Monday night, as he settled in for dinner at the Ohoopee Match Club in middle-of-nowhere Cobbtown, Ga., Atlanta native Bill Bergin looked around the room and realized that he sits on a unique perch in his profession.
There was Gil Hanse, who designed Ohoopee, making light conversation. And over there was Bill Coore, a modern-day titan in their field. Other well-known professionals, men and women whose names had become single-name brands, mingled and talked, sharing a laugh at stories old and new from the road. The occasion was a meeting of architects, a casual outing that included golf and dinner at one of the South’s most exclusive new clubs, in the hopes that some of the elder statesmen of the course-design industry could convince future architectural stars to join the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Bergin, who sits on the ASGCA’s membership committee, made a great case for the youngsters to join, not just in what he said, but in the example he has set in his career. Not only did he learn the craft of course design from the subsoil up, working in boots and jeans alongside noted designer Bob Cupp, Bergin also spent a decade as a journeyman tour pro and teacher.
“I played professionally from 1982 to 1987, so for six years I didn’t do anything but play golf professionally,” Bergin said. “And I played everywhere. I played mini-tours, the Asian Tour, the European Tour and I made 50 PGA Tour starts, including playing in five majors – three U.S. Opens and two Open Championships.”
“… I was always verifying, adding, checking and studying. I was looking at greens complexes and figuring out where the best place was to hit it – all that stuff. So I was a good student of architecture from a player’s perspective.” – Bill Bergin
Before that he was an All-American at Auburn University and captained a team that won the Southeastern Conference Championship. But his college and professional experience came in the days of balata and persimmon, before the average tee shot for a college freshman flew more than 300 yards; before the days of titanium faces and precision-tuned graphite shafts; before launch monitors and sky-high trajectories and before three or four wedges became the norm. Bergin competed at a time when a pro of average length (which he remains today, hitting 5-iron about 180 yards as a trim and remarkably fit 60-year-old) relied on strategy to make a living.
“When I played, I was a very good mapper of golf courses,” he said. “Back before we had (detailed) yardage books and even after we had yardage books, I was always verifying, adding, checking and studying. I was looking at greens complexes and figuring out where the best place was to hit it – all that stuff. So I was a good student of architecture from a player’s perspective.
“I was also fortunate enough to play a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and an Open Championship at St Andrews. So, that gave me a different perspective on the game. I think I learned St Andrews pretty well for a new player. I learned about architectural camouflage at St Andrews and how to map a course from the ideal location – in the case of the Old Course, along the right side all the way around – to less strategic locations along the left side. That sort of detail transitioned very nicely into golf course design.”
Players far more famous than Bill Bergin design golf courses. But reading a topographical map, pointing to a spot and saying, “I’d like a bunker there” is a lot different than engineering the backwater runoff on a 1½-to-1-foot grade, or designing the drainage system for a hole cut on the side of Lookout Mountain on the Georgia-Tennessee border.
After 50 years in the business, Jack Nicklaus knows more than most. He can’t be snookered by a shaper and understands what he’s seeing as a construction team floats a green. But Nicklaus also employs engineers for his grading plans. So do most tour pros-turned-architects. They know what they want and leave the how-to-get-there details to experts.
Tom Weiskopf has a solid knowledge of what it takes to build a golf course. And Ben Crenshaw knows more about architecture than most. But Crenshaw also knows what he doesn’t know. That’s why he insists on Bill Coore’s name being first in their design business.
Bergin Design consists of Bill and his son, Matt. They travel from site to site in a Mercedes camper, just slightly longer than an Airstream and with internet hookups, so Bill can work on modeling while Matt drives.
“It’s a real blessing getting to work with him,” said Matt, 31. “I get to be in this industry, doing quality projects and meeting tremendous people and also be with my dad. But it can be a little intimidating. He is still such a talented player. He gets frustrated sometimes that he doesn’t execute the way he used to (in hitting golf shots) but that’s the perfectionist in him. That’s what made him good when he was playing and that’s what makes him a great architect as well.”
For Bill’s part, his is a labor of love.
“I like to do my homework and I really enjoy the process,” Bill said. “We’ve been fortunate to work on (renovation and redesign projects) of four different golden-age architects. I’m hopefully about to sign a fifth one soon. So, that’ll be five courses originally designed by golden-age architects that we’ve been entrusted to redesign. It’s something I’ve always loved. I love the history and all the great things that those guys have done.”
You see a lot of the old-world masters in Bergin’s original work. Every architect has a tell. Big flash bunkers with sand that defies gravity and greens with more than a couple of shelves are trademarks of Tom Fazio. Unstructured edges, minimal earth moving and greens that are bigger than many suburban front yards are cues that you’re looking at Coore and Crenshaw’s work. Weiskopf typically has a drivable par-4 and at least one hole with a tiny green. In addition to undulating greens, Nicklaus was always known for bunkers or trees in the middle of a fairway or two, something that required a high, long, fading 2-iron, the type of shot Jack could hit with ease in his prime.
Bergin’s greens are subtle and playable and his bunkers harken back to the age of Seth Raynor and Donald Ross – flat at the bottom, easy to maintain and get in and out of, but a penalty if you don’t hit a great shot.
“Being a teacher for three years really helped me,” Bergin said. “We want to make sure there’s diversity and challenge but also forgiveness for players missing the green. Diversity makes par interesting but forgiveness makes double bogey less likely.
“The fact that I played tournament golf for so long allows me to understand the better player. Even though I don’t hit it like they do, I know what bothers them and what excites them. But I also taught so I understand the average golfer. I understand that the higher-handicap player primarily plays golf along the ground and around the greens. You have to make the game interesting there.”
Whether it’s the Course at McLemore on Lookout Mountain, a Rees Jones collaboration that opened two weeks ago, or the Auburn University Club that he designed for his alma mater more than a decade ago, Bergin’s work meets the design test. He builds a thinking-man’s golf course, because that is the way he has always played.
A Mercedes-Benz van is Bill Bergin’s mobile office and on-site residence. Photo: Courtesy Bill Bergin
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