Article by Forrest Richardson is reprinted with permission from The Golfer’s Journal (2020) about Golf Course Architect Desmond Muirhead, one of Forrest Richardson’s mentors
At fifteen years of age I learned a great lesson. Don’t write about golf architecture unless you’ve personally visited the course and studied it in detail. My misstep occurred in June 1974. The writing was about Bay Valley Resort’s (Michigan) 15th hole, a par-3 with a 100-yard long curve shaped tee. “You really made a blunder there,” came the biting words of Desmond Muirhead. “You missed the whole point of the concept. It’s not about the size of the tee, but what it does for the game, the experience and the exhilaration.” Even worse, he told me this in person and in front of a room full of adults. I had just persuaded my mother to drive me to “Mr. Muirhead’s” home on Newport Beach’s famous Balboa Island in California. At the time I was the editor, publisher and sole writer of the Golf Course Designer, a single sheet, two-sided newsletter that was sent out to whoever would subscribe. Muirhead was one of my subscribers. Suddenly my world came crashing down.
“Go easy on him Des, I do believe the young man may not even be of driving age.” Those kind words were from Keith Dewer, an icon of golf construction back in the 70s and 80s. Dewer, Muirhead and a living room full of associates were meeting about a large project. My scheduled visit was to last just 15 minutes as set by Ella, Desmond’s longtime secretary and wrangler. I stayed nearly an hour. Actually, I stayed for 46 years. That’s how long it has been for me getting into golf design, and building my practice.
My friendship with Desmond began on that sunny day in 1974, and it continued until his death in 2002. It could have been his guilt for lambasting me, but a few months after his advice he sent me a check for $75 which was far more than his renewal of my homespun journal. A simple letter accompanied: “Put this to good use, stop worrying about getting new subscribers, and focus on your writing … Sincerely, Desmond.”
The paradox of Desmond Muirhead resides in what can be called his three periods of work. One was his initiation into golf design, which appears was out of frustration of discovering that a lot of developers simply did not have a clue on how to go about integrating golf with their resort and housing plans. While there were busy golf architects in the 1950s and 60s, most were not accustomed to land planning beyond the actual golf facility. Desmond had studied and practiced landscape architecture, had great knowledge of trees, space making and how to transform landscapes. This period was the early 1960s. You could say that he “fell into” golf design, finding it “easy” to speak to developers because he not only had the credentials, but he clearly saw golf as being a way to bring large acreage landscape architecture to projects for profit and enjoyment.
Born in Norwich, England and educated at Cambridge, Muirhead went on to study in Canada and finally in Portland at the University of Oregon where landscape architecture became his calling. It would take quite a bit of space to do him justice when it comes to his accomplishments. A packed full sentence might read something such as “Wrote books on surfing, palm trees and The Old Course; loved art and cultures of all types; played a villain in a movie called “The Bees”; read everything he could lay his hands on; and was able to discuss intelligently nearly any subject you might want to bring up.” He was, without any hesitation, a true Man of the World. There was never any doubt he was present when entering a room, boarding an airplane or joining a group. His gift of discussion, persuasion and passion was certainly how he got into golf design, along with a careful study of what had been going on in the profession following WWII.
We now know that his first-ever golf assignment was creating a par-3 course for Disney at their Anaheim, California Disneyland Hotel. Opened in 1961, his “pitch and putt” layout was engaging, creative and loved by families visiting Disneyland. Sadly, it no longer exists. This first period culminated with a few projects where golf was not the driver of the project, but certainly important. Despite never really playing the game, at least not seriously, Desmond was getting hooked on golf and people were beginning to take notice.
Second is his period of large master planned communities, a movement that Muirhead is never given due respect for, ushering in as America, and the world, began to meet the demands of growing populations and suburban growth. It was his breakthrough concepts beginning in the 1960s and continuing for more than a decade that eventually became a part of “Residential Golf Development 101” — such concepts as integrating drainage, lakes, public paths, and carefully designed architectural elements. He even co-authored the Urban Land Institute’s Golf Course Development and Real Estate book, providing details of best practices and safety guidelines. More important, the Muirhead philosophy had home lots laid out to protect against errant balls, views carefully preserved and great elevation differences by way of massive earthmoving efforts to lower fairways while raising clubhouse sites and hiding roadways. Employing dozens of people — architects, planners, interior designers and construction foremen — Muirhead was a powerhouse of talent and creativity with golf at the forefront. Muirfield Village (Ohio), Mission Hills (California) and McCormick Ranch (Arizona) were just some of the celebrated whole-town and community projects he brought to life during this period.
