Inspired design

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By DS

Architecture, whether of buildings or of golf courses, is an odd mixture of art and craft. Building architects are taught as a first principle that form must follow function, yet it is form that most observers see and focus on. How many of us are capable of looking at an apartment block or an office building and admiring it for its engineering excellence, or the way the designer solved the problem of the site? No, the overwhelming majority of people look at buildings from a purely aesthetic point of view: they approve of buildings they like the look of.

The same is true for golf courses. Most people, on being asked their views on a golf course (and told not to consider conditioning or how they scored!) will offer opinions that focus on the aesthetic appeal of the course. Are the bunkers attractive? Are the views good? Rarely will golfers comment on the technical infrastructure of a golf course. So in some ways, therefore, golf architecture is an art. Yet it is also a craft: the challenge of identifying features on a piece of property and routing holes to take the greatest advantage of those features is primarily about problem-solving.

Thus anyone who designs a golf course will choose his own balance between artistry and craftsmanship, and anyone seeking to judge a course will reveal his own view of the profession in his judgement. The artist will value creativity and originality, whereas the craftsman is likely to rate practicality above all else.

In creative professions, originality is fetishised. Plagiarism in any form is generally viewed as a negative, and risking failure in the search for something new is a worthwhile activity. But is this the case in golf? Have we reached the stage where originality, at least in terms of playing strategies, is a thing of the past, and we can or should lift ideas from those who have gone before? Oscar Wilde once said “Talent borrows, but genius steals”: can those who lift ideas from older golf courses really claim it as their own?

Charles Blair Macdonald, the ‘father of American golf ’, built much of his career on the concept of templating. In his youth, Macdonald came to St Andrews to study, and subsequently paid a number of extended visits to the UK. During these visits, he analysed the famous links of Scotland and England, and identified a number of the holes he believed provided the most interesting golfing challenges.

When Macdonald came to create the National Golf Links of America (NGLA) in 1907, he, along with his site engineer Seth Raynor, built versions of several of these holes. Most famous among them, then as now, was the Redan, which mimicked the strategy of the par three fifteenth hole at North Berwick, east of Edinburgh in Scotland. The Redan is named after a famous fortress of the Crimean War, and requires the golfer to storm the fort. The angled fallaway green has a deep bunker protecting much of its length, along with another behind the putting surface, and offers two ways to access a rear pin – either a running draw which uses the ‘kicker’ to be found at the front of the green, and thus is shaped around the hazards, or a high fade that challenges the hazards directly. Both are practicable approaches, but the draw is the safer. Other templates that Macdonald featured at NGLA included Prestwick’s famous Alps hole, involving a blind second over a huge sand dune and the ‘Eden,’ a version of the High hole at St Andrews, with its steeply canted green.

Macdonald built a number of golf courses with versions of his ideal holes, and, after his retirement from architecture, Raynor, and his protégé Charles ‘Steamshovel’ Banks, continued in the same vein. As a non-golfer, Raynor was perhaps not best placed to create inventive hole strategies from scratch – although the strength of his course portfolio testifies to his abilities in other areas, especially routing and construction – and his reliance on geometric forms on his golf courses suggests that his engineering and problem-solving skills were stronger than his artistry.

The prominence of Macdonald and Raynor courses in early US golf means that a high proportion of American golfers – or at least a high proportion of top-end American golfers – have grown up playing courses that are, in large measure, based on template holes. There are Redan holes spread all over American golf courses, from Shinnecock Hills (the only hole on that course that can be attributed to Macdonald, its original designer, rather than William Flynn, who remodelled it some years later) to Apache Stronghold, Tom Doak’s course on a Native American reserve an hour to the east of Phoenix, Arizona.

The example of Doak is an interesting one, as he is currently engaged in creating the ‘template of templates’ on behalf of developer Mike Keiser at Bandon Dunes in Oregon. The fourth course at Bandon, dubbed ‘Old Macdonald’, has been flagged up as a tribute to Macdonald and Raynor, and is intended to feature a selection of their template holes. Knowing Doak, not to mention his collaborators on the course, it’s surely the case that these holes will be carefully chosen to fit properly on the land available. But it remains a little surprising that one of today’s leading golf designers – and one who views the profession as artistry, rather than engineering – should take on a project in which he is required to sublimate his creative urges to enter into the mindset of a long-dead predecessor.

Kingsbarns architect Kyle Phillips admits the line between inspiration and appropriation is a fine one. “On a number of occasions I’ve seen or played holes that I thought were great in concept, and realised that the concept would fit well on a particular project. But that’s different from copying holes,” he says. “The sixth at Kingsbarns is a pretty good example. I stole the concept from the fourth at Spyglass Hill – the strategy off tee is similar, the green is in a bathtub and falls away. On both holes, if you play left, you have a more difficult approach. But the landform is completely different, and the holes play differently as a result.”

