In conjunction with commissioning Lee Wybranski to create the Tour Sauce poster series, we’d like to share what drew us to Lee in the first place. Randy and I have been longtime admirers of his work and the timelessness with which he commemorates golf tournaments – often his works weave seamlessly with the feelings and moments seared into memory from a particular week. Digging deeper, even if you’ve never seen one of his posters I guarantee that you are still familiar with his work through the many logos he’s worked on, sometimes from scratch, sometimes just polishing up an old classic. Additionally, D.J. worked with him in his previous role at Skratch a couple of years ago out in Scottsdale and still talks about Lee’s ethos and demeanor with admiration. We feel honored to be able to work with someone so fluent in the history and nuance of the sport. I sat down with him recently to learn more about his career and craft.
Tron Carter: How did you get into golf?
Lee Wybranski: My first commission in golf came from Winged Foot; it was a drawing of their clubhouse, and I did that in ’95. I’ve been working in golf since then basically. Once you get a job or a client like Winged Foot doors tend to open. First few years of work from ’95 to ’01 I was doing artwork for private clubs. And then a client switched jobs and became the Director of Golf at Atlantic City Country Club right after the casinos bought it, and he asked us if we could help rebrand the facility so that was our first effort in the design arena. We designed a new logo and all new printed collateral for ACCC, which at the time was over 100 years old, so that was a neat job. And that got our foot in the door and was a nice resume piece for a lot of the design work we do.
I started working with the USGA in ’02 designing the logos for the US Open. I worked exclusively with the USGA as a logo designer for five or six years, starting in the fall of ’02 with our first logo being ’04 at Shinnecock. We’ve done every logo for them since then except for ’05 at Pinehurst and ’10 at Pebble, both of which have their own robust marketing teams. Although, we did the logos for the joint men’s and women’s U.S. Opens at Pinehurst in ’14. Now we help them with all 14 championships. But they’ve started to streamline their branding a little bit. In keeping with what the R&A does, they’ve created a bit of a template so there’s not as much originality and differentiation from year to year. The icon will change but the text setting will remain consistent. It makes it a little less fun for us, because we kinda reinvented the wheel every year for the US Open. Not quite as fun from a design perspective but there is sound rationale behind the decision.
TC: Will it be the same font on the posters as well?
LW: No, we have more liberty with the posters. We don’t have to maintain the logo typefaces on the posters. I get to look for interesting fonts for that. That’s the cherry on top for me, the really fun part, brings it all together.
TC: When did you add the R&A and the PGA of America to the mix?
LW: We started with the R&A in ’12 at Royal Lytham, which was kind of interesting. One of the coolest parts of the projects is going to the events and being there for some greatness. I was reminiscing in my head on all the different majors I’ve been to in the last fifteen years and which ones I would put on my top shelf. And my first British Open wasn’t one of the best, it was when Adam Scott spit the bit and bogeyed his way in and Ernie won and it was like shell shock, nobody could believe it. Everyone loves Ernie but everyone was just walking around feeling terrible for Adam Scott. And then my first PGA was the next year, ’13 at Oak Hill. When Duf broke the records there, that was pretty cool. I met Dufner the year before at Lytham. He came into the merch tent and the next year he won at Rochester and he ended up buying the original painting. I love Duf. He singlehandedly raised my game for a season and a half because I loved his old-school waggle so much and I just started to copy it and was hitting it really good.
TC: What are some of your favorite posters that you’ve done, or logos for that matter?
LW: The first U.S. Open poster was Torrey when Tiger won on the broken leg in the playoff. I went in there not knowing anything of what to expect and I created one of my favorite images. It was my first chance on the big stage and it was very well received. They sold twice as many posters as they’d ever done before, so it was very exciting business-wise as I’d never seen that level of demand for my work before. I’d go to lunch and come back to twenty-five people waiting for me to sign posters. And then Tiger – it makes a big difference when there is a special vibe out on the golf course. It doesn’t make or break your business if Webb Simpson wins, but the more memorable the event the better for us. And then we’d done the logo there, and since Torrey didn’t have a very established brand mark we had a lot of creativity there, so even the logo was getting written up in the local newspaper. People loved the logo and then Tiger won in that fashion. I kind of thought they were all going to be like that. And then the next year was Bethpage and it was like ten straight days of mud, a hundred thousand angry New Yorkers and an under-the-radar guy winning.
TC: I actually loved that poster, one of my favorites you’ve done. It’s a little moody and dark – kind of fits the event.
