The Vitality of Grand Mere

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“a most important truth, that no architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect” and the best architecture is the “expression of the mind of manhood by the hands of childhood.”

– John Ruskin

On the drive home from playing St. George’s and Goodwood recently, in order to try to stay awake, I put on an e-book of Geoff Dyer’s The Last Days of Roger Federer, which, despite its title, is only very tangentially about “Roger”, as Dyer chummily calls him. It is, however, very much about endings, about the very different ways of riding off into the sunset, about either going gently or not so gently into that goodnight. 

At one point, Dyer quotes from the work of Ruskin, whose name I, myself, had just come across while leafing through Keith Cutten’s The Evolution of Golf Course Architecture. According to Cutten, in a roundabout way, Ruskin, a Victorian-era writer and art critic, played an important role in the evolution of golf architecture, having been a preeminent figure of the pre-Raphaelite movement of the mid 19th century, along with William Morris and G.F. Watts, who, in turn, had tutored Horace Hutchinson, who, in turn, had penned a number of important pieces that shaped the evolution of golf architecture as it transitioned from the Victorian-era of Dunn and Bendelow into, what would become known as, “the golden age” of Park and Travis and Mackenzie and Ross. 

Cutten notes that in his last writings, which were published in 1920, Hutchinson acknowledged the importance of the Pre-Raphaelites in his views of the practice, specifically the importance that they placed on the connection between “art, nature, and society.” In short, the Pre-Raphaelites, like many of the era’s thinkers, criticized and were fearful of the growing influence of mechanization and modern science on society and, especially, in art – the notorious stiffness and directness of prototypical Victorian art, be that in its books, its paintings, or its golf architecture. 

As I listened to Dyer’s e-book, I had three golf courses at the forefront of my mind: obviously, the two I’d just played in Toronto and, for other reasons, including our upcoming event, Grand Mere. I really like all three, but my favorite is Grand Mere, primarily because it is the one I’d choose to play everyday, if forced to choose between them. 

In effect, this was a rare moment when three diverse, seemingly random elements perfectly triangulated, really, out of the blue. 

I hadn’t read Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, likely his most known work now, in a few years, but I recalled enough to know that in it Ruskin cuts to the heart of what, in my view, makes Murray’s and Travis’ and Alison’s golf course such a wonderful place for game, even with its flaws, imperfections, wear and tear, et all. Moreover, in his book, Cutten merely quotes one brief passage from the work, and, removing the very specific context to which I am applying Ruskin’s thoughts on art to golf architecture in this piece, what he deduces is nevertheless highly valuable, I feel, to a wider appreciation of the practice, regardless of context. 

Oxford educated and hailing from a family of significant means, Ruskin traveled extensively with his parents throughout his youth and younger adult years. At the time, England was the hub of industrial progress, and, like many Englishmen, he was startled and disoriented by the rapid and complete transformation that had occurred in his homeland over a relatively short time span with the onset of the industrial revolution. By the 1850s, his primary interest shifted from painting to architecture, with an especially affinity for Gothic architecture. 

In particular, Ruskin sought to determine “what kind of society is capable of producing great buildings.” In the Stones of Venice, he is primarily concerned with the role of the workman, or layman, especially in regards to his (or her) relationship to his superior, and, in turn, the types of works such relationships are apt to produce. He is especially critical of the lifelessness and stodginess of Victorian English architecture, where, due to the increase in factories and mechanical apparatuses in them, the workman, as opposed to the craftsman of bygone times, was becoming a “mere segment of a man”, relegated to performing endless menial tasks, in which perfection, sameness, and uniformity of style and construction were required. 

Thus, the industrialization and mechanization of society had instilled this desire for perfection, for flawlessness, in the products of England. “Examine again all those accurate moldings, and perfect polishings, and unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel. Many a time you have exulted over them, and thought how great England was, because her slightest work as done so thoroughly. Alas! If read rightly, these perfectnesses are signs of a slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading than that of the scourged African, or helot Greek.” 

“To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.” 

What Ruskin admired most, in fact, about Gothic architecture was precisely its stirring imperfectness, for, as he states, man is imperfect, man is not a machine, man cannot be trained to work like a machine, and, therefore, signs of imperfection in architecture are signs of life, signs of thought, signs of the imagination, signs of the free imagination of the workman in gear. “To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.” 

“Rather choose rough work than smooth work.”

“So the rule is simple,” Ruskin commands, ”always look for invention first, and after that, for such execution as will help invention, and as the inventor is capable of without painful effort, and no more. Above all, demand no refinement of execution where there is no thought, for that is slaves’ work, unredeemed. Rather choose rough work than smooth work.”

In short, “a most important truth, that no architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect” and the best architecture is the “expression of the mind of manhood by the hands of childhood.”

These last two quotes, in particular, capture, what I believe to be, Grand Mere’s greatest charms, namely its playfulness, its mischievousness, its whimsicality. Stand on the 2nd tee of the ninety degree doglegging 2nd, 7 wood or 4 iron in hand, with the rusted chain-link O.B. fence bearing upon your back, as you try to picture either hitting a rope hook around the corner, or flying the pine trees on the inside of the fairway, and the charms, the life of Grand Mere’s imperfections are immediately evident. Is it a “good tee shot”? Probably not. But it induces anything but indifference. 

Or perhaps it’ll be on the next hole, the 440 yard 3rd, where, as you stand in the middle of the fairway, long iron in grasp, the appalling back-right to front-left tilt of the slender green surface is apt to instill fear or reverence. Any modern architect, governed by the stifling demands of modern green speeds, would have flattened or expanded the surface, yet it remains, untouched, unfettered. 

Grand Mere, as it traverses its various landscapes, ranging from heathlands to canyons to Canadian Shield, possesses an expressive vitality that is unmatched anywhere in Canada, precisely because it often feels as if crafted by the thoughts of man with the hands of childhood. It is a part of the landscape, draped over the land, rather than forced into it, expressing its imperfections, its life-affirming imperfections, proudly: blindness, rumples, humps, hollows, turns, and pitches. 

Perhaps Ruskin provides the most convincing elucidation as to why Grand Mere turned out the way it did, and why it remained so exceptional in the hundred years or so since Alison’s final visit. He proposes that, when done with mutual respect and understanding, “to obey another man, to labor for him, yield reverence to him, or to his place is not slavery. It is often the best kind of liberty. There is, indeed, a reverence which is servile, that is to say irrational or selfish; but there is also a noble reverence, that is to say reasonable and loving; and a man is never so noble as when he is reverent in this kind; nay even if the feeling pass the bounds of mere reason, so that it be loving, a man is raised by it.” 

Rather than overbear upon their laborers and shapers, (largely due to the reality of the practice at the time) both Travis and Alison provided free reign for them to work as they pleased, for the local workmen to ply their trade upon the land as they so wished. Experts in golf construction, they were likely not; lovers of the land and area, that they certainly were. 

Since then, such reverence, to its history and to the land, are what, in my experiences with its stewarts, have defined and continues to define their relationship to the golf club, and why it has stemmed the passing of time, the cruel hands of chance and change, better than any other century old golf club in Canada.  


1 thought on “The Vitality of Grand Mere

  1. This course is quite possibly the best I’ve played. The layout, contouring, green complexes and condition make it an incredible golf experience. If you’re a golf purest and enjoy a challenging, visually stunning and thoroughly enjoyable golf course, make the trip and give this course a go. You won’t regret it.

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