I have rarely met a person who loves golf who is not interested in golf-course design. Often this interest is subconscious, but given a chance it will surely surface. Make a comment about a hole at his golf club to any member who can break 90 and almost certainly you will provoke conversation, if not debate. Maybe he never knew he had a point of view, but the moment you offer yours he'll respond, usually with a strong opinion. Frequently you will discover a fellow who has a mental master plan for improving not only every hole on his own layout and all the courses within a 20-mile radius, but also Pebble Beach, Pine Valley and the Old Course at St. Andrews.
My interest in course design began years ago. As far back as I can remember I have preferred outdoors to indoors and natural things to manufactured things. The main reason golf appealed to me so much as a kid was that I could do it by myself, without the dependence on other people that most sports involve, but the appeal of the course itself was also a major factor. A golf course—in those days, any golf course—was simply a marvelous place to be, a constant source of pleasure and contentment quite apart from the actual playing of the game.
From that simple starting point I became more and more intrigued, as my game improved, by the way in which the elements that make up a course determine the type and quality of shots a golfer is called upon to play. I became (and remain) fascinated with the effects of grass, trees, water, sand and the shape and texture of the land itself in determining shotmaking values. Seeking to understand each new hole I encountered, I would try to put myself in the mind of the architect, try to figure out why he had done, or perhaps been forced to do, particular things in particular ways. Inevitably this intense observation improved my strategic approach to shotmaking, which led to better scoring, which encouraged me to develop an ultra-analytical approach to the game as a competitive tool. It also led to a lot of second-guessing and to the conviction that there were many more inferior golf holes in the world than there were great ones. I was anxious to go to work with a bulldozer years before I ever got around to offering anyone an opinion on a design factor.
Thus my development as a player made it more or less inevitable that eventually I would become involved in course design at some level. The way things have worked out, I am now, at 34, in it up to my neck, spending just about as much time and effort designing courses as playing them, and I am anxious to make course design a lifelong career. Why has this happened, at a time when, theoretically, I am just approaching the peak of my playing career? The answer is simple: it turns me on. I enjoy it. It may be immodest of me, but I think I have something to contribute. I think I can become a good golf-course designer and I enjoy being involved in things that I do well.
The more complex answer, probably the real driving force, has to do with intellectual challenge and fulfillment. As time has passed I've experienced a restlessness that is curbed less and less by winning golf championships, one that is satisfied only by the kind of mental and emotional effort required to create and orchestrate things. Certainly I am not unfulfilled by my competitive achievements, and my playing career is not over. But perhaps I also need to do something with more permanence if I am to find that ultimate inner satisfaction we all privately strive toward. In brief, I guess I am more artistic than I thought.
There are some challenges in golf-course design that you discover only when you get into the actual mechanics of the job. The first time I pulled on a pair of boots to walk virgin land with Pete Dye I had some pretty rigid attitudes—I tended to think designing courses was almost a pure art form. Today, seven years later, I still think the top designers were artists, but I now know they were also craftsmen. I have also learned humility. There were a couple of famous American architects whose courses I really disliked, and I tended to say so given the slightest opening. Some of my comments embarrass me now. I still do not care for their concepts, their broad strokes, but I do understand the sheer technical reasons for a lot of their work. And the main thing I understand is that when they did something that was not to my taste it was usually because they did not have any alternative.
The big limitation to what sort of course you can build today is the quality of the land left over once the developers have had their pick. Almost every major American course was built between the two world wars as a private club, using prime land then easily and cheaply available, with virtually no real estate or other commercial considerations. The choice of land, the designing, the construction, the maturing maintenance, were all labors of love.
Those days are vanishing, almost certainly forever. National Golf Foundation statistics show that of the 10,896 golf courses in operation at the end of 1973, 4,710, or 43.2%, were "for-profit" operations. Two decades earlier only 26.1% of the nation's courses were operated for profit. NGF figures also show that only 21.46% of the full-size courses built in the U.S. in 1963 were part of either second-or primary-home developments, whereas 44.38% of the courses built in 1973 were in those categories. It's a safe bet that most of those 1973 real-estate-linked courses were built on leftover dirt—the best land having gone for homesites and utilities. Considering the land-money limitations within which they have had to work, I've come to believe that the majority of real pros among U.S. golf-course designers are doing some fine work.
It is my guess that not more than 10 courses have been built in the U.S. in the past five years where the designer was given first choice of an outstanding tract of land, total freedom of design and a more than adequate construction and initial maintenance budget. Those happy circumstances applied at my new Muirfield Village Golf Club. There have been no compromises, and thus the course has been well received. But so it should. Given the land and the conditions I had, it would have been unforgivable if I had produced an inferior course.
Most golfers, being businessmen, would probably accept the inevitability of the limits imposed upon course design by commercial factors. But another problem—nature itself—is tougher for the golfer to understand, because it is difficult to believe until you've actually felt the pain of running into it headfirst. I have been fortunate in working with and learning from some fine professionals, first Pete Dye, on the Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C. and other courses; then Desmond Muirhead, on a number of courses where differing uses demanded widely varying design approaches, notably Muirfield Village (a private club) and the Jack Nicklaus Golf Center in Cincinnati (a public course). Dye, a golfing purist in his approach to land, with a very subtle sense of strategy involving great intricacy of design, taught me much about naturalness. Muirhead, a master land-planner with a strong sense of overall environmental impact, vastly increased my ability to conceptualize land use on a total rather than a detailed scale. Now I have my own highly qualified design, construction and maintenance teams. These people have increased my craftsmanship, occasionally by the never-easy process of changing my mind about artistic or shot-value objectives. But I still have a tough time living with the invincibility of nature, accepting the fact that sometimes the good earth simply will not permit you to achieve the esthetic golfing ideals that you have in mind.