Golf Courses as Art: My 3,000 word essay in the April 11th edition of The American Conservativesubscribers. I know, I know, nobody ever writes about golf course architecture for a general audience, but I've probably thought more about this topic than any other in my life, so you might find it interesting as I try to put it in a general perspective. An excerpt:
Golf course architecture is one of the world's most expansive but least recognized arts. Yet this curiously obscure profession can help shed light on mainstream art, sociology, and even human nature itself, since the golf designer, more than any other artist, tries to reproduce the primeval human vision of an earthly paradise.
Hidden in plain sight, golf courses are among the few works of art readily visible from airliners. Assuming an average of a quarter square mile apiece, America's 15,000 golf courses cover almost as much land as Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Golf architecture philosophy isn't terribly elaborate compared to the thickets of theory that entangle most museum arts, but one thing all golf designers assert is that their courses look "natural." Growing up in arid Southern California, however, where the indigenous landscape is impenetrable hillsides of gray-brown sagebrush, I never quite understood what was so natural about fairways of verdant, closely-mown grass, but I loved them all the same.
Research since the early 80s shows that humans tend to have two favorite landscapes. One is wherever they lived during their adolescence, but the nearly universal favorite among children before they imprint upon their local look is grassy parkland, and that fondness survives into adulthood.
In one study, people from 15 different cultures were asked what they'd like to see in a picture. Then the researchers would paint the average of what they were told. Even though the scientists hadn't mentioned what type of picture it should be, the consensus in 14 of the 15 cultures favored landscapes. All over the world, people want to see grassland, a lake, and some trees, but not a solid forest. And they always want to see it slightly from above. In fact, they came up with terrain that looked rather like the view from the par 5 15th fairway at Augusta National, site of the Masters Tournament each April, where players must decide whether to attempt to fly the pond in front of the green below them with their second shots in the hopes of putting for an eagle.
The current theory for why golf courses are so attractive to millions (mostly men) is that they look like a happy hunting ground -- a Disney-version of the primordial East African grasslands. Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, author of the landmark 1975 book Sociobiology, once told me, "I believe that the reason that people find well-landscaped golf courses 'beautiful' is that they look like savannas, down to the scattered trees, copses, and lakes, and most especially if they have vistas of the sea."
Tasty hoofed animals would graze on the savanna grass, while the nearby woods could provide shade and cover for hunters. Our ancestors would study the direction of the wind and the slopes of the land in order to approach their prey from the best angles. Any resemblance to a rolling golf fairway running between trees is not coincidental.
To create these pleasure grounds, top golf architects typically spend over $10 million per course, and because designers oversee the creation of multiple layouts simultaneously, a "signature" architect like Tom Fazio will end his career with his name on a few billion dollars worth of golf courses.
Famous works of "environmental art," such as Robert Smithson's monumental earthwork "Spiral Jetty" in the Great Salt Lake, are dwarfed by golf courses in extent and thought required. Among museum artists, only Christo works on a comparable scale, and his projects, such as his recent "Gates" in Central Park, are more repetitious. Nonetheless, Christo's "Gates," which re-emphasized the original landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead's lovely serpentine pathways, and his 1976 "Running Fence" snaking through the undulating grasslands of Marin County, offer some of the same visual pleasures of following alluring trails as golf architects provide.
The first problem limiting the acceptance of golf design as art is that to nongolfers a course can seem as meaningless as a Concerto for Dog Whistle. That a golf course allows people to interact with interesting landscapes without killing wild animals makes sense in the abstract, but not until you've driven a ball over a gaping canyon and onto the smooth safety of the green will the golf course obsession make much sense...
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