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Getting People Interested In Golf Is Geoff Cornish's Design Legacy

February 20, 2012

My friend Geoffrey Cornish, who died Feb. 10 in his Amherst, Mass., home at age 97, was not a great golf course architect in terms of producing great golf courses. His were mostly low-budget public ones, easy to maintain, easy to play, ones that made money. No, Geoff was a great golf course architect because he was more interested in spreading the game than in making a name for himself. He was the Johnny Appleseed to three generations of New England golfers. If you couldn't afford 18 holes, no problem. He would build nine. If you couldn't afford bunkers, no problem. He would put them in later, when and if you had the money.

For the first 30 years of his career, Geoff's fees were ridiculously cheap, a tenth of what others were charging. He didn't care. His luxury car was a Chevy Cavalier with an AM radio and no AC. His only extravagance were seven pairs of sneakers. He would pick a pair twice daily for his brisk seven-mile walks through the Great Lawrence Swamp behind his house in the Fiddlers Green section of Amherst.

In all the years I knew Geoff, I never saw him swing a golf club. He told me he had given up the game in the 1960s, when he got too busy designing. But he had once been an avid player, even while serving with the Canadian Army in World War II, where he participated on Day One of the invasion of Normandy. Headed home a year later, he managed a two-day pass to visit St. Andrews and play the Old Course.

Geoff was best known as the foremost expert in golf design history, but it wasn't always that way. He freely admitted that when he rebuilt a couple of holes at The Country Club before the 1963 U.S. Open, he blithely chopped away at the green contours. In those days restoration was for Tin Lizzies. But he grew to appreciate the historical aspects of his profession, especially after he joined the American Society of Golf Course Architects in 1967. He served as its president in 1975-76 and as its History Committee chairman for decades.

We wrote two books together on the evolution of golf architecture: The Golf Course in 1981 and an updated version called The Architects of Golf in 1993. After the first book, I asked him how I could get involved in course design, and he lectured me that my role in life was to promote the game by writing about it. After the second book, I got a call from a young writer asking for my research, explaining that he had been hired by Geoff as my replacement for future editions. I politely explained to the writer that I shared the copyright, so he would have to seek his livelihood elsewhere. When I asked Geoff for an explanation, he said he thought now that I was so busy writing for Golf Digest, he would give another youngster an opportunity.

That was Geoff, generous to a fault. Brian Silva spent 23 years as Geoff's design partner. More than once, Brian bid on a design job and found he was competing against Geoff, who was teamed with some struggling young designer or architect wannabe. "Just trying to help him break into the business," Geoff would tell Brian. "Besides, there's plenty of work to go around."

Geoff had a surprisingly wry sense of humor. He gave nicknames to all his colleagues. (Being all thumbs, he called himself the Company Mechanic.) Former partner Bill Robinson, who didn't care much for reading, was dubbed the Company Librarian. The less-than-even-tempered Silva was the Company Negotiator. Best of all was Geoff's wife, Carol, so frugal she typed his correspondence on the reverse sides of old University of Massachusetts letterhead. Geoff called her Diamond Jim Brady.

In the 1950s, before becoming a full-time designer, Geoff had taught agronomy at UMass's turf school. In the 1980s and 1990s, Geoff conducted popular seminars on the basics of golf design, many with the late Robert Muir Graves at various locales, including the Harvard Graduate School of Design and superintendent trade shows. At one of the latter, he recognized the name of a student. "I taught your father at UMass," Geoff told him. "No, sir," the student replied, "you taught my grandfather."

Funny thing, I'm still younger today than Geoff Cornish was when we started our first book together 34 years ago. I thought he'd live forever. Or at least to age 100.

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