Simile: A comparison between two seemingly unlike things using “like” or “as.” Example: Tom Fazio is to golf-course architecture as the Cheesecake Factory is to the culinary world. A good friend offered that opinion a couple years ago and I’ve been chewing on it ever since.
I’d recently played Pablo Creek, an exclusive, highly regarded Fazio design near my home in Jacksonville, Florida, and was struggling to make sense of it. The course offered impeccable conditioning and fantastic views; I’d had a great time and felt like I’d been challenged. But less than a week after playing, I struggled to remember even four of the holes. When I told my friend Jed about this, he asked if I’d ever been to the Cheesecake Factory. I had, maybe a half-dozen times over the previous decade. He explained the striking similarity: You’ll go and remember you had a good time and that the service was good, but you won’t really remember what you ate—just that the portions were huge and it delivered on the objective elements of the experience.
In the years since, I’ve played about a dozen more Fazio courses, and this simile rings truer each time. It led me down a rabbit hole, where I found a line from a feature on Fazio in the fall 1999 issue of Cigar Aficionado that still sticks with me: “While the $1.5 million-a-course Jack Nicklaus flies around the world to stage posh cocktail parties to celebrate grand openings, and the charismatic Robert Trent Jones Jr. likes to compare himself to Mozart and Beethoven, insisting ‘the land speaks to me, as all my courses are like symphonies with crescendos, lulls, and different rhythms,’ Fazio is a measured ‘blue-collar’ American Gothic anachronism.”
And now, a quote from David Overton, founder of the Cheesecake Factory, in a 2016 Vice profile: “I don’t like gourmet food, I don’t like odd things.…I understand what people want to eat, and my tastebuds I think are of the common man.”
Fazio builds with all the objective elements of good golf. His designs are consistently well constructed and beautifully landscaped. You’ll always—often at the expense of the local terrain—get a stern test of a par 72 on an out-and-back routing, huge servings of fairway, runoffs and greens, and a massive environmental footprint. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the food-and-beverage hut offering cuisine at a level between your local convenience store and the appetizer portion of—wait for it—the Cheesecake Factory (shoutout Tex Mex Eggrolls!).
It’s not Fazio’s fault that these courses also aligned perfectly with the wishes of their owners, and, to a degree, the golfing public at large. Many of the designs meshed with real-estate-driven goals as developers hoped to maximize their expensive home lots with attractive golf courses. Fazio created familiar, easily digestible designs that melded different architectural styles. And it worked: He did what was asked, to an astonishing level of success.
So what happens when tastes change from Cheesecake Factory’s industrial-size comfort food to the funky taco truck with local ingredients? What happens when golfers would rather skip Shadow Creek for Sweetens Cove? Fazio now appears to be an anachronism of the aesthetics-driven empty calories of the 1990s and early 2000s, trying to find his way in an industry looking backward to the strategy-driven, minimalist philosophies of a century ago.
Golf is the best, but not because of a whitewashed 12-foot bunker. Golf is the best because it asks questions and presents surprises. Surprises are never built into a pro forma business model, because quirky can reduce the value of Lot 14-A on the master design.
As a younger generation craves authenticity and less overly materialistic experiences, can Fazio adapt? He’s rarely gotten the chance to show what he could do in that space. Maybe he’s the talented sous chef with great ideas who had to stay at the Cheesecake Factory for the benefits and stability.
We’re already seeing some evolution. The Factory now has a “Skinnylicious” menu; the Faz produced Congaree. For now, however, I’ll let the masses have their Chicken Bellagio. I’ll be down the street, enjoying tacos with my people.
Todd Schuster is better known as Tron Carter from the No Laying Up collective. His opinions on wine might be spicier than his takes on golf.