John “Jeff” Harbottle III was known to have a heart of gold, a passion for golf and a keen mind for building world-class courses any level of player could enjoy.
Harbottle, a rising star in the world of golf-course architecture, died suddenly Thursday in California. He was 53.
“He was healthy, happy and it wouldn’t ever enter your mind this would happen to him,” said Rich Friend, the head professional at Tacoma Country and Golf Club, where the Harbottle family holds membership. “This is tough on everybody.”
Harbottle, the oldest of five children born to Northwest golfing legends John and Pat Harbottle, was a 1976 graduate of Bellarmine Prep and went on to play golf at Seattle University.
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Showing a real interest in golf-course layouts, Harbottle transferred to the University of Washington and earned a degree in landscape architecture.
In 1984, he landed a job at Dye Designs under renowned architect Pete Dye. Eight years later, he started John Harbottle Design, which has been based in Tacoma.
“The great thing about John, he was really, really smart, but he did not act like he knew everything,” said Scott Alexander, Harbottle’s former Seattle University teammate who is now director of golf at the Gold Mountain Golf Complex near Bremerton.
“You could give him an idea,” Alexander said, “… and he would always sit on it, and come back and say, ‘No, we won’t do that,’ but a lot of times he would come back and say it would work.”
Harbottle has built nearly 20 courses and done about 50 renovations of existing layouts, mostly on the West Coast.
Perhaps his best-known project – the Olympic Course at Gold Mountain – opened in 1996. It was his third solo project and was named one of the best municipal courses in the country by various publications.
At the time, he considered it “the best course I’ve worked on.”
The Olympic Course has hosted 10 United States Golf Association qualifying tournaments, two NCAA West Regionals and two USGA national championships – the 2006 U.S. Amateur Public Links and last summer’s U.S. Junior Amateur.
“He gave us the product we were after,” Alexander said.
One of his last renovation projects was underway at the course where he grew up – Tacoma Country and Golf Club, which flew the American flag at half-staff Friday in his honor.
Along with Tacoma course superintendent Joel Kachmack, Harbottle came up with a design to significantly alter bunkering, giving it a jagged-shaped, fescue-lined, classic-style look. The first phase has just been completed.
Harbottle was at another work site this week and set to return home Thursday in time to sit on a First Tee of South Puget Sound board meeting Friday.
Apparently he was waiting for a layover flight at Los Angeles International Airport, and complained about pain in his neck and shoulder, Tacoma Country and Golf Club’s Friend said.
He went over to be worked on at a nearby chair massage and spa business in the airport terminal. Shortly after sitting down, he abruptly died.
The cause of death has yet to be determined.
He is survived by both parents and four siblings – brothers Jerry and Rob and sisters Mary and Susie – and his wife, Teresa, and two children, Johnny and Chelsea.
Funeral and memorial arrangement will not likely be made until next week, Friend said.