Talk to any expert on Harry Colt's designs, and the word that will be used most often is 'natural'. Colt sought, above all, to make his courses appear as though they were the product of the forces of wind and water, not the scraper and the shovel.
Architect Martin Hawtree is as wellplaced as anyone to pass comment on Colt's intentions. His father, Fred, wrote a well-respected biography of Colt, and Martin has worked on the restoration of several of Colt's courses.
Some architects dislike redesign work, because their client is a greens committee, if not an entire membership.
Hawtree, who is currently working on a restoration of Colt's course at Toronto Golf Club, is not one of them, seeing it as more of a professional challenge. "When I first went to Toronto and Hamilton, I knew immediately it was Colt's work from the selection of green sites and the routing of the course to reach them," he says. "With every green, you know exactly why he has put it there. At Belvoir Park in Belfast, it's just the same – he has spent lots of time routing the course to make use of the excellent green sites he found.
"At Toronto, we're really trying to get back to the spirit of Colt," he says. "Over the years, the bunkers have been changed quite considerably, and we're trying to rough the golf course up a little. At most Colt courses, you find that the styling of the bunkers has disappeared, and, since the bunkering and the greens are the keys to his style, it is important to rediscover the original feel. We have put in place a five year plan for the restoration of the course that involves returning to the original grasses as much as possible, and getting rid of lots of trees that have grown up in the intervening years."
Colt's 1913 report on the Toronto course demonstrates clearly his mania for making artificial hazards look as natural as possible. "The banks of some of the bunkers can be easily modified, and if 'torn' out of the hills and natural undulations made, will look more natural. The sand can be added so as to give a good effect by allowing it to 'splash' up against the banks and look as if it had been blown by the wind, and the margins can be made quite irregular and rough," he wrote.
Returning to Colt's original style can involve making decisions that go against received wisdom, both in terms of the modern liking for more groomed golf courses, and in traditions that have grown up.
Hawtree cites the use of revetted faces for bunkers on links courses as one such example. "In the west of Ireland, there is no tradition of revetting bunkers," he says. "At Portrush and Sligo, the members were faced with the question of whether the bunkers should be revetted, or whether they should have sand faces. They decided to retain the sand faces, out of respect for what they believed were Colt's original intentions."
Restoration work on Colt's courses has often revealed the true genius of his designs. "It's very noticeable that many greens have shrunk over the years," says Hawtree. "Features such as bunkers, hollows, and swales are a long way from the putting surface. I believe the greens originally extended out to these features – and viewing those areas as part of the greens often reveals some great pin positions."
In particular, as architects such as Colt built their greens for conditions much slower than is familiar nowadays, the contouring of the greens is typically significantly more extravagant than one might see on a modern course – and clubs with such greens need to think long and hard about the right condition for their courses. "The secret is finding the right balance of enjoyment and challenge," says Martin Hawtree. "Colt's courses are designed to challenge the good golfer, but he was always concerned with playability, and it's important to keep that in mind."
This article first appeared in issue 1 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2005.