WITH SEVERAL successful books and high-profile magazine assignments to his credit, local author Joel Zuckerman had already carved out a perfectly respectable niche for himself as a golf writer.
But the “career-changer,” as he puts it, came when he linked up with one of golf’s truly great names, legendary course architect Pete Dye, whose body of work includes several highly-regarded regional courses, including Hilton Head’s Harbour Town and Bluffton’s Colleton River Plantation.
Zuckerman celebrates the publication of his new coffee-table tome, Pete Dye Golf Courses: Fifty Years of Visionary Design, with a party and signing at the Jepson Center Nov. 14. With a triptych of forwards from Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Greg Norman, the book —published by New York-based Harry N. Abrams publishing — is an impressive, 300-page volume replete with gorgeous color photos, many by Dye’s preferred course photographer Ken E. May.
I spoke with Zuckerman over a typically tasty lunch at New South Cafe. Gregarious and irrepressibly optimistic as always, Zuckerman educated me on why the Dye name is gold, and imparted some intriguing advice for the budding author — whether in golf or some other specialty.
Let’s start with the obvious question: How in the world did you get this prestigious Pete Dye gig?
Joel Zuckerman: It’s a tremendous story. I had two golf books out at that point, and was trying to pitch a new book about Utah golf. I was having a hard time convincing a big publisher to get behind me. So I remembered I had talked to Pete’s son, Perry, about a course years before. So I got him on the phone and said, Perry, I’m trying to do a book about Utah golf. Would you mind calling this publisher and telling him that Joel knows what he’s doing?
Sometime later, I got a call from him saying basically, “We’re looking for someone to write the Dye book.” I said, “Let me think about it — OK, I thought about it, I’m interested (laughs).”
I don’t know that I have a unique skill set, but I just found my comfort zone. People say, “Oh, you must be a good writer.” I say, “I’m good enough.” I’m good enough to be published by magazines and to write books. The other part is that my personality is very forward, very out there.
Explain for the layman why the architect of a golf course is so important.
Joel Zuckerman: Look at baseball. Camden Yards, Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park all have their own ambience, but they’re all the same place. The dimensions down the line may be a little different, one has an ivy-covered wall, one has green monster.
Or think of a tennis court, a soccer pitch, a basketball court, or a football stadium. They’re all the same thing.
But in golf, you have five basic types of courses: Parkland golf, which is a northeast or midwestern phenomenon, with lots of mature trees. You have desert golf — Vegas and Scottsdale. You have mountain golf. And you have Lowcountry/Florida golf, with condos, lagoons.
And of course there’s the most elemental type, links golf. That means a very special, firm, sandy-based soil which linked the ocean to the farmland in coastal Scotland. That’s where the term “links” comes from.
Which style you prefer depends on where you’re from and what you like. The grass is always greener, you know?
Hilton Head golf and Landings golf can be predictable because there’s no elevation. Elevation means a tremendous amount in golf. There’s nothing more fun than having an elevated tee shot. There’s nothing more challenging than an approach shot up to an elevated green. You know to hit an x club x distance, but how about when x distance is 25 yards above your head?
What makes Pete Dye so good?
Joel Zuckerman: Different architects all incorporate their vision onto the landscape as they see it. One of the reasons Pete is so famous is he’s been given crap to work with. Pete’s out there, he’s never worked with computers or blueprints. He has a singular genius of being able to walk the land — and in some cases, machete the land — until a vision appears of how the course should be. Nobody else works that way, not since the ‘20s or ‘30s.
How do course architects work now?
Joel Zuckerman: Now? Computer models. Helicopter flyovers. I don’t consider myself a student of architecture. I let the photos tell the story.
My philosophy in writing this book is that people don’t want to read about golf courses. People want to read about people. For every architecture geek that’s out there who wants to know about angle of flight, there’s 100 guys who couldn’t care less. They can look at the pictures, and read about Pete’s relationship with the billionaires, the autocrats, the visionaries, the guys who didn’t have any money but put together a consortium.
And when there wasn’t a human interest story? I wrote about the golf course (laughs).
There’s a lot of text in here for a coffee table book.
Joel Zuckerman: This is a literary coffee table book. There aren’t many coffee table books with 50,000 words.
Some people call me an author, but I call an author someone who can write a book without pictures. And I’m 0-for-5 on that score (laughs). Someday maybe.
Abrams is the biggest coffee table publisher in the world. I’ve worked off-Broadway for years. My first book was by a Hilton Head publisher, second also Hilton Head, third Kansas City, fourth Ann Arbor.
Finally, like a regional theatre actor, I made it to the Great White Way (laughs). And I don’t want to leave anytime soon. cs
When: Fri. Nov. 14, 5-8 p.m.
Where: Jepson Center, 207 York St.
Cost: $10; free admission for Telfair members
Info: Zuckerman's website is www.vagabondgolfer.com
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