Feature Interview with
Interviewer’s Note: I have known Ran Morrissett for over five years now – long enough to appreciate that his knowledge of the world’s finest golf courses ranks among the elite. Perhaps more importantly, however, I have always been hugely impressed with the open-mindedness of his opinions; in a field where our individual degrees of objectivity range from ‘Well, that’s my taste’ to outright bias, I have considered Ran’s opinions among the small handful that I most value. I therefore welcomed the opportunity to pose the following set of questions to him, questions which I hope will be at least somewhat representative of what the broad body of GCA regulars might themselves wish to ask – Daniel Wexler.
1. All right, this might be more than you bargained for in agreeing to do this, but how about a bit of biographical information about how you got involved in golf?
The key to getting involved with golf was Dad’s relaxed approach to the game.
We grew up in Richmond, Virginia and Dad played nine holes after work with our dog Sandy during the summer months at the James River Course of the Country Club of Virginia, a good but not great William Flynn design. The offer to join him was always open to the three brothers. Sometimes, one or two of us might go, sometimes none. Eventually, by the time the three brothers were 14, 13, and 8 years old, we all wolfed down dinner and headed off to the course around 6:00pm. Mom, a non-golfer, joined in too, and our dog Sandy was a constant.
The great Harry W. Easterly, Jr. both past President and Executive Director of the United States Golf Association, was a friend of Dad’s and a member of CCV. At some point, he took an interest in our golfing family and he played a key role in introducing us to such courses as Pine Valley, Augusta National, Muirfield, The Old Course at St. Andrews and Shinnecock.
Thus, if ever there was a likelihood of people getting hooked on golf course architecture, it was us. In my case, I was exposed to such landmark courses prior to turning 22 years old. Easterly helped me get a job at the USGA’s headquarters in Far Hills, which I started two days after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1985. I spent many a weekend in the USGA library reading the excellent USGA Golf Journals from days gone by. Frank Hannigan’s essay on Tillinghast is certainly a classic and the writing and selections of the Great Golf Holes on the back of each magazine was far superior to what they became before its publication ceased in 2003.
While working at Far Hills for two years, I lived just down the street from Somerset Hills Country Club in Bernardsville. I jogged the empty course late in evenings. The chance to see this feature rich design on a frequent basis meant a lot. I remember marveling at the green complexes, which when taken as a set, seemed as varied as any I had ever seen. To this day, Somerset remains very close to my ideal for an inland parkland course – it remains distance-wise within reach for all yet is fun/challenging for any skill set as the greens make even the best work for a decent score.
I moved back to Richmond in 1987 and the Morrissett Gang of Five headed off to Ireland for a golf trip that August.
That was almost twenty years ago and ever since, golf has remained a central part of our family. Though the brothers have lived in some far-flung places, golf has continually been a conduit for bringing the family back together.
2. Was your interest in course design an innate thing or was it spawned by the many courses you’ve visited in your travels?
I don’t know how to answer that other than to cite three stories.
First, Mom gave Dad a book called The World Atlas of Golf for Christmas sometime in the late 1970s. That edition was so heavily read/devoured by all of us that the book literally disintegrated within five years. We have had several more family World Atlas of Golf books. We sketched holes from it, tried to beat Pat Ward-Thomas’s eclectic world 18, came up with our own holes, etc. Anyway, the point of the story is that the book was a huge influence in stimulating our interest. The fact that GolfClubAtlas.com has the name ‘golf’ and ‘atlas’ in it is meant as a tribute to that book. It is also one of the reason we enjoy profiling new books in the Feature Interview section of the site – who knows what book might do the same for others.
The second story is that the Morrissett family went on a two week summer vacation in 1981 that included Pinehurst and Harbour Town. Driving back from Hilton Head to Richmond at the conclusion of the trip, the three brothers aged 18, 16 and 10 debated the merits of the two courses, which (along with the Cascades) were the first great courses to which we had been exposed. On an obvious level, Harbour Town was more flamboyant as it had well defined – and heroic – hazards and yet we felt Pinehurst No. 2 was somehow superior. The three brothers constantly barraged the front seat (where Dad was driving) with thoughts like, ‘Is the 9th at HT the best short par four that you have ever seen?’ ‘Is the 2nd at No. 2 the best par four in the world?’ ‘Does HT have the best and the worst holes of the 36?’ Needless to say in looking back, 1) Mom was robbed and 2) we were strange.
Last story: in 1983, the Morrissett Gang of Five headed for Scotland (Sandy our dog was alas not included). We played in order Turnberry, Dornoch, The Old Course at St. Andrews, and Muirfield. To a person, we felt Muirfield was the weakest of the group. If one thinks of the four properties, Muirfield’s is by far the least compelling and we didn’t think the architecture made up enough for it. We arrived back home to the new issue of GOLF Magazine proclaiming that Muirfield was no. 1 in the world. Needless to say, we lost the plot and debate ensued for weeks over the dinner table as to this apparent outrage. My personal gut key was that I had been dragged off The Old Course and Dornoch after 36 and 54 plus holes in a day. Same for Turnberry. Yet at Muirfield, we played 18 and I was happy to go.
