Ed Shearon 
Q&A with Ed Shearon, architect of Ravenís Claw, RiverWinds, Vineyards

By Joe Logan
Published April 23, 2012

For quantity and quality, it’s hard to imagine two architects who have left lasting imprints on the Philadelphia golf scene that can compare with classic-era greats Donald Ross and William S. Flynn. 


Among contemporary architects who have built legacies in the area, three guys stand out:  Gil Hanse (Applebrook, French Creek, Inniscrone),  Stephen Kay (Scotland Run, The Architects Club, Harbor Pines, McCullough’s Emerald Links) and Ed Shearon (RiverWinds, Vineyard Golf at Renault, Raven’s Claw).


Ross and Flynn won’t be designing any new courses.  Even among the three younger, working architects, only Hanse, a rising star with an international reputation, is getting work designing new courses.


The golf course construction boom gone bust has left Kay and Shearon to ply their trade doing renovations and restorations.  Both can take satisfaction in knowing that the courses they did design are alive and well, providing pleasure to thousands of golfers in the region. 


Last week, I played a round with Shearon at Raven’s Claw, where he is also managing partner.   We talked about his design career and philosophy, his take on the current golf environment and how he got into the business, expanding into course design from his 350-employee company, Shearon Environmental. 


I first met Shearon, 57, about 16 years ago, before he designed his first completed 18-hole course, RiverWinds.  Since then, we’ve played many rounds together and I can tell you that Shearon cannot play a course – heck, a hole – without offering running commentary on the design elements and strategy involved, especially if it’s one of his own courses.


Years ago, I recall Shearon telling me he was a student at Temple studying for a career in urban planning.  But one summer, he got a job working for a guy who owned a service cutting the those sprawling lawns at corporate campuses.   It didn’t Shearon long to realize there was more money in mowing corporate grass than in urban planning.


Almost three decades later, the company he built, Shearon Environmental, mows grass but does much, much more.   They’re also big into the "green" movement, golf course maintenance, golf course renovations and restorations and lately, they specialize in building state-of-the-art athletic complexes for colleges and universities.


Here is an edited version of our conversation:


How did you get into designing golf courses?

I grew up playing golf at Center Square.  I got a $50-a-year membership, daily fee. We played every day, 54 holes a day, when we were teenagers.  We’d just go around and around at Center Square.


I had a real love of golf and I could shot in the mid-70s.   I would draw all the good holes I played.  I had friends who belonged to country clubs, so if I played Whitemarsh or Manufacturers’ or Huntingdon Valley, I would sketch holes. 



Formal training


When I started in my career, in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, we were doing small construction projects for the various golf courses in the region. People would ask us to do a tee, or some other small project. 


In 1987, the Graduate School of Design at Harvard held a special one-week program.  Dr. Geoffrey Cornish was one of the teachers in this program.  He knew that I had the desire to design, but my name is not Fazio or Dye and I hadn’t won a U.S .Open.  So how do you get into it? 


Lancaster Country Club was doing a new nine holes, and I went out and interviewed.  Lo and behold, their board was blown away by the design, but they wanted to have somebody with more horsepower than us.  So I joined forces with Geoffrey Cornish and Brian Silva.  I got the job but he was my consultant.   I did the routing, I did the design.



First 18-hole design


The first 18-hole golf course I did was Cranberry National in New Jersey.  It was never built, but from that, the guy wanted to do a nine-hole course, Royal Dunes. That was ‘88 or ‘89.  It was voted best par 3 course in the Northeast. 


After that, I started doing redesigns.  We started working at Whitemarsh Valley, Mill River Country Club in Connecticut,  Manchester Country Club.





I studied all the great architects. I read all the books.  I have a very extensive library.  I believe there is nothing new in golf course architecture.


Even though I wasn’t a member, I grew up playing all the great Philadelphia golf courses.  I started discovering Donald Ross, and Tillinghast and Toomey-Flynn, George Thomas, George Crump and Hugh Wilson were all from Philadelphia in the early 1900s, and they all helped each other.


The essence of what they added to golf course architecture was strategic golf.  It is no different from playing pool.   Not only do you have to make the shot, but you have to put yourself in position to make the next shot.  In golf, you’re trying to hit away from, but close to, hazards.   If you can do that, you will get some kind of advantage: better shot angle, better distance, better lie, better view, which is what makes it interesting – and its what Center Square didn’t have.  Center Square was just green/tee.  What was the difference?  The angles, the strategy the courses have.


