Golf course architecture is one of the world's most expansive but least recognized art forms. Yet this curiously obscure profession can help shed light on mainstream art, sociology, and even human nature itself, since the golf designer, more than any other artist, tries to reproduce the primeval human vision of an earthly paradise. Yet even this most unfashionable of arts was swept in the middle of the last century by the same Bauhaus-derived tastes that made post-WWII modernist buildings so tedious. Only recently has golf course architecture begun to revive the styles and values of its golden age in the 1920s. Hidden in plain sight, golf courses are among the few works of art readily visible from airliners. (A golf architecture aficionado can often identify a course's designer from 35,000 feet.) Assuming an average of a quarter square mile apiece, America's 15,000 golf courses cover almost as much land as Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Golf architecture philosophy isn't terribly elaborate compared to the thickets of theory that entangle most museum arts, but one thing all golf designers assert is that their courses look "natural." Growing up in arid Southern California, however, where the indigenous landscape is impenetrable hillsides of gray-brown sagebrush, I never quite understood what was so natural about fairways of verdant, closely-mown grass, but I loved them all the same. Research since the early 80s shows that humans tend to have two favorite landscapes. One is wherever they lived during their adolescence, but the nearly universal favorite among children before they imprint upon their local look is grassy parkland, and that fondness survives into adulthood. Richard Conniff wrote in Discover: "In separate surveys, Ulrich, Orians, and others have found that people respond strongly to landscapes with open, grassy vegetation, scattered stands of branchy trees, water, changes in elevation, winding trails, and brightly lit clearings..." In one amusing study, 1001 people from 15 different countries were surveyed about what they'd like to see in a painting. Then the sponsors of the research, conceptual art pranksters Komar and Melamid, painted each country's "Most Wanted Painting." Even though the researchers hadn't mentioned what type of picture it should be, the consensus in 13 of the 15 cultures favored landscapes and 11 of the 15 looked surprisingly like golf courses. All over the world, people want to see grassland, a lake, and some trees, but not a solid forest. And they always want to see it slightly from above. The project was intended to satirize popular taste, but it ended up revealing much about about human desires. Above is Komar and Melamid's rendition of America's Most Wanted Painting and here's a par 3 from the Coeur d'Alene golf course in Idaho that is similar in outline but aesthetically superior in execution. The current theory for why golf courses are so attractive to millions (mostly men), perhaps first put forward in John Strawn's book Driving the Green: The Making of a Golf Course, is that they look like happy hunting grounds—a Disney-version of the primordial East African grasslands. Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, author of the landmark 1975 book Sociobiology, once told me, "I believe that the reason that people find well-landscaped golf courses 'beautiful' is that they look like savannas, down to the scattered trees, copses, and lakes, and most especially if they have vistas of the sea." Tasty hoofed animals would graze on the savanna's grass, while the nearby woods could provide shade and cover for hunters. Our ancestors would study the direction of the wind and the slopes of the land in order to approach their prey from the best angles. Any resemblance to a rolling golf fairway running between trees is not coincidental. In 1975, geographer Jay Appleton advanced the similar theory that what people like is a combination of a sense of "refuge," such as the ability to hide in the woods, and of "prospect" across open country. Both theories make the prediction that human beings, especially males, will spend enormous amounts of money to fashion golf courses. Generally, men (the hunters) tend to prefer sweeping vistas, while women (the gatherers) prefer enclosed verdant refuges. Perhaps it's no accident that a longtime favorite book among little girls is called "The Secret Garden." Similarly, women make up a sizable majority of gardeners while men often obsess over lawn care. To create these pleasure grounds, top golf architects typically spend over $10 million per course, and because designers oversee the creation of multiple layouts simultaneously, a "signature" architect like Tom Fazio will end his career with his name on a few billion dollars worth of golf courses. Famous works of "environmental art," such as Robert Smithson's monumental earthwork "Spiral Jetty" in the Great Salt Lake, are dwarfed by golf courses in extent and thought required. Among fine artists, only Christo works on a comparable scale, and his projects, such as his recent “Gates” in Central Park, are more repetitious. Nonetheless, Christo's “Gates,” which re-emphasized the original landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead's lovely serpentine pathways, and his 1976 "Running Fence" snaking through the undulating grasslands of Marin County, offer some of the same visual pleasures of following alluring trails as golf architects provide. The great majority of golfers long thought