The Most Interesting Man in Golf – Brad Klein

Brad Klein is known to many as the longtime architecture critic for Golfweek Magazine. He’s much more. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s he spent his summers caddying on the PGA for the likes of Bernhard Langer to fund the attainment of a Ph.D in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts. He then used that Ph.D to teach at St. Lawrence University, Trinity College and Clark University for 14 years before devoting his full-time efforts to his love of golf course architecture. He worked with Golfweek from 1996 to 2018 and more recently had a brief stint with Golf Channel. Klein has authored nine books on golf and course architecture and was given the ASGCA’s Donald Ross Award in 2015. He now focuses on independent writing and golf design consulting full time. I’m privileged to call him a friend and honored he was willing to be interviewed for this article.

Among the 135+/- consults Klein has performed include:

  • Old MacDonald (Bandon Dunes), OR
  • Congressional CC, MD
  • Oakland Hills CC, MI
  • Olympia Fields CC, IL
  • California Club of San Francisco, CA
  • Worcester CC, MA
  • Rhode Island CC, RI
  • Desert Forest GC, AZ

The topic of our conversation focused on his efforts to assist clubs and developers in choosing the right golf course architect and scope for their project. Among the first things Klein does is define goals by asking “Where do you want to be in 10 years?” He prefers starting the process with a small group of club leaders and welcomes hearing their disagreements. Klein emphasizes listening to determine how realistic the club’s goals are. Even if clubs don’t ask for his input in establishing goals, he offers. Identifying what needs to be fixed is critical to the process.

I asked about the celebrity status of some architects, and how much he considers the value/cost of same when suggesting an architect? Klein responded: “I start by asking them if they have thought of any architects, then try to determine how they made that link and what they are looking for. At that point they rarely have an answer other than “I heard from” or “I know a guy who knows him”, or “I read it on a website.” I start by pointing ing out that in the Master Plan phase the fee is virtually irrelevant, only 1-2% of the total cost of a project, and they should focus on some names they have not heard from as well as big names. They always say Hanse, Coore & Crenshaw, and from there they are lost so I just rattle off 7-8 names and then they start listening. They used to say Fazio, Nicklaus, Rees Jones but those names do not come up like they used to. Interesting.” Klein is not a big fan of “signature architects”. He says they cost too much, don’t show up enough and that it’s not uncommon to be dealing with a subordinate. There’s also limited input from the members.

Klein says that depending on whether the project is one of preservation or renovation (“blow up and restart”) there are some architects who thrive in each situation and some that can do both. He also said that architects often have a focus on specific geographic regions that make them more suitable in those regions due to experience with certain turfgrass varieties or weather conditions. Those who’ve worked in the Eastern US and use Roundup get quite a surprise in California where it can’t be used due to environmental regulations.

Just like on Tour, there are “courses for horses”, Klein believes there are some designers better suited to private clubs and others to daily-fee and municipal courses. In some cases it’s their design style and others their personality when at a private club they may be having to deal with large numbers of people and patience is required.

Interestingly, Klein doesn’t ask many questions of a club when assisting them in architect selection. He says: “What I tell them is that the only criterion of selection that counts is comfort level – is this architect someone you can go out on the course with and learn something about your layout that you did not know before? Are you comfortable putting them in front of your membership to answer questions knowing they will take them seriously? Is this someone you want to have lunch with for the next 20 years? Are you confident this person has your club’s long-term interests at heart?” Klein always does an independent review of the golf course and often serves as an intermediary between the architect and club and doesn’t hesitate to be a “bug in the ear” of the architect to avoid unnecessary compromise.

Given the history that goes along with many courses and their designs, I asked about whether Klein considers some architects better suited to renovating specific designers of the past. Klein responded: “Many of the professionally trained, landscape architecture school folks are not good at looking at what’s in the ground – or historically, what used to be there. They are over-trained as engineers and undernourished as artists. They are more interested and capable in drawing, doing specifications and all sorts of technical stuff rather than using their imagination. It takes some considerable patience, as well as experience in actual design/build in the field, to have a sense of what restoration is – as distinct from remodeling or modernization, which is always easier. I am also very wary of Ross experts or Raynor experts. They end up being formulaic. It’s more important to be sensitive to what Mr. Dead Architect X did here, at this one place in the ground and not what he allegedly “always did” or “never did.”

Klein advises clubs to avoid mistakes by focusing on the prospective architect’s engagement and commitment while onsite. Judge them based on responsiveness and due diligence with prior projects in terms of budgets, timetables and work relations. Always ask about the project(s) that went wrong. Klein counsels clubs to interview a selection of architects with varied backgrounds.

The last questions I posed to Klein was what he tells clubs is the most important part of the process. He said involvement of superintendent is absolutely crucial, but only if they’re not trying to make things easier on themselves; “I much prefer those who are ambitious, trying to get the best possible design and are willing to push budgets rather than save on work for themselves.”

The value of retaining an independent consultant with no future interest can’t be overstated. Klein provides a most valuable service here that is sensitive not only to the success and quality of the project but also to the economics. Before I go to the surgeon I want the consulting physician to tell me what I need first.