Desmond Muirhead

Sean Dudley

Forrest Richardson explains how one Cambridge-educated eccentric influenced the development of the golf and real estate businesses.

He was described as a “Madman With a Pencil, ” brilliant, a visionary, and toward his latter years, mainly by critics who looked only at the surface of his work, slightly crazy.

To a fellow Royal Air Force airman, Muirhead was the guy who took matters into his own hands, hand picking a crew “…made up of extremely smart chaps who he reasoned would be least likely to get shot down.” Needless to say, Desmond Muirhead was all of these things, and he was a never-ending source of fun, surprise and wit.

I met Desmond in the 1970s when I was the founder, publisher, editor, staff writer and mail room manager for The Golf Course Designer, a small and unknown publication. Not yet in high school, I knew my professional life would one day involve golf course architecture. I was both encouraged and chastised by Desmond, which I shall explain.

Upon the realisation that my publishing venture would lose money, and I would soon have to work after school to pay for postage and printing to honour subscription funds already collected, Desmond answered an editorial about this dilemma with a kind letter and a cheque for US$75. “Consider this encouragement for your very worthwhile endeavour,” he wrote to me. But, within a few months this rejuvenated publisher (but inexperienced writer) was put in his place by Muirhead. It came after writing a short piece about his wild tees at a par three hole that allowed a yardage range from 50 to 180 yards. “Avoid writing – ever – about golf holes that you have never visited in person,” he insisted. “You not only missed the entire point of the design, but your writing made you look very foolish.” And then, he smiled to soften the moment, and introduced a wide-eyed kid to a room full of developers and golf construction people gathered at his opulent home on California’s famous Balboa Island.

Many years later Desmond confided that he assumed that I was at least in college prior to scheduling that first appointment. We had a good laugh when he received an answer to a question that had long been nagging him: How had I managed to get to Balboa Island without a driver’s license? When it was disclosed that my mother had been kind enough to drive her 14-year-old son to meet him on that sunny afternoon, Desmond was embarrassed not to have invited her in. The fact was that my mother was very content reading a book on a nearby park bench, not to mention being intuitive enough to recognise that there is no good that comes to a parent who interferes with the important business of their teenage boy.

Since his death in 2002, the majority of the attention paid to Muirhead has been focused on his work following the years orchestrating a thriving land planning office in California. After scuttling that large operation following the 1980s US recession, Muirhead ‘retired’ for ten years until being coaxed back to work by a development group working in the South Pacific. But, quite unlike his previous mark – mega-projects, plans for new towns, massive development designs and innovation for the world of golf design – this new go-around was a renaissance. The artist in Muirhead was unleashed in a new form. “Crazy” designs based on mermaids, fish, spirals and fables became woven textures to his golf courses. Of these we are all aware, or so we think. Stone Harbor in New Jersey, Shinyo in Japan, and Lippo Village in Indonesia may be among the most notable.

How ironic, however, that many have taken the time to be critical of Muirhead’s work in this period, yet not much time among these critics ever gets invested in knowing much about the man, his philosophy or the defining work that came before. Doubly ironic is that not many of his critics ever got to Stone Harbor, ever set foot in Japan or even managed a tee time at Lippo Village. As for the writers who never visited his work, he would certainly have chastised them, or so I would like to think.

Before making the leap into golf architecture as a full-time pursuit, it seemed the right thing to do to call Desmond and seek his advice. During this reunion, as it had been many years since first visiting, I got to know the man, receive a shot of wisdom, and hear the familiar laugh that anyone who knew Desmond could always count on. It seemed that he punctuated every main thought with this British-born laugh, a mix of “ah, ha” with a hint of “so there, now you know.” Often he would follow a laugh with his trademark comment, “And that’s the truth!” So robust was his laugh and its echo that I cannot imagine living next door to him, unless in small doses or if possessing the ability to be deaf at will. Having said this, his neighbours loved him dearly. Many of them attended his memorial service, appropriately held in his modest Newport Beach condominium. Together, people from all walks of golf; golf writers, clients from Japan, and a contingent of golf course architects; filled the front room where once knee-deep piles of books, papers and drawings were ‘filed’. Desmond’s longtime secretary, Ella, was the only other human to have been able to know this ‘filing system’ as it was the same system used at his Newport-based office.

I felt it best here to not relate laborious details about his origins in England (he was born in Norwich in 1923), his education in Urban Design at Cambridge, or his studies at the University of British Columbia or University of Oregon. I will refrain from expounding about his career as an RAF navigator (he had 2,000 hours of flight time), his passion for Hawaii (in 1973 he authored a book predicting the environmental collapse of the island’s ecosystems, a reality now being paid attention to), or his foray into partnerships with Gene Sarazen and Jack Nicklaus (neither lasted). These are details you can look up. They are no secret.

Rather, after re-reading his book, St Andrews – How to Play the Old Course, looking through his numerous writings on golf design, and sorting through my own notes from interviews, I felt it most appropriate to extract some of my favourite quotes from Muirhead. While it is not always possible to get to understand a person from reading their isolated quotes, I think this is possible in the case of Desmond Muirhead. What better path to explain about him than by combining a few personal recollections with his own words and thoughts.

