Architect Interview: William (Bill) Newcomb

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

William (Bill) NewcombANN ARBOR, MI - William (Bill) Newcomb's golf course design firm, William Newcomb Associates, is located in a modest suite of offices in downtown Ann Arbor, just blocks away from Newcomb's alma mater, The University of Michigan. Newcomb is a bit of a rare breed when it comes to golf course architects: His connection to the game runs from competitive player to course architect to site engineer to NCAA Division I golf coach to course owner/partner - he is definitely not just a name on a blueprint.

A partial list of Newcomb's numerous recent major projects includes:
CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN RESORT, Thompsonville, Michigan, Mountain Ridge Course
THE ORCHARDS AT EGG HARBOR, Egg Harbor, Wisconsin
BOYNE USA RESORTS: Boyne Mountain Resort, Alpine Course and Monument Course; Boyne Highlands Resort, Heather Course and Donald Ross Memorial
POLO FIELDS COUNTRY CLUB, Ann Arbor, Michigan
GOLF CLUB AT THORNAPPLE POINTE, Grand Rapids, Michigan
THE MEDALIST, Marshall, Michigan
CALDERONE FARMS, Grass Lake, Michigan
ANCHORAGE GOLF COURSE, Anchorage, Alaska
SHORELINE GOLF CLUB, San Francisco, California

In his 20s, Newcomb was a nationally-ranked amateur player, having won the Michigan Amateur title and the Indiana Open. He even played in the Master's. Aside from his playing prowess, while still in graduate school Newcomb earned a plum job planning and routing the course known today as Radrick Farms GC. This first big gig led to an apprenticeship with Pete Dye. After just three years with Dye, Newcomb established his own architectural firm in 1968.

Then in 1970, Newcomb established Golf Course Specialists, which handles course construction. Newcomb is also founder, partner and shareholder in several golf courses across the country, from the Anchorage (Alaska) Golf Company to Calderone Farms in Grass Lake, MI. As such, Newcomb has a more personal interest in the success of his golf ventures than many course architects.

Recently Bill Newcomb took advantage of the Michigan mid-winter lull and sat down for to talk with Senior Writer Kiel Christianson about the effects of equipment on golf course design today, the state of golf in the state of Michigan, Pete Dye, and his own glory days as a top-flight amateur golfer.

Medalist in Marshall, MI CHRISTIANSON: When you lay out a course, is it hard at times as such an accomplished player to step back and remember that 90 percent of the golfers who will play your course aren't terribly good at the game?

NEWCOMB: Yes, that is definitely something that I have to keep in mind all the time. Take for example the Medalist in Marshall, MI. That course is harder than I imagined that it would be. But multiple tee concepts begin to handle a lot of that. This was early on a Pete Dye concept. Multiple tees allow you different difficulties, and hopefully as an architect, you succeed in making it visually appealing at all yardages. And I must say that we course architects have done a pretty good job at delineating off another course. There is truly a fourth course out there now, with the addition of senior or mid-front tees. And this avoids the problem of having players hit from the red tees, which are too short for many high handicappers.

CHRISTIANSON: I have that problem. I cannot score, but I hit the ball long off the tee. If I play the tees that my handicap dictates, the driver is taken out of my hands, which is no fun.

NEWCOMB: Right. And that's partially an equipment issue. And that is a problem that is very tough to address as an architect: The big hitter playing too far forward. You cannot design for that player. I use Travis Pointe CC [Saline, MI] as my example, which I designed 20 years ago. We started out there at 7,200 yards. It's a well-maintained course, the ball doesn't fly out there. You hit it, you get it. Well, we went back and added another tee and made some other changes. Now the longest the course plays is 7,000 yards. But they have five tees between 7,000 and 5,500 yards. And a lot of the better players won't play it over 6,600 or 6,700 yards. It's a lot of fun to hit it far and score low.

CHRISTIANSON: There aren't a lot of course architects who have been golf coaches, are there? [Newcomb was golf coach at U. of Michigan from 1969-78]

NEWCOMB: Not that I know of.

CHRISTIANSON: What do you think about teenagers like Ty Tryon coming out and playing on the PGA Tour?

NEWCOMB: Well, I think it's amazing that a 17-year old could come out and qualify. But I think that golf is beginning to grapple with the same thing that tennis has for years. Golf didn't have that because it's such a difficult game and has such a huge mental aspect. It requires such maturity to play well. Tiger Woods was the only one who could overcome that mental aspect so quickly.

CHRISTIANSON: Were there any players whom you coached who could have made the jump, had the time been right?

Medalist in Marshall, MI NEWCOMB: Well, I had Randy Erskine. I coached John Morris. They didn't become superstars, but day in, day out, they're damn fine golfers. I don't see, though, very many young golfers really coming on fast. There's just too much mental stress. It's not the action-reaction situation like in tennis. Golf isn't a young man's game. But young women may be different. They're tougher and stronger overall at an earlier age. They really have the advantage early on.

CHRISTIANSON: What brought you to the business? Was designing golf courses something that you always wanted to do?

NEWCOMB: No. I wanted to be an architect. I grew up in Royal Center, Indiana.

CHRISTIANSON: Really? My wife is from a small town near there. You probably played at Logansport Country Club.

