Dennis Wise: Founder of Dennis Wise Golf Course Design

Dennis Wise, founder of Dennis Wise Golf Course Design, photographed at T. Cook's at the Royal Palms Resort & Spa, by Nicki Escudero

Dennis Wise, founder of Dennis Wise Golf Course Design, photographed at T. Cook’s at the Royal Palms Resort & Spa, by Nicki Escudero

Dennis Wise

Dennis Wise has added his touch to some of the world’s most beautiful golf courses, as a golf course designer with more than 35 years’ experience, personally responsible for more than 100 courses in three countries and more than 30 states, including several in Arizona. Seven of those courses are currently ranked in Golf Digest‘s America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses. The 57-year-old Scottsdale resident worked for golf architect greats such as Larry Packard and Tom Fazio, and he has also consulted on or renovated more than 40 golf courses.

Wise founded Dennis Wise Golf Course Design in 2012 out of an enduring love of golf, nature and architecture, and a deep personal desire to create memorable golf environments that would enrich lives and connect people to the outdoors. His first solo endeavor was the two-year redesign of the Makena Golf & Beach Club in Maui for the Discovery Land Company, which will launch as a private golf course community this fall.

Wise talked about why he’s passionate about working on golf course design, and you can watch him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video.

What brought you to Arizona?

I managed golf design studios for Tom Fazio in South Florida in the 1980s and then in Kansas City, Kansas, in the 1990s. I relocated 20-plus individuals from our Kansas City design team to Scottsdale in July 2000.

We felt that growth existed in the West for our brand. I had finished a private club in Scottsdale called Estancia, and was about to commence on a new project called Mirabel. Furthermore, I wanted to be nearer a larger metropolitan city with an airport hub that would allow all of us the ability to go nonstop to numerous cities, which did not exist living in Kansas City. I looked for a year and half throughout the West, and felt Phoenix had the airport, the weather and the Midwest people connectivity and was a very affordable place to live.

I was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and lived several places before settling here in Arizona.

What’s your earliest memory of wanting to be a golf designer?

When I was 14 years old, I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I knew I wanted to be a golf designer. I loved golf, I loved landscapes, and I loved creating things. I loved to visualize and did a lot of sketching and artistic work. I would always draw golf holes and landscapes.

When I was 14, my mother helped me write a letter to the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Back then, which would have been 1971, there were about 50 design firms in that society. I sent letters to all 50 asking them, if I wanted to be a golf course architect, what was the a correct path to get there? I heard from maybe a half-dozen. The ones who did sent back letters said that you needed to be in landscape architecture as your choice of education – even an artistic background would be beneficial.

So I had a goal, I had a direction, and I was fortunate that 30 miles away from my hometown was Iowa State University, which had a great program in landscape architecture. So, I went there and received my degree in landscape architecture.

In January 1979, to further study my craft, I was accepted at the Caer Llan Institute in Monmouth, Wales, and Oxford University in England. This all led to be hired in December 1979 with a firm in Chicago called Packard, Inc. Larry Packard was one of the founders of the American Society of Golf Course Architects who was a very well-known, educated and respected man.

What got you interested in golf?

I started playing when I was a kid around age 7 or 8, because my father played. I have a younger brother who played with us soon there after. In my teenage years, I worked construction and maintenance on golf courses. I tried to play one year on the college golf team at Iowa State, but knew I was never going to be good enough to compete at a professional level. I knew you couldn’t do both – you either had to buckle down and educate yourself, or determine if your dream was to play golf. I couldn’t do both because my curriculum was so demanding.

How did you become interested in art and design?

I loved landscape. I loved pictures, photographs and sketching. I loved all the different variations of the textures and colors. That’s why this is one of my favorite places – the environment is so memorable. I love the landscape and open space golf gives you.

How would you describe your Dennis Wise Golf Course Design business?

I’m the owner and sole employee of my company. Our industry is so dependent on real estate growth and the absorption of such, which just collapsed in 2008. We lost two-thirds of our staff at Fazio Golf, because there was just no work. The future was so unpredictable in 2008, and still is today, so I ventured out on my own in late 2012.

