© SADLERC1
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Chances are, at some point in your life, you either read the poem by Robert Frost that contains these lines or you have heard some version of it. For me, these lines sum up how I came to be where I am today in my career as a golf course architect.

No matter that I did not earn a degree in landscape architecture. No matter that I did not get my start in my career working for an established golf course architect. No matter that I grew up in a small Indiana town where there was – and still is – no golf course. And no matter that no one in my family even played golf. The odds seemed to be against me from start. So how did a lifetime of choosing the other path pay off? Pretty good, so far...

When I was about nine or 10 years old, one Sunday afternoon, I was dialing through channels amongst the four options available to me in those days: CBS, NBC, ABC and the PBS affiliate in Louisville, Ky. Through dumb luck, I happened upon the Bing Crosby Pro-Am from Pebble Beach. This was when there were only a couple of hours on Saturday and Sunday when you could watch golf. I was immediately struck by the beauty of Pebble Beach – hard against the Pacific Ocean with waves crashing below the rocks dotted with sea lions and the contrast of beautiful green grass and sand bunkers. I didn’t really care much about the guys in goofy Sansabelt pants swinging metal sticks and smacking a tiny white ball, but I found the television guide page from the local paper and – with a bit of light detective work – deciphered that this was a professional golf tournament in California. To a young boy in Indiana who didn’t know what golf was, it might as well have been halfway around the world.

I made a mental note to check back the following week and watch again. To my surprise, it was a different golf course! Completely different! The very reason that I did not care for baseball, where every ballpark seemed to be a carbon copy of the others with the exception of Fenway Park, was the same reason I was drawn to golf. Each course was different from the others. What delicious madness was this?

I watched and studied the courses because I didn’t understand the game. Then I noticed a name that seemed to be getting a lot of attention each week. A blonde-haired guy who really took a whack at that little ball. At first, I thought his name was Nichols because there was a famous golfer across the river in Louisville named Bobby Nichols that a neighbor told me about upon learning of my newfound interest from my parents. Then I realized it was not Jack Nichols. It was Jack Nicklaus. I was an instant fan, even though I had not yet hit a shot or even gripped a club.

When another neighbor heard that I had been bitten by the golf bug, he brought my father a paper grocery sack of old golf balls he had buried away in his garage years ago when he “retired” from the game. It was a good start, but it’s hard to hit a ball like Jack Nicklaus when you have no implement with which to hit it.

I began to take my mother up on her offers to tag along to weekend yard sales in a quest to find a golf club (little did I know there were entire bags of them). At one stop, I came across an old Wilson 7 iron with a grip as slick as a Washington politician’s alibi (a little medium grit sandpaper fixed that). I promised to keep my room clean for eternity if I could have it and she obliged. Then, as if by Divine providence, at another yard sale, I found a well-used copy of “Golf My Way” by Jack Nicklaus. There was a sketch of him on the cover. It had to be fate. After some intense negotiations in which my duties for bringing in the garbage cans from the street would be supplemented with loading the dishwasher, my mother agreed to spring the 50 cents for the book. I still have it in my library to this day and Jack was kind enough to autograph it for me when I joined the American Society of Golf Coursre Architects.

Home golf construction

So, there I was. I had a 7 iron, a book of how to play and a sack of golf balls. Now all I needed was a golf course. I chose the road that most 10-year-old boys without a course in their town would not choose: I built a three-hole course on my parents’ land. It actually wasn’t that crazy. My father was a general contractor and I enlisted the help of my friends for free labor. I studied each golf course on TV and the “course a day” desk calendar I received as a gift. Soon, I was mowing tees, fairways and greens. Eventually, I borrowed an unused push reel mower to try and get the greens cut as low as possible (though still not puttable) and my father agreed to bring us a truckload of sand if we dug out the bunkers and promised to keep them free of weeds and cat deposits.

Before long, we had our own golf course and I spent hours every day after school and every weekend reading Jack’s book, copying his swing from TV, and trying to ingrain it in intense practice sessions on my personal golf course. Before long, I was getting the hang of it and by the time my freshman year in high school came around, I was good enough to play four years of varsity golf. I also knew by my senior year what I wanted to do for a living: I wanted to be a golf course architect.

