Golf Digest Senior Editor of Architecture Ron Whitten is a study in conflict. He loves to tell stories, just not about himself.
“There’s really not much to say,” the self-deprecating Nebraskan said. “I failed to accomplish what I sought to do many years ago – get the majority of golfers enthusiastic about golf course design. But I’m still trying. I guess the one thing I can say about myself is I made my passion my career. I feel very fortunate to have been able to do that.”
Whitten is a household name among those in the golf industry for his work at Golf Digest, but he’ll take on an even higher profile this June when the U.S. Open tees off at Erin Hills Golf Course in Erin, Wisconsin. He, along with Dr. Michael Hurdzan, ASGCA, and Dana Fry, ASGCA, designed the course on the glacier-formed rolling prairie of southeastern Wisconsin. It is the third USGA event scheduled for the course, having hosted the 2008 U.S. Women’s Mid- Amateur and the 2011 U.S. Amateur.
It is only Whitten’s second design (he paired with Stephen Kay, ASGCA, to design The Architects Course in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, which opened in 2001), but he is anything but a Johnny-come-lately to the world of golf course architecture. He began chronicling the profession and studying the art long before anyone else did. Sure, there were some papers and articles by those who came before him, but Whitten is the one who elevated the discussion of the golf course among those who are fans of the game.
“I just love being on the golf course and I want others to see it through the eyes of the people who design them,” Whitten said. “That is why I started writing about architecture and that is why I still continue to do it today. I wish more people would have an interest, but the few who do follow architecture are passionate about it.”
Whitten’s affinity for golf course design – and in a sense serving as a spokesman for it – has been a boon for the profession of golf course management. His minimalistic philosophy toward design applies to management as well. He bemoans the fact that there is too much emphasis on bunker maintenance, the overuse of water and excessive hand labor activities.
“The superintendent is under enough pressure as it is dealing with Mother Nature,” Whitten said. “To have to provide nearly perfect conditions day in and day out is ridiculous. It is not good for golf. The poor economy a while ago forced some changes, but the game is still too expensive to play.”
In addition to his writing, Whitten puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to effecting positive change. It was an 18-hole discussion I had with him during a facility grand opening years ago that led to Golf Digest partnering with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America to sponsor the association’s Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards. We were commiserating about the lack of awareness of the stewardship efforts of superintendents when Whitten pledged to take my idea to others at the publication. The result was a national program that put the spotlight on the positive trends in golf course management.
Years later, Whitten heeded the call of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and added an environmental element to Golf Digest’s course rating system. He successfully lobbied his editors to have the conditioning aspect reflect the firmness of the course, and to not focus on color or having perfectly manicured turf.
Whitten isn’t making any predictions about the state of his emotions when walks through the gates of Erin Hills later this summer. He deflected the thought by saying he will be too busy trying to herd the large contingent of family members who will be coming from all over to see the fruits of his labor.
Regardless of Whitten’s emotions, those in the industry will be happy for him. It will be good to see a person who has spent his whole life recognizing others, have the spotlight shine on him for a change.