Golf course architects Thad Layton and Brandon Johnson are applying the principals of their founder to bring a new look to Arnold Palmer Design.
LAKEWOOD, Fla. — It was a raw February day at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando. The wind was blowing, the temperature in the 40s, but Thad Layton finally got his chance to play golf with his boss. Of course this wasn't just any boss; this was the King, a man revered by those who played and watched golf and certainly those who worked for him.
Layton, of course, wanted to impress Mr. Palmer. But not so much, he said, that it looked like he was playing a little too much golf and not working very hard. Back then he was an associate architect, looking to make his impression with his designs and field work, but naturally he wanted to show Arnold Palmer that he could play the courses they designed, too.
"But no matter what I had on a hole, he would never let me hit last," Layton recalled. "He felt like he didn't want me to get lost in the shuffle."
Layton also wasn't sure the group would continue after making the turn. After all, Palmer was already in his late 70s at this point, so Layton figured he might be done after nine holes of bitter cold. So he asked if they are going to continue.
"He looks at me," Layton remembered, "and says, 'Of course we're going to keep going.'"
Thad Layton and Brandon Johnson with Arnold Palmer
No doubt, Arnold Palmer was happiest when he was on the golf course, or at least around one. And he liked being surrounded by people who felt the same way. He didn't require that the architects working for him be excellent players, but it sure didn't hurt, and they all the loved the game.
Layton and fellow senior golf course architect Brandon Johnson, are now the faces of Arnold Palmer Design as the company's vice presidents. They do their best each day to bring the passion that their late boss had for the game. And their goals are much the same that the company had through its four-plus decades of design work around the world – create and build golf courses that everyone can enjoy, from the professional to the high handicapper. But they are also establishing a new identity for the firm, one in which they each have their own styles, crafted not only from their experiences with Palmer, but their appreciation for the game's past and present trends. Their newest golf courses reflect that while still maintaining the idea that all levels of golfers should be able to play their courses.
"He played with amateurs every week on tour and saw what they were doing," said Johnson of Palmer. "He played with all the members of Bay Hill constantly. He had his pulse on what the amateur golfers' capabilities were. And he instilled in us that we need to take care of them. And you do that through width, through strategy and features that are believable and can be maintained, but aren't penalizing to the average golfer. We're trying to implement that in all our designs."
These days, it's one project at a time
Arnold Palmer Design, which has created more than 300 courses in 25 countries (the majority of those courses with late partner Ed Seay), is still based at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla. But like many design firms, AP Design does a fraction of what it once did when the company was opening a golf course a month in the late 1990s. Fortunately, Palmer loved to pilot his own jet, and he logged countless hours just to make the grand openings.
Today, the projects are spaced out, and Layton and Johnson spend inordinate amounts of time on site.
"Twenty years ago, it was a completely different market for golf courses," Layton said. "We had a huge staff, and there were a lot of people who wanted Arnold Palmer designed golf courses. When you're doing that much volume, it's harder to pay attention to the finer details to make a golf course truly great.
"So now this entire industry has been turned upside down since 2006. And even though we're not doing a lot of courses, the silver lining is that we have the time to spend on site and pay attention to those details."
The new Lakewood National near Bradenton, Fla.
The most recently completed new course for the company is Lakewood National Golf Club, located just outside Bradenton, Fla., within the Lakewood Ranch community.
Opened a little more than a year ago, the semi-private course is nestled next to the Little Brayden River within Lennar Homes' latest housing development. It isn't a typical real estate course. And it doesn't look like most Palmer designs either.
Johnson, a North Carolina State graduate who like Layton is also a pretty good stick, was the lead architect at Lakewood National. From February to October, he was onsite all day a minimum of three days per week, making necessary adjustments with the shapers. More than a million cubic yards of earth were moved on this formerly flat site to create lakes for drainage and give the land a lot of movement. Many of the greens are huge, like the 12th, a punch bowl green that covers more than 12,000 square feet. The course is also designed to play firm and fast, meaning you can play it on the ground and through the air.
There are myriad options on every hole, and with the large greens, their slopes and the way they tie naturally into the land, the pin positions can change the dynamics of a hole so much that it will play completely different from one day to the next.
And while there are forced carries from some of the tees, Johnson designed a ground option on every hole for the short knockers. For example, on the par-3 fourth, it plays more than 200 yards from the back tee, where the low handicapper has to carry the ball almost all the way over a hazard. But the way the hole and the green are shaped, the forward tee player and use the contours to get the ball close. Johnson paid attention to every detail, from the bunkering to the coquina paths to every slope on the fairways and greens.
