Working on a historic golf course is both a treat and a challenge for a golf architect. To follow in the footsteps of one of the giants of the profession is an honour, yet at the same time it brings its own difficulties. There may be conflict between the desire to preserve the original architect’s work and the wish, or even requirement in some cases, to remain relevant to the demands of modern play. In short, working on these courses requires a mix of knowledge, diplomacy and humility from an architect.
Lobb + Partners has been lucky enough to work on a good number of historically important courses. Based as we are in Surrey (with another office in British Columbia, Canada), we have a number of ongoing clients among the heathland courses south of London, the area where, in many ways, modern golf architecture was first conceived and executed. Lowland heath is a rare and precious ecosystem, and the southward development of the London suburbs and exurbs in the last 200 years has resulted in much of it being lost, and much of what remains being in the care of golf clubs. Until recently, heath has been in decline on most of the golf courses in the area: we are delighted and proud to be helping a number of clubs to reverse this trend. Authenticity of landscape is a vital part of our work. We seek, like the greats of yesteryear, to produce courses that sit lightly on their surrounding landscape. Golf has become too manicured in recent years, and we are happy that clubs now seem to appreciate the beauty and importance of the natural landscape. We aim to help them do so.
Our approach to a historic course starts, almost always, with thorough research. Golf courses are living, growing things and change every day; consequently, over a century and more, change is likely to be extensive, even if the holes have not been altered by the hand of man. Grass and trees grow; bunker edges and other earthworks erode. So comprehensive research to understand how the course was originally and how it has changed over time is vital. We make use of multiple sources: old aerial photographs are among the most useful, but club archives often contain hidden treasures such as reports and even plans from the original architects, as well as references to the course design in minute books and the like. We also like to interview long-standing members, who can often fill out our understanding of the course, and to review newspaper archives – which frequently provide us with remarkable material from the distant past. We work with specialist historians, notably Adam Lawrence of Oxford Golf Consulting, also the editor of Golf Course Architecture, to document the development of client clubs.
Across the world of golf, there are architects who have made a career of being a ‘specialist’ on the works of one particular old-time great. We do not make such a claim; we have worked on courses by architects such as Colt, Abercrombie and Park, and we make a sustained effort not to impose a pre-set view of ‘what a course by architect X should look like’, but instead, to identify and implement a solution that is appropriate to the situation and needs of the individual club. There are two key reasons for this: first, although there are commonalities across the works of the greats of the past, the central principle of all great architects is to be responsive to the individual site, and second, that it is impossible for the same response to be applicable to the present-day circumstances of all clubs.
To give a few examples of our historical work. At Willie Park Jr’s Huntercombe Golf Club in Oxfordshire, we have been retained architects for a number of years, recently adding ‘Park-like’ pits to the sixteenth hole, and, through tree and scrub clearance, revealing original Park work on other holes. “Tim and his team have the great skill of taking a piece of ground and making it better – no matter who the original architect was,” says club secretary Marcus Lovelock.
At Woking Golf Club, we have been working since 2014, initially on a report that traced the development of the course since its creation in 1893, and also on a replacement for the par-three sixteenth hole, whose green was too close to the property boundary for safety. More recently, working closely with course manager Andy Ewence and secretary Richard Pennell, we have helped the club undertake a large and very exciting piece of heath regeneration: the area between the second green and the eleventh fairway, about two acres was cleared of trees, and now, a year on, heather is starting to regrow. More such landscape regeneration work is planned around the course and as part of the golfing features.
At St Georges Hill Golf Club in Surrey, we have again been working with the club for a number of years. Renovation plans for the club’s Green nine, including a new green on the short par-four sixth, and a course history report, started the programme of work, but over time this has expanded. On the main course, we rebuilt the first green and fairway bunkering – which had been altered from Harry Colt’s original in the 1930s, and just recently we have enhanced the bunkers on Colt’s great par-four tenth to add heather, and removed intrusive (and pretty, but non-native) rhododendrons from the par-three eleventh.
In short, our approach when working on a classic course is always to be sensitive to its past, but conscious that it must serve the needs of those who use it today. Even classic courses can benefit from modern design and construction techniques (such as state-of-the-art bunker liners) that make them more sustainable and easier to maintain. Whether a project is run from our headquarters in the UK, or our Canadian office, our team is working together on a daily basis to achieve our most important goal: being respectful of history but always keeping an eye on the future.
Tim Lobb is the principal golf course architect at Lobb + Partners. This piece is a follow-up to the interview with Lobb that appeared in the April issue of GCA, where he discussed landscape and heather restoration work