Across the course designer's more than 40-year career, inspiration and lessons from his first mentor, Pete Dye, have guided his hand — and his bulldozer. Now, he's paying it forward
The grand opening of Stillwater Golf and Country Club in St. Johns, Florida, in summer 2022 was a monumental event, as it marked the first time in two decades that a new golf course had opened in north Florida.
The 6,745-yard layout’s debut did more than just signal the possible resurgence of golf course — and golf community — developments in the region; it also served as a poignant example of how golf course routing and architecture has positively evolved over the last several decades and just how far Bobby Weed, the course’s creator, has come throughout his career as an architect.
Today, Weed owns and operates his eponymous firm, Bobby Weed Golf Design, that has created several TPC courses, including TPC Las Vegas, TPC Tampa Bay and TPC Summerlin. Yet, to understand Weed’s personal journey, you have to start at the beginning, which means going back 50 years to the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina, where Weed grew up in a family of farmers and construction workers.
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When Weed was in high school, his father sold a parcel of the family’s farmland to developers who transformed the tract into a golf course. In the immediate aftermath of that business deal, Weed saw an opportunity, as the resulting golf course didn’t have a practice area. It took some convincing, but Weed eventually talked his father into leveraging a few of the family’s soybean fields across the street from the clubhouse and converting them into a driving range — a driving range that Weed designed and subsequently ran after school throughout the remainder of his high school years.
The now-defunct range quickly emerged as the home practice facility for the Irmo High School golf team, not to mention the University of South Carolina’s golf team. In fact, Dustin Johnson, Wesley Bryan and Lauren Stephenson all credit Weed Hill Driving Range as the place where they learned to play the game.
“We had grass tees, lights and really nice range balls,” Weed remembers. “Those were my three cornerstones.”
By comparison, the selling points of the 16-acre practice facility at Stillwater include hitting bays equipped with Toptracer Range technology, which provides golfers with immediate feedback on their swings and important data on each shot that they hit.
As for the in-vogue qualities of Stillwater’s golf course, it boasts greens that are barely elevated — if at all — which encourages the use of the ground game and immediately makes the course more approachable for newcomers and less-skilled players. It features shallow, revetted bunkers that look much more difficult to play from than they are (they’re also easier to maintain). And the course is defined by more short-cut turf, which minimizes the amount of rough and also makes the course faster and more enjoyable to play for the average golfer. “The great thing about our game,” says Weed, “you can pick it up at any age. So it’s more about getting out there and enjoying yourself.”
Most significantly, Stillwater’s routing was planned in such a way that golfers can easily play loops of three, six, nine or 12 holes, with each of those loops starting and finishing near the clubhouse. As Weed explains, such a routing allows golfers to “choose what they want depending on the amount of time that they have to play.”
The innovative design characteristic is one that Weed indirectly attributes to Pete Dye, since the late course designer built a career upon the belief that success requires constant innovation and experimentation. Dye also gave Weed his start in the industry, first by bringing him into the fold during two summer internships and later formally hiring him after Weed graduated from Lake City Community College (now Florida Gateway College). Incidentally, Weed started his college career at Presbyterian College, where he played on the men’s golf team for two seasons.
“At that time I didn’t know how big an opportunity it was,” Weed says of his internships. “I just knew I was amongst the essence of greatness with Pete being on the cutting edge of building new, innovative golf that really hadn’t been seen prior to that.”
Weed immediately connected with Dye over their shared work ethic. Dye was a notoriously hard worker, and Weed’s parents instilled in him a willingness to roll up his own sleeves — you don’t design, open and run a successful driving range as a high school student without that ambition and commitment to hard work. Dye’s relentless pursuit to create interesting, unique golf courses inspired Weed during his early internship years, and it’s served as a steady inspiration ever since.
In particular, it was Dye’s approach to experimentation that resonated the most with the young, aspiring course designer. “When Pete asked you a question, he didn’t want to hear ‘No, I can’t do that,’” Weed explains. “He wanted to hear ‘Yes, let’s try that. Let’s do this.’ He was the first to experiment.”