As you can see from the three stories, we have always enjoyed dissecting what makes this or that great about this hole or that course. Why? I don’t know!
3. With the understanding that some future chronicler of Golfclubatlas.com’s history may cite this as the definitive answer, can you recount the idea behind the site’s founding as well as the events of its formative years?
The credit for this web site belongs to Chris Sutton and David Baxter, who quit their jobs tolaunch Sitesuite in Australia in 1998 (www.sitesuite.com.au). I knew them through work and they approached me about sticking anything into their web hosting software in order to help them show corporations how well it worked.
My brother John and I had written a couple dozen course profiles at that point, mailing them to friends at Christmas. We had always taken photographs of courses, so I said, ‘What about a site on golf architecture? We have about sixty pages of text and dozens of photos – would that work?’
Though they must have thought what a sad life we had, Chris and Dave were enthusiastic and encouraged me to get them the information as soon as possible. They came up with the general layout and appearance of the site. My only guidance was to keep it simple as the subject matter was traditional in nature and I suggested brown for down the left side of the web page to mimic the color of wood lockers in an old clubhouse.
My brother John was familiar with a discussion group called Bravenet in the United States. He asked me to ask Chris and Dave if they could add a Discussion Group feature (‘sure’ was their response). From the start, John thought if we could keep the Discussion Group focused on golf course architecture and keep the discourse intelligent, our web site would eventually standout. And he was right.
We knew we wanted a Feature Interview section as a place for people to voice their unedited perspective to a (hopefully large) audience. Fortunately, I had corresponded a few times with Tom Doak by then. In the original edition of his Confidential Guide, he talked about earning brownie points for seeing a course near Ninety Mile Beach at the tip of the North Island of New Zealand. I had in fact played Kaitai and sent him a brief description of the links along with some photographs (which happened to be stunning).
Anyway, Tom was kind enough to do the first Feature Interview and re-reading the questions we asked him, you can see we certainly didn’t have any idea what we were doing and Tom was a great sport to do it.
Word got out that a new, non-commercial web site had done a Feature Interview with Tom and the page views slowly started to happen/grow. After the first year, we averaged about 12,000 page views per month, many between John and myself making anonymous posts in the Discussion Group. Now, we average over 600,000 page views per month. Somebody emailed me a link showing that we are now the ~63,000th most popular site on the world-wide web, which he implied was quite impressive.
4. You presently hold a spot on GOLF Magazine’s course ratings panel. My own thought on rankings – and I fear it to be a part of a frighteningly small minority – is that they frequently do more harm than good, spurring courses to make often spurious changes in the hope of impressing the raters. Is this a concern of yours as well or am I too much of a doomsayer?
Actually, all the GOLF panelists received an email saying that their past efforts are appreciated and that the World Rankings are presently being reviewed. What this means for my continued involvement, I don’t know.
Regardless, in general as you can see from some of my prior answers, I am a fan of comparing the virtues of courses to one another as it makes people articulate the features that make course A ‘better’ than course B. Many people fumble along when trying to do so, so just the fact that rankings stimulate such discourse is healthy and good.
Unfortunately, the absurd amount of attention/importance placed on rankings has now become unhealthy at some clubs. Some of the most illogical and inane comments ever posted within the Discussion Group are from raters from GOLF Digest and Golf Week. The fact that the results of the ballots of such people can ultimately influence a green keeper’s job or what architect gets hired is pitiful.
Panelists demand that architects spend a lot of time on site getting the routing/detail work just right. And yet, what do many panelists then do? Blow in for a quick afternoon round and then off they go. They don’t see the course in different winds, different seasons, different playing conditions or get to experience different hole locations. They make a snap judgement based on one visit. As a course owner, you can only hope that they played well.
I understand this is how the world works but to attach such importance to such an inherently flawed ranking system is simply a mistake.
I have good friend in NYC who thinks all panelists should be anonymous. Thus, clubs would never know when a panelist was there and all free rounds would drop by the wayside. I like this idea quite a bit.
Also, rankings disregard non -18 hole courses (are there forty 18 hole courses in the world more engaging to play than Royal Worlington & Newmarket??) and courses long in character but short in distance like Eastward Ho!, West Sussex, The Addington, Jasper Park, Swinley Forest, St. Enodoc, etc. are ignored. I easily place all these courses among the best I’ve seen.
Another shortfall of rankings is that designs that resist stereotyping (Devil’s Paintbrush, Tralee, Black Mesa, Tobacco Road) get ignored, which unfortunately then discourages other owners/architects from taking chances going forward.
