Back to the future


Sean Dudley

Great golf courses are hallowed ground for those who love the game. Some courses are sacred because of the famous men and women who have walked their fairways and fought out legendary championships. Others earn their renown because of their status as pinnacles of the designer’s craft.

The analogy between golf and buildings architecture is close, but not exact. Golf architecture, which has existed as a discipline for 150 years at the absolute most, is in its infancy compared to building design, which was being studied and practiced in detail three thousand years ago. So it is not surprising that the younger profession is less structured, less regulated and, simply, less advanced. And equally, there’s no wonder that the great classics of golf architecture are not protected in the way that iconic buildings are.

Moving away from this theoretical discussion into the realms of the real, golf design is simply far more susceptible to change than a building. Stone and brick weather, it is true, but if a medieval cathedral is likely to be severely affected by weathering after 600 years, a golf course made of earth, sand and grass will return to nature in a fraction of that time.

The effects of nature on a golf course are one thing; the effects of man quite another. The most basic principle of any branch of architecture is that form must follow function, and so it is in good building architecture. If a building loses its purpose, or if the purpose changes, should the building be changed? Similarly, should a golf course that is no longer suited for the golf that is played today be altered or preserved? Restored, if you like, in the way that buildings, or paintings, might be. Architect Howard Swan has spent much of the last two years working on the golf course in the grounds of Goodwood House on the Sussex Downs. Originally designed by James Braid, Swan and his team have renovated and extended the golf course, retaining some of Braid’s holes and features in some cases, and in others, making creative use of the master’s work to produce holes that stand up to modern golf – such as the new second hole at Goodwood, which is the result of combining two of the original holes.

Although he accepts that in no sense could his work at Goodwood be considered as a restoration, Swan believes fervently that the work of important designers should be protected. “The real irony is that the old hunt kennels, which serve as the clubhouse at Goodwood, are Grade 1 listed, and can’t be altered in any way without special permission,” he says. “Yet the golf course is not protected at all.” Swan finds this situation regrettable, and the European Institute of Golf Course Architects, of which he is a senior member, has been working on a document entitled Golf Courses As Historic Landscapes, which suggests that important golf courses – as with other classic landscaping efforts, such as the parks of Capability Brown – should be protected by government. But herein lies the dilemma: if a golf course is protected, can it not be altered at all?

Even more so, what if (as is almost always the case) what we see today is radically different from the course that the original designer created? To what point should the design be restored?

How exactly is this to be done, especially in the case of older courses for which few accurate drawings exist? In the end, absent a massive effort in terms of research, a restoration will always require the architect to make decisions that might be right, but whose accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

American golf architect Bobby Weed and his associate Scot Sherman have recently completed a big renovation of Donald Ross’s final design, New Smyrna Beach in Florida. This course was planned by Ross shortly before his death in 1948. Construction started after his passing, so he did not see its completion, and was carried out by his associate JB McGovern who also died before construction was completed. “I told the client that if Bobby died during construction, they would have to finish the course themselves – I didn’t want to continue the string of dead architects,” says Sherman. “The Ross influence is quite evident, particularly at the green complexes. Although a flat golf course, the routing, interesting green fill pads and strategic bunkering have all the marks of the Ross style. It was these features that piqued out interest in the project.”

What makes New Smyrna Beach an interesting case study in this respect is that it could have been restored – Sherman says it was mostly untouched since its opening in the early 1950s, apart from three greens which had been renovated some years ago. But it was worn out. “It had no irrigation, no drainage and needed a complete facelift to bring it up to standard,” he says. “The project has presented a real conundrum for us. Most of the green surfaces and drop offs were quite interesting, but the flat nature of everything else – and I mean absolutely, positively dead flat – really is not acceptable for today. The fairways did not drain as a result and there was absolutely no visual interest. We did find that we had a good drainage outfall elevation some six feet below the elevation of the fairways, so it was decided to reshape the fairways to drainage basins which were piped to the perimeter outfall canal system. The result is the course now has some gentle and quirky, old style, movement which also facilitates drainage.”