of courses mostly in terms of length or difficulty rather than of artistry. Even though the taste of golfers has improved in recent decades, many still judge a course more by the manicuring of its grass than by its design. Moreover, in the U.S., relatively few women are interested in golf before menopause, although the game is fairly fashionable among young women in East Asia and Scandinavia. In recent decades, however, the golf world has come down with a severe case of connoisseurship, publishing hundreds of coffee-table books and calendars, making cult figures of long-forgotten early 20th Century architects like A.W. Tillinghast and Charles Blair MacDonald and brand names out of living designers like Pete Dye and Tom Doak. Many today truly love good golf design, but until very recently, too few hated poor design enough to name names. Golfers tended to feel that any golf course is nice, so it would be churlish to gripe. It was not until the early Nineties that writing about architecture began to mature when Doak, a young architect, circulated a photocopied samizdat manuscript called the Confidential Guide to Golf Courses that lambasted sacred cows. Today, the gathering ground for architecture aficionados is the web discussion board www.GolfClubAtlas.com, where it's common to find, say, 70 messages denouncing the vulgarity of Fazio's redesign of the 7th fairway's bunker on George C. Thomas's classic 1927 Riviera course, where Los Angeles' Nissan Open is played. This frenzy of art worship among a minority of golfers has gone almost wholly unrecognized in the establishment art world, which otherwise has been so quick to discern artistry in such unlikely forms as graffiti and toilet brushes. Top museums do not stage retrospectives on the Trent Jones family or stock golf course photo books in their gift shops. The art community would benefit from exposure to golf architecture simply because the best courses, such as Alister MacKenzie's Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula, are things of astonishing beauty, comparable in craftsmanship, complexity, and deceptiveness to the finest efforts of 18th-century English landscape artists such as Capability Brown, creator of the majestic grounds for Blenheim Palace. The first problem limiting the acceptance of golf design as art is that to nongolfers a course can seem as meaningless as a Concerto for Dog Whistle. That a golf course allows people to interact with interesting landscapes without killing wild animals makes sense in the abstract, but not until you've driven a ball over a gaping canyon and onto the smooth safety of the green will the golf course obsession make much sense. The distinction Edmund Burke made in 1757 between the "sublime" and the "beautiful" applies to golf courses. The beautiful is some pleasing place conducive to human habitat -- meadows, valleys, slow moving streams, grassland intermingled with copses of trees, the whole English country estate shtick. The sublime is nature so magnificent that it induces the feeling of terror because it could kill you, such as by you falling off a mountain or into a gorge. Beautiful landscapes are most suited for building golf courses, since a golf course needs at least 100 acres of land level enough for a golf ball to come to rest upon. But golfers get a thrill out of the mock sublime, where you are in danger of losing not your life, but your mis-hit golf ball into a water hazard or ravine. One reason that Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula is so legendary is because it combines sublime sea cliffs with beautiful (and thus functional for golf) rolling plains...
Conventional artists are urban, golf architects suburban. The art community delights in the venerable game of Shock the Bourgeoisie, while golf courses are too bourgeois to be hip, too elegant to be camp....
The thrifty Scots made golf courses out of sandy, crumpled land of little value for farming. Lacking rich enough soil to grow trees, they are more open to the wind, which adds to the complexity of the game, but they don't furnish the natural pleasure of providing both forest and grassland together that the standard inland American course does...
Examples of truly horrendous design, fortunately, appear to be rarer in golf architecture than in building architecture, and are generally bulldozed into something more pleasing to the eye within a few years. Still, I can't resist a picture of Desmond Muirhead's legendary "Clashing Rocks" par-3 from his 1987 Stone Harbor course in New Jersey. Muirhead, who, while partnered in the early 1970s with Nicklaus, was largely responsible for the routing of the superb Muirfield Village course, became increasingly enamored with artistic self-expression in the 1980s. He explained:
"This hole has been published in hundreds of magazines worldwide, in art and architecture as well as golf. It was based on Jason and the Argonauts. The symbol came from my subconscious where it had probably been hanging around for a great many years. According to Jungian psychology, it is a mandala, a Sanskrit word meaning perfect circle which is the most common archetype drawn in psycho-analysis. The central form is female and the jagged forms are male."
Stone Harbor's members, however, found Muirhead's theoretical rhetoric less intimidating than the sand shots over water he'd inconsiderately created for them, and they had the hole rebuilt into something a little more traditional.
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