Custodians of the course

  • Berwick
Mike Clayton
By Mike Clayton

During 2020’s difficult months, it has been a great pleasure to contribute this monthly column to Golf Course Architecture. I hope it has taken people’s minds away from the immediate problems and helped stimulate discussion and debate about those areas of this wonderful game which, in many cases and in my opinion, require action from policymakers.

To finish the year, I want to turn to another area which has vexed my peers for over a century – the governance of a club’s course committee.

In 1933, Alister MacKenzie wrote The Spirit of St Andrews. It expanded on Golf Architecture (1920) and has become one of course architecture’s great books. MacKenzie died not long after completing the manuscript, which lay dormant amongst a pile of family papers until the 1990s. To the game’s great fortune, his step-grandson discovered it and organised its belated publication.

For those who administer the game and those who worry about its future, MacKenzie addressed several of the problems which confront us today. He railed against the use of long rough as a penal hazard. He forcefully argued the ball was going too far. He told us why people gave up golf. He spoke of the role of committees.

Unsurprisingly for one with such strong and well-articulated opinions, he had little patience for committees and men he perceived as having little knowledge of the subject of his expertise.

Mackenzie said: “It is strange that a committee consisting of doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers who no doubt recognise the importance of mental training and experience in their own profession attach so little importance to it in golf course architecture.”

All architects work with committees and there is the long catalogue of problematic relationships between the two parties. That said, such stories can be contrasted with others that highlight committees that hold a clear purpose and vision and have been hugely beneficial for their golf course and, by natural extension, the club in question.

Committees can be difficult or productive depending on the wisdom and the agendas of the people sitting around the table. The quality of every golf course is dependent upon the sagacity of its custodians. Great custodians understand their golf course, its strengths, its weaknesses, and the fundamentals which can be altered as well as those much better left alone. They will have read at least one important book on the subject of course architecture, preferably more. They will have studied their course’s heritage and the key design principles that were deployed when it was built. If they really have a thirst for knowledge, they will also have studied the designer’s other work.

My questions to anybody sitting on a green committee who hasn’t read one of the many books available and studied their course in some detail would be: “Why are you on this committee? Why would you want to be involved in something so important, onerous, time consuming and usually thankless, yet have little interest in the subject?”

The answer gets to the heart of the problem.

So many people who play golf have little real interest in the game outside of their own games. They don’t read about it. They don’t think about it. They don’t go and watch it played at a high standard, whether at a professional or, rarer still, amateur level. They take from golf what they want. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that – we all experience the game differently.

What they inevitably do is form opinions around the game based entirely on their own experience of it. Especially in clubs with first-class courses, many attract professionally successful people who tend to be very comfortable with the worth of their opinions.

Perhaps their biggest misinterpretation of the game is that it should be ‘fair’ – this despite the best courses in the world being somewhat unfair. Has anyone who has ever studied the Old course thought of it as anything but unfair? The great challenge of the game is learning to deal with that inherent unfairness.

Golf was first played in Scotland because hitting a ball with a stick across the broken crumpled dunes which linked the sea to the farmland beyond made perfect sense. With no equipment capable of moving soil in any significant amounts, early golfers played across natural ground where uneven lies, blind shots and hazards in a direct line to the hole were a part of the fabric of the game.

Anything more than a rudimentary study of North Berwick, Muirfield or Prestwick (each quite different courses in their own ways) shows the observant golfer just how far the game has strayed from its roots and how many of the original concepts have been distorted.

Inevitably, the game changed as it migrated inland and away from the idyll of the seaside. It adapted well. Many brilliant inland golf courses were created all over the world. What changed was the introduction of the concept of ‘fairness’ and the idea formulated primarily by Americans (and largely adopted by my fellow Australians) that you had to be able to see where you were going. The notion of the ‘blind shot’ was somehow seen as silly, of a poor design and to be avoided by course architects at all costs.

Bunkers in the middle of fairways came to be viewed as poor hazards catching ‘perfect’ drives. If the measure of a perfect shot is its position in relation to the following one, how could a drive into a bunker possibly be regarded as ‘perfect’?!

The most worn-out modern cliché of them all is that the course ‘should be playable for all standards of players’. It’s the moniker for every marketing document sprouting every new course to ensure it is attractive to both investors and new members. St Andrews might be the most playable of them all but try building an opening hole where having to carry a stream cutting right across the front of the first green is unavoidable. Imagine trying to sell the principle of a course with any number of bunkers strewn randomly across the landscape, many of which are blind and from which escape by a less than competent player is all but impossible. At St Andrews, Muirfield, Prestwick and North Berwick, it’s part of the game.

There are many enormous greens at Muirfield and North Berwick running fifty paces from front to back. At St Andrews, you can be forty yards short of the fifth green and still have 120 to go to reach the hole.

At North Berwick’s thirteenth hole (pictured), players have to pitch the second shot across an ancient stone wall predating the course. Two holes later comes the Redan, a blind par three and a hole to spawn hundreds of imitations all around the world. The critics of the blind seventeenth hole at Kingston Heath should spend a few minutes contemplating the Alps hole at Prestwick, with its blind second across the dune to a green protected by a massive bunker also unseen from the fairway. It is a little crazy, and there is no way an architect could create such a hole today without criticism, but its spirit and what it stands for makes it one of the game’s most important holes.

At Muirfield, regarded by many as the fairest of all Open courses, there are deep and fearsome bunkers well short of several of the greens and directly across the route to the hole. In many cases, they don’t affect the better players unless they drive into trouble. But in this age, hazards only affecting poor players are seen as bad hazards. Few see them making the game interesting for players of all standards. Why must hazards only be placed for good players?

St Andrews is always the most interesting place to observe the game. Whether in the flesh or on television, all who watch championships at the Old course should thank the Scots for what they gave us. Next time something unfair happens to you, appreciate their sporting instincts and their understanding of how to make golf the most interesting game of all.

Please also bear a thought for Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross and the other travelling Scots who transported this spirit to the world. It’s a pity it has been distorted in so many places where golfers have attempted to sanitise the game to the point where it is utterly ‘fair’, dull and predictable. It wasn’t always thus.

At CDP, we have recently begun our long-term project to restore The Addington in South London. We shall be bringing back many of Abercromby and Colt’s most interesting and idiosyncratic features. Natural landforms that have been consumed by vegetation will be restored and the enormous and, in some cases, outlandish greens will be reinstated. Mike DeVries and Frank Pont have just finished a less onerous mission but with similar objectives at Bloomfield Hills Country Club in Detroit. Whenever the three of us restore such courses, we seek to force golfers to consider different, out-of-the-ordinary challenges. They may not be entirely ‘fair’ but they are invariably a great deal more fun and inspiring than more run-of-the-mill offerings. They also respect and honour the architects who designed them and the qualities of the old Scottish courses.

There is a vast wealth of information out there for the average green committee member to digest and consider. The best goodwill that a club could offer to its committee members this festive season would be a copy of The Spirit of St Andrews in their stockings.

Merry Christmas.

This is the final article in a series from Mike Clayton, a partner at golf architecture firm Clayton, DeVries & Pont.

Read more:
Uninspiring venues do golf no favours – November 2020
Rein in the ball or prepare for bludgeon – October 2020
The irresistible variety of British courses – September 2020
Design rankings or beauty contents? – August 2020
Rough justice – July 2020
Tree-free golf – July 2020
Brown is just fine – June 2020