MEADOWS OF DAN, Va. –Brian Alley, the head golf professional at the Highland course at Primland, calls him “The Donald.”
It’s quite ironic to give Donald Steel the same nickname as the one and only Mr. Trump. They’re not cut from the same mold.
“The Donald” – as seen on TV - is loud, brash and bold. Steel, a noted British architect and accomplished writer, is a true English gentleman, quiet-spoken and self-deprecating. When I ask Steel about his thoughts about the use of long putters, he talks about how awkward one looks in Adam Scott’s hands, then zings his own game: “I prefer to three-putt the old-fashioned way.”
“He will sit down with anybody and talk for hours about golf,” Alley says. “I told our staff to take this opportunity (with Steel visiting) to learn everything they can from him.”
Steel isn’t a household name in America, such as Tom Fazio or Jack Nicklaus, but he’s a star architect in his own right. He’s designed roughly 85 courses around the world and redesigned another 500 or so more: 20 of them major projects by his estimation. His biggest claim to fame is advising every club or course on which the British Open championship has ever been played, working to modernize these clasics for today’s bomb-and-gouge game. He’s also been author, co-author or editor of ten books on golf.
Steel, who lives in Sussex outside of London, turned 75 recently – “three over par,” he says. I caught up with him at Primland, a luxury golf resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Virginia.
He laments being forced into “semi-retirement” by the lack of work for architects these days, but in the next sentence, talks about how satisfied he is with his body of work. As for his legacy?
“I think I have to leave that for others to judge,” he says. “As a writer and architect, you leave behind something tangible. I enjoy writing. I don’t do much anymore. Golf writing is so different today. The great thing about being a golf writer and an architect is you get to create something all your own from a blank canvass.”
The early years
Steel grew up the son of a surgeon. That might explain his playing ability. He is the only golf writer or architect to play in the British Open as an amateur. He missed the cut in 1970 at St. Andrews.
He took up the game at age 9 and credits John Sheridan, the long-time pro at Denham Golf Club, a Harry Colt design, for his love of the game. Even with no formal writing background, Steel became the first golf correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, holding the role from 1961 to 1990. He would sometimes cover the tournaments he was playing in. “I would take my typewriter and my golf clubs,” he recalls.
A story assignment – checking out a new course – led to his first break into architecture with Ken Cotton. He eventually joined forces with Cotton, Frank Pennink and Charles Lawrie in 1965 to form a successful firm. By 1983, however, his “happy band” of partners had died. He founded Donald Steel & Co Ltd in 1987 unsure of what lie ahead. “I didn’t think I was well-known as an individual,” he says humbly.
The boom times
Steel helped design new holes set in high dunes at Enniscrone Golf Club in Ireland.
His solo project in 1991 at the Redtail Golf Club in London, Ontario, gave him any international street cred that might have been lacking. And his Master Plan for St. Andrews completed in the 1980s and executed into the 1990s has been integral to development of The Home of Golf. He was the first architect since Harry Colt in 1913 to design holes there.
Steel’s architectural travels have taken him to more than 20 countries over the years, notably the Emerald Isle, where his major redesigns of both Enniscrone Golf Club and Royal County Down have lifted those links to lofty status. He’s particularly proud of The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle in Scotland, too, and his four designs in America, although he never talks about favorites.
“I never had to look for work,” he says of those heady days.
His playing ability and how it related to course design was a real asset, especially when working on British Open venues. Hoylake returned to the rota in 2006 as a result of his critical study of the course’s playing conditions, crowd movement and practice facilities. His work behind the scenes contributed to his latest book, “The Open: 150 years of Golf’s Oldest Major,” released in 2010.
“It was never an official appointment,” he says, noting it ended after Hoylake. “I was a popular choice for a while but nothing lasts forever. It was quite fun, but the courses were already stretched as far as they could.”
Primland's Highland Course one of Steel's last works
Sitting on a balcony of the beautiful Lodge at Primland, Steel gushes about building The Highland course on top of a mountain. Steel, who compares his minimalist style to that of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, says he took what the rugged terrain gave him: A unique routing of five par-5s and five par-3s. He calls it was the most difficult site he’s ever encountered. “We were determined we would die in our attempt to build the course,” he says.
The Highland course opened in 2006 as perhaps his last great design. The Highland course is rough around the edges – any ball off line will disappear into woods, rattlesnake-infested fescue or off of mountain ridges that fall hundreds of feet to the forest below. Golfers tee off every 15 minutes, so they can enjoy the setting all to themselves.
“The land was so rugged, I knew whatever we did, it would be difficult (to score on),” he says. “It is penal if you miss. We tried to make it more playable by cutting the rough back and the fescue.”
Steel built massive greens to leave a distinct trademark. He’s a naturalist at heart, but he’s always advocating for more trees to come down to showcase the soaring views of the surrounding mountains. “The views are the thing that people talk about. If you cover up the views, it doesn’t reach its full potential,” he says.
Steel despises course rankings, although they have been kind to him. Golf Digest ranks his Highland course at Primland No. 13 among the 'Top 100 public courses in America.'
“How can you compare this (Primland) to (the Ocean course at) Kiawah Island?” he laments.
During my round with Alley, Steel rides in a cart and watches us play. He doesn’t tee it up much these days, maybe 10 rounds a year. He’s already seen it all and done it all in golf, content with a lifetime of serving and playing the game at the highest level.