Couples/Bates Design forges ahead with an 'understanding'

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

When Fred Couples wept after his win at the Shell Houston Open earlier this month, Gene Bates sat back in his chair with a par 5-sized grin and a feeling his friend might approach their partnership with a renewed zeal. It had been five emotionally charged years since Couples had staked his name to the winner's paycheck, and the happy-go-lucky former Masters champion had earned the right to show a little emotion

Couples/Bates Design forges ahead with an 'understanding'

"Fred is a player plain and simple," says Bates. "His passion, love and desire is winning and anything less is ho-hum. His demeanor belies that. He wants to win so badly and there are so many people who have supported him over the past five years that he just let it all out."

Unbeknownst to many weekend warriors, the usually unflappable Couples and the unassuming Bates actually form one of the longest standing player/architect teams in golf course design. The partnership began in earnest in 1992 when Couples was one of the hottest names on the PGA Tour. Bates approached Couples prior to the Masters about assisting in the design of Hamilton Mill Golf Club just north of Atlanta.

Fascinated by the history of golf course architecture and the chance to stake his name to a top-notch layout, Couples accepted the offer.

"That was pretty good timing," laughs Bates.

Timing has always been of the essence for Bates. Having cut his teeth in Jack Nicklaus' design firm for 16 years, Bates was no stranger to the player/architect relationship. When he left the Golden Bear's shop in the late 1980s, he began designing courses with the input of PGA Tour pro turned television commentator Johnny Miller.

"Jack said to Gene, 'I hate to see you leave, but if you are going, good luck and would you take Johnny Miller with you?,' " says Andy Johnston, construction services manager for Couples/Bates design.

Bates and Miller worked together for a couple of years before agreeing to call it quits. Shortly thereafter, Bates and Couples hit it off.

"We just toyed around on a few projects together at first and it really worked for both of us," says Bates.

Bates says that he and Couples have persevered for over a decade their respective roles because of a mutual understanding. Couples made it clear from the outset he would only take on one or two projects a year. Similarly, Bates wanted to grow his solo career and explore relationships with other players.

"Player architect relationships are a mixed bag," says Bates. "The first part depends on how much the player wants to immerse himself into the project. The second part of the equation is how much does the designer encourage the player to become involved. Those two items are the foundation of the relationship."

Working on one or two projects a year and a slim playing schedule brought on y chronic back problems allows Couples to be hands-on in his work with Bates. "Boom-Boom" as he is known among his fans, typically visits a project site four to five times. Cognizant of his busy travel schedule, Bates makes time to fly to Couples' Santa Barbara residence multiple times during the design of a course. The two will pour over plans for hours with Couples demonstrating an enthusiasm he seldom displays to the public.

"Once he gets focused, he is like a kid and just eats it up," says Bates.

That focus, however, doesn't always come easy.

"Fred is an unassuming guy. If I don't reach out and embrace him, he's not going to pick up the phone and call me," says Bates.

Imagine Bates surprise, then, when his phone rang off the hook during a recent project in Tallahassee, Fla.

"Fred just doesn't make phone calls and he rarely takes them," says Bates. "Well, with Southwood he was so excited he must have called me six times. That is more calling than he does in a typical year."

So far, 2003 is anything but a typical year for Couples. Before his seminal victory at the Shell Houston Open, he had finished in the top 10 three times and was playing some of his best golf since the mid 90s. Buoyed by a new belly putting stroke, an improved back and a stable family life, the 45-year-old Couples was making a charge up a money list typically dominated by the 25-35 year-old flat bellies.

Two weeks ago in Charlotte, Couples jumped out to an early lead in the inaugural Wachovia Championship. After two rounds, though, the pain in his back flared up and he eventually dropped out of contention. By playing in a limited number of events and sticking to a strict regime of exercise and stretching, however, Bates is confident his design partner will continue his recent Renaissance. Through their mutual understanding, he can also be assured Couples' commitment to the design practice remains even-keeled."

"When Fred feels like he legitimately doesn't have a chance to win he'll step down," says Bates. "Now that Fred is back concentrating on his game, our original goal of one or two courses a year will be perfect."

In the meantime, Bates can carry on with his quietly successful solo practice. His firm recently announced that it will renew ties with Miller, is completing a course in the Wasatch Mountain State Park outside of Park City, Utah, and will even team with South African Ernie Els on a new project in the Caribbean.

"We got a call from a developer in Jamaica who was interested in a Fred Course," says Johnston. "Well, Fred wasn't interested so we offered it to Johnny. Come to find out there will be gambling and a nude beach so Johnny, being Mormon, just didn't think it fit with the image. So it will be Ernie Els, course but it will be our only project with him because he is with Nicklaus golf."

The next Couples/Bates will take place in San Juan Batista, just south of San Jose, where the tandem will craft the second 18-hole layout at San Juan Oaks.

"We are negotiating a couple of other projects, but I can't go into the details," says Bates.

Mum's the word. Evidentially, Bates is beginning to take on some of his partner's enigmatic qualities.

Architect Profile

Name : Gene Bates

Key projects: Southwoods Golf Club (Tallahassee, Fla.),
Carolina National (Bolivia, N.C.),
Hamilton Mill (Duluth, Ga.), San Juan Oaks
(San Juan Batista, Calif.).

What to look for : "He has some of the best routings on the face of the Earth. They are challenging from the pro tees and playable from the other tees and he does this through his bunkering. He uses potato chips and wedges for his fingers. An RTJ bunker has a big round nose and Gene's do that do, but his also have catch basins in the nose for drainage." - Andy Johnston

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of from 1997 to 2003.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment