Thursday 31 January 2013

A Brief History of North American Golf Course Design (Part 2)

So goes the economy, and so goes the business of golf.  The Great Depression of the 1930's left many out of work, and demand for golf waned as people were preoccupied with satisfying the basic necessities of life, much less trivial matters such as golf.  The Second World War dominated the first half of the 1940's and while many of those previously unemployed were put back to work, available resources were directed towards the war effort and the golf industry remained relatively quiet for the remainder of the decade.  The only real notable design of the 1940's was Peachtree Golf Club, a collaborative effort between the great Bobby Jones and emerging architect Robert Trent Jones.  Immediately after the war, golf architects enjoyed a heavy workload, although it was mostly found on the renovation side of the business.  During the war, many courses stopped maintaining their grounds, demanding much effort of their superintendents to recondition the course prior to re-opening.  Many golf clubs hired architects to remodel their course during this phase to minimize further disruption to the membership once the golf course re-opened.  Augusta National hired Robert Trent Jones to make significant alterations to their course in 1946, setting a unsettling trend that continues to the modern age. 

A great number of the 'Golden Age' golf architects passed away in the 1950's, leaving a gaping hole which was filled by Robert Trent Jones who quickly established himself and became a "brand" of golf architecture.  The decade saw the greater use of heavy earth-moving machinery, enabling architects to build golf courses, rather than simply find and shape them by hand.  Wall-to-wall irrigation and riding mowers also contributed to changes in the design, playability and presentation of new golf courses.  Golf courses of this era embodied Robert Trent Jones' famous aphorism "hard par, easy bogey" by typically playing much longer than their predecessors, featuring long runway tees and big greens that were tightly defended, allowing the golf course to be set-up quite differently from day-to-day.  The unrelenting challenge imposed by many of these courses may be a reason they are not so highly regarded today.  Further, the growing demand for 7,000 yard par 72 championship layouts may have created a sameness to the courses produced during this era.

The 1960's and 1970's continue along the trend set by Robert Trent Jones.  The rapid growth in destination golf resort development and planned golf communities kept architects very busy, perhaps too busy, as this is not a period marked by great golf courses.  Resort courses - perhaps a little too "watered-down" to appeal to a wider audience - have failed to elicit the praise of golf course architecture critics.  The golf/housing combination has not produced its share of strong courses, owing to the fact that the prime motive of most operations was to maximize residential lot values by lining golf holes in a constraining manner and resigning the golf to the poorer portions of the overall development.  New environmental regulations were also enacted during this time, and that added a layer of limitations that eliminated many great potential golf properties, but would in time, force architects to be more creative.  The latter half of the 1960's saw the emergence of Pete Dye, whose design at Harbour Town went in the complete opposite direction to the philosophy of Robert Trent Jones.  Shorter courses, small greens and long hazards set diagonally to the line of play helped differentiate Dye from his competitors - who routinely flanked both sides of the fairway with hazards - and ensured he would lead the new era of golf design.  The Harbour Town job was completed in consultation with Jack Nicklaus, and ushered in the role of professional golfer/architect into the field.  The most notable golf courses built during these decades include Pine Tree (Dick Wilson), Muirfield Village (Jack Nicklaus), Harbour Town (Pete Dye) and The Golf Club (Pete Dye).

The 1980's were dominated by the designs of Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio.  The most iconic golf course of the decade is Pete Dye's Players Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass, replete with spectator mounding, massive earthworks, and the infamous island green.  The site of the golf course was previously Florida swampland.  Golf course shapers and architects were mastering theirs crafts and building golf courses virtually anywhere, hence the modern era is often thought of in conjunction with excess.  Jack Nicklaus was followed by many other active or retired PGA professionals like Arnold Palmer and Tom Weiskopf into the world of golf course architecture, where clients knowingly took advantage of their brand name recognition to attract members or home owners to their developments.  The level of participation in the design process varies widely amongst PGA professionals, but all have a group of talented golf architects working for them to tend to the day-to-day work of design, drawing, tendering and construction supervision.  Many criticize this period as "appearance over substance", as aesthetics often trumped the strategic merit of the golf holes.  This is a criticism frequently lobbed at Tom Fazio by those that consider themselves architecturally astute.  In the latter part of the decade, Fazio was the architect of choice, creating some of the most beautiful golf landscapes to be found. Sometime during this decade the notion that each and every hole had to "wow" the golfer took hold, leading to the above criticism and to a rapid increase in the cost to construct and maintain golf courses.  The most noteworthy golf courses built during this decade include TPC Sawgrass (Pete Dye) and The Honors Course (Pete Dye).

While the early part of the 1990's continued in much the same vein as the previous decade, a few architects were diverging from that standard.  The "Naturalist School" sought to imitate nature and conceal the hand of the architect.  The philosophy behind this new school of thought was to take what a site had to offer, limit earthworks and bring out the sense of place that each and every site possesses.  Bunkers took on a more rugged appearance, bleeding into the surrounding landscape, tees were lower profile, greens met fairways at grade and to the greatest extent possible, the land was left untouched providing for a vintage feel on opening day.  Of course, the best examples of this style of design have been executed on some of the very best sites opened up to golf course development in the last half-century.  A great site being a pre-requisite for great golf.  This design philosophy merged with new maintenance practices and better turf grasses to create a new ideal of firm and fast conditions.  The "naturalist" school is the antithesis of the modern age, and represents a more economically and environmentally sustainable path to successful golf course development.  Sand Hills Golf Club (Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw) ushered in this new style, and perfectly embodies the philosophy of the "naturalist school".  Some of the best examples of golf architecture during this decade include The Ocean course at Kiawah Island (Pete Dye), Sand Hills (Coore & Crenshaw) and Bandon Dunes (David McLay Kidd).

The golf courses produced by the kings of the modern age have tended to shift towards the naturalist school in the 21st century.  The naturalists tend to eschew the modern technology that enable plans to be reproduced in the field with great precision and are more prone to spend countless hours in the field, often shaping the course themselves by hand or by bulldozer.  Even a few years before the economic collapse of 2008, the golf industry experienced a net loss of courses that has continued unabated to the present day.  The overbuilding of the 1980's and 1990's and the attempts to constantly one-up the competition created an unsustainable environment for golf courses to prosper.  The work being produced by the naturalists, most notably Gil Hanse, Tom Doak and the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are providing a viable alternative to the recklessness nature of golf development in the past.  Less is more.  Fun before challenge.  Embracing quirk instead of standardization.  The most highly regarded work of this young century include Kingsley Club (Mike DeVries), Pacific Dunes (Tom Doak) and Friar's Head (Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw).

Where is golf course architecture heading in the future?  With the environment being the most important challenge facing humanity, golf architects will play a pivotal role alongside golf course superintendent, golf course shapers, irrigation specialists and agronomists in producing golf courses that enhance the environment and are, at worst, carbon-neutral during the span of their existence. 

1 comment:

  1. Golf is an interesting game that has created its own niche in the world of competitive sports.

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