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, permatanned 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 the professors.
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 fairways.
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 r�sum�."
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."