Robert von Hagge Passes

Golf course architect Robert von Hagge passed away Saturday, October 16, at the age of 83, with his wife Greta at his side when he peacefully slipped away.

Mr. von Hagge's professional life stretched from his early teen years as a caddie to internationally known golf course designer.

Born and raised on a golf course, Mr. Von Hagge worked as a caddie, a shop boy (cleaning and repairing golf clubs), a caddie master, a golf course maintenance crewman, an assistant greens superintendent, assistant golf professional, and commercial illustrator for sporting magazines before his 17th birthday. After high school, he attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis and Purdue University Agriculture School, majoring in landscape architecture.

The son of noted course designer and developer Ben von Hagge, who worked briefly with Donald Ross in the 1920s, Chicago-born (Robert) von Hagge learned the trade from Dick Wilson, when Wilson, one of America's foremost golf course architects, employed him in 1955 as an apprentice golf course designer. By 1959, Mr. von Hagge was a principal designer with the Wilson firm. By the end of 1962, he had been involved in all or part of the design of 40 courses in the U.S. and the Caribbean and four foreign countries. Later that year, he started his own firm.

During his six-plus decades as a course designer, Mr. von Hagge was responsible for the design, redesign, or partial design of more than 250 courses in the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, and 16 foreign countries. At one time he had offices ranging from South Florida and California to Australia, before he decided to move his headquarters to The Woodlands in Texas.

He and partners Mike Smelek and Rick Baril created courses in more than 50 cities including Paris, Milan, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Mexico City, Sydney, Tokyo, Madrid, and Genoa. In the U. S. they have courses in Miami, Philadelphia, Long Island, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Naples, Ft. Myers, Phoenix, Tampa, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and dozens more. Their courses have received more than 500 awards of distinction.

Les Bordes, set in the middle of the Loire Valley in France and ranked as the No. 1 golf course in Europe, is considered von Hagge's piece de resistance. According to Top 100 Golf Courses website, "It's been said that when he designed this beast he was at his most wickedly creative" and [the course] "is a supreme challenge."

A golf writer for said, "Robert Von Hagge earns top honors for Les Bordes, the country's premier layout since it opened in 1986. ... Les Bordes is king because it is a truly total experience von Hagge's masterpiece."

As the founder and senior partner of von Hagge, Smelek and Baril, Mr. von Hagge actively maintained hands-on involvement in the creation of distinctive designs all over the world even in his early 80s. Of course he wasn't racking up the air miles to the extent he used to - something he said he regretted. "I miss a lot of the dirt, the rain and the mud, squeezing something out of primitive circumstances."

Mr. von Hagge had the following philosophy for golf design: "Every shot situation should be one where the golfer walks up to the ball and has his breath taken away. It should be a spiritual experience."

He often spoke warmly of his partners of more than a quarter of a century. "Both Mike and Rick have been a driving force behind the creation of many major projects throughout the world and largely responsible for the creation of some of the world's finest golfing experiences.

"I am personally grateful for the obvious creative talent and responsible dedication that is a part of the very fiber that these two outstanding men bring to the team. I am simultaneously proud and delighted that we are all on the same company design team, one which they will someday inherit along with its history, credentials and worldwide reputation; a reputation which they both have so richly contributed to over the past several years."

A celebration of Robert von Hagge's life event was held at Northgate Country Club in Houston October 23. Memorial /honor donations can be made to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center online at, by mail to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, PO Box 4486, Houston, Texas 77210, or by phone at 713/792-3450.

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