April 12, 2005

History of Golf Course Architecture

Tiger Woods wins The Masters: I wrote about the Augusta National Golf Club, the verdant venue for The Masters, in my 3,000 word article on golf course architecture as an art in the April 11th issue of The American Conservative (not online, but available on newsstands - or subscribe here). Here's an excerpt about the evolution of golf architecture styles, in which Augusta National played a key role:

In 1901, Willie Park Jr. unshackled golf from the linksland by forging the first excellent inland courses, Huntercombe and Sunningdale, outside of London. This opened the Golden Age of golf architecture (1901-1932).

The vast concentrations of wealth that existed before income and estate taxes could do their leveling work made possible daring, idiosyncratic designs. At the first great American golf course, Charles Blair MacDonald's National Golf Links of America in the Hamptons, robber-baron industrialists would dock their steam yachts next to his mind-bendingly intricate course, featuring holes modeled on the best of St. Andrews and other British links.

These decades combined flamboyant creativity with an appreciation of the sturdy principles behind the old Scottish courses, including a taste for quirkiness, irregularity, "fidelity to place," and random rubs of the green. This innovative era coincided with the similarly fertile period in American architecture that stretched from Louis Sullivan through Frank Lloyd Wright and the Arts and Crafts Movement to the Art Deco of the Chrysler Building. It was a period of legendary golf architects such as A.W. Tillinghast, William Flynn, and Donald Ross. There were also gifted amateurs such as Philadelphia hotel-owner George Crump, who lived for years in a wilderness cabin as his crews carved from the forest his stupendous Pine Valley, now usually rated the best course in the world.

A recurrent pattern in art history is that a style becomes progressively more complicated over time until a new, simpler manner sweeps the old clutter away, such as the pompous 1970s progressive rock of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer getting undermined by the three chord punk rock of The Ramones and the Sex Pistols, or over-decorated Victorian furniture giving way to Mies van der Rohe’s unadorned steel and leather Barcelona chair.

The transition golf course between the originality of the Golden Age and the rationality of the Modern Age was Augusta National, which opened in 1932. As the perpetual home of the Masters Tournament, the only major championship played on the same course each year, Augusta became the most influential course of the middle of the 20th century. Originally, a showcase for Alister MacKenzie's fertile Golden Age imagination, with boomerang-shaped greens and vast, sprawling bunkers, after the master's death in 1934, Augusta was slowly streamlined into the archetypal Modernist course with roundish greens and sand traps, threatening water hazards, and perfect greenskeeping. The most notable remodeler was Robert Trent Jones, who redesigned the 11th and 16th holes with his trademark lakes coming right up to the edge of the greens. Today, only one of MacKenzie's bunkers is left, the spectacular but curiously placed 70-yard long sand trap in the middle of the 10th fairway.

Following the long hiatus in course building caused by the Depression and World War II, Trent Jones rationalized and internationalized course design during the Modern Era (1948-1980). His approach was curiously similar to that of the Bauhaus architects, such as van der Rohe, who believed the phrase "form follows function" offered the only moral philosophy of design.

Prosperity was broad, but with income tax rates as high as 93 percent, wealth was too widely dispersed and bureaucratically managed to permit many rich men's follies like Pine Valley. Trent Jones' golf courses were big, sleek, straightforward, and efficient, just like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Lever House and the other flat-roofed steel and glass skyscrapers that sprouted across America during the age of the Organization Man.

Unfortunately, like the modernist office buildings, Jones' courses got a little … boring. Much of the appeal of golf courses is that they epitomize a particular landscape, offering focus and continuity of form to guide the eye and help you notice the local differences. Yet by building the same style everywhere, the Modern look made courses repetitious. Jones would put one set of bunkers alongside the fairway about 250 yards off the tee to capture wayward drives, and another set around the green to menace approach shots. A perfectly logical formula, but formula is the enemy of charm. In contrast, Golden Age architects distributed their traps more unpredictably to pester different classes of golfers.

A more subtle problem was that the hallmarks of modernist art—abstraction and reductionism—may not work well in golf course architecture. While a stroke of genius in sculpture is often to eliminate the unnecessary, complexity is currently seen as a general virtue in golf course architecture. The amount of value an architect adds to a site is often a simple equation of talent multiplied by time spent studying the land. MacDonald fiddled with The National for decades, and Donald Ross spent the Depression refining Pinehurst #2, where the U.S. Open will be held this June...

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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