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Steel: A remarkable golf life

Despite the Highland Course's natural appearance, course architect Donald Steel admits that “a lot of holes we cut into the slopes to create level fairways.” (Photo: David Droschak)

Donald Steel is back to writing, and he’s out with a new book, an autobiography of his 60 years in golf. A solid argument could be constructed that nobody has ever lived a fuller six decades in the sport.

As a writer, Steel penned numerous stories for a major London newspaper and authored several books on the sport. As a player, he qualified for the 1970 British Open at the Old Course in St. Andrews. And as an award-winning golf course designer, he is the resident architect for St. Andrews and has advised on the British Open courses.

Steel, now 80, is lauded as one of the top 10 golf course architects in history, designing 90 percent of his enormous portfolio in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. He grew up the son of a doctor outside of London and spent plenty of time as a child at St. Andrews. He loved golf, and landed his first job as a young newspaper reporter at The Telegraph in London.

One of his first assignments was to report on two new golf courses being designed by architect Ken Cotton. The two hit it off and, a few years later, Cotton asked Steel to join his architectural team.

“There really is only one answer to that, isn’t it? ‘Well, thank you very much,”’ Steel said. “I think I stopped him in his tracks.

“Having played a lot, you take a great interest in golf courses, you think of what the great features are,” Steel added. “And every golf course is different; you try to relate the type of golf course to suit every piece of ground that you are offered. That’s where the challenge comes in. But you don’t copy golf courses, because that’s not the idea. It’s really an eye for land, and an imagination and the knowledge of golf. I think good architects look at it through the eyes of golfers.”

It was through another relationship that Steel eventually made his way to the United States in the late 1990s. The architect had designed courses for Peter de Savary, one of England’s well-known international entrepreneurs, yachtsmen and philanthropists.

“I did six courses for him, which is quite unusual,” Steel said. “I don’t know whether that’s a record, but six courses for the same partner is pretty good.”

Steel’s first foray into American golf course design for de Savary was Cherokee Plantation in South Carolina in 1999. Then came Carnegie Abbey in Rhode Island and a referral for a course on Martha’s Vineyard before tackling the biggest challenge of his career – the Highland Course at Primland, located in lower southwest Virginia.

A minimalist at heart, Steel knew that the only way to design the course at Primland at 3,000 feet was with heavy earth moving.

“A lot of holes we cut into the slopes to create level fairways,” said Steel of the course that offers views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. “I suppose today it doesn’t look like there was all that much that was done and a lot of people assume that’s how it always was, but that’s the secret of good construction, to make the artificial look natural.”

A view of the sloping fairway and green at the third hole. (Photo: David Droschak)

A view of the sloping fairway and green at the third hole. (Photo: David Droschak)

The reaction to the Highland Course, opened in 2006, was overwhelming, and it’s arguably one of the top courses east of the Mississippi River.

“I think it gives one great satisfaction to hear the comments,” Steel said. “To me, nobody has actually built a golf course on the top of the mountain like that. That’s what makes it special. There are a lot of mountain courses that are sort of halfway up the mountain, but this sits really right on the top, and it’s not a particularly short golf course. It is a full-length, modern, 7,000-yard golf course with those spectacular views.”

Steel also did redesign work at the Farm Course at Greensboro Country Club across the border in North Carolina, but the economic downturn halted golf course design for five years. As Steel began to see 80 off in the horizon, he has returned to writing about golf, not laying out master plans.

So, while players across the pond can enjoy Steel’s masterly works at virtually every crooked turn, golfers in the United States are left with just a handful of opportunities to sample his work.

“To get the opportunity to come to the U.S. was a great compliment because very few architects outside of the United States are invited to build golf courses there,” he said. “It was exciting to me.

“If you write a book and people enjoy reading it, there is equal satisfaction if they express pleasure from having played a golf course I designed,” Steel said. “I guess ultimately you are your own judge, and after a period of time you are in a position to judge. With golf courses, a lot depends on the budget you have. Once a golf course is opened, nobody knows except maybe the architect how it was before you got done.”

Editor's note: Donald Steel’s new book is titled “Thin End of the Wedge - a Life in Golf.” It is available online at www.rhodmcewangolf.com.

David Droschak was an award-winning writer with The Associated Press for 20 years. He was honored with the Sports Writer of the Year award in North Carolina in 2003. He lives in Apex, N.C.