LW: Don’t get me wrong it was a cool poster, but the event and the business end of it was a slog compared to San Diego the year before. It’s got a shadowy feel.
TC: 2014 Hoylake was like that too with the clouds and the font, another one of my favorites.
LW: Thanks man, Hoylake was interesting because whenever I go and do these projects I try to go find the two or three main characters in the poster – what’s going to be the star? What are going to be the two or three supporting actors?
So Torrey we knew the tree was going to be the thing and then the ocean obviously would be in there. At Merion we knew right away we were gonna focus on the basket because everyone loves that wicker so much. But at Hoylake it was interesting because it’s a real flattish golf course, even by links standards, its visually unremarkable. But the wind blows so strong there that when I asked the members and tournament chairman about the signature elements they basically talked about the weather being a huge character when you play golf there. So the only way I could showcase that visually was to make the poster more about the sky than the golf course.
TC: Do you ever take those themes back to the committee or club and tell them what you came up with and they push back and say that’s not how we want to represent the tournament?
LW: Well, I usually work with the governing body more than the club, so I’ll solicit input from the club as sort of grist for the mill, but then I’ll typically generate three concepts and then submit that to the client and we’ll tweak it and refine it and do a few more rounds of proofs before I paint the art. The USGA is definitely the most involved and collaborative client. They have a well-earned reputation of wanting their fingers all over everything, they do that with the poster just the same. But your most demanding clients often get the best out of you. I don’t have a problem with it. I’m definitely direct about my recommendations, but I’m open to suggestions. I learned early on that it's a lot easier to make something and show them why it’s a bad idea versus just trying to convince them it's a bad idea.
TC: How far in advance do you typically do the posters?
LW: Typically 1-2 years out at most. The U.S. Open never wants to unveil next year’s poster until this year’s event has concluded. That said, we try to do them a little earlier every year. Oakmont or Merion, a place with a loyal membership, then I’ll make every effort to get it done for the holidays the year prior. Versus somewhere like Erin Hills that got done 4 or 5 months prior.
TC: I did see Torrey Pines, I think 2021 on your site…
LW: Ahhh yeah, that one’s cool. Torrey’s one of our best clients. It was very much inspired by Endless Summer. That’s just a U.S. Open poster for them to sell for the next couple years until we come out with the official poster in 2020. Right now I’m working on Bellerive for the 2018 PGA, and they’re presenting the members with the 100th PGA poster next week. Busting my butt to get that one done right now.
TC: There’s some pretty stout venues upcoming for both U.S. Open and Walker Cups. Which are you most looking forward to?
LW: Well the Walker Cup venue this year was just primo, man. LA Country Club, I told Gil when I saw him on site, first of all I’m a George Thomas fan because he’s a fellow Philadelphian and then he moved out west and built all of his classics out there. I’m definitely a Golden Age fan – Tillinghast, Flynn, George Thomas kind of a fan in general. Gil’s a friend of mine who does great work obviously. And when I got to LACC I was floored. You know, I go to a lot of great golf courses and I hadn’t really been bowled over by anything in quite a while, and I was just completely knocked out by LACC. I don’t think it would’ve been quite as impressive before the re-do. The routing was great obviously, but Gil bringing back the roughness and the rugged aesthetic and having that juxtaposed against the steel and glass high-rises of Century City was just awesome. That was a highlight right there.
Seminole is going to be a great Walker Cup. Walker Cups have kind of become my favorite events to work and spectate. You feel like you’re seeing next year’s superstars and you can get up close, walking up the fairways right behind the players, it’s such a cool feeling when everything is so policed at the professional events, you have a hard time just getting from point A to point B. You can just meander at the Walker Cup. And the venues have a mystique and intimacy. Every once in a while the client comes to us way out in advance, like Bob Ford commissioned us to do 2021 Walker Cup work last year, so we’ve started on that one already. Shinnecock will be epic for the Open, that’s one of my favorite places.
Carnoustie, I’ve not been there actually. I’m not as stirred by that one. The ones I’m most excited by coming up are Shinny, Pebble, Royal Portrush – The Open at Portush is going to be fantastic, people are going to be going nuts. The PGA at Bethpage will be crazy good. We’re working on the PGA logo for Harding Park in ’20 right now. I love San Francisco, always get excited for events there. The aesthetics at the NoCal courses are out of this world, the Cypress trees just make it.
TC: We just got back from the Sand Belt – any projects down there?
