“The Bulletin” in Bend, Ore., recently featured an article on Mimi Graves, wife of the late Robert Muir Graves, ASGCA and Society President in 1974-75. Her memories of Robert and ASGCA members past and present make for fun reading.
(Article appeared in the Dec. 15, 2012 edition of “The Bulletin” in Bend, Ore.)
Life in golf
• Mimi Graves, the wife of architect Robert Muir Graves, has seen plenty in the sport
By Zack Hall
Mimi Graves does not think like a typical golf fan.
“What kind of a golf course is that? Where is that design? Who did this one?” Graves finds herself asking about the manicured green canvases beamed through television screens each weekend in high-definition.
On a national pro golf telecast, the information Graves seeks is not always offered.
“They don’t say who the designer is, which is of course what I am interested in,” she continues with her welcoming voice.
Graves has a rare passion for golf — more specifically, for course design — a product of a life spent around the game.
You see, Graves is the 79-year-old widow of Robert Muir Graves, a golf course architect of considerable regional renown who died in 2003. For Central Oregon golf aficionados, that name should sound familiar: He was the chief designer of Black Butte Ranch’s Big Meadow course, River’s Edge and Widgi Creek in Bend, and The Greens at Redmond.
And his wife, who still lives in the couple’s ranch home between Bend and Sisters, was hardly a mere spectator.
In every way, Mimi Graves was a partner to her husband of more than 50 years. She ran his office and handled the business side of Graves’ design company.
“She was a part of it in one way or another for years and years,” says Katie Yoder, who, at 51, is the youngest of the Graves’ three daughters and lives in a separate residence on the same ranch as her mother. “That’s why I think they were successful, because they really were a team. So she had to know more than the average bear about the business.”
Graves’ lifestyle still includes occasional rounds of golf, gardening and tending to horses, activities that help her maintain her youthful appearance.
Graves’ silvery hair and warm, well-spoken voice suggest wisdom. And she occasionally slips the first names of legendary golf architects in a conversation as if they’ve been longtime family friends — which, in many cases, they have been.
She can share stories about Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Pete and Alice Dye. (Once, when Robert Graves’ golf clubs were stolen at an airport, Alice Dye lent him her clubs for a golf tournament.) She speaks glowingly of both Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
“I have been just so fortunate to know all these wonderful people,” Graves says.
Graves reveals that one famed architect (whose name I promised I would not reveal) frequently cheated during the golf tournaments at the annual meetings of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, an exclusive group of which Robert Muir Graves was a longtime member.
Graves recalls once hosting a dinner for Sam Snead and his family. The golf great — a well-chronicled gambler and joker — told stories with his Southern charm of his tavern back home in Virginia and squirrel hunting.
“Oh, what a character,” she says of Snead with a laugh.
Such encounters were hardly uncommon.
Yoder recalls that at as a grade-schooler she once accompanied her mom and Nicklaus’ wife, Barbara, during the final few holes of the 1967 Bing Crosby National Pro-Amateur at Pebble Beach.
Nicklaus and her dad were set to fly out together on business after the tournament. But before that, Yoder held Barbara’s hand as the two sent positive thoughts while rooting Nicklaus on to the win.
“I just remember how fun it was to walk around with her and do our little, sort of a prayer, sort of like positive thinking, thing,” Yoder says.
“To be totally honest with you, it didn’t seem that out of the ordinary,” adds Yoder. “It was just kind of this really neat experience. But I wasn’t star-struck or anything.”
Love of the game
After a few hours of speaking with Mimi Graves, one might swear she could build her own golf course.
She can explain the history of bunkers and the reasoning for a particular design or placement of one. She can see the shape of a hole and identify its architectural style. She can even explain an architect’s design philosophies.
“He worried that the golf courses would become too difficult,” Graves says of Alister MacKenzie, the pioneering designer of Augusta National and Cypress Point. “And look at some of the ones on the (PGA Tour). Those are just awful.”
The bookshelves of her home are filled with books written by golf’s elite, including her husband’s writings.
And she appears to have read them all, able to flip to passages to support a particular point in golf design.
“It is a little bit of a passion,” she says. “And I love being able to keep Bob’s (legacy) going.”
Robert Graves’ legacy includes the couples’ favorite golf courses — Sea Ranch Golf Links in California, Port Ludlow Resort in Washington, and Big Meadow. (Robert Graves’ ashes were spread on Black Butte, which stands high over his Big Meadow layout.) And by most accounts he was an equal to his better-known contemporaries.
“Robert Muir Graves was a figure of great stature within the business,” says David McLay Kidd, a Bend resident and himself a famed golf designer who once attended a design workshop presented by Robert Graves and fellow architect, Geoffrey Cornish.
“I have only spoken to Mimi a couple of times, but she was extremely gracious and kind saying that Bob had admired my work and followed my career,” Kidd adds. “I was flattered to say the least.”
Though she admits she was never especially good at playing golf, Mimi Graves did enjoy the sport, even before she met her future husband on a ski trip in 1952.
The couple, who had three daughters and later six grandchildren, had their own separate interests: Mimi loved horses, and Robert loved to fly planes. But the two shared golf — both professionally and recreationally — while traveling the world.
“He just loved to play,” Graves says. “He loved the game and he loved the philosophy of it and all the little intricacies.”
Once, on a trip to St. Andrews in Scotland, she sank a putt from the edge of the Old Course’s massive, undulating 18th green in front of a gallery of admiring Scotsmen.
“Bob couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “And all the people yelled, ‘The wee lady sunk the ball!’ And I thought that was the first time anybody ever called me ‘wee lady.’ And they’re all clapping.
“That was the premium golf experience of my life.”
Graves was introduced to Central Oregon in the late 1960s — first on a vacation with her sister, then when her husband was hired to design Big Meadow — and the couple moved from California to Central Oregon in 1992.
“This was his (Robert’s) favorite place,” Graves says.
Robert Graves’ last project was the renovation of Big Meadow, which was completed after he died of cancer in 2003 at age 72.
She clearly misses him, choking back tears at times when reminiscing. But Mimi Graves finds comfort in the golf courses he built.
Graves says her husband took pride in designing layouts that were fun for golfers of every level while having enough teeth to challenge highly skilled players.
In recent years, golfers who learn who her husband was tell Mimi that if it is a Robert Muir Graves-designed course, they want to play it.
“So there must be something about (those courses) that they are similar enough that (golfers) enjoy it,” Graves says.
The thought brings a smile to her face.
Her reaction is prompted by more than just pleasant memories.
Robert Graves had the expertise and artistry to build those courses. And Mimi has left her own mark on a game the couple so loved.