I had also been going to Ireland and Scotland every other year from 1991 on, studying courses. 


At the same time we were designing RiverWinds, we were building Jehrico National with Michael Hurzdan and Dana Fry.  Then we built Tattersall (now Broad Run), so I worked with Rees Jones.  We were the construction company on those jobs.  Rees would wave his hand then come back in three weeks.  We worked with Gary Player, we worked with Pete and Perry Dye.  I was working at the shoulders of these well-known architects, gleaning as much as I could. 





RiverWinds came along in 2001.  We showed them our redesigns, we showed them Royal Dunes and we got the contract for RiverWinds.  It was privately owned but the land is owned by the Delaware River Port Authority. 


When we got RiverWinds, we got there two flat pallets of land.  I designed the topography along the lines of Maidstone, which  is one of my favorite courses.  What we did was take advantage of sightlines.  We made our mark. 



Vineyards at Renault


It’s all about diagonal hazards, which I got from Dr. Alister McKenszie.   I needed 220 acres to do it.  when it came out it got Top 10 among new courses in the country is Golf & Leisure magazine.



Differences in RiverWinds, Vineyards at Renault and Raven’s Claw


All three courses I have designed in this area are distinctly different philosophies.  They have different looks.  If you went to this course, RiverWinds and the Vineyards, you would not know all three were designed by the same person.  The bunker designs are different.  The bunkers here are more Toomey-Flynn.  RiverWinds bunkers were designed more to a links style; the Vineyards  had more Alister MacKenzie, with diagonal hazards.


RiverWinds was designed in triangles.  If you are on a windy golf course and you have the St. Andrews style out-and-back, it gets laborious.  At RiverWinds you have holes designed in triangles.


Because it was far enough outside the city, at Raven’s Claw what you have is pretty spectacular natural features.  You have ravines, you have plateaus, you have bluffs, you have big indigenous trees, you have really good land forms – and you can walk it.  How many courses today have a mile and a half drive from one thing to another? 



Death of the construction boom


2008 (collapse of the economy) came right as we started getting traction. I had a guy who as going to rep us in Vietnam, but I said to myself, at my age, do I want to be on an airplane going to Vietnam?  The answer was no.



As far as new courses, it’s all about emerging markets.  We’ve had three or four years of more courses closing than opening. 


The good news is we (Shearon Environmental) are heavily involved in the "green" industry.  When the golf course construction and design business went down, we began doing athletic complexes at colleges.  We did them at  for Muhlenberg, Moravian, Franklin & Marshal, Philadelphia University and Neumann College. We have been fortunate that we have been able to take our expertise in golf and move them into building athletic complexes.  Is it as exciting?  No.



Cost of building golf courses


What it comes down to $10 (in green fees) per million (spent to build).  If we didn’t have the housing development, this golf course (Raven’s Claw) would have cost $18 million, because of the cost to build the road in, to bring the utilities in, to build a $3 million bridge to drive across, all the storm water from the real estate development.


The state of golf in the U.S.


My concern with golf in the U.S. for the past 20 years is that if you go to Ireland or Scotland, the Irish guys over there are playing the same courses that you and I are playing, only they are paying 20 pounds ($32) while we are paying 200 pounds ($322).  Golf in those countries is very affordable.  In the U.S., golf is very expensive and therefore very elitist. 


Unless we get minority players in, unless we get junior players and unless we get women, golf in the United States is in trouble, because there are not enough rich white guys. 


You have guys in the country club set, the over-60 set; they have their money,  they don’t care what is going on.  The other 50 percent of guys over 60 might have enough money to retire, but $50 is still $50.  They’re thinking they are going to live to 90 years old and they weren’t planning for that.  So they are very judicious with their money.


If we discount greens fees here by $10, we’ll get 150 people in one day signing up.  Now, $10 is not going to change how I live my life, but $10 to somebody else means he can get a couple of beers and put some gas in his tank.



On designing


The hardest thing in golf is designing good short par 4s.   Merion’s got five short par 4s but most people don’t realize that.  Every one has a different design feature.  All those concepts were out long before Hugh Wilson did that.  What we do it take classic design concepts and ask ourselves, given the existing topography, what can we do?


When I am on a golf course, I am looking at what makes holes look good aesthetically and what makes them play strategically and what makes sense from a maintenance standpoint, because we don’t have huge maintenance budgets.


Do you think you got better with each design?


Sure, absolutely. What you learn is, what you have to do you have to have inspired design?  How do you do that?  Study the classics.  We steal, borrow from anything that is good.


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