Harry Colt could be called the father of British golf course design. He came on the scene at a time when inland courses in this country bore little resemblance to the seaside pearls that were already our national golfing heritage. Away from the sea, our 19th century courses were crude scars on the landscape, in no way blending in with their surroundings and with little or no imagination in their construction.
He changed all that. Obviously he contributed to our linksland heritage too, Rye, Royal Lytham & St Annes and Royal Portrush all bearing his stamp, but it was inland that he really set the standards for the first half of the 20th century. The New Course at Sunningdale, Swinley Forest,Wentworth and that astonishing inland links at Royal Worlington, are perhaps the cream of a very rich crop.
He also took the next generation of like-minded designers with him, teaching them, influencing them and then sending them around the world to spread the word. Hugh Alison and John Morrison joined him either side of the first war, Alison going on to lay out a few courses in America before almost founding the game in Japan, Morrison leaving his mark on the Continent, most prolifically in France.
Alistair Mackenzie was also an associate from the early years, initially cooperating with Colt on Alwoodley near Leeds, before spreading his wings to help create those marvellous courses in Australia – a dozen in the Melbourne sandbelt and one or two in Sydney and Adelaide – and finally signing off with Bobby Jones' masterpiece in Georgia.
Colt quite simply saw the beauty and symmetry of nature's work in courses around our shores and sought to replicate it elsewhere. He was fortunate that what was the best soil for golf inland was usually useless for anything else. The acid, sandy, heather strewn strips of heath on which so many of our great inland courses are laid, is similar to the salty wastes over which our links evolved.
Having captained the varsity side at Cambridge and qualified to become a lawyer, Colt's first job was in Hastings.
Scarcely had he arrived than he and some colleagues found the beginnings of a golf course on a strip of links land near the Cinque Port of Rye. Law was soon forgotten as he took on the secretary's job, and became largely responsible for that sporty layout along the Camber sands.
Not long after he would move to Sunningdale, in 1902 a brand new club seeking its first secretary. There he found the Old Course, the work of Willie Park Jnr, son of the first winner of the Open Championship and twice a winner of the Claret Jug himself.Maybe the task he would most enjoy in later life was to put a complementary course alongside, the New taking shape in the early 1920s.
Much of Colt's early work was to remodel and extend existing courses, but it was left to Hugh Alison to record the conditions they encountered, particularly inland. "A feature of most suburban golf was the flatness of the terrain, particularly the approaches to the greens. The greens themselves were square and flat, with no attempt to put in undulations." "There was only one form of bunker. It consisted of a rampart of sods with a trench in front, filled with a sticky substance, usually dark red in colour.
The face of this rampart was perpendicular, always exactly 3ft 6ins in height and set at right angles to the direction of the hole." Ugh! Colt saw it as his vocation to bring in angles and bends, slopes and undulations, the soft curves of nature. If he had one philosophy it was that his courses should blend in with their surroundings, be part of the landscape, not imposed upon it. He introduced the dogleg, not solely as a space-induced change of direction, but part of the many questions a golfer should be asked to measure his skill and retain his interest.
Bunkers were set at different angles to the line of play, many as markers to the right direction, some as teasers to the longer player to test his skill and courage, and all as punishment for getting it wrong.
Bunkers often defined the designer.
While all his confederates would adopt Colt's philosophies, he was never so rigid as to stifle individuality. A Colt bunker was a deep pot, perhaps best shown in the myriad collection to be found at Royal Lytham; two, three or sometimes more clustered together to achieve the desired affect. Contrast that with Alistair Mackenzie and his great sweeping vistas of sand, one large area to do the job where Colt would see three or four smaller ones. For the Mackenzie style, look to Melbourne or Augusta.
Colt though was the master of the short hole, and not just individually, but entire collections on specific courses. His very first effort could well have been his best.
The five at Rye, each a gem in its own right and measuring from less than 150 yards to just one over 200, are quite glorious. Even today, regardless of technology, add a crisp wind and those tiny targets shrink in the minds eye.
Those on the New Course at Sunningdale are in much the same league.
Above all though, Colt's legacy is the mastery of scale; small greens at the end of narrow, winding fairways. Tees set back behind modest stretches of rough, each hole an entity in itself, a country lane meandering through a picturesque setting. In his time his courses were long enough, but length was never his only weapon to test and tease the better player, and most have needed little extra to still be competitive today. The only wonder is that so few modern designers have looked to incorporate Colt's principals in their own work, and our golfing walks are the poorer for it.
This article first appeared in issue 1 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2005.