John Paul Newport, The Wall Street Journal, “Zen and the Art of Golf Course Design,” April 7, 2012.
When we hired him, Bambi knew nothing about golf. Like a lot of child actors, he’d knocked around a bit after his adolescent success. He’d been recommended to us as someone who could find his way through the woods, even if the forest was on fire. We suspected that this ability would translate into a kind of instinctive grasp of what makes a good golf hole. That suspicion proved correct. Bambi was an incredibly quick learner. The first site we visited, he went crashing into the underbrush, leaving broken branches and a trail of surprisingly small and delicate hoof prints for us to follow. Within minutes, we realized that we had found the design equivalent to Hogan’s secret, an entirely new way to analyze a site. Within that first hour, Bambi had discovered two incredible par fours and a par five we were sure would soon be featured in a Ron Whitten column.
But we also discovered that he was weak to the point of utter futility on par 3s. Maybe it was the speed at which he attacked his work. Maybe his overall grasp of the route plan concept itself was feeble. The places for short holes would just pass underfoot for Bambi as transition zones between the par fours and par fives, which he loved.
The idea of the dogleg had made him very nervous at first, too, until we explained that the expression was metaphorical. Actual dogs were not part of the design process. Dogs did not play golf, although we did admit that many canines lived on golf courses once they were built to help the green keepers chase ducks and geese away. Bambi was horrified, frankly, and for a while we were afraid that we’d lost him. But we convinced him to visit another site, along a secluded lake in northern Saskatchewan that Mike Keiser was looking into developing, shrewdly calculating the long-term impact of global warming on golf. Once his feet hit the ground, Bambi was back to his old self.
We still struggled for a while over what to do about Bambi’s inability to comprehend not just the importance of the par 3, but the very idea of the short hole. Over beers one night, tired but happy after tromping across sixty acres and finding more natural holes in an afternoon than exist in the entire portfolios of most members of the ASGCA, we had a heart-to-heart with him about this par 3 issue. “Short,” we said, holding our hands about a trout apart. “Not long,” we remonstrated.
He just stared in his glass. Around midnight, just before we poured single malt for a rather discouraging and gloomy nightcap, convinced that he would never understand how important the punctuation of short holes was to completing the exuberant collection of par 4s and 5s that was clearly his signature contribution, his eyes suddenly opened wide. He lifted my shot glass and put it on the edge of the table. He set his own below it on the arm rest of his chair, looking from one to the other, and then up at us with a hopeful expression. “Yes!” we said, “Yes!”
Moments later, in a ecstasy of comprehension, he uttered the name that would make our team incomparable: Thumper.
Thumper had been retired for some years and living off residuals when we contacted him. “Call my agent,” he said. “Let me talk to him,” said Bambi. He went over to a quiet spot and was on the phone for nearly an hour. A smile crossed his lips as he pranced back toward us. “He’s in.”
Thumper, like Bambi, was a natural. His hopping technique worked the site in a kind of zig-zag pattern, which turned out to be the perfect mechanism for discovering par 3s hidden in, around and near nooks and crannies. Thumper was always weary and looking for a place to bail in case he heard a hawk’s cry or the yodel of a coyote, so he was tremendously attuned to the fine print of a site. His technique was simple and ingenious. He would ease into a clearing, hop to the high point, lift himself to his full height on his hind legs and survey the surrounding terrain in every direction, his nose twitching with anticipation. Then he was off, hopping with surprising vigor given his age, and we would wait quietly for as much as twenty minutes until he would reappear, thumping his long right foot into the ground. We would rush over, plant a marker, and marvel at how precisely his instincts had taken him to a perfect green site. And while that skill impressed us, what made Thumper unique among the creatures prospecting for golf holes hidden around the planet by Nature’s mysterious means, was how he knew to look for a short par 3, say, and then a long one, and then a medium one—this intuition had to be divine, it could not be random. So that’s how we came to refer to him as Saint Thumper.
But something was still missing. We were discovering individual holes without equal, interrogating the sites through the agency of our colleagues’ perfectly tuned natural intelligences, the genetic wisdom of the ages—but how could these discoveries be melded into a whole? It wasn’t enough to establish the motifs with the brilliance of individual passages—we needed to segue through the site, to link the movements into a single symphonic whole.
Bambi was drinking more, tired of all the travel and constant requests for interviews. He also knew that his repertoire of skills had limits, and that he was starting to repeat himself. That’s what instincts do—they run down the same paths over and over. It was a troubling insight to such a proud deer.
And while Bambi’s feet felt the contours of the land, absorbing the terrain with every foot fall, he was also starting to understand that the actual game, as opposed to the course, was played mostly through the air. To understand golf’s Aeolian aspect, we needed an aerial specialist. Thumper remembered another old pal, who he hadn’t seen in decades: Friend Owl.
“That guy could spot a mole diving underground at 400 yards,” said Bambi. “We need him for sure.”
Sadly to say, Friend Owl had passed away some years before. His eye-sight failing, he flew into the broad side of a barn. But he left behind a large extended family, and Thumper knew a grandson, Stanley Owlsey, who’d had a difficult youth but had been going straight since getting out of prison. ‘His vision was so acute he could see into the future,” said Thumper, “so he was always getting ahead of himself. But he’s got the peepers we need, no question.”
We had Owlsey drug-tested, of course, and he passed with flying colors, so to speak. From day one, he understood our mission to create only pure, natural, all-species approved courses, whose character was implicit in the attributes of the mother sites. Our triumvirate revolutionized golf design, leading it back to the 18th century, where it so rightly belonged.
We lost Thumper first, then Bambi, who never seemed to recover from the loss of his old friend. (They all thought Flower, who of course had died during his famous humanitarian mission to Canada during the normality crisis of 1966, would have made fundamental contributions to golf design, elaborating on native landscape themes and devising a unique plant palette. But that sweet little skunk never got a chance.) Owlsey is retired, but still cruises over a site for us now and then, reminding us of what we once had: the perfect, natural alliance of animal spirits devoted to discovering the inner golf hidden deep in Gaia’s soul.