Golf course architecture is one of the world’s most expansive but least recognized art forms. Yet this curiously obscure profession can help shed light on mainstream art, sociology, and even human nature itself, since the golf designer, more than any other artist, tries to reproduce the primeval human vision of an earthly paradise.
Yet even this most unfashionable of arts was swept in the middle of the last century by the same Bauhaus-derived tastes that made post-WWII modernist buildings so tedious. Only recently has golf course architecture begun to revive the styles and values of its golden age in the 1920s.
Hidden in plain sight, golf courses are among the few works of art readily visible from airliners. (A golf architecture aficionado can often identify a course’s designer from 35,000 feet.) Assuming an average of a quarter square mile apiece, America’s 15,000 golf courses cover almost as much land as Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Golf architecture philosophy isn’t terribly elaborate compared to the thickets of theory that entangle most museum arts, but one thing all golf designers assert is that their courses look “natural.” Growing up in arid Southern California, however, where the indigenous landscape is impenetrable hillsides of gray-brown sagebrush, I never quite understood what was so natural about fairways of verdant, closely-mown grass, but I loved them all the same.
Research since the early 80s shows that humans tend to have two favorite landscapes. One is wherever they lived during their adolescence, but the nearly universal favorite among children before they imprint upon their local look is grassy parkland, and that fondness survives into adulthood.
Richard Conniff wrote in Discover: “In separate surveys, Ulrich, Orians, and others have found that people respondstrongly to landscapes with open, grassy vegetation, scattered stands of branchy trees, water, changes in elevation, winding trails, and brightly lit clearings…” In one amusing study, 1001 people from 15 different countries were surveyed about what they’d like to see in a painting. Then the sponsors of the research, conceptual art pranksters Komar and Melamid, painted each country’s “Most Wanted Painting.” Even though the researchers hadn’t mentioned what type of picture it should be, the consensus in 13 of the 15 cultures favored landscapes and 11 of the 15 looked surprisingly like golf courses. All over the world, people want to see grassland, a lake, and some trees, but not a solid forest. And they always want to see it slightly from above. The project was intended to satirize popular taste, but it ended up revealing much about about human desires. Above is Komar and Melamid’s rendition of America’s Most Wanted Painting and here’s a par 3 from the Coeur d’Alene golf course in Idaho that is similar in outline but aesthetically superior in execution.
The current theory for why golf courses are so attractive to millions (mostly men), perhaps first put forward in John Strawn’s book Driving the Green: The Making of a Golf Course, is that they look like happy hunting grounds—a Disney-version of the primordial East African grasslands. Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, author of the landmark 1975 book Sociobiology, once told me, “I believe that the reason that people find well-landscaped golf courses ‘beautiful’ is that they look like savannas, down to the scattered trees, copses, and lakes, and most especially if they have vistas of the sea.”
Tasty hoofed animals would graze on the savanna’s grass, while the nearby woods could provide shade and cover for hunters. Our ancestors would study the direction of the wind and the slopes of the land in order to approach their prey from the best angles. Any resemblance to a rolling golf fairway running between trees is not coincidental.
In 1975, geographer Jay Appleton advanced the similar theory that what people like is a combination of a sense of “refuge,” such as the ability to hide in the woods, and of “prospect” across open country. Both theories make the prediction that human beings, especially males, will spend enormous amounts of money to fashion golf courses.
Generally, men (the hunters) tend to prefer sweeping vistas, while women (the gatherers) prefer enclosed verdant refuges. Perhaps it’s no accident that a longtime favorite book among little girls is called “The Secret Garden.” Similarly, women make up a sizable majority of gardeners while men often obsess over lawn care.
To create these pleasure grounds, top golf architects typically spend over $10 million per course, and because designers oversee the creation of multiple layouts simultaneously, a “signature” architect like Tom Fazio will end his career with his name on a few billion dollars worth of golf courses.
Famous works of “environmental art,” such as Robert Smithson’s monumental earthwork “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake, are dwarfed by golf courses in extent and thought required.
