Early this month, in room 111 of Harvard's Graduate School of
Design, prospective golf course architects could be found eating
each other for breakfast. The occasion was the class critique
portion of Harvard's Golf Course Design course, an intensive
two-day seminar for everyone from Dye-hard design groupies to
rapacious land developers. The $570 tuition did include a spread
of coffee and bagels, but the 33 students seemed to be
interested only in chewing up each other's ideas.
A thirtyish, perma-tanned man sporting the logo of Bighorn Golf
Club in Palm Desert, Calif., on his polo shirt was the first to
step in front of the class and show off the hole he had
sketched, a diabolical par-4 that doglegged between 13 bunkers
and had a lake fronting the green. "You're giving us a sidehill
fade lie to a green you have to draw the ball into, over a
bunker, or else you drop it in the water?" asked an incredulous
classmate. "That's a joke." The next victim was a woman in black
who displayed a longish par-3, remarkable only for an
inexplicable fairway bunker plopped 90 yards from the tee. "I
just don't understand what the purpose of that bunker could
possibly be," another student said in a reproachful tone.
Finally, a brash undergraduate from Vanderbilt offered an uphill
par-4 of 450 yards, saying he needed a challenge and was tired
of hitting nine-irons into every green. "Not all of us hit the
ball 280 yards," someone said, drawing a few guffaws, "and I
think it's unfair to design a hole that demands it."
These sharp critiques were no surprise. If there's one subject
about which all dimpleheads fancy themselves experts, it's
course design, a fact that can be verified almost any afternoon
in any country club grillroom. What's unusual about the Harvard
seminar, now in its 12th year, is that it takes course
architecture from the realm of scribbled-upon cocktail napkins
and reveals the science as well as the aesthetics behind it. "A
golf course is an art gallery with 18 different compositions,"
says Geoffrey Cornish, who teaches the course with another
distinguished architect, Robert Graves. "Ours is such a strange
and intriguing profession, and yet its mysteries can be mastered."
The sexiest part of the class is the requirement that all
students draw an 18-hole layout. The results this year were a
little more sketchy for some than others. Nearly half of the
students were landscape architects. Also in attendance was a
golf course architect as well as a fat cat who owned one course
and had just purchased the land to develop a second. Still, this
country-clubbish crowd of mostly over-30 white males had much to
learn, and Graves and Cornish crammed the 16 hours of class time
with lectures, slide shows, drawing exercises and graphic
demonstrations that were both practical and fanciful, as were
Graves and Cornish have been doing their "dog and pony show," as
Graves puts it, for various audiences across the country since
1976, and they have taught 12 seminars at Harvard. While both
wear the shocking plaid jackets given to presidents of the
American Society of Golf Course Architects, they are cut from
different cloth. Cornish, 82, is old enough to have been
friendly with Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Over
the last five decades he has designed and built some 240
courses, 145 of them in the Northeast, which makes him almost as
much an institution in the region as Harvard. He has seen a lot
of changes in course design since World War II. He sums them up
by saying dryly, "Fifty years ago I went all over New England
taking out mounding. Now I'm going around putting it all back in."
"The historical perspective that Geoff brings and his personal
connection with the old architects and classic courses is
absolutely mind-blowing," said Warner Bowen, the class's lone
course architect. Indeed, Cornish didn't so much lecture as spin
yarns and offer breezy asides: Take the bit about the legendary
designer of Winged Foot outside New York City, A.W. Tillinghast
(Tilly, to his friends), impishly working phallic symbols into
his blueprints. Or the revelation that the first bunkers were
created by the hooves of livestock huddling behind hillocks from
North Sea gales. Or the observation that grass stands more erect
on courses near the ocean because of the salt in the air.
With his extensive slide collection Cornish took the class
through a detailed history of design and talked extensively
about the aesthetics of building courses. His philosophy is that
anything goes, as long as the course is playable. "So often
nowadays I arrive at courses only to find them bulldozing the
very features that make a hole classic," he says. Cornish
particularly lingered on the British linksland courses, which he
says aspiring architects should study the way seminary students
do the Bible.
If Cornish is an old-school romantic, Graves, 63, is a
pragmatist. Most of Graves's work has been done on the West
Coast, among the tree huggers, and he specializes in
particularly tricky jobs. During the class he often affected the
weary tone of a soldier who had just straggled back from the
western front, not a Western time zone. "Golf course design is
all about compromise," Graves said gravely, and he spit out
words like wetlands and environmentalist. Graves was able to
explain technical points such as how to build proper drainage
into greens, how to construct bunker faces and how to resod
That might sound like dry stuff, but the wannabe architects
lapped it up. Chris Doscher, a fourth-year landscape
architecture major at the University of Massachusetts, which has
no golf course design classes, came hoping to build connections
as well as holes. "I hope this will help me get an internship,"
he said. "It can't hurt to have Harvard on your resume."
