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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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