The game of golf has long been associated with art. The great masters of our game are famed for their touch and finesse, while the acclaimed architects have created golf courses that are described as works of art.
For Graeme Baxter that symbiotic relationship between the two is something altogether more literal.
The Scottish artist has crafted a stellar career over five decades, which has seen him travel the world painting the greatest golf courses and bearing witness to the game’s most celebrated moments. His work hangs in the clubhouses at St Andrews, Muirfield, Pebble Beach and Augusta, among others, and in the homes of the game’s great names.
“I feel like I’ve haven’t worked a day in my life,” Graeme tells The Wandering Golfers. “I have had the great privilege of being able to combine two of Scotland’s – and my own – great passions in golf and art.”
And yet despite his success, this was not a career Graeme foresaw for himself. “I never thought for a second I’d ever sell a painting. I’ve done what I do because I love doing it, not because I thought I’d make money from it.”
Art came first for Graeme. He studied at the celebrated Glasgow School of Art before working as a fine art dealer for a decade. Having grown up in Bishopbriggs in Glasgow, his golf education came as his father’s caddie on the fairways of beautiful Cawder. But it wasn’t until a trip to The Home of Golf that these two passions became one.
“I was up to visit my sister, who was a music teacher at St Leonards School in St Andrews. I just remember having this urge to paint The Old Course and telling my Dad that was what I was going to do. ‘What do you mean you are going to paint St Andrews?’, I remember him saying. I’m not sure exactly what I had in mind but I went out and painted the town, with the 17th, the Road hole, and the Royal & Ancient and Hamilton Hall in the distance. Given that I didn’t know what I was doing, in turned out really well.”
Graeme’s father then took the painting to his friend Michael Bonallack, then secretary of the R&A. “Michael really loved it and so we thought ‘why don’t we get some prints done?’ In 1986 no-one was buying prints of golf courses. But a friend of mine at a gallery in Glasgow agreed to take two of them and put one in the window. They sold within a week and she called back asking for more.”
Within a year, Graeme was painting Turnberry and then Muirfield for the 1987 Open Championship – a painting which still hangs in the clubhouse today. “Muirfield, was a real honour,” Graeme says. “To be able to sell my work to one of the great clubs of the world. Suddenly what we were doing had a momentum of its own. There was no market for golf prints at that point. Of course, there had been artists in the past who had produced original works and portraits and stuff but there was never anything quite like what I did.”
How do you follow St Andrews, Turnberry and Muirfield as your first three golf course paintings? “With Gleneagles,” Graeme says with a broad smile. “Gleneagles was next. I was a member there for 25 years. When I left Scotland, I was a member at Gleneagles, Loch Lomond, St Andrews and Royal Perth – the oldest Royal golf society in the world. I’m still a member of St Andrews and Royal Perth but after my wife and I had been in America for three years she said to me ‘are you still a member at Gleneagles?’ And I said ‘yeah, yeah, I’m still a member.’ And then she said, ‘have you played at Gleneagles in the past three years?’ And I went ‘Er … no.’ And that was that. Loch Lomond was another, I used to play there with my great pal Gavin Hastings.
“For my 60th birthday present Gavin took me to Augusta National. We both have the same handicap – 3 – but he’s a better golfer than me. I can’t hit the ball as far as him when he is playing well. We played against two other guys and on the front 9 I was 5 over par, despite birding 8. And we were getting thrashed. But on the back 9 I went par on 10, birdie 11, I bogeyed 12 and made a par on 13 – so I went around Amen corner in level par and finished the back 9, one over.”
For more than 25 years Graeme was the official artist for The Open Championship and The Ryder Cup. “My first Ryder Cup was in 1989 – Christy O’Connor and that famous 2-iron into the 18th to beat Fred Couples. My original painting of that moment was auctioned in Dublin. I was there and it was bought by the singer Chris De Burgh. He then came up on the stage and said ‘there’s only one person who can have this painting and that’s Christy O’Connor. And so Christy came up on the stage and he was in tears – it was an incredible experience.”
Graeme’s work has regularly brought him into the orbit of great players – the big three of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, stand out. “I first met Arnold at The Open at Royal Lytham in 1988. He came to our booth and wanted to buy my painting. My Dad said, ‘sure, no problem – you can reserve it and we will put in aside for you’. Arnold said he would come back the next day and my father said, ‘If you don’t reserve it, we might sell it.’ Palmer laughed and off he went. He came back the next day and Dad had sold it! The next year he came back with a smile on his face and patted us on the back.
“That was it then. He’d come back each year, sign prints for customers. That led to me doing a painting of Bay Hill for the 35th anniversary of his tournament. We did the unveiling together, Arnold put his arm around me as we walked up on stage. It was the kind of moment you wished your Mum had been there to see.
“I have done a lot with Gary Player too – he is something else. And Jack is also someone I have great respect for. We’ve done four unveilings together. The most memorable was at the centenary of Dallas Athletic Club. I get on great with his wife Barbara and talk to her when everyone is buzzing around Jack. On that day we were there to unveil this paining to mark 100 years of a course Jack designed. I was there passing Jack prints and he was signing them for members.
“It was so quiet. So, to break the tension I say ‘Jack, tell me how you designed this course 100 years ago?” I could see the board members all looking at me thinking ‘what did he just say?’ Jack doesn’t say a word, he just carries on signing. And then he stops, turns his head to me and says with a smile ‘I was designing this course when I was in the womb.’ The whole room just cracked up.”
Raymond Floyd, Ben Crenshaw, Padraig Harrington, Steve Elkington, Paula Creamer and David Leadbetter are all collectors of his work. Three of his paintings were bought by Sheikh Mohammed, the Supreme Ruler of Dubai. Graeme has painted 54 of the top 100 golf courses in the world and has just been commissioned to do No 55. But which courses stand out?
“My favourite course to paint? I love Pebble Beach, but I love Old Head in Ireland even more – it’s probably the most stunning setting I have ever seen for a golf course. My favourite hole was the 12th, a par 5. When I did the painting, there was a boat out in the bay going around. I thought ‘I am going to follow this guy’ – he was picking up the lobster pots in the bay at the 12th. Now I’ll only paint what is really there. Accuracy is really important to me. And so, he went into the painting. Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath in Australia are wonderful. Jagorawi in Indonesia one of the most dramatic courses I ever seen. In terms of modern course designers? I’m a huge fan of the work Coore Crenshaw do. They use the natural terrain, for me that is what it is all about. The more natural a golf course can be, the better. A sense of history, is really important to me too.”
Putting his work into context is a challenge for Graeme but a recent conversation with a member of the Royal & Ancient helped to put his career into some perspective. “He said to me ‘do you know what you have been doing all these years, Graeme?’ I said ‘yes, of course I know – I’ve been paining these beautiful golf courses all over the world.’ And he replied. ‘No, you have been recording golf history.’ And that was a real Eureka moment for me. I’m leaving a wee piece of history behind. Things will change, bunkers will move, trees will come down but my work is a record of the way things were. My paintings are a piece of history for the club. So, when I bugger off somewhere, I’ve been able to leave a mark on the game of golf and that is a huge honour.”
To view Graeme’s work visit https://graemebaxter.com/products