A Site For Sore Eyes Got a bone to pick with a course architect? Join the crowd at golfclubatlas.com

August 04, 2002

Click.... What course will the USGA mess up this week?

Click.... Did Robert Trent Jones ever design a great par-3?

Click.... Is the divot the grass or the hole where the grass was?

Click.... Is Pete Dye the Northern Dancer of course architects?

Click.... You have just started your own club. Who gets in?

Such are the postings regularly debated in the highly animated
Discussion Group on golfclubatlas.com, the most--take your
pick--contentious, passionate, dyspeptic, erudite, exasperating
and informative golf site in the cacophonous clatter of the
World Wide Web. Add hundreds of course photos and reviews as
well as monthly interviews with golf architects (and their
critics) to the group's 35,000-plus posts on about 1,800
threads, and what you have is the online main line for the golf
architecture junkie.

Kept awake at night by Rees Jones's new bunkering on the 18th
hole at Bethpage Black? Steamed by the desecrations of Augusta
National, Merion and Riviera? Puzzled by Pine Valley's drop in
the rankings? Feel like sharing your feelings about the
influence of National Golf Links, the amount of earth Tom Fazio
moves or the amount Tom Doak doesn't? You are not alone.

Logging onto the site "has become a way of life for me," says
Tom Paul, a 57-year-old retired real estate agent from Newtown
Square, Pa., who spends three hours a day glued to
golfclubatlas.com. "It's the first thing I do in the morning."
This year alone Paul has pounded out more than 2,500 posts, some
of them full-fledged theses. "I should probably cut back," he
says, "but if you love golf courses, the site gets to be pretty
addictive."

"It is a sickness, no doubt about it," admits Tommy Naccarato,
43, an electrician from La Habra, Calif., who has a
two-hour-a-day habit. On the site Naccarato is reverentially
referred to as the Emperor. A knowledge seeker in his heart, a
Buddha in physique and a 14 handicapper with a delicate touch,
Naccarato worked hard to ensure that his ball went into--not
over--the famed Devil's Asshole bunker on the 10th hole at Pine
Valley. You know, just for the experience. Naccarato brings this
same fervor to golfclubatlas.com. He is, in a supersized
nutshell, the site's apotheosis: a regular Joe, fiercely
protective of golf's traditions, who wants to talk (and talk and
talk) about course design, which he considers nothing less than
an art form.

Right now Naccarato is idling on the 1st tee at Pete Dye's
daunting Stadium Course at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif.,
gabbing animatedly with the other members of his foursome as
they await the tee balls of the threesome ahead--led by Ran
Morrissett, golfclubatlas.com's founder, administrator, banker,
hall monitor and guiding light. Naccarato is gabbing with
Morrissett's group too. About this course. About other Dye
courses. About desert golf. About the houses lining the fairway.
That last one elicits an affable "Thanks for the swing thought"
from Morrissett as he waggles his driver, suddenly aware of all
the windows and roofs in the immediate vicinity.

Until today these seven hadn't met face-to-face, but they know
each other well, having shared their pets, their peeves and
their golf dreams on the website. Here they are, at last, in the
flesh, embarking on this fine Friday morning on a three-day,
90-hole, Southern California bender that Morrissett has put
together. It's the third golfclubatlas.com spree he's organized
but the first to stray from the East Coast. Morrissett flew in
from North Carolina; three others have come from points east as
well. Sixteen Southern Californians will join in tomorrow for
the highlight of this golfing Lost Weekend: two rounds and lunch
with architect Gil Hanse--a golfclubatlas.com favorite--at
Hanse's Rustic Canyon, a new public course at the base of the
Santa Monica Mountains northwest of L.A. On Monday the group
will shrink to six for matins at Riviera and afternoon worship
at Los Angeles Country Club.

"It doesn't get any better than this," says Morrissett, gazing
down the fairway of the dogleg 1st, searching for his line of
attack. Ahead lies a wrestling match with a complex course and a
weekend with his virtual creation sprung to life. To see
Morrissett among his beaming acolytes is to understand why the
golfclubatlas.com community has dubbed him the Most Loved Man in
Golf. With 750 officially enrolled members on the site, it is
definitely a community. The residents include industry
professionals--architects, superintendents and club pros--and
the doctors, lawyers, scientists, writers, brokers, students,
techies and the stray electrician from La Habra for whom the
contemplation of golf courses ranges from enthusiastic hobby to
devout religion. About 200 of the members (some under their own
names, some pseudonymously) regularly swap opinions, rants and
kudos online, and only the golf gods know how many others are
out there, lurking in the shadowy corners of cyberspace. The
site has logged up to 20,000 hits a day.

"I always thought I was the weird guy," says Mike Cirba, a
prolific poster from the Philadelphia area. "Then all of a
sudden I see there are other people into the same weirdness."
Golfclubatlas.com welcomes them all. The course is what matters
here--the site's not a place to look for swing tips--and at any
moment of the day or night there'll be someone logged on,
burning with insights or questions. Regardless of how arcane the
topic, someone else will likely echo the interest, agree or
disagree thoughtfully and thus draw in others to do the same.

