By David Droschak
Kris Spence grew up in a rural town of about 2,000 folks in the bootheel of Missouri that didn’t have a golf course. The Greensboro-based golf architect discovered the game as a 10-year-old when he stumbled across some old clubs and balls left by a neighbor of his grandmother.
“The guy moved so I ended up keeping the club and balls,” Spence recalled. “I was the kind of kid that could watch somebody do something – whether it was a baseball player or basketball player or golfer – and I could replicate what they were doing. Nicklaus was the guy at that time.”
Spence would repeat practice swing after practice swing, pretending he was the Golden Bear, hitting a few shots here and there, but it wasn’t until he was 12 year-old that he stepped on a real golf course.
“I had gotten pretty proficient at it,” Spence said of his early days of golf. “One of my mother’s friends took me to a golf course and we played a two-man scramble and I birdied the first hole I ever played. I guess it can’t get much better after that. I just seemed simple to me.”
We all know better, and Spence never became the next Jack Nicklaus. Instead, he became an architect of note, turning a superintendent job into a special affinity for restoring and renovating layouts by the legendary Donald Ross.
Spence, 54, chuckles now at his first foray into “golf course architecture.” It wasn’t so funny at the time.
“With no golf course in town I felt like I needed a green, so I converted my dad’s backyard — without his permission — into a putting green,” Spence said. “I tilled it up and I bought some bentgrass seed. I was around 13 and my grandmother had an old reel mower so I built a green, not knowing it wasn’t going to mow it close enough. What I didn’t know is all the courses had bermudagrass greens in that region. My dad came home and he was just furious with me that I had this little circle tilled up and was planting seed. I guess I tried and failed.”
The incident didn’t discourage Spence from staying close to the game as he rode the bus to school and began playing junior golf, which would eventually lead him to Arkansas State on a scholarship.
“When I started playing golf and traveling around there were a lot of bland greens, and then you would run across one that was really creative and had some contour and an architectural quality to it. That always caught my eye and I would always sketch them,” Spence said. “You always hear architects talk about when they were kids they would doodle up and down their note pads. I was constantly looking out the window doodling down the side of my homework, thinking about golf.”
The game eventually steered Spence toward working at a golf course on the maintenance department.
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “I always loved the mowing patterns and everything being so straight and detailed and all the nice edges. I started out weeding and push mowing. Fortunately somebody didn’t show up to mow greens one day so the superintendent says, ‘Hey, jump on this mower’ and he was amazed. I was just that kind of kid. Everything had to be straight and have proper spacing, so I quickly advanced in the realm of golf course maintenance.”
Spence moved on to Lake City Community College in Florida, which had a 2-3 year program geared toward a career in golf course operations.
“In my mind that was going to provide me with an opportunity to play golf for the rest of my life, which is what I wanted, but we all know when we get in the business that’s the last thing we do,” Spence said.
After working summer internships at Atlanta Athletic Club, Spence graduated in 1985 and immediately landed a job at Forest Oaks Country Club in Greensboro.
“So from graduating in May at age 23 I held my first PGA Tour event as the head superintendent in 1986,” Spence said.
Spence remained at Forest Oaks for four years and helped with some bunker work there before helping build Governors Club outside Chapel Hill. “I did not do any design work at Governors Club other than some sand grass lines, but to get exposed to the Nicklaus team executing architecture just kind of further gave me that itch.”
While at Governors Club, Spence was approached by Greensboro Country Club about its superintendent’s job.
“I had made a pretty good reputation as a superintendent who could get things done and be able to deal with tough situations,” Spence said.
Spence remained at Greensboro CC for nine years.
“When I first got there they were always talking about their Donald Ross golf course, which was the Irving Park course, but there was nothing about Irving Park that resembled Donald Ross. I said, ‘Where? Sort of tongue and cheek,” Spence said. “We ended up finding the old Ross plans and old aerials. It had been redesigned in the early 1960s by George Cobb, so I was pitching the concept of restoring the Donald Ross golf course.
“This was at the very early stages, say 1996 and 1997 of what became the restoration boom with Ross work,” added Spence. “When the Open came to Pinehurst for the first time in 1999 Ross really got exposed to the modern era, and the restoration craze took off all over the country.”
The Greensboro Country Club board began discussing its Ross layout, and were always coming back to one name to execute the work – Spence.
“Some of the guys at the club got accustomed to listening to me talk about it and they said, ‘Why don’t we do it and you do it?’ That was sort of a little bit scary,” Spence said. “They gave me their blessing.”
The Greensboro CC project was completed in 1999. Spence then received a call from the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, asking if he would take a look at one hole at its worn-out Ross course.