What’s your typical week like?

I’m usually in an airplane going to a project I’m working on, or meeting with a prospective client. Many of my clients are relationships I made at clubs in the ʾ80s and ʾ90s that are dated and need a refresh. I’m going back to places I worked at 20, 25, and 30 years ago.

How much of your work is in Arizona?

When I was the senior architect for Tom Fazio, we did Whisper Rock (the upper course), Grayhawk (the Raptor course), Estancia Club, and Mirabel. Currently, under my own brand, I’m doing a renovation at Grayhawk (Raptor) for owner Gregg Tryhus, who also was the owner and developer of Whisper Rock.

What is involved with designing a course from scratch?

From scratch, it’s never the same thing, because every site you go to is completely different from the last one or any other one you’ll ever see again. You start with who is the client, why does he want to do a golf course, and is this someone you feel you can have a successful business relationship with? I’m interviewing them, because I want to know what their interests are and what their desire is, because I want us to be on the same page. If you’re not on the same page, that becomes a very difficult relationship, and you want to have relationships that benefit each other.

Some places I go have no site, and we’ll be looking at sites they may acquire. If they have a property, I will do a series of routing plans, where I route golf holes in various configurations based on the tract of land. If the terrain is very hilly or steep, you’ve got to conform to the land’s elevation changes, and place golf holes where you know you can build them for a reasonable amount of money. If there are no terrain or parcel restrictions, then the golf hole configurations becomes much more diverse. If the site has no environment whatsoever – say, it’s flat – you’re going to have to create an environment, and to create an environment, you’re going to have to spend money, and that client has to be willing to do that.

The routing of the golf holes becomes the personality of the golf course. In golf course development, the right ingredients are the clients, the routing configuration, and the commitment of the client to produce great golf.

What is involved with a refresh or renovation project?

Going to a project to refresh it goes back to the same thing – why do they want to refresh it? Do they feel it’s dated? What is the market they’re trying to compete in? What is their membership structure like now? You want to make sure you’re asking the client enough questions where you’re putting them in a position where they’re not going to fail. The last thing I want to do is create a menu of items for them to implement, and have them implement it and find out it didn’t make a difference.

Today, the economy is still very challenged for golf, and most courses have 20 to 30 percent less members than they’d like. You have to know you’re spending money that makes the most sense to them, and it’s over a period of time, so they feel like they’re going to get a return on investment. When you’re creating a new golf course, you’re really trying to bring consumers to a new market and are trying to be unique and create a brand that’s different from your competitors and yet project the correct story.

What kind of experience do you hope people have playing on one of your designs?

With every project, I make it a goal that there isn’t a golf hole within the 18 holes that feels the same as another one. Golf is in the entertainment business. A player is on the course four to five hours, so I’m thinking about how I can stimulate their senses and keep their attention, so it becomes a memorable experience.

I do this with elevation changes, orientations of golf holes, and features I put in, such as bunkers, ponds, creeks, rock out-croppings, trees, native grasses, etc. The bunkers give a texture and color that’s different. Native grass does. Color with landscape does. Desert plants do. With wide open spaces or narrow spaces that are green, orienting golf holes so they get shadows on them in the late afternoon or early morning — all of those things add to the character to a golf hole.

Are animals a consideration when designing?

Yes, I’ve done projects in the mountains where the owner has up fencing in specific locations for horses and even bison to graze. I’m going to a project in northern Montana next month, where large elk, moose, deer and even bears are feeding just outside out perimeter fencing around the golf course.

The wildlife is always present. Letting big wildlife onto the golf course is a problem, as they do a lot of damage to the golf course, but smaller wildlife, such as fowl, etc. love to reside in a golf environment. I’ve done many courses with trout streams. I’ve met with environmental people who have helped me over the last 30 years and have implemented their suggestions in places such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Aspen, Colorado; and Seattle.