For the most part this is a virtual community of gentlemen;
women post about as often as they're asked to join Augusta
National, though no one has barred the door. Most are
traditionalists subscribing wholeheartedly to the old values and
spirit of the game. They like walking. They hate cart paths.
They venerate the architectural gods of the past and love the
modern lay-of-the-land minimalists who honor their forebears'
design principles--architects such as Doak (Pacific Dunes,
Apache Stronghold), Hanse (Inniscrone, Craighead Links) and the
team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore (Sand Hills, Kapalua
Plantation). They respect courses that are in harmony with the
environment and damn architects who inflict their will upon the
land. Woe to the designer who lets his ego shape the restoration
of a grand old track or who produces new courses as if on an
assembly line. Golfclubatlas.com attracts the keepers of the
flame. "The people who are into this," says Morrissett, "have a
genuine feel and passion for it, and an ability and need to
share that with people of the same mind-set."

Not everyone agrees on everything, which leads to the guiltiest
pleasure of reading the site. "I know there are people who tune
in only for the train wrecks," says Morrissett. Passions erupt,
tempers flare and name-calling prevails until Morrissett steps
in with his delete button. "There seems to be no superego on the
Internet," says Newtown Square's Paul. "People say the damnedest
things that they'd never say face-to-face."

Morrissett is frustrated by the bias of golfclubatlas.com, and
he knows it turns off readers. "There's so much wanking going on
there," says a former participant who rarely stops by anymore.
"The rhetoric has become predictable: If the architect's dead,
he's great. If he's alive, with a few exceptions, he's not as
great. If he's actually successful, like a Tom Fazio or a Rees
Jones, he has sold out."

"Warts and all, it's still worth it," says frequent contributor
Brad Klein, author and architecture critic for Golfweek.
"Golfclubatlas.com may be an obsession, but it's a cultivated
one. It promotes a healthy scrutiny and awareness, functioning
as a sort of neighborhood watch, so when architects or course
committees get lazy or stupid or pigheaded or egotistic, someone
blows the whistle on them. [The posters] are the new vigilantes
of golf."

The posse was particularly shrill during Fazio's renovations at
Augusta National, Merion and Riviera. That Hugh Wilson's bunkers
at Merion were rescooped by a machine and not redug by hand,
that Riviera's new traps seem out of character with those of
original architect George Thomas's and that the narrowing of
Mackenzie's fairways at Augusta has decreased options and angles
might not matter to the weekend hacker, but in the Discussion
Group these changes are tantamount to defacing the Pieta and
have earned Fazio and associates the tag of Fazists.

For his part Fazio is unfazed by the tumult. "Everybody is
entitled to his opinion," he says with a sigh. "That's what
America is about. But I'm not interested in their opinion. I
don't read that stuff."

Others do. Geoff Shackelford, a course critic and design partner
on Rustic Canyon, credits the website with persuading Riviera to
cut back on Fazio's renovation plan. "The club had heard
enough," says Shackelford, who had been a Riviera member until
last year. "The beauty of golfclubatlas.com is that there's a
forum to discuss all of this, and people--some with
influence--are tuning in. The only way any art form gets better
is with discussion and arguments and thoughtful analysis. Even
stupid analysis."

Even Fazio admits that the site raises awareness of course
design and the new breed of practitioners. "That lots of people
are writing and thinking about architects is good," he says.

For some architects, such as Brian Silva (Cape Cod National,
Black Creek), the site has even become an important resource.
"There are times I'll use it like a reference library," Silva
says. "I'll look up a course in the reviews to check a hole
design similar to something I might be thinking about. It's more
convenient than calling an airline, getting a flight and seeing
it on the ground."

All in all it's a whole lot of hoopla for something that was
spawned to save on long-distance phone charges.

The Most Loved Man in Golf runs his site from his home in
Southern Pines, N.C. Every artifact in Morrissett's
210-square-foot office reflects his passion: the more than 400
books, the architectural renderings, the prints, the road sign
to Ballybunion and the painting of his favorite course, Westward
Ho! His Clumber spaniel even answers to the name Birdie. "He's a
bird dog, already named when we inherited him," says Morrissett,
39. "It has nothing to do with golf."

His infatuation began on a family vacation to Hilton Head Island
and Pinehurst in 1978. On the drive home to Richmond his father
and two brothers tried to figure out why they were so taken with
Pinehurst No. 2. "We couldn't answer the question for a long
time, but it got the ball rolling," Morrissett says. He devoured
the few books he could find on the subject, particularly The
World Atlas of Golf, which is filled with photos, diagrams and
hole analyses. "We wound up with four copies at home. The pages
started falling out of the first one. There was ketchup all over
it." Morrissett named his website in homage.