The Morrissetts have used rankings in the past to help guide us to such hidden gems as Newcastle Golf Club in New South Wales and Cape Breton Highlands in Nova Scotia. If the rankings are just going to become a list of 7,300 yard, ‘technology proof’ courses, who cares?? Tom MacWood’s In My Opinion fictitious 1939 World Top 100 ranking that features such courses as Lawsonia and St. George’s Hill is far more relevant to someone with an interest in great architecture.
I continue to feel more and more disconnected from all the rankings and place less importance in them. I hope when GOLF Magazine has finished its World Top 100 review, the net effect will be some kind of a new ranking, something along the lines of the World’s Top 100 Neatest Courses or the Top 100 Courses Everyone Should Play at Least Once in Their Live. Show me a list with Rosses Point, Apache Stronghold, Essex County Club, Capilano, Waterville, Kirtland outside of Cleveland and The Sacred Nine and that’s a list worth studying/debating.
5. A glance over either major contemporary U.S. magazine ranking shows a clear preference for older courses over newer ones, particularly among the top 25 or 50. Golf Digest recently dropped ‘tradition’ from its list of criteria but beyond this, is it your sense that courses were actually better designed during the Golden Age or might there be further mitigating factors that help skew the rankings?
Many of my favourite courses built back then have a sense of fun about them – the bunker in the middle of the 6th green at Riviera, the wall right beside the 13th green at North Berwick and the Double Plateau green at the 16th, the wild putting contours at places like Royal Melbourne and NGLA, playing the bank just right at the 12th green at Somerset Hills, the Bad Baby 15th at Jasper Park, the maddeningly impossible to hold fairway slopes at Pennard, the manufactured but totally fun green complex at the 6th at The Creek, the unconventional first and last holes at Garden City Golf Club, the supreme absurdity of the 9th green at Yale, etc. The list could go on for pages.
With so many of the courses built back then rife with strategic/fun filled shots, who can fail but eagerly anticipate your next chance to get the shot just right? Even noted ‘hard’ courses back then had thrilling/fun shots – the out of bounds just to the left of the 7th green at Hoylake is a great match play attribute (and you could still finish the round with your same ball if you failed the test), as was the OB later at the 16th and 17th.
With the exception of Pete Dye, this element of fun went lacking in design as architects rigidly stuck to conventional, straightforward design elements from WWII until the last 15 or so years. History is now showing us that the vast majority of courses built from 1950 to the mid-1980s lack a sense of uniqueness as their challenge is too orthodox to inspire any real devotion. Fortunately, designs like High Pointe, Kapalua Plantation, Hidden Creek, Rustic Canyon, The Kingsley Club, and Friar’s Head emerged where the golfer isn’t worn out but rather is encouraged to play a second round. The crampness/lack of decision making that plagued courses in the 1960s and 1970s is mercifully absent in these designs and the golfer is encouraged to be innovative and play bold, positive shots around a variety of hazards.
6. No way do you get out of this without going on record regarding your personal favorites. How about laying out what you consider to be the five best courses that you have seen/played around the world based upon your own architectural values – and why?
I used to spend hours and hours keeping a personal ranking but stopped several years ago. At the time, my five favourites were National Golf Links of America, The West Course at Royal Melbourne, The Old Course at St. Andrews, Cypress Point, and either Sand Hills or Royal County Down (I don’t remember which).
In general, my favourite courses reflect their environment (The Country Club in Brookline, MA, Pacific Dunes, The Cascades, Chechessee Creek) aren’t over-maintained (Yeamans Hall, Fishers Island) and have a variety of hazards/challenges many of which may be randomly placed and some of which may be considered unorthodox (North Berwick, Westward Ho!, Brancaster). The essence of great architecture is that the golfer must be asked to think with plenty of risk/reward decisions throughout (West Course at Royal Melbourne, National Golf Club of America, Merion). The hazards need to be hazardous (Kingston Heath, Woodhall Spa, Carnoustie) and the manufactured hazards must blend in with nature (Cypress Point, Sand Hills). The course must have varied green complexes (Maidstone, Somerset Hills, Royal Cinque Ports) and wild interior green contours (Winged Foot West, Friar’s Head, Prairie Dunes) and possess fallaway greens (Oakmont, Kapalua Plantation, Elie). Horizon greens and greens with no back stops (Fishers, Garden City Golf Club) are infinitely preferable to greens that are ‘framed’. Courses that reveal too much after just one or two rounds quickly become boring and greens with false fronts and sides that shrug the ball away (Pinehurst No. 2, Royal St. George’s) are one way to keep the golfer guessing.
The course can be on a plain (Walton Heath, GCGC, Chicago GC) or have wild topography (Yale, Eastward Ho!, The Addington) or be on continuously rolling, crumpled terrain (Saint Louis Country Club, St. George’s in Toronto, Brora). Lay of the land architecture is best as it guarantees a unique course and blind shots are a natural and desirable consequence (New South Wales GC, Newcastle Golf Club in New South Wales, Prestwick). The course should be an uninterrupted, inspired walk through nature (Royal County Down, Banff). If houses are nearby, the architecture needs to be brilliant to keep your mind glued to the task at hand (Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Pasatiempo).