Do not be fooled to think his residential golf concepts were ordinary. He did not believe in single fairways with housing to either side, instead preferring wide corridors with lakes and forests of trees making the edges nearly seamless. He created extraordinary long tees at par-3s to give them flexibility, built island fairways, island greens and even volcano holes where blind approaches were purposeful. Certainly, he felt, that golf and homes could be combined. But he did it with such grace and thought. Muirfield Village is one such example. As an example, no matter what the Nicklaus empire does to the course today, whether to bunkers or by adding tees or changing the landscape, it remains the anatomy of the routing and the way the streets, waterways and town center all come together that “makes” Muirfield Village such an engaging place to live, visit and enjoy. It is these original elements that Muirhead brought to life. At Desert Island (Palm Springs) he imagined all of the development perched on an island as midrise condo buildings as opposed to scattered home lots. The result is a village surrounded by water where the golf forms a second “wreath” around the lakes. Desert Island remains nearly identical to how Desmond created it, and a Google Earth search is worth the time to see how well it works these many years later.
It was also during this time that he tried to partner with various golf celebrities — Snead, Palmer and finally Nicklaus. It never worked. My conclusion is that Desmond simply could not relinquish control. Not for the design, and certainly not for the limelight where he shined perhaps greater than in any other environment. I brought this up once while we were visiting. You could tell it was a sore subject. With Nicklaus I believe he felt that the design and technical side of the partnership was his gift, leaving the experience playing the game to the Golden Bear. Desmond’s perspective was that the relationship became lopsided with credit being appropriated way out of whack. End of story, or as Desmond would often exclaim after a proclamation, “And that’s the truth!”
It was likely the bitterness of his falling out with Nicklaus that eventually shifted his attention away from golf, ending this second period where successes had been plentiful and his mark would forever be engrained in golf architecture.
Muirhead operated an art gallery near his home in California and it was here, sometime near the beginning of 1980, that a group of Japanese businessmen came in one afternoon and asked about some colorful sketches of golf landscapes signed by a name they recognized: Desmond Muirhead. The English-born Muirhead went into a full on description in his booming voice, likely explaining not only the design strategy, but also whatever symbolism had been embedded into elements such as giant cone-shaped mounds and spiral bunkers that adorned the framed sketches. In their broken English the businessmen wanted to know how the gallery came across the work, and was there any more to be found. Astounded, Muirhead finally got through that he was, in fact, Muirhead! “Ā sō” came the response, along with wide smiles and multiple handshakes. Desmond related to me that despite his reluctance to re-enter the golf business, this encounter with the visitors from Japan eventually led to a trip to Japan where he was courted to not only weigh in on a new course design, but an opportunity to create a new city in Australia. At the invitation of the Japanese, Muirhead went off to Australia in the early 1980s. While there he laid out one golf course (Kooralbyn Valley), but mostly he dabbled in glass art and what would eventually define his later period — symbolic art. You could say that Desmond Muirhead vanished into thin air for several years. When he finally returned to the States in about 1985 it opened the third period, what I call the “Renaissance of Desmond Muirhead.”
Reentering the golf design world was not among his plans. But, while being away and focusing on art, he came to the realization that symbolism could play an important role in the design of golf courses. Let’s be clear, Muirhead was always looking for symbolism and how golf holes could evoke emotion. But he never crossed the line of being more overt with this notion. Now, armed with nothing to lose and a sense of refreshment, Desmond was about to shake up the norms of golf course design.
His return to golf came with a simple edict: Moving forward he would draw from legend, lore, symbolism and fantasy — all part of the human experience, and to him, an interesting and missing element in his earlier work. Not to mention the work of nearly every golf course architect who ever practiced before this time.
In essence, Desmond Muirhead ushered in a new way of designing golf courses and it was not at all concerned with “just” the strategy, aesthetics, naturalness and typical patterns we have come to “learn” goes along with golf architecture. The wildly crazy and imaginative designs with holes named for dragons, mythical characters and worldly places became criticized, laughed at, and to be fair, let us also remember that hundreds of million of dollars were invested by respectable people, governments and large resort developers. It was the real deal, even if you did not like the “art” of what he was doing.
This past year I finally made my way to Japan to see a few of Desmond’s “third phase” courses. Sadly, not a lot of this work remains here in the U.S., but in Japan and a few other places, we can still enjoy his wit, thinking and the creations that celebrate this approach. One course was Oak Village, about an hour outside Tokyo. It truly is magical. Not minimalist. Bucking today’s prevailing trends, it is nowhere near minimalist and certainly not ordinary. One particular hole — keep in mind it is just one of 18 — reminded me of nothing, but at the same time it reminded me of all things. The 8th Hole “The Sangreal” is an intimidating par-3 over water. All at once it is a visual feast, a geometric solution and a pleasing puzzle that begins with an elevated tee, provides views for miles and ultimately challenges with options to either take on the water, or proceed safely with sure bogy. The green is not just the Holy Grail, it is the Holy Grail, both in name and presentation.
Shapes, designs, ornaments. In a word, Oak Village is art. It oozes joy, entertainment, surprise and enlightenment, and does so at every turn. Besides that, it has strategy, good looks and wonderful settings as if each hole has a personality to match its name. Chevy Chase, Roast Beef, Lady Godiva are just a few other examples.
While there I heard a voice. Booming and forceful. “Well Forrest, I see you came to see for yourself before writing. Now that’s what I call success! Knowing my advice has stayed with you all these years.”