Bobby Weed is not happy. His despair reveals itself halfway down the fairway and deepens with each step toward what would later become the opening green complex of the reconceived Lagoon Course at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. His gaze sweeps past a ridge that appears to hug the putting surface, then moves on to the two big bunkers on the right and to the falloff into a grassy trough on the left. Finally he takes in the left-to-right flow of the green itself, split down the middle by a defining ridge that was created to help goose properly faded approaches to difficult back pin positions.
He considers each element individually. He studies the way they tie together. He assesses the results strategically. Can thumpers roll up?Check. Are better players challenged?Check. The bases seem covered. Oh, dear.
From the middle of the putting surface, Weed, 53, considers the blatant heaves and delicate pleats of his handiwork. He drops down to rub his hand ever so gently across the soil. It’s a kind of mystical moment, a communion. A few days ago he was rubbing big circles with his tractor; today it’s small ones with his fingertips.
“It’s a sad day for me,” he says, rising. The resignation in his voice is clear. “There’s nothing left to tweak.” If you know Bobby Weed, one of the best-kept secrets in golf course architecture, you know he isn’t kidding. It’s not that he hasn’t liked what he’s been seeing and feeling. It’s that he has. Another green complex is—and I don’t mean this figuratively—out of his hands.
But if the fun’s over for him, it’s just starting for the rest of us. I know. I’ve been a regular at the Weed-designed Golf Course at Glen Mills outside Philadelphia since it opened in 2000, and with every round, I confront some wily chip, pitch or putt that leaves me scratching my head. After eight years, I should know better.
That I don’t lifts some of Weed’s gloom. It tells him he’s doing his job right, but it also suggests to him that the most compelling part of the action won’t be found in any bunker, swale or hollow, or even, for that matter, on the putting surface. It’s found between the golfer’s ears.
For Weed, a neoclassicist by nature and a firm believer in strategic design, architecture that tests a golfer’s mind can withstand any challenge. “If I can create deception and illusion, I can create doubt,” he says. Weed, at last, is smiling. “And that is one of the best tools of my trade.”
Green complexes are the most personal of all architectural expressions: How an architect presents them hints at how he believes the game should be played. As C. B. Macdonald, creator of the National Golf Links of America, observed long ago, they are to a golf course “what the face is to a portrait.”
So what makes Weed’s green complexes stand out from all the decorative but empty Thomas Kinkades—predictable, eye-catching pap, propped-up putting surfaces with bunkers right and left—churned out by assembly line?
The answer lies in the palms of his hands. “I didn’t get these calluses playing golf,” he says.
On the bottom of every plan Weed produces in the Ponte Vedra Beach office he shares with associate Chris Monti are the ten words that define his philosophy and methodology: “This plan is conceptual and subject to change by Designer.”
“Everybody thinks this is all thought out in advance,” he says. “Not for me. This is an art, not a science, and shaping is really an extension of design. We draw with our tractors.”
When I first spot Weed on the Lagoon Course, he’s rolling around the tiny tenth green on his ancient Smithco, a bunker rake he’s modified in order to move small amounts of dirt when accentuating contours. “When I’m sitting on a piece of equipment,” he says, “the right side of my brain kicks in.”
And keeps his work from being predictable. He’s not afraid of blind approaches or hiding an essential feature, like the entire upper half of the green on the short par-five fourteenth at the Lagoon’s sister layout, the Ocean, which he restored in 1998. “I had to defend the hole somehow,” he says. “Why expose all the elements of a green complex the first time?”