Brandon Johnson forges own style, design firm

The Arnold Palmer design disciple begins fresh with creating 'fun and memorable golf' at the core of his philosophy

Lakewood National — Piper Course
The Piper Course at Lakewood National in Lakewood Ranch, Florida.

In a 2021 New York Times interview, Brandon Johnson said his philosophy when designing golf courses was to build something “fun, engaging, and interesting strategically.” The line is something of the generic, throwaway sort — which architect doesn’t want to build something fun, engaging and interesting strategically? — but, given that he worked for Arnold Palmer from 2006 until his passing in 2016, the words carry a certain validity.

The courses Johnson designed with Palmer and fellow company vice-president and senior golf course architect Thad Layton placed a genuine emphasis on fun rather than making major championship-style demands, and were the sort of courses regular golfers would want to repeatedly.

Just as Layton did seven months ago, Johnson recently announced the founding of his own design firm, Brandon Johnson Golf Course Design, which is based in the Orlando, Florida, suburb of Sanford. The Arnold Palmer Design Company (APDC) began winding down following Layton’s departure, but Johnson remained an employee, working on a handful of active projects and meeting obligations, until Jan. 19. Now officially solo, Johnson is ready to emerge from APDC’s umbrella and eager to make his own mark.

Brandon Johnson
Brandon Johnson

“It feels like I’m refreshing and renewing my horizons,” says Johnson, a North Carolina State- and Harvard-educated architect who interned as a course designer with the PGA Tour before graduating college and spending five years as manager of design at First Tee for which he oversaw development of 250 facilities. “It’s a fresh start, and I’m really looking forward to creating fun and memorable golf.”

Is there perhaps a hint of sadness, though, now that he’s finally cutting ties with APDC?

“Sad isn’t really the right word,” he says. “Of course, I reminisce about my time with Mr. Palmer, but I still have a great relationship with the family, so it’s not like I’m cutting all ties. And I have strong friendships with APDC clients all over the world. I’ll always appreciate my time working with, and for, the Palmers, but it was time for the next chapter.”

Two of Johnson’s favorite design experiences with Palmer were Old Tabby Links at Spring Island in Bluffton, South Carolina, which he recently renovated, and Lonnie Poole Golf Club at his alma mater in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was very involved in the design work. He plans on being similarly hands-on going forward.

“Obviously Mr. Palmer was a huge influence, but, during my time at the PGA Tour, I also learned a lot seeing what Pete Dye had done in conjunction with Tour Commissioner Dean Beman,” he says. “Dye spent so much time in the field making decisions. A lot of great decisions happen on-site.”

And while Johnson definitely wants to pose golfers strategic conundrums, he has no intention of creating instantly-recognizable features. “I don’t necessarily want people to know they just played a Brandon Johnson hole/course,” he says. “I want to explore different looks and aesthetics.”

Brandon Johnson at The Landings .jpg
Brandon Johnson at work on The Landings in Savannah, Georgia.

Johnson expects to work with a range of shapers and construction experts, in particular Sterling Garner with whom he’s recently collaborated on renovation projects at PGA National in North Palm Beach, Florida; The Landings in Savannah, Georgia; Occano in Merry Hill, North Carolina; Barton Creek Lakeside in Austin, Texas; and, most recently, Geneva National in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

“Brandon is such a good communicator,” Garner says. “He gets on so well with clients and everyone on the site because he’s very good at maintaining harmony even when the pressure’s on because of a tight schedule.”

Garner could easily have been referencing Palmer, of course, so it appears Johnson learned a lot from working with the King. “I certainly hope so,” Johnson says. “The thing I remember most about him is not something about architecture or how to build courses. It’s how to work with people. You hear that a lot, but it’s so true. He brought a mix of professionalism and levity to every job.”

Besides the courses he worked on in recent months with Garner, Johnson also completed jobs at Orchid Island in Vero Beach, Florida and Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania where he performed internal-assessment/masterplan work for his old boss’s home club.

He’ll soon start updating King’s North at Myrtle Beach National in South Carolina before commencing a masterplan for the facility’s West and South Courses. He’ll also make a happy return to N.C. State where he’ll design the university course’s practice facilities.

Whatever he works on though, and wherever the job takes him, Johnson will endeavor to make the golf he designs attractive and engaging, but, most of all, fun. As he told the New York Times, “Practicing golf course architecture is a combination of balancing the technical and artistic sides of the job.”

Getting the jobs in the first place is an important part, but then completing work so good that your reputation inevitably travels far. With Johnson's impressive qualifications, experience and track record, he is well-placed to establish a legacy of his own.