As modern day Philadelphia golf course architects go, the spotlight these days tends to fall on Gil Hanse.
That’s not surprising. Hanse’s reputation and his portfolio, which includes three local courses (Inniscrone GC, French Creek CC and Applebrook GC), were gaining international acclaim even before he was recently tapped to design the course for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
But there is another guy in Philadelphia who quietly has designed and built three daily-fee courses in the past decade that have earned their share of fans and accolades from magazines. The courses are RiverWinds Golf (2001) in West Deptford, N.J., Vineyards Golf at Renault (2003) in Egg Harbor, N.J., and Raven’s Claw GC (2006) in Pottstown, Pa. The architect is Ed Shearon.
Add up the rounds played on all three courses and Shearon is surely owed a debt of acknowledgement and gratitude from thousands of local golfers.
In addition to his original designs, Shearon has done redesign or restoration work on 37 more courses, including Whitemarsh Valley CC, Kennett Square GC, Indian Valley CC and his current project, Sandy Run CC.
If you regard Shearon as a sort of a poor’s man’s Gil Hanse, don’t. Ever see one of those hulking white landscaping trucks with a “Shearon Environmental” logo on the side? That’s Ed’s company, and he built it himself.
“My background is in landscape architecture,” said Shearon, 57, a Temple grad who started out with a service that mowed lawns at corporate campuses. He didn’t get into course design until his mid-30s.
As a teenager, Shearon got hooked on golf playing with his buddies at Center Square GC in Norristown, on a daily-fee membership that cost $50 for the year. “We played everyday, 54 holes a day,” he said.
Shearon got an introduction to some of the classic Philadelphia courses playing with friends whose families were members at Manufacturers G&CC, Huntingdon Valley CC and Whitemarsh Valley CC, where he has been a member most of his adult life. Shearon knew they were special courses, but at the time he didn’t appreciate why. After a round, he would often make sketches of the holes that stood out in his mind.
By 1987, Shearon’s company had expanded into golf course construction work, enabling him to soak in the experience and creative genius of architects such as Pete Dye and Rees Jones. That was also about the time Shearon spotted a notice for a special one-week program on golf course design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. There he got to study, however briefly, under revered elder statesman Dr. Geoffrey Cornish.
Back home, Shearon began to itch for a chance to design. “But my name isn’t Fazio or Dye, and I hadn’t won a U.S. Open,” he said. “So how do you get in it?”
He got a break in the early ’90s when Lancaster CC was looking to add another nine to complement its classic William Flynn-designed Old Course. Shearon interviewed for the job and submitted a routing plan.
“Lo and behold, their board was blown away by the design,” said Shearon. “However, they wanted somebody with more horsepower than us.”
He found horsepower by joining forces with his old Harvard mentor, Cornish, already in his 80s, and another respected architect, Brian Silva.
“I did the routing, I did the design,” said Shearon of what Lancaster CC members call the Highlands Nine. (LCC members generally credit Silva with the design, although one longtime member said last week he doesn’t doubt Shearon’s input.)
By then, Shearon was in a full-blown personal quest to play his away across Scotland and Ireland, studying architecture, plus he was compiling what he calls an “extensive” library of golf course architecture books.
Shearon was especially taken with the men and the ideas of Philadelphia School of Design, from the early 1900s: Flynn, A.W. Tillinghast, George Thomas, Hugh Wilson and George Crump.
“The essence of what they added to golf course architecture was strategic golf,” said Shearon, describing it as “no different from playing pool.
“Not only do you have to make the shot, you have to put yourself in position to make the next shot,” he said.
It was all about angles and diagonals, about cutting corners, about flirting with a hazard without going in.
“If you can do that, you will get some kind of advantage: better shot angle, better distance, better lie, better view,” said Shearon. “It’s what makes a course interesting – and it’s what Center Square didn’t have.”
With a nod toward his forebears, Shearon added, “There is nothing new in golf course architecture.”
A firm believer in tailoring the course to fit the land, Shearon declines to take credit for some of his courses’ finest land features. “I think the guy who does the best work is God,” he said, chuckling.