Among fine artists, only Christo works on a comparable scale, and his projects, such as his recent “Gates” in Central Park, are more repetitious.Nonetheless, Christo’s “Gates,” which re-emphasized the original landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead’s lovely serpentine pathways, and his 1976 “Running Fence” snaking through the undulating grasslands of Marin County, offer some of the same visual pleasures of following alluring trails as golf architects provide.
The great majority of golfers long thought of courses mostly in terms of length or difficulty rather than of artistry. Even though the taste of golfers has improved in recent decades, many still judge a course more by the manicuring of its grass than by its design. Moreover, in the U.S., relatively few women are interested in golf before menopause, although the game is fairly fashionable among young women in East Asia and Scandinavia.
In recent decades, however, the golf world has come down with a severe case of connoisseurship, publishing hundreds of coffee-table books and calendars, making cult figures of long-forgotten early 20th Century architects like A.W. Tillinghast and Charles Blair MacDonaldand brand names out of living designers like Pete Dye and Tom Doak.
Many today truly love good golf design, but until very recently, too few hated poor design enough to name names. Golfers tended to feel that any golf course is nice, so it would be churlish to gripe. It was not until the early Nineties that writing about architecture began to mature when Doak, a young architect, circulated a photocopied samizdat manuscript called the Confidential Guide to Golf Courses that lambasted sacred cows.
Today, the gathering ground for architecture aficionados is the web discussion board www.GolfClubAtlas.com, where it’s common to find, say, 70 messages denouncing the vulgarity of Fazio’s redesign of the 7th fairway’s bunker on George C. Thomas’s classic 1927 Riviera course, where Los Angeles’ Nissan Open is played.
This frenzy of art worship among a minority of golfers has gone almost wholly unrecognized in the establishment art world, which otherwise has been so quick to discern artistry in such unlikely forms as graffiti and toilet brushes. Top museums do not stage retrospectives on the Trent Jones family or stock golf course photo books in their gift shops.
The art community would benefit from exposure to golf architecture simply because the best courses, such as Alister MacKenzie‘s Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula, are things of astonishing beauty, comparable in craftsmanship, complexity, and deceptiveness to the finest efforts of 18th-century English landscape artists such as Capability Brown, creator of the majestic grounds for Blenheim Palace.
The first problem limiting the acceptance of golf design as art is that to nongolfers a course can seem as meaningless as a Concerto for Dog Whistle. That a golf course allows people to interact with interesting landscapes without killing wild animals makes sense in the abstract, but not until you’ve driven a ball over a gaping canyon and onto the smooth safety of the green will the golf course obsession make much sense.
The distinction Edmund Burke made in 1757 between the “sublime” and the “beautiful” applies to golf courses. The beautiful is some pleasing place conducive to human habitat — meadows, valleys, slow moving streams, grassland intermingled with copses of trees, the whole English country estate shtick. The sublime is nature so magnificent that it induces the feeling of terror because it could kill you, such as by you falling off a mountain or into a gorge.
Beautiful landscapes are most suited for building golf courses, since a golf course needs at least 100 acres of land level enough for a golf ball to come to rest upon. But golfers get a thrill out of the mock sublime, where you are in danger of losing not your life, but your mis-hit golf ball into a water hazard or ravine. One reason that Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula is so legendary is because it combines sublime sea cliffs with beautiful (and thus functional for golf) rolling plains (My father, though, almost walked off the cliff in the middle of the eighth fairway at Pebble Beach and into the wave-carved chasm, which probably would have satisfied Burke’s theoretical rigor.)
Sociology also separates the worlds of art and golf. Conventional artists are urban, golf architects suburban. The art community delights in the venerable game of Shock the Bourgeoisie, while golf courses are too bourgeois to be hip, too elegant to be camp.
