September, 2015: R.I.P 1995 – 2015: The Masochistic Era of Golf Course Architecture

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When the golf scholars look back fifty years from now, I am confident that they will attribute the decrease in golf participation resulting in many courses closing, in part, largely to the members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects who lost their way.

It all begin so innocently with a unique and well-designed Coore Crenshaw Course Sand Hills – the beginning of the minimalist era.   The one mile drive from the clubhouse in a gas cart to the anointed mecca of golf courses unlocks the key to how the game lost its way.

The aerial game was replaced by a ground game where the sole defense for the course became wind, ragged bunkers adorned with yucca plants and green complexes that reminds one of some miniature golf courses. 

To the credit of Coore/Crenshaw, the green complexes at Sand Hills are marvelous where a ridge that funnels to a green or a spine contained therein that leaves a golfer with a reasonable putt that is likely to break in only one direction.   The golf course is very playable.

The hubris of other architects is trying to top Coore/Crensaw is where golf course architecture took a wrong turn I believe. 

History serves as a fair reference.  On the 14th hole at St. Andrews, there is a knob in front of the green that if one’s finds its ball there, getting it up and own becomes a great challenge.   However, 95% of that green is very flat and very playable.  Most recently, the Barclay Championship at the Donald Ross designed Plainfield CC has some challenging putts that can be experienced.  However, the allocation of the putting surface – 95% reasonable to 5% challenging – is appropriate. 

What happened with Bandon Dunes, Tetherow, the Castle Course (David McClay Kidd), or Pacific Dunes, Old MacDonald, Barnougle Dunes,  and Rock Creek Cattle (Tom Doak) or Sanctuary, Redland Mesa, Fossil Trace (Jim Engh) or Sutton Bay, Pines Course (Graham Marsh) is that the green complexes created are so undulating, 25% of the green is not pin able.  If a golfer finds his ball on perhaps up to 50% of the remaining green surface, they have little chance of two putting.  The architects have turned the most appreciated skill of putting into luck.  Putts over 5 feet are likely to break in multiple directions.   I think it is a bad allocation of a putting surface when 25% can’t be pinned, 50% produces a 3 putt or more and only 25% of the green surface gives the golfer a reasonable opportunity of a one or two putt.

In defense of these torture misters, golf course architects are only partly to blame.  The superintendent have unknowingly contributed to make the game too hard.   The faux links courses created should not have a stimpmeter rating greater than 8.  In wanting to demonstrate their agronomic skills, most of the aforementioned courses have stimpmeter rating of 10+.  

What I have presented above my be viewed as an oversimplification of golf’s ills by some.   What is not oversimplified is that golf is about entertainment.  Time spent outdoors, exercise and social companionship are the three primary attributes that attract the masses to play.    When the experience they encounter frustrates more than rewards, the exodus is to the door.

That is what I think.  What you think is more important.  Comment below.  

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7 comments

  1.    Reply

    Jim, As usual I look forward to and enjoy your articles and your blog. As architects, hopefully we can all be accused at times of creating holes or implementing features that create debate and controversy. If we’re not trying new ideas (or copying old ideas) or pushing the envelope, our work would really not be worth talking about or worth playing. As Tom stated, our clients typically have very little insight or opinion as to how they want the course to be designed or how it will play. It’s our role as architects to understand the their goals and their market and to then design a course that will meet those goals – financially or otherwise. Part of what makes many of the courses you mentioned successful is that the architect has incorporated some bold or controversial ideas. Even though they may have a few bad or masochistic holes mixed in, with a few exceptions, usually the overall experience is still good.

    It seems like there’s a double standard out there. It’s interesting to me how tolerant some golfers are of bold features at a widely acclaimed “golden age” course and then turn right around and complain about bold contours in greens or severely undulating fairways on a newly designed course. I was just in London and played 9 courses. Two of the most unique, most memorable and most enjoyable holes we played were the 3rd and the 12th at Royal Cinque Ports. As brilliant as they were, I found myself thinking that I’d probably be crucified if I built something like that here in the States. Might have to try that.