Obviously, great golf holes must abound and a course’s collection of one shotters (Swinley Forest, Camargo, Royal Ashdown Forest), two shotters (Yale, Riviera, Ballybunion Old), or three shotters (Cape Breton Highlands, Friar’s Head, Pebble Beach) may help the course stand apart as a particular favourite.
By favourites, I suppose that should mean the courses with the highest quality of successive holes from the first through to the last. And when you talk about the best succession of holes, what course can compare with Pine Valley?! However, presently, they need to trim back a row or two of trees and let the bunkers return to their scruffy nature to bring back the sandy terror that the course once possessed – it’s too damn beautiful now!
7. In The Confidential Guide, Tom Doak referred to Steve Smyers as falling ‘in the very small group of modern designers whose work I will now seek out.’ Aside from the obvious choices such as Tom, or Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, do you have any personal contemporary favorites whose work you yourself are inclined to seek out?
I recently – and shrewdly – delayed a flight home so I could see Gil Hanse’s Boston Golf Club, which beautifully reflected its rugged and unique New England setting. I hope to see Mike DeVries’s new course in Marquette (of which my brother John is a real fan) in 2006. After seeing Wild Horse, I will certainly go wherever to see a Bunker Hill project as Dan and Dave are superb in three key areas: 1) bunker placement (see Wild Horse) 2) greens that fall front to back (see Delaware Springs) and 3) they build fun courses that are very reasonable in price to play (see all their courses). Graham Marsh’s work at Suttons Bay in South Dakota was most refreshing to see with its long views, elaborate bunkering schemes and fallaway greens. Rod Whitman’s a person whose work I want to see more of – he does it out of the love of the game rather than for the money and it shows in his work. When Whitman’s Cabot Links project opens in Inverness, Nova Scotia in 2007, I would be surprised if one day one it wasn’t the best non-Thompson course in Canada. I hope Ron Whitten gets a great piece of property one day with freedom to put his extensive knowledge to better use than it presently is at Golf Digest. I can’t wait for my kids to get a shade older to make the flight to Oz a shade easier so that I can see all the work that Mike Clayton has done since I left there. Seeing Black Mesa was eye-opening in terms of the talent that Baxter Spann showed in creating classic strategic dilemmas and I can’t wait to see his next course.
However, with limited time available to golf, I don’t differentiate between courses where the architect is alive vs. one where he is dead. The course is the thing – not the architect (though modern architects do have a greater chance of having a varied body of work – take Pete Dye’s widely differing architecture at the equally superb The Golf Club and The Ocean Course at Kiawah). In 2006, I’m more likely to see Fowler’s Beau Desert and Park’s Huntercombe as I am to chase some new modern ‘masterpiece’ that, by the way, will be surrounded by homes in ten years time.
8. Anyone reading this interview will be aware of the USGA’s decision to leave modern equipment virtually unregulated despite the massive distance increases of recent years. Beyond increased playing costs, the obsolescence of many of our greatest courses as professional tournament venues and the like, how great an effect do you believe this has on the way in which the proverbial ‘average golfer’ faces a strategically oriented Golden Age design?
I think the game is largely as hard today for the 15 plus handicap player as it has ever been. The Golden Age courses remain full of challenge, though people are hitting in shorter approach shots. As a pure guess, I would think the average member at The Valley Club of Montecito or at Yeamans Hall, for instance, largely cards the same kind of numbers that someone with his same handicap did 25 years ago.
The real damage of the tech explosion to me has been to create a HUGE disconnect between the PGA Tour and how the rest of us play the game. In the 1970s and 1980s, a good middle aged club golfer (say 5 handicap) drove the ball within ~6% of the same distance as such world class players as Lee Trevino and David Graham (i.e. 235 yards vs. 250 yards). Today’s power game has us middle-aged guys playing a totally different game with there being a ~16% gap in distance having grown (260 yards vs. 310 yards). Instead of a two club difference into greens, there is as much as a four and five club difference. In short, it is a TOTALLY DIFFERENT GAME.
A sad result personally is that watching golfers on television play an all power, aerial game is more boring than I can stand. Seeing Phil Mickelson hit driver – wedge onto the 500 yard 16th at Southern Hills during the last U.S. Open there was the beginning of the end. The virtual end came this year at the PGA Championship when Mickelson hit driver everywhere, including a hole like the short 8th. The rationale appeared to be that he would have a lob wedge into many of the holes so even if he was in the rough, no big deal. This was the end of strategy as I know (and love) it.
