“Youngest in the business and someday the oldest.” Oklahoma-based architect Colton Craig is fully aware that his website’s slogan draws eye rolls from his peers; he just doesn’t have time to care. In the months after leaving his steady position with Tripp Davis & Associates, he launched Colton Craig Golf Design, visited every Perry Maxwell design in the country and became a father. If that wasn’t ambitious enough, he hopes to lead a new school of blue-collar architecture through an uncertain era. Surviving it means learning to tightrope between eager and desperate, renovator and innovator, and businessman or just business, man.
You’re only 26. How are you prepared for all of this?
I can show what I’m capable of now; I don’t have to just be a salesman.…I’ve always been mature for my age in some ways—other ways not so much. I was working for my previous employer when I found out my wife was pregnant. I knew I wanted to start my own business, and I knew I was ready, but I just didn’t know how to time it right. It’s weird; Bill Coore and all those guys are really good about it. They’re happy to see their associates go on, but they’re at the top of their business. The unfortunate truth is that there are a lot of guys who don’t want to coach up their future competitors. I understand the logic, but that’s just this business, I guess.
When you left your job to start your own design firm, did anyone say, “You’re crazy”? Seems like a lot to bite off while preparing to become a father.
Yes, for sure. They still kind of do. I was always known as “Crazy Colton,” since grade school. I just wasn’t fit for corporate America. I would look horrible in a big corporate setting where you have to kiss up to VPs and stuff. There was a time when I was really close to just getting a commercial real estate broker’s license to see if I could make some real money and be content with that and a country club membership. But the reality of it is, I was never going to do that.
So you at least had a backup plan?
I was about to take a job and my wife wouldn’t let me. I’m thankful for that. I was going to take a gig with the State of Oklahoma Parks District and try to become the in-house golf-course architect at the six golf courses that the state owns. But I really would have been building dry cleaners and [non-golf] stuff like that. And I would’ve been frustrated with state politics. It’s just something I’m not fit for. I’m much better at relationships and getting to know people.
How has being a dad seeped into your professional life so far?
In a way, I’ve become more productive. I feel since being a father that my limited time has been more efficient and I’ve had to get more productive. [It’s similar to] a low-budget project I’m working on right now in Cushing, Oklahoma: I think you need more creativity than multi-million-dollar renovations, because creativity thrives in constraint.
It’s like the old saying, “If you need something done, give it to someone who’s busy.”
Right. I feel that way about a couple of things in the business. Like working around irrigation lines.
I’m not trying to bash any of my similar-aged peers, because many get to do cool work for the top firms in the business. That’s awesome, but what about real problem-solving when there’s an irrigation line there and you can’t say, “[We have a big budget, so] let’s just move it”? A lot of these turfgrass kids go do their internships at ultra-elite clubs and then they eventually get the head job at a mid-level club. There’s all this stuff to do and they don’t have the creative resources for it, or they don’t even know how to fix irrigation because they’ve always had an irrigation guy on site during their training.
What else in the business irks you that way?
I say it all the time out here: “This is a small town. This isn’t a booming oil town anymore.” It’s just a small town in the Midwest. Turn the course into a golf club, open it up to the national or statewide membership and renovate the golf course. Then you’ll be set. When you have enough cash flow, add an on-site lodge. It’s not rocket science. You don’t need to turn it into a Ruth’s Chris. That’s what’s trying to happen at some of these mid-level clubs. I try not to be too involved in club politics. You can very easily oversell yourself in this business. A lot of the time it’s like dating, in a weird way.
It’s going to sound bad, but it’s like the old cliché where if you show too much interest in a girl, she’ll be less interested in you.
You’re saying if you’re too eager for a project, that might be a red flag?
Exactly. They’re like, “Why is this guy so desperate?”
What’s the job you wouldn’t mind looking desperate for?
Dornick Hills—Perry Maxwell’s first design. I would take Dornick Hills over pretty much anything right now.
How does someone your age become so fascinated with Perry Maxwell? Is that just by way of geography?
Geography definitely played a role. I also worked on the grounds crew at Southern Hills, and that played a massive role. [Maxwell] wasn’t there to build monuments to himself; he was just there to build cool golf. There’s a lot of really cool golf courses that we’ve found were Maxwell designs and the clubs never even knew. I always say that he must have been a gentleman who fit in with all company, because he was working for high-society people but also planning out sand-green courses in Neosho, Missouri. It wasn’t like he had steppingstones in his career. His career is very fluid in the fact that he didn’t care who he was working for. He just wanted to build cool golf. I find that admirable because it’s not really true today.
Would you say you identify with that piece of Maxwell—working for anybody as long as it’s good golf?
I do. I don’t want to compare myself too much to Maxwell, because, from everything I understand, he was just an incredible guy. I’ve had multiple hours-long conversations with his granddaughter, who remembers him very well. She recently sent me a book of his. It has his handwriting in it. Caponsacchi is the title; it’s a play. She told me he was constantly reading.
Goosebumps, right? Back to your original question, I’d love to work at clubs like Buffalo Rock in Cushing for the rest of my career. Obviously I want the mile-and-a-half coastline like everyone. I’m not special for saying I want to be the next Bill Coore. Everyone wants to be the next Bill Coore in my business, or Gil Hanse. In a weird way, it’s almost more fun to work for less-architecturally educated people, because they don’t have all these “Let’s do one of these; let’s do one of those.” You get a little bit more free reign. I like it a lot. I don’t know where my career is going to take me, but I’d love to always have some form of time to work on these places and maybe the Maxwell Society. I know the Donald Ross Society does something for lower-end Ross courses to help subsidize projects and stuff like that; maybe that’s what the Maxwell Society will accomplish. I started it back in December 2018.
Why was it important for you to organize the society?
I grew up in Tulsa. I’m a city kid, but I grew up wrestling, and that’s more of a blue-collar sport. I’ve always gravitated toward that environment; it’s where I feel more comfortable. But I’m not trying to sell myself as this good ol’ country boy or anything; I loved visiting Merion and going to a wedding at Southern Hills. I feel like Maxwell had those same tendencies.…If I was in Canada, I’d probably be a Stanley Thompson fan. If I was on the East Coast, I’d probably be a Donald Ross fan. I just noticed that a lot of East Coast guys are advertised as these Ross experts and they got a lot of Ross jobs for it. So I said, “Well, I’m going to do my homework on Perry Maxwell, because a lot of his courses need to be renovated.” In a way, that’s how I’ve been getting to meet more club members across the nation, which is great for my business, too.
You’re trying to make a living through your passion.
A lot of guys have done that with Donald Ross, but no one did it with Maxwell yet. I was like, “I live right here in Maxwell country, and this is the exact market that I’m talking about.” Most Maxwell courses are mid-level clubs. Southern Hills, Oklahoma City G&CC, Prairie Dunes, Crystal Downs, Colonial and Old Town Club are the exceptions.
If you didn’t do it, somebody else would, right?
Exactly. I was talking about this with a well-respected older peer the other day and he said, “Don’t devalue our business.” I told him, “I’m not devaluing our business; I’m working in a new market.” Most of my competition is local contractors that don’t really know golf. Good golf architecture shouldn’t cost more. For example, the master plan we did for this club out here in Cushing has 14 bunkers in total on 18 holes.
Less is more?
If we all just build good golf, it’s good for the game and the business.