LW: No, that’s definitely near the top of the wishlist. World Cup or President’s Cup upcoming could be a chance.
TC: As far as our poster is concerned, what specific elements did you key on or try to highlight?
LW: The job with you guys was pretty easy. You gave me clear direction and then said to have at it. Usually, both of those things are missing and I get minimal direction and more feedback through the project. Once we decided upon a couple things, like not having any crowds there enhances the intimacy and the humor of the logo. I did two sketches, one was wide open and linksy and one was more parkland. And I like the parkland view more, especially if you’re gonna spray one off the tee. The setting was really what I grappled with most. The focus was clear on the wayward driver, but we had to show the wayward driver and the self-important seriousness contrasted against the laughter of the compadres. That was the hook for me. And doing the view we did from behind makes it much easier for the viewer to put himself in the position of the driver and helps engage the imagination. When you can see the face you don’t relate as much.
TC: We’ve been trying to figure out which scene we want to do next. The “family move,” the “spike-mark blame,” “signed glove for homeowner OB” are some that have been top of mind.
LW: There’s a lot more to this than I first thought. I thought it was just the straightforward wayward drive or the club twirl or the walk-after. The one thing that’s different to these from what I typically do is the narrative. It wakes up the illustrator in me and communicate a story, instead of just making something iconic. It’s like using different muscles for me.
TC: Favorite logo in the game – either that you’ve done or otherwise?
LW: (long pause) – Off the top of my head, Merion.
TC: Very polarizing question – people get fired up about it. You’ve got your Winged Foot loyalists, Cypress, Stanwich…
LW: I love Winged Foot. It’s probably better in a sense, I love the mythology and originality. The Merion logo though, the golf pro in the early 80’s sketched that out on a napkin, it wasn’t the original mark. And everyone treats it like the grail but it’s relatively new. Whereas Winged Foot has been the same since inception and it’s so descriptive and so perfect but I’m a Philly guy through and through so Merion for me.
A sampling of Lee’s logo work.
TC: Favorite course in Philly?
LW: Taking Pine Valley and Merion out, I really love Lancaster, but even that’s a little ways out. Toursdale is good. Wow… I’m gonna go with Rolling Green, which is right outside. There’s a bunch of awesome Flynn courses and you could argue which is better than which, but Rolling Green, Manufacturers, Huntington Valley, Green Valley, there’s like five. I really like Whitemarsh Valley, too, which is George Thomas’ first course and built on his home property and hosted a PGA event for like 30 years or something. I really like that course. It just had a few weak holes that there’s really not any way around. Whereas Rolling Green is strong from start to finish. I love Huntington Valley too – that’s a really unique course.
I like Aronimink, it’s just one of those workhorse courses that beats the hell out of you. You’ve gotta be a long, straight driver to enjoy it – just a brute, really pretty though. They’re hosting the PGA in about ten years right?
TC: Just announced! Good site from a market perspective too. How do you feel about PGA Tour players having their own logo? Should there be a certain level of success that should be attained before you can have your own logo?
LW: No man, it’s all about cojones there. Makes me feel like I should develop a logo for myself, anyone who wants one should do it. No problem with them, I don’t know them all. Man that’s a good question, some are better than others.
TC: Someone like Hunter Mahan, or JJ Henry. I think Chase Koepka has one but doesn’t even have a card yet.
LW: That’s kinda like your own little bit of tour sauce right there. You have your own logo and you don’t have your card? That’s self-belief man. My favorite player logo is probably Roger Federer – it fits really well. I never liked Tiger’s. First the Hyundai one back in the 90s and now the Marlboro version.
TC: Everyone is too locked in on the initials. The one thing that was weak about the Sandbelt was the logos, Metropolitan had a good one. Otherwise, they were a little wishy-washy. Kingston Heath had a great member logo, and there are talks about making that their main logo, but their main was a busy and crowded shield initial logo.
LW: Yeah that’s like the UK, right? If they have a good one at all it's the member logo, but the ones you can actually get are just a hodgepodge of letters, or you get a shield or crest.
TC: Lytham’s shrimp crest has a special place in my heart. As far as regular PGA Tour stops, which one do you want to do a poster for that you haven’t already? Either because of the aesthetic of the event or otherwise?