As an intern, Weed worked with Dye on the Oak Marsh Golf Course at Amelia Island Plantation in Florida, and it was during that project that Weed was introduced to Dye’s outside-the-box approach to course design and aesthetics. “I was seeing golf like I had never seen it,” Weed says, pointing to Dye’s characteristic strip lagoons, railroad-tie buttressing, small green complexes, even smaller pot bunkers, large sandy waste areas, and ribbon strips of fairways. “It was more like artwork on the ground.”
No less impactful was the sandy terrain along the coast where this innovative golf course was being built. “I’d never seen sand like that,” Weed says. “I was somebody who grew up in the rock and clay, so I couldn’t go dig a hole with just a shovel. It was eye-opening.”
During Weed’s time working for Dye as an associate a few years later, Dye was juggling two projects — the Long Cove Club on Hilton Head Island and the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. When Dye was on the road, working alongside PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman in Ponte Vedra, he gave Weed the reigns in South Carolina with implicit instructions to call him if any issues come up that Weed couldn’t confidently handle himself. “If somebody asks you a question, never tell them you don’t know,” Weed remembers being told. “Your response is, ‘That’s a great question. There are a couple of options. Let me get right back to you.’ And then come call me.
“Nobody wants to hear ‘no,’ and nobody wants to hear ‘I don’t know,’” Dye continued. “That’s proving you’re not the expert.”
Today, Weed still uses that tactic, only instead of calling Pete Dye, he takes the time that it affords him to research the issue at hand. With a wry smile, he acknowledges that the ploy has worked for more than 40 years. “We’re always looking to build a better mousetrap,” he declares. “And the only way to build a better mousetrap is to be on that cutting edge. You want your owner to feel like you are doing your homework and your research and you’re out there doing something that has an end result that will set them apart.”
That wasn’t the only tactic that Weed learned from working so closely with Dye. “Pete designed with his bulldozer, he drew with his bulldozer,” Weed remembers. “He always said, ‘Show me a golf course built by a set of plans and I’ll show you a bad golf course.’”
Weed embraced that approach to course design and today often finds himself out on a piece of equipment shaping features in the field. “Designing in the field has always afforded us more latitude — you’re continually molding and shaping and rubbing on the features,” he explains. “The more attention you give those features, the better they’re going to end up being.”
In fact, Weed credits Dye for teaching him the value of continually moving earth until the resulting feature fits his eye and is as good as it can be. “It’s only dirt,” he acknowledges. “You can push it around a little bit.”
All of this is to say that Weed owes Dye a tremendous amount of gratitude for the opportunities that were born from his years working with the late, celebrated course designer. To his credit, Weed will be the first to acknowledge that. “Where would I be had Pete not taken me under his wing?” he asks rhetorically. “Having Pete Dye as my mentor really launched my career in many ways.”
Weed is now in a position to pay it forward, and he insists that passing on the knowledge and experience that he has gained — both through the lessons that he was taught as an intern and young associate and later through his own endeavors as the founder of Bobby Weed Golf Design — is one of the most gratifying aspects of working in the business.
As for how that mentoring experience takes shape, Weed likens it to raising children. “As parents, you’re kind of winging it,” he explains. “There may be plenty of books out there, but at the end of the day, you refer back to how you were raised. Those values that were instilled in you by your parents, you absorb that and you pass that down to your children. That crosses over into design and what we were taught and how we learned. A lot of those skills and a lot of those values that I learned working with Pete, whether it be in the field or administratively, I pass those down.”
These days, Weed takes a stance that echoes many of the declarations that his late mentor was famous for. “I’m a simple person,” Weed says. “I like to boil things down to the most simplistic terms. And in Weed’s estimation, it doesn’t get any simpler than building fun, interesting golf courses that offer plenty of options.
That, he insists, is how you make a better mousetrap. “And when I build a better mousetrap,” he says, “guess what I’m going to catch? More mice.”