Many of the creators, critics, and collectors who have so enriched the arts are male homosexuals, while golf, for whatever reason, has almost no appeal to gay male sensibilities. (On the other hand, the Ladies Professional Golf Association’s Nabisco Championship in Palm Springs has become one of the largest annual lesbian get-togethers in the United States, but, as Camille Paglia has noted, lesbians tend not to be as interested in the visual arts as gay men are, and, indeed, are often resentful of the prestige of Dead White European Male artists.)
At a time when art institutions are fixated on celebrating demographic diversity, the golf architecture business remains white (even the golf-mad Japanese frequently import English-speaking designers), male (the woman with the largest influence on architecture has been Pete Dye’s wife Alice), and intensely nepotistic (most prominent names in the business today are either champion golfers, such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Ben Crenshaw, or the male kin of architects, such as the two sons of Robert Trent Jones, the dominant architect of the postwar modernist era, Rees and RTJ II.). Further, many of the classic courses are owned by exclusive clubs accused of racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism.
Golf architecture might have been the great WASP art form of the 20th century—indeed, it’s arguable that the decline of the WASP ascendancy stemmed in part from too much time spent on the golf course. The overwhelming majority of prominent architects have been of British, especially Scottish, descent. Fazio is one of the very few golf architects whose name ends in a vowel. Amusingly, Fazio’s detractors often discuss his lovely but not all that strategically interesting courses using much the same terminology as a 19th Century Scotsman might have employed to dismiss an Italian artist: flashy but not fundamentally sound.
Two major novelists, P.G. Wodehouse and John Updike, have written about golf at length, and the golf sportswriter Bernard Darwin was a prose stylist of comparable distinction. But golf doesn’t attract as many literary intellectuals as baseball does. Golfers tend to overlap with football fans—prototypically, businessmen with a talent for getting things done but not terribly reflective.
Golf architecture’s acceptance has been held back by a lack of persuasive historical accounts that could make sense of its profusion of styles. And the mutability of courses constantly trips up the acolyte. For example, Augusta National has been revised by 14 different architects, none as talented as MacKenzie, the original designer. Only in the last decade have aficionados begun to pull together comprehensive histories of the evolution of individual courses.
Besides, the unpredictable interplay between the architect and the peculiarities of the land can mock theories of stylistic evolution. For example, Trent Jones’ savage New Course at Ballybunion, Ireland, with its tiny greens clinging to shaggy 100-foot tall sand dunes, looks nothing like his standard American course, such as mellow Firestone South in the gentle parkland outside Akron. Throughout the history of golf architecture, the genius of a special piece of land has shaped the architect as much as any genius of an architect has shaped the land.
Building courses can be extraordinarily expensive. Back in 1989, Fazio and casino owner Steve Wynn spent about $40 million dollars on Shadow Creek. In the barren desert outside of Las Vegas, Fazio dug a half-square mile hole 60-feet deep. He then converted its interior into an apotheosis of the North Carolina Sand Hills by building giant undulations, installing creeks and lakes, and planting 21,000 pine trees. Golf is undergoing a recession, so the price of a four-hour round at Shadow Creek was recently lowered from $1,000 to $500.
On the other hand, St. Andrews’ Old Course, the “home of golf” in Scotland, cost almost nothing since it mostly wasn’t designed. Instead, it evolved during golf architecture’s Folk Era out of the sheep-shorn, grass-covered sand dunes, or “linksland,” through which sailors would stroll from the town to the shore, striking stones with sticks as they went. Over the centuries, favorite corridors, or fairways, emerged. In the low spots where rocks, and later balls, were most likely to wind up, repeated swings tore through the grass and exposed the underlying sand, which is why the placement of St. Andrews’ bunkers are so frustrating that the links remains enough of a test to host this July’s British Open.
In the subsequent Craftsman Era of golf course design—beginning around the revolutionary year of 1848 with the building of the famous 17th green at St. Andrews—golf pros like Allan Robertson and Old Tom Morris would construct greens or bunkers only after trying to find natural golf holes already latent amidst the dunes.
