Club Med

For Keith Foster, doctoring golf courses is all about staying out of the way

When he was younger, Keith Foster regarded it as "not very cool," which, at least in my estimation, was a kind analysis. There's something offensive about golf--mostly rich white men parading around beautiful but misappropriated land with the arrogance of conquering war heroes, for starters--something unpalatable that's never endeared me to the game. And the requisite gall, the fact that these paunchy, balding fools maintain that they're engaged in sport when they are merely participants in a tedious walk, is infuriating.

On the whole, I don't see it as "very cool" either and likely never will. Still, on rare occasions--and I'll deny this, so don't repeat it--I can understand some of its appeal. Watching Tiger Woods tame a 500-yard hole with effortlessness and calm, watching him make history when all the others are so vexed, has a certain charm. Similarly, and at the least, you have to afford the game respect for its complexity, which is how Foster got hooked despite the potentially damning social repercussions.

"I grew up playing football, track, baseball, not golf," says Foster, 43. "Back then, you didn't tell your buddies you were headed to the links. But I played one day, after a high school game, and I was hooked. It was so hard. I think that's part of why it's addictive."

There was just something about undulating greens, merciless sand traps and deep, cruel rough that drew him in, brought him back time and again. Which, in turn, made him realize something: He wasn't good enough. At a local level, he could play, yes. But not on the national stage, not where eagles and 50-foot birdie putts aren't lore but reality.

It's tough facing your shortcomings. I know. It wasn't long ago when I figured I'd never follow Ron Jeremy--a difficult concept to grasp after all that research I did as a teen. Foster, facing an analogous, albeit different, watershed moment, decided not to give up the ghost but to change focus. If he couldn't make some scratch playing golf, he'd do it another way. He'd maintain courses. And design and renovate and restore them, too. Made the determination, at 24, to become a "golf course architect," which is a lot like telling people you're going to become a carnival freak in that no one's sure how you'd go about it or what it might entail.

Today, after years learning the trade, Foster is exactly that (a golf course architect, not a carnival freak) and one of the best in his field, artfully crafting or tweaking courses in order to "realize their full potential." His firm, Keith Foster Golf Course Designs, is responsible for original works including Texas Star in Dallas and The Quarry in San Antonio, among others ranging from Seattle to the Chesapeake Bay. More notably, his fingerprint was all over the recent PGA Tour event at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, where he manipulated the land to critical acclaim.

"The changes are fabulous," Tom Kite says about Colonial. "I'm pretty impressed," echoes Phil Mickelson. No small feat, Foster's fix-it job in Fort Worth, considering these golf folks can be a fickle lot. They're big on tradition and history and "the game's integrity" (read: plaid knickers, old men you've never heard of and exclusive country clubs sans minorities), and, as a result, any alterations aren't typically well-received.

"In our case, we weren't trying to alter the golf course significantly at all, but we wanted to touch it up and restore certain aspects that had changed over 50 to 60 years," says Dennis Roberson, Colonial tournament manager. "We brought [Foster] in to oversee the process. On the sand traps around the green, you can develop a little hump in the edge of the green over decades. It changes the topography of the green. One of the things we wanted to do in this renovation was to work on the bunkers and restore the greens to the original scale. But there's a fine line. You could go in and radically alter the course. You've got to be clear in what your goals are and why. In our case that was easy; we had a masterpiece and didn't want to mess it up. If we weren't comfortable that he would fulfill that, we wouldn't have hired him in the first place."

In Foster's profession, the words amount to effusive praise. Often, the ideas of the architect or renovator don't mesh with those of the club, leaving a new or refurbished product that's more ugly hybrid than stunning creation. That's the trick, the battle between just-right and too-much.

"Architects like to think we're the creative genius, that we have everything to do with it, but we don't," Foster agrees. "When you're dealing with a new golf course, maybe, because it's your idea, and you get to see it come to life. But I look at Colonial and what did I do? I gave some style to the bunkers, worked within the look. The important thing was to leave my ego. I mean, who am I?"

The humility is a bit deceptive. Get him started, and Foster will talk for a good while about any one of his "jobs," allowing his garrulous dissertations to serve as thinly veiled boasts. Whether Foster is aware of his skill and whether he wants you to know he knows, however, is really beside the point. Fact is, he's quite able and highly regarded in the stodgy community in which he circles. If not, how to explain his work on the Big Time, on a major?

This week, Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma, will play host to the U.S. Open while doubling as testament to Foster's finest hour--his first effort on such a grand stage. He toiled and tinkered for nearly seven months to ensure it would be everything he'd promised, to prepare the course for a gathering of everyone who is anyone in the golf world. The forum, the opportunity, then, was both incredible and intimidating.

"Some wonderfully talented men interviewed for Southern Hills," he admits. "For me to even be included, and then to be chosen, was amazing. When they hired me, a little bit of me shook. I mean, this is the U.S. Open. This is Southern Hills. It's a rush."

Some golfers now complain that architects like Foster are altering courses too dramatically--witness the record-length 642-yard No. 5 hole at Southern Hills. He disputes this, saying the changes in Tulsa weren't as radical as some might suspect or fear.

"Working on Southern Hills was a little bit different than the work I did at Colonial. It was a sensitive restoration. If it was a painting, it was like I was asked to take the frame off, touch it up so that no one knew I was there and be done with it without leaving the trace of a fingerprint. It was gratifying and difficult. I had to be quick to remember that it wasn't my golf course. I was given the opportunity to work there. That's it. In my humble estimation, I left it the way it was but improved the areas I was called on to improve. I remembered that I'm not important, the course is. I'm most pleased about that."

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