Phillips is a little more negative, though, about those who bandy around template holes, claiming to spot inspiration in unusual places. “I’ve always been kind of cynical of people who can sit around in cocktail bars and talk about ‘this hole is a Redan’ without knowing much about architecture,” he says. “But it is interesting to recognise similar strategies. Take the Road Hole at St Andrews, which has been copied on a number of occasions. A green I’ve never heard associated with the Road Hole but resembles it to me is the fourteenth at Pebble Beach. It rises at the front, and there’s a bunker in the same sort of place, and a hazard behind. That’s quite similar to the Road Hole approach, but I’ve never heard anyone say there was a conscious attempt to copy it.

“The Redan hole at Shinnecock Hills is about as good as any. But it’s not the real thing: the real Redan is unique and so tough – it’s not just the diagonal and the front landform that makes you feel it’s sweeping you towards the green. It’s so easy to deflect the ball into the back bunkers. If you tried to replicate that millimetre by millimetre, golfers would say it was unfair. You’d be chastised for it, but having a reference from the past makes it acceptable. Maybe that’s the best reason for using template forms.”

If template holes have a long pedigree, a more recent development is the replica golf course, on which every hole is based on a famous precursor. A key difference between template and replica holes is in the aesthetics – the replica designer seeks to emulate not only the strategy, but also the look of the original hole as closely as possible. Typically, the replica designer will pick holes that resonate with the audience, through repeated viewing on TV, or a connection with a famous championship of the past. It might be a Disney-esque version of golf, but it is one that seems to be taking off.

American golf designer Dave Edsall, based in Maryland, close to Washington DC, has built a number of replica golf courses. He says that, in a competitive golf market, such developments make sense purely from a financial point of view. “Obviously, if you’re building a golf course, you want to offer something that other developers can’t,” he says. “A replica course has immediate impact, because the concept itself is the draw. With most golf developments, it takes time to drive business up to a profitable level, but with the replica courses I’ve built, the first years have typically been the best.”

Edsall chooses his holes from a wide portfolio, but knows on which side his bread is buttered. “Amen Corner is featured on all my replica courses,” he says. “So is the seventeenth at Sawgrass, the island green hole. But in this day and age you can go on the internet and get aerials of any hole you like. Of holes we’ve flown, I’ve got maybe 50 courses on file. But I go for courses, rather than holes, because in most cases, it’s the golf course the viewers remember. As an example, on one course I built a replica of the fifteenth at English Turn. Everyone who watches professional golf knows the course, but not the hole. The importance lies is making the player think about being on the course, rather than on the particular hole.

Edsall’s Renditions course in Maryland features many of his favourite replicas. “Here at Renditions, number 12 is Carnoustie’s sixth hole, Hogan’s Alley,” he says. “I played it two weeks after the 1999 Open, and you’d have been hard pressed to say you weren’t on the real tee. That’s probably my favourite of all the holes I’ve built, because it’s fun to play. We’ve got the out of bounds picket fence, and the bunkers in exactly the places they should be. It looks just right.”

Replica courses are rapidly gaining popularity, and not just in the States. The six hole ‘Majors’ course built by Peter McEvoy at Northwick Park in London might feature replicas of the Postage Stamp at Troon, and the twelfth and sixteenth holes at Augusta National – among the most famous holes in golf – but it also includes holes much less familiar to a British audience, and whose pedigree depends entirely on their presence on famous golf courses.

Edsall reckons this doesn’t necessarily matter. “The replica courses are generally fun to play, because you don’t have a single theme that runs through the course,” he says. “Older architects have said ‘The course doesn’t flow’ – well, that’s what we’re aiming for. Hole number one might be a desert course, number two might be based on Augusta. It never gets old because it’s always changing.”

In the US, this kind of course has already achieved significant traction. Jack Nicklaus’s firm has even managed to replicate itself in multiple locations – the Bear’s Best courses, which feature replicas of holes from the Nicklaus portfolio, have already been built in Las Vegas and Atlanta. And courses focusing on copies of classic links holes from the UK – the ultimate conclusion of the Macdonald/Raynor blueprint, if you like, have been built in several spots, with Perry Dye’s Royal Links in Las Vegas and Tripp Davis’ The Tribute in Dallas being key examples.

From the developer’s perspective, it’s easy to see the attractions of the replica course. Golf development is generally a marginal activity, with other factors, such as housing, typically driving profitability. But the replica course, even if it is never going to win awards for design excellence, might well attract players more easily than a typical affordable or mid-level golf course. And, on top of that, Edsall says it is very cost-effective in construction. “If the routing is done right and the holes go where they’re supposed to go then it’s a contractor’s dream,” he says. “Noone comes out and says ‘This green needs to be three feet lower, this tee needs to be over there’. Once the drawings are all complete and you have a contractor who can follow blueprints then it can be built in half the time of a normal course. When I do a site visit I’m not there to judge the playability of a hole, I’m there to see if you’ve built it to plan. For example. we once had a plan with a hole from Shinnecock Hills in the routing, and once we cleared the site we realised it wouldn’t fit on the land. So we just picked another hole. It speeds up construction. You can get so accurate in your earthmoving that you reduce the number of change orders, and that really cuts your costs.”

“When name designers go to a course they are going to make changes, that’s what they’re there for,” says Edsall. “I’m not going to do that, I just want to know you’ve built it the way I planned it. Most contractors can follow a plan.”

This article first appeared in issue 9 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2007.

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