Jupiter, Florida based Jan Bel Jan has recently been elected president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) and is only the second woman to be elected to that position in the organization’s 73 year history. The late Alice Dye (Mrs Pete) was elected in 1997.
This was no virtue signaling of wokeness by some outfit trying to prove it’s political correctness. That is not how the ASGCA rolls. Membership in the organization is based entirely on what you’ve accomplished in the profession and Bel Jan did it the old fashioned way-she earned it.
Born into a golf family in the Pittsburgh area, Bel Jan’s father George Bel Jan, designed and built a public golf course then ran it as the club pro and superintendent and three of her five brothers were professionals.
Owning and operating a public golf course is like working a family farm-there is work to be done every day and everyone has to pitch in. Bel Jan recalls working there from age 6. It was at her father’s golf course that Bel Jan got her first understanding of how course design worked from her father explaining the reasons- how the routing was dictated by the land, placement of bunkers, angles to greens and the size and shape of the greens appropriate to the approach shot.
Bel Jan’s involvement in plants and trees at the golf course lead her to getting a college degree in landscape architecture and a job working for Davie Tree in the Pittsburgh area doing lawn care, sales, and driving a tanker truck. It was at Oakmont that a fortuitous meeting changed the course of Bel Jan’s life.
During a sales call in 1979 with Jack Mahaffey who was the U.S. Open chairman for Oakmont Country Club, Mahaffey was surprised to see a woman representative but when he found out that she was George Bel Jan’s daughter he wanted to know what she was doing in her career.
Once Mahaffey learned that Bel Jan had a landscape architecture degree he had an idea. His friend Tom Fazio, a golf course architect whose solo design career was about to explode, was looking for someone to draft plans in his Jupiter, Florida office.
Interviews were arranged, Bel Jan was hired, gave Davie Tree two weeks notice and headed to Jupiter.
“She had the education and experience but more importantly she had the desire,” said Fazio. “She was a good fit from the beginning.”
Her first big job was doing plans and bid documents for PGA National’s Champions course, site of the 1983 Ryder Cup, which was complicated by the fact the underground cable and wire had been installed to accommodate television.
By 1984 the 36-hole Pelican’s Nest Country Club in Bonita Springs was Bel Jan’s first opportunity to play in the dirt onsite and run her own project. “I learned a lot on that job. It was a good education in site design,“ she said. “I understood machinery but the construction guys were really helpful and coached me on quite a few things.” The membership was so pleased they had Bel Jan back for a renovation in 2015-16 where some holes were lengthened, some softened and new forward tees installed.
Bel Jan would go on to work for Tom Fazio until 2009 when she opened her own practice. During that time Fazio would rise from just a guy who worked with his uncle George to be the most sought after architect of the era and the most highly compensated. They would work together on projects including Shadow Creek, Jupiter Hills, Old Collier, World Woods and Black Diamond.
“Jan meant a lot to the business during those years,” said Fazio. “She was attentive, a hard worker, dedicated, great at service to the clients. She understood our philosophy, was a good listener and very good at execution.”
The admiration was mutual. “Tom wanted people who wanted to learn,” Bel Jan recalled. “He had paramenters, things he required, but he wanted designers to be creative so he gave us the leeway to put our own stamp on the design.”
And Bel Jan does have her own view of design. The mantra in course deign these days is fun but Bel Jan has been a proponent of fun for years. “Fun is when we have success playing the game,” she says. “ It is really a psychological aptitude- making shots appear more difficult than they are. Fun golf is an idea whose time has come and it works now because of today’s culture.”
Putting those concepts into practice Bel Jan introduced a concept she calls the Scoring Tees- forward tees (no more gender or age references) to have courses play between 4,000 and 4,500 yards.
“People thought I was crazy when adding 4,000-4,200 yard tees but fewer strokes equals less time,” says Bel Jan. “The stories are out there now about how successful this has been and the market is responding.”
Being elected president of the ASGCA is a tremendous recognition for anyone in the profession but particularly for a woman in a historically male dominated organization and for that Bel Jan is humbly appreciative.
“It was truly an honor when I was asked to be on executive committee where you go through chairs to eventually become president,” remarked Bel Jan. “This wasn’t women electing women. This was men recognizing who they want to represent us. It was remarkable and unexpected. You are always welcome in the ASGCA if you are proficient. You can’t get a degree in golf course architecture. It is your body of work that demonstrates ability.“
‘They have game’ is an old saying in golf when someone has routinely and consistently demonstrated proficiency. When it comes to golf course design Jan Bel Jan has game.