Change for change’s sake?

  • Links golf
    Clyde Johnson

    At Seacroft, Clyde Johnson restored a deep bowl to the front-right of the sixteenth green

  • Links golf
    Getty Images/ David Cannon

    The par-four eighth at Royal Portrush, a necessity and design triumph for the 2019 Open, but original Colt greens were lost

Ally McIntosh
By Ally McIntosh

All things change. Most things veer to the right, a move that comes with either age and experience or spent dreams and a hardening heart depending on your point of view. The head-on rush to embrace conservatism affects all walks of life: a socialist starts to question his youthful values; a wild child becomes an established member of the bourgeoisie; a links golf course removes its quirky edges as successive generations conform to some arbitrary ‘norm’.

Aside from having their pick of the land, early course architects had one huge advantage over their modern equivalents; they weren’t bound by pre-conceptions of how a golf course should play and what it should look like.

These days, we have 150 years of history, millions of consumers and nearly as many administrators reminding us what they expect to see and pay for in their golf courses. But back in those halcyon days of the late 1800s where the motto may well have been ‘anything goes’, holes were laid out because they amused and cajoled those that would play them. “Look at that huge sandhill there!” one could imagine Victorian golfers saying. “Let’s play straight over it. Wouldn’t that be a laugh?”

How things have changed. The rough and ready side of golf course architecture slowly diminished through the twentieth century. By introducing the strategic school, the virtuoso architects of the roaring twenties were innovative with hole routings and hazard placements, but they were already moving away from lay-of-the land green sites to a more built solution, ‘modern’ design as Bernard Darwin called it. Colt, MacKenzie, Ross et al introduced the concept of the golf course as we know it today. Links courses had their greens relocated from low-lying punchbowls to visible and water shedding high points. Many of the more outrageous dune carries were eradicated for a more sensible, more mature, less maverick alternative. Think the original Maiden at Sandwich for one.

We’d be hard pushed to find anyone – save perhaps a direct descendent of Old Tom himself – that would argue that the changes these pioneers brought about did not vastly improve our links courses. Each one remained individual, subtle and governed by the land it lay upon. Their potential had been maximised. It wasn’t called the Golden Age for nothing.

The trouble is, we had to keep tinkering. Human nature just won’t leave anything be. The floodgates didn’t open initially but since the advent of social media and the internet, the perceived need for clubs to keep up with the Joneses has accelerated exponentially. Instant gratification is king. Subtlety has left the building.

Architects might argue that they are only serving a club’s needs when called upon to present renovation plans. But there is a duty of care where at every step of the process, the first question should be: “Why does this need to be changed?” This isn’t happening regularly enough, the result being that our links courses – once the bastion of individuality, quirk and variety – are moving towards homogenisation, similar solutions being applied to them all. Like a slow-growing tree, many of these courses have evolved to be unrecognisable from when they were initially routed, the magnitude of change often unrealised by the members. Almost always, they come to resemble their neighbours and brethren more closely, the maverick touches disappearing with time. Individuality removed; death by a thousand cuts.

There are always reasons, many of them very valid. Erosion can bring about changes as storms batter the first line of defence (though if one green is lost to the sea, don’t reroute three holes). Health and safety concerns need to be addressed (but tend to be overplayed on courses that have stood the test of time for longer than any of us). Championship logistics require changes to accommodate spectator flow and infrastructure (yet seem to always come with additional reshaped greens and new bunkers).

To enable Royal Portrush to host the 2019 Open, space was needed for the tented village. The removal of the old seventeenth and eighteenth and replacement with two fantastic holes over ground occupied by the Valley course was both a necessity and a design triumph. But the eradication of other original Colt greens and movement of bunkers is perhaps one example of where that ‘why?’ should have been quizzed further. Across our courses, classic greens get removed one by one, fairway bunkers are relocated to test only the elite players and quirky holes are done away with because a club might have delusions of grandeur that one day it will need to be fit for Rory, Dustin et al. It all feels a little like designing to standard.

The same can be said with the look and feel. Presently there is a worldwide obsession (it has gone well beyond a trend) to build naturalised, frilly edged bunkers and open ‘waste’ areas. An admiral goal and all well and good if scraped out of original, sandy landforms. Retrofitting them to flatter dune systems that have long ago stabilised and succeeded to grass can seem contrived, especially when the bunkers are housed in custom-built mounds disconnected from the original dune ridges. The touted ecosystem improvements that come with exposing open sand seem minimal at best, a fabricated storyline at worst.

Stylistically, work should be sympathetic to the individual links landscape that is presented, not a copy/paste answer to every problem posed. The new par-three fifteenth at Royal Liverpool is a spectacular addition but hopelessly out of tune with the elegant subtlety of one of England’s most understated classics, just one example of many where a dramatic photograph for the global audience is prioritised over harmony with the other seventeen holes. It would fit far more snugly in Ireland’s rugged west coast dunes, among the untamed blowouts and wild Atlantic Ocean.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that all change is bad; or that there isn’t excellent work happening throughout GB&I. Much of what we are seeing improves our courses. Almost all of it is executed with high professionalism and precision. Some of it is even necessary. Whether it is Tom Mackenzie’s playful rejuvenation of Trevose, Clyde Johnson’s low-budget and loving update to Seacroft, Ken Kearney’s measured work at Ardglass or Martin Ebert’s superb alterations to the tenth and fifteenth at Royal Troon, there are intriguing projects happening continuously.

But my plea to clubs and architects alike is to pause and question the need before ploughing headfirst into major builds. Links land was formed over thousands of years and no hand of man can replicate the elements exactly. Respect the past and if work is agreed to proceed, remember that variety can be a welcome bedfellow to restraint. As Joni Mitchell once reminded us, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”.

Dublin-based architect Ally McIntosh is the principal of McIntosh Golf Design

This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.