  2.    Reply

    Jim,

    I agree with most of your comments completely (except perhaps the generalized swipe at ASGCA……)

    Some of those designers and their greens treat me like a baby treats a diaper! We all have different motivations for playing, and nothing is wrong with a hard hole/green every so often to avoid standardization, as Tom Doak notes, but overall, most seem to want kinder, gentler contours. I have seen steep greens from all previous generations of architects be softened for modern conditions, and I suspect that, despite any pedigree, modern ones that are too rolly polly will be taken out, too. Why would we expect differently?

    I was recently on a radio show with current ASGCA President Steve Smyers and he was describing a current project that was for low handicappers only, and how he made it tougher. While there is room for a few of those, frankly, my thought process is finally going the other way, as your article suggests it should. When the average player considers a “good shot” one that is airborne, and in the general direction of the green, we don’t really need to add too much more artificial difficulty. For that matter, even the low handicappers I speak with rarely prefer the courses as difficult as some design them, at least on most day.

    BTW, your golf course stats in the response below are almost mind boggling in some respects, but do keep a good perspective on where golf is. Keep it up!

  3.    Reply

    Jim:

    The greens at Pacific Dunes are nothing like the greens at Old Macdonald, for one thing. And there’s nothing wrong with either of them. They certainly weren’t built to try and “top” Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who are good friends of mine.

    My clients seldom make specific requests to make the golf course hard or easy or whatever, but most are comfortable with the courses I’ve done previously or they would be hiring someone else. I just don’t think greens are meant to be boring, so that playing golf well is all about tee to green play, as you apparently do. I think the difference is that you care about your score more than most people who play golf just for fun … and that’s a large segment of the golfing population who are often ignored by the low-handicap “experts” who run the industry.

    Luckily, golf is plenty big enough for us to disagree; and while you have a right to state your own opinion, I don’t think you can or should try to speak for golf as a whole. Plus it’s hard to believe you are beating on the architects you do, when so many players-cum-architects have built so many brutally difficult courses that somehow escape your ire.

    Most of my courses have been affordable to build, and most are quick and fun to play. I think those are the true responsibilities of any golf course architect, but how we each get to that result is our own business.

    1.    Reply

      Tom – thank you for taking time to comment. I have long had a great respect for the courses you have created. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to play St. George’s in Canada and marveled, along with my host – the Club Champion, the fabulous job you did in restoring the green complexes at this famed and historic course. I wrote to fellow panelists at Golf Magazine that the green complexes were marvelous and if not told, one would have no idea it was your deft hand who undertook the work.

      In my book, the Business of Golf – Why? How? What? I wrote,

      The course is like a painting representing a canvas created by an architect and construction teams that blend the green grasses, with the blue water features, the white sand bunkers, various flowers with their different hues, and trees that change colors throughout the season creating a picture of unparalleled beauty. Golf, to those who take the time to appreciate their surroundings is like a kaleidoscope that is constantly changing. It like a walk through a botanic garden and certainly not, contrary to the thinking of the Allens who stated, not likely Mark Twain, “Golf was a good walk spoiled,” Golf is a game of attraction to nature, to friends, and to competition.

      Over the years, how individuals have interpreted golf course design has evolved like the ever changing styles of popular art that have defined periods in history: the Renaissance (1400 – 1600), Baroque (1600 – 1700), Rococo 1700 – 1750, Neo-Classicism (1750 – 1880), Realism (1830’s – 1850’s), Impressionism (1870’s – 1890’s). Modernism (1880 – 1945), Abstract Expressionism (1945 – 1960), New Realism (1970 – 1980), Neo-Expressionism (1980 – 1990) and Computer Art (1980s – 1990) as part of the Modern era in which that culture is immersed.

