January 30, 2013

The Spirit of the Age

Looking back over a long enough period of time, you can see how golf course architecture in America followed the same general stylistic evolutions as building architecture, enjoying a golden age in the 1920s and then enduring an eat-your-vegetables modernism in the 1950s and 1960s. It's not at all clear that Mies van der Rohe and Robert Trent Jones saw much connection between each other's work in 1950, but today it's obvious that the spirit of the age -- streamlining, simplicity, sleekness, and so forth -- pervaded the skyscrapers and golf courses of the Postwar Era.

But it's hard to tell what's going on in your own time. For example, prestige golf course architecture in the 21st Century is devoted to achieving a look of Old Money WASP Higher Scruffiness that's hard to equate with much else going on in the arts today, outside of the design of some recent college dormitories. (Golfers pay a lot of college tuition bills, so that may not be coincidental.) Above is the 16th hole designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore at one of the first courses to debut in 2013, Streamsong-Red on an old phosphate strip mine in central Florida. 

Most golf course architects prefer to avoid discussing their style and instead talk about the functionality of their design (how it challenges the golfer, etc.). It could be that golf course architecture is evolving off in its own direction, divorced from the rest of the culture. Or, perhaps in a generation, we'll look at golf courses from the 2010s and be instantly reminded of, say, video games or hipster fashions or whatever from the 2010s because they all share common characteristics that will be glaringly obvious to people in 2043 even if they are baffling today.

A few months ago, I visited a half dozen of the newer golf courses in Palm Springs. It must be an uncomfortable time for golf course designers in Palm Springs because the current Mid-Atlantic steampunk (or whatever) look is so antithetical to the natural blank slate phoniness of Palm Springs. Southern California's low desert is a sprawling monument to post-War notions of design Modernism, now carefully tended to by a huge number of aging gay men formerly employed in Hollywood. It's about as far from the current aesthetic in golf design as is possible.
The most beautiful Palm Springs golf course was Desert Willow, a late 1990s design where Hurzdan and Fry went up into the mountains and brought down shrubs native to about 4,000 foot in elevation, then planted them alongside the fairways and watered the heck out of them to keep them alive in the low desert. (This is supposed to be "environmentalist.")

But, the most interesting development from an aesthetic standpoint was the newest, Escena, where Nicklaus, post-Crash, embraced the flatness and boringness of the desert in a tribute to Rat Pack-era modernism. (The steel and glass clubhouse appears to be a tribute to Frank Sinatra's house in Palm Springs.) I wouldn't be surprised that Nicklaus was originally intending to push around great piles of dirt, but then the developer suffered reverses in 2008, forcing a more modest, more old fashioned Modernist design philosophy.

50 comments:

Matias F. said...

Streamsong-Red looks like a Whole Foods organic golf course to me. The spirit of the age of spiritualism out of the material. "You are what you eat", means that you can be an authentic person by eating "authentic, natural" products. Playing on a golf course like this means that one can connect with nature and escape the alienation of modernity. The Boston Brahmins have adopted their scruffiness to be the high priests of this postmodern spirituality.

Modernism à la Mies van der Rohe tried to conquer nature, to make man master over it to discard the concept of alienation. Postmodernism has packaged authenticity and connecting with nature to consumer products.

Steve Sailer said...

I hadn't thought about it that way, but Matias F.'s comment makes sense about the Higher Scruffiness in 21st Century golf course architects like Crenshaw-Coore and Tom Doak. Thoreau would like how the course looks "natural" and Emerson would approve of the extensive enterprise that went into making it look "natural."

Anonymous said...

In order to be a hipster golf course maybe Streamsong-Red is meant to be played ironically? "I meant to make that shot but I didn't mean that shot, y'know?"

Anonymous said...

Are golf courses built in the 1970s deliberately ugly, hostile and counter-intuitive? That would match the buildings of the time.

The "eat your vegetables" style does seem to match Le Corbusier's rule that "the house is a machine for living in". "A machine upon which to golf" would be the equivalent.

Steve Sailer said...