Once again, I chose to take the road less traveled. I had no earthly idea how to get from Charlestown, Ind., to the office of any golf course architect. There was no Internet and long-distance calls were for talking to my grandparents in Tennessee. I had resigned myself to either attend the University of Kentucky – my father’s favorite – for a business degree or head off to Ball State with my friends for a business degree.

I was not crazy about a general business degree because it felt boring and vague. I’ve always told my children to choose a career doing what you like, that you are good at and that you can make good money doing it. I could make money in business, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I could have easily earned a degree and likely gone to work for my dad and eventually taken over for him when he retired, but that would not have been my company. No, I wanted to design golf courses and I wanted to do it on my own – I just didn’t know how to go about doing that.

Then my mother received a pamphlet in the mail about the PGA’s Professional Golf Management program at New Mexico State. She decided immediately that Las Cruces was entirely too far for her youngest child to go away to college and started making some phone calls to find out that there were two other PGM programs at that time – the original one at Ferris State in northern Michigan, where the golf season shuts down in early November and the second oldest one at Mississippi State University.

Starkville seemed a good compromise for a campus visit. Closer than New Mexico, warmer than Michigan, and as an added bonus, it was an SEC school with a large student body and plenty of great football teams to see each fall. That was it! My plan was simple: I would get a degree, become a club pro and get a job at a course about to renovate or a new course under construction, meet the architect, and – once he knew I wanted to design courses – I would be hired on the spot. It seemed simple to my 17-year-old brain. It didn’t go that way.

I fell in love with the school and one of the co-eds (we will have been married for 23 years this December) and spent four years going to class, playing golf, playing intramural basketball, and going to cooperative internships at some great golf courses where I learned how the operation is impacted by the design and how the maintenance is intertwined with the design. To this day, I credit my time as an assistant on those co-ops with giving me a better understanding of how design and maintenance are co-dependent. It’s one thing that differentiates me from other golf course architects and is one reason many of my leads are initiated by calls from superintendents more so than club professionals.

The comfortable or creative road?

After graduation, I was burned out on the golf business and went to work for a marketing company in Jackson, Miss. The money was good, and I had weekends off. I hated it. My wife knew I hated it. And when I had an opportunity to go to work for an upstart new company founded by a golf course superintendent where I could help him design golf courses and use my experience from co-ops to help with the management side of that company, she and I decided to take that road instead of the comfortable one.

After eight years there and some great projects, it was time to take another road. This one was complicated by the fact that we had a four-year-old daughter and a newborn son. It was scary, but I’m glad we did it. That was when we founded Watermark Golf. We’ve been fortunate through the “Great Recession” to stay busy. At a time when some other firms were laying people off or closing up shop, our hands-on boutique approach to projects has enabled me to take on a number of renovation projects and keep the company going. Now things are picking back up as the economy turns around, and 2018 and ’19 are look promising.

A few years ago, I realized one of my professional goals that I set when I was a teenager involved becoming a member of the ASGCA. I have to thank Bob Cupp posthumously for being my lead sponsor and past presidents John LaFoy and Steve Smyers for sponsoring my membership application, as well as the other members who took time to review my work. To quote another great American poet, “what a long strange trip it’s been,” but it feels like it’s only just begun. And at almost every step along the way, I can look back and see options I had that would have led to other roads and changed the outcome of my life.

And so, much like Robert Frost, a number of times I stood at the proverbial fork in the road and looked at two roads: one well-defined, well-travelled and safe while the other was not so well-marked, unclear and scary for a young couple with small children. However, with the support of my wife and kids and a faith in doing what I believed in my heart was right for us, here we are. I know there will undoubtedly be more roads from which to choose in the future and if experience is any teacher at all, rest assured that I will continue to take the one not taken – because it has made all the difference. I encourage you to consider doing the same.

Nathan Crace, ASGCA, is the principal of Watermark Golf/Nathan Crace Golf Design.