Tom Weiskopf: A true original, R.I.P.

TFC's Joe Passov pays tribute to the 1973 British Open champion who battled unfavorable labels throughout his playing career before becoming a recognized, if not underappreciated, course architect. He died on Sunday at 79.

Hole 15 - Troon Mountain - Smaller.jpg
Troon Mountain is the par-3 15th hole at Troon Country Club, designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay

For Tom Weiskopf, living down the nickname “Towering Inferno” was not easy. For more than 20 years, Weiskopf worked at it every day.

The brilliant, temperamental 1970s PGA Tour star-turned broadcaster-turned course designer passed away at his Big Sky, Montana, home on Sunday at age 79. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2020.

Tributes poured in from the likes of another TW, Tom Watson, to his old CBS colleague and friend Jim Nantz. All were well-deserved.

What many golf fans remember about Weiskopf was the label affixed to him for his entire adult life: Underachiever. He won the 1973 British Open and 16 times on the PGA Tour, but also posted 11 second-, third- or fourth-place finishes in the majors, including four runner-up finishes at the Masters.

Others choose another term: Underappreciated. Whatever the adjective, there is no denying he was one of the most talented men ever to swing a golf club. And not even Weiskopf denied that he failed to get the most out of that talent.

Weiskopf was invariably overshadowed as a player and as an architect by his fellow Ohio State Buckeye, Jack Nicklaus. Weiskopf was amazing, but Nicklaus was simply better. When developers from Cabo to Cancun doled out parcels to be designed, they always gifted Nicklaus with the premier piece of land.

The walking contradiction that was Weiskopf simply had issues — issues that frustrated him — and he didn’t always react with aplomb. Perhaps that’s why so many players, media and fans shook their collective heads at this talented, yet mercurial, star who seemed to cause — or at least invite — controversies all of the time. Not so when he entered the design business, however.

“I had enough controversy as a player. I don’t need that as an architect,” he told me in 2009.

In 1984, Weiskopf was in turmoil, personally and professionally.

“I wasn’t happy,” he recalled in 2014. “I had a design opportunity with Troon Country Club (in Scottsdale, Ariz.). I looked at it as a sabbatical. I always thought I was going to come back and play. I fell in love with course design. It’s art on the ground. I became infatuated. I had always collected fine art. What I did as a player seemed will-o-the-wisp. As a designer, I’m giving enjoyment to people I don’t even know. I still have the same passion for design as I did 28 years ago.”

He was a student of classic architecture, with Alister MacKenzie’s design of Ohio State University’s Scarlet course making the biggest early impression. Yet, while MacKenzie was only a modestly skilled golfer, Weiskopf claimed that he wouldn’t be the designer he came to be if it weren’t for his elite-level playing skills.

“I have a photographic memory for golf,” he said in 2014. “I saw the greatest players play their shots on the greatest courses and witnessed the rewards for a properly played shot. I learned from that. I was interested about the bunkers and strategy at Riviera, so I began reading about it. George Thomas, Billy Bell. How did they do it? If something captures my interest, I read about it.”   

As a designer, Weiskopf didn’t push the envelope, or approach genius level, like his architectural idol, MacKenzie, but he unfailingly crafted attractive, playable courses replete with risk/reward options. Notably, he introduced the now de rigueur concept of the drivable par 4.

Much of the greatness surrounding his early courses could be attributable to the formidable skills of his design partner, architect Jay Morrish, but Weiskopf gets the credit for the drivable par 4, an idea that came to him while competing in the 1970 British Open at St. Andrews.

“It occurred to me that under the right conditions, four of the par 4s were drivable: 9, 10, 12 and 18. 'Wow,' I thought," he said. "How is that any different than a reachable par-5, like the 13th at Augusta National? I thought, if I ever get into the design business, I’m going to do one of these.”

Weiskopf did at least one drivable par 4 on every course he designed — more than 70. Some of his favorites occur at Double Eagle in Columbus, Ohio; Loch Lomond in Scotland; Troon Country Club in Scottsdale, Arizona; and Snake River Sporting Club in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Perhaps his favorite was the one most familiar to television viewers: the 17th at TPC Scottsdale.        

Of the many encounters I had with Weiskopf over the years, perhaps my own favorite occurred at that very same Stadium course at TPC Scottsdale. On a warm June morning in 2014, Weiskopf was guiding me around the renovations he had undertaken for the course. Near the green at the par-5 13th, we came across an outline of architects’ orange spray paint in the grass that resembled a coffin.

“I wanted to build a St. Andrews-style ‘Coffin’ bunker at this hole,” he told me. “I needed to show the (construction) crew what I meant.” Weiskopf took that moment to demonstrate the concept to me. He lay down on his back, hands folded, eyes shut, big smile, at peace. The “headstone” read, RIP TW.

I thought at the time, this is Terrible Tom Weiskopf? All I saw was a guy having fun, a man utterly enamored with the design process in the field. I also saw a man very different from the guy I first got to know in 1987. His life turned around after he stopped drinking, on Jan. 2, 2000. His fortunes further soared when he married Laurie in 2006. He referred to her as a "little angel" the last time I spoke to him on Masters Saturday in April. He fought a valiant battle against cancer.

I’ll miss the disarming Weiskopf smile, the blunt opinions he offered up and the childlike joy that poured out of him when the topic turned to golf course architecture. R.I.P., for real, TW.