Lee Wybranski’s unexpected path to becoming golf’s foremost painter
Words and Art by Lee Wybranski
Light / Dark
Editor’s Note: His nickname was Nails, and he was the last person I expected to invite me to an art show. We were bar-mates from the heart of Delco—a Philadelphia outskirt of unique grit—and when he heard I was trying to make my way in golf, he boasted about his cousin Lee who was getting into the golf art game, and shared with me an address.
The following week, I made my way down to a posh street in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse section (a long way from Delco, by any measure) and met Lee Wybranski in his downtown gallery. White walls were interrupted by handsome sketches of homes and buildings, plus a few watercolors depicting a familiar pastime. Lee was expanding his work into golf club logos and course maps, and we hit it off immediately—two kids from the suburbs trying to live city artist lives.
Lee has since become one of the most renowned and sought-after artists in the game, creating images for all the major championships and designing some of the most celebrated logos in golf. In the following dialogue, he explains how he went from sketching houses to painting the Old Course, how a great golf image takes form, and how one big break can open an entirely new life, whether we’re ready for it or not.–Tom Coyne
I was one of those art students who was a bit more aimless than others. From the day they set foot on campus at Syracuse University, many of my peers knew they wanted to be gallery painters or fashion illustrators or advertising people. I was more interested in trying everything. After four years, I ended up as a jack of all trades and master of none. All I knew was that I wanted to find a way to make a living creating pictures. I had no idea it would be in golf.
Out of school, I stumbled into a gig doing fine pen and ink drawings of homes and institutions on Philadelphia’s Main Line. Turned out that I was good at it, and that woke an entrepreneurial instinct in me. I set out to find where people were emotionally attached to buildings. And one of the first answers was country clubs.
I knew the game, and liked it, but didn’t have any great background in it. That didn’t stop me—we showed my work around New York City to some of the top clubs in the Met Section. Winged Foot, to my great fortune, was the first to commission me. It was for a portrait of their Clifford C. Wendenhack clubhouse. That work opened many doors, and within a year, I was officially a golf artist.
After a couple years of doing black-and-white clubhouse drawings, one of my early clients, Dennis Satyshur at Caves Valley GC, changed everything again. “We love your stuff, but golf is an outside game on a beautiful landscape,” he said. “Can you do something in color for us?” While I had dabbled in some painting in college, I was certainly no landscape specialist. But the small business mantra is when someone asks if you can do something, you say, “Yes, I can!” Then figure out how.
I painted the second hole at Caves Valley six times in watercolor before finally coming up with something that I was confident enough to deliver. They liked it, and more doors opened. I focused on my watercolor craft for the next several years while painting some of the best golf courses in the country.
The 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock was the first logo design that my small company created for the USGA. We’ve worked on almost every U.S. Open logo since. We’re probably best known now for the championship posters, but logo work for golf clubs is really our bread and butter. Logos are such a big deal today, but when we came into the business, clubs didn’t pay as much attention to them. There were a lot of crests and seals and shields, and none if it was designed to do what a golf logo does today. No surprise, a lot of those old marks don’t perform well on the business side. They’re either not interesting, too complicated, too generic, or all of the above.
That was the case with our first logo redesign at Atlantic City Country Club. Their original logo was a busy scene with a bell house set in front of the clubhouse, with sand dunes and a green and a flag. So complicated. But they were proud of it—the club was founded in 1897, and the bell house is still there, along with a plaque explaining that it’s the bell they used to ring when the last trolley was leaving. The club is on the mainland while Atlantic City is on a barrier island, so the bell let golfers know to get their butts back to the clubhouse if they wanted a ride home. We agreed that it was a unique story and an important part of the club’s identity. The more we worked on it, we found ourselves whittling the logo down to what was truly important, which was simply the bell. We put the founding date under the bell, and that was it. It’s still one of my favorites we’ve ever done, and it’s been a nice success for the club. We learned several lessons during that process, but perhaps the most important was how vital simple, elegant storytelling is in any piece of golf club art.
The posters came later—I did one for the 2005 Walker Cup at Chicago Golf Club, then in 2008, the USGA gave me a chance at Torrey Pines. I’ve since learned that you need several factors in place for a poster to do well commercially, and Torrey was a perfect storm: The U.S. Open hadn’t been in golf-crazy Southern California in more than 50 years, I created one of the best images of my career, and, of course, Tiger Woods won in a playoff on a broken leg in one of the greatest Opens ever. We sold out at least twice at the merchandise tent onsite at Torrey. I would step away for lunch, and when I got back there’d be two dozen people in line waiting to get their posters signed. I had never experienced anything like it. To be at the U.S. Open every summer now, signing posters—sometimes for people who have collected every one—is a special thing.
At that point, I was operating by a policy that I did not want to visit a golf course until my work brought me there, and that certainly applied to St. Andrews. I was dying to go, but not as a tourist. A friend introduced me to some folks at the Links Trust and the R&A, and in 2011 I finally made my first trip to St. Andrews. I remember every detail—it was November, and we played the Old Course in a light rain. The round was wonderful, but an even bigger deal was walking away with a contract to do the poster for the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes, as well as a hand-painted yardage book for the Old Course. I’ve been lucky to do the poster for that championship every year since. For someone who loves golf history like I do, working the Open is a singular, almost otherworldly experience.
Perhaps my favorite moment was at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion. I grew up and got my start in Philadelphia, so it will always be home. We were fortunate to help renovate the club’s logo in the early 2000s, but at that point no one ever thought that the U.S. Open would return. By then I was living in Flagstaff, Arizona, and coming back to Philly was so cool. I actually slept in the house I grew up in that week. I had my dad in the tent with me on Father’s Day, and I got to paint the wicker basket. I still pinch myself in times like that, because I’ll never forget how I was looking up at the world from the bottom of the totem pole when I started, and where this great game has taken me.
If you enjoyed this you’ll love everything The Golfer’s Journal has to offer.