Then there was Mel Mindich, a real estate developer who already
owned the nine-hole Harrisville Golf Course in Woodstock, Conn.,
and last summer bought 213 acres in Shirley, N.Y., to build a
daily-fee course. Mindich stood out among his classmates by
spending most breaks yakking on his cell phone. He had hired an
architect for his Long Island course but came to Harvard to gain
a richer understanding of the scope of the project. "As Bob
Graves said, a good leader needs to understand what every person
working for him is doing," says Mindich. Though Mindich claimed
he would not be a hands-on owner, he left Harvard sounding like
golf's Jerry Jones. "It's nice to be able to put a sand trap
wherever you want," Mindich said. "You buy your own course, and
you ought to be able to do whatever the hell you please."
Mitchell Wright, a master's candidate in landscape architecture
at Harvard, was the only nongolfer in the class, and he gamely
suffered through the lunchtime patter, which tended toward
breathless accounts of the latest Fazio layout or ruminations on
MacKenzie bunkering. "I'm not so interested in the golf stuff,"
Wright said. "I'm concentrating on the sculptural aspects of the
land, especially the view corridors and view sheds." Uh, O.K.
Juan Carlos Arteaga had traveled to Cambridge from Santa Cruz,
Bolivia, where he has been helping to build that country's first
golf course community. "This class is a bargain," he said. "All
this free consulting." Arteaga had lugged with him the
preliminary blueprints of his development but then thought it
would be tacky to foist them on the profs. Still, he said, "in
two days I have decided to make two thousand changes."
Not so shy about tapping the expertise of the teachers was Paula
Adelman, who had come from Israel. An accredited LPGA teaching
pro, Adelman lives in Caesarea, 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, and
last year oversaw construction of Israel's first driving range,
in nearby Netanya. (There is only one 18-hole course for the
country's 4,000 golfers.) As golf director at the Wingate
Institute of Physical Education and Sport in Netanya, where
Israel's national teams train, Adelman was planning to build
three practice holes on a nine-acre lot next to the range.
Cornish and Graves helped her lay out two par-3 holes and a
short, sharply doglegged par-4. "I was more than pleased at how
willing everybody was to give his knowledge," Adelman said. "You
don't realize how much there is to this until you actually try
Indeed. Cornish loved telling the story of the grand opening of
Stratton Mountain Golf Club, a monumental building job he did on
a gnarly, boulder-strewn mountainside in Vermont. Arnold Palmer
was brought in to play the ceremonial first round, and as he was
walking down one of the beautiful fairways, he was moved to say,
"My, weren't you lucky to find such nice flat areas in between
all these rocks." That was in 1969, long before Palmer became an
accomplished architect. No doubt he would see it differently
today. Once you've been introduced to golf course architecture,
things never do look quite the same.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER James Hardwick and 32 other students went hole hog in class.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Like the course he eventually created, our bewildered scribe got off to a slow start. [Alan Shipnuck]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER When it comes to golf course design, plaid lads Cornish (left) and Graves know the score. [Geoffrey Cornish and Robert Graves]
SLOW ON THE DRAW
The pulse quickens. Palms sweat. Eyelids twitch. The mind reels.
There is no anguish like designing a golf course for the first
time. It's like trying to crack Rubik's Cube--every move you
make invariably screws up the one you were planning next.
I was especially ill-prepared. For one thing, my artistic
development has barely attained the stick-figure level. Also,
I'm not much of a design wonk. I've never thought about what I
like in a golf course, I just know it when I see it. Two days at
Harvard changed that.
It helped that we weren't just doodling. We were sketching our
courses on a base map of a 300-acre site in the hills near Santa
Barbara, Calif., on which Robert Graves had built La Purisima
Golf Course in 1987. The base maps had lines marking changes in
elevation and showed every tree, source of water, roadway and
vacated barn on the property. Also marked were sacred Indian
burial grounds on which we could build but that could be
excavated only to a depth of 18 inches. To help visualize the
site we had aerial photographs as well as a 3-D topographical
Much of the first day of class was spent preparing us for our
design. Geoffrey Cornish lectured on the scale of the drawings
and how to handle the severe elevation changes. Graves spoke at
length about how to route the course and offered some no-no's.
Examples: One should not start the front or back nine with a
par-3 or a short par-4, because it will clog up play, and one
should not build closing holes that play east-west, because
golfers may be blinded by sun.
After lunch we were given a pencil, a ruler, felt-tip pens in
six colors and the maps. In short order the room burst into a
cacophony of squeaky pens. I sat motionless in front of my map,
paralyzed by all the possibilities. Half an hour passed, and
still I had put down nothing. Finally, with some advice from
Graves, I sited my clubhouse and driving range, and then
penciled in my first hole, a par-4 that doglegged gently to the
right. The work felt awkward and exciting, like a first kiss. As
the allotted two hours came to a close, I had put one more hole
That night I hunkered down in my hotel room. At 2 a.m., after
four hours and two slices of room-service Boston cream pie, I
finished the layout. Despite Cornish's best efforts, I had lost
track of the scale (on the maps, one inch equaled 66 yards). My
par-71 course measured a robust 6,855 yards--from the member
tees. Oh, well.
The next day the profs threw us a curve--we had to add cart
paths and a housing development. Dumb luck had left me plenty of
room for both. At the end of the seminar Cornish studied my
design. In the measured tones of a man who has seen a million
golf holes, he said only this, "That's not bad for a first
I fairly floated all the way home.