1970s golf courses were really bad, although mostly it had to do with how bad the economy was, so the typical 1970s fairway had condos on either side closely by.

Steve Sailer said...

In general, golf course architects don't go for intentional ugly the way building architects often do in the thralls of theory.I can think of only 2 theory-driven golf courses and I believe both have been replowed into something more pleasing to the eye.

misty said...

i still prefer the mini golf parks harkening back to the Old Dutch masters.

FWG said...

Isn't Nicklaus more of a naturalist when it comes to design (for lack of a better word)? I'm interested in golf course design and used to live on a course in my youth, but I'm not educated on the intricacies of the trade.

pat said...

Life must be good as a blogger if you can noodle around so many golf courses.

In any case whenever I see a golf course I'm filled with a mounting dread. They remind me of the bleak future we face.

Golf courses, like the Yosmite valley are evidences of glaciation. Scotland was under ice only about 10,000 years ago. When the ice sheet receded there was this peculiar landscape that proved perfect for golf.

But the ice is coming back. The Global Warming theory predicts at most a few minor disruptions to society along with a number of argicultural benefits. But the Milankovich cycle theory predicts a mile of ice above Chicago. An ice age would kill at least a billion people - probably many more.

We are ten thousand years into a ten thousand year interglacial. Our time in the sun is just about up. But a hundred thousand years from now when the ice recedes again, we should have even more golf courses. That the optimistic way to look at it.

Albertosaurus

dearieme said...

I once played on a course that wasn't at the seaside. it seemed all wrong.

peterike said...

Seriously, don't we have more than enough golf courses already? Or is golfing like leasing a car: you always want to try the latest and greatest?

I would think given the ongoing collapse of the middle class that golf courses would be hurting. But then, given the extreme wealth concentration at the top, perhaps they just increase their fees massively to make more from a smaller cohort of super-wealthy patrons.

I don't see the new Mexican majority taking to golf much. But maybe all the prosperous Chinese immigrants will pick up the slack for the dying white middle class.

Who cares anyway. The best take on golf was from Furio on the Sopranos: "Stupida fucking game."

helene edwards said...

Streamsong is amazing indeed. From the website:

With its 419 Bermuda Grass fairways winding through...

Brazilian said...

Operation Timbuktu Freedom was successfull!!!

eh said...

The first criticism of 1960's Mies-style architecture I ever saw was Norman Mailer's rip job on the San Francisco Hilton. I think it appeared in Esquire. For those who never saw it (it's since been redone), it looked like a bunch of sugar cubes stacked upon one another. As right as he was, I never heard anyone in San Francisco complain about it, or mention the article. Maybe most people are immune to charmless architecture. Same thing now with the new De Young museum.

Anonymous said...

70´s architecture was ugly because labor cost were very high. So a lot of money couldn´t be spent on aesthetics. The Chrystler Building in the 30´s had extra money because white labor was still cheap. Same goes for Grand CEntral. The twin towers were simple because that was probably the peak of unionized, expensive, labor in america.

Hunsdon said...

Golf course architecture is one of those subjects which holds, on the whole, no appeal for me. You write interestingly enough on the subject, however, that it's . . . interesting. (Don't devote the next sixty or seventy posts to it, though, please!)

Jim O said...

What peterike said.

The obsession at increasing ones acumen at hitting a ball into 9 or 18 holes while doing so as infreqently as possible mystifies me.

Maybe, Steve, you could explore the reasons that this obsession exists, rather than bore (what I'll bet is)the majority of your readers/subscribers with posts about golf course archet . . .[yawn]. . . ecture.

Yeah, I get it that if you can make a nice living doing it, because others are willing to watch you do it, then why not? It beats real work. But if you're not that good, what's the point of playing. Exercise? Then why the golf cart?

And I also get it that bowling, pool, etc, are also puerile activities. But those pasttimes don't take up two and a half milion acres of American land that could be put to better use.

FWG said...

Steve could make a separate blog about golf course architecture and I'd be in Heaven. Oh, and one about Finland too.

Anonymous said...