Weed and Sherman expanded and rebuilt the greens using a 10 inch pure sand profile above herringbone drainage.

“There is a tremendous amount of fairway cut around the greens which will provide as much short game interest as any course Ross ever built,” says Sherman. “The bunker strategy was rethought in some areas and preserved in others – all the time keeping the aesthetic simple and utilitarian as Ross would have. The result is many more steep grass faced bunkers with various shapes and locations.”

“The site now has a very clean and simple aesthetic with the native pines and oaks dominating the landscape. The entire property will run firm and fast and there is even a wonderful stand of native Bahia grass rough which simulates the fescue seed heads found in more northern climates. The contours and elevation changes are quite minimalistic – total elevation change from highest to lowest might now be a massive seven feet! – but also deadly if you hit it in the wrong spot. We only shaped within the available material on site with no import at all, so it has been a nice challenge to make something interesting.”

So should Weed and Sherman have left New Smyrna Beach as it was? Surely most observers would agree that would have made no sense, and that their solution was a sensible one? The difficulty, though, is that – with all due respect to the golf course – it was hardly a work of the highest genius beforehand. Consider instead John Fought’s restoration of Pine Needles (see GCA issue 5), a much more highly rated Ross design. Fought mixed pure restoration – as, for example, with the bunkering on the second hole, or the return of the fourteenth to a par four and the following hole to a par five – with renovation, or updating, such as the new green he built to lengthen the famous tenth hole.

A strict preservationist attitude would praise Fought for his rigorous research in the Tufts Archive at Pinehurst, but condemn him for abandoning the original green at the tenth. But suppose that green is an improvement on Ross’s original? Or that, in keeping the hole as a proper par five, he has managed to retain the balance and flow of Ross’s routing, which would have been affected by playing the hole as a long par four? The precise interpretation of restoration is a much-discussed question. Many architects and golf clubs will claim to have restored a course by lengthening it – at first glance an absurdity. How can you restore by changing? But maybe it isn’t so crazy: given the increased length of modern balls and clubs doesn’t pushing a tee an extra twenty or thirty yards back actually restore the hole more to its original playing conditions? Howard Swan says not. “I would never claim the Goodwood project as a restoration, even though we respected the intent and the sprit of Braid’s design, and put back some of his features,” he says. “Adding length is not restoring, but renovation – bringing something up to date.”

But, of course, lengthening is the most common way to change golf courses nowadays, and, whatever name is given to it, a few extra yards here and there should not alter the fundamental nature of a course. The problem is that, except on par three holes, moving a tee cannot return a hole to the shot values of years ago. Push back the tee of a par four by forty yards, and the fairway bunkering may once again threaten the good player’s drive – but the second shot will not demand the same club as it might have fifty years ago. Move the features, or even more so the green, and the hole is completely altered.

There are plenty of examples of these kind of alterations about. Kyle Phillips’s new green on the twelfth at Morfontaine in France accompanied a new back tee, stretching the hole from 462 metres to 555 metres. By creating extra distance at both ends of the hole, the key feature – the need to drive far enough to reach the top of a ridge – was returned to its central role. But the corollary is the loss of an original Tom Simpson green. Similarly, at Royal Porthcawl in Wales, architect David Williams, along with construction company 360 Golf, is currently lengthening the course’s par five twelfth by over 100 yards.

“Porthcawl needed to present a much stiffer challenge on some holes,” says Williams. “By extending the 12th and adding a new green, protected by three revetted bunkers, we believe we have managed to do that while staying true to the course’s original links layout and subtle shaping.” The par five fifth has already been lengthened by a similar amount, to 611 yards.

This degree of stretching is in no way restoration. To add such a huge amount of length to two holes may achieve the objective of getting the course to a total yardage that seems appropriate nowadays, but is it in keeping with the overall flow? Do the changes affect the routing? Only time – and a visit – will tell.

