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 model.
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 on paper.
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 effort."
I fairly floated all the way home.