In Maui, my first golf course called Makena Golf & Beach Club will open in October. When you speak of wildlife on-site, one would find deer, wild boar, tropical birds and mongoose. It took us two years to fence the perimeter of our golf course, so we could direct the deer and boar to where they could inhabit and not damage the golf course.

Do you test out your golf courses before they open?

I don’t play my golf courses before they open. In my opinion, the first person who plays them should be whoever had the vision – the owners or the founders. A lot of times, I’m playing it with them or behind them, but I don’t feel it’s appropriate to play it before they do so.

To me, the opening day is my least favorite day, because I’m done working with individuals that have been part of your daily life for several years. I’ve done about 125 golf courses, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed those relationships. I’m fortunate – I found something I love to do, and it allows me to touch people’s lives.

What’s your favorite golf course you’ve designed?

I love all the golf courses I’ve done. I have favorite holes on each of those, but there isn’t one I’d say is my favorite, as the relationships with the people I’ve worked for and with is why I do what I do. I just really enjoy being with people who are like-minded, who have a similar vision, and are willing to see it through.

Who is your favorite golfer?

I admire guys who played golf for the love of the game. Arnold Palmer is the relationship “king.”

What are your goals?

Being significant through spending time with our immediate and extended families lives is important to my wife Janae and I. At the end of the day, that matters most.

Business-wise, my goal is to seek out people I wish to have business relationships with. I have very few rules about where I wouldn’t work, as I’ve got some great opportunities in Europe, the United Kingdom, India, and Mexico, but it takes time to solidify those relationships.

What advice would you have for aspiring golf course designers?

You want to find a mentor who can provide the perspective of what the business is about and, more importantly, what it’s not about. If not a golf architect, a project manager in a golf construction company, as they are working with golf architects. You have to be willing to work hard and understand this business requires you to be a nomad, as you will live on site wherever the projects take you, upwards of 200 nights a year.

But, if I may elaborate, what I see in business today is that too many people are relying on communication solely through connecting via texting and social media. You have to get in front of people and discuss each other’s agenda and respective “why,” so that you can affirm who someone is or isn’t. Being personal is at the forefront of building a foundation of trust, which is necessary in any successful relationship.

What are the biggest benefits and challenges to owning your own business?

It’s the flexibility that you can go to work on any given day, at any time of that day. The negative is just that — if you choose to go to work at 2 in the afternoon, you may work until 10 p.m. that evening, so balancing your personal and work life is vital.

The biggest challenge is the amount of paperwork that’s required to run a business. When you travel 200 nights a year, you can imagine the receipts that require coding and sorting, which becomes tedious and time-consuming — two tasks that are not my favorite.

How would you characterize Arizona’s golf scene?

We obviously have 300-plus days of sun a year, and the warmth from November through May is why so many snowbirds flock to Arizona to play golf and spend time outdoors.

Our weather is predictable, but the country’s economy for the past eight years has been very unpredictable, and travel for many people is discretionary based on income — that’s the main factor why Arizona, like all southern states, has experienced such a downturn in golf. However, I do think golf is more affordable in Arizona when compared to Southern California and Florida, where the snowbirds vacation, too.

What advice do you have for aspiring golfers?

Golf in general needs to be more fun. We should encourage more match play, which is a scoring system for golf in which a player, or team, earns a point for each hole in which they have bested their opponents. This is as opposed to stroke play, in which the total number of strokes is counted over one or more rounds of 18 holes. This becomes more enjoyable, because it generally keeps a player in the match longer.

For instance, when I play golf with my family, we play best shot, which requires everyone to hit a tee shot, and then we select the best tee shot and all drop all balls there, and then continue with same format until the ball is in the hole. The pace of play improves, and everyone contributes in this format, which makes it much more enjoyable.

If someone is aspiring to be a professional golfer, they need to look beyond the “dream portion” and do their own research to identify the pros or cons, and interview and shadow people in professional golf so they understand the odds and can devise a strategy to pursue their dream.

Learn more about professional golfer Vinnie Iñiguez here on Phoenix People.

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