This story was first published on April 21, 2020.
Ran Morrissett got his first taste of golf as a young boy growing up in Richmond, Va. That’s when he began joining his investment-banker father, Ed, and two younger brothers, Bill and John, for post-dinner games on the James River Course at the Country Club of Virginia. His mother, Betty, often accompanied the group, even though she was not a player. So did their dog, Sandy, who had been rescued from the local pound.
In time, the sport came to permeate Morrissett’s soul. It first started to spread when his mom gave his dad a copy of The World Atlas of Golf. Ran, whose given name is Randolph Edward Morrissett III, couldn’t put the book down. His brothers were just as enthralled and they started sketching golf holes that were featured in the volume as they also created their own.
The game took an even greater hold after Morrissett took a couple of golf trips with his family, first to Pinehurst, N.C., and Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island, S.C., in 1981, and then two years later to Scotland, where the itinerary included Dornoch, Turnberry, Muirfield and St. Andrews. The post-round discussions on the architecture of those courses were as compelling as the rounds they played. Morrissett discovered what would become a lifelong interest in traveling the globe with his clubs.
That led him to establish Golf Club Atlas in 1999. Devoid of advertising or subscription fees, it has become the preeminent site for course architecture, as well as one of the most interesting, educational and entertaining places to go in all of sports.
Want to read Tom Doak’s latest ruminations on reversible courses? And engage architects like Bill Coore, Bobby Weed and Steve Smyers on, say, the intricacies of a Redan design and the risk-reward features of the Old Course at St. Andrews? You can do those things and much more at GolfClubAtlas.com by joining its Discussion Group, which is limited to 1,750 participants. You have to register to participate and the site is policed by Morrissett, so topics stay focused on course architecture and discourse remains civil.
The site is also where you can peruse more than 180 course profiles that detail places as fascinating as they are far flung, such as the Old at Ballybunion in County Kerry; the recently renovated Sleepy Hollow on the Hudson River in New York; and the spectacular yet underappreciated links at Humewood in South Africa. Morrissett describes these layouts as “inspiring to play,” and says they help “trace the history and evolution of golf course architecture” – and allow golfers to “understand why some courses are more fascinating than others, and why such courses continually beckon for a return game.”
He also enjoys how they take golfers on journeys to the finest layouts on the planet without having to leave the confines of their homes, much as The World Atlas of Golf did for him all those years ago. It is no accident that the name of his site shares two of the words in the title of the book that inspired him.
Then, there are interviews with notable course architects and authors, tour players and top teaching professionals: men whose passion for golf has led them to lead restoration efforts at historic retreats – Al Jamieson at the Cal Club in South San Francisco, to name one – or to play all of the top 100 courses as determined by certain publications.
To date, Morrissett has archived more than 200 Q&As, some of which are brilliantly imagined chats with long-gone architectural greats such as George C. Thomas and Stanley Thompson, conducted by individuals who intimately know the late architect’s lives and works.
More recently, Morrissett has produced his own ranking of courses, and it is intended to celebrate “those places that embrace the simple virtues of the sport.” Dubbed 147 Custodians of the Game, the roster is as singular as it is scrupulous, based as it is on one learned man’s opinions and experiences. Some might say it also is the purest, given Morrissett’s appreciation for the game in its most traditional and enticing forms. (These days, he also serves as the architecture editor of Golf magazine and helps to run its top-100 lists.)
“I have been going to Golf Club Atlas pretty much from the beginning,” says Doak. “It has definitely expanded interest in and knowledge of course architecture and given people who are passionate about the subject a place to express and exchange ideas. I also like what I learn from the site and how the content reminds me sometimes of things I have not thought about in a while.”
For Ben Cowan-Dewar, the co-founder of the Cabot Links resort in Nova Scotia and a partner of Morrissett’s in Golf Club Atlas since 2005, the site has had a profound impact on his life. “Like Ran, I loved The World Atlas of Golf and grew up drawing golf holes,” he says. “So, Golf Club Atlas fed that particular passion of mine. It also educated me so much about course design in general that I doubt there would be a Cabot Links without Golf Club Atlas.”
Steve Lapper, a longtime Golf magazine panelist and part-owner of a pair of courses in New York and New Jersey, describes himself as a big fan of the site. “When I first started visiting Golf Club Atlas, it left me excited to travel more, to play different courses and to see, experience and appreciate different schools of architecture,” he says. “I could not get enough of it. And while I do not go on the site as frequently as I once did, I still enjoy it.”
