Q&A: Why Tom Fazio is right at home

The 77-year-old golf course architect has built a world-renowned career, yet he discusses with The First Call's David Droschak why close to home holds such appeal

Tom Fazio is considered one of the top golf course architects of our generation, designing more than 200 layouts over a career that has spanned more than a half century. The works of Fazio, 77, can be found on most any "best of" lists and are reasons why he is of a select number of course architects to be honored with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America's Old Tom Morris Award, the association's highest honor.

Fazio recently sat with The First Call’s David Droschak to talk about his journey in a family business that began with his uncle George Fazio and continues now with his son, Logan Fazio.

The First Call: Can you discuss how your upbringing in a small Pennsylvania town helped create your outlook on life and work?
Tom Fazio: I didn’t have any adversity. My father was a blue collar, Depression guy who worked through WWII. We grew up in a row house and I went to a little Catholic school. My father lived from paycheck-to-paycheck and never made more than $5,200 in a year. You worked at a young age, that’s just what you did, and I’ve been working ever since, and things just kept happening. And you can add some luck into it, but I believe you make your own luck, too. 

Tom Fazio

TFC: What is the one thing that has changed the most in golf course architecture in the more than 50 years you have been in the business?
TF: When we designed golf courses in the 1960s the best response you could get was, ‘Well, when it matures this course if going to be very, very good.’ Well, today that is failure, because the day it opens people compare it to the best place they have ever been because there have been so many new golf courses created in the last 30 years. If you look at the state of North Carolina for example and go play one of my brand new courses like High Hampton. What are golfers going to compare it to? Well, Wade Hampton. Where is Wade Hampton ranked? Best in the state. That’s all people care about, but that’s our job. So, what I’m doing at one course, golfers and golf writers will always compare it to what I’m doing at the other five or six I’m doing that year.

TFC: You fell in love with the state of North Carolina when you designed Pinehurst Resort No. 6 with your uncle George. And to this day you still split time between the Tar Heel state and Florida, and have an office in Hendersonville. Why?
TF: I came to western North Carolina in 1981. I grew up in a little town in Pennsylvania that had a Main Street — before there were malls and strip shopping centers. I sold newspapers as a little kid on Main Street so I became a Main Street guy, but who thought I was going to have an office on Main Street in Hendersonville, N.C.? They would close it off on a Friday night and kids would cruise Main Street. I thought ‘What a cool place this is, it’s like going back to the ‘50s. I’m in the right spot — I can see mountains and trees — I can have it all.’ In fact, right now, I am sitting here in my office on the fourth floor looking out at mountains — a 360-degree view of mountains and trees. And I am at Fourth and Main streets. Where can you have anything better than that?

TFC: Why have you chosen to spend most of your design career in the United States and not taken advantage of the golf boom in the Pacific Rim?
TF: Look at what we have in America, the whole country is full of fabulous golf environments. I can argue that almost every state is great. In the early 1960s, there were maybe 7,000 golf courses in America, and in 50 years we’ve added another 7,000 golf courses. I have done probably 100 golf courses from my house in North Carolina to my house in Florida, from the ocean 100 miles to the west; just go up and down the I-95 corridor and see how many courses we’ve designed. I have maybe 8-10 in Hilton Head alone and another five or six in Pinehurst, and more all the way down Florida to Palm Beach and 100 miles inland. I didn’t have to go very far. Why would you go around the world? I have a great wife and great kids and a great business and a great town to live in and great friends.

TFC: What is the biggest challenge of building a golf course in 2022?
TF: When Pinehurst was built in 1896, there were no environmental rules and regulations. There were no worries about endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. There were no worries about wetlands. Donald Ross wouldn’t have even understood what those things were because there was no discussion about it. But that’s the law now. So the first thing you do is analyze the site and find out what the rules are, and what are the constraints or site conditions before you get to work. 

Pinehurst No. 8
Tom Fazio designed Pinehurst Resort's No. 8 course as part of the resort's centennial celebration.

TFC: One of the highlights of your illustrious career was when Pinehurst tabbed you to design its No. 8 course to commemorate the resort’s centennial. What do you like about that layout?
TF: The one thing is it has its own identity. Pinehurst No. 2 is fabulous and it’s great and it is historic, and when you think of No. 2 you think of Donald Ross because it has been publicized so much, and you think of Payne Stewart standing there, and you think of Phil Mickelson — all those things that have evolved, so it’s kind of interesting to me. It was great to have a piece of land that allowed us to create something distinct; it’s very different than No. 2 even though it has some settings and feelings related to No. 2. Its topography is a nice piece to No. 8 that really allows it to be distinctive and unique, yet still a part of the Pinehurst experience. Ownership gave me no parameters at all at the time. They just said, ‘You know what we want, you’ve done enough golf courses, you understand.’ We weren’t going to change the environment. It was Pinehurst, so what do people expect?  What do you think about? You don’t have to copy it, just make it natural. First of all, you have gently rolling terrain, a sandy base soil and you have pine trees. It’s all the same environment. Now, the good thing about it was we had a lot of space, so we were able to create great variety.

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TFC: On a personal note, you and your wife Sue founded a Boys & Girls Club in North Carolina in 1991 that you are extremely passionate about. How did that transpire?
TF: We built this fabulous center for children here in Hendersonville which is just as good as any place in the world. It just became home and we’ve created all these new friends and it’s a big part of our life. To me, it’s all simple things -- it’s a God thing. I didn’t plan all of this; it’s just what I do. I had a group that wanted to give, so here we are. I had a habit and my habit was family and my Boys & Girls Clubs that Sue and I have been involved with here in North Carolina and around the country.

TFC: How do you want people to remember you and the work you have accomplished? 
TF: It’s up to somebody else to figure that out, not me. I’ve always cared about doing a good job. I have been a worker all my life so I look at it from that standpoint. We live in a great country and our goal should be to help each other to do whatever, but I have been so blessed. I think all that legacy stuff takes care of itself. I am not interested in what is going to happen. I don’t think Donald Ross was like that, or would have envisioned golf doing what it did or Pinehurst being as grand as it is. The legacy thing is not high on my priority list. I still love going to my projects, I still love going to Pinehurst. I find myself to some degree enjoying the memories. I certainly like that because of the great people I’ve had experiences with. I enjoy the experiences with the people as much or more than the product itself. It may not sound good to say it that way but it’s true.