Despite their seaside locations, many Scottish courses aren’t instantly scenically appealing, often being more of an acquired taste as one’s understanding of golf strategy matures. The thrifty Scots made golf courses out of sandy, crumpled land of little value for farming. Lacking rich enough soil to grow trees, they are more open to the wind, which adds to the complexity of the game, but they don’t furnish the natural pleasure of providing both forest and grassland together that the standard inland American course does. When the American hillbilly champion Sam Snead first sighted the Old Course in 1946, he supposedly scoffed, “Down home, we plant cow beets on land like that.”
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 (roughly 1901-1934).
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 Tillinghast, William Flynn, George C. Thomas, 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.
The WASP elite were snobs, which meant they insisted on rigorous standards, resulting in exquisite courses, including Shinnecock Hills and Pinehurst #2, the sites of the 2004 and 2005 U.S. Opens, respectively.
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 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 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 hole.
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 dominant at the same time, 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. Trent 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.
During the Los Angeles Nissan Open in February, I sat by Riviera’s sixth hole, where in 1927 George C. Thomas had built a pot bunker in the center of the green. Tour pros are not a happy-go-lucky bunch, but even they were laughing at the perplexities of navigating around, over, or through that devilishly spotted trap.
Trent Jones could break out of his mold to do excellent work, such as the devilish 4th hole on 1966’s Spyglass Hill, but the tenor of the times was not favorable to creating great golf courses. The mediocrity of golf architecture during this long era after World War II paralleled the contemporary lousiness of building architecture. With confidence sapped by two World Wars and a Depression, there was an almost palpable sense that Western man didn’t deserve the superb structures and golf courses of the past and should be satisfied with the perfunctory creations of the postwar period.
After WWII, Trent Jones made use of modern earthmoving equipment to dig water hazards wherever was most challenging. Early in his career, Trent Jones often manufactured water holes, such as the 4th at Tillinghast’s Baltusrol Lower, site of this August’s PGA Championship, and the 16th at Ross’s Oakland Hills, site of the 2004 Ryder Cup, to solve the problem of what to do with a dull stretch of topography on an otherwise interesting course. Perhaps because they photographed better than more naturally gifted undulating holes, however, they quickly became the most celebrated holes on classic courses.
The results could be wonderful, as at the island green on the 16th hole of the Golden Horseshoe course in Colonial Williamsburg (1963), where the construction complemented the interesting natural topography, rather than substituted for it wholesale. Within a few decades, golfers came to expect on every new course what once would have been spectacular water hazards.
Unfortunately, golf architects’ new ability to build from scratch any hole imaginable eventually became a little ho-hum. Just as the computer-generated movie dinosaurs in 1993’s “Jurassic Park” were stunning, but by 2005, audiences were getting jaded by Hollywood’s latest digitally synthesized wonders, golfers were becoming less excited by lakes, fountains, waterfalls, and other gimmickry. And the essential do-or-die shortcoming of the water hole remained: when you hit into trouble on dry land, you can still try to improvise a recovery shot, but when you hit into a water hazard, all you can do is reload and try again.
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.
Somewhat like Robert Venturi in architecture, Dye ushered in the Postmodern Era (1981-?), with a series of striking courses culminating in his Tournament Players Club. In contrast to Trent Jones’ balanced and sweeping corporate look, Dye revived the abruptvertical discontinuities, contrasts, and oddities of the old Scottish links. He would prop a flat green over a flat sand trap by means of a six-foot high wall of railroad ties, leading Bob Hope to note that Dye built the only courses in danger of burning down.
Everybody says they want their courses to look “natural,” but nature comes in many varieties, so even Dye’s vertical slopes can be justified, since the banks of meadow streams are abrupt. Yet Dye’s style, which borrowed heavily from MacDonald’s dignified engineered look, may have gone back not to nature, but to grassed-over Civil War battlefield memorials, with their trenches and breastworks.
