Golf Prose
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.

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