A literary approach to golf course design
By Jay Morrish
Edgar Allan Poe was one of our great poets of the mid-nineteenth century,
and as far as I know, never struck a golf ball nor saw a golf course.
While studying his work years ago, I was struck by his approach to
forming a poem. Everyone takes for granted that he wrote from some
great and natural inspiration, but that isn’t the case. He created
his brilliant works starting first with a rather cold, analytical,
almost detached examination of the subject at hand. Days and perhaps
weeks went into this mental process before he put pen to paper, the
results of which were a gripping form of pure linguistic art. This
pragmatic approach led me to realize that his process could be applied
to golf course architecture as well.
Let’s examine this mathematical approach. In architecture we
are taught form follows function, meaning the architectural endeavor
must first work. Then it must be made beautiful. (It is amazing how
many golf courses fail on one count or the other.) Poe’s first
concern was the theme. Did he want to write about lost love, or death,
or the death of a lost love, or something else that affected him deeply?
His second consideration was the length of the poem. He felt that
generally long works made readers lose interest. He then had to decide
upon the effect he wanted to create. Was it melancholy or simply something
to stimulate intellect? Still no art form! Once he decided upon the
effect, or mood, he began to analyze various poetic means to obtain
and enhance these feelings. Should he use refrain as a method, as
opposed to repeated at intervals? Should he evoke alliteration—repetition
of a simple sound? Should this be mixed with iambic pentameter—one
short syllable followed by one long one in a line of verse containing
five measures? These examples show only a small sample of Poe’s
thoughts in assembling a poem, but they help point out that up to
a certain point, his was a mental exercise almost mathematical, before
his creativity became engaged to create the hauntingly beautiful poetry
that today still moves some of us.
Now I want to equate his process of developing a poem to my process
of developing a golf course design. Obviously, I touched on his mental
approach only briefly. Without doubt, ninety per cent of his mental
gymnastics were not covered. My approach to golf course architecture
is not unique to me. In fact, all of us in our field use variations
of this approach, but probably don’t associate it with similar
disciplines in other fields such as poetry. Our obvious first step
is to be contacted by someone who wants to build a golf course, and
who sends us a topographical map. Once in possession of this map we
can sometimes eliminate a piece of property as a golf course site
without visiting it, if it shows severe contours, excessive amounts
of wetlands or other features detrimental to good golf. If the property
looks interesting on paper, we then visit it and make further determinations.
Most architects hope for three features primarily: pleasant and manageable
changes in terrain; interesting vegetation; and water, or the potential
for water. Obviously, many great golf courses have been built that
do not have this combination of ingredients, but we consider them
a bonus if they are there. We also look for interesting, special features
that can be incorporated into the design, such as unusual rock formations,
cliffs, canyons, specimen trees, pits or any other element that catches
our attention. At this point there is no hint of art in our work.
After the initial examination, we are then faced with the proper routing
of the golf course, and several questions must be answered before
any attempt is made. Will there be housing involved? Has the owner
predetermined the clubhouse site? Will it be an expensive private
club? Will it be a daily fee? Will it be a resort course? Will it
be used as a tournament course? Will it be designed for older handicap
golfers or low handicap players, or both? After these considerations
have been determined, the architect begins routing studies, many times
in conjunction with land planners and engineers, as well as the property
owners. This differs from the "one man" Poe approach, but
there is still no art form displayed at this point.
Once a basic routing plan has been established and accepted by all
parties, the architect must begin another thought-process. It is now
time to determine the strategy and to put it on paper. The objective
of the design is now well established. Next comes the determination
of how best to make an architectural statement that is faithful to
his design philosophy, reflects the need of the owner, displays the
character of the land, and is attractive to play. At this point, the
architect must again analyze the specifics of design that will best
be reflected on the specific piece of property. If the property is
heavily forested, one decision may determine that the trees will become
hazards, and that sand bunkers will be used sparingly. If the property
is devoid of specimen vegetation, a compensatory strategy might be
widespread bunkering designed to make an architectural statement.
Be that the case, a decision must be reached regarding the total number,
size and shape of the hazards. The architect may want to cluster small
bunkers together to form an interesting complex aesthetically, or
settle upon building large multi-fingered bunkers, but fewer of them.
Frequently, scale determines the size of the bunkers. If the golf
course is short and compact, large bunkers on a sustained basis look
out of place. Sometimes, a large fairway bunker may be placed at a
distance that cannot be reached from the tee, but appears to be in
play. Then, on the next hole, a small fairway bunker may be placed
"in play", but made to appear much farther from the tee.
Is this art? Not yet. It is still basically a matter of mathematics.
On a long championship golf course, the architect may elect to create
wider fairways than on a short course. If this occurs, the scale changes.
If the property is flat or has low areas, one must soon determine
how many lakes can be constructed and how they will affect golf holes.
For instance, I prefer no more then six water-affected golf holes.
Using that as a premise it must be decided how they should be placed.
Normally, three bodies of water or streams would be placed on the
left side of a hole and three on the right side to create a fair balance.
However, on a golf course designed to inhibit low handicap players
and professionals, four lakes may be place on the left because the
really good players miss the ball to the left more often than to the
right. Many poor players like this philosophy, because most of them
slice and therefore keep the ball in play more easily. Has art entered
the process yet? No, but it is on the horizon.
One of the final decisions the architect must make is the type of
greens to be designed. If the course is to be daily fee with many
rounds of golf per day, the architect may decide to design large greens
so as to disperse wear and ball marks. If the course is earmarked
as an exclusive private course with little play, small greens may
be the order of the day. In addition, the type of grass may influence
the size and design of greens. Not that long ago, Bermuda greens could
not be mown as closely as bent greens, so they became larger with
more contour. This made the slow putts react more like those on fast
bent grass greens. Recently, new strains of Bermuda grass have been
developed that putt more like bent grass greens.
At long last comes the time that all of these ideas must be drawn
on paper and presented in such a manner that can be easily and accurately
interpreted by those building the course. Finally, a bit of art is
displayed through these plans! But the real art takes its form in
the field as the "Rembrandts" in hard hats who manipulate
big yellow machines under the guidance of the architect, creating
landforms that make the heart soar and the hands tremble. At last,
both Poe and architect have reached their goals through arduous study,
finite preparation, and attention to composition, culminating in art
that hopefully will be preserved and enjoyed forever.