July 09, 1998
University Gazette


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The Course Suits Them to a Tee

Two pros take Graduate School of Design students past the hazards of golf course development during a summer institute

By Ken Gewertz

Gazette Staff

There is a golf crisis in this country, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) is trying hard to solve it.

The crisis is this: the number of golfers is expanding faster than the number of golf courses. More and more Americans are standing around with golf clubs in their hands, searching in vain for a place to tee off.

To address this problem, the GSD's Professional Development Program each summer offers the Harvard Golf Course Design and Development Institute, a group of six courses that deal with everything from laying out fairways and sand traps to clubhouse design, environmental considerations, and the financial issues that determine whether a golf course remains a going concern.

Why is golf so popular? Robert Graves, 65, who co-teaches the course in golf course design, believes that people are flocking to the fairways out of an innate desire to forge a connection with the past.

"In an increasingly technological society, people want a sense of stability, and golf is an ancient sport."

The business card from Graves' Oregon-based design firm emphasizes golf's venerable lineage. The card features a colorful graphic of a thistle, the national flower of Scotland. Golf originated there as early as the 16th century. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, founded in 1754, is where the rules of the game were first codified.

Amid the 30-odd students of their golf course design class, Graves and his co-teacher, Geoffrey Cornish, are easily identified by their red plaid blazers with gold crests identifying them as past presidents of the American Society of Golf Course Architects.

At 82, Cornish is a man who clearly makes few concessions to age. Active in the field since the 1940s, he has 240 courses to his credit and still heads his Amherst-based firm. He and Graves have written a textbook on the subject (Golf Course Design, John Wiley & Sons, 1998).

"Bob's name comes first on the cover, so I like to tell people he's the senior author," Cornish says impishly.

As longstanding members of the profession, Graves and Cornish have seen great change over the years, but their longevity is a testimony to their ability to adapt. Among the factors they have had to adapt to, environmental concerns and the increasing scarcity of prime land top the list.

"Thirty years ago, you didn't need a permit to build a golf course in Massachusetts," Cornish says. "Now you need about 20 of them."

Reshaping a tract of land into a golf course necessarily changes the environment for numerous plant and animal species, and creates problems with fertilizer and pesticide runoff. Today's designers must be sensitive to these changes.

"Whether an architect thinks about these issues or not, there are thousands of others who will. It taxes your patience sometimes, but overall, it's a good thing," Cornish adds.

Environmental concerns would not be of such pressing importance if it were not for the sheer quantity of land involved. An 18-hole course covers a minimum of 150 acres, but Graves says he would rather work with 180.

There are now approximately 16,000 golf courses in the United States. Incredibly, if they were pushed together, they would cover an area greater than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Perhaps even more incredibly, this huge expanse of greens, fairways, and roughs cannot accommodate the tremendous number of golfers clamoring to play.

One problem is that many of the nation's golf links are extremely exclusive, limiting their membership to a number that averages around 150. At the other end of the spectrum are the municipal courses, which let in anyone willing to pay the fee. But even these are forced to limit the number of players to avoid overcrowding.

According to Graves, the maximum number of players who can comfortably use a course is about 300 per day. Beyond that, the game become unpleasantly delayed. Compounding the problem is the fact that most players hit the links on weekends and holidays.

Because prime land is increasingly hard to come by, more and more golf courses are now being built on landfills, coal pits, strip mines, and other abused areas. Of the 1,000 or so golf courses now under construction, about 62 are being built on derelict land.

Graves and Cornish present these issues as part of the background of their two-day workshop, along with a great deal of practical information about laying out a playable course. Then the students are let loose with graph paper, pencils, and colored pens and instructed to design an 18-hole course.

Many of the students are professional landscape architects and civil engineers eager to acquire the skills and knowledge that will enable them to enter this growing profession. Others are driven by more ambiguous needs.

"I'm not sure why I'm here," laughs Dan Zegura, an attorney and avid golfer from Atlanta, Ga. "My father was an amateur player in Tucson, and he instilled in me an appreciation for golf courses. I can't think of a more beautiful place to be. I've just been made a partner in my law firm, so I guess it's a little late for me to think about making a career change, but I suppose being here is a way of scratching an itch I otherwise couldn't scratch."

Other students are already part of the professional golf world, but are seeking knowledge of course design to enhance other skills. David McDonald, for example, is assistant superintendent of a 100-year-old golf course in Atlantic City that has been bought by a large casino firm and is undergoing a redesign process.

The new owners want to renovate and modernize the course and at the same time restore its posh, turn-of-the-century style. They also plan to make it even more exclusive, restricting its use to 12 to 20 high-rolling casino patrons each day.

"During the renovation process, I'll be advising them on certain issues of irrigation and maintenance," McDonald says.

The super-exclusive Atlantic City facility won't do much to help the golf course crunch, but perhaps the knowledge dispensed in the GSD workshop will help another student transform some malodorous landfill into a poem of manicured shrubbery and close-cropped grass.

On the other hand, Graves and Cornish don't seem all that anxious to put themselves out of a job.

"Golf is presently on a roll worldwide," Graves says. "And I hope it continues until I retire."


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College