Change of course

Tom Fazio might be North Carolina’s most esteemed course designer, but even he had to adjust to life after the recession.
By Spencer Campbell

Tom Fazio has designed roughly 200 golf courses — 18 in North Carolina — during his nearly 50 years as an architect, including almost a fifth of those listed on Golf Digest’s America’s 100 Greatest Courses for 2011-12. Still, Fazio Golf Course Designers Inc., which has eight employees at its office in Hendersonville, where he lives, and five more at its headquarters in Jupiter, Fla., wasn’t immune to the economic downturn. Once committed almost exclusively to working on courses in the U.S., he’s had to traverse the globe to find gigs. He talks to Business North Carolina Senior Editor Spencer Campbell about the change, the state of the Tar Heel golf industry and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

How did you, a native of the Philadelphia area, come to live in western North Carolina?
No other reason than my wife said we were going to live there. In 1981, when I was planning Wade Hampton Golf Club in Cashiers and my family was living in Florida, we decided to buy a summer home in Hendersonville. After a couple of summers, my wife, who had just had her sixth child, decided that she wanted to live in western North Carolina full time.

Why do you think your courses are so well-received?
I don’t know. I ask people why, and the common answer seems to be that they’re fun. I agree, but I’d rather have someone else say it.

But every designer has a distinctive style, such as Donald Ross and his turtle-back greens. What’s yours?
I don’t agree with that at all. I purposely don’t have a style. If you look at Forest Creek, Pinehurst Nos. 4, 6 and 8, all designed by me, they’re completely different. I do want people to have a good time. If someone asked me to build the most difficult course in North Carolina, the first thing I’d do is try and talk them out of it. The second thing I would do is pass.

What’s distinctive about golf in North Carolina?
The environment. From the Outer Banks to the mountains and the Sandhills to the rolling hills of our Virginia border, there’s so much variety, uniqueness and beauty.

The courses may be great, but the shape of the industry isn’t.
What’s going on here parallels what’s going on nationally. There was such a boom in the 1990s and early 2000s, so we have an oversupply of golf courses. It’s certainly not good for people in the industry, but I’m a positive person. At least it’s good for the consumer because prices are down.

How have you adapted?
The work now is offshore in China, Brazil and other places around the world. I was never a world guy, but now we have the opportunity to go overseas and take the Fazio brand, which is obviously highly regarded, to places we’ve never been before. I have a son who’s now in charge of the day-to-day operations of my firm. He’s the guy who takes those international flights.

Has revenue fallen?
Not much because we’re overseas. But expenses are higher, too, traveling. That’s part of the program. We’re not as busy as many, and we have fewer staff, but we’re working. With an oversupply of courses and lack of new building, it seems designers would suffer more than many in the industry. You get nervous because you don’t see much discussion about golf-course architecture or new projects right now because there aren’t any.

Will it stay that way?
Yes. It’s a business cycle, so we have to get rid of the excess inventory. Right now, you don’t need to build a new course to take care of the demand for new people, because the existing facilities aren’t filled. If the game itself isn’t growing, supply’s the only thing that can keep prices in line. It’s not just about golf. You look at Washington, the economy, the housing market and the banking industry — there are a lot of things to be fixed. 

How did you get started?
With my uncle George Fazio, who won twice on the PGA Tour in the 1940s. He had the name that opened the doors and got us the jobs. Later, our recognition came from products that we had built. Now, the Fazio name is considered one of the tops in the world. That’s just the way it evolves.

Does it bother you when PGA Tour players with little design experience get big-money design jobs?
If you were to check out who’s doing golf courses around the world, you’d find most of them are celebrities. When the business was big — 300 or 400 courses being built in the U.S. each year — course design became a great business model. Jack Nicklaus started that about 40 years ago, so people followed the leader. You name them — Tom Watson, Jerry Pate, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman, Mark McCumber — they’ve been in the design business.

Does it upset you to see Tiger Woods get a reported $10 million to design the Cliffs at High Carolina, only a few miles from where you live?
No. Tiger Woods’ brand is one of the biggest in the world. That’s just the way it is. I’ve been fortunate to have plenty of work, and the phone keeps ringing. But for younger people without name recognition, it’s harder to break in now. It’s harder to find a job.

You’re approaching 70. Any chance of slowing down?
Even though I’m 67, I feel young, act young. I’m not even going to die old; I’m going to die young. That’s my plan. I went to a Baltimore Ravens playoff game in January and visited with [Carolina Panthers quarterback] Cam Newton. He’s a really sharp guy. That’s the kind of people I like hanging around.

Do you have a favorite North Carolina course?
Of course not. I get asked that all the time, but if you’ve ever been to Wade Hampton Golf Club and Mountaintop Lake and Golf Club in Cashiers, Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington, Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte or Bright’s Creek in Mill Spring — they’re all so beautiful, how could you pick one over another?

View a full list of North Carolina's top 100 golf courses and best courses by region here.