In the firmament of the American golf establishment, Steve Smyers is one of the most interesting and likeable people you will come across. And in this busy, fast-paced world we live in, he is a champion multi-tasker in golf – juggling his career as a golf course designer with service to the USGA while maintaining a golf game most of us would kill for.
Smyers, 57, has been in the golf course architecture business since graduating from the University of Florida. He trained under the respected Ron Garl, and then went off on his own in 1983. Since then, he has been involved in some 60 projects. Among his designs are the highly ranked Wolf Run in Indianapolis, Southern Dunes near Orlando and Old Memorial in Tampa. He also did the redesign of Isleworth, home to the world’s No. 1 player and a host of other Tour players.
Smyers is a leader in the “firm and fast” school of design. He has been for more than 30 years, long before the USGA rolled out its “brown is beautiful’ campaign. He was deeply influenced by a 1977 trip to the sandbelt area of Australia, where he studied Royal Melbourne and the other great golf courses in that region. The fairways were fast and firm, the rough was not well irrigated and contained many native grasses, and the bunkers were not nearly as well maintained as they are in America. He found the game as played down under to be “a game of angles,” one that was strategically challenging and aesthetically pleasing. The experience shaped his thinking for a lifetime.
For Smyers, firm and fast makes sense for a lot of reasons. First, it makes for a more interesting game, one that requires a certain amount of course management. It also makes for a more enjoyable experience for the higher handicapper, who can benefit from a little roll. Secondly, it reduces maintenance costs, thereby making the game more affordable, and hopefully more attractive to youth. Finally, it conserves water, which is a very eco-friendly point of view.
Smyers is also very involved in USGA affairs, serving on the Executive Committee since 2006. His breadth of USGA involvement, dating back to 1986, is impressive. He has served on the Championship Committee, Equipment Standards Committee, Green Section, Turf Grass and Environmental Research Committee, Amateur Status Committee and International Team Selection Committee. Earlier this year, he captained the U.S. team that won the Copa de las Americas in South America, and he was also intimately involved in selecting this year’s Eisenhower Trophy team.
Smyers served on the Equipment Standards committee during what he calls “the drama days,” when there was real disagreement in certain circles about the impact technology was having on the game. He acknowledges that equipment has made a difference in the modern game, but for him, the discussion about equipment must include the gear that is used to maintain today’s golf courses. As an example, he points out that the fairways played a week ago at Atlantic Golf Club during the U.S. Mid-Amateur were as fast and firm as the greens of his Texas youth.
That wasn’t possible with yesteryear’s course maintenance gear.
Finally, Smyers remains a competitive amateur. His lifelong passion for the game began as an adolescent, first in the D.C. area when he attended the 1964 U.S Open at Congressional. Five years later, he found himself on the bag for Miller Barber in the 1969 Open at Champions Golf Club in Houston when Barber tied for sixth behind winner Orville Moody at Champions Golf Club in Houston. He became a talented junior, playing competitively against Ben Crenshaw and Bruce Lietzke, and later earned a scholarship to Florida, where he was a member of the 1973 NCAA championship team. His teammates? Former PGA Tour winners Gary Koch, Woody Blackburn and Phil Hancock, and former USGA President Fred Ridley. He remained a career amateur, and has logged 17 USGA appearances and three British Amateur appearances.
The itinerary that found him in Orlando last week for the U.S. Senior Amateur typifies how he interweaves the professional and the personal aspects of his life. The trip began in France, where he has a golf course project about to begin. Then it was off to New York, to serve as chairman of the U.S. Mid-Amateur committee. Finally, back to Orlando, where he advanced to match play and beat Buddy Marucci in a first round match before losing to Greg Reynolds in the second round.
How did he qualify for the Senior Amateur? By playing the “game of angles.” He wound up in a two-man playoff for the final spot at his qualifier at Old Marsh Club in Palm Beach. His opponent played the playoff hole aggressively and rinsed his second shot. Smyers played away from the trouble and had an open shot to the green. Two putts later, he was on his way to Lake Nona.