The birth of the modern

The birth of the modern
Sean Dudley

Adam Lawrence explains why he believes Harry Colt to be the most important designer in the history of golf.

A number of men demand consideration when trying to identify the greatest golf architect in the game’s history.

Alister MacKenzie, designer of three courses included in most lists of the top ten in the world is an obvious contender. Charles Blair Macdonald, whose role in the spread of golf to the US was so crucial, is another. Some could argue for Willie Park Jr, widely believed to be the first man to construct, rather than find a great course, or Donald Ross, whose work brought high quality golf to so much of America.

More recently, Robert Trent Jones and Pete Dye will go down in history as towering figures, the first for creating the industry as we now know it, and the second for the breadth of his vision and the brilliant designers who grew up under his wing. But for me, the greatest golf course designer that ever lived is Harry Shapland Colt.

It’s no coincidence that Colt was the first Pioneer we covered in these pages, back when GCA started publishing in 2005. But Bruce Critchley’s profile, excellent primer on the man’s life and career though it was, could not do more than scratch the surface of Colt’s importance and legacy. For, when we examine the history of golf course architecture closely, it becomes clear that much of what we now know about the art has its roots in Colt.

Ironically, much of this is about what Colt is, or was, not. He was not the first designer to build a great strategic golf course from scratch on an inland site – that title goes to Willie Park Jr at Sunningdale, as is well known. But Park’s courses of that period, though hugely important in the history of golf design, bore little resemblance to what we now see as Golden Age design. One has only to read Bernard Darwin’s description of Sunningdale, written around 1910 for The Golf Courses of the British Isles to realise that Park’s course, major leap forward though it was, needed the finishing touches that Colt applied in his years as the club’s secretary.

“The seventh is a bone of contention, some averring that it is a fine ‘sporting’ hole, while others have no names too bad for it; when not alluded to with profanity it is generally known as the ‘Switch-back’ hole. Those who like a blind tee-shot and a blind second will admire it, and those who don’t won’t, and there is the whole matter in a very small compass,” wrote Darwin, his words dripping with irony.

Sunningdale’s seventh as we see it today is a very different hole. The blind tee shot, surely among the steepest hills to be cleared with a driver anywhere in golf, remains, but the second is Colt’s creation, a thing of beauty across a valley to a high green. Park’s green, which was lower and to the left, was abandoned many years ago.

Anyone who doubts that Sunningdale as Park built it looked very different from the course we see today can see the evidence before them, by visiting a couple of Park’s other courses. Huntercombe in Oxfordshire, built at the same time as Sunningdale, but much less touched over the years, or the Burhill Old course in Surrey, dating from a full decade later, give us a good idea of Park’s design style of the day. Both are excellent golf courses, and Huntercombe in particular is a gem that every golfer interested in course design should see, as a case study of how to create interesting, challenging holes on a relatively nondescript site, without much in the way of earthmoving.

But both show it was Colt, not Park, who made the key advances in understanding how to build artificial features and make them look natural. The grassy hollows and abrupt mounds that characterise both courses serve their purpose most effectively. But natural? I hardly think so. Park’s influence on golf design was immense; he was the first to prove that a great course could be constructed on an inland site. Aesthetically, though, he was not, at that time, capable of making his constructed features blend in to the natural environment.

It is interesting to compare Colt’s work around the end of the first decade of the century – at Swinley Forest, for example – with the pioneering work being done in America at the time by Charles Blair Macdonald and his engineering associate Seth Raynor. Macdonald’s conception of strategic golf was unmatched; his extensive surveys of ‘ideal’ holes, designed to produce a course with a perfect balance of challenges, still stand up to examination now. And, as many will tell you, there is beauty in the geometric forms used by Macdonald and Raynor on their courses; their lack of intrusive visual clutter enables golf holes and surroundings to coexist happily. But again, natural? I think not.

Colt promoted his naturalistic aesthetic. “It is by no means so widely recognised that the ‘landscape’ aspect of actual construction plays an important part in securing the popularity of a golf-course,” he wrote in his book Some Essays on Golf-Course Architecture. “The appreciation of pleasant surroundings is often subconscious, and many golfers are no doubt under the impression that while they are playing they are entirely engrossed in the game. When they go away to play golf they select a beautiful place for choice, because they realise that, while not playing golf, they will enjoy having something to look at. But, so far as the links is concerned, they imagine that the quality of the golf is all that matters.”

Colt’s ideas on visuals were not just about aesthetics. He certainly believed that courses should be created to sit lightly on their environment, and he showed, on projects like Swinley, that he was capable to making created features blend with natural ones in this way. But his concern for visibility reflects a key trend that would continue throughout the twentieth century and to our present day. Given the amount of work he and his associates carried out on many of Britain and Ireland’s old links, surely no architect in history has been responsible for removing so many blind holes?

Nineteenth century golf’s attitude to blindness seems to have been a mixture of necessity and bravado. For sure, with no ability to make significant alterations to the natural grades, combined with the need, in a pre-irrigation era, to put greens in locations that would collect water, blind shots were inevitable. But the bravado side was important too: faced with a group of friends, shooting the breeze as men do, and equipped with clubs and balls that made getting shots airborne difficult, it’s not surprising that so many links included a hole that went straight over the top of the property’s largest dune!

These attitudes started to change in the early twentieth century. Darwin’s writings show distaste for excessive blindness, and it’s clear that Colt shared the same views. Colt also looked for natural, elevated plateaus for his greens, and if he couldn’t have them naturally, was quite prepared to build them. While, in many cases, this created a minor degree of blindness, as the base of the flag might not be visible, the move away from greens in hollows and to pushed-up putting surfaces is among the most significant changes in course design.

Alister MacKenzie, for a few years Colt’s partner – though the relationship seems always to have been semi-detached – is probably most often named as golf’s greatest designer. MacKenzie clearly has a strong claim to the title, given his portfolio of courses, and his role in spreading the game, especially in Australia (see GCA issue 24, page 18 for more on MacKenzie in Australia). MacKenzie-philes point to, as I mentioned at the head of this article, his three greatest courses and suggest that Colt’s portfolio, though undeniably broad, is perhaps lacking at the very top.

For me, this misses Colt’s importance. If Colt’s greatest original courses – Swinley, Sunningdale’s New course – are not quite up there with Augusta, Royal Melbourne or Cypress Point, we can’t ignore the fact that much of his best work, at Royal Portrush and Muirfield, for example, took the form of revisions of earlier courses. But Colt’s true legacy is that he was the key figure in the creation of golf design’s Golden Age. More than any other person, he defined golf course architecture as a discipline, and, through his partnership with Hugh Alison and John Morrison, influenced golf’s spread across Europe and many other parts of the world. His influence is felt to this day, and he remains the industry’s most significant figure.

This article first appeared in GCA issue 27, published January 2012.