Why does modern man (and, to a lesser extent, modern woman) spend so much money building golf courses? Why does the modern American golf course appeal so strongly to the male eye?
The expense can be extraordinary. Back in 1989, casino owner Steve Wynn and course designer Tom Fazio spent about $40 million dollars to build Shadow Creek. To avoid having to look at the barren desert outside of Las Vegas, they dug out a 60-foot deep hole in the ground a half-square mile in area. They then converted its interior into a replica of the North Carolina Sand Hills by building giant undulations, installing creeks and lakes, and planting 21,000 pine trees. One round at Shadow Creek costs $1,000.
Surprisingly, as I found out during a conference on evolution and human behavior held in the beautiful countryside west of Moscow, a number of scientists now believe that a love of golf course-like landscapes may be hardwired by evolution into many human brains.
One afternoon I snuck out of the lecture hall to admire the view from a bluff overlooking the Moscow River.
This was not far from where the French ground out a bloody triumph at Borodino in 1812 and the Red Army finally stopped the German advance on the Russian capital in 1941. Perhaps one of Napoleon's marshals or Hitler's generals had inspected this same stirring view with a soldier's eye, imagining how a battalion arrayed on this wooded cliff top could have held off an entire regiment that would have had to cross the open meadow, ford the river, and charge up the steep slope.
Before then, Czars no doubt had studied this vista from a hunter's standpoint, visualizing how in the cool of the morning a stag would warily emerge from the forest to amble down to the riverside to drink and nibble on the lush grass.
Yet, despite being in a country with too much history for its own good, I couldn't help considering the land from a perspective still quite novel in newly capitalist Russia. Where hunters and warriors had once observed the topography, I was in the throes of a mania surprisingly common among modern business travelers: I had discovered the perfect spot to build a golf hole.
"He's got a four iron from 195 yards," the golf announcer who lives in my imagination whispered. Like Bill Murray's demented greenskeeper talking to himself in "Caddyshack," I narrated, "It's a beautiful downhill par three, but to get the ball all the way back to the flag, he'll have to flirt with the river."
At that point in my reverie, some of the conferences' star "ethologists" (scientists who study the biological roots of behavior) came around the bend. Even though very few scientists play golf, they didn't laugh at my obsession with searching for the best sites for imaginary golf courses.
"Yes, this is an ideal landscape," agreed Dr. Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, the German-speaking world's most prominent human ethologist.
Eibl-Eibesfeldt suggested that people, especially men, find such well-watered grasslands appealing because they were suited to our hunter-gatherers ancestors, who evolved on the grassy savannas of East Africa hunting big game.
Dr. Christa Suetterlin agreed. She is a scholar in the new field of Darwinian aesthetics, which makes her a sort of Art Prehistorian. She pointed out, "Water, like that river down there, was good for hunting because it attracted animals."
Large beasts would graze on the grass, while the nearby trees would provide cover for hunters. These early hunters would study the slopes of the land in order to stalk and charge their prey from the best angles. Any resemblance to a rolling golf fairway running between trees is not coincidental, according this theory.
Another lecturer at the conference, Linda Mealey, an evolutionary psychologist at Minnesota's College of St. Benedict, speculated, "Golfing seems to substitute for hunting in many men these days."
Our low-browed ancestors who stuck to the savanna because looking at it made them happy, tended to prosper and leave lots of descendents. In contrast, those early men who found jungles, deserts, or swamps more aesthetically appealing tended to starve and thus not have many children to carry on their wayward genes.
Suetterlin recounted a study in which people from 15 different cultures were asked what they'd like to see in a picture. Then the researchers would paint the average of what they were told. Even though the scientists hadn't even mention what type of picture it should be, the consensus in 14 of the 15 cultures favored landscapes. In fact, they all came up with landscapes that looked rather like the one we were admiring.
"All over the world," Suetterlin said, "People want to see grassland, a lake, some trees, but not a solid forest, and some distant mountains for refuge. They always want to see it slightly from above."
Golf course architects, most notably Jack Nicklaus, strive to create downhill shots. In fact, practically every hole on the site of the PGA Tour's Memorial Tournament, Muirfield Village, Nicklaus' monument to himself, appears to play downhill.
These kind of studies have found that men (the hunters) prefer sweeping vistas, while women (the gatherers) prefer enclosed verdant refuges. Perhaps it's no accident that a longtime favorite book among little girls is called "The Secret Garden."
Suetterlin noted that people tend to each have two favorite landscapes in their heads. The first is the grassland. That appears to be a nearly universal favorite among children. The second is whatever landscape they live in around the time of puberty. "This superimposes on the original savanna imprinting," she explained.
Thus, people who spend their adolescence in, say, the desert are likely to grow up to love the desert. Of course, desert-dwellers also love grasslands, as the 275 golf courses in Arizona attest.
The theory that humans are naturally attracted to landscapes that look like East Africa during the wet season appears to have originated with University of Washington zoologist Gordon Orians around 1981. He pointed to how we make our yards and parks into lawns.
Initially, though, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists almost uniformly failed to notice that golf courses provided some of the strongest evidence for this hypothesis. This was probably because golf is much less popular among scientists than among, say, businessmen. (Whether there's an evolutionary explanation for that fact has not yet been studied.)
Golfers, though, began drawing the scientists' attention to golf courses in the 1990s, and by now this theory has become more widely accepted. Harvard's famed Edward O. Wilson, author of the landmark 1975 book "Sociobiology," told UPI, "I believe that the reason that people find well-landscaped golf courses 'beautiful' is that they look like savannas, down to the scattered trees, copses, and lakes, and most especially if they have vistas of the sea."
Indeed, many famous golf courses such as Pebble Beach in California and St. Andrews in Scotland are alongside the ocean. Being just outside Minneapolis, Hazeltine National does not have an ocean handy, but its most famous hole, the 16th, runs for 396 yards alongside a large lake.
UPI Almanac for Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014