He may now be known as one of Britain’s leading voices of golf, but Ewen Murray is a man of many parts.
One of Britain’s leading amateur golfers in the early 1970s, he had a successful, if never stellar career as a professional golfer, and, in addition to his commentary work, he has dabbled in course design and has coached a number of top golfers, including, for a period, Darren Clarke. Now working in partnership with veteran English architect Howard Swan on a number of course design projects, Murray has the great advantage of seeing a huge number of golf courses up close and personal, as a result of his commentary work. And he’s not all that complimentary about some of them.
“It’s true that a lot of modern golf courses are quite bland,” he says. “The various Tours often go to courses that are newly-built, and as a result haven’t had time to settle down. A good example is München Nord-Eichenried, where the BMW Open is played. Fifteen or twenty years ago, that course was very ordinary, but over time it has been improved and the trees now frame the fairways better. Some of the great old courses in Germany were cut through pine forests, and they have that Sunningdale or Swinley Forest look to them. But the new courses have to wait before they can get that look.”
It’s not just in Germany that courses need time to mature, Murray says, taking a pop at Britain’s iconic Ryder Cup venue. “I played at the first ever tournament the European Tour held at the Belfry,” he says. “It was positively the worst golf course I have ever played. The trees between the ninth and fifth hole were all staked, but now there’s a big bank of trees there, and the ninth is a very good golf hole.
“A lot of golf design in the last 20 years has been too similar,” he says. “Even the most expensive designers often build courses that look very similar. I don’t think a lot of modern designers look very closely at what they have on the ground.” But good courses are still being built, he says, citing the Primland course in western Virginia, built by Donald Steel and associate Martin Ebert, which coincidentally has just won a major award from Golf Digest. “I really think that Primland is one of the best courses I’ve seen in the last 30 years,” he says. “I also really like Le Golf National in Paris, the course that Hubert Chesneau did with Robert von Hagge. Von Hagge is one of my two favourite designers – his Les Bordes course in the Loire Valley is just stupendous.”
Murray is not scared to point his arrow at a few sacred cows. “Augusta is a lovely place to play, but I don’t think it’s as great as people think. I wouldn’t put it in my top ten in the world,” he says. “One of my pet hates is greens with lots of humps. It’s true there are humps on the links, but links courses are generally not that quick. Kingsbarns has greens that are too humpy in my opinion. I have never seen another links course around with greens that sloping. I think it’s a phenomenal place, brilliantly laid out. But the second it gets windy, the greens become impossible.
And he is vocal on the golfing authorities’ lack of response to the distance issue. “I don’t think we can stop equipment development, because we were too slow noticing what it was doing,” he explains. “The authorities should have taken heed of what Nicklaus and Palmer were saying a few years ago.” Rather, he reckons, the answer must come from course changes. “The solution is quite simple – if you have bunkers at 300-340 that are properly placed and angled so that a really good driver of the ball can still place his drive, then you can defend the course. But the bunkers need to be a real hazard. Nobody builds real bunkers anymore. I don’t mean ones that are so deep no amateur can get out of them, but ones that are not so big – not these Gobi Desert bunkers that are the same level as the fairway. I hate that look, and I hate even more that we are trying to copy them everywhere else.”
This article first appeared in issue 11 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2008.