Life on and off the waters of the Wood River Valley
Knott Your Average Golf Course Designer
When you get right down to it, it’s actually easier to make it as a professional golfer than it is as a professional golf course architect.
Just about every weekend of the year, hundreds of professional golfers tee it up, trying for nationally televised fame and glory. But they can only play on one course at a time.
Don Knott is one of those lucky few people with the talent and tenacity to make the cut as a professional golf course architect. But he hasn’t simply made the cut.
Don Knott has become one of the most highly respected golf course architects of all time. If there were a Master’s Tournament for golf course designers, Don Knott would get a lifetime exemption.
“Golf is still golf”
Don didn’t always have a love affair with golf. A collegiate All-American swimmer at the University of California Berkeley and Army vet during the Vietnam era, the Northern California native didn’t pick up the game until graduate school.
He started playing Berkeley’s course simply because he loved the outdoors and had a passion for landscape design. But Don quickly “got hooked,” as he puts it, on the game and could often be seen riding his motorcycle to the local college course, carrying his clubs on his back.
Knott wound up landing an internship with the legendary Robert Trent Jones II (RTJ2) Golf Course Architects in Palo Alto, California. He quickly made his mark in the company and was hired on, eventually becoming RTJ2’s Lead Project Architect and Senior Vice President of Design.
Don would then spend the next 26 years designing and helping to construct golf courses all over the world for the prestigious firm.
“The game is pretty traditional. It’s been 18 holes for a long time,” Don explains, shortly after returning from a trip to design another course in China. “Golf is still golf. People still hit the ball the same way as they always have. The key to all great courses isn’t how much money they cost to build, it’s that they fit into the natural landscape. A good golf course design makes it look like you haven’t moved any dirt to make it, at least that’s the goal.”
“There has to be magic”
Spanish Bay at Pebble Beach, The National Golf Club of Australia, The Prince Course in Kauai, Hawaii, Jug Mountain Ranch in McCall and the White Clouds in Sun Valley are some of Don’s most celebrated designs. He’s also redesigned the highly acclaimed course at Stanford University, Seoul, Korea’s Anyang Bnest Golf Club and the main Trail Creek course at Sun Valley.
“It’s hard to build a bad course on a great location,” Don explains. “But there has to be magic to the location if it’s going to be a truly special course. There’s a reason Pebble Beach is so famous.
“Ideally, you get the combination of two things when building a course: A great location and a course that has great golf characteristics itself.”
As to just what “great golf characteristics” include, Knott recognizes that not everyone agrees. But the former President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects has found lots of success with his opinion on the matter.
“Of course, you have to have nice views. But there should also be a wee bit of mystery and intrigue,” Don explains. “The origins of the game are not based on scoring. The origins of golf are that it’s an obstacle course through nature. You hit the ball and then you go see what your fate is.”
“Idaho is just spectacular”
“I still love the game and play when I can,” says Don, who left RTJ2 in 1999 to found the Knott & Linn Golf Design Group with fellow golf course designer, Gary Linn.
Based in Mountain View, California, Knott and Linn are still busy building courses across the globe despite the recent economic and development slump, which has put a halt to the construction of many new tracts in the U.S. and elsewhere.
“It’s not necessarily the best time to be a golf course designer. Most courses are built around housing, so when building new housing stops, so does golf course construction. But it is a good time to be a golfer. There are a lot of great deals out there right now,” Knott says. And one of Don’s favorite places to swing the sticks is Idaho.
“Jug Mountain Ranch in McCall is one of my favorite spots, and the 360º view you get at the courses in Sun Valley makes it a really special place,” says Knott, who travels to the Wood River Valley each Summer to play in the Danny Thompson Memorial.
“It’s one of my favorite states. The whole mountain scene in Idaho is just spectacular,” Don declares, professing the type of admiration for the Gem State that golfers all over the world have for his work.
There may be more than 28 million golfers in America alone, but there’s only one Don Knott, and players all over the country—and especially in Idaho—are certainly happy he made the cut as a golf course architect.
(This article originally appeared in Idaho Golf Magazine.)