Friday 11 January 2013

A Brief History of North American Golf Course Design (Part 1)

Golf originated on the coastal dunes of Scotland, occupying land deemed too rugged and lacking the fertility necessary for agricultural production.  Mother Nature provided a stunning canvas for golf, and the early practitioners of the game found golf holes amidst the towering sand dunes.  Sheep and rabbits cropped the turf tightly in the dune valleys where they sought shelter from the strong winds whipping off the sea.  These strong winds quickly eroded breaks in the vegetation, exposing natural sandy wastes which were adopted as hazards and incorporated into the game.  Golf was an adventure, a battle against the elements.

Scottish migrants brought the game to North America, establishing in 1873, the first golf club at Royal Montreal.  The popularity of the game spread slowly with a small number of clubs forming in Canada and the eastern United States throughout the 1880's.  In 1896, the United States had 80 golf courses, however, by 1900 that number had grown to 982.  Golf courses were laid out by Scottish golf professionals who would spend the better part of a day staking out starting and ending points of holes and hazard arrangements before heading off to the next job, leaving construction to novices with little understanding of the game.  Thomas Bendelow exemplified this method, working for Spalding Bros. sporting goods, his job of laying out new golf courses was driven by the desire of his employer to sell golf clubs and balls to the burgeoning mass of golfers.  These courses were very rudimentary, featured odd geometric features with little or no attempt to integrate into the surrounding landscape, however, they provided a place for people to play and learn the game.  In turn, the Scottish professionals had people to teach and clubs to make.  Many golf courses built around the turn-of-the-century could be accurately described as penal and one-dimensional, whereby poor shots were punished and long and straight shots rewarded.  A few notable golf courses emerged from this period, and their enduring popularity is a testament to the hard work and inordinate amount of time spent in the design and construction phases of their evolution by their creators.  These include Myopia Hunt (Herbert Leeds), Ekwanok (Walter Travis), Oakmont (Henry Fownes), Garden City (Devereux Emmet & Walter Travis) and the landmark National Golf Links of America (Charles Blair MacDonald).

Golf course development has always waxed and waned with the health of the economy, and the late 1910's and 1920's have since been described as "the golden age of golf course architecture".  In 1923, the number of golf courses in the United States was 1,903.  Six years later, that number had exploded to 5,648.  Golf course architecture was no longer a hobby, but a true vocation.  Owing to the amount of work and limited means of transportation, golf architects could only devote sufficient time to a handful of projects and relied heavily on contour maps of project sites. The routing plans generated from said maps were sent to job sites with trusted construction foreman, employed to oversee the construction of their work and ensure satisfactory outcomes.  Golf course architects of the period were given ideal sites to ply their trade, and in turn, architects attempted to blend their work seamlessly into the existing landscape, taking advantage of the natural contours and features conducive to great golf.  This was the most economically feasible route as the means to move earth at the time was literally, horsepower, so proper site selection was paramount in ensuring an excellent finished product.

Jasper Park Lodge Golf Course is situated within a National Park of unparalleled beauty. (Photo: Bill Kearns)
The penal nature of early golf architecture gave way to strategic design.  This school of thought utilized diagonal hazards to let players decide how much challenge they could handle, and alternative (longer) routes for those wishing to avoid hazards altogether.
The 3rd at San Francisco Golf Club illustrates strategic design perfectly, with a bunker set on a diagonal to the line of play off the tee.  The greater the successful carry, the better the angle into the green.  Those opting to avoid risk and play left face a longer approach shot which requires a full carry over the greenside bunker set diagonally to the desired line of play. (Photo: Google Earth)
A healthy majority of golf courses populating the Top 100 lists of today date back to the "golden age", with a small sampling of the best examples being Pine Valley (George Crump), Cypress Point (Alister Mackenzie), Merion (Hugh Wilson), Seminole (Donald Ross), Riviera (George Thomas), Fishers Island (Seth Raynor), Jasper Park Lodge (Stanley Thompson) and San Francisco (A.W. Tillinghast).  The magnificent sites, architectural talent and inspiring and inclusive designs merged to form a harmony between golf and the landscape.  Golf course architecture reached its zenith, and it would be nearly 80 years before those heights of design would be reached again.

The "golden age" lasted until the collapse of the stock market and the Great Depression.  Golf course development dried up during the 1930's, and the few projects that were built were financed by deep-pocketed individuals and companies or as work-relief efforts by government.  Notable courses built during these downtimes include Augusta National (Bobby Jones & Alister Mackenzie), Capilano (Stanley Thompson), Prairie Dunes (Perry Maxwell), Bethpage Black (A.W. Tillinghast) and Shinnecock Hills (William Flynn & Howard Toomey).  As noteworthy as the lack of new construction in the 1930's was, the alterations made to existing "golden age" courses designed by the master architects were equally significant.  These renovation projects were instigated in an effort to lower annual maintenance costs and keep courses afloat as the industry suffered a substantial net loss of courses throughout the decade.

Capilano Golf & Country Club was built during the height of the Great Depression, financed in part by the heirs of the Guinness Brewing Company.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.