No wonder golf magazine sales are dropping as they continue to pander to this power game that many of us don’t care for. Look at how often the words ‘power’ and ‘distance’ and ‘extra yards’ appear on the cover of magazines – yawn. Any form of publication reliant on advertisement revenue from golf equipment manufacturers is unlikely to address the issue of technology with much candor or insight. Commercial free places like Geoff Shackelford’s blog (www.geoffshackelford.com) and GolfClubAtlas.com are a better bet.
Golf was once a game of cunning and challenge, involving – in part – controlled long irons into greens and that’s gone. Tournaments in windy locations like The Open, Kapalua Plantation, Pebble Beach, The Ocean Course at Kiawah, and Harbour Town are the only ones that retain interest in watching as there is still some emphasis on shot making.
Otherwise, the .001% of the golfing population with perfect launch angles and 320+ yard drives is of little interest or concern. Such a small percentage of amateurs drive the ball past 260 yards and yet 100% of the talk is about tech proofing courses. Millions and millions of dollars are being wasted worrying about less than 1% of the golfing population – I don’t get it.
Unfortunately, as interest in the PGA continues to stagnate and/or wane, how will young golfers be attracted to this great sport? One way is for kids to be exposed to golf courses that are fun to play – and fortunately, more of these are being built now than since WWII. For instance, I would give anything to live near a course like Hidden Creek in New Jersey. It is reasonably priced, the architecture is superb, and it is a great walk. If my kids or wife ever want to play, the course is the ideal environment for them to learn the game. Same for Holston Hills, Alwoodley and a host of other courses that we have profiled on this site.
9. You are an architect charged with building a new course capable of hosting a professional event. On the assumption that the USGA will not roll back the equipment to any meaningful degree anytime soon, what techniques might you employ to sufficiently challenge the modern professional? Must enhanced length be the lynchpin of the equation?
The short answer is I would build central hazards and three to five greens that slope from front to back.
In order to do that, I would study where the central hazards are placed from the tee at The Old Course at St. Andrews and its green complexes.
As an example, each Open there, Tiger drives within 50-70 yards of the 400 plus yard 6th hole and then … he’s stuck. He is now at an awkward 60-ish yards from a green that falls away and you can see on television how vexing that is for him. On several occasions, he has struggled to get down in three from there. Same with the 5th where even though he has a short iron in in two, he has struggled for par on more than one occasion.
I would go study Crystal Downs. It only two par fives, both of which are around 600 yards, thick rough, the driver is effectively taken out of the bag on approximately a third of the non-par three holes (4, 5, 7, 15, 17, 18) and the greens are as wild as can be. At 6,500 yards against a tight par of 70, Crystal Downs is a model to emulate.
I would study Merion for many of the same reasons and Oakmont’s greens, especially the 1st, 10th and 12th, and 15th which have more than withstood the onslaught of technology.
Finally, I would study Harbour Town, which I believe had the highest scoring average this year for a non-major on the PGA Tour. Brad Faxon told me that the overhead tree growth at Harbour Town creates some of the few instances all year where the players must shape the ball. I don’t know if I like that idea or not but it is interesting.
As we all know, the wrong way to combat technology is what Augusta National is doing, which is making the course longer and tighter. The result is a less fun course for the members, a horrible and senseless outcome.
10. Once again you are an architect, aware of the fact that most golfers would surely prefer smoother and faster modern greens to the rough, slow, often grainy putting surfaces of yesteryear. These slick modern greens, however, are obviously poorly suited to bold and/or interesting contouring. Assuming you are building the same course as in the previous question, do you believe there is a reasonable balance to be found between interesting, challenging putting surfaces and stimpmeter readings of 13?
A consistent stimp reading of 13 can be only found at courses/clubs that are an arm and a leg to play because they spend a fortune on maintenance. Such courses are never going to be a favourite.
I doubt that people understand when they gloat that their home greens stimp at 13 that it is tantamount to saying that their greens lack interesting interior contours.
11. Golden Age architects enjoyed a wider range of available sites, few or no environmental restrictions and a society enamored a bit less with flash and a bit more with substance. Modern designers find it infinitely easier to reconfigure landscapes, have a century’s worth of great holes from which borrow, and enjoy a golf media which crowns virtually every new layout either a ‘gem’ or a ‘masterpiece.’ Which era would you consider more conducive to great design?
The keys to having the possibility of a great course are, in order,sandy soil, windand topography. As they had first choice coupled with less environmental regulations, the Golden Age boys had superior access to such sites. Thus, that appears as a huge advantage.
Conversely, the ease of travel makes courses like Sand Hills, Pacific Dunes, Barnbougle Dunes, Cape Kidnappers, etc. an economic possibility. That in turn is a huge advantage for the modern architects.
Going back to a previous question, if the owner is interested in a creating a fun course and has a good block of property, I would be happy to pick an architect from either era.
12. You spent eight years residing Down Under, giving you plenty of time to sample a good deal of Australian golf. Most observant Americans are well aware of Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath and the general existence of the Sand Belt, but beyond these household names how would you compare the broader body of Australian courses to the mid-range in U.S.A.?