Morrissett was studying at the University of North Carolina when his family undertook the original Scotland expedition. When school was done, he took a job at the USGA in Far Hills, N.J. “I lived just down the road from the Somerset Hills Country Club, which (A.W.) Tillinghast had designed, and often jogged on the course in the evenings,” he says. “The course was a revelation, and I was exposed to so many other examples of great golf course architecture when I lived in the area.”
“There was not much in the way of great golf in Virginia when I was younger,” Morrissett continues. “That’s why The World Atlas of Golf meant so much to me as a teenager. Same with those golf trips we took. They gave me a way to see the best courses in the world, and in some cases to experience them. My time at the USGA did the same.”
His experiences in golf only improved when the firm at which Morrissett worked, CCA Financial, asked him to open an office in Hong Kong. From there, he moved to Australia, where a five-year stay included rounds on some of the best courses Down Under.
By the time Morrissett had moved to the island continent, he and his brother John (who currently works as the competitions and marketing director at the Erin Hills Golf Course in Wisconsin) had developed a habit of writing profiles of the most interesting courses they had visited and mailing them to friends, complete with photographs. Morrissett had no intention of doing anything else with those pieces until a pair of entrepreneurs in Australia approached him with an idea. “They had developed software for websites and were looking for content so they could show potential clients how it worked,” Morrissett says. “I gave them all the course profiles, maybe 60 in total. They created the general site layout and helped us develop a discussion group, because they felt the concept of interactivity was very important. They also came up with the idea of a feature interview.”
“As for the site’s overriding function, it was to promote frank and interesting commentary on golf course architecture from anyone who was interested in that topic,” Morrissett adds.
Golf Club Atlas quickly developed a strong following. Part of that was due to the early involvement of designers such as Doak, who had agreed to be the subject of the first “Feature Interview” as he was just being recognized for his keen eye and minimalist approach. Top design critics began to weigh in, and also just regular folks who were fascinated by that realm of the golf world and delighted that they finally had a place to share their thoughts about it – and read those of others. It also helped that Golf Club Atlas came into being just as the second Golden Age of golf course architecture was emerging, with the recent openings of Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska and Bandon Dunes – and as the internet was taking off as a form of communication.
Suddenly, more and more people wanted to exchange ideas about course design. And with new advances in technology, they had an easy and very efficient way to do so.
Morrissett is grateful for how the site has grown, with people now logging in on more than 20,000 different devices each month, and once spoke approvingly in an interview on Golf Club Atlas of how “course architecture is an art form and worthy of the same passionate discourse as other forms of art.”
But he acknowledges that sometimes the back-and-forth in the discussion group has gotten out of hand. “There are negatives,” he said in that same Q&A. “Certain architects are always lionized, and others are almost always vilified, which is too simplistic to be accurate or meaningful. Some good people within the golf profession have withdrawn from the discussion group due to petty and mean-spirited posts by armchair architects, and this is a great shame.”
To deal with those problems, Morrissett decreed that people had to use their real names and could no longer make anonymous posts. “I have also moved from a ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out’ rule to just one strike and you are gone,” he later says. “I think the tenor of the group has become more respectful as a result, and I am happy for that.”
Clearly, there is a lot about Golf Club Atlas that makes Morrissett happy. Married to a Montana native named Fritz and the father of two children from a previous marriage, he enjoys rising at 3:30 a.m. in his Southern Pines, N.C., home to work on the site before going to work for CCA Financial. And he relishes the uncovering of hidden gems and how those discoveries can sometimes lead to the restoration of a golf course that has all but gone to seed.
“Perhaps the course profile I am most proud of was the one I did on the Culver Academies in Indiana in 2006,” says Morrissett, whose home track is Southern Pines Golf Club. “Culver has a wonderful nine-hole course that had been designed and constructed in the early 1920s by Langford & Moreau, who were disciples of Charles Blair Macdonald. But it was in terrible shape by the time I first saw it. There was no sand in the bunkers, the greens had shrunk dramatically in size, and there was no irrigation.”
Morrissett wrote of his disappointment at what he found at Culver. Several months later the chairman emeritus of the academy’s board of trustees reached out, and that call led to a renovation by the architect Weed. The result, Morrissett says, has made Culver arguably the finest nine-hole track in North America.
Morrissett chuckles when he tells that story and thinks about an enterprise that inspires so much passion and discourse – and that is more than 20 years old and going strong.
“At my core, I am a golf dork,” says the man who will step onto a golf course with his sticks roughly 80 times a year – and will be hard pressed to endure any rounds that exceed three hours. “So is my brother, John. We knew that when we started this. We just didn’t know how many fellow dorks were out there as well. There are thousands of them.”
And they have found a home at Golf Club Atlas.
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