“Personally, I think the word restoration is overused and often abused,” says American golf architect Dr Michael Hurdzan. “It makes no sense to ‘restore’ a golf feature simply because it is old or that it isn’t in tune with the modern game and maintenance procedures. Most golfers know little or nothing about architectural history, let alone the nuances of a particular designer or design, despite what they may profess. However, I am convinced that golfers recognise good maintenance and more highly value superior levels of maintenance than they do design features, so I would not hesitate to compromise an original feature if it resulted in significantly improved turf conditions and playability. As a golf course architect I hope to goodness that over time, thinking committees and colleagues update and improve any or all of my past work, for none of it is sacred, and I want golfers to enjoy my golf course design for many years to come. I sincerely believe that I share that wish with every intelligent golf course architect, living or dead, who loves the game however it is played.”

Yale University’s golf course in the USA has been a hard-fought case study for renovation and restoration. Built originally by Seth Raynor in the 1920s, Yale had been allowed to fall into disrepair over many years, until architect Roger Rulewich was hired to work on its bunkers in the late 1990s. Rulewich’s work – advertised by the university as a restoration – was judged by some observers to be out of kilter with the styling of Raynor’s original features.Were these features ‘out of date’, especially in terms of ease of maintenance? Is bunker styling a fundamental part of a golf course, or is ‘look’ secondary to playability? These are not straightforward questions. Now, superintendent Scott Ramsey is carrying out another form of restoration at Yale, by, for example, removing trees and recreating the sight lines planned by the original designers. The cost aspect, especially with respect to maintenance, cannot be ignored. Many golf courses have been changed over the years in order to make their upkeep easier. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this: no-one would expect a club or course operator to keep features that require so much attention they cost unreasonable amounts of money to maintain. But does the search for easier maintenance equate to dumbing down of architecture? Many would say it often does.

“I believe that the two biggest threats to the future of golf are the cost and time required to play the game,” says Hurdzan. “Most golfers don’t want to spend more than half a day on the golf course, and at the lowest reasonable cost for what they get.When modernising a golf course these concerns of time and money should be given the same priority as the drainage to be installed, selection of rootzones and grasses, and choices of bunker materials. Modernisation may not reduce maintenance costs or time to play, but with careful planning they should not significantly increase them either.”

So how are we to square the circle? We all wish to preserve great examples of golf design, but at the same time we need golf courses to be practical, living entities that suit the way the game of golf is currently played. One part of the solution, of course, lies in changing the golf, rather than the courses – if further advances in club and ball technology could be halted, then the drive for modernisation of classic courses could be slowed, even if it can’t be halted or driven back. But another key aspect lies is understanding what each course’s essence is. There is a difference between an ordinary members’ golf course, even if that course bears the name of a famous architect, and a great championship test that is recognised as one of a kind. There are courses that deserve more preservation because of their significance in the development of the art form. Alwoodley in Leeds, the first course built by Dr Alister MacKenzie is a classic example of this, and we should all be grateful that the Alwoodley club recognises the importance of its course and is determined to keep it true to MacKenzie’s vision. But Alwoodley is not a course that aspires to hold major championships, which makes the issue rather more straightforward.

One crucial aspect is the existence of a golf course masterplan, or course policy document. “The development of a course policy document is a great way to protect the heritage of a golf course, because every aspect of the design is documented, and it’s not subject to the whims of a captain or a greens committee,” says Howard Swan. Golf course architects, though, have traditionally had little to do with the production of such documents – they have largely been the work of greenkeepers and club management. If more clubs engaged a professional architect, then perhaps we would see less ripping up of important historic landscaping in the quest for an extra stroke on standard scratch. Or maybe we wouldn’t: golfers have always been in love with difficulty.

In the final analysis, preservation of golf courses in aspic is neither feasible nor sensible. Landscapes change, and must be allowed to do so. Golf changes, and courses must change to cope with that. The ideal solution is a happy medium, in which courses are only altered in a fashion that respects and is sympathetic to the original design. The trouble, of course, is that sympathy, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. “We should be conserving the good bits, and updating the bad bits,” says Howard Swan. A laudable aim – but who is to judge?

This article first appeared in issue 6 of Golf course architecture published in october 2006