And so, I have organised what remains here into two sections. The first is a series of short thoughts about things he said that I recall as being somewhat important to me. The second is a collection of Desmond’s quotes culled from several decades and topics.

A gifted communicator
I once wrote in an article that in 30 minutes of talking with Desmond one would get ten times their investment in return. Never was I in the presence of the man when anyone within earshot was not taking great pains to listen in. He was truly gifted at communicating and was knowledgeable beyond comparison. He was truly humorous, and contagious in every good way a person can be.

An innovator
Much of his design work in planning was cutting edge. Today we embrace many of his ideas as being ‘the way it should be done.’ He was the first to consider the angle of housing whenever it ‘had’ to front a golf hole, how roads could and should flow without interrupting a course. How golf corridors can segue to nature trails and bike paths. How a clubhouse is more appropriate as a village – a community centre. And how a golf course can literally solve drainage problems for an entire community. His work in the 1970s defined the way golf and residential masterplans now co-exist. We take for granted nearly all of his innovations, and rarely are they credited to his vision so many years ago. Indeed, the revival of the ‘core’ design was among his campaigns nearly 40 years ago.

A visionary
He was among the very first, if not the first, to suggest that the golf course might be thought of firstly, not just as leftover land of ample acreage. At Muirfield Village, for example, he created the entire place, not just routing and designing the course, but the layout of the town and all the great nuances we take for granted. He felt that when the design for the community came from the same mind as the golf course, great compatibility would follow.

You don’t plan land
Muirhead detested the term ‘land planning,’ reasoning that land is already planned. What it needs is to be designed. “A golf course can be reshaped from the land,” he said. “But it has to be done with some idea of why.”

Rhythm, balance and sequence
Rhythm, balance and sequence were often quoted as his trio of qualities in a golf course. Rhythm is the relationship between difficulty and surprise, having to do with pattern. “Nature knows rhythm best. It’s difficult to outdo nature when it comes to rhythm.” Balance is the relationship between nines and among the par threes, fours, and fives. Muirhead pointed to Pebble Beach: “You have these great, thrilling, and fantastic holes along the ocean that occur up front and then at the end of the round. And then these rather mundane holes back away from the ocean. But you wouldn’t want it any other way. It makes for perfect balance.” Sequence is the order of par, the speed at which the course unfolds as the round is underway. “Sequence is all about comfort,” he said. But sequence should not mean that surprise becomes calculated. “There has to be some spontaneous generation to design,” he reminded me. “If you play a golf course and know everything about it the first time out, then the designer has failed.”

Geomorphism was a word he used. This was his description of the art of lowering natural low points and raising the natural high points which already exist on the land.

The student
Desmond probably knew more about the culture of an area he was working in than some of the locals. He would immerse himself in a project and find out all he could about the people, the culture, the customs and the lore. This is a great lesson for golf course architects.

The Phoenix Bird
Among the most cherished stories I have ever heard is the time Desmond came to Phoenix, Arizona to check in on his design at the 36-hole McCormick Ranch Community. Ed Connor, then a young construction superintendent, was told to go to pick Muirhead up at the airport. Before leaving the site, Connor thought to ask how he would recognise the architect. “You’ll know,” came the answer – and that was all. Once at the terminal, Connor waited and waited. Suddenly commotion erupted down the long concourse leading from the gates. Security people rushed by and Connor feared a fight had broken out. When he got closer, Connor assumed someone had fallen or might be having a heart attack. A large group had gathered around a man on the floor. Dressed in a khaki shirt and khaki pants, he was motioning wildly and seemed to be yelling. The crowd was intent on his every word. It was then that Connor caught a glimpse of a roll of tracing paper and the unmistakable felt pen markers used by architects. Sure enough, it was Desmond Muirhead. Shortly after deplaning he had noticed a remarkable Phoenix bird inlaid to the terrazzo floor at the Phoenix Airport. And there he was, tracing it for reference and at the same time giving a lesson in Greek mythology to the impromptu audience that had gathered to watch the artist at work.

The Olympic fan
He was intrigued by the Olympics. As far as I know he visited every one occurring during his adult life not just to see the competition, but to relish in the festival, to see other cultures and learn about other places. And it was not just golf that he designed. Few know that he designed numerous ski resorts around the world. “They are not too unlike golf courses,” he related. “It’s routing of a different kind, but with very similar sets of objectives.”

Soup du Desmond
In what would be my last visit with Desmond, he opted to make me a bowl of yam soup instead of leaving to go to a nearby restaurant. His narration included the benefits of root vegetables, herbs and broth. He devoted several minutes to broth alone, describing in detail its virtues, how it holds the soup together, yet at the same instant how it allows the soup to be soup. From here he went seamlessly into the idea of golf – how we hold the course together with the game, yet it flows on its own at the hands of both designer and player. Not many could combine soup with golf at one meal.

Forrest Richardson is a golf course architect based in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. His work takes him from Hawaii to the Eastern US, and from Canada to Central America. He is currently working on his first European design in Lünd, Sweden.

The picture of Muirhead at the top of this article was taken in Hawaii by his daughter Romy. “It was one of my first efforts while studying photography at the University of Hawaii,” she notes. He was unpredictable, and that is what made him both truly gifted – and a gift.

This article first appeared in issue 12 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2008.