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The Land Was There First

Over the course of his career, renowned golf course designer Robert Muir Graves created courses in some of the world’s most beautiful places. But it was the landscape of Central Oregon that captured his heart in the 1980s, when he designed Black Butte Ranch’s Big Meadow course—so much so that he moved his family here from California in 1992.

“It was my fault,” admits Mimi Graves, Robert’s 83-year-old widow, who still lives on the couple’s ranch between Tumalo and Sisters along with Katie Yoder, the youngest of the Graves’ three daughters. Mimi had vacationed in Central Oregon with her sister in the 1960s when, as she recalls, the area around Sisters and the original Black Butte Ranch were not much more than unpaved backroads. “But I couldn’t get the natural beauty of the area out of my mind,” she says. Some 20 years later, her husband, Robert, came home and told her, “Guess what? I’m going to design a course at Black Butte Ranch.”

Ultimately, Graves designed four of Central Oregon’s more popular and respected courses—Black Butte Ranch’s Big Meadow course, River’s Edge and Widgi Creek in Bend and The Greens in Redmond. But the first course remained one of his career favorites. On the world stage, Graves designed or renovated more than 80 courses over 50 years. He produced every type of links imaginable around the world: long and short, entry level and specialty, even courses built on ocean bluffs and in swamps. Among his more notable designs outside of Central Oregon are Sea Ranch on the Northern California coast, Quail Lodge on the Monterey Peninsula, La Purisima on the Southern California coast, Port Ludlow on Washington’s Puget Sound, Lake Merced in San Francisco and Big Canyon in Southern California.

One reason behind the variety of Graves’ designs have so much variety because he was committed to finding the most ideal golf solution within existing landscapes. Graves described his design philosophy as “the three P’s—playability, practicality and pulchritude.” When asked by students what pulchritude meant, he explained, “beauty.” To Graves, the three P’s meant finding the true spirit of the terrain and essentially letting the course design itself. “Robert believed in one underlying principle when it came to design,” recalls Mimi. “The land was there first, and the golf course is out there somewhere, so the architect has to find it. He didn’t believe in gigantic bulldozers changing everything. He was a landscape architect and very tuned in to protecting plants and trees and existing features.”

 

Big Meadow, a Graves’ favorite  

Graves’ Central Oregon legacy began with the Big Meadow course at Black Butte Ranch, which remains a classic example of his vision for golf. Every component of the course is integrated with the spectacular setting at the base of the Oregon Cascades. Mimi recalls walking the property with Robert in the mid-1980s, loaded down with design plans for the new course. He told her, “I want one of those magnificent mountains at the end of this fairway.” She adds, “He didn’t want to change the terrain, and Big Meadow turned out to be one of his favorites.”

Jeff Fought, PGA Director of Golf at Big Meadow, worked with Graves on the master plan for Big Meadow and recalls, “Unlike many golf architects, Robert did not have a big ego. He listened to you and respected your views as a golfer. We worked together as design partners.”

 

River’s Edge and its “run forever” hole #1

Another Graves’ golf course design tenet was creating a layout that was fun for golfers of all abilities, but still challenging enough to test the low handicapper. This was applied well at Bend’s River’s Edge course on the Deschutes River, where Graves created greens right next to the river, waterfalls over natural rock outcroppings into a pond and hole No. 1 with its distinctive vertical drop. Mimi fondly describes this Graves creation as the “bowling alley” because of its narrow, steep drop that allows even a meekly hit drive to “run forever” down the hill.

Wayne Purcell, co-owner of River’s Edge, worked with Graves on the course design and says, “Graves did an amazing job designing River’s Edge. His insight created a unique and picturesque golf course. Tourists love the course because it is so different from what you see in the Willamette Valley or in other parts of the country, and they never get tired of seeing the mountains and the river.”

 

Widgi Creek—fun, but challenging   

Another fun course in Graves’ portfolio is Widgi Creek, tucked within a prolific ponderosa pine forest west of Bend. Mimi recalls that Widgi Creek was designed with the average golfer in mind, as a place “where the high handicapper can enjoy the natural beauty of the course and have a good time.” To that end, Widgi Creek was one of Graves’ early applications of what were then known as ladies’ tees (and today are known as forward tees), to help make the game a bit friendlier.

Graves’ Widgi Creek design challenges the low handicapper, as well. “Golfers playing Widgi for the first time always look at its less than 7,000 yards and think it is just a short course,” says Widgi Creek Golf Club Superintendent Paul Rozek. “The challenge comes with the tight fairways, 11 ponds, well-placed bunkers and the tall grass with desert brush.”

 

The classics come to The Greens

The last course that Graves designed in Central Oregon exemplifies virtually everything this master landscape architect believed about designing golf courses for golfers of any skill level. The Greens at Redmond is the only executive, or shorter, course among the four he designed in Central Oregon. The course was built in 1991 as nine holes because it was part of a residential community with limited space. Graves envisioned this as an opportunity to craft a course for a large demographic of golfers who don’t have the time, resources, health or skill to go a full 18 holes.

Moreover, Graves unleashed his creative genius in 1995 when he was asked to design a second nine at The Greens. A little known fact, according to Mimi, is that Graves reinterpreted a hit parade of several classic British hole designs on the second nine, including the Redan and the Punchbowl, making the second executive course a tiny masterpiece.

Robert Muir Graves died of cancer at the age of 72 in 2003, having spent the last 20 years of his life living in the landscape he loved most—Central Oregon. During those years, unsurprising to Mimi, Graves’ lifestyle was just as diverse as his world of golf course design. He was a volunteer fireman and an accomplished musician, mastering the trumpet, ukulele and even the bass violin. In fact, he willed his bass violin to the Sisters High School Americana Folk Music program. One of his favorite pastimes was flying. He was the proud owner of a classic Boeing-Stearman Model 75 military trainer biplane that he hangered at the Redmond airport.

Fittingly, given his love for the course, the renovation of Big Meadow (completed in 2007) was Graves’ last project before his death. Golfers throughout the world who have had the pleasure of playing Big Meadow and Graves’ other courses in Central Oregon share Wayne Purcell’s parting impression of the master—“He is truly missed, but he certainly left an amazing legacy.”

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