Jews played chess. Wasps played golf. I think I know why Jews won.

helene edwards said...

land that could be put to better use

Did you miss the part about the former strip mine? What'd you have in mind anyway, condos for idiocrats?

Cail Corishev said...

I played golf quite a bit for a couple years, and then gave it up. I mostly played on local 9-hole courses, not the fancy showrooms Steve's talking about, so I don't know if it's quite the same game. But it was reasonably fun, in the same way any other sort of skill/physical challenge is fun. I never got any good -- 50 in 9 holes was probably my best score -- but every once in a while you really get a hold of one and it feels great, like pulling a fastball over the right field fence. Then you think maybe you're getting the hang of it, until you shank the next one 85 degrees off center into your own cart. So there's that psychological push-pull that you also get from a slot machine, where you make just enough good shots to keep you putting up with the bad ones and trying again.

But it is expensive, even on local rural courses, even if you don't take a cart. I don't care about the amount of land used -- only people who live in cities could think that's a problem (hint: the US government pays farmers to let 35 million acres of fertile land lie fallow) -- but I care about what it costs me to play. After a couple years I figured I wasn't going to get any better without getting serious about it and getting lessons, and it wasn't worth that, so I went back to pool, bridge, and other less expensive games.

So I mostly skim Steve's golf course posts just in case he ties in something else, but his other stuff more than makes up for them.

Anonymous said...

The great sand belt courses of Southern Australia - mostly designed in the early decades of the Twentieth Century under the influence of Dr Alister Mackenzie -were ahead of their time. All the new 'whole food organic' courses look like Royal Melbourne or Kingston Heath.

Gilbert P.

decades of sad experience said...

The idea of how later generations would regard the romantic and other artistic excesses of previous generations has been extensively covered in european literature (particularly Turgenev, Proust, and Dickens, in my experience). Bottom line - future generations are always grateful for anything that took art and detailed effort, no matter how misguided, but were not grateful for "big ideas" stretched across several mediums (minimalism, Napoleonically regimented, streamlined, etc.)
I have played on the same courses as Wodehouse might have played on (as a teenager on golden age Long Island) and on uber-banal municipal parking lots with grass. Little difference in enjoyment - Main difference is the weather, the trees, and the cloud cover, although the Wodehouse courses leave better memories. Hint - unless you have played your requisite several thousand hours, u don't keep score by how many times you swing the club. Just count your beautiful shots. 4 or 5 is a well-fought day. And if you are playing with a woman, make sure she knows that is how you are keeping score ...

Steve Sailer said...

"All the new 'whole food organic' courses look like Royal Melbourne or Kingston Heath."

Right, when I was in Palm Springs I dropped by Marriott's Shadow Ridge, where Nick Faldo pushed a lot of dirt around to make it look like Royal Melbourne. Nice course.

middle aged vet said...

Middle Island in Yaphank, Bellport Country Club, Oakdale Golf in Oakdale (also home of the Mariner's museum and, on Labor Day weekend, charity music festival Bradstock). For a Long Islander, a poem for the day.

Anonymous said...

It's Mies van der Rohe, not van den Rohe.

Anonymous said...

What was that course out on the north side of I-10 near Palm Springs? They stuck it out there and then realized it's in the middle of a wind tunnel.

Anonymous said...

If you want to understand the appeal of stick and ball sports, go to the driving range or the batting cage. For a couple of bucks you can get a taste of the most exhilarating aspect of these sports.
I don't ever see myself hitting the links again because the fees and the gear cost too much, but I just might pull an old driver and four iron out of the faded bag, head out to the range, and see what I have left.

Steve Sailer said...

"wind tunnel."

Desert Dunes -- It seemed like a good idea at the time because it's closer to L.A., but it's due east of the pass where all the windmills are.

Anonymous said...

Old-WASP style architecture...

I hope Steve will comment on the architecture of Robert A. M. Stern, the gay Jewish dean of architecture at Yale -- it's very very traditional, and rich people love it, and intellectuals hate it. Is it a Ralph Lauren-style appreciation?

