Golf-course-architecture enthusiasts might not know it, but Joshua C.F. Smith is a part of their lives: His oil paintings have graced the covers of five volumes of Tom Doak’s massively influential The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. But he’s not just an artist. He spends his days as the super-intendent of Orinda Country Club in Northern California. His dual careers were born more of passion and serendipity than a plan, as he bounced from studying business to digging drainage ditches to crashing Christmas parties at Bandon Dunes. Today he’s aligning his course with the natural feel of his art, which means taking aim at cart paths and testing greens with a basketball rather than a Stimpmeter.
SA Which did you choose first: superintendent or painter?
JS I studied business and played golf at St. Mary’s College [in Moraga, California]. Around my senior year, I didn’t have any clue what I wanted to do professionally. I was getting into old golf architecture, and I didn’t want a cubicle job. I set up an informational interview with a golf-course builder and he said, “If you want to design golf courses, you should build golf courses for a couple of years and you’ll meet people.” Within one week of graduating with a business degree, I was in a drainage ditch, learning from the bottom of the totem pole.
The oil painting came about three and a half years later. I was helping build a golf course in Sedona, Arizona. We had weekends off, which was a rarity. I was alone, trying to figure out how I’d fill my time on the weekends. I had seen an oil portrait in the Phoenix airport and was fascinated with the textures. As I was driving out to Sedona, I called the local art store. They were closed, but the owner called me back, opened the store and sold me a set of starter oil paints.
I got into it right away. I’d wake up at 7 a.m. on my days off, and I’d put on Bruce Springsteen and just start painting.
SAFrom the bottom of the totem pole, how long until you became a super?
JS My first day, my boss said, “This is kind of a strange path to come from college to do this.” I was like, “I know, but where do I start?”
I learned the ropes quickly and became a construction superintendent within a couple years. I wanted to start at the bottom to understand each process so I could then supervise those processes. I had intended to build courses for two years, then get a landscape architecture degree, but I saw that could be a tricky line of work. There are big firms and names out there. You can have all the talent in the world, but not have a place to hang your hat at the end of the day. I ended up building courses for five and a half years. I became frustrated with it. Jobs were six to eight months from home. I struggled to hold a girlfriend. Then the recession hit, and it was a good time to bow out.
I floundered for a bit; I went on unemployment for six months and was at home painting every day. I painted a lot of Bandon Dunes. I started working at Golfsmith, and when I had free time, I went looking for the soul of the game. That’s when Tom Doak recognized my work and offered to buy a painting. I drove up to Bandon one weekend alone and played nine holes. While there, one of the workers invited me to the staff Christmas party. I’m this introverted guy in a bar in Bandon. There’s a lot of people and it’s a party atmosphere. I wanted to leave, but I was like, “Maybe I’ll get one beer and see if I can have a conversation with somebody.”
At the bar there were guys my age and I asked if they worked at Bandon. They said, “Kind of. We’re building another course at Bandon right now.” It ended up being one of [Doak’s] main shapers, Brian Slawnik. After talking for a while, Brian said, “Why don’t you come out and I’ll show you what we’re doing?” The next morning, he showed me Pacific Dunes under construction. It was so different than the construction I had done. They didn’t bring in sand for their greens or bunkers; they just raked it out.
Shortly on the heels of that, I painted the 11th hole—no grass, just the sand. I emailed Tom and he offered to buy the painting. Then he offered me a job working with them at San Francisco Golf Club. I ended up selling two originals to their members and they commissioned me to paint their course; they don’t even let you take pictures of their course. One member told me, “For Tom to like your work, it’s a really big deal, because he won’t say something nice if he doesn’t really mean it.”
Meanwhile, a friend became the superintendent at Cal Club. He reached out to me and said they were going to do a restoration project. He offered to teach me the greenskeeping ropes. It was better than working at Golfsmith. I was going to keep my painting going and learn a new trade.
They brought in Kyle Phillips to do the restoration; he designed Kingsbarns. He said to me, “I’m going to build a brand-new hole, and I’d like you to put together an oil rendering of what it’s going to be.”
SA What an honor.
JS It was just a total success—a killer project that’s unlike anything else on the West Coast, and I learned everything I needed to learn.…I got the [Orinda Country Club] job in 2015. At Cal Club, I took courses over two winters to get my agronomy certificate. So I had greenskeeping experience and a construction background. Someone who understands how to build, rebuild and take care of something is more valuable than someone who just knows how to take care of something.…It had been 18 years since I had been back; I don’t think they knew I played golf there in college. I was really lucky.
