Friday, December 16, 2005

Outsider on course for design stardom: Whitman's creativity overcomes lack of architecture degree

As a follow to Lorne's piece yesterday, here's my story on Rod Whitman, a man full of character and a great golf designer:

National Post Wednesday, June 9, 2004 Page: S4 Section: Sports Byline: Robert Thompson Column: On Golf Source: National Post
Hardly anyone in this country knows Rod Whitman, but they should. And if enough people see Blackhawk Golf Club, the course near Edmonton he created, then they will.
It is the second course in Canada for the native Canuck, coming more than 20 years after his first, Wolf Creek, opened in Alberta.
It is a bold vision that is reminiscent of the best golf courses created in Canada by the likes of Stanley Thompson. In fact, Blackhawk may have more in common with Thompson's work -- including the great designer's predilection for wide fairways, strategic bunkering and occasionally wild greens -- than any Canadian designer in the last 50 years. Fairway contours rise and fall with the natural setting of the land, while greens undulate and curve, giving the course teeth.
"Golf is an outdoor game," says the one-time psychology major while sitting in Blackhawk's opulent clubhouse. "It should be rugged. It wasn't intended to be like billiards."
While Whitman isn't well- known to most Canadian golfers, for the last two decades he has worked in the course construction business with some of the game's most famous architects, and built his own courses in Europe. For a while, he toiled under legendary architect Pete Dye. More recently he has worked for Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the team that has designed courses such as Sandhills in Nebraska.
Coore and Crenshaw are known for a naturalistic take on golf that includes rugged bunkers that resemble scars in the turf.
"I have fun working with them because you gain so much knowledge from them. They are simply two of the best minds in golf."
Unconventional to the core, Whitman doesn't work like many traditional course architects, and in the past it has cost him. He was pegged as the first architect to create what became Angus Glen Golf Club in Markham, but a dispute over his lack of technical specifications meant the job was eventually handed to Doug Carrick.
"I don't consider myself a golf architect because I don't have a degree in that. I consider myself a course designer."
At first, Whitman's apparent lack of technical expertise bothered Al Prokop, one of the partners and general manager of Blackhawk. But his opinion changed as he watched Whitman sculpt the property.
"Most people want more paper and flash -- something you can roll out on a boardroom table to impress investors," says Prokop. "Rod doesn't give you that flash, but his work is amazing. Once a developer has been exposed to Rod and his work, I'd be surprised if they used anyone else. I wouldn't."
While conventional golf course architects appear comfortable in allowing shaping crews to create their designs, Whitman takes a hands-on approach, shaping greens by himself and overseeing all of the construction. That made Blackhawk quite affordable to build, Prokop says.
Whitman's time in obscurity may be near an end. He's working with former Canadian PGA Tour pro Richard Zokol on a couple of potential projects -- "For years I wouldn't have done something like that," he says -- and his work at Blackhawk is sure to garner a lot of attention.
Here's hoping Whitman breaks through to the mainstream. He's just the kind of outsider the golf course business needs to make it interesting again.

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