“I mentioned that they should really go through a process like we did at Greensboro, to do a master plan and some research, so they engaged me to do that.”
Spence’s next move was his boldest and would change his life. He decided to open his own design firm in 2000.
“The two architects I knew the most about were Ellis Maples and Donald Ross, and when I researched their lives they both started out as greenskeepers. I said, ‘I’m not going to be the first guy to do this, so let’s give it a go and see where it takes me,” Spence said. “Here we sit 16, 17 years later and 50-60 golf courses later, so I’m obviously doing something right. But the Ross stuff was really the core and what I fell in love with. I was intrigued by the research, the discovery and almost archeological digs on some of these golf courses.”
Spence’s masterwork restoration work at Grove Park Inn landed him some lofty recognition from Golfweek magazine, and others.
“That sort of swung the door open and gave me the confidence to hang my shingle out there,” he said.
Not an educated architect, the 6-foot-6 Spence was considered somewhat of an “outsider” in the business when he first started. But he kept his nose to the ground and worked his way up the ranks with craftsmanship at such esteemed venues across the Tar Heel state as Cape Fear, Mimosa Hills, Sedgefield, Roaring Gap and the Country Club of North Carolina’s Dogwood Course.
“When I got into this the renovation business was sort of the logical way to start, you get your feet wet so to speak,” Spence said. “At the same time, there were so many new golf courses being built a lot of golf architects sort of looked down their noses at the renovation market; they didn’t really consider it golf architecture. There was a void there and some of the guys doing business at the time were quite frankly destroying a lot of these old Donald Ross golf courses. It really bothered me because I felt like modernizing them was not creating better golf; it was creating a golf course that wasn’t playing as well as well as some maintenance issues. He really designed and built his golf courses so they would not only play well and be strategic, but he was very mindful of the turf. They were building a lot of mounds in and around the greens; they were building these catcher’s mitts so if somebody would hit a ball long it would stop the ball from going long. If you study Ross in his opinion the hole stopped at the back edge of the green. If you go long on a Ross course you should have a tough task.”
Spence has never built a golf course from scratch; given a tract of land to make his own.
“It was in my dreams to design my own golf courses, and I signed several contracts and I routed some golf courses, but unfortunately for me the economic collapse happened and they are yet to be built to this day. And some things that were offered to me in Florida didn’t appeal to me that I turned down. Was that a smart move? Probably not. Maybe I should have built them, but when somebody looks me in the eye and says ‘We want some very basic golf course and we don’t care about strategy,’ architecturally it just didn’t appeal to me.”
Spence has done two major rerouting projects in his now flourishing career – Lake Toxaway and the recently opened Town of Mooresville Golf Course. He is also working on four new holes at Blowing Rock Country Club.
Spence is considered a good interview, and often connects with the marching orders boards many private clubs are seeking in a renovation or restoration.
“They are learning opportunities as a professional,” he said. “When I interview for jobs one of the common themes they always tell me is it’s obvious you did your homework on our golf course and your interview was focused on OUR golf course. Some of the guys you compete against talk about themselves or name drop on projects they have done. There are clubs very interested in that and I probably lose those jobs. I will have to say my focus when you are working on the 3rd or 4th ranked golf course in the state (Dogwood Course) and a former top 100 golf course is heightened just a little bit. I studied and studied, and walked and I listened, and I watched people play that golf course, and I watched the ball run across the property.”
Dunlop White III, a longtime golf committee member and restoration chairman at Roaring Gap, can’t say enough great things about how Spence transformed the private mountain layout into a more playable, enjoyable, strategic round of golf.
“In 2001 when we first talked, Kris was a young upstart, who would be eager to do a good job and theoretically could spend more time and pay more attention to the golf course being located only 65 miles from his home,” White said. “Roaring Gap was the beneficiary of that hands-on approach and a lot more. Kris is one of Donald Ross’s great ambassadors, and he truly cares how Roaring Gap has looked and played long after he completed the spadework in May 2014.”
More of Spence’s work can be seen every summer on TV during the Wyndham Championship at Sedgefield.
“So many golf architects become involved in a renovation and it becomes their golf course, but Kris Spence was able to add things to our golf course AND keep it a Donald Ross golf course,” said Sedgefield director of golf Rocky Brooks. “Kris doesn’t have this huge ego where he needs have his name on everything. Kris simply gave us a facelift that made us so much better.”
Spence does have his name on the scorecard at CCNC Dogwood, a fitting tribute to a North Carolina architect who combines the past the present into quite a modern-day golfing presentation.
“Ross talks a lot about a player paying attention to what they are doing and the angles you need to get to in order to approach certain hole locations,” Spence said. “Those are the things I am always thinking about when I am sketching jobs.”