To me, once you dip below a certain level in quality of design (say a 6 on the Doak scale) and the strategic elements largely start to disappear, the things that matter to me the most are 1) the course is in a pleasant environment with minimal outside intrusions, 2) the course is firm, 3) that you are walking and 4) that the round is done in well under four hours.
In these four regards, the mid-range courses in Australia are superior to the mid-range courses in the United States, many of which are over-watered, housing courses.
For instance, St. Michaels in New South Wales, Australia isn’t known for its brilliant architecture but its setting is just up the coast from New South Wales Golf Club. It enjoys the same bracing wind and stunning views as NSWGC. Though a golf architecture snob might sniff at this and that around St. Mic’s, the fact remains it is an invigorating place to enjoy the game. Glenelg, Sorrento, Portsea, Federal in Canberra, Narooma, Barwon Heads, The Dunes, and Port Fairy are similarly inspired landscapes to enjoy a quick game.
Plus, the Australian approach to the game in general is superior as it is more akin to that in the U.K.: they change their shoes in the parking lot, head to the tee and get it over with quickly – it’s not the all day affair that some Americans make it.
13. Having traveled all over the world, you have seen and played courses of nearly every type and caliber. Is it your sense that the American tendency to overspend on design and construction in any way yields a superior product or are we simply wasting money on a more impressive scale?
The best and worst in golf design come from America.
The two finest design teams are American based and are building courses as good as any courses ever built.
Conversely, Americans have led the game to a new low with cart paths, housing projects, $1M plus annual maintenance budgets that promote grotesquely green andunnatural golf courses, triple digit green fees, and numerous design attributes that torture the landscape. Somebody is bound to choke on the debt of these overblown courses/clubhouses in the years to come – and that should help promote a return to golf as a simpler pursuit.
People who use golf as some sort of status symbol are destined to go unfulfilled. Golf is only meant to be a small part of one’s life, centering around health, relaxation and having fun with friends/family.
14. Any other thoughts on technology vs. architecture?
The upside of technology is that it allows someone like me with a young family and a full time job to play 25 rounds a year and still occasionally find the clubface with the ball. I like being able to pick up my clubs after a month layoff and having the threat of perhaps having a decent round.
Also, in some isolated cases, technology has made some of the world’s greatest holes like 18 at Pebble and 10 at Riviera all the more exciting.
What I don’t understand is people who do nothing but whine about technology because nobody is making them play the latest 460cc monster driver.Yes, we all mustcontinue to voice our alarm and concern to the ruling bodies of the game butany change will be slow as the governing bodies must move carefully intoday’s litigious society. In the meanwhile,get with some likeminded friends, find a Tony Penna driver, Hogan blade irons and wound Titliest balls and go have fun!
Or switch to playing a majority of your rounds with hickories like I’ve done.
15. When and why did you first start playing with hickory golf clubs?
In the summer/early fall of 2003, I drove onto the par four 11th and 16th greens at Southern Pines Golf Club and was two yards off the 10th green, all within a three month period. These sub 320 yard holes had good playing attributes when Ross designed them but these merits disappear if the golfer hits the ball an unforeseen distance.
Though it is a thrill to watch a well hit ball travel for long distances, my main interest lies first and foremost in the golf course architecture and accepting the risk/reward situations as the architect presents them. In the case of Southern Pines Golf Club, I felt like I was cheating as many of the hazards were out of play. Where is the glory in taking advantage of a defenseless course? One would need to shoot in the mid-60s to have accomplished much.
In conjunction, madman Rick Holland out of Chicago introduced me to Ralph Livingston in the fall of 2003 (see Ralph’s April 2004 Feature Interview, one of the best we’ve ever done). We met at Mike Keiser’s The Dunes 9 hole course and had a hickory match. Tom MacWood joined in and we were shocked how well Ralph’s 1920s clubs performed.
Ralph was kind enough to piece together a great set for me and starting at the July, 2004 Banff GolfClubAtlas.com gathering, I made the transition to playing hickory clubs. I felt vindicated in my decision seeing the brute Hart Huffins hitting 9 irons at the 190 yard world famous Devil’s Cauldron hole. Meanwhile, I hit a hickory five iron, which I felt was more in keeping with the challenge that Thompson envisaged when he laid out the hole.
I will never be able to thank Ralph and Rick enough for introducing me to hickory golf and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
16. Your are occasionally referred to by certain GCA veterans as ‘Golf’s Most Beloved Figure’ – and I would surely be remiss if I failed to have you recount the story behind that.
I was asked to give a brief talk at my home club Newcastle Golf Club in Stockton, New South Wales, Australia in 1997 re: its general merits. Newcastle has been listed more times as a Hidden Gem by GOLF Magazine than any other course. As a member that was also a GOLF Magazine panelist, I was a natural to offer some insight.
