Ask Bobby Weed for a detailed rendering of one of his greens complexes and he's likely to show you something that looks like refrigerator art—a pencil sketch in a spiral-bound notebook or a few squiggles on graph paper. That's because Weed's medium is not charcoal or ink or tempera; it's dirt. "Some people want to be out there with a sketch pad, and some want to be in the office with a set of plans," says the 46-year-old architect and president of Weed Golf Course Design. "I want to be on a piece of equipment. That allows me to switch to the right side of my brain, my creative side."
This, then, is one of those days that Weed lives for. The June sky is blue and the morning air already warm as he climbs into the seat of a New Holland tractor and starts "floating" the sub-grade of the new 5th green on the University of Florida Golf Course. His shaping tool is a simple steel drag—a couple of I beams welded together. When Weed pushes forward on a lever, the drag digs into the earth and pulls soil. When he pulls the lever back, the drag skims and levels. Weed can even shift the tractor into reverse and use it to push dirt around like a minidozer.
"Only a handful of designers do it this way," says senior associate course designer Scot Sherman as he watches his boss zip around the perimeter of the green like a crazed farmer on a motocross course. "Maybe we're not smart enough to put it on paper, I don't know, but you can't show these kinds of contours on a drawing."
An architect on a tractor? It seems consistent with the reported trend toward a more natural look in course design, but when I mention to Sherman the so-called new traditionalism some course builders espouse, he makes a face. "To be honest, it's mostly lip service," he says. "You listen to some designers, they say they love A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross. Then you see their courses, and they couldn't be more modern and bland. They look as if they were built from a plan."
When asked if he considers Weed a traditionalist, Sherman shrugs and says, "Yeah, there are traditional elements to our design, but we're at the beginning of a new era, not the end of an old one. We try not to copy."
Designing on site, as Weed is doing, does not reflect a disregard for precision. While Weed rides, Sherman begins to measure grades with a Topcon laser level, a tripod-mounted gadget that fires a narrow beam of light over the work area. The receiver is in a little yellow box attached to the top of a pole that extends like a giant slide rule. From the south edge of the green Sherman walks north 10 feet ("three paces and the length of one shoe") and plants the pole. As he slides the extension upward, the receiver beeps slowly, then faster and finally emits a steady tone, indicating that it is level with the laser beam. "O.K., so this is 3.2," he says, reading the elevation in feet from the numbers on the pole. (The figures are not relative to sea level or any other fixed standard; the position of the laser level is arbitrary.)
With his right hand Sherman points a paint gun at the ground and sprays a fluorescent-pink 3.2 on the dirt. He then walks north another 10 feet, takes another reading and sprays 2.9. "If the grade is one tenth of a foot in a 10-foot run, that's a 1 percent grade change. We're aiming for something less than 3 percent and more than 1 percent. We want water to move off the green, but we don't want a slope that's too steep for putting."
Turning East, Sherman takes successive 10-foot measurements of 3.0, 2.9, 3.1, 2.85, 2.75 and 2.75. "We've got a pocket here," he says—for my benefit, because Weed can read the numbers as he drives by. Sherman sprays a pink circle around the 3.0-2. 9-3.1 cluster and steps away. Immediately Weed swoops in with the tractor and drags dirt over the area, burying the paint. "We don't want any low spots where water will pool," Sherman says. "So Bobby has to fill this whole area."
After about 30 minutes on the tractor, Weed walks back up the muddy, rutted fairway and turns to look at his handiwork. He likes what he sees—a slightly downhill approach shot to a punchbowl green. "The old green was way up in the air," he says. "Holes look better when you're looking down. On all the memorable holes, whether it's from the tee or the fairway, you look down." If Weed doesn't like what he sees, that's O.K. too; he has a big, noisy, exhaust-belching eraser. "When you paint in water colors, you can't make a mistake," he says, "but when you paint in oils, you can go back and touch up. Working in the soil, on a horizontal scale, we have that same latitude."
Late in the day I lurch up the 5th fairway in my rented SUV and find the new green outlined in 18-inch-high fluorescent-pink pin flags. The flags mean that Weed has signed off on the sub-grade and the green is ready for the drainage crew. Behind me, in the northwest corner of the property, workers are kicking mud off their shoes and punching out at the construction trailer, weary after another 12-hour day. Driving a couple of hundred yards east, I find Weed, Sherman and bulldozer operator George Ross on machines at the 16th green. They are as intent as children building sand castles. Sherman is driving a bunker rake, a little three-wheeled tractor with a drag and a between-the-wheels cutting blade that he can lower by pulling up on a long handle. Around and around he goes on the surface of the green, softening a slope here, adding a contour there. Suddenly he veers in my direction and stops. "This is the best time for this," he says. "No distractions, no meetings, no problems with cart paths or drainage. Everyone melts away, and we can concentrate on a green." Smiling, he throttles up and resumes his odd orbit in the dwindling rays of a red sunset.