SA What’s your favorite type of golf course or architecture design?
JS I think it’s fairly well established that the best golf courses in America were built in the 1920s. They have stood the test of time because they were laid out based on the best available land for golf instead of where the real estate fits. It’s the same in Scotland and Ireland: They’re all built in the linksland, in the non-farming ground between where you grow crops and the sea, where it’s good for nothing except for beach or, turns out, links golf.
I’m against how standardized all the [newer] golf courses are looking: sharp-as-a-knife bunker edges, sod-farm green throughout. I’m into things that are more heirloom-looking.
SA Is that the idea that golf courses should be made to fit their natural surroundings?
JS Absolutely. There are a few architects that are just my absolute favorite that are working today: Mike DeVries, Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Coore & Crenshaw. They take a minimalist approach, making things tie in with their natural surroundings.
SA Why do you think that’s important?
JS I shared this [Alister] MacKenzie quote with Orinda’s greens committee: “The chief object of every golf architect or greenskeeper worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself.” We got rid of all the green plastic. Our flagsticks, our bunker rakes and our tee markers are now made of wood. When you’re out here, you might play bad, but you got your exercise. You felt like you were out in nature, saw some wildlife, and it felt like a park experience rather than a shitty day at the golf course.…One thing we’ve been doing here which is kind of against the grain is we’re pulling out cart paths completely. I can’t stand to look at cart concrete. That’s a huge draw to your eye: the white cart path to the green rough. From an architectural standpoint, your highest contrast [should] be at the hazards…but when you have a cart path, it throws it all off.
SA Do you think that the game is inhibited by courses that are too pristine?
JS Some of the charm of the game is. Golf is special because there is that element of luck involved: a good bounce, bad lie, kick off a tree. If it’s too standardized, you lose out on some of those things. It’s tricky because all of this stuff can sound really good, and then you have to provide what the membership, who’s paying to play your golf course, wants. As much as I want to see the ball bouncing all over the place and [the course] turning brown, at some point brown turns into dead and that means you don’t have any grass anymore.
SA What’s your daily process as superintendent?
JS We have a meeting every morning and discuss what we’re doing for the day. I like to get out and walk the course, rolling balls on the greens and hitting chase shots with a wedge. The speed of greens to me is not as important as the firmness of greens. It’s the firmness that matters, but you hear about the Stimpmeter all the time. We don’t use it but for tournaments. I have a 1-pound golf ball. We’ll drop it at a set height to figure out what practices we’re doing so that we can learn how to provide the firmest surface year-round. I’ll take a basketball out to a green too. If I can bounce a basketball without a lot of effort on the greens, then it’s perfect.
You’ve got to remember: This is a living, breathing plant. If you’re trying to hit a certain number every day, it’s just going to be bad for the plant at some point.
SA Let’s talk about your oil painting. What tradition does your style fall into?
JS It’s somewhere between impressionistic and photorealistic. I want to be accurate with the architectural depictions—the bunkers, flagsticks and trees—but I want it to have just a little something left to interpretation so that the viewer is actually finishing the painting for the artist. A painting should look its best from 10 feet away or more. It draws you in, but then when you get up on it, you can see the textures and the magic going from that blurred line to the hard edge. You’ve got your dark value to your light value and the interplay between them.
I feel like what makes me a good artist makes me a good superintendent, and it’s really just being observant. I saw someone say, “An artist doesn’t paint with his hand; he paints with his eyes.”
SA You’re obviously involved in the Bay Area golf community. Do you interact with the art culture as well?
JS I was attending a mentoring class with an influential plein air artist and he said I should try it. I said, “That sounds dangerous. You’re out there with golf balls flying all over the place.” But I’m doing it, and God, it’s exhilarating. You walk out with no real idea what you’re going to paint. You have to be decisive. People are looking at you funny. You set up somewhere and there’s this time limit: You need to be done in an hour and a half. The nerves are running high and you suck at it for a while, and then it starts to look pretty good.
If you talk to artists about painting golf courses, they’re like, “Oh, why would you want to be on a golf course when there are so many more-beautiful things to paint?” In some ways they’re right, but they haven’t been to Bandon or Cypress Point or some of the courses along the ocean. There are not many more-beautiful places than those.
SA When do you paint? Do you sleep?
JS [Laughs.] Yes. I paint about five hours a weekend and then a couple hours after work. It’s family first, it’s my job, and the art fills in the cracks.
I feel great because I think life without hobbies is not as exciting. If I had to quit golf or painting, I’d probably quit golf now. I still love them both, but I think I like painting even more.