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the golden age architect as genius

3/8/2004 – Below is an article published in Paul Daley’s new book, Golf Architecture, A Worldwide Perspective

Golf course architects are getting a lot of attention these days. The golfing public cares about course designers. People know the names of architects, their styles and their courses. As part of this new attention, some architects have become media super stars, appearing on TV and on the lecture circuit. All of the national golf magazines now rate courses and give lots of ink to designers. Everyone seems to have his favorite architect, old, new, living or dead.

It wasn’t always like this. Not too long ago architects got very little attention. Golf courses were just places where you played golf. They weren’t “by” anyone and they weren’t in any particular “style.”

Consider, for example, Bernard Darwin’s famous Golf Courses of the British Isles, a book that brought attention to famous courses in England, Scotland and Ireland for the first time. Golf architecture is central to the book. There is, however, not a single architectural attribution anywhere to be found. In a similar vein, Pete Dye wrote recently that while in the army during World War II he played Pinehurst No. 2 many times, never knowing who the architect was. He says he wouldn’t have known “Donald Ross from Betsy Ross” at the time. Likewise, Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf in the 1960’s was filmed at some of the greatest courses in the world. Rarely, if ever, was the architect of the course identified.

It is a sign of how much things have changed that in a recent edition of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, the course’s architect was not only prominently mentioned, he introduced each hole on air. Entire real estate developments are marketed on the strength of an architect’s reputation. Architects now figure prominently in media coverage of major tournaments. Never before have architects received this kind of attention.

All of this architect adulation gets ratcheted up another notch when it come to “Golden Age” designers. If there was a time when Dye didn’t know Donald Ross designed golf courses, those times are over. Ross, MacKenzie, Tillinghast, Thomas, MacDonald, Raynor, Flynn and the other members of the Golden Age pantheon are now household names and they are treated like deities. That’s not an altogether bad thing. They were an extraordinarily talented group and the recognition of their talent was long over due. Their recent fame has helped to save many of their courses from mutilation or worse.

But sometimes I wonder if all of this adulation hasn’t gone too far. As good as the Golden Age architects were, the reverence for them can sometimes be over the top. Their courses are sometimes treated like sacred texts. Every swale, tree, and ridge (or lack of the same) is taken as a sign of the master and invested with deep architectural significance.

All of this might be disregarded as so much harmless hero worship if it weren’t for the fact that courses from the Golden Age courses evolve and change like any other courses. Questions of restoration or alterations inevitably come up, and dealing with these issues on Golden Age courses can get crazy. Especially if those you are dealing with people who believe that the designer of their course was a genius (which is sometimes true) and that every feature on their course is a sign of the designer’s genius (which is almost never true).

The sanctification of courses by these famous architects can get in the way of thoughtful restorations. I’ve had people tell me that an architect carefully placed a tree behind a green for depth perception. The tree would have been no more than a two foot sapling when the course was built in the 1920’s. Swales in fairways, dug for drainage, are seen as marks of unsurpassed artistry. Odd bunker locations are taken to have deep aesthetic significance. I’ve come to think that Ross, Travis and others sometimes placed bunkers in certain locations simply to provide a source of fill dirt for nearby green pads.

It’s not possible to know all of the details of what an architect wanted for a course 75 years after it opened. Even if you are fortunate enough to have detailed drawings, it’s still not possible. What still exists on the course may be misleading as well. The fact that an architectural feature may have survived 75 years does not necessarily mean it was intended or desirable. There is always slippage between the drawing and what is put in the ground. Especially when construction crews were new to building golf courses (as many were in the 1920’s) or unfamiliar with the architect’s preferences or if the architect made few or no site visits during construction. It’s very hard to know what details a Ross would have wanted on the 300 or so courses he designed but never saw. It’s entirely possible that he didn’t know.

All designers from all eras left a great deal to the interpretation of construction crews, owners and club members. Even when architects oversaw construction, features were constantly being changed in the field. Ross tinkered with Pinehurst No. 2 his entire life. McDonald was still changing National Golf Links 25 years after it opened. MacKenzie was rethinking features at Pasatiempo until the end. Augusta national was the only clay-based course designed by MacKenzie. Clay-based courses present unique drainage problems and I suspect that MacKenzie would have made many changes to the course after opening day if he had lived. And these famous architects fully expected this process would continue long after they were gone.

When asked to restore or repair an older course, the first, middle and last question is “What is it you are restoring?” The course details as originally intended? As originally built? As it looked at some interim date? And what if the current membership has its own ideas about what the course used to be? These are all legitimate issues that should be debated and resolved in any restoration project. But I think the masters of the Golden Age would have scoffed at the idea of literal restorations of their original designs.

Cults, whether about Mao Tse Tung, The Grateful Dead or Donald Ross, always get in the way of clear thinking. An overdose of reverence for practitioners during the Golden Age can get in the way of thoughtful restorations. Though a course may be designed by a Flynn or a Tillinghast, it can sometimes be very hard to be sure about their vision for the details, even when good drawings exist. Bunker depths, green contours, run-off areas, lake and creek borders, trees, tee elevations and so forth were often not specified in detail and all were reinterpreted by other hands over the years. Getting back to a “starting point” usually involves a lot of guesswork and luck.

The best of the Golden Age were unmatched geniuses at using existing landforms to build strategy and interesting shot options. I stand in awe of what they were able to do. My point, to butcher an old axiom, is that their genius does not reside in EVERY detail. It can be counter-productive to treat Golden Age courses with too much deference. A balance has to be stuck between respect for their genius and the needs of the modern player, new turf types, the current regulatory environment, etc. Finding that balance is the hardest part of a good restoration. But when done well, it is also the most satisfying part.


Duncan Pearson said:

I recently published a large format coffee table book of aerial photos of every hole on the Philadelphia Cricket Club's St. Martin's, Wissahickon and Militia Hill Golf Courses. After reading your blog I thought it would be interesting for you to see a side by side comparison of the design elements incorporated into the course design during three different ages. The St. Martin's course hosted two US Open's 1907 & 1910 (7th, 8th & 9th hole are original). The Wissahickon course was designed by "Golden age of Golf" architect A.W. Tillinghast, in 1922, while the Militia Hill Course was designed by Hurzdan/Fry in 2002. The book contains a full page custom color aerial aerial photo of each hole on these course with the tees in the foreground and greens in the background. You can preview the entire book online at Let me know what you think. Duncan Pearson

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