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Tom Weiskopf and the WM Phoenix Open: An appreciation

8 Min Read


Tom Weiskopf and the WM Phoenix Open: An appreciation

    Written by Bradley S. Klein @PGATOUR

    This will be the first WM Phoenix Open without Tom Weiskopf since 1964. That’s when the 22-year-old from Ohio burst onto the PGA TOUR and made a name for himself as a force to be reckoned with. The absence of Weiskopf, who died at 79 last summer after a long bout with pancreatic cancer, will be noted all week at TPC Scottsdale. He designed the course, among many others, and CBS Sports is planning a Weiskopf documentary.

    It’s important to remember how good Weiskopf was as a golfer before he even started with design work. He was just a handful of putts away from a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. He won 16 times on the PGA TOUR, including the 1973 Open Championship. Five times he tied for second in a major and three times he finished third. In a 10-week stretch in 1973, he seemed finally to fulfill the promise with which he had emerged from Ohio State as a rival to Jack Nicklaus. In that summer of ’73, Weiskopf won the Colonial National Invitation, Kemper Open, IVB-Philadelphia Golf Classic, Open Championship and Canadian Open.

    His temper occasionally got in the way, and after the 1984 PGA TOUR season, while sitting seventh in career earnings and still in his early 40s, he left fulltime competition behind. PGA TOUR Champions was still in its infancy, and Weiskopf had always been interested in course design. Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were making a go of it. Why not him?

    Weiskopf kept busy, first through a partnership with former Nicklaus Design associate Jay Morrish, and then, over two decades, from a home office in Big Sky, Montana, with another former Nicklaus associate, Phil Smith. Today, more than 75 courses bear Weiskopf’s name. Among them: Loch Lomond in Scotland, Double Eagle in Ohio, Troon Golf & Country Club and TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course in Arizona, Forest Dunes in Michigan, Big Sky in Montana, and his last project, Black Desert in Utah.

    “He was the designer, with the ideas,” said former partner Smith. “I was the technical architect whose job was to make those ideas work.”

    During a site visit to San Diego in 2016, where he was overseeing a renovation of Torrey Pines’ North Course, Weiskopf told a visiting writer how he got into design: “I was always analyzing golf courses back in the early 1960s when I was playing the Mackenzie-designed Ohio State University – Scarlet Course. And once I got on TOUR in 1964, I always looked carefully at angles, at lines of play.”

    He valued classical courses and was among those who found the modernization of Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, for the 1979 U.S. Open to be a mistake. During a practice round there, as he and his playing partners completed the new holes (third, fifth, sixth, eighth), he said, “They ought to create a society honoring Donald Ross to prevent this from ever happening again.” Weiskopf had nothing to do with the founding of the Donald Ross Society a decade later. But the sentiments were shared.

    Weiskopf’s first design job with his new partner Morrish was in Weiskopf’s adopted hometown of Scottsdale. “When we started Troon Golf and Country Club,” Weiskopf said, “I had a lot to learn. How to read a topographic map and figure out the ups and downs. Doing drawings that conveyed a sense of strategy with the terrain.”

    The part that took the longest was learning what the equipment could do.

    “There’s big difference between what you can build with a D-6 bulldozer or backhoe and box blade,” said Weiskopf. “There’s nothing on TOUR that will prepare you for that.”

    The revival of the drivable, risk-reward par-4 can be credited to Morrish and Weiskopf’s design of TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course in 1987. The 332-yard, 17th hole was intended as a stage for PGA TOUR players to showcase their strength and control, and it remains so today. The key is a 47-yard-long green that, while well within reach off the tee for most players, brings considerable risk into play in the form of water left, a steep bunker and grass swale on the right, and a narrow back tier to the putting surface that’s squeezed tightly between sand and water.

    In championing the short par 4, Weiskopf was inspired by Nos. 9, 10, 12 and 18 at St. Andrews, any of which can be driven in the right conditions. But with the routing, not all are reachable on the same day. Even the par-4 third and seventh holes came within reach as players got stronger and equipment improved. But distance wasn’t the only issue. These holes were strategically challenging not only because they were within in reach off the tee, but because players could keep their ball on the green with a well-placed drive.