Back in the midcentury-modern days, Yale was the home of Modernism and Brutalism, i.e. Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph. Now, gay Jewish Yale is the home of one of the leading old-WASP style architects. Who knew? Explain please.

If Steve were on the East Coast, perhaps he could write about the architecture of college crew boathouses. Apparently the women crew of USC train in the Port of Los Angeles... who knew?

Anonymous said...

"The Clicking of Cuthbert" - Wodehouse. I remember this as a good golf story, but it's been almost forty years.

Neil Templeton

Steve Sailer said...

I like Stern's office that he built into a barn.

Reminds me of perhaps the most Anglophilic (or maybe Hibernophilic) American ever, the New Yorker's golf writer Herbert Warren Wind, who cowrote books with Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus and was the leading golf architecture commentator of 1945-1975. His one non-golf book was about P.G. Wodehouse.

Wind who came from a Jewish suburb of Boston would be an interesting figure to use to study the topic of Jews and country clubs. There is much heat but little light available on the subject today. I found a statistical study from a half century ago that's pretty interesting. I'll have to write it up someday.

Anonymous said...

It was Mr. Wind's "The Complete Golfer" in which I read the Wodehouse story. I read the anthology cover to cover many times. I think it contained some of the finer sporting literature that I have read, but I have forgotten almost all of it.

Neil Templeton

Anonymous said...

Off Topic:

Congrats on Anne Coulter linking to a recent column of yours on her web page, Steve! About time!!

Auntie Analogue said...


Per acre, golf courses leech far more harmful fertilizers and other chemicals into the environment than does agribusiness farm acreage. And you can't eat what's grown on a golf course. But then you never hear golf course owners complaining about having to let course landscaping rot for want of migrant foreigner labor.

Anonymous said...

There are a goodly few Jack Nicklaus designed golf courses here in South Africa. I'm not sure if he did the design work/ landscaping etcetera himself, or just rubber-stamped the work of others and trousered the cheques for the endorsement.

Interestingly golf balls travel further in Johannesburg than in most places; because of the thin air - it's over 5,000 feet.

Someone once said that golf is the wilful misuse of a perfectly good rifle-range.

Nick South Africa

Anonymous said...

Steve,

I heard there's a golf course in Iowa that's so exclusive that nobody has ever played it. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have walked it but that's it.....

Dan in DC

Anonymous said...

FWG:

Nicklaus is all over the place as a designer. Muirfield Village is nice in the modern way but the edges have been filed down over the years and it is on a nice piece of land. Jack also did a ton of residential work over the years. Nicklaus also designed many courses that favored a high fade, which was his shot and p-oed this hooker.

But, look up Dismal River is Nebraska's sand hills. It is near the perfect Sand Hills by Coore n Crenshaw. Jack made it too hard to begin with but softened some of the edges. Really great course and I'm going to play in a tournament there this summer. Tom Doak is almost done with a second 18 out there so I can't wait to compare and contrast.

playing early tomorrow said...

golf courses leech far more harmful fertilizers and other chemicals into the environment...

In northern California, they let the geese fertilize the courses.

Anonymous said...

golf courses are temples of wastefulness, hence their appeal to the moddle and upper middle classes -- thorsten von veblin explained this quite well. asians will take to it for the same reason they go in to the professions .... lack of social skills go unnoticed in a well-regimented rule-based environment. this same lack of social skills and inability to socialize unselfconsciously bars them from corporate leadership. one can play golf with no social graces simply by following the rules to the nines. repetition helps in playing golf anyway, so the robotic studying never ends! in all cases, being expected to behave better for a short while is probably overall a good influence, even for the badly-behaved whites.

Derek Brown said...

The Brahmins weren't scruffy though. Henry Cabot lodge would have found out our ethnicity and black balled them in the next immigration quota if you called him scruffy. Google pics of HCL Jr. in Vietnam.

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiFSC3d_0oY

Hillbilly ingenuity with golf ball.

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Anonymous said...

OT, but Steve I thought you might be interested in this article about the "Hitler Invitational" golf tournament of 1936.