Geeked on Golf

A Celebration of the People & Places that Make Golf the Greatest Game


Pitching In – An Interview with Shaper Justin Carlton

ArcadiaBluffsSouthIt wasn’t the most pleasant evening I have ever experienced in Northern Michigan, but I didn’t care.  After months of Facebook messaging, I was finally getting a walking tour of the South Course at Arcadia Bluffs with Justin Carlton.  Justin is an experienced Shaper, having worked on courses from Michigan to Bock Cay, and beyond.  He had been brought on by Dana Fry to pitch in on the South Course – one of the most intriguing course construction projects in years.

We walked and talked and geeked out hard on golf and architecture.  Justin’s interests range from building traditional golf courses all the way to applying proven design principles to disc golf courses.  Our conversation eventually turned to pitch & putts, and it was evident that we had touched on something near and dear to Justin’s heart.  His enthusiasm was palpable, and I wanted to know more.  

Justin graciously agreed to do an interview so that we could learn more about him, and what he considers to be a missing piece in the game for championship golf obsessed Americans.  Enjoy!



(click on images to enlarge)

How did you get introduced to the game of golf?

Jason, first thanks for all you do for the game of golf and allowing me to be a part of it!  I was introduced to the game by my Grandfather, Ralph Carlton.  He was a great guy, but also a Marine Corps lifer so he could be a little stern at times.  I played with him and my Aunt, Kathy Carpenter the most growing up.  We always played our local courses, Arcadia Country Club and Sunnybreeze, both of which are located in my hometown (I would love to get my hands on them to fix them up).  It was a real treat to play with them and we had a lot of fun – memories I will never forget.  My Grandfather had this signature move, the Carlton shuffle.  It never failed, at some point when the game had him beat and frustrated he would hit a horrible shot and proceed to stomp the ball repeatedly into the ground to where you couldn’t even see it.  I’d give anything to witness that one more time!

When did you know that the game had a hold on you?

I started to take lessons, began to understand the game better and had developed a nice swing.  My grandfather invited me on a trip.  It was mostly to visit some areas where he was stationed while in the Marine Corps and included a visit to Sea Palms on St. Simons Island to play golf.  Up to this point I had only seen good courses on TV and walked away from this experience in awe, realizing there was a lot more to the game than what I had experienced so far.

How did you get into the business?

I had some interesting things happen growing up and felt I had to find work a little early to help the family.  My first job was actually working the drive thru window at McDonalds.  My uncle was into excavation work and he gave me a shot, running a shovel cleaning up curbing on a road for a grader operator that I learned to despise.  Every day I said, if I am ever the boss, I will not give this much trouble to the laborers.  I recently bought a home off that road that I learned to hate and visit those memories frequently when driving on it.  I moved on from working for my Uncle and took a job down in the Naples area that led to moving dirt around golf courses.

Art grabbed my attention at a young age, Salvador Dali was and still is the man in my opinion.  I had gotten very good on a dozer and realized the shapers were making a lot more money than myself and figured that my love of art, dirt and golf would be a great combination.  My brother Jody actually moved into shaping before me while we were moving dirt on Tiburon in Naples, and he led me to make the jump.  Tom Fazio was starting a new project, Corral Creek Club in the Gasparilla area near my home.  At that point I honestly had no clue who Tom Fazio was, didn’t really know there was a role called “golf architect” – I only knew this was my shot.  Quality Grassing was the construction company and I found myself begging the hardnose Larry Woody for a job.  Somehow it worked out and here I am today.

Who have been your biggest influences, in and out of golf?

As far as golf shaping goes, Mark White took me under his wing and taught me the ropes and I am forever thankful for everything he taught me.  He really influenced me to become the “free spirit” shaper I am today for many reasons.  Mark was a Mike Strantz boy and had performed several jobs for the legend.  I would eat up his stories and then go home to do further research to catch up.  I’ll never forget working at Corral Creek.  Mark had ripped all the stakes out of the fairway and told me I had to learn to “feel it”. My mind was spinning when Tom Fazio’s site rep showed up and said, “Somebody sure has taken some liberty with this one.”  But he liked it, and so I thought to myself, game on!

Maurice Campbell played a critical role in developing me as a shaper.  We battled each other daily in friendly competition in who could shape best.  I never thought I would get close to him but loved every second when we would walk holes early in the morning before anyone else showed up to talk and challenge each other to do something better.  I’ll never forget the day Maurice asked, “What do you think about me doing this?”  I knew I was getting closer at that point.  Maurice also was a Strantz boy and eventually led me down a deeper rabbit hole into golf architecture.  Mike Strantz and Dana Fry who were both Fazio guys that came from the same dozer seat and helped me realize I could dream bigger.

My Parents and grandparents have played a massive role in who I am as an individual.  They taught me to be humble.  Work hard and success will follow somewhere and someday.  Although it doesn’t show up as much as it should in my daily life, I have a deep personal relationship with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Without that, I’d be a complete wreck.  I owe all my talents to Him!

Who is your favorite Golden Age architect, and why?

