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Eccentric Genius

The story goes, someone in New Jersey with cash, land and a golf-course dream phoned Desmond Muirhead with a request to come look at the project. When the white-haired, white-bearded architect arrived at his potential client's office, looking as always like the English aristocrat who owned the place, he was not pleased to be asked to wait in line with the other suitors. Muirhead didn't do queues, and he didn't think much of his peers and competitors. At last he was shown into the conference room. "You'll sit here, Mr. Muirhead," he was told, "and these ten men will interview you regarding your qualifications and ideas."

"No," Muirhead said. "I'll stand. And I'll ask the questions."

A week or two later, the guys from New Jersey offered him the job. All his conditions having been met, he turned them down.

Friends recalling this anecdote last fall at Muirhead's memorial service also noted that when he told or heard a story about his naughty ways, he would tilt back his head and boom out his operatic laugh: AH-HA-HA-HA! A bit like Sparafucile in Rigoletto, he might say. Which hints at another of his trademarks, a frequent use of allusions that buzzed like jets right over your head. I recall once being particularly dumbfounded when he brought both Ludwig Wittgenstein and Immanuel Kant into a conversation that I had thought was about par threes.

I have often wondered what Jack Nicklaus did when Muirhead worked opera or existentialism into their discussions of routing plans or bunker placement. They were partners for three years in the early '70s, a collaboration that produced several good courses and one great one: Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, home of this month's Memorial Tournament and the first- or second-most popular course among players on Tour. Their pairing was eerily like that of Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie, whose masterpiece was Augusta National. But how did straightforward Jack, who stopped short of his degree in pre-pharmacy at Ohio State, deal with the unpredictable erudition of the classically educated Muirhead?Who did the heavy lifting?Why did they split?

Muirhead didn't talk about this collaboration much. Although he resented not receiving his share of credit for Muirfield Village, he hated to appear resentful. But clearly there had been tension throughout their time together. Muirhead saw his partner as a superb critic of a golf hole, but he regarded Jack's inability to draw as a shocking limitation for a designer. Nicklaus thought far more deeply than Jones about golf's playing field, but at Muirfield Village, as at Augusta National, the real architect did the bulk of design and the great golfer added insight and refinement. In the end, however, their egos and intellects were not complementary. They split without a specific spat, both said, but Muirhead got the worst of it. The end of his partnership with Jack soured him on the business so thoroughly that he dropped out, bought an art gallery and didn't return to golf-course architecture for nearly a dozen years.

We met in 1990, when I was working on a magazine piece about Nicklaus. Jack had responded to all my questions politely and briefly, but Muirhead quite obviously decided to cultivate me. He needed publicity for his return to golf design and, boy, was he easy to write about and a joy to quote. "Jack has the memory of an elephant and the legs of a Percheron," he said, by way of explaining Nicklaus's strengths as a designer and a player. And then there was the work Muirhead was doing, which was unlike anything ever seen before: His holes depicted reclining nudes, dragons, a guitar (in Spain), a giant fan (in Japan), Greek myths (in New Jersey) and a sea battle (in South Korea). Themes and symbolism in course design offended traditionalists; the critics loved to hate the new Muirhead. "His courses look like they were made to be played from a helicopter" became the standard dismissal. Architecture writer Ron Whitten built a speech and a slide show called "Archi-torture" that featured some of Muirhead's infamous holes.

On a commercial level, however, the modern Muirhead succeeded brilliantly. Energized equally by success, criticism and vitamin C, he traveled around the world a couple of times a year, visiting his courses and charming potential clients. Sometimes he'd stop in Texas to stay for a day or two with me. Once we went to the Dallas Museum of Art for a Momoyama exhibition, which Muirhead knew reflected the golden age of Japanese art and I thought was something that might go with wasabi. At the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, he spoke so knowledgeably and audibly about Manet and Monet that four or five Impressionism fans joined us, hanging on every word.

He sure could turn a phrase. "Golf is an invention, not, as some would have it, a divine gift," he wrote in his book St. Andrews: How to Play the Old Course. "While we may celebrate the pleasure it brings us, it's best to remember that we are singing of ourselves when we do so." He gave me words to live by. "Write honestly," Muirhead said. "Golf has enough press agents." He was working on a book of aphorisms when he died. In addition to Muirfield Village, he left behind fine courses at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California; Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas; and La Moraleja in Spain, where in 1977 Bing Crosby, age seventy-three, dropped dead of a heart attack moments after finishing a round of eighty-five.

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