2002: Superintendent News - Muirhead dead at 79

By Tom Naccarato

La Habra, Calif.

Desmond Muirhead, one of golf’s most innovative course designers, died of respiratory failure May 2 in his adopted home of Newport Beach, Calif. He was 79.

Muirhead was an accomplished urban planner who built more than 100 courses in 30 states and 15 countries. His work blended the modern disciplines of civil engineering and landscape architecture with the ancient feel of his favorite course, the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Born in Norwich, England, Muirhead was a descendent of the Yardleys of London. His father, Gordon Muirhead, a top amateur golfer, introduced golf to his son, apparently without much success when it came to playing. In his typically acerbic wit, Muirhead once said, “I am an indifferent golfer, but a very good architect. However, there are many bad golfers who are good architects, and many good golfers who are not good architects.”

Schooled at Cambridge, where he trained as a civil engineer, Muirhead served Great Britain during World War II as a Royal Air Force navigator and pilot. As the war came to an end, he flew former prisoners of war back from Singapore. After the war, he moved to British Columbia, Canada, where he studied forestry and agronomy, then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he studied building architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning. In 1956, he designed his first course, Quilchena Golf & Country Club, in Richmond, British Columbia.

In the 1960s, Muirhead formed a design partnership with Gene Sarazen that produced several courses. He then moved to Arizona, followed by a relocation to California, where he specialized in the design and development of golf course communities, including such recognized layouts as the Old Course at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

In 1972, Muirhead formed an association with Jack Nicklaus that spawned the creation of a dozen courses. Interestingly, their collaboration came to an end while they worked on a course that became their greatest effort, Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio.

The course is ranked No. 8 on Golfweek’s “America’s Best” modern courses list.

Muirhead left golf course design during the late ’70s to live in Australia, where he pursued his lifelong interest in art and classical literature. He also traveled widely to Asia and became immersed in Asian art and religion. When he emerged from his sabbatical in the 1980s, Muirhead’s work took a radically playful turn, incorporating images from Homeric legend, Eastern religions and classical European art.

He was not shy about turning residential golf communities at Stone Harbor Golf Club in Cape May, N.J., or Aberdeen Golf & Country Club in Boynton Beach, Fla., into artistic landscapes of exaggerated forms, including golf holes that looked like mermaids or bunkers that evoked Odyssian myth. The most dramatic expression of this landscape art came at Segovia Golf Course in Tokyo, where the holes embody the works of classical Spanish painters and musicians, and at Shinyo County Club, also in Tokyo, where the holes are executed as massive sculptures that evoke Japanese epic lore.

Muirhead’s credo was, “My deity is design, and I think good design is very important. There is far too much computer use in these designs nowadays; they all have an automatic feel. Computers are useful, but so are intuition and instinct. You have to have a feel for the site, to find its spirit and give it expression and give it life.”

Muirhead is survived by his three daughters, Romy, Pip and Christine.

Tom Naccarato is a free-lance writer based in La Habra, Calif.

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