I am not sure it was intentional but Tom Marzolf from Fazio design referenced Tillie the Terror a few times while I was working with him on projects, and it was my first introduction to the Golden Age guys.  Although Tillinghast was my first real introduction to the Golden Age I would have to say it is a three way tie between Tillinghast, Mackenzie and Colt.  Sorry I can’t nail this question, and it is the toughest question you could ask me.  Although Mackenzie has the name, I think Tillinghast has had the biggest contribution to today’s game.  The guy was a genius in what he designed.  I find myself a little different than some of the guys I have shaped with in that I love studying golf architecture deep into the night every night.

Which part of a course do you like working on the most?

I think each individual aspect can be just as important as the other.  Originally I loved the finish work and still do.  I love the grand scale of creativity allowed in rough shaping.  I think the initial clearing or set up can really lead to a great start and create a great impression to work from.  I haven’t been responsible for the initial routing of a course yet, but have been given a lot of freedom on my current job to change the routing.  There is a real art to reading the land and I have learned to love the routing process.  I love bunkering – you can flip any course on it’s head with bunkering.  I feel that courses struggling in today’s atmosphere could bring back much interest to themselves by starting with a good bunker renovation.  If done right, it can be accomplished relatively inexpensively compared to the other components of course design.

How did you first become interested in pitch & putts?

I was not even aware of pitch & putts until a few years ago when I was hired to shape Adare Manor in Ireland for Tom Fazio.  Until going to Ireland I was fixed on short courses, par three courses or executive courses being the way forward.  Thankfully, when I got to Ireland my housing was just outside of the small town of Adare.  Instead of driving to work I would walk to The Manor each morning and would pass an old yellow and black sign that read Adare pitch and putt.  The next weekend, I walked to the pitch and putt and thought, what in the world is this?  It looked a little silly but, I found myself playing it every weekend.  It didn’t take long to realize that it addressed every issue we seem to be facing at home: time of play, land for development, and cost.  It seemed to have a great following amongst all age groups.  Eventually, I mapped out all the pitch and putt courses near me and started to journey out to other areas to see various designs.  I developed some favorites and Sandfield House next to Lahinch became my inspiration.  No disrespect to the other courses I played, but whoever designed this one really tried to take a step in the right direction.  I would love the chance to raise the bar higher by designing and building a pitch and putt here.

What are the elements of greatness for a pitch & putt?

I think the greatness comes from it’s ability to just get people interested in golf.  It isn’t golf as we know it, but a good pitch and putt can really spark an interest, and that is what we need here at home. It is a challenge with the short distances you are dealing with, but I think a great pitch and put needs to incorporate every shot conceivable in an approach by air or ground, including multiple angles to get to the green depending on pin location.  Most courses I have played have only one teeing ground and just including some different angles and length would greatly contribute to many facilities.

Why don’t we have more pitch & putts in the U.S.?

First off, I don’t think we have ever really been introduced to Pitch and Putt, and that has left the game relatively unknown in the States.  I am not sure if it is glamorous enough or revenue friendly for modern architects to pursue pure pitch and putt locations but I am ready to give it a spin, and am looking for the shot to put my vision on the ground and see it come to life.  If I ever get the chance to build the images in my mind I see no way a Pitch and Putt could fail.

Which course(s) do you most want to see next?

I really want to get up to Sand Valley.  I am really digging the look of Mammoth Dunes. The other course hot in my head is The Black Course at Streamsong.  Being based out of Florida I intend to set out to play all the courses listed on the Florida Historic Golf Trail.  One of the biggest reasons for trying out the Trail is that in Florida, most courses today are being built on flat pieces of land with no character.  The old guys had to be more strategic with bunker placement and I feel there are some great opportunities to learn from yesterday.  Let me add one more – whatever Mike DeVries does next I really enjoy his designs.

Any exciting projects in the works, beyond pitch & putts?

Recently finished helping out on The South Course at Arcadia Bluffs.  It was a lot of fun to contribute to that project, and I think it will be a great addition to the already fabulous Michigan golf scene.  I have been bouncing back and forth working on a private 365 acre island in the Exuma Cays for around two years.  It is one of the best sites I have ever seen.  I’m not sure when it will ever be finished, but it has tremendous potential.  There have been several interesting calls, one of which I am really excited about.  Hoping I may be heading back up North again soon – I will keep you updated!!


Ripping rock on Bock Cay


4th fairway cleared


9th and 18th green sites


10th green site


13th hole clearing


Hole corridors cleared


Disc golf on Bock Cay

What do you love most about practicing your craft?

Freedom.  I am about as free spirit as it comes, and shaping is the ultimate outlet for a guy like myself.  I love pushing boundaries and getting out of the box.  We could be in the next great era of golf design and to think you have been a small part of that is really interesting and keeps the drive going.

When you aren’t working or playing golf, how do you spend your time?

As great as the shaping job is, it has its negatives and the biggest downside for me is family time.  When I am home I try to spend as much time as I can with my amazing family that supports me.  I enjoy fishing more than anything and could get lost on the water, catch no fish, and be very happy.  I’m constantly reading golf design related material, researching design and golf architecture, because the job never really leaves my mind.  I could discuss it all day and could not imagine doing anything else in life!


The Carlton Pitch & Putt – Coming soon to a town near you…

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