As the Arnold Palmer Design Company closes its doors, the longtime course designer is ready to branch out and create his own signature
Thad Layton is driving a rental car north out of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with mixed feelings. On one hand, he’s frustrated because of flight delays, hassles getting the car and the fact he’s just taken a wrong turn. On the other, he’s full of adrenaline and high spirits having revealed to the world via X, just a few hours before, that he’s no longer a part of the Arnold Palmer Design Company, but rather the founder, head and sole employee of his own firm — Thad Layton Design.
Layton's move was made in part by last week's announcement that the Arnold Palmer Design Company would be closing. In a message sent to existing APDC clients, the company encouraged the "family of Palmer-designed courses" to continue working with both Layton and Brandon Johnson, Layton's fellow senior architect and vice president.
So, following 26 years at APDC, the 47-year-old Mississippi State University graduate has decided to go it alone. Starting a firm from scratch can be thrilling at the outset certainly, but venturing into the unknown can soon become a scary proposition.
The situation into which Layton is transitioning isn’t really the unknown, though. Unfamiliar perhaps, having been a part of the design business for as long as he has, it’s not like Layton has thrown himself completely into the really deep end.
He is neither anxious nor fearful. With his slow and languid Southern intonation, there’s only so much eagerness Layton can exude, but he’s clearly comfortable with his decision.
"Yes, there’s a lot going on in my head, but I think I’m more excited than anything," he says. "Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to do my own thing. I’ve always had that flame, so having my own company and determining my own course is an adventure I’m really looking forward to."
If that’s the case, one wonders why he remained in Palmer’s employ for so long. Did he ever resent being there?
"No, of course not," he insists. "I remember the day Mr. Palmer hired me. I was very excited and knew it was an amazing opportunity. And he was always such an amazing boss, so encouraging. He always gave me a lot of freedom to make suggestions and be involved in the conversation."
Because Layton was able to flex his creative muscle, he never felt any urge to leave and has zero regrets that’s it taken until now to go solo. He’s healthy, full of energy and passionate about the game and its playing fields. And, what’s more, he senses the timing is just right for the move into self employment.
"It’s a long time since the economic crash of 2007, which had such a dramatic impact on the golf industry and, specifically, the development of new courses," he says. "And though it hasn’t felt very positive at times, it has had the beneficial effect of slowing the rate at which mediocre courses are built."
Layton adds that there are hardly any uninteresting courses opening at all nowadays.
"Thanks to social media, we see so many new courses being announced, but it’s really only a small fraction of the number that were being built back in the 1990s and early 2000s," he says. "Unlike so many of those drab courses built when quality control seemed to go out the window, every new course today looks fun and engaging. They each have a story and, more often than not, are being built on incredible sites. They all seem to be the sort of course you’re going to want to play again and again. There just aren’t any duds among them it seems."
The "unhealthy reliance on real-estate golf," as Layton terms it, is thankfully a thing of the past with the emphasis now on building something singular and distinctive.
"The growth of design-build has shown owners and developers a way to make courses better, more environmentally responsible and more profitable," he says. "It’s a new way of doing things that a handful of the best architects have been using for a while now, and it’s resulted in a lot of very good golf courses."
Layton wants to create some of those courses now.
"I loved those I built with Mr. Palmer and always will," he says. "They’ll always be special to me, but the difference between how we created courses back then and how I’ll create them going forward will be like night and day."
Layton says it’ll be real "boots on the ground" work from now on, and he relishes the thought of putting the pencil down, getting on a dozer or even dragging a rake, and being able to get a little experimental in the field.
"Perhaps the most important lesson I learned while working with Arnold, besides how to treat people and deal with clients, was the importance of playability," he says. "I’ll never forget that. I don’t want to destroy my second career before it really starts by forgetting that essential wisdom, but I’ll also be looking to implement something new and different. I appreciate that a course needs to be something unique and playable at the same time."
Layton is especially keen to develop a method of working that’s similar to that of Bill Coore whom, he says, shows so much respect for the site and deliberates over decisions at length, alongside design partner Ben Crenshaw, before anything is built.
"Because of the nature of the projects they have, different clients, different budgets, different environmental concerns, and people’s ever-changing tastes, they approach a new course very differently to how we did at APDC," he says. "I like the idea of having a few jobs a year that I can really devote a lot of time to, and working with a small but trusted crew of familiar faces."
Layton hopes to collaborate with the likes of Jeff Bradley, Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns — younger construction experts and architects who have worked in environments where details, no matter how small, are of the utmost importance. Though Layton will never say never, he acknowledges that it's unlikely he will get to work again with Johnson, his longtime APDC colleague, due to their respective locations — Layton in Colorado and Johnson in Florida.
"I wouldn’t take the possibility off the table completely though,” he says. “We’re still great friends and I’d certainly welcome the chance to work with him again.”
Layton admits that, following Palmer’s death in 2016, he and Johnson remained a credible and respected part of the architecture business for a good deal longer than they were expecting. "But it couldn’t last forever," Layton says. "We asked ourselves when Mr. Palmer passed on how long we’d be able to sustain it. We could only continue doing limited-size projects at Palmer-designed courses for so long."
While Layton knows being chosen for limited-size projects at Palmer-designed courses certainly isn’t a foregone conclusion anymore — and hasn’t been for a while — he does hope to maintain a working relationship with as many as possible. But he’s also ready, willing and able to branch out, spread his wings, and put his own stamp on the land. "I obviously can’t say too much right now," he says, "but I do have work lined up in the Denver area, where I live. And there’s potential for new builds overseas."
It would be a stretch to describe the golf course design business as cutthroat, especially with plans for a new course or multiple major developments being revealed every week, but Layton believes he’s well placed to take advantage of the industry’s current good health, and anyone looking to build a new course or renovate an existing one would surely be foolish to ignore his wealth of experience and skills.
Layton eventually arrives at his hotel ahead of a meeting with the new owners of River’s Edge Golf Club in Shallotte, North Carolina, a Palmer design from 1999. He’s been traveling for work and meeting clients for getting on three decades, so this is nothing new. Only this time, he’s traveling under a different name and he’ll be submitting the expense report to himself. It will no doubt take some getting used to, but Layton is prepared for anything.
"Whatever happens and however it turns out," he says. "I just know I’m in this for the long haul."