JOHNSON CREEK – Craig Haltom has been, at various times, a golf course superintendent, project manager, estimator, designer, builder and marketer. Officially, he is the president of golf management for Middleton-based The Oliphant Companies, but his business card lacks a job title.
So what, exactly, is he?
“That’s actually a problem for me,” Haltom says. “I can’t even answer the question, ‘What do you do?’ ”
The answer, when it comes to golf, is just about everything.
Haltom, who lives in Stevens Point, found the land in central Wisconsin that became the acclaimed Sand Valley Resort. He was owner Mike Keiser’s right-hand man while Oliphant built the first course, doing whatever needed to be done and working side by side with architect Bill Coore. He secured Oliphant’s management contract with The Golf Courses of Lawsonia. He oversaw renovations at Stevens Point Country Club and the Beloit Club.
When Oliphant was doing renovation work at Nakoma Golf Club in Madison some years back, the club coincidentally was looking for a superintendent, so Haltom stepped into that role for two years. Turns out he can grow grass, too.
His latest project, the reimagination of historic Lac La Belle Country Club – now called The Club at Lac La Belle – will open in 2020. Haltom essentially built a new course on top of the old one and in the process solved chronic drainage problems, a challenge he rated as “10 on a scale of 1 to 10.”
“I just feel that if word can get out about Craig’s capabilities, he could be the next Gil Hanse or somebody like that,” says La Belle owner Matt Morse, referring to the architect who designed the golf course for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. “He’s got all the tools. He’s a talented guy.”
Haltom’s newest project is a par-3 course at Trappers Turn in Wisconsin Dells. Andy North is the designer, but Haltom will do the heavy lifting. The 12-hole short course, which will complement the 27 existing holes designed by North, is scheduled to open in 2021.
In an age of specialization, the 43-year-old Haltom is a throwback to the long-ago days when the course “architect” also served as the golf professional, mowed the greens, caddied for the club champion and patched the hole in the clubhouse roof. Think Old Tom Morris with a laptop and a backhoe loader.
“I haven’t modeled my career off of anything but I just always had it in my head that I want to be good at golf and to be a guy that you could credibly go to and say, ‘We’ve got a golf course and what could we do?’ ” Haltom says over breakfast. “I’m happy that I’ve been able to touch enough things. I’m a grass guy. I’m a dirt guy. We manage courses, so I’m somehow a marketing guy, too.
“The reality is, when I’m talking to people about what I do, I can see their eyes glaze over. Are we talking about bunkers right now, or are we talking about how we grow membership?”
Haltom attended Manchester University in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he studied art and environmental studies and played on the golf team. But what he really wanted to do was study golf courses, and there is no better place to do that than Scotland. So he applied to Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, where he obtained a master’s degree in landscape architecture.
For two years, Haltom and his young bride, Becky, spent weekends hiking Scotland’s coast, taking advantage of the country’s “freedom to roam” rights under the Land Reform Act to pitch their tent in farm fields along the way. They visited famous links such as Muirfield and North Berwick but also walked out-of-the-way courses in small villages that few Americans ever play.
Haltom also played on the Heriot-Way club golf team, which exposed him to places such as St. Andrews and Panmure, where Ben Hogan practiced before playing in his one and only British Open in 1953.
“I wanted to see as many golf courses as I could,” he says. “That’s how we spent our weekends. Becky was nice enough to come with me and support that. It was an adventure. We were poor. No car, so we would take trains. A lot of walking. We hiked the coastline, just wandered our way, miles and miles.”
He wound up in Madison when Becky, a botanist, took a job studying a particular plant at the University of Wisconsin. Haltom literally looked up “golf course builders” in the yellow pages and found one: Oliphant.
“(Owner) Mike (Oliphant) knew that I had gone to school and I was interested in trying to dabble in things,” he says. “So progressively it went from just running a tractor to doing some estimating and some project management. And then we’d get thrown some design projects, small stuff, so it kept building to now we’re somehow doing what I always wanted to do.”
In his spare time, Haltom looked far and wide for the “perfect” site in Wisconsin on which to build a golf course. After years of searching, he found it in the sand barrens south of Wisconsin Rapids. Keiser, a Chicago businessman who had turned Bandon Dunes on the Oregon coast into a bucket-list resort, wasn’t interested in building golf courses in Wisconsin … until he saw the land.
“At the beginning, I was doing all the groundwork,” Haltom says. “There just wasn’t anybody else there. I was doing tours and trying to line up contractors. Once Bill (Coore) and Ben (Crenshaw) were hired, I had what would probably be the best professional experience of my life, which was Bill graciously letting me tag along as he was figuring out where the golf course was going to go.”
Even now, Haltom has a hard time describing exactly what he did at Sand Valley, except that it was a little bit of everything.
“I don’t know. Leading construction,” he says. “How I describe it is we did the heavy lifting. We did the irrigation system, we did the earthwork. We did plenty of creative stuff, but we’re there supporting Bill and his small group of shapers on the ground. You might say I was the owner’s representative, or something like that. We were the contractor building the golf courses.”
As if on cue, Haltom’s phone rings. He isn’t going to answer until he looks at the caller ID. It’s Mike Keiser. Haltom no longer is involved in the day-to-day work at Sand Valley, but Oliphant is building the resort’s third 18-hole course and Haltom remains a trusted advisor.
The job at La Belle came about when Tyler Morse, Matt’s son, called Haltom to inquire about installing a putting green at the family’s Sussex-based business, The Prestwick Group. The putting green was put on hold when Matt Morse went big and bought La Belle Golf Club.
Morse hired Haltom to reimagine the course, which opened in 1896 and employed early U.S. Open champions Willie Anderson and Alex Smith as club professionals. It was a chance for Haltom to tap into his knowledge of irrigation and construction and at the same time stretch himself creatively as a designer and put his signature on the work.
“Me and Matt and Tyler started going out and walking the ground; they wanted my opinion on whether or not these could be good golf holes,” Haltom says. “Yeah, these could be pretty good. And at each step they kept ramping up to ‘We want it to be really good. We want it to be really good.’
“By the time we got started (on construction) we essentially were on the path to build a brand-new golf course on top of the existing one. That process of figuring out the routing was a lot of fun.”
The Club at Lac La Belle was opened for nine-hole preview play in the late fall and the reaction of golfers was overwhelmingly positive.
“I’m pleased with the work we’ve done,” Haltom says. “I don’t think we’ve moved sideways at these places. I think they’ve been big, dramatic changes that hopefully it seems like people are responding positively to. … That’s something we’ve been able to do well, is to try to get the most out of places and come out with something that’s demonstrably better and fun to play.
“I have always taken the approach that the job I’m on is going to be the last one ever. I literally believe that. If we get more work it will be because we’ve done good work.”
Golf course design is an incredibly competitive business. Haltom doesn’t yet have a resume that compares with those of “name” architects such as Coore and Crenshaw, Hanse or Tom Doak. But his star clearly is on the rise.
“I’m getting inquiries all the time and making site visits, which is great,” he says. “You never know if those are going to fizzle or go anywhere. But, yeah, the phone is ringing.”