Elysian Dreams

Exploring the mind, life and radical architecture of Desmond Muirhead

Editor’s note: All sketches and titles are Desmond Muirhead originals created as inspiration for real and imagined courses. All quotes are from Muirhead’s written philosophy behind his design of Emirates Hills Golf Club in Dubai (now the Championship Course at Address Montgomerie).

Desomond Muirhead
Desmond Muirhead in Scotland, circa May 1991. Photo by: Brian Morgan/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images
Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

At 15, I learned a great lesson the hard way: Don’t write about golf architecture unless you’ve personally visited the course. My misstep occurred in June 1974, when writing about the 15th hole of Michigan’s Bay Valley Resort, a par 3 with a 100-yard-long curve-shaped tee. “You really made a blunder there,” thundered 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 more painful, he said it in front of a room full of adults. I had persuaded my mother to drive me to Muirhead’s home on Newport Beach’s Balboa Island in California. At the time, I was the editor, publisher and sole writer of Golf Course Designer, a single-sheet, two-sided newsletter I sent out to whomever would subscribe. I was elated that Muirhead was one of my subscribers. Until he brought my world 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 Dewar, an icon of golf construction back in the 1970s and ’80s. Dewer, Muirhead and a living room full of associates were meeting about a large project, but the room was clearly Muirhead’s. A true man of the world, his experience was far different than anyone else there, and any architect since. He served in the Royal Air Force, wrote books on surfing, palm trees and the Old Course, loved art and cultures of all types, played the villain in a movie called The Bees, read everything he could lay his hands on and would eagerly discuss nearly any subject. My scheduled visit was to last just 15 minutes as set by Ella, Muirhead’s longtime secretary and wrangler. I stayed nearly an hour. Actually, I stayed for 46 years.

Despite the dreadful start, my friendship with Muirhead began on that sunny day in 1974 and continued until his death in 2002. It could have been his guilt for lambasting me, but, a few months after our meeting, he sent me a check for $75, which was far more than the cost of renewal to my homespun journal. A simple letter accompanied it: “Put this to good use, stop worrying about getting new subscribers, and focus on your writing.…Sincerely, Desmond.” 

Photo by: Kohjiro Kinno
The USGA Museum in Far Hills, New Jersey, is featuring a collection of Desmond Muirhead original watercolors as part of its Art of the Golf Course exhibit, on display through August of this year. Photo by: Kohjiro Kinno

The paradox of Desmond Muirhead resides in what can be called his three periods of work. The first was his initiation into golf design in the early 1960s, which was born out of the frustration of discovering that many developers did not have a clue about how to integrate golf with their resort and housing plans. And while there were busy golf architects in the 1950s and ’60s, most were unaccustomed to land planning beyond the actual golf facility. Born in 1923 in Norwich, England, and educated at Cambridge, Muirhead landed at the University of Oregon, where landscape architecture became his calling. He had great knowledge of trees, space-making and how to transform the land. His kinetic personality led to myriad business connections, and as Southern California boomed, he found it easy to speak to developers; he not only had the credentials, but also saw golf as a way to bring large-acreage landscape architecture to projects for profit and enjoyment.

His first golf assignment was more small-scale: creating a par-3 course for the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California. Opened in 1961, his pitch-and-putt layout was engaging, creative and loved by visiting families. Sadly, it no longer exists. This first period culminated with several more projects where Muirhead continued to refine his craft. Despite never playing the game seriously, he was hooked on golf. And some big names began to notice.

 “In a single day on a golf course, we can experience many moods and phenomena. We can hark back to the savannah from which man emerged millions of years ago. We can sense our place in the universe that surrounds us and the other universe within us. A day on a golf course is at once a primal and total experience.”

Desmond Muirhead

Second was his period of working on large master-planned communities, a movement where Muirhead is often overlooked. It was his breakthrough concepts, beginning in the 1960s and continuing for more than a decade, that eventually became a part of what I consider “Residential Golf Development 101”—integrating drainage, lakes, public paths and carefully designed architectural elements. He even co-authored the Urban Land Institute’s book Golf Course Development and Real Estate, providing best practices and safety guidelines. The Muirhead philosophy had home lots laid out to protect against errant balls, views carefully preserved and great elevation differences created by massive earthmoving efforts that lowered fairways while raising clubhouse sites and hiding roadways. Employing dozens of people—architects, planners, interior designers and construction foremen—Muirhead was a powerhouse of groundbreaking productivity. Muirfield Village Golf Club (Ohio), Mission Hills Country Club (California) and McCormick Ranch Golf Club (Arizona) are just some of the celebrated community projects he helped bring to life during this period. 

