Josh Smith with some of his handiwork at Orinda (Calif.) Country Club. The four-year GCSAA member oversees the 18-hole private course, located in the foothills east of San Francisco. Photo by Forrest Arakawa
Tom Lehman was an artist of sorts in 1996. His masterpiece? Winning The Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club in England.
When Lehman was seeking the services of a different kind of artist, he knew precisely where to turn. He and fellow designer Chris Brands were devising their layout for a new golf course in Valentine, Neb., when Lehman contacted GCSAA Class A superintendent Josh Smith to assist them in painting a picture of their plans.
Smith, a four-year association member at Orinda (Calif.) Country Club, produces oil paintings that have caught the eye of golf industry stalwarts such as architect Tom Doak and Lehman, the latter of whom connected with Smith to paint renderings of what the completed holes at The Prairie Club in Valentine would look like before the holes had been shaped. Lehman, who twice flew Smith to The Prairie Club, obviously approved of Smith’s work — he commissioned several pieces of his art.
“I always intended this to be a hobby, not a way to make money,” Smith says. “I think there’s a real beauty to it.”
A Michigan native whose family moved to Lake Oswego, Ore., when he was young, Smith played golf at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., where he led the Gaels in scoring average as a junior. He initially thought he might have a future as a professional until seeing fellow collegian Paul Casey — who played at Arizona State and has evolved into a successful pro — put that possibility into perspective. “He was so impressive. I didn’t know where I could play for a living after watching that type of game,” Smith says of Casey. “At that point, I knew it wasn’t going to happen for me.”
Smith did, however, pursue a path in golf after studying psychology and business. His introduction to golf course management happened quickly. “I was in a drainage ditch one week after graduating,” says Smith, who was employed by Wadsworth Golf Construction Co. His renovation portfolio features jobs at San Francisco Golf Club and Meadow Club in Fairfax, Calif., with renowned architects Doak and Mike DeVries, respectively, overseeing the projects. Smith would spend his free time on his paintings.
“I had weekends off. Here I was in Sedona (Ariz.), alone, living in a small guesthouse,” says Smith, who traces his intro to art to cartoons he did of Michael Jordan dunking a basketball. “I’d seen an oil painting in the Phoenix airport and was taken with it. When I returned to Sedona, I called an art store and had to leave a message because they were closed on Sunday, but the owner called me right back and came over and opened up the shop for me, and I left with a starter set that cost about $30. I went to my place, put Springsteen on the DVD player and began painting.”
That $30 proved to be quite a sound investment. Smith started with the par-3 11th hole of the Pacific Dunes course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, Ore., which was designed by Doak.
Doak has become smitten with Smith’s paintings and has commissioned some of his work. Smith’s first sale was another painting of Pacific Dunes, which earned him $750. “I used that money to get through on rent,” says Smith, who has sold approximately 50 paintings, more than half of them commissions. Originals cost from $3,000 to $8,000; reproductions range from $300 to $800. Meadow Club, the first American course designed by Alister MacKenzie, commissioned a Smith painting.
Right: A superintendent/painter’s lunch break pastime. Photo courtesy of Josh Smith
Thomas Bastis, CGCS, owns a Smith painting of the third hole at Spyglass Hill Golf Course at Pebble Beach. A competition agronomist for the PGA Tour, Bastis hired Smith to work for him when Bastis became superintendent at California Golf Club of San Francisco several years ago. A $13 million renovation there affected pretty much everything at the course, so Bastis wanted Smith and his experience working in construction to enhance the project.
“Josh has an ability and a passion,” says Bastis, a 27-year GCSAA member whom Smith calls his mentor. “He’s been involved with architecture, design, and he can hold a conversation with just about anybody. Josh has that intangible, which is super valuable.”
Smith values his family time. His wife, Sarah, is a kindergarten teacher, and they have two daughters, Sophie and Addie. This spring, Smith is tackling an in-house drainage project at Orinda Country Club.
Smith spends about seven hours painting in his garage on weekends. Suitors for his work include Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., ranked No. 12 in Golf Digest’s biennial rankings of “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses.” Smith was invited to look at the exclusive facility for a potential piece of work. He may even appear out of the blue someday at your course if he sees a target to his liking.
Smith enjoys spending his lunch breaks painting en plein air, meaning painting outdoors. On one occasion, as he was painting from the course fringe away from golfers at his old stomping grounds at California Golf Club, Smith saw Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana playing.
“I go out with a granola bar and my easel. I do get some strange looks,” Smith says, “but there’s a thrill to it, being out there, trying to portray how cool a natural golf scene can look. My paintings are more about natural beauty and less about golf.”
See much more of Smith’s work on his website.
Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.