The day before, a man called my cell in Sydney and asked if I could fax him a quick bio. Not having one ready, I bludgeoned one together in quick order. Reviewing it, it was both dry and boring. Thus, in my lame effort to spice it up, I added underneath my name ‘One of Golf’s Most Beloved Figures’.
I did not know the 106 years old man who introduced me but he – unfortunately – read in a monotone exactly what I had faxed. Needless to say, my golfing buddies in the crowd became fairly boisterous after the Club’s Oldest Member read/said, ‘I would like to introduce to you Ran Morrissett, one of golf’s most beloved figures…’
Fortunately, I was standing at the bar at the time and the bartender was kind enough to pour me a quick VB before I got on stage.
The rest is history, as they say.
17. It is frequently speculated as to ‘How Ran must feel’ regarding the evolution of this website, the tone and scope of its discussion, and numerous ancillary issues. Generally speaking what are your thoughts on the site’s evolution as well as its current state today? What do you rank among its biggest positives and negatives?
I am most grateful that we have created an environment in which so many people spend countless hours of their free time. Without doubt, the site has made a beneficial impact and I have several shoe boxes filled with letters saying just that.
Golf course architecture is an art form and is worthy of the same passionate discourse as other forms of art. I am obviously not alone in this feeling and to be a part of what has become a world community sharing information of this subject is very special.
That such a professional writer as Jeff Silverman and in turn Sports Illustrated thought highly enough of what we were doing to devote six pages to GolfClubAtlas.com in 2002 was a milestone in the evolution/growth of the site.
I have learned a fabulous amount from the site. For instance, just from Tom MacWood, I’ve learned about Herbert Strong, Eastward Ho!, George Crump, Hugh Alison, Tom Simpson, and how golf course architecture evolved from the U.K. to the U.S. The world travels of people like Jeff Lewis,Paul Turner, Noel Freeman, and Ben Cowan-Dewar yield all kinds of great photographs and analysis on courses in Australasia, Japanand Europe. Wayne Morrison’s insights on William Flynn are particularlyof interestas I grew upplaying a Flynn course. For example,Flynn’s notion of keeping the fairway ‘soft’ where a tee ball of a really good playermight land is quite unique.Flynn’s intent was obviously to reduce the roll off the teeball to try and insure thatthe good player still has to hit medium to long approach shots.
As one can hopefully tell, there is no way to even attemptto summarize what I’ve learned from the participants on this site. However, like with most anything, there are negatives. For example, certain architects are always lionized and others are almost always vilified in the Discussion Group, which is too simplistic to be accurate or meaningful. Some good people within the golf profession have withdrawn from the Discussion Group due to petty and mean spirited posts by armchair architects and this is a great shame. As a result, actions were taken two years ago to get rid of anonymous postings and any registered member whose posts continually discourage the free exchange of ideas among others is banned. Obviously, when criticizing the work of someone within the golf industry, peopleshould be very mindful of the fact that they are dealing with that person’s livelihood.
If the tone within the Discussion Group is one of perpetual barking and biting, then the potential of the Discussion Group will be limited. The definition of critic in Webster’s is ‘one who engages in the analysis, evaluation, and appreciation of works of art’. Their use of the word ‘appreciation’ is quite interesting and the spirit of the web site is meant to be positive as success stories better show the way forward.
18. GolfClubAtlas.com will be seven years old next summer. What have been a few personal highlights?
The cast of characters I’ve met as a result of this web site is unbelievable. First, I met the Rat Pack from LA – Tommy Naccaroto (who is a big help with the behind the scenes work on this site), Geoff Shackelford, Mike Miller and you Dan on many of my trips back and forth from Australia. Each has, and continues to, help the site and the game enormously. For a state that has ruined so many of its best courses, to find this group of lads early on was remarkable.
Then, Tom MacWood emerges from nowhere with some of the keenest and most original observations I’ve ever read.
Then, some guy phoned me in Sydney from Philly named Tom Paul. (By the way, Tom Paul and I shared a cabin at Sand Hills this summer. Being late for dinner, we dashed in from our cabin porch where Tom was having a smoke and went up to the clubhouse. Upon our return, there were approximately 1,000insects in the cabin as Tom had left the screen door open and the lights on. I was slightly perturbed by this unexpected development but Tom coolly smoked another cigarette, finished his glass of red, and I could tell was contemplating a particularly good post for his 50,000th one).
Then some new guy in New Jersey starts needling me in the Discussion Group, so I ask him a question. His response was three questions (!). Eventually, though, I was able to pull the meek and mild-mannered Pat Mucci out of his shell.
Another guy from New Jersey mails to me a detailed hand drawing of Yale as it was in the 1930s because I answered his email correctly that the 4th at Yale was indeed the Road – not the Cape – Hole. Yes, the great George Bahto emerged.
When I moved back to the States, the first person I played golf with was Bob Huntley, perhaps the most beloved Rhodesian of all time. The next day I played with the most beloved Armenian of all time – Gib Papazian.