This is actually the first of two planned courses at Lakewood National, and Johnson will soon get his crack at the other course, for which he is planning a completely different design (much flatter greens).
Renovation work is plentiful
Like many firms, Palmer Design is finding work in the renovation market. Last year, the company completed a redo of Shingle Creek Golf Club, which had to be rerouted a bit to make room for hotel expansion. It was a jigsaw puzzle, to be sure, but in the end the course turned out to be better than the original. Three new holes are added, but more importantly, the other 15 holes were completely renovated from the greens and 100 yards out, meaning the course, originally designed by David Harman (who once worked for Palmer) has a completely new look.
Layton took a page out of the classic American architecture book and gave the course crowned greens, reminiscent of Donald Ross with "some interesting run-ons and runoffs," he said. There are more pin positions now, plus the bunkers were redone (some removed, some added) and they have that more ragged look common in classic architecture.
Most recently, the company just completed a renovation of its own work at Naples (Fla.) Lakes Country Club, a Palmer design that first opened in 1999. In fact, renovations of Arnold Palmer designs might be the company's biggest market.
"We've got a huge body of golf courses we've done over the past 40 years. If they want that 'Arnold Palmer' designation to continue, Brandon and I are the only ones who are certified to that," said Layton, who was actually on the original design team for Naples Lakes C.C. "We are under the umbrella. We worked for him for a combined 30 years, and so we know what those design philosophies are and we can offer that brand."
In the case of Naples Lakes, the routing remained the same, but the course is completely modernized now. The old mounding has been brought down. There are more options around the greens. Bunkers were removed and added. They all have a purpose now.
New look at Naples Lakes C.C.
Layton was on site nearly every day for the first three months of the project, which was delayed by Hurricane Irma. This certainly impressed Naples Lakes general manager Bryan Roe and superintendent Michael Wallace.
"He was on property typically sunup to sundown," Roe said. "It was something I've never experienced, having the architect here as much as he was. I think the project benefited from it. He was on dozers and pushing dirt. He was very hands-on."
Wallace noted that Layton would often grab a stick and make changes in the dirt.
"The ability for golf course architects to visualize what they want and make it happen is incredible," Wallace said. "As a golf course superintendent, we take care of them and maintain them, but to see what he was saying actually come to fruition was incredible. He just made changes on the fly. And that's where we benefited the most from Thad being here."
During the project, Arnold Palmer died on Sept. 25, 2016. Roe said he could sense that Layton was affected by his mentor's passing and rededicated himself to making Naples Lakes a beautiful renovation. "He wanted to make Mr. Palmer proud," Roe said.
"It was extremely important to both of them that they carried on his legacy," Wallace said. "It was almost like he was looking down on them."
Inspired by Palmer and a trip to Scotland
One of the projects Layton and Johnson are most looking forward to is the second course at Castle Stuart (the first course there was designed by Gil Hanse in 2009). It will be the first Arnold Palmer Design course in Scotland.
"This will be the biggest opportunity we've had since Tralee (in Ireland) for our company," said Layton, who added he and Johnson were discussing moving to Scotland and being on the construction team for the duration of the job.
The Castle Stuart project is scheduled to start in April with nine holes planned for 2018 and the other nine in 2019. The course will give them an opportunity to realize a dream, designing a links course, something they've been thinking about since they took a trip over to Scotland as interns more than 20 years ago, soaking in the concept of links architecture.
"I think it was a defining moment for our careers. It showed us what a golf course could really be," Layton said. "That really changed my philosophy of how a golf course should play."
Layton said they now think about the worst-case scenario when designing holes. Like, what if the wind is blowing 30 mph? Is there a way to get the ball to the hole? They don't do unnecessary water hazards or forced carries, and they try to make most of their courses firm and fast with good transitions and tie-ins. Layton points to Johnson's par-3 16th at Lakewood National, which has a series of slopes that can help players get close to the hole.
"If you just look behind the hole and to the side of it, there's usually more than one way to get it to the hole," Layton said. "And that's something if you look at our courses 20 years ago, we didn't have the time to perfect those things. So things are tedious, but they're worth it. And that's what it takes you from good to great. Those are the things we want to keep doing. And hopefully the industry takes notice that it's not just another Palmer golf course, this is special. They're doing right by his name, and they're doing golf courses that are inspirational."