      Today, the style of golf course architecture that is in vogue features:

      • Minimalist Design
      • Bunkers with fescue and Scottish broom
      • Shots repelled from perched greens
      • Closely cropped chipping areas
      • Massively greens with many undulations and often few areas for pin locations.

      To arrive at the evolution of golf course architecture, one ponders as to what were the primary factors influencing the architects as they crafted their works of their day. As these courses were built, what defined their style?

      What it the land, the functionality of the construction equipment available, the performance characteristics of the clubs and balls, their egos, their understanding of the purpose of the game or their belief in what the golfer was seeking in terms of entertainment and sport? Was the modern area that introduced the aerial game and golf course of grand style and length an architects’ response to the growing ability of the golfer, the advanced in equipment, the failure of the USGA to properly define the game or a reflection of society and its growingly connected yet self-indulgent style?

      The evolving styles in golf architecture in the United States are fascinating. Shown in the book is a chart representing the growth of the game in the United States by decade and the unique style of sixteen architects subjectively chosen by Bradley Klein, a noted golf historian and frequent author and myself, based on our beliefs as to who painted their canvas differently than their peers, whose vision was clearer and whose their understanding of the game was enlightened and represented the sport for what it is meant to be: entertainment.

      Of the 17,816 golf courses built in America since the first course in 1870:

      • 4,321 do not have an architect identified with the course.
      • There are 35 courses, within the NGF database, when they opened is not known.
      • There are 775 18 hole golf courses less than 5,000 yards.
      • The slope rating on 1,588 of 11,473 18-hole golf courses is missing from the leading national databases
      • There are roughly 1,698 “unique” individuals designated as being a golf course architect.
      • Course that are identified as having been built or renovated by members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects is: 5,386.
      • 9,942 of the 17,816 courses built in the US have been renovated at some time.
      • Forty-seven architects are responsible for constructing 25.8% (4,038 of all golf courses in the United States).

      All of these architects all of whom are respected and admired for their work. Lists like these provoke debate, just like what qualifies as a Top 100 golf course as ranked by the leading golf periodicals. It is an integral part of what makes golf fun.

      A discussion as to what makes a great architect would likely never reach a consensus. If one play’s a course and can name the architect by the style of the course, is that good or bad? Should the signature of an individual be so pronounced as to transcend the experience or does that define the experience?

      Personally, the opportunity to play any Seth Raynor course with the fascinating green complexes is always a treat trying to understand the riddle of the green’s function in relationship to the approaching shot value to the hole. His courses have a certain comforting predictability to them.

      In contrast, it might be debated that the work of Mike Stranz, who died in 2005 at the age of 55, was one of the Top 10 architects of all time because each project he completed was so vastly different in form and function: Caledonia Golf and Fish Club (South Carolina), True Blue (South Carolina), Bulls Bay (South Carolina, Tobacco Road (North Carolina, Tot Hill Farm (North Carolina), Royal New Kent (Virginia), Stonehouse (Virginia), Silver Creek Valley (California, and Monterey Peninsula Country Club – Shore Course (California). The ability to craft something so vastly different each time is a testament to an architect’s creativity.

      The cost to maintain a golf course has evolved based on changes in design, construction and grassing. The noted golf historian, Bradley S. Klein wrote a decade ago, and it remains insightful today that:

      “In earlier years, land was so abundant, that if a proposed site proved unsuitable, the architect would select an adjoining parcel. Older, traditional layouts were done by handwork and by animal drawn labor. Little earth moving was possible, and the occasional blind shot was accept as a sporting part of the game.

      Features were built from existing grade, with putting surfaces “pushed up” from native soil. Routings – the sequence of holes – were intimate and easily walkable owing to close proximity of greens to tees. Real estate and cart paths were non factors. No ground needed to be bypassed because no regulatory agencies controlled wetlands (they were called “swamps back then”) and developers were free to drain or fill them.

