Take This 3-Iron and Give Me That Pencil


Imagine Barry Bonds designing a ballpark. Now imagine a bunch of pitchers, laughing derisively, crossing out the wall Barry put at 290 feet down the right field line and writing in 350.
The Dodgers will move back to Brooklyn before that happens. And most other sports playing fields are subject to stringent size regulations, so athletes dont feel called upon to design their venues.
Except in golf.
In their own version of, Well, acting is great, but what I really want to do is direct, famous golfers over the years have tried their hand at golf course design. They have taken advantage of one of the sports primary charms, the uniqueness of its playing fields. As we all know by now, no two courses are alike, and thats one of the delights that kindles and rekindles our eternal interest.
There are architects who play and there are player-architects. Fans of the former group, which includes Donald Ross, Seth Raynor, A.W. Tillinghast and others, often look down their noses and over the rims of their Merlot glasses at the latter. Still others snort, as did one writer I played with some years ago in Chicago, This isnt rocket surgery. Anyone could do this. Those million-dollar guys are ripping off the whole golf world.
Neither set of doubters gives player-architects their due. And guess what, it is rocket surg ' er, science. Damn-the-torpedoes guys such as Charles Blair MacDonald, designer of the National Golf Links on Long Island and Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, Ill., may have been able to work their visions by force of will. But my guess is the turf and drainage conundrums were left to some poor superintendent who never had a chance to be encumbered by fame.
Modern player-architects, on the other hand, have become students, out of pride and necessity. Jack Nicklaus, the most successful of all the player-architects, knew he had better learn the business well or the business well would run dry. Mark McCumber and his brother Jim took a childhood full of golf course exposure and turf knowledge and built it into a going concern.
Still, some fans grimace and mutter, Where does he get off? when they see, for instance, that Sergio Garcia will be getting into the design business soon. (Hell be using the design support services of Nicklaus company, just as Ernie Els decided to do about a year ago.) What is this kid, 22 or something? All I was designing at that age was a way to party more and work less.
But who better than a player, whatever his age, to shape the contours of the most interesting playing fields in sport? Down at the grass roots, literally, they have learned every permutation of the behavior of a golf ball meeting land. They have a keen sense of fair and un-, of engaging and enraging, of sublime and mundane.
The only risk ' and a moderate one at that ' is the unavoidable overlay of the architects playing style on his design style. So-called golf cognoscenti sometimes avoid Nicklaus courses if said cognoscenti neither have nor like the high fade approach shots said to be called for on so many of Jacks 250 designs. And if you dont like right-to-left, stay away from Greg Norman designs, is the by-now old saw.
But thats like blaming Van Gogh for that irritating brushstroke thing. Ross, Tillie, Raynor and the others surely imprinted their games onto their works (go ahead, run it low on a Ross course) ' its just that we never watched them climb a leaderboard, so we never felt imprisoned by their playing style.
On the contrary, if you really want to test your game and you fly it left to right, then a Norman course is the track you want. Beat your handicap on that, brag in the grill room, and frame the card.
There are so-called player-architects out there who do no more than lend their names to the work of the golf course equivalent of a ghost writer. But the majority gets down in the dirt and helps sculpt the shapes; some even climb the bulldozer and start shoving and shaving. They know their credibility depends on it.
As a golfer, Im always interested in the player-designers vision. Its something you cant get in any other sport. (Charles Mechem, the revered former LPGA commissioner, once said about regulation courts and the tennis tour, Why do they bother to travel?) I like to wonder how the analytical competitive mind becomes the analytical landscape architects mind, or why someone as bright and talented as Ben Hogan chose to make equipment instead of golf courses.
And I hope that before my playing days are over, I see as many top women players designing courses as men.
So I say play ' and design ' away.