My Addiction to Sand

The following appeared in Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective - Vol. Four. Forrest Richardson shares insights learned while designing and building The Links at Las Palomas in Sonora, Mexico.

My name is Forrest Richardson and I am addicted to sand. There, I said it. According to my mother, on the occasion of my first birthday she promptly plucked me from my redwood sided sandbox, rushed me into the bathroom and proceeded to wash my mouth out with soapy water. “No Forrest! No! We do not eat sand!”

So began a love affair turned into addiction. By the age of six I had learned not to eat sand, but everything else concerning sand became fair game. I took great pride in finding sand, even small patches. Whether it was a pile bordering a construction site or some leftover bags from concrete mixing, I managed to sniff it out and spend hours playing amongst it. On my eleventh birthday a perceptive father (mine) did not stoop so low as to visit the local toy store. A radio controlled helicopter, the latest Hot Wheels or even a real pigskin football would simply not suffice. Instead, my father called a local landscape materials supplier and ordered nine cubic yards of sandy topsoil to be delivered to our house. When I awoke to face the world on my birthday it was all a boy could ever hope for: a four-foot high pile of dirt in my backyard.

My childhood days with sand consisted of forming miniature walls, roads and, later on, golf courses. For example, in that unwrapped, dirty birthday present I formed a winding roadway, tunnels and, yes, a hillside golf course. I recall it spiraling down and back up my personal “mountain.” Very likely there was also a miniature resort, a clubhouse and my rendition of golf villas, each overlooking the tiny collection of par-3s, 4s and 5s.

Sand, I will submit, is the lifeblood of a golf course. While the casual onlooker might suggest that the essential component is the turf, this is simply a misconception. Even though we play upon wondrous green swards, they are merely the outer coating—the wallpaper—of a golf course. And, even through it is these swards that seem to connect us from clubhouse to opening hole, on to each of its brothers and sisters, and then back to the clubhouse where we take in a libation (or two), this upper coating is secondary to the true soul of a golf course. For beneath the green, the off-green and the sort-of-green layers at the surface is a world of even greater connections. Here, below the crust, a golf course is actually born and given life. Among the damp and earthy smelling soils, part sand and part other stuff, is where a golf course truly lives and breathes.

We should take time to realize this. That lying quietly below each of our links is a world of drainage, nutrients and a structure. This subsurface world is what yields every rise and fall of a fairway, each nuance of the putting greens and also those evil pits we too often find in our pursuit of the hole. It is here that the shaping and molding of the land unfolds at the hand of the golf course architect.

A sculptor—and I submit golf course architects are—must decide what to stick his or her fingers into in order to create a piece of art. But for those of us who create golf courses, we are relegated to a site we have been given and to the “holes” we will envision. The choice is not ours to decide whether to sculpt with granite, bronze, or mahogany. It is the land—sand and soil—that we begin with. And, when we finish, the work has resulted from three primary endeavors; (1) discovery, (2) leaving well enough alone and (3) reshaping.

For “discovery” we ask Nature to show us what she has. By thinking and routing our way around the “course” before it becomes a course, we manage the most important of all tasks of designing for golf. We set the stage, write the sequence of the story and put into motion thousands of decisions that will eventually follow suit.

To master “leaving well enough alone” we must first have listened to Nature and taken time to understand what is being offered for our golf course. Then, and perhaps this is most difficult of all to master, comes the leaving well enough alone part. If we are clever and can accept an exciting pre-made feature over one of our own doing, we will often create a more timeless and beautiful experience.

In “reshaping” we sculpt Nature. We take things that are lame, boring, or less-than-ideal, and we work them just as any sculptor. But in golf course work there is more to it. On perhaps the largest canvas ever offered to an artist, the golf course architect must decide where to begin the reshaping and where to end it. This is a tough assignment as it is tested over and over, and in corner after corner, of the expansive area of the layout. Reshaping is the key to success, as we have in golf just as many failures going too far as we have failures that have gone too shallow. When to, and when not to, reshape is of the most precarious balancing acts.

“Tell me then, who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?” Those were the words of Omar Khayyam, an 11th century philosopher and poet. It is inherently difficult to separate the craft from the crafter, for each has evolved from the other. In golf course design we are at odds with Nature, yet she is our palette, canvas and gallery all in one. This is the same in the game itself. Golfers are eventually at odds with Nature, yet the winds, rolls, and breaks can, at times, be a friendly assistant.

The “clay” of those who sculpt golf courses is soil. And when all the planets line up perfectly, the most preferred medium is a finely sifted soil, which we call sand. This is as it was (and still is) at St. Andrews. It was never better said than by Old Tom Morris when he is reported to have ordered his trusted assistant, David Honeyman, with the request “Mair saund, Honeyman, mair saund.” There is no secret to why we still topdress with sand. It approximates the ideal condition. Just as St. Andrews proves, the most perfect ingredient for our work is a sandy linksland.

The typical onlooker, of course, will cry “topsoil” when faced with the choice of what to build a new course upon, or worse, what to haul into an older course. However, we know best that pure unadulterated sand is generally the path to perfection. So, we must preach, educate and ultimately convince Mr. and Mrs. Onlooker. Quite often they will be the owners, managers and committee members who, if suddenly turned into a blade of grass, could not possibly imagine a fulfilling life in a settlement of nothing but pure sand.

Considering we are speaking here of the important matter of an addiction, a bit of science about sand seems appropriate. Technically, sand is described as bits and pieces of small rock mixed with equally small particles of deal plants and animals. These particles, according to arenophiles (those who collect sand), must range from a one-sixteenth to two millimeters in diameter to qualify as sand. Any less is silt and dust. Any more is gravel. This granular concoction is purest when the organic stuff, the bits of plants and animals, are kept to a minimum. As the small pieces of rock are outweighed by organic materials, we lean toward soil. As the scale tips toward just the small particles of rock we move closer to pure sand, and this is ideal for both a boy playing in sand and for a golf course architect.

Pure sand takes many forms. There is not enough room or patience here to get into the differences or advantages of eroded limestone, gypsum, shell fragments, coral, feldspar, decomposed granite, volcanic basalt, quartz crystals or silica. Silica, it might be mentioned however, is technically silicon dioxide. And, when the need may arise to impress an audience, you may resort to using SiO2 instead of the full name.

Remember this one thought: Sand is simply granular materials made up of small mineral particles—rock being the most common. It is transported by wind and water and deposited in the form of beaches, dunes, sand spits, and sand bars. The fact that is so ideally suited to golf course building is why many of the world’s greatest courses have been set upon such large deposits of the stuff. That is also worth remembering.

I suppose all of us, when we really think about it, are what we are because of what we have experienced. Now that I “play” in the sand as an adult, shaping golf features and reshaping the subtleness of nature, it has never been more apparent that my experiences as a youth played a large role in what I do today. The nature of sand, how I was introduced to sand, and my current relationship with sand are each the result of an interesting series of events. My “addiction” is, of course, a positive thing.

Most of us take far too much for granted. Lately I have been considering the things I have created and how it came to be that I made the decisions that eventually led to the finished work. Going from project to project, hole to hole, and site to site, I have thought about the experiences of playing in the sand, of beaches, backyard golf holes and piles of sand.

How often do we nurture the instincts of children to pursue their interests? Everyone has interests. Everyone has a knack. As my daughter begins her journey toward high school I see dance, music and drama flying into her world—and then back out in the form of her own expression. She represents a triple threat to a world I know almost nothing about. But that is O.K., for all I need to do is to find her the dancing equivalent of a pile of sand.

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