Earlier today I learned that Geoffrey Cornish, the architect and scholar of that side of the game, has died. Cornish was 97, and one of the game’s great gentlemen and a fellow who made many contributions on and off the course. The American Society of Golf Course Architects sent out this obit and here is his Canadian Golf Hall of Fame biography.
This is a piece I wrote for the Globe and Mail on the occasion of his 90th birthday in 2004.
(The following item first appeared in the Globe and Mail on August 5, 2004)
One of golf's most respected course architects will turn 90 tomorrow, and the distressing truth is that so few people are aware of his contributions.
This remarkable gentleman, Geoffrey Cornish, was born in Winnipeg, studied at the University of British Columbia and the University of Massachusetts, worked with the famous architect Stanley Thompson on some of Canada's classic courses and is just about the most decent person anybody could hope to meet.
"I don't know how you could meet a finer person," Brian Silva, Cornish's associate in a course design firm with offices in Whitinsville, Mass., and Uxbridge, Mass., said yesterday while on his way to the airport in Pittsburgh and then home. "Nobody has worked more selflessly for the game."
Cornish lives in Amherst, Mass., and maintains an active role with Silva and Mark Mungeam, gentlemen and course architecture scholars in their own right. The firm of Cornish, Silva & Mungeam is busy in New England and elsewhere. That's why Silva was in the hills of western Pennsylvania yesterday. Cornish, meanwhile, was having a typical day. He walked. And he walked. Cornish often walks kilometres with a half-dozen dogs or so that he picks up near his home. His nephew Brian, a real-estate lawyer in Montreal, said yesterday that his uncle walks up to 25 kilometres a day with the dogs.
"I'm in great shape," Cornish said from his home. "I ran a mile every day from the time I got out of the [Canadian]army in 1945 until recently. But I still get out and walk at home or when I'm out at courses. I think that constant walking is the answer for a long life."
Constant enthusiasm for one's work, and an interest in the world around and other people, can't hurt either. Cornish is always more interested in asking about somebody else than answering questions about himself. "He'll have met you and talked to you for 30 seconds, but he won't let you interview him because he wants to know about you," Silva said. "Then you'll get a four-page letter from him two days later."
If Cornish did talk more about himself, he'd be more widely known. He's accomplished so much. Cornish has taught at the University of Massachusetts and at Harvard. He crafted an elegant foreword to Jim Barclay's biography about Thompson, called The Toronto Terror. And he co-wrote The Architects of Golf with Golf Digest's architecture editor, Ron Whitten. This standard reference is full of information and insightful essays.
"I remember talking to the publisher about the first edition of the book," Cornish recalled. "He thought it would have the interest of a telephone book." "I still refer to it as the book," Silva said. "I don't think the plethora of architecture books since then would have come out had it not been done. And you know, Mr. Cornish isn't one of those architects who's asked for seven-figure fees, there's no self-promoting ego, no saying that he spent $30-million on a course. The result is that so many of his contributions are unknown."
One can go back to 1935 at the beautiful Thompson-designed Capilano course in West Vancouver, where Cornish evaluated soils after graduating in agronomy from UBC. Cornish was the greenkeeper at St. Charles in Winnipeg. Cornish also worked on Thompson's Highlands Links in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia with Robbie Robinson, who later became a well-known architect. Robinson was the construction superintendent when the Highlands Links was built in the late 1930s. Robinson went on to supervise the building of the Anne of Green Gables course in Prince Edward Island after a year at the Highlands, so Cornish took over the lead role. He eventually turned to full-time design work in 1952 after serving in the army and working for Thompson and Lawrence Dickinson, a maverick turf-grass scientist at the University of Massachusetts.
Cornish was inducted into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame in 1996. By then, he'd worked with Toronto-born architect William Robinson on many courses, including York Downs in Unionville, Ont. Legendary Canadian amateur Marlene Streit is a member at York Downs. To chat with Cornish is to appreciate him not only as an architect and educator, but also as a golf historian. He is a significant part of golf history.
"I don't know how I'd have come to appreciate the history of the game without him," Silva said. "I don't like to use the term for a man of his advanced age, but he's a dying breed. He's a unique man." He is that. Cornish has been a vital part of the game for 70 years. At 90, his vitality remains, and people who know golf might celebrate his vital contributions and offer a toast to him on his birthday.