Facilitated by advances in earthmoving machines and fueled by easy savings and loan financing, the Scottish revival courses of Dye, Fazio, and Nicklaus ironically emerged as some of the most staggeringly opulent relics of the 80s. For example, Nicklaus built award-winning courses with supposedly dunes-like mounding, but these excrescences have come to symbolize the bad taste of the era, and he has since removed much of it.
Examples of truly horrendous design, fortunately, appear to be rarer in golf architecture than in building architecture, and are generally bulldozed into something more pleasing to the eye within a few years. Still, I can’t resist a picture of Desmond Muirhead’s legendary “Clashing Rocks” par-3 from his 1987 Stone Harbor course in New Jersey. Muirhead, who, while partnered in the early 1970s with Nicklaus, was largely responsible for the routing of the superb Muirfield Village course, became increasingly enamored with artistic self-expression in the 1980s. He explained:
“This hole has been published in hundreds of magazines worldwide, in art and architecture as well as golf. It was based on Jason and the Argonauts. The symbol came from my subconscious where it had probably been hanging around for a great many years. According to Jungian psychology, it is a mandala, a Sanskrit word meaning perfect circle which is the most common archetype drawn in psycho-analysis. The central form is female and the jagged forms are male.”
Stone Harbor’s members, however, found Muirhead’s theoretical rhetoric less intimidating than the sand shots over water he’d inconsiderately created for them, and they had the hole rebuilt into something a little more traditional. Golf course architecture is one of the remaining arts where theory doesn’t sell.
Budgets became even more extravagant in the 90s, with f loating greens and other attention getters. When the tax deduction for club dues was eliminated, “Country Club for a Day” courses, open to the public proliferated. Three digit greens fees became common.
Prosperity and technology have made anything possible in design, whether Frank Gehry’s titanium UFO-crash of a Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or Dye’s 1999 Whistling Straits golf course, where faucet king Herb Kohler gave him an unlimited budget. Dye famously exceeded it reproducing on a flat Wisconsin shoreline the fifty-foot tall sand dunes of the wild Irish links. While Whistling Straits and its 500 or so sand traps was much admired at last year’s PGA Championship, critics might be overreacting against the stripped-down Modern style by judging any degree of elaboration an asset. If tastes shift back toward simplicity, the next generation might label Whistling Straits a labyrinthinemonstrosity. But, at least for now, its convolutedness appeals.
Yet just as American culture in general has become slightly more traditionalist over the last ten years, the last decade saw enthusiastic efforts to restore great pre-Depression golf courses to their eccentric glories, and to build new courses worthy of comparison to the old American and British standard-bearers. Numerous Golden Age courses have been rebuilt according to their original designs.
After decades of building courses on tedious flat ground, entrepreneurs have begun to search out the best land for golf courses, as epitomized by Coore and Crenshaw’s Sand Hills (1995) in a remote Nebraska dunescape, and the Bandon Dunes complex on the southern Oregon coast.Rustic Canyon, a remarkably inexpensive public course in pricey Ventura County, California demonstrates how interesting a course can be without much earthmoving if the architects take the time to learn the land thoroughly.
Today, the great controversy is between the established Fazio, the maestro of aesthetics who recently revamped Augusta, and challengers like the team of Ben Crenshaw – Bill Coore and the sharp-tongued Doak, the expert on angles who crafted on the remote Oregon coast the gnarled and byzantine Pacific Dunes links in the Scottish tradition. Fazio frames his holes so that first-time players can instantly see the proper line, while Doak’s baffling holes defy golfers to figure out which direction will work best.
Golf architecture is a young art, and just as Tiger Woods showed that the best was yet to come among players, it’s forgivable to hope that we will someday see a design prodigy who can fully merge beauty and guile.
The single best resource for learning about golf course architecture is www.GolfClubAtlas.com.
Caddybytes.com has terrific pictures of the PGA Tour courses, along with strategy commentary by pro caddies.
For more of my articles on golf, see here.