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. 

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.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Year in Review - 2012

With only a few hours remaining before 2012 comes to an end, I want to take a little time to reflect upon the past year in my golfing adventures.

On the work front, Grant Golf started the year with high expectations, propelled by the design and completion of a short-game practice facility at Breezy Bend Country Club.  As a past member of the club, I was acutely aware of the need for such facilities, and hope the current membership enjoy not only the short-game area, but the enhanced practice range tee which needed to be completely renovated to accommodate the new work.  

Over the previous winter, Grant Golf had spent many hours helping three new clients trying to get projects off the ground, and we were cautiously optimistic something may start in 2012.  Unfortunately, nothing did.  With financing much harder to secure, two of the three projects are currently in search of investors.  I'll admit to being very disappointed that one of these projects did not actively start this year, as it is situated on a truly wonderful property, with the potential to yield a course of exceptional quality that would be sure to be plastered over the pages of golf magazines throughout Canada.  It is a real opportunity for Grant Golf to expand from a strong regional firm to a national competitor.  There has been some progress in recent months, so I'm crossing my fingers that it comes to fruition in 2013.

It does look promising that work will begin in the latter half of 2013 on a 9-hole expansion to the Lorette Golf Course.  The project is currently in the permitting phase and will be done in conjunction with a residential housing development.  With the severe slow-down in golf development since the economic crash of 2008, new construction work is hard to come by, and we are eagerly awaiting the go-ahead to build some exciting new golf holes.  

On the golfing front, I had a very good year in 2012, which is one of the few benefits to a more lax working schedule!  My game was extremely steady this year, finishing on a handicap of 2.  In the spring, I helped my home club, Glendale G & CC secure a playoff spot in the Mundie Putter League (a competitive 16 team league featuring the top amateurs in the province playing interclub matches).

In late June I ventured out to the Dismal River Club in Mullen, Nebraska to take part in the 5th Major, a 60-man tournament organized by fellow Golf Club Atlas member Eric Smith from Tennessee.  Partnered with fellow Canuck Matt Bosela of the St. Catherines CC, we managed to win our flight, and take home 2nd place after a 4-hole elimination playoff (losing to a net eagle).  It was an epic trip - great golf, great course, great people, great food and great hospitality.  A special thanks to Chris Johnston and his staff for making us feel at home, and Dismal Club members Eric Smith, Mac Plumart, John Kavanaugh and Ron Hendren for hosting us.
(Photo: Eric Smith)

The entire 60-man field.  A great group of guys who love their architecture. (Photo: Eric Smith)

Action shot of yours truly on No. 7, hole #2 of the elimination playoff. (Photo: Eric Smith)

Needing only a 5 to move on, I played my chip off the side-board left of the green to ensure I didn't run off the false-front and risk disaster. (Photo: Eric Smith)

Needed to hole-out to combat a net eagle by eventual champs Brent Carlson & Greg Kreuger. (Photo: Eric Smith)

The bitter taste of defeat!! (My partner Matt Bosela in lime green) (Photo: Eric Smith)

A guided tour of the second course (part way through construction and grow-in at time of visit) at Dismal River by architect Tom Doak.  A great education for fellow golf architects and enthusiasts alike. (Photo: Matt Bosela)
After the 5th major was done, I headed down the road to Sand Hills Golf Club, arguably the best course built anywhere in the world since the 1930's.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I hope comes my way again before my golfing days are done.  Hard to find a more sublime golf experience than walking 36-holes on a world-class course relatively free of golfers with no hint of the modern world save for Ben's Porch overlooking the course at the turn.  Stay tuned to the blog for a detailed pictorial review of both Dismal River and Sand Hills.

Golf anyone? The first tee at Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Nebraska.

Only four days after arriving home from Nebraska, I not only competed in, but managed to win our 54-hole club championship for the first time in my life.  I've had multiple runner-up finished at two different clubs, so this win will certainly be cherished.  Hopefully having one title under my belt will help settle the butterflies on the first tee next year.  The season was capped off with a successful late season defence of our 2011 Glendale Mens Doubles match play victory with my brother-in-law Kelly Morris, giving us three wins in the previous four years.

A congratulatory handshake from our CPGA professional Andrew Steep.
The final highlight of the season was tying a personal best score of 67 while playing Kildonan Park Golf Course for the very first time.  And while the 5,500 yard course is not a stern test, I was really seeking a low round to boost my confidence.  Unfortunately, the mental side of the game managed to put a damper on an otherwise pleasant afternoon as I hooked a 6-iron out-of-bounds on the last knowing very well a par or bogey would have given me a personal best round of 65 or 66.  Notice how I didn't have the confidence to think birdie for 64!!  

The game of golf never ceases to excite me, and I look forward to getting out to some new golf courses in the upcoming year and enjoying each and every round.  Like my father before me, I am confident that 2013 will be the year that I can more fully introduce this great game to my two beautiful children, Mila & Oliver.