These are some admittedly personal reflections on golf architect Jay Morrish, the left-brain half of the superstar design team of Morrish and Weiskopf, who died on March 2 in a Dallas suburb, after dealing for years with heart disease.
I started writing about golf architecture for magazines in 1983, the same year Morrish left Jack Nicklaus's three-man design firm and headed out on his own. He was living in Tulsa at the time, and he took me around Tulsa Country Club, which he would soon remodel, and Tom Fazio's brand new Golf Club of Oklahoma, which Jay assessed with remarkable insight, pointing out structural challenges and solutions, potential maintenance issues and novel design features. I foolishly thought every architect was going to be as generous with his time.
The following year, Jay teamed with Tom Weiskopf, at the latter's invitation, to design Troon Golf & Country Club in Scottsdale. I'd begun running Golf Digest's course ranking panel, and their evaluations (I had no vote) picked Troon as America's Best New Private Course of 1986. The team of Morrish and Weiskopf became a marquee firm overnight, and their subsequent work also glittered: Troon, the Monument Course at Troon North, the Canyon Course at Forest Highlands, Shadow Glen in Kansas and Double Eagle in Ohio all ended up ranked on America's 100 Greatest. Their La Cantera in Texas won Best New Public of 1995 and was later a PGA Tour stop. Even today, our World's 100 Greatest includes their Loch Lomond Golf Club, the first design in Scotland by American architects and considered by both men to be their best, even though Jay was sidelined by quadruple bypass surgery during much of its construction.
Golf World proclaimed them joint Architects of the Year in 1996, when they surprised us by announcing they were splitting into separate, competing firms.(Their final co-designs, The Rim in Payson, Ariz. and The Reserve in Indian Wells, Calif., took three more years to complete.)
To the consternation of some readers, my article on that honor focused on their shared love of big-game hunting, an activity Weiskopf first encouraged Jay to try in the 1980s. Jay especially loved hunting in Africa. He described it as "95 percent boredom and 5 percent sheer terror."
His big-game trophies, including antelopes, lions and grizzly bears, were so extensive that in the early 1990s he built a 5,600 square foot home outside Dallas, designed by clubhouse architect Bill Zmistowski, to house them all. In 2007, Jay and his wife, Louise, downsized to a smaller home nearby, and most of the mounted animals were donated to the Dallas Zoo and Bass Pro Shops.
Earlier this week, I called Weiskopf to talk about Jay.
"He was somebody special," Tom said. "The total package. I learned so much from him. I couldn't have started in the business with a better guy.
"We were a terrific team. He handled all the technical aspects; he was the best problem-solver in the business. I'd offer strategic elements, things like following a reachable par 5 with the longest par-4 in the opposite direction. He liked my idea of a drivable par 4, which I'd gotten from playing the Old Course at St. Andrews. We did at least one on each of the 25 courses we did together.
"I'm proud to say that Jay and I always finished on time and on budget. And we've never had to go back and redo any of our courses."
I had to challenge Tom on that last statement. After all, he'd just spent much of 2014 rebuilding every hole at TPC Scottsdale, an early Morrish and Weiskopf flagship design.
"That was a result of technology," he said. "When you have the world's best golfers playing a course every year, you'd got to keep it competitive. But its basic structure was still sound. We didn't change that."
On his own, Jay did many spectacular yet playable courses, including Stone Canyon, Pine Canyon and Talking Rock, all in Arizona, Castle Hills and Pine Dunes in Texas, Blackstone, Ravenna and River Valley Ranch in Colorado and Bent Creek in Pennsylvania. He was assisted on most by his son, Carter, whose career he wanted to advance by leaving his partnership with Weiskopf.
By the time we met in 1983, Jay had given up golf. He'd once been avid about it, while earning a nursery management degree at Colorado State, and played left-handed. But quit because of back problems. "You don't have to be the world's best player to be a good architect," he said. "You just have to understand what the golf ball's going to do."
Morrish served as the rock-steady president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects in the tumultuous year following 9/11. He was impressively eloquent and well read, as evidenced by an essay he wrote in 2003 comparing the golf design process to the manner in which Edgar Allen Poe composed a poem.
He could also be blunt, like the time in 2002 when I asked him to comment on the passing of his old boss, course architect Desmond Muirhead. "Never liked him, never liked his work," Jay said.
My reaction to Jay's passing is to flip that line. I always liked Jay Morrish. I always liked his work.