It was about three years ago when Lee Schmidt nudged Chad Ritterbusch.
“Hey,” Schmidt said, “just think about Chattanooga.”
Soon after, Schmidt hopped on his computer. He sent some info about the city and its golf courses to Ritterbusch, the executive director of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, and to members of the ASGCA’s board of governors.
Schmidt had bought a house in Chattanooga a few years beforehand so he and his wife, Jean, could be closer to their grandchildren. The renowned golf architect, considered by some to be the preeminent course designer in China, was quickly enamored by the quality of the local courses. Looking at Chattanooga Country Club, where he became a member, along with The Honors Course and Lookout Mountain Golf Club, Schmidt realized the city had something the ASGCA sought when determining where to hold its annual meeting — three high quality courses within a moderate distance.
After some consideration from Ritterbusch and the board, it was officially decided in the fall of 2010 — the 2012 American Society of Golf Course Architects annual meeting would be held in Chattanooga.
Thus, from April 27 to May 1, some familiar faces might be seen around town. They are titans of the golf world. Pete Dye. Reese Jones. Tom Fazio. Tom Watson. Robert Trent Jones Jr. And, potentially, Jack Nicklaus. A veritable who's who will be among the ASGCA's 100-plus guests.
“The town fits our needs perfectly ... why not come to Chattanooga?” said Schmidt, a longtime ASGCA member who trained under Dye, worked for seven years as a senior design associate for Nicklaus Design, and formed Schmidt-Curley Golf Design with partner Brian Curley in 1997.
The purpose of the ASGCA is to promote golf, design methods to make the game more accessable to the masses and strategize for the future. The group’s annual three-day meeting consists of educational sessions, business meetings, a Presidents’ Dinner where the annual Donald Ross Award is presented, and afternoon rounds of golf. In recent years, the meeting has traveled from Pebble Beach, Calif., to Pinehurst, N.C., to Atlanta, to Scotland, to Seattle, to Ponte Vedre, Fla., to Denver, and now, to Chattanooga. Next year, the ASGCA will travel to Chicago.
“The golf is always something to look forward to,” said Rick Phelps a Denver-based designer currently serving as ASGCA president. “(In Chattanooga) the three courses we are scheduled to study and play this year include Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga CC and The Honors Course. I am looking forward to seeing and enjoying the variety of the three — two classics and one "modern" course, all designed by the best in the business (Seth Raynor designed Lookout, Donald Ross designed Chattanooga CC and Pete Dye designed The Honors). Coming from Colorado, it is always a treat to play either a Raynor or Ross course because we just don't have many in the West. At the same time, studying and playing Pete's work is always a treat.”
The most pressing issue on the ASCGA’s docket this year is navigating the industry amid economic challenges. The “golf boom” that dovetailed Tiger Woods’ explosive popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s is long over. Numbers have drastically dipped recently. The number of active golfers — from men to women to children — have plummeted. Phelps describes the golf industry as being in “a rather dynamic state of flux.” When his group meets, ideas are shared and plans of action are determined.
“We compete against each other for jobs, but we’re stronger as a unit,” said Schmidt, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., full-time in between upwards of 12 yearly trips to China. “It’s all about improving golf. We’ll usually have a presentation from the (United States Golfers Associations) and then talk about new ideas — like having a ski industry developer come in and talk about converting slopes to courses in the offseason or have a speaker from the National Audubon Society make a presentation to highten awareness of environmental concerns.”
Schmidt said the ASGCA is joining forces with the PGA to do “little things to create new players.” One initiative is a shift from traditional course design to “bunny-slope-type facilities in the golf world.” This translates to shorter, family friendly courses meant to target new, inexperienced players.
“It’s going to be slow getting back after the past few years,” Schmidt said. “As far as new golf — we don’t need a lot of new golf courses now. A lot of the country clubs have membership openings. It’s all about the economy. We can’t change that as architects, but we can change what’s available to the public.”
When the ASGCA formed in 1947, there were 14 original members, headlined by powerhouse names like Robert Trent Jones and Donald Ross. Sixty-five years later, 180 architects are card-carrying members. The average member has designed 29 courses in eight countries. According to ASGCA public relations director Marc Whitney, approximately 95 percent of the courses utilized by the PGA Tour this year were designed by ASGCA members past or present.
“The breadth of experience in the group is unbelievable,” Whitney said. “They’re stewards of the game and the land its played on.”
As for Chattanooga, there is no tangible benefit to having America’s most renowned golf architects camp in the city for three days. The value is far more big picture.
“The key and the takeaway for the community is the creation of ambassadors," Whitney said. “It can only be positive for not only golf in Chattanooga, but golf in Tennessee as a whole, to have 100 or so of the foremost designers in the game strolling three local courses in three days. These guys will go forward having an impression left on them.”
For Schmidt, bringing the ASCGA to Chattanooga was never some larger-than-life dream that he harvested. It was an idea — an idea that had legs.
Now, it’s a reality.
“Really,” Schmidt said, “it just made sense.”