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Remembering Bob Cupp: How Our Awkward Conversation 22 Years Ago Inspired My Career and Changed My Life for the Better

bob_cuppPhoto: Golf Channel/Morning Drive

Like many others in the golf industry who have had the chance to get to know him or meet him, I was saddened to hear this past Friday of the passing of Bob Cupp.  In the two days since the news was made public, there has been an outpouring of support from across the golf world with words of praise not only for his body of work, but also for the man himself. You can read many of those with a quick Google search, including a great story by Ron Whitten via Golf Digest’s website.  For my part, I felt compelled to write about my connection to Bob, the unusual way we met, and the strange way he kicked off my career—even though I didn’t tell him about it for 14 years.

To understand, you need to know a little background about how our paths first crossed.  When I was finishing up college at Mississippi State, I worked as an assistant golf professional at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Mississippi.  Bob designed Old Waverly in the late 1980s and it is still one of my favorite courses to play.  During my time at Old Waverly, I became friends with then golf course superintendent Bill Colloredo and told him of my desire since childhood to become a golf course architect after graduating from college.  I showed Bill some of my sketches and drawings and he gave me a copy of Bob’s original hand-drawn green plans for Old Waverly, which I carefully studied in my apartment while I sketched out greens I imagined for a “yet to be determined” golf course that existed only in my mind. I still have Bob’s green plans to this day.

This was in 1994, about the time that Old Waverly was talking with the USGA about hosting a US Women’s Open (which it would eventually host in 1999).  When I arrived at work one day, Bill informed me that Bob was coming to visit and look at adding a few bunkers to the course as part of getting the course ready for the presentation to the USGA.  To my delight, Bill asked if I wanted to tag along and listen.  I jumped at the opportunity.  The day Bob arrived, a group of us piled into multiple golf carts and followed hole by hole in what must have looked like a giant serpent snaking along the cart path.  Bob was in the front cart with owner George Bryan and I was way back in the back.  Each time they would stop, I would jump out and run toward the front, trying to listen and learn by osmosis.

When we were done and had returned to the golf shop, Bill asked if I wanted him to introduce me to Bob. “Of course!” I replied. We stood around waiting for the others to finish speaking with Bob and when the small crowd has thinned, Bill made the introduction.

“Mr. Cupp,” Bill began. “This is Nathan Crace.  He’s a student at Mississippi State and wants to be a golf course architect.”

“Nice to meet you,” Bob replied. “Good luck. It’s a tough business to get into.”

And just like that, it was over.  To this day, I don’t recall saying anything.  I was devastated.  In his defense, I don’t know what I was expecting.  Did I think he would say “Great! Pack your bags and let’s go! You can work for me!” Again, I really didn’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting what happened.  I tucked my tail between my legs and quietly slunk away to my car for the 25 minute drive back to my apartment in Starkville.

Then something strange happened.  About five minutes after passing through the guardhouse at Old Waverly, I thought “Who in the hell does he think he is? He doesn’t know me! He doesn’t know what I can and can’t do! I’ve wanted to be a golf course architect since I was ten and I’m not going to not do it just because he says so!”  I was, for lack of a better term, fired up.  I was mad and I was going to prove I could do it.  What I didn’t realize that day was that his brutally honest reply was the proverbial “kick in the pants” I needed to prove to myself that I could do it. I would have to work harder than others if I wanted to become a golf course architect, but I would do it.

That same year, I was taking a now-defunct course called “Golf Course Architecture I” and the instructor had convinced Bob to visit the class and judge our projects in conjunction with an upcoming visit he was making to the area.  He sat through the other students’ projects as I waited for my turn.  When it came time for me to present my design, he seemed to remember me.  Rather than asking me the same rudimentary questions he had been asking the others, he immediately engaged me in an in-depth hole-by-hole discussion of the entire course I had laid out.  Everything from the routing, the combination of holes, the angles of doglegs, and the placement of bunkers to the way he liked how I routed holes diagonally across natural features.  I was flabbergasted.  He was fully engaged and spent nearly a half-hour asking me about the smallest details and offering constructive advice for things he would have done differently.  It was as if we were the only two people in the room.  I left that auditorium feeling like I could be a golf course architect after all—all because Bob Cupp acted like he thought I could.