Calderone Farms in Grass Lake, MI NEWCOMB: Sure. Played a lot of golf there, and at Dykeman Park. We used to play Peru Municipal, too. Those old rock-hard fairways were a great advantage to me. It was easy to make the transition to bent grass fairways, easy to learn to pinch the ball. I was a reasonably good golfer early on, but I wanted to be an architect. That's what brought me to the University of Michigan. I wanted a good architecture program and I wanted the Big Ten. And I was reasonably sure that I could earn a golf scholarship to play college golf. Now at that time, amateur golfers had their names on their bags - I mean amateurs were traveling in high circles then. So I came up here and walked into the golf coach's office right after I had registered for classes and said, "Hi. I'm Bill Newcomb from Royal Center, Indiana." And he said, "Who the hell is that?" But then I told him my experience, and that I'd qualified for the state amateur, and he said I could come try out for the team. I'll never forget, standing on the first tee, there was me and my dad, with my big staff bag with my name stitched on the side. And here were all of these accomplished golfers with their little day bags, and they know what they're in for for the day. I didn't do too badly, though. [Chuckles.]

At any event, I went on to play four years here, captained the team my senior year, and majored in architecture. In my fifth year, I was done with college golf, and I still wanted to be an architect. But that year I won the Indiana Open and played in the Master's, and I started to think that I might want to play professional golf. But there was a war going on, and I was married, and I wanted more security. So I went back to graduate school in landscape architecture. And that was my first introduction to land contours and earth and water. Well, there was a woman in the same program, Barbara Rotvig, who was the women's golf coach too. She was in the program specifically to design a golf course at the request of the guy who used to own Radrick Farms. They were close friends and he wanted her to design a course on his land. Well, Barbara died of cancer. And they looked around to see who else knew anything about golf. They were already started on this big project and had to continue. So they found me and offered me the deal.

Eventually then, I designed 36 holes at Radrick Farms. And as part of my project, I had to write up a report on who the leading course architects at the time were so they could interview them to do the actual building of the course. Well, I knew of Pete Dye, Jones, Wilson, and Packard. So I wrote it up, and Pete Dye ends up getting the job. And I ended up getting hired by Pete Dye almost on the spot.

I kind of liked that work. So when I graduated from graduate school, I thought I'd put the regular architecture on hold for a while and concentrate on golf courses. So I began working full time for Pete Dye.

CHRISTIANSON: And the rest is history, as they say.

NEWCOMB: Yeah, basically. I decided that it would be a lot more fun to play amateur golf and work as a course architect. And when I was 27, I won the Michigan Amateur, so I had name recognition as a player and a course architect.

CHRISTIANSON: Are there any of your contemporaries who really strike you as doing special work these days? Designing future classics?

NEWCOMB: Well, I still like to get to Pete Dye's courses. To this day, Pete Dye has that great, uninhibited feel for his golf courses. I've always said about Pete, and it's still true today, that he was unencumbered by professional design. He'd never been in an architecture course in his life, and he had no previous knowledge of things like balance and symmetry other than he could feel it inside of himself. He could recognize it, you know? And you get that feeling on his newer courses today. It's always hard for a course architect to outdo himself, and there are some examples out there of where some architects have failed miserably in trying to do so. Pete has still got what I call that golfer's understanding of what a golf hole is. And he can embellish it in a lot of different ways. There are some things he does that are tremendously hard to maintain, but it's extremely fresh work. I played Whistling Straits, and that is classic Pete Dye: "Put a bunker over there…oh, put in twenty." Very loose, and brilliant.

CHRISTIANSON: What's your take on the "golf boom" in Michigan? Are things going to slow down even more, and how does it compare to the rest of the nation?

NEWCOMB: I think Michigan is about five years ahead of the curve, compared to the rest of the country. I think this current slowdown represents a bit of a leveling off or even a stopping of free-standing, 18-hole golf courses. I think what you're going to see, and what you already do see, is an expansion of 18-hole facilities to 36 holes, and 36 holes to 72 holes, because that is pretty inexpensive in Michigan. Once you have the infrastructure, the clubhouse and parking, why not? We've got plans to expand Tanglewood [South Lyon, MI] and The Orchards in Egg Harbor [Door County, WI].

Calderone Farms in Grass Lake, MI CHRISTIANSON: That sort of expansion is planned for one of your newest Michigan projects, Calderone Farms in Grass Lake, MI, where you are a partner, right? Is it pretty linksy?

NEWCOMB: Right. We'll move ahead slowly with that, but we have plans for another 18 holes and lodging. I think that whole I-94 corridor is ready for development. At Calderone Farms, there's a lot of land you can't see from the highway. What you can see from 94 is very linksy, even more than it is when you get back in there. There are a lot of trees and parkland holes once you get back into the course. It's this big, beautiful, wide-fairway concept with good visuals. And in some places, the further you hit it, the harder the second shot will be.

CHRISTIANSON: Trying to keep those long hitters with new equipment in check after all?

NEWCOMB: We will see.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.


Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Newcome Design Courses

    Jon Heffelfinger wrote on: Oct 31, 2004

    Bill,
    Your courses fascinate me with the creative holes, such as The Links at Whitmore Lake. It's a great course with a wide open front 9 and a very tight challenging back 9. I have worked there for 9 years in the pro shop, as ranger and starter (course has been open for 10) and I never tire of playing it. I have played many of your other courses, Travis Pointe, Polo Fields, The Medalist (love that course, too), Alpine, Donald Ross Memorial, The BEAR (have not played this one as everyone says its too, too difficult), Caldrone Farms and a few others mentioned in your story. I have to say that my favorite it The Medalist in Marshall, Michigan. I aim to play all of your courses at some time in my retirement. Go Blue. Class of 1968 (Football '67).

    Reply