Are we reaching the end of the restoration era?

  • Clinton CC

    Kyle Phillips’ work at The California Club was an exceptional combination of restoration with renovation

Ian  Andrew
By Ian Andrew

The restoration movement began at places like the National Golf Links of America, where golf course superintendent Karl Olson began to remove trees and uncover lost bunkers. Slowly he peeled away the layers and rediscovered the original golf course dimensions, restoring the intended concepts and returning the original opportunities.

At the time, golf design was becoming about celebrity and name recognition. Many architects were trying to expand their own legacies and were willing to alter even famous Golden Age courses. Many of these architects believed they were better than the original architect, so it was out with the old and in with the new. They went into most renovation work with the arrogant assumption that they would eventually rebuild the entire course in their own style. This was an aggressive period of golf architecture and one that saw the wilful destruction of some very iconic pieces of architecture for personal gratification.

The Donald Ross Society was formed in response to some of the more egregious work, specifically as a reaction to a couple of particular renovations to his work. Society members were frustrated after watching original Ross work disappear, and felt it was in the best interest of golf to learn more about his designs, which would lead to the preservation of more of Ross’s original work. Their efforts to promote preservation led to the idea of restoration. A few dedicated architects and many club historians began to actively research their courses’ histories. The use of aerial photos, historical photos and even original plans began. This led to the earliest attempts to revert features and even courses back to their original form.

The restoration movement was born of frustration. But it flourished through success. Once prominent clubs had come on board and provided high profile examples, other lesser known examples of Golden Age works, in the same area, would also embrace their heritage and look for a restorative approach.

Eventually it became the key phrase for getting architectural work done at private clubs. Interestingly, at the same point it began to flourish, Tom Doak, one of the earliest people to perform restoration work, cautioned: “Not every golf course should be restored.”

Early on, there were a lot of very honest and accurate restorations. The concept was exceptionally popular with memberships and particularly with players who were knowledgeable about architectural history. It didn’t take long for renovation architects to seize on the phrase and call their works restorative to sell a project that truth be told was just another insensitive renovation. The fight for the right to use the word restoration was on.

It was during this initial stage that I canvassed the leading restoration architects on how much change they believed was acceptable when restoration was the goal. The interesting thing I found was pretty much everyone agreed that some accommodation had to be made for the golf ball. Some, like myself, felt relocating a few fairway bunkers was acceptable, whereas others felt a lot more latitude was necessary to address issues of distance. They reasoned they could completely recreate the original feature in a new location.

The most interesting conversation revolved around the use of short grass. Tight puttable chipping areas were very effective at showcasing the contours of the ground and returning the ground game. But this was not restoration. The tight turf around greens we think of today did not exist until the equipment was developed to deliver those playing conditions. The ground game options we currently enjoy are actually only about thirty years old. Every one of the architects felt that if tight short grass made the game more interesting, and they did not need to alter original ground features, that this was an acceptable improvement and did not compromise the spirit of restoration.

The truth is, all restorations contain compromises and adjustments, whether for time, equipment or circumstance. While I have intentionally done one absolutely pure restoration where I put back everything, warts and all, the remaining projects are full of decisions. Unfortunately, restorative work has very few simple black and white decisions. We are missing information, evolution has altered the property, communities grow up around golf courses and technology always wins. Often what we decide is based upon multiple competing shades of grey where we interpret or make a choice. A pure restoration is an extremely rare event.

In recent years the biggest change in golf architecture is the lack of opportunity to build new courses. This is an essential outlet for architects to express the grandest ideas and express the features and concepts that they believe will be most appreciated in play. That work, except for a handful of very successful architects, has completely dried up. This means architects only have renovation work to showcase their creativity.

The other influential factor is there have been some exceptional hybrid projects that combine restoration with renovation. The California Club by Kyle Phillips may be the most famous. Kyle built a series of brand new holes to solve some sequential problems while restoring the remainder of the course. He did such an outstanding job of tying the new holes into the original architecture that he has presented an even stronger course than a restoration would have achieved. This caused quite a few architects to alter their mindset on restorative work. 

I recently listened to an interview with Keith Foster where he said that he looks at what makes the golf course better and doesn’t let the original forms prevent him from incorporating a better idea. While he does collect historical information to work with, he begins without it and lets the landscape dictate where he should go. He clearly restores some attributes, but changes others when he feels he will achieve a better end. Then, most importantly, he works extremely hard to tie it all back into one cohesive historical looking form. What’s interesting is these projects are still being called restorative works.

Minimalism is now the dominant school of design. Many of those architects have worked, at some point, on restorative projects. I’ve noticed as their careers evolve, they are beginning to show more flexibility in their decision-making process. I’m finding more and more that these architects have begun to take Keith and Kyle’s approach to restoration projects. They are sympathetic to the original architecture, but far more willing to tweak or even change the features.

There is still restorative work being done by a small handful of guys, who will always remain largely unknown. But many have mentioned that the new restoration projects just aren’t coming any more. The movement was pretty successful and most of the significant courses have been restored or preserved. But the architects also point out that in recent years the clubs they work with are not as adamant about preservation and restoration as they were ten or twenty years ago. They are thinking a lot more along the lines of the hybrid approach. They want to make sure their course reflects the change in equipment and remains relevant today. Their history matters to them still, but it’s no longer the definitive decision maker on exactly what gets done.

The movement that began with Karl Olson and others permeates all the work done today. Architects now do a much better job of working with the original fabric, features and ideas. They may choose to make important changes to the structure, but they will do that within the context of the original work. They will also identify and preserve the most interesting original features out of respect to the original designer. The still leans hard towards restorative, but like any successful movement, restoration has run its full course. The current work remains respectful, but it’s beginning to make larger departures, because the architects are far more adept at hiding their handiwork and fooling you into believe it was a restoration. Perhaps Tom Doak was right when he said not everything should be preserved, but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t look and feel like it was anyway.

Ian Andrew is a golf course architect based in Ontario, Canada

This article first appeared in issue 51 of Golf Course Architecture