Flash forward to Fall 2008 and I had been designing golf courses for nearly 14 years.  Unlike others who worked under established architects, I spent the first eight years of my career working for a former golf course superintendent whom Bill Colloredo introduced me to in late 1994.  The two of us built an impressive body of work for two guys who had no formal training.  By 2008, I had been on my own for nearly six years and had been blessed to add some nice renovation work to my portfolio when I stumbled across a story about a project Bob was working on.  For some reason, I felt compelled to write to Bob to let him know that his words to me in 1994 were the catalyst for inspiring me to become a golf course architect—not to say “I told you so,” but rather to say “Thank you.” I sent him a letter telling him the story of our meeting at Old Waverly and how his reaction “lit a fire beneath me” to prove him wrong—and that I would always be indebted to him for that.

A week or so later, I received an email back from Bob.  He had been in Argentina working on a project and was just catching up on getting back to people.  To paraphrase, he said that he did indeed remember me from that day at Old Waverly fourteen years earlier as well as the night he came to campus to judge our project designs and that he was encouraged by my reaction to his verbal dose of reality.  He said he only wanted to be truthful with me back then that the golf course design industry is a tough one to break into without getting my hopes up.  He would go on to write a lengthy email explaining that he had been following my career from time to time (even noting my renovation at Ole Miss GC) and offering me sage advice going forward on everything from hiring staff to being a “gentleman competitor.”  He was genuinely happy for me and how I had responded to his challenge.  To this day, I have that email framed in my office and sometimes I read it when I need a dose of inspiration.

From that point, we would correspond off and on via email and the occasional phone call and Bob became the closest thing I had to a “mentor” in the world of golf course architecture.  In 2013, he and Ron Whitten were going to discuss their new book at the Golf Industry Show in San Diego.  On that same day, I was speaking at a panel discussion hosted by the National Golf Course Owners Association across the street and told Bob I would hurry from there and try to get over to hear them speak.  In an email, he encouraged me to come by if I could, if only for a few minutes to say “Hi.” Because of the timing of the two events, I only caught the last 15 minutes of the discussion, but we had an opportunity to speak for a while afterward.  As always, he was very gracious with his time and his words of wisdom and I enjoyed the stories he told in the short time we had that day.

The next year, Bob called to ask if I was interested in joining the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA). Was I?!?!?  That was my goal since I was a boy! He would become my lead sponsor and shepherd my application through the lengthy vetting process.  That’s why I was so excited to get to the 2016 ASGCA Annual Meeting in DC this past April.  We would finally have time to sit and talk in person—both as ASGCA members—and I could ask him questions and share stories and tell him in person how much he meant to me and my career.  The first night, a member of the ASGCA staff took me to the side and told me that Bob was not going to be able to attend and why.  He had just been diagnosed with cancer.  I was speechless.  Since he was my lead sponsor, they wanted me to know, but asked me to keep it to myself.  At the time, they were only telling a handful of people.  That evening, I sent Bob an email to let him know I was thinking about him and that he and his family would be in my prayers.  I closed with a note of encouragement, telling him that I looked forward to catching up at the next annual ASGCA meeting in 2017.  Sadly, we won’t get that chance.

Bob Cupp was many things to many people. Husband, father, grandfather, golf course architect, writer, craftsman, and Renaissance man.  There are many titles that applied to him and we should all strive to be as well-rounded as Bob.  We should all be so lucky to be remembered by all as giving of our time and inspiring to others.  Our industry may have lost a huge talent, but the world lost a great person and many people lost a true friend.  To me, he was the person who was brutally honest with a college kid who had his head in the clouds and forced him to buckle down and work hard to achieve his dreams.  I cannot believe that was 22 years ago, but I am so glad I told him what he did for me.  Too often, we don’t take the time to tell those who inspire us just what they have done for us in our lives.  Bob Cupp challenged me to be the best I could be and to become a golf course architect for one reason—because I loved the game.  For that, I will always be personally indebted to him.  I only wish I had the chance to tell him so in person one last time.

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