For 40 years, Ran Morrissett has been hooked on golf course architecture. Arguably one of the most underrated and hidden fields of design, the professional world of creating and maintaining golf courses is surprisingly complex and rather storied. North Carolina-based writer Morrissett, who started studying the topic seriously for Golf Club Atlas, a website he founded with his brother, has just been named the first architecture editor at GOLF Magazine.
Growing up, his family of four would travel to world-class courses abroad in England and Scotland, or places closer to home such as Harbour Town in Hilton Head, South Carolina, or Pinehurst No. 2, a 1907 design by famed course architect Donald Ross in North Carolina. It was during these vacations that comparing and contrasting—aka critiquing—golf courses became a tradition.
Cut to decades later, and Morrissett has made it his own unconventional career.
AN sat down with Morrissett ahead of the GOLF’s release of its annual Top 100 course rankings, where they compiled the best places to play on the planet. As Morrissett’s first major project with GOLF, the classification system reveals which of the some 30,000 courses around the world, both private and public, boast the best design. It wasn’t exactly a daunting task for Morrissett, however, who at 56 years old has held tee times in over 35 countries and visited some of the most revered courses ever made. We asked him about his nascent role and what makes great golf course architecture.
AN: Tell us more about your origin story and why you’ve dedicated your life to studying golf courses.
RM: In my twenties, I found it was becoming increasingly harder to have meaningful conversations with people on golf course design. At the time, the internet didn’t exist and there wasn’t any great writing on golf course architecture. That all started to change when the Donald Ross Society was established in 1989 to help preserve his courses and the Classics of Golf started republishing the finest architecture books from the late 19th and early 20th century.
Newspapers were also only covering the major events in golf, mostly within the PGA Tour, and they’d profile these insanely difficult and long courses that were set up to challenge the best, not the average player. My brother and I didn’t think that was enjoyable so we started the Atlas online to provide a platform for people who just wanted to play for fun and connect with others. We found that thousands of people shared our viewpoint.
So everyone became a critic on how to improve the physical set up of the game?
Yes. At one point—and you could argue it’s still true—the definition of a good golf course was how tough it was. That’s not what we thought. A hard golf course can beat you up and demoralize you. To be honest, the absolute easiest thing in the world is to build a hard golf course.
It’s harder to make a course that everyone will enjoy playing regardless of their skill level or age and one of the largest determining factors for that is the way it interacts with nature. In a similar way that Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture harmonizes with nature, good golf courses do the same. For example, if you go to the Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Nebraska, by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, this minimalist design pays tribute to the existing natural environment, which is a design ideal. How Coore & Crenshaw found eighteen holes and connected them so flawlessly to make the course a delight to walk amongst this huge expanse of rolling sand dunes is amazing.
One of the greatest architects of all time, Harry S. Colt, said the ultimate test of a golf course is: Will it live? His designs are among the most timeless because they seem as if they were almost born out of the ground, as opposed to man impaling design features onto the Earth. That’s what makes them attractive and keeps people coming back.
Another reason why Sand Hills, in particular, is so successful is that it drains well. Some say great architecture is about drainage. The more sand content in the soil, the better the property will drain, which directly impacts and extends the course’s playing season.
What is the most challenging part of designing a golf course?
The responsibility that golf architects have is enormous because they are working with such big blocks of land. Think about it: If you build a poor golf course that doesn’t provide any enjoyment for anybody or doesn’t drain well, you have essentially ruined 100 acres of land. It’s not going to live if it can’t find an audience that will use it.
Another challenging aspect for both the architect and the player is the hole location. The architect has to consider how a player will approach each hole as it moves throughout the green. Courses that have flexibility are inherently more interesting than courses that are just linear and ask the same thing shot after shot, day after day.
How has Golf Club Atlas grown?
We’re in every corner of every great golf nation. I have friends around the world that I try to meet when I travel and they come to me when they want to play Pinehurst, a mecca for golf. This year, my wife and I will probably have entertained 300 people from all parts of the world. It’s important to connect with others in golf because like a building, a golf course is a living thing. You can’t walk away from it and think it’ll be fine without any help. Golf courses are reliant on people who will dedicate the time to study them, understand their heritage, and find the right consulting architect to maintain it.
When we started Golf Club Atlas there were hundreds of courses being built each year, so we wrote a lot about new construction. Now there are fewer courses being built and many architects are turning to restoration work.
What is the biggest issue architects face when restoring aging courses?
One of the main problems is how to address the overgrowth of the 80- to 100-year-old trees on sites around the country. Trees can narrow holes, impede sunlight, and lessen the quality of grass and turf. Moisture issues can occur too if the soil remains damp for too long, causing golf balls to release slower.
Golf is often perceived as a highly exclusive sport. You mentioned the best courses in the world are set on coastlines, which I link to being expensive to play, live near, or get to.
That’s comment is coming from your perspective here in the U.S. In the UK, it’s every man’s sport. Clearly, you have golf courses here that are extremely costly, but the nice thing about the sport is that—and I say this from personal experience—people love to show off their courses and will invite you to play. I’ve been asked to play at over 2,000 courses.
I do wish the U.S. had more of the UK’s inclusion model but part of the reason is that UK courses are built on ideal sites—sandy soil for a climate that’s conducive to great golf and isn’t costly to maintain. This means dues are cheaper too. Heavier, clay soils and weather (including heat and humidity) add to the challenge and expense of maintaining courses in America as opposed to the UK.
It sounds like a lack of knowledge on the diversity of the sport is a problem.
It’s true. Some of the best courses built in the last 25 years, though, are open to the public. Mike Keiser built nearly 10 of the highest-ranked courses in the world, like Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon. Anyone is welcome there. One of the best courses in the U.S., Bethpage State Park on Long Island, is public too.
At GOLF, we realize the narrative hasn’t always been the best for golf course architecture. We’re all very keen on trying to highlight courses that strike a balance between being challenging and fun so that they’re inclusive for as many people as possible. Four sterling examples of this in the Top 10 are St. Andrews, Royal Melbourne West, National Golf Links of America, and Royal Dornoch.
Can you explain more about your plans as the architecture editor at GOLF?
The magazine has always been broken down into three things: How do you play (instruction), what you should play (equipment), and where do you play (courses). Obviously, my role is to help point people to places where they would like to play. One of the reasons I love the sport so much is that I do my homework and I don’t play poorly designed golf courses. I derive no joy from doing that. If we can get people to where they’re going to have the most fun, then we’re doing a great service to the game.
Additionally, if you understand what’s in front of you and what the architect is challenging you to do, then, in theory, you should be able to score better over time. You can literally think your way to a better score.