The Cavemen

The Cavemen

The unsung heroes of golf's busiest architecture team

It started with a stick. A few decades back Bill Kittleman, the legendary former head pro at Merion and mentor to up-and-coming golf course architects Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, was on a dusty site with his protégés. The maintenance crew had long since taken their tools and equipment back to the barn, but this trio remained to work through an issue. Kittleman, unfazed, grabbed a stick and began whittling away at the soil, doing whatever it took to get the job done. “Look at this, we are like a bunch of (expletive) cavemen out here!” he exclaimed. A nickname, and an ethos, was born.

Today Caveman Construction is the band of shapers that dig into the dirty work behind Hanse and Wagner’s glittering roster of golf course projects. They’re in excavators and on bulldozers, armed with shovels and rakes to build the fairways, bunkers and greens that we will one day play upon. You’ve seen enough about the big-name architects in golf. This is a love letter to the crews with their hands in the dirt.

Jim Wagner Cavemen

Editor’s Note: The following conversation is from The Golfer’s Journal Podcast No. 162, featuring Jim Wagner. In it, Wagner details the creation of the Cavemen Construction team, along with the lifestyle required to be a part of this unique fraternity. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Tom Coyne: I want to get some insights from you on who the Cavemen are, and what it takes to be one. Where does the name come from?

Jim Wagner: It doesn’t take much to be a Caveman, right? You know, most of them have a pulse, so that’s a good start. [Laughs.] The Cavemen we’ve been in existence since about 2006. When Gil and I got started we would do a lot of shaping and managing our own projects. But we weren’t weren’t doing everything ourselves—we would just do all the final shaping. And we realized there was a deficiency in how we worked and managed things, because we weren’t in control of all the aspects of the earthwork.

Say we wanted to raise a greensite three or four feet, or we wanted to get the tees up or down. [Separate contractors] would do it. We would come back and say “Hey, this wasn’t right. Can we add a couple more feet here or knock down a couple feet there?” Then the contractors would charge for a change order.

TC: Oh, change orders. If you’ve ever had work done on your house, you know change orders.

JW: Yeah. So you see where this is going, right? We just said hold on a second. You have to do it right in order to be considered a change, right? At Rustic Canyon, we had a project manager who did a good job, but he wasn’t in tune with the way we worked. All those changes end up costing the owner money. And you maybe don’t get the highest quality or the 100% execution of your vision.

We just felt it was an opportunity to put all of that under our own umbrella and bring in our own people for that work. So it became a separate business; Cavemen Construction and Hanse Golf Design are two separate companies.

The name came from when we were working with Bill Kittleman. Bill’s a longtime head pro, a great mentor to Gil and I, and a wonderful architectural mind. He taught us a whole bunch of stuff along the way. On one of our first projects—27 years ago, 28 years ago, whatever it was—we were working at Rolling Green [in Philadelphia]. And the superintendent at that time really wasn’t a fan of ours. He was fine from 7 a.m. to about 2:30 p.m., but after that he was not eager to have us around. So we would work with some of their hand tools—shovels and rakes and things like that. And they’d rented us some excavators and dozers. But come 2:30, he would just take everything. His guys would wrap everything up and they’d go home. So now we’re sitting there and we have nothing, right?

TC: Shit.

JW: Bill would work over at Marion in the morning, then he’d come see us in the afternoon to critique and edit everything. And he shows up one day and he’s like, “Hey, you guys got a shovel or anything?” And we’re like, “No, Bill, we got nothing.” So Bill grabs a stick and climbs up on the face of the bunker on No. 16, the right-hand side. And he starts carving this line into where he thinks the sand should go up and tie into the face. I said, “Man, that looks great.” And he’s like, “What are we, a bunch of goddamn cavemen?” And that always stuck with us. When we decided to make the second company, that was the name.

Episode 162: The Original Caveman The Golfer's Journal Podcast

TC: I know you’ve been approached before about doing media about your process, but it seemed like you and Gil were interested in this one because you guys weren’t going to be in it. It was just about the Cavemen. We were interested in the idea because it’s a tough life. I hope that comes through in the film: the long hours, the time away, the travel. It’s hard work. It’s not necessarily glorious. You don’t finish up and go play golf. You probably don’t even play the golf course that you built. What’s the Caveman life like?

JW: You’re 100% correct there. It’s the golf business in general, right? Maybe more so on the design construction end than the pro side or the operation side. Regardless, it’s extremely demanding. Things have changed with golf. I mean, the projects that we’re doing, the restoration projects and the new projects, the costs are crazy. So the expectations are through the roof on what has to be delivered. We can handle that, but with those expectations also comes a timeline.

We’ve basically got seven months or so by the time you carve out the holidays to build a golf course. So it’s demanding. It’s 10 hours a day, six days a week. And the project is not in your backyard, they’re all over the country. 

We have a couple guys who are single. Then we have a couple of guys who are a little bit older with the kids out of the house. So there’s a different mix of guys from all over the country, from all over the world. But the lifestyle is very demanding. It’s very nomadic. Of all of our guys, I don’t know how many of them actually have a home. Maybe two or three. Some of them rent as a central base, and some of them just travel from job to job.

TC: Wow.

JW: Your family can travel with you, which is fortunate, at least up until the kids get into kindergarten, then it’s going to change. For those guys, it’s a lot of traveling back and forth—a lot of early morning flights and late-night flights to get home to see your family and to get back to the job.

Hopefully we do a good enough job with these guys to give them enough downtime—three weeks or a month or whatever it might be—that they can get home and reacquaint themselves with their families. But it’s extremely demanding on the family, on them, and even their friends and other relationships.

Then the demands of the job are crazy. You’re working with contractors and people in the field; it’s dust, it’s dirt, it’s aggravation, there’s yelling, there’s points when you’ve got to be firm and fair about decisions. So there’s a lot to it.

TC: It reminds me of that show Deadliest Catch. I’m thinking about these crews headed out there to do this gruesome work, make their money, come home for a bit, then go back out. How many do you have among the Caveman crew? Over time, I’m sure there’ve been a lot who just couldn’t hack it.

JW: Well, first they’ve gotta make it through the Jim Wagner test, right? [Laughs] You’ve got to be able to deal with me for a little bit. I take a long time to hire these guys. We don’t do it right off the bat. I’ll talk to them for several months and make sure that they’re really interested. Because you can’t imagine the number of emails and resumes with people wanting to get into the golf business. But a majority of them don’t have a realistic idea as to what it means to get into this. They just don’t understand the demands. They talk about design and stuff like that. They think they’re just going to walk around saying, “Why don’t you put a couple of bunkers over there?”

TC: I’m sure.

JW: So it does take a while for us to work our way through conversations and make sure they’re 100%. Believe me, I try my hardest to talk them out of getting into golf. 

TC: It’s got to be a special bond with these guys being in the dirt together, having good days and bad days, living together on the road. It’s gotta be something like a fraternity, right?

JW: That’s a great point. It’s not only a fraternity for the Cavemen, it’s a fraternity for everybody that works in this end of the business, especially from a shaping standpoint. I’m sure most industries are that way, in that you have that common bond, you know? People are willing to take the extra step and they know what it takes. If you’re a good person and you work hard, then everybody’s willing to help you out.

And it can be rewarding. The times that we get these guys get together—which is rare because we’re so busy working and then the last thing they want to do is go see the guys they’ve been working with during their time off—are always a lot of fun. It’s just great to catch up on stories and relive the crazy time you’ve spent together.