubt, in the success of Cape Wickham, but I spent 250 days on King Island while building that golf course and it really should be noted – somewhere – that I designed most of its holes.”

While we could have devoted endless pages to the dispute – even without input from DeVries, who chose not to add fuel to the fire when contacted by this magazine for comment – it’s perhaps best to let the dust settle for a while so the course, the real hero, can bask in the glory of its latest ranking.

The controversy did, however, get me thinking about the very concept of a ‘partnership’ when it comes to golf course design, and whether such unions are fraught with danger from the outset? Just as Picasso would never have shared his paintbrush, what would compel a course architect to want to reveal his trade secrets and design philosophies with another competitor, all in the name of landing a project? And yet we’ve seen countless examples of how this pays off for both the course and their creators.

History suggests design partnerships are like marriages – there are some that are relatively short-lived and others that survive the journey. An example of the latter is Peter Thomson and Mike Wolveridge, who were partners for about 40 years until Mike retired. Americans Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have been going at it a long time, too. In both cases, one partner was a high-profile tour pro and the other the more hands-on partner, although Wolveridge was a tournament player for a while until he found his niche in course design.

The same could be said for World Golf Hall-of-Famer Greg Norman and Bob Harrison, who had a great thing going there for two decades, producing Aussie masterpieces like Ellerston and The National (Moonah) before going their separate ways. Odds are they will never be seen in the same room together again as they build hugely successful individual resumes.

“I’ve had many arguments with partners and clients about how and where they want to grow their brand,” Norman tells us. “Course design is all about philosophy, vision, managing expectations, ego and value… real long-term value. When you can’t marry all that up, it’s not going to be a sustainable partnership.”

Adds Harrison: “I think it depends partly on the nature of the ‘partnerships’. In the old days there were partnerships such as [Harry] Colt, [Charles] Allison and [John] Morrison, where all three were all actively doing design. Sometimes these partnerships worked OK because the partners were active in different geographical areas but, perhaps, they eventually fall because it’s difficult for two or more people to ‘hold the same paintbrush’, even though that occasionally gets better results.”

Harrison believes partnerships between tour pros and designers often fall into a different category because the pro might be actively playing on tour and is involved in projects mainly for marketing reasons.  

“It’s really interesting, and very disappointing, that people still believe that the pro actually did the design on projects that carry his name,” he says. “On TV recently, for example, the commentators talked about [Jack] Nicklaus designing Muirfield Village, when the truth is it was originally designed by Desmond Muirhead. It’s not surprising, then, that they move apart, particularly if the designer gets recognition and opportunities as an individual.”

In a development that surprised many in 2019, ex-tour pro Mike Clayton left the design company he founded, Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead, to start a new global partnership with that man Mike DeVries and Dutchman Frank Pont. Clayton told the State of the Game podcast at the time that OCCM “wasn’t working as well as it had for any of us. We all thought it was time that I moved on, so I have”.

One team that has escaped divorce, however,  is Neil Crafter and Paul Mogford, who this year will notch up 20 years together while designing the much-anticipated Arm End course near Hobart. What’s their secret to a happy relationship? Separation, ironically.

“Partnerships generally split up because of changes in a partner’s circumstances or some philosophical or even financial difference between the partners,” Crafter says. “You see it happen in law firms and landscape architects, not just golf-course architects.

“In the case of Crafter + Mogford, Paul and I have complementary skill sets and low ego levels, mutual respect, similar design philosophies and geographical separation.” 

With Mogford based in Melbourne and Crafter in Adelaide, they are not joined at the hip in one office, resulting in regular but “not too frequent” communication. 

And therein lies the secret, perhaps? Where in a marriage a partner can simply nod and say, “Yes, dear,” agreements are not so easily reached in the world of course design. After all, there are accolades to be accepted and names to be permantly etched on lists like the one you’ll find inside this issue. Creative sides of the brain are like fingerprints: everyone’s work differently but are ultimately controlled by the ego behind the wheel. Pride, more often than not, prevails.

“On most projects we will develop the initial designs jointly and then one partner runs that project with periodical updates and design inputs from the other. That seems to work well,” Crafter adds.

One other thing that was hard to separate was the country’s best courses from the merely very good. Turn to page 50 to see how we did it. The quality of courses showcased on these pages is yet another reminder of how lucky we are as a golf nation, and how we have countless golf-course design partnerships to thank for that.