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New twists for an old art

Extremely long, serpentine tees are just one of the original features that Golf Architect Desmond Muirhead is bringing to his distinctive courses

Moviemaking hasits underground, the theater its absurd and art its pop. Today it is In to befar out, to such a degree, in fact, that even the traditional art ofgolf-course architecture is getting with it.

One of the menmost responsible for the new-wavemaking is Desmond Muirhead, a breezy Britonwho sees nothing sacred in the standard rules of golf-course design and whoalready has demonstrated his resolve to break as many of them as possible."Golf-course architects have not had a new thought in 100 years," hesays. "Most courses being built today are nothing but imitations ofimitations of imitations."

Muirhead has begunhis fight against conformity by attacking what is perhaps the most cherishedpart of the modern golf course, the straight tee. To make a course interestingfor golfers of varying strengths and skills, the current fashion is to buildtees as long and straight as airport runways. This, in Muirhead"s view, isas ineffective as it is unattractive. A hole that plays well for a short hitterat 350 yards is not automatically just as fair and intriguing to the longhitter from another 100 yards farther back. Or vice versa. What Muirhead doesis build the world's longest tees, but not in a straight line. Instead he makesthem wind like a country road around terrain features, thus providing golferswith genuine variety. For example, Muirhead's tee for the 15th hole of themunicipal course he is remodeling for the city of Alameda, Calif, measures 300yards from end to end, but it curves so sharply that it almost completelysurrounds a long, narrow pond. The result is an imaginative par-3 hole that canbe anything from a wedge shot over fairway to a 210-yard wood over water.

At his SobobaSprings course in California, Muirhead has built a par-3 around a pond forwhich the tee is shaped like a boomerang (below). The 14th hole of his OvertakeGolf and Country Club course in Seattle has a long, angular pond that flanksthe fairway on the left and a tee that sprouts arms in several directions,creating a par-4 that can be played eight different ways.

Muirhead designsother distinctive features for his courses as well. He likes to includenumerous free-form lakes, and bunkers with curves that echo the turns of waterhazards and woods as they slash in strange patterns across and beside fairways.His intention is to achieve an artistic sense of variety, one that applies notjust from hole to hole, but on each hole from day to day.

Muirhead, who is43, officially joined the small world of golf architecture only four years ago.Born in England and educated at Cambridge, the University of British Columbiaand the University of Oregon, he was first a civil engineer, city planner andlandscape architect.

In 1962 he wasinvited by Paul Loughridge to build Capistrano Saddle Club, a real-estatedevelopment in California. In connection with that project he was asked todesign the development's main feature, a golf course. Though an expert oncommunity planning and landscaping, he had qualms about building a golfcourse.

"I wasscared," he confesses, "but I had had a little experience, and decidedto try it anyway. I began by making an inspection tour of many of theoutstanding courses in the U.S. and Great Britain, hoping to find that they allhad some sort of mystique in common that would help me. Instead I discoveredthat they had no mystique whatsoever. So I began to evolve some ideas of myown.

"The realproblem is that golf courses are not yet being treated as art forms. But theyshould be. Too often they are just accidents. That is what comes of lettingex-greenkeepers and ex-golfers do the design. If they get a good man to do thebulldozing they usually get a good golf course. If they don't, they don't. Itis that simple. The current architects are all trying to imitate Robert TrentJones and the late Dick Wilson. Fine men, of course, but imitators themselves.Lots of people in the business don't know where they are or what they aredoing. Most of the old, once-great courses are out of date, yet architects goright on copying them anyway. But we don't need to copy our fathers. Blazes!We're big boys now."

An important partof Muirhead's philosophy of design is that a golf course must merge gracefullywith its surroundings. "The experience of seeing the course, as well asplaying it, is tangible," he says. "Therefore it should have acharacter, a distinction, of its own. Every site has this special sense thatmust be captured. Regardless of where the course is—in the mountains, by theocean, in the desert—designers seem to put in the same sort of greens and thesame sort of traps. But why? I think this is a fundamental mistake. It showslack of imagination."

If Muirhead wereto build a course in New York City's Central Park, for example, one guessesthat it would have bunkers like canyon walls, jutting rock formations ashazards and perhaps a waterfall.

During his shortcareer, Muirhead has designed or renovated 30 courses. It is too early to tellwhether they will stand the test of time, but the initial reaction to them hasbeen enthusiastic and he may indeed have started a trend toward bolder thinkingin his field. Certainly few golf-course architects have ever said, "Myinfluences come from the landscapes of Henri Rousseau and Van Gogh, theabstractions of Miró and Kandinsky, the sculpture of Arp, Brancusi andMoore...."

"The whole artof golf architecture is going to be thrown wide open," says Muirhead."Architects are going to have to be familiar with the great paintings andsculptures. They will have to learn, through art, to solve the problems of thesite and create something imaginative." Something, say, like a 300-yard teecoiling around a lake.

"I don't wantto sound patronizing," Muirhead says, grinning through his black mustache."But maybe in two or three years I will be in a position to soundpatronizing."

It may take two orthree years to test the validity of Muirhead's feelings about golf-coursedesign, but in the meantime he is a welcome addition to a clan that has grown alittle calcified.