While his roommate was following the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Billy Casper around Beverly Country Club in Chicago during the 1967 Western Open, Ron Whitten was elsewhere — far from the action – dutifully exploring the tees, greens and bunkers.
His love affair with golf courses was ignited.
“My friend and I were among those attending an engineering institute at Northwestern University during the summer between our junior and senior years of high school,” Whitten says. “His dad had drove in from just outside of Chicago for the weekend and took us to play Chicago Golf Club and then the next weekend we went to Beverly Country Club for the Western Open. I was so enamored by the design and beauty. I knew right then and there I wanted to be a golf course architect.”
Whitten would return to his Papillion, Nebraska, home for his senior year and began collecting whatever information he could find on the subject. He enrolled at the University of Nebraska with every intention of following through on his desire to learn how to design golf courses. But family and friends encouraged him to pursue a more stable profession. He would graduate in 1972 with a degree in education and plans to go to law school.
But the architect flames still burned deep inside. He worked his junior and senior years of college for legendary golf course superintendent Joe Hadwick at the Country Club of Lincoln, all the while writing to golf course architects to pick their brains and collect information.
“I had to make a decision,” Whitten said, still with a feel of some consternation despite the passing of 50 years. “I was offered an assistant superintendent position at Hillcrest Country Club after I graduated, but I really wanted me to go to law school. Everyone told me to go to out of state, because if you stayed home, your family and friends would expect free legal advice. So, I went to Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, to become a trial lawyer.”
Whitten sat out of school for a year to establish Kansas residency and continued his collection of information on golf course architecture. He would graduate and become an assistant district attorney. In 1978, one of those architects with whom he corresponded, Geoff Cornish, called him with a proposal – to pool their resources to write a book. In 1981 The Golf Course was released, and updated and re-released as the Architects of Golf in 1993. While he was writing the book, Whitten continued his legal work.
“Working with Geoff was great. He had done research and wrote a few articles beginning around 1950, and had heard I was interested in writing a book. So he called me up. He was smart, talented and as fine a gentleman you’ll know. He was a wonderful resource,” Whitten said.
Whitten finally took the leap to follow his passion full time in 1983 when he spotted an advertisement for a full-time general interest writer for Golf Course Management magazine, the monthly periodical for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. Based in Lawrence, Kansas, just 25 minutes from his home, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for him. He was given the job, which lasted all of nine months.
“I was fired,” Whitten said with a chuckle. “Let’s just say it did not work out. But in the end it may have been the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Fortuitously for Whitten, a fellow Topekan, who just happened to be the editor of Golf Digest, reached out with another opportunity. Nick Seitz was looking for someone to write about architecture. Not ready to give up his legal career and going through a divorce, Whitten accepted Seitz’s offer with the stipulation he could do it part time. That arrangement lasted until 1990 when he decided to make it a full-time gig.
When Whitten turned 50 in 2000, he decided it was now or never to hang a shingle and form a small part-time design company. The only restriction Golf Digest put on him was his courses could not be considered for an award or ranking from the magazine. Shortly thereafter, he teamed with Stephen Kay to design The Architects Golf Club in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, just 40 miles west of Newark near the Pennsylvania border. Each individual hole reflected the work of different architects.
“That was my first course, but it could have been my second,” Whitten says with a hint of resignation. “I had created the ‘design-a-hole’ contest for Digest and received unbelievable response. One day in 1992 a man from Chicago by the name of Mike Keiser called me to design a golf course on a piece of land in Oregon using the designs submitted by the readers. I told him it would be a waste of a natural piece of property and that he should get a real architect to do the job. He offered me the job, but I turned it down. He then hired David McKlay Kidd, and of course, we know it today as Bandon Dunes.”
While Whitten’s work was beginning on The Architects Golf Club, Bob Lang, a businessman, put out an RFP for a golf course to be built in rural southeastern Wisconsin. Whitten submitted a proposal, as had the team of Mike Hurdzan and Dana Fry. Knowing Whitten had tossed his hat in the ring, Hurdzan reached out to his longtime friend to ascertain if he was interested in teaming up on the presentation. Whitten jumped at the offer and the trio went on to win the bid to design Erin Hills Golf Course, the site of the 2017 U.S. Open.
As if Whitten wasn’t busy enough writing for Golf Digest and working on Erin Hills, he decided to become a golf course owner. In 2003, he and longtime friend Kirk Wyckoff bought Chisholm Trail Golf Course, located some 80 miles west of Topeka in Abilene, which is the boyhood home of President Eisenhower. The course was previously owned by an optometrist who used students from Kansas State University’s landscape design program to layout the course.
“I wanted to put into action my philosophy of affordable golf and Chisholm Trail was the perfect opportunity,” Whitten said. “We charged $17 for 18 holes. It was a wonderful piece of property. We called it a poor man’s Prairie Dunes because it was cut out of the sand hills of central Kansas. The problem is it was not located near a large population. If this was near Topeka or in Kansas City I know it would have worked.”
The course was sold in 2006, but not before Whitten maintained a three-year weekly schedule of spending at least two days in Wisconsin and the rest of the work week in his office in Topeka working for Golf Digest. Every other weekend was spent at Chisholm Trail doing maintenance. Throw in family life of a wife and five daughters, it became obvious he could not continue the schedule long term.
Having turned 67 in March, Whitten knows he could easily retire having experienced an unusual and diverse career. But such is not the case. He and golf course architect Tom Clark have been working on a project in Lake Anna, Virginia, which has been slowed by changes in ownership.
“I don’t see myself slowing down at this point,” Whitten says. “This is my passion and I have been able to live it out almost my whole life. Why stop now?”