LW: When the Vegas Shriners event was hosted by Timberlake, that would’ve been a fun one to do. But current, probably Memorial. Not so much because of the golf course, which is great and all, but just because it’s a notch better than the rest, and I like how they honor a different player each year and it would be a cool opportunity graphically to do a poster in keeping with that and honor a past player and the event itself. And because the way Jack runs the event is so impeccable and absolutely perfect, those are typically the type of events that engender loyalty and enthusiasm, and that’s the kind of client in my experience that demands the best out of you, and that’s a good situation to work in professionally. I did the Shell Houston Open for about five years. It was fun, but it’s become a better event since I stopped working with it because of where it falls on the calendar now before Augusta. I liked doing the work there because I liked doing an annual and that’s how you get your collectors.
TC: Do you like doing repeat venues and look forward to doing those, versus feeling like you have to live up to a previous iteration?
LW: It’s more challenging with the logos. Oakmont was the first repeat US Open venue I had and both logos were the squirrel, but trying to create a logo that’s based off the same iconic element but with a different identity and feel is pretty challenging. In that case we put the squirrel on a diet for ‘16 and slimmed him down a bit, got rid of the paunch from ‘07. But poster-wise I’m working on Pebble right now, which is pretty early but we’re working with Pebble directly on the poster and they wanted to get ahead of it. So that’s the second time I’m doing a poster of Pebble for the US Open. But there’s such a wealth of stuff to work with there, it’s like getting together with an old friend. I picked my favorite view when I did it in 2010, but there’s so much other greatness out there that it’s fun to try and find what the next big hit is gonna be. But there are four or five iconic looks at Pebble that everyone already knows, and I never even considered number seven because it's so overdone and there’s still a ton of other stuff to work with.
TC: That’s refreshing to hear. How do you decide whether to incorporate a clubhouse into the poster?
LW: How famous is it? How much does the golf public at large know about that clubhouse? Second, is there a view of the course where the clubhouse sits favorably? The case of Congressional the clubhouse is so imposing that it was kind of a no-brainer that it would be featured prominently. Whereas in the case of Merion, that clubhouse is much-loved but for the opposite reasons in that it's like a converted old farmhouse and intimate and charming, not opulent and imposing. So it wasn’t important to the client that we worked it in, but because of my awareness of its reputation and how it's perceived regionally. And everyone loves to tell that story about how the first tee sits right there next to the patio. I wanted to bring it in, but in that poster it's just a little feature way in the back.
TC: And it speaks to the philosophy of the club.
LW: Exactly, I felt like it’s an understated approach and golf course. Lots of times in the UK I’ve worked them in because it’s challenging because while they look more similar over there, they’re very charming to look at as an artist and because of the general flatness of the links courses you’re looking for something to punctuate the picture with. I try not to, unless there’s a good reason to because it’s about the course and the competition, and the clubhouse is about the members, and we want to showcase the tournament.
TC: In this year’s Birkdale poster you had a player playing a shot into the green in the poster – what was the thought process there?
LW: Just wanting to do something different. In general, we can’t incorporate identifiable players into the artwork for a litany of reasons, but I just get tired of that. One Open, I think it was St. Andrews, was the first time I did in a scene of the course in full championship mode, with the grandstands and the scoreboard and I realized then that it's just a totally different animal during the tournament than it is the other 300 days of the year, and why stop there, why not bring a player and a caddie into it? The R&A is really fun to work with. They’re much more progressive and open to new ideas than some American counterparts, which surprised me. I wanted to try and make it brighter and more fun too, like the Torrey Pines poster for 2021 is a step in that direction too. With some pop art influence, and I think it would do better with the European crowd.
TC: I loved your 2016 Troon poster with the actual postage stamp hole within a postage stamp, that was cool. Nice touch.
LW: Thank you, that was a flash idea that all of a sudden just seemed so obvious. I love that one. Did you see the version with Palmer in the corner? I pitched them the idea, at the time Arnold was still with us but everyone knew he was in declining health and his win at Troon in ’62 was credited with reawakening America to the Open and making it a more dynamic event again, and I thought it would be a neat thing to honor him with a poster because usually when you do artwork for an actual postage stamp it is to commemorate an event or honor someone, so I figured why not commemorate him with this stamp and it would be a wonderful homage. We couldn’t make it work due to likeness stuff, but I did do a limited edition for Golf Channel with an image of Palmer holding the Claret Jug into the sky and then changed the dates of the postmark to the Open dates from 1962.
TC: In that vein, if you could go back and be a spectator at one tournament throughout history, which would you choose?
LW: Probably Hogan at Merion after the accident. Jack in ’86 would be up there, but I wouldn’t want to look at that outfit for four days in a row.