A couple ofyears go by anda greatScot named Alfie Ward takes a break from making gutta percha balls in his kitchen and restoring a nine hole course to email me.Then anopera singer from England ‘chimes’ in named Mark Rowlinson.
Throughout the first six years of the site, I’ve made great friends with numerous green keepers, many of whom have a far betterfeel and passion for the land and their course than any architect ever will based on brief consulting ‘visits.’
In short, you couldn’t come up with this diverse cast of characters if you tried – not in a million years!!
Also, one of the neatest things I’ve ever been associated with occurred this past summer at Eastward Ho! when I was asked to play a match with Brad Faxon. He played his steels and I labored along with my hickories. The crowd got involved and hit shots on my behalf – one minute a grandfather hit a tee ball with my 1925 driver and the next his grandson advanced the ball up the fairway with my Redan iron. Brad hit two drives with my clubs. At the 3rd, he hit one 270 yards, which I think surprised even him. At the 18th, he hit a perfect draw that chased to the bottom of the hill, nearly 280 yards from the tee. Brad is a world class guy, it was a stunning day on one of my all-time favourite courses and a true honor to be a part of it.
Lastly, all the great matches have a special place – shaking a stunned Pat Mucci’s hand on the 14th green (I repeat – the 14th green) at Inniscrone after CRUSHING him, shaking Ted Sturges’s hand at any Raynor course because he always folds like a cheap suit, CRUSHING Jim Urbina at PacDunes, CRUSHING Jeff Mingay at Cape Breton Highlands, CRUSHING Mark Studer at Oakmont, CRUSHING Rich Mandell at Southern Pines, CRUSHING George Blunt at Royal Sydney, CRUSHING Geoff Childs at Beechtree, CRUSHING Chip Oat on the West Course at Merion, CRUSHING Brian Silva at Black Creek, CRUSHING Adam Clayman at Pinion Hills, CRUSHING Rick Holland at Silloth on Solway (though technically the match wasn’t over until he missed a putt for a halve on the 18th green) , CRUSHING Tom Huckaby at Sand Hills, CRUSHING Bob Harrison at the Moonah Course at National, CRUSHING Jeff Goldman at Tobacco Road, CRUSHING Brad Miller at Prairie Dunes, CRUSHING Jeff Silverman at Riviera, CRUSHING Noel Freeman at Cuscowilla, CRUSHING Ben ‘Cowering’ Dewar at Casa de Campo, CRUSHING Pat Mucci twice (I repeat twice as in a DOUBLE CRUSHING) at Sand Hills in a prime example of a great course producing a great champion. The list goes on and on.
The only dark moment occurred between the 10th green and 11th tee at Friar’s Head. To re-cap: at the practice area, I never hit the ball better and the caddies were mesmerized by my proficiency with the hickories. Unfortunately, after about ~300 perfectly flighted balls, I could tell my finely tuned – yet delicate – swing was developing some slight imperfections. Just at that moment, Ken Bakst pounced, realizing I had worn myself out. Off we went to the 1st tee with my confidence only but so-so. Gamely I fought through the first ten holes. Ken was no more than a scant four holes up heading to the 11th tee when he suggested that we both move forward a set of tees for that hole only. Instead of playing from the new 610 yard tee, he was now ‘only’ playing the hole at 565 yards. I hit two beautifully woods (with only a slight detour over to the 13th) and a niblick onto the par five green. Ken though smashes a three wood to twenty feet for his second. Though his eagle putt lips out, my 5 is no match to his 4. In short, right when we all sensed that the momentum in the match was about to swing sharply my way, he pulls this chicanery of playing from a different tee box and wins the hole. Yes, Ken won the match shortly thereafter, despite only being a few under par. This matter is still under review and if the courts overturn this (temporary) defeat, then essentially, my memory informs me that my only loss has been to Brad Faxon at Eastward Ho!, something with which I can live.
But please, though Bob Jones too was good at match play, I don’t want everyone to rush to compare my amateur record to his…
19. Do you anticipate the site remaining essentially as we currently know it or might there be some further evolution in store? Will your own role change, perhaps moving back towards your more involved status of days gone by?
I am open to all ideas, being keenly aware that the site must continue to evolve or it runs a greater risk of growing stale.
Conversely, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’
I travel for a living doing equipment finance and my personal time is limited when I get home with two young children. In 2005, I made only a few posts as my time was spent with the Feature Interviews, The My Home Course entries and in deleting/adding ~185 new members to the mix of 1,500 registered participants for the Discussion Group. Plus, I responded to several hundred emails, all of which takes time.
I imagine 2006 will be more of the same and that by this time next year we should be approaching a very solid group of 1,500 active participants within the Discussion Group. The administrative junk isn’t much fun but someone has to do it and it helps set the tone for the years going forward. Soon though, I hope my time will get back to what I love doing – the course profiles and the interaction with people around the world on the subject of golf course architecture.