      The design business changed rapidly around 1960. That’s when national television, Arnold Palmer, bulldozers and suburban real estate helped reshape the golf market. Robert Trent Jones, Sr. led the way in creating new designs that favored power golf, the aerial game, and the deployment of bunkering on the flanks of holes rather than diagonally or in the middle of fairways.

      At the same time, the U.S. Golf Association Green Section introduce a more technically sophisticated method of layered greens constructions that enabled a new generation of fine-bladed bent grasses and Bermuda grasses to survive on greens at lower cutting heights than were imaginable two decades earlier.

      Soon, wetlands were granted protected status, so the permitting process took considerable more time and land formerly usable for golf had to be circumvented. Architects found a solution to this routing problem in the form of the golf cart and tee-t-green paved paths. By the 1990’s, anything was possible, a trend typified by the “heaven and earth” approach of Fazio, Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus, who were not averse to moving millions of earth in the course of creating layouts on land ill-suited to the purchase.

      In recent years, the Modern era has seen the rise of an alternative model of architecture that evokes traditional design principles. These courses are built with high-tech machinery and maintained with state-of-the-art, multi-row irrigation systems and small hydraulic mowing units. And yet, they look decades old.”

      So I conclude pondering, I wonder what is the next evolution in golf course design will be? Whatever form it takes, here is the hope that it creates entertainment for the masses that grows this great game.

  4.    Reply

    Jim, I usually enjoy reading your articles and opinions regarding important topics which effect all of us who make a living in the golf industry. However, this morning’s article regarding the masochism you feel has pervaded in the most recent era of golf course design seems to have missed the mark. Placing the blame solely on the ‘hubris’ of the ASGCA members and the Superindent, who you suggest has been ‘unknowingly’ duped, is unfair. You fail to mention that the architects have been engaged by owners who, for the most part, have a clear idea of the golf course profile they envision. They all want “Top 100” and a course that can be sold as the best in their market. Architects then have to temper these requests with sensible design strategies for making the course playable and enjoyable. Adding fuel to the fire is the expectations of the players and their need to be challenged. They want the drama of sometimes overreaching design. They demand the conditioning including fast greens found on what you have referred to as fake (faux) golf courses. Other factors such as the evolution of the golf ball, equipment technologies, hybrid turfgrass types need to be brought into the discussion. Blaming the ASGCA members for the industry’s problems is to simplistic.

    1.    Reply

      O’Brien – thanks for your comment regarding the article which was written to provoke debate. I have long respected the work of Cynthia and yourself.

      I just had the opportunity to visit the H.S. Colt course at Hamilton, Donald Ross’ Union League of Torresdale and William Flynn’s Huntingdon Valley CC during the past week. The composition of those green complexes is remarkable different from today’s era. While a 12 sidehill putt on the Ross course might break three feet, I felt at least I had a chance. While superintendents are partly to blame as I observed at Cabot Links were the pins were put onto shelves, my focus is to create value for golfers on a foundation that optimizes the financial performance of a golf course. I have never heard a golfer say, “I had my best round ever that course was too easy, I am not coming back.” I constantly hear that course was too hard for me or too unfair and I am not coming back. Again, my focus is optimizing the financial performance of the course

      Thank you for your feedback.

  5.    Reply

    This is an interesting perspective, which for the most part I do not share.
    I do agree that players need to find as much reward as they do frustration, but part of the game is learning how to overcome the frustration. It’s a cruel, unfair game, some of the time. Americans look for fairness. That can be found in tennis, another game that has lost its way. But fairness would destroy golf.
    If the green complexes are too simple, then there is no challenge, and no stories to tell about how adversity was overcome, or endured.
    That’s not to say that every hole should be difficult, or “unfair.” Making a birdie or two brings people back. But making a birdie when one seems impossible is even more rewarding. No one recounts the story of an easy birdie on a hole whereupon birdies are plentiful. But a birdie on the Road Hole 17th at St. Andrews is a story retold for decades.