Other vacations, including pilgrimages to Scotland, took him to
other courses; with a job as a development officer at the USGA,
where he worked from 1985 to '87, came access to America's best.
Soon Morrissett and his younger brother, John, now a USGA rules
official, were collaborating on course reviews they'd send to
fellow zealots. "It was our hobby," Ran says. "We loved it."

Then in 1993 Morrissett moved to Sydney to open an office for
CCA Financial, the technology equipment leasing firm he still
works for. He ran up exorbitant bills calling golfing buddies
back in the U.S. to crow about the courses he'd discovered.
Meanwhile he had become friends with a couple of young web
designers looking for the right content. Morrissett already had
hundreds of pictures--he photographs every course he plays--and
dozens of reviews to post, but the designers wanted
interactivity; they suggested adding a message board.

In June 1999 Morrissett typed in the Discussion Group's first
question: "Is the Ocean Course at Kiawah Pete Dye's best
design?" When he woke in the morning, he had his first
response--posted by his brother John back home. Morrissett
answered under a nom de plume and began opining under several
other names to foster an appearance of activity. Soon someone
who wasn't a Morrissett found golfclubatlas.com. Within a month
several regulars from the architecture chat room on a now
defunct site found it, too. One of them--Naccarato--says, "We
saw right away that [the site] could be something special." Adds
Cirba, "It was serious-minded from the start. The posts were
well-reasoned."

Three years later the vast majority still are. Says Bill Coore,
"That a Tommy Naccarato can have a meaningful discussion with a
Tom Doak is most interesting and positive."

This interactivity is Morrissett's gift to the game. He spends
$10,000 a year running the site. "As a money-losing hobby," he
says, "you do the best you can and get on with it."

"Oh, no. I've been Hansed."

Morrissett is staring down Rustic Canyon's 7th fairway, a par-4
bisected by a barranca that presents distinct options off the
tee, each of which Hanse had taken pains to point out.
Morrissett chose to go heroic, and despite his crisp drive, the
golfing gods abandoned him with a nasty kick off the natural
slope of the land, leaving a less-than-favorable angle to the
green.

Hanse, a tall two-iron of a man, is smiling almost sheepishly as
they walk down the fairway together. This is an important day
for him, his codesigners--Shackelford and Jim Wagner--and for
the course they've gently coaxed out of Happy Camp Canyon.
Several in the golfclubatlas.com group rate courses for the
three important panels run by Golf Magazine, Golfweek and Golf
Digest. The architects want happy campers. They needn't worry.
Hanse's minimalist, hand-hewn style meshes neatly with the
website's ideals. Hanse has wed a traditional links to native
California vegetation. Instead of gorse and heather he has drawn
on cactus, coastal sage, white sage and foxtail grasses to
vivify a landscape studded with eucalyptus and elderberry. The
course's contours are natural; only 17,000 cubic yards of earth
were moved, a fraction of what's moved on average. "This is what
I dream of playing," Naccarato says, moments after holing a chip
on the 13th hole, "something pure and refined and in tune with
the surroundings." He can't wait to talk about it.

At lunch, in a spartan lemon grove on the edge of the course,
Naccarato and his fellow golfers want to hear from the designers
about the construction plan and schedule, the ideas behind the
routing, and how the lengths of the holes were determined. They
want to know about green orientation, depth-perception tricks
and the thinking behind the unique look of bunkers abrim with
cactus and coastal sage. They are mesmerized by a series of
before-and-after photos. They want details.

They also want to get back on the course and keep studying until
it's too dark to play anymore. Then they'll adjourn for a
private showing of golf paintings and, at dinner, more golf
talk. With Hanse. With Shackelford. With Wagner. With each
other. They could talk golf all night, but they don't.
Riviera--and Fazio's changes--await in the morning, and they
still have to post.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY J.D. CUBAN [INSIDE COVER] WHAT KIND OF MAN LOGS ON TO GOLFCLUBATLAS.COM? TONY (THE EMPEROR) NACCARATO COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES ONE-MAN BAND Morrissett, who founded golfclubatlas.com in 1999, runs it from home and spends about $10,000 a year. COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF GOLFCLUBATLAS.COM COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN BIG HITTER Naccarato, a.k.a. the Emperor, spends two hours a day on the website and as much time as possible in the sand. COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN MASTER'S PLAN Hanse fielded a barrage of questions about Rustic Canyon from the golfclubatlas.com gang. COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN PICTURE PERFECT Brad Miller (far left) had a private showing of his collection of course paintings at the website's party.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES BAD SEED Fazio and his associates have been labeled Fazists on the site.

"I should probably cut back," says Paul, "but if you love golf
courses, the site gets to be addictive."

"There's so much wanking going on there," says a former
participant. "The rhetoric has become predictable."

Klein says the posters are "the new vigilantes of golf," on the
lookout for lazy or stupid architects.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)