Do not be fooled to think these residential golf concepts were cookie-cutter ordinary. He did not believe in single fairways with housing to either side, instead preferring wide corridors with lakes and forests making the edges nearly seamless. He created extraordinarily long tees on par 3s to give them flexibility and built island fairways, island greens and even volcano holes where blind approaches were purposeful. Contrary to today’s views, he felt that golf and homes could be combined—but he did it with grace and thought. No matter what the Nicklaus empire does to Muirfield Village today, the community retains the anatomy of the course routing and the timeless confluence of its streets, waterways and town center. At Desert Island near Palm Springs (since renamed The S at Rancho Mirage), he imagined all of the development perched on an island as mid-rise 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 Muirhead created it in 1971, and a Google Earth search is worth the time to see how well it works these many years later.

During this time, Muirhead tried to partner with various golf celebrities: Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and, of course, Jack Nicklaus. But none worked, and his only collaboration with Nicklaus ended bitterly. My conclusion is that he simply could not relinquish control—not for the design, and certainly not for the limelight. I brought this up once while we were visiting and it was still a sore subject. He felt that the design and technical side of the partnership was his gift, leaving the broader experience to the Golden Bear. Muirhead’s perspective was that the relationship became lopsided, with credit being appropriated way out of whack. That was the end of the story—or, as he would often bellow after a proclamation, “And that’s the truth!”

It was likely his falling out with Nicklaus that shifted his attention away from golf, ending this second period in the mid-1970s.

“I always look for the spirit of a site, what the Chinese call feng shui. Once I have found it, I try to amplify it, to distill its essence and integrity, to expand its genius loci geomorphically—to magnify its earthen shapes—into a golf course with sweep and majesty.”

Desmond Muirhead

By 1980, Muirhead had turned to operating an art gallery near his home in Southern California, and it was here that a group of Japanese businessmen came one afternoon and asked about some colorful sketches of golf landscapes signed by a name they recognized: Desmond Muirhead. 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 in the framed sketches, such as giant cone-shaped mounds and spiral bunkers. In their broken English, the businessmen wanted to know how the gallery came across the work and if any more were available. He finally got through to them that he was, in fact, Desmond Muirhead, and he was greeted with wide smiles and multiple handshakes. Muirhead related to me that despite his reluctance to reenter the golf business, this encounter led to a trip to Japan where he was not only courted to weigh in on a new course design, but also offered an opportunity to help create a new planned 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 this later period: symbolic art. For observers in the U.S., it appeared Muirhead vanished into thin air for several years. When he finally returned to the States, in 1985, it opened his third period—what I call the Renaissance of Desmond Muirhead.

While away and focusing on art, Muirhead came to the realization that symbolism could play an important role in golf-course design. Let’s be clear: He was always looking for symbolism and how golf holes could evoke emotion. But now, refreshed and feeling like he had nothing to lose, Muirhead was about to shake up the industry.

Photo by: Kohjiro Kinno
Photo by: Kohjiro Kinno

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.

Muirhead ushered in a new way of designing golf courses that went well beyond the strategy, aesthetics, naturalness and typical patterns we have come to expect. His wildly imaginative designs, with holes named for dragons, mythical characters and otherworldly places, became criticized and even the subject of derisive jokes. But let us also remember that hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in his ideas by respectable people, governments and large resort developers. They were the real deal, even if some observers did not appreciate the art of his new practice.

This past year, I made my way to Japan to see a few of Muirhead’s third-phase courses. Sadly, not much of this work remains here in the U.S.—courses like Stone Harbor in New Jersey have renovated some of his eye-popping experiments—but in Japan and a few other places, we can still enjoy his wit, vision and creativity. Oak Village, about an hour outside Tokyo, is magical. Again bucking today’s prevailing trends, it is nowhere near minimalist. The eighth hole in particular—dubbed “The Sangreal”—is a visual feast. An intimidating par 3 over water, it’s one part geometric solution, one part pleasing puzzle. It begins with an elevated tee providing views for miles and offers the strategic challenge of either taking on the water or proceeding safely with sure bogey. It is a holy grail, both in name and presentation. Oak Village goes on to present shapes, designs and ornaments I’ve never seen the audacity to incorporate. It oozes joy and entertainment, surprise and enlightenment, and does so at every turn with holes named Chevy Chase, Roast Beef, Lady Godiva. It is art.

While there, walking by myself, I could have sworn I heard a booming voice: “Well, Forrest, I see you came to see for yourself before writing. My advice has stayed with you all these years. Now that’s what I call success!” 

 “There is little doubt that golf courses are a reflection of the age in which they are built and of the beliefs and passions of those who built them.”

Desmond Muirhead