    It’s easy to speculate about how much Weiskopf’s thinking was influenced by classic holes like those at St. Andrews or Troon, the latter being the site of his Open victory in 1973. Anyone familiar with Troon’s famed par-3 eighth hole, the “Postage Stamp,” will see it in other short par-3s Weiskopf designed, primarily the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course. But longtime design associate Smith reports on something more esoteric at work in the way Weiskopf’s design brain worked.

    “It was something I saw with Nicklaus,” Smith said. “Tom had it, too. The holes they remember, the shots they played, all of that competition, from decades ago.”

    Smith said that while Weiskopf had his favorite features from legendary courses – Pine Valley’s Devil’s Ass---- bunker, or Oakmont’s Church Pews (which were recreated on TPC Scottsdale’s 18th hole – it was the vast, seemingly endless repertoire of everyday holes he saw that animated him just as much.

    “He knew holes and shapes and contours he had played,” Smith said. “And he could pull them out as if relying on flawless memory banks in the middle of a design visit or while looking at plans on paper. And it wouldn’t just be famous holes, but some seemingly obscure shot in the middle of the second round somewhere back in Florida or California in the 1970s. He knew the round, the shot, the distance, the club he hit. He could see that way.”

    Weiskopf was a serious student of the game – its history, its statistics. And he could apply himself selectively when needed. When he came back to play PGA TOUR Champions in the mid-1990s, his powerful, upright swing picked up where it had left off as he won four more titles, including the 1994 U.S. Senior Open at Congressional.

    But it was design that had captured his imagination and led to newfound success. And when it came time to review and reassess his own design work at TPC Scottsdale, nearly 25 years after first designing it, he did not hold back. Smith recalls the intensive three-day session that produced a revised Stadium Course. It took place in February 2010, in a hotel in Lima, Peru, of all places. As Smith tells it, he and Weiskopf were heading for a design meeting in Argentina, with a stopover in Lima. A massive earthquake struck Chile – 8.8 on the Richter scale – and shut down air travel for three days.

    “We were stranded there,” said Smith. “But luckily, I had all the documents for TPC Scottsdale on my laptop that we had started to talk about with the PGA TOUR. We also had the ShotLink data. Tom spent three days poring over the data from the tournament. We sketched, talked and designed, and did nothing else for three days. That’s how we came up for the plan that was implemented in 2014.”

    Fairway bunkers were moved farther from the tees, deep landing areas off the tee were narrowed to require accuracy for the longest hitters. Greens were rebuilt, introducing subtlety to integrate the putting surfaces with the surrounds.

    Smith points to the tweaks at the par-3 16th hole as indicative of the editing done to the course. “We needed to make the course more challenging for elite players while still keeping in mind it was a popular public venue for everyday golfers,” he said. “A lot of our focus was recapturing edges so that we had more pinnable ground for hole locations that nudged up against bunkers or fall offs.”

    Weiskopf was always interested in well-defined landing areas where the options were evident from the tee or approach area. But he was also intent on keeping green contours modest enough so that, when combined with modern Stimpmeter speeds of 11-13, the ball would not race out of control. That means keeping “pinnable” locations at relatively modest slopes, in the 2% range. Compared to classic architects like Donald Ross or Alister MacKenzie, Weiskopf’s greens would seem rather tame. But that was by design; elite players can pick up the contours on such subtle greens, and for everyday golfers there is no point in creating slopes that elude their ability to control the ball.

    This the character of golf at TPC Scottsdale and elsewhere under the Weiskopf imprimatur. He has now passed from these fairways. But the integrity of his commitment to golf lives on – this week and every week.

    Bradley S. Klein is a veteran golf writer and author of 10 books on course design. A former PGA TOUR caddie, he was architecture editor of Golfweek for over two decades and is now a freelance journalist and course design consultant. Follow Bradley S. Klein on Twitter.

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