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- Robert von Hagge
Robert von Hagge
Robert von Hagge, the adopted son of Ben Hagge (a golf course landscaper who built layouts for architects such as William Diddel, Donald Ross and George O’Neil) was literally born and raised on a golf course, working as a caddy, shop boy, maintenance crewman, assistant superintendent and assistant professional – all before his 17th birthday.
He left high school for the Naval Academy at Annapolis in Maryland before graduating from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana with a degree in Agricultural Engineering in 1951.
According to The Golf Course by Geoff Cornish and Ron Whitten, “he then spent a few years on the PGA Tour, worked as a club professional in the Catskill Mountains of New York, and tried his hand at acting in Hollywood. During that time he was involved in successive (unsuccessful) marriages to golfing sisters Alice Bauer and Marlene Bauer.”
He joined Dick Wilson’s design company in the mid-1950s: “I got my first job as an intern architect with Dick Wilson,” said von Hagge in an old interview. “I met him one day at the opening of the NCR course in Dayton, Ohio. Dick said, ‘When you get out of school, come see me and I’ll give you a shot.’ To his surprise, I showed up and that is where it really all started.”
Joe Lee was employed in the same design firm but they rarely worked together because Joe’s command of the Spanish language made him the ideal man for jobs in the Caribbean, while Robert was assigned to projects such as Royal Montreal in Canada and Doral in the United States.
“I admired Dick Wilson so much,” von Hagge said. “He was the only real competitor to Robert Trent Jones at that time, and he had a fresh, different look. Anything Jones did, he was against!”
The Cornish and Whitten book The Golf Course relates what then happened after a big fall out with Wilson around Christmas 1962:
“Hagge established his own practice in Delray Beach, Florida in 1963, and soon gained a reputation as an elaborate showman. He changed his surname [after his marriage to the actress Greta Randall, his wife of 40 years] to von Hagge and toured golf courses in a gold lame cape. Some of his early works, particularly Boca Rio GC in Florida, were equally spectacular and attracted widespread attention.”
Bruce Devlin recommended Robert for the renovation of The Lakes course outside Sydney early in his solo career and this led to them forming a partnership that lasted almost twenty years. Most of the courses they designed were located in Florida and Texas, but there were occasional one-off forays into half a dozen other states in the US.
At one point the firm had premises in Australia, California and Florida, with more than thirty people handling almost fifty projects around the world. Eventually, in the late 1970s, the business contracted to just the one office in Texas.
Two of Robert’s design associates also relocated to Houston: Rick Robbins, who stayed for ten years then joined Nicklaus Design and moved to China for around fifteen years before returning to open his own practice in North Carolina, and Karl Litten, who didn’t stay long in Houston before going back to Florida and setting up his own design office.
Mike Smelek and Rick Baril joined the company within a year of each other at the beginning of the 1980s and they became partners in 1993, along with Kelly Moran, who left a year later to start his own firm.
Robert is probably best known for his international designs and Les Bordes in particular. This highly regarded layout opened in 1986 and it’s considered one of the finest courses in continental Europe. It was followed a couple of years later by another French commission, the Albatros stadium course at Golf National on the outskirts of Paris, which was co-designed with Hubert Chesneau from the national golf federation.
The architect was certainly productive in France around that time – fashioning the course at Seignosse in 1989, the 36-hole complex at Courson in 1991 and the 18-hole Royal Mougins layout in 1993 – and other European assignments would come his way in Spain and Italy. However, Rick Baril's European involvement should not be ignored as he was designated project architect responsible for the design of all von Hagge Smelek & Baril courses in Europe.
Elsewhere, von Hagge designed a couple of courses in Mexico during the mid-1990s on the Pacific coast at Isla Navidad and Tres Vidas then he returned at the start of the new millennium to set out another two courses at Bosque Real near the capital and at El Tigre, at Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific seaboard.
Of course, the debut of his White Witch course (in 2000) and the unveiling of his Cinnamon Hill renovation (2002) at Montego Bay in Jamaica must not be forgotten as these two courses are currently ranked amongst the best in the Caribbean.
All told, in his six decades as an architect, von Hagge created some of the world's most unique golf courses; designing, re-designing or partially designing more than 250 layouts in the United States and eighteen other countries.
Extracts from the von Hagge, Smelek and Baril website:
“Mr. von Hagge’s courses are never boring, and are often very distinctive. They offer great variety in the game and feeling. von Hagge cut his design teeth in South Florida, where moving dirt’ was mandatory, if you expected to create any drama. His affinity for moving earth would define his designs.
Robert referred to ‘hazards’ as descriptive signals. These elements are part of the signage employed by the architect to communicate the examination to the golfer. ‘They are not intended as penalties, but signage. If the golfer decides to challenge them or, if the golfer misinterprets the examination or executes a poor shot, they become hazards.’
von Hagge sought beauty in design as a fundamental objective. He was not so timid as to leave the landscape untouched. He was a proponent of light and shadow stating, ‘it is the only eternal constant.’
He advocated studying the light and shadows at different times of day to understand the artistic effect it would have on the player. He felt golfers were as interested in beauty as they were interested in hitting the golf ball.
He would say, ‘Great golf courses are beautiful golf courses. When you see a photograph of a golf course, it is usually taken early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the sun is at a low angle and exhibiting dramatic light and shadow. Our job is to bring these times of ethereal light closer together, and extend this look throughout the day.’
When asked once what it took to create a memorable golf experience that lasts until the round is over, von Hagge replied:
“It must be created with outstanding beauty and tactical excellence. Today a round of golf will consume approximately four and a half hours of your time. The highest handicap player only spends 11 minutes actually hitting the golf ball during a round of golf. The rest of the time, he should be immersed in a spectacular green, visual theatre and so should the others in the group. My job is to expose them to something interesting, beautiful and dramatic. My goal is to get inside the player’s soul so that he says, ‘Boy, I’m lucky to have this experience today.’ ”
In the same interview, his response to the question ‘What are some of the components of a great course?’ was:
“Quality of the property is No. 1. If you have a flat piece of land, like you often do in South Texas or Florida, the project is going to take a 100% creative effort because there is no vertical expression to begin with. The great golf courses of the world are all uniquely beautiful. You can’t find a great golf course anywhere in the world that is rated high in all categories across the board that is not simultaneously beautiful. The challenge is enhancing beauty where it exists and creating it where it doesn’t. The goal is beauty. I want to create a course that is stunningly beautiful.”
Don Huffman, an associate of von Hagge, spoke about his masterpiece at Les Bordes, boasting canopied fairways and water on almost every hole. He said that what amused the architect most was the fact he had told the owner not to build the course in a low-lying area of the country where the kings had built their summer castles.
But, because of the rich history of the area, Baron Marcel Bich insisted and so von Hagge took up the challenge and proceeded to spend money like it was water – ironically, a commodity that would eventually play a part in proceedings on twelve of the eighteen holes on the course.
“I'll never forget that when I told him what the fourth hole cost alone – over a million dollars for a par three – the baron nearly fainted,” von Hagge told Huffman. “He said, 'I gave you an unlimited budget Robert, and somehow you've managed to exceed it.' ”
“Robert von Hagge had a charismatic aura that shone upon everyone who knew him,” commented von Hagge's good friend and brother-in-law Ron Randall. “He was a brilliant artist and a generous and caring human being who made everyone he came into contact with a better person.
Robert had such presence and charm. You could listen to his stories indefinitely because they were filled with such humour and often celebrities. He wasn't a name dropper, it just so happened they were people he was associated with.”