“Gentleman Joe” Lee: His Courses Make Golfers Smile
Jack Nicklaus greatly admires this designer’s golf courses. So does Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten, who wrote an entire book about his work titled, Joe Lee: 50 Years of Golf Design. His layouts have hosted scores of professional tournaments and thrilled everyday golfers for more than 60 years.
It’s a wonder Joe Lee isn’t a household name.
Chalk it up to Lee’s humble demeanor and his distaste for self-promotion. No doubt, he came by the nickname “Gentleman Joe” honestly.
But he had plenty to brag about.
Nicklaus summed up Lee’s consistently excellent work with the ultimate compliment, saying Lee “never built a bad course.”
If you’ve played much golf in Florida, especially the southern reaches, you’ve probably played a Lee-designed course. There are 80 or so sprinkled between Pensacola and Miami, including a large concentration around Lee’s former home base of Palm Beach County.
And if you have played a Joe Lee layout, odds are you walked away smiling.
Bucking the trend
In the second half of the 20th century, golf course design became a competition to see who could torture golfers the most. Bunkers got deeper, water hazards proliferated and length leapt to outrageous dimensions.
Yet Lee never joined the fray.
Instead, he crafted golf courses reflecting a simple yet keen insight: “Golfers want a challenge,” Lee noted, “but they want a fair one.”
That’s exactly what he gave them.
Born in Oviedo, Fla., in 1922, Lee did a stint in the Navy during World War II. He then earned a degree from the University of Miami (Fla.) and began teaching golf at a nearby course. That’s where he met Dick Wilson, one of the era’s most prominent course designers.
Lee and Wilson worked hand-in-hand on such fabled layouts as Cog Hill No. 4 near Chicago and Orlando’s Bay Hill, now Arnold Palmer’s home. When Wilson died in 1965, Lee set out on his own.
Lee went on to build more than 200 courses worldwide before passing away in 2003. He didn’t just sketch a blueprint and leave the dirty work to his crew, either. Lee was a hands-on architect who didn’t mind getting his hands a little muddy.
In fact, he loved it. And it shows in his golf courses.
Enjoyable yet challenging
Unlike some of his peers, Lee wasn’t interested in terrorizing everyday golfers or making “top 100” lists. Enjoyability was his No. 1 goal.
To that end, Lee always provided a safe route around a hole’s worst trouble and thoughtfully placed tees at distances to suit a variety of players. His greens are large and well-contoured, but rarely severe in slope.
But don’t show up at a Joe Lee course assuming you’ll set a personal best.
Lee wasn’t one to skimp on hazards. Designs like The International Golf Club at Deer Island teem with sprawling bunkers, while others, including The Diplomat Golf & Tennis Club, feature water aplenty. In fact, island greens were a Joe Lee specialty.
Hey, he never said golf should be easy.
No, he understood that there’s fun to be had in a good challenge – as long as the golfer has a fighting chance to succeed. In fact, that’s probably his greatest legacy. Gentleman Joe always looked out for the Average Joe.
Check out some of our favorite Joe Lee tracks here at GolfNow.com: