Back in the early 1980s, painter Linda Hartough of Okatie, South Carolina was flailing about in the art world for a place in which she could make her mark. "I was looking for a niche, looking to concentrate on one subject," she said. She painted landscapes -- there must be a billion other artists doing them -- and pictures of horses, portraits of people or their houses. "I did a variety of things and found that doing a variety of things wasn't getting my anywhere." Fate intervened in the form of a golf-pro-slash-merchandise-manager at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, who saw Hartough's landscape paintings at a gallery in Hilton Head, South Carolina in 1984 and commissioned her to create a painting of the 13th hole at the club, which would be turned into an edition of offset prints.
Those people with only a passing knowledge of the world of sports are probably aware that the Augusta National is where the Master's Tournament of Golf (one of the big four events in golf) is played every April, and those with more insider knowledge may identify the 13th hole as the course's most beautiful. It is the "Azalea Hole," known for the flowers that bloom during the week of the tournament. (Almost every golf course has what may be called its "signature hole," which is particularly challenging to golfers or visually stimulating.) Hartough's painting was a personal success -- she has been commissioned subsequently to paint that hole three other times by club members -- and it proved to be a career-maker, making golf courses her entire subject matter by 1987. She has painted golf courses in Scotland (where the sport supposedly began) and at the sites of the U.S. Open and British Open (two of the other big four), as well as at less renowned courses where golfers have commissioned her to paint favorite holes. Jack Nicklaus, the longtime dominant player on the tour, owns seven of her paintings.
There is a certain easy logic in moving from landscapes to paintings of golf courses but, on a practical level, it is not simply a matter or adding a new group of art collectors to the list or even trading one set of art buyers for another. The buyers of golf course paintings -- golfers or their spouses, in large measure -- are not necessarily collectors of artwork, although many of them have as much money as art collectors. "Golf is a wealthy person's sport in the U.S.," Hartough said. "It's for the upscale. I've picked a niche where the buyers have money; it wasn't a conscious decision to target wealthy people, but it just turned out that way."
Horse owners and those who are interested in riding and breeding might also be assumed affluent, but Hartough found that golfers are much better customers of artwork: "There are a lot more buyers of golf art. They show much more appreciation of the art and they have a lot more money."
The going price for her original paintings (24" x 42" is a customary size) is currently $53,000, while her reproductions sell for $225 unframed ($650 framed) for offset lithographs on paper (edition sizes run 850-950) and $650 unframed ($950 framed) for digital "giclee" prints (edition sizes 100-350), with higher prices for Artist Proofs in both categories. The edition sizes are larger for more popular scenes, such as the golf courses at St. Andrews in Scotland and Pebble Beach in Monterrey, California. Hartough works slowly, producing only three or four original paintings per year ("You can't make a living as a gallery artist if that's all you produce," she said) and is "booked a few years out" with commissions. Eating into her studio time is making frequent visits to check proofs at the printer (Lithochrome Co. in Columbus, Georgia), overseeing her gallery (The Linda Hartough Gallery on Hilton Head) that sells her prints and paintings on the retail level, attending the annual trade shows of the Professional Golfers Association and between two and four major golf tournaments per year, where she meets and sells works to individuals (retail) and gift and pro shop buyers (wholesale), and traveling to the golf courses she either chooses or is commissioned to paint.
Private golf clubs also do their own merchandising, negotiating deals with artists, commissioning a painting that will be turned into an edition of prints or using the image for commemorative plates or sweatshirts, to be sold to club members. The clubs pay for the costs of producing the print edition and other merchandise, and the profits from sales are split between the clubs and the artists. Earnings, of course, are likely to be greater at clubs with more members and less where clubs look to give their members a discount.
While at golf courses, Hartough does research, taking photographs -- those who commission her usually indicate which holes they want her to paint -- and talking with local pros, club members and others familiar with the course about what is the most memorable aspect of the particular hole. That may be the elevation of the green, the slope, pitch and roll of the fairway, a series of sand traps or the overall architecture of the particular hole (one of the people she has befriended over the years, and who also has purchased several of her paintings, is Rees Jones, the landscape architect who redesigned the U.S. Open golf course several years back) or a combination of these and other elements. Her aim is to see the golf course as a golfer might and not just as a picturesque setting, but the final image has to work as art, too. "Exactitude isn't paramount," Hartough said. "Some people overdo it in terms of being too literal, having too much detail in their pictures." On occasion, she has "moved a few things, adjusted the view, moved the hole." She likes to think of herself as an artist first, with as much right to redefine the landscape suit her purposes as Monet, and not just a transcriber of visual details. "I want to depict the feeling of being there." However, she noted, there is not too much artistic license permitted in this field, since "the whole idea is to make the course immediately recognizable."
There is a considerable amount of balancing in the entire sports art realm of art and commerce. Noble Powell III, a painter in Camarillo, California who has been painting golf courses for more than 20 years (they started out selling for $3,000 and now go for $25,000), stated that he also wants "the impression of fine art" to be evident in his work, yet his best buyers are the first to point out "'mistakes.' They scrutinize the piece and tell me, 'You know, that bush is four feet to the left,' and they are right," he said. The artistry in his work involves walking the course during the early morning or late afternoons to record the shadows from trees and the rolling fairways, which are less evident during the midday, working those shadows into his paintings, regardless of whether or not the golfers see them. "Golf courses are so horizontal. You need something to break the monotony." Part of his research is actually playing the course, which both helps his golf and sense of what makes a hole unique.
In part to establish paintings of golf courses as fine art, Hartough and several other artists founded the Academy of Golf Art (P.O. Drawer 6989, 71 Lighthouse Road, Hilton Head Islands, SC 29938, 843-363-5699, www.academyofgolfart.org), which conducts an annual juried show and otherwise promotes the field to artists and the general public.
Golf art is certainly a profitable niche, but it isn't a hole in which artists necessarily find themselves stuck. Tom Fort, a painter in McKinney, Texas who specializes in sports-related art, primarily golf course images but also sports hero subjects in various fields, noted that some golf art buyers have asked him to do portraits of their children; others have gone to his website and found more traditional landscapes they have bought. "The people who take the time to buy original art or fine art prints have the interest to buy art generally, and some do," he said. Grant Narelle, a painter in Virginia Beach, Virginia who also paints commissioned images of golf courses, noted that he has two separate websites -- one for golf, the other for his landscapes and marine images -- that link to each other. Through tracking, he has found that visitors to one website often migrate to the other.
To those unfamiliar with golf art, a picture might be assumed to be green below, blue on top, with a flag in the middle, but golf courses themselves are not just manicured greens and fairways, often containing natural areas of trees, grasses and wildflowers. The people who commission these paintings, and others who buy them (or prints made from them), appreciate these details and demand them in the art. Clubhouses sometimes make it into the paintings, as does an occasional golfer, but most golf art -- unless the focus is a sports hero, such as Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus -- is devoid of people, the focus being literally the lay of the land. "People change the focus of a painting," Hartough said. "All of a sudden, it becomes a narrative. With an empty course, people like to imagine themselves in it. For them, it's a perfect moment, a spiritual thing, like Nirvana."
Twenty-plus years into this field, she still finds the color green exciting and "challenging. You always have to mix your paint, with oranges and blues, because it doesn't come out of the tube just right, and you have to balance the color with the time of day." Unlike traditional landscape painting, which may be pursued throughout the year, golf courses are portrayed always on sunny, summer days, when the (color) greens are invariably intense and the skies blue. In order that painting the color blue not become a tedious chore, Hartough usually includes a cloud or two, adding that the skies in Scotland "are often very dramatic."