Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

Giving tribute to Geoff Cornish

By Mary Armstrong

For the Las Cruces Sun-News published 02/24/2012

You may be scratching your head about now and asking yourself who in the heck is Mr. Geoff Cornish?

For starters, he was an is­land of ethics and honor. Mr. Cornish died this past week at the ripe “young” age of 97. He was one of the most pro­lific golf architects of our time — and certainly among the best that you’ve never heard of.  The thing is, Mr.Cornish hit his peak when golf needed him most — through the 1960s and 70s and by 1980 he had designed more courses in New Eng­land than any other architect in history. His courses were more typical of his heyday of design in the 60s, and be­cause of that his courses were fun and easy to main­tain. Something we could be learning from about now.

I’m very happy to say that Mr. Cornish was one of my mentors, but more impor­tantly, he was my friend. I took a seminar that he taught at Harvard University some 25 years ago. He and Robert Muir Graves did two or three day seminars at Har­vard for a number of years. It was at that seminar that I connected with Mr. Cornish — you see his wife was from Iowa, as was I. Carol attend­ed Grinnell College and he employed her to do drawings for many of his over 200 courses that he designed. At one point, Mr. Cornish bought her a new Corvette, which seemed totally out of character for Mr. Cornish, but I think the car represent­ed what Carol meant to him.

I saw him at the “Golf Boston” show shortly after his wife passed away about 10 years ago. Given his de­meanor, I was surprised he came to the event. He was visibly affected — he lacked his usual bubbly personality.

I’ve seen people lose spouses before, but I’ve never seen someone like Mr. Cornish so devastated. I think she meant more to him than his work ever could.

As I sit here at my com­puter and recall the discus­sions we had and the rather short time we spent togeth­er, I’m at a loss for words to describe the man he was and what he meant to me.

You see, Mr. Cornish was the antithesis of what “golf course architect” implies to today. He was humble, full of energy, and more pas­sionate about his work than anyone I’ve ever known. He was known as the fastest walking architect, and he NEVER accepted use of a golf cart to look over a course. I personally know that well into his 80’s, he was still tromping all 18 and leaving everyone in the dust.

But what made Mr. Cor­nish really special was his gentlemanly manner. It’s easy for me to picture him in a top hat, swinging a cane as he walked down the street, tipping the hat and bowing slightly to greet everyone he met. I doubt that anyone ever heard Mr. Cornish say a bad thing about anybody. I remodeled several of his courses and in the last 10 or 15 years I was fortunate to design two golf courses in his “backyard” in Massachu­setts. Do you think he felt threatened or jealous? Not on your life. In fact, he called to congratulate me on get­ting those new courses!

As my career progressed, I always felt odd about asking a fellow competitor for ad­vice, but whenever I did, his guidance never had over­tones of competition. When I was going through a particu­larly difficult time, Mr. Cor­nish, in typically old fash­ioned style, wrote me a letter telling me that I was making good decisions and that he was there for me.

But that wasn’t the only letter that Mr. Cornish wrote me. As I mentioned earlier, I took the course he and Graves taught at Harvard. At the time, I was Vice Presi­dent of a Landscape Archi­tecture firm. A couple of weeks after I finished the course, I received a letter from Mr. Cornish. He thanked me for my participa­tion and wrote that I was an asset to the course. He fin­ished with a question, some­thing along the lines of, “what are your plans for the future?” At the time, I was puzzled by this question. I thought that perhaps it was rhetorical – after all, he couldn’t seriously be inter­ested in MY future. Much later, I realized that was Mr. Cornish’s way of offering me a job. Twenty five years lat­er, knowing the man and legacy, I wish I had taken that job.

Mr. Cornish wasn’t only a prolific architect; he was also an avid golf historian, author and speaker. He and Ron Whitten wrote several golf books and Mr. Cornish gave presentations far and wide on golf’s history. As you might expect, Whitten wrote a tribute to Mr. Cornish as well. Here are some of the quotes that Whitten included from his presentations: • When it began, golf was about adapting itself to the landforms as were found on the links of Scotland. Today, it’s just the opposite. We’ve creating landforms that try to resemble the links.

• We constantly hear people say greenskeeper, greens chairman and greens fee. There should be no S in there. In the beginning, the entire golf course was known as The Green. Hence, greenkeeper, green chair­man, green fee.

• Bunker was an old Scot­tish word for scar. Bunkers were scars on the landscape of the original links.

• Nearly all the most renowned golf holes in the U.S. were controversial in their earliest days.

• George C. Thomas Jr. was part of the Drexel Bank­ing family in Philadelphia. The way he got one of his first design jobs was to say, I’ll give you the land if you’ll let me design the golf course.

• In 1980, I followed ar­chitect Percy Clifford on his first round at the Old Course. On the 14th, he hit a beautiful shot but when we got out there, we found his ball was in Hell Bunker. Per­cy turned to his caddie and said, I would think you could have told me about that bunker. And the caddie said, it’s been there for over 500 years. I would think you would have heard about it.

Mr. Cornish had a wonder­ful sense of humor, but an even more keen sense of how to make a negative statement without being of­fensive:

• In our profession, we’re often asked what we think about all these PGA Tour professionals getting into the design business. Well, we’re kind of glad to have them in there. They’ve made it possi­ble for many young students, men and women, to get into the business of golf design. There aren’t enough real ar­chitects to hire them all.

I’ll miss Mr. Cornish. On all of his courses that I re­modeled, I first documented the original configurations and grades. Someday we may be restoring Cornish courses just as we are doing with Ross, Mackenzie and Tillinghast’s work today. I’m ready.

A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces in January 2010. She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects. Mary is also the Executive Director for the Rio Grande Golf Course Superintendents Association. You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog: http://roadholeshorts17.word


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