I have been working as a golf course architect with Jansen Golf Design for the last few years and have been an observer of golf course design since the day I could hit the ball further than 100 yards.
Working in this profession, but having never seen the links of Scotland, I was feeling more and more like I was standing in my own way of personal development. Scotland is the home of golf, and, more importantly to me, golf course design. So, in February this year, armed with an ambitious itinerary of 22 courses in 14 days, I packed up my clubs and every piece of rain gear I had and, with the promise of gorgeous Scottish winter weather, set off across the Atlantic.
I played North Berwick, Gullane, Kilspindie, Renaissance, Musselburgh, Elie, Crail, the Old (twice) and New at St Andrews, Carnoustie, Panmure, Royal Aberdeen, Murcar, Cruden Bay, Brora, Royal Dornoch, Gleneagles King’s and Queen’s, Western Gailes, Prestwick, Royal Troon and Turnberry – in that order. Some may say I’m the luckiest man on earth. Others will say that I missed at least a dozen more (and I know that they’re right!).
What I found over there is the subject of this observational writing. I won’t mention how kind the people are, how polarising haggis is, how beautiful the countryside is, not even how links golf is the truest and most enjoyable form of our game. All these things have been written about, because they are all 100 per cent true. I want to write about a more curious observation, one that I don’t have the answer for.
When we look at the links of Scotland, when we talk about the great majesty and rich history of the game’s first courses, when we experience them in a crash course like I did, the question is bound to arise: is it good because it was there, or is it good because it’s great?
Take the Old course for example, exhaustedly studied. Every hill, hollow, bump, bunker and bridge has been examined and re-examined by people just like me. Hundreds, if not thousands, of books have been published, for over a hundred years, all pointing towards the fact that the Old is golf in its truest form. I don’t think the significance of the Old course’s influence can be argued – it’s the central birthing ground of golf as we know it today. However, its simple existence is what begs the question again: is it good because it was there, or is it good because it’s great?
When Old Tom Morris and his predecessors were laying out golf holes, did they know what they were creating? Or the legacy it would hold? Or the impact it would have on those who seek the perfect routing hundreds of years later? When they placed what is now the eleventh green up on a ridge in front of the sea, and put shovels in the ground to dig the Strath bunker, did they know that their Eden design would be replicated countless times all around the globe? Or that it would be considered among the best par-three designs in the world?
The same goes for the Redan at North Berwick, the Alps at Prestwick, and countless other inspirational golf holes that have written the rule book of golf course architecture and have provided definitions for strategy, risk-reward, routing, and all the basic commandments we as golf course architects think of as great.
This thought struck me during my second round of the Old course. There I was, on the second green, admiring the wild shapes and mass of contouring. Taking it all in, I asked myself the ‘what if’ question of the course being laid out on a dead-flat site and how that would change the centuries of golf design that followed it. Would we now think about it and come to same conclusion? Or that it was unobjectionably great? Or would the Old course stand as a historical relic only, with some other site being recognised as the first ‘great design’? Was the evolution of golf design always going to lead us to where we are today, or was it that specific piece of land that is the original ancestor in golf’s genealogy?
All the great golf course architects I have met have told me time and time again that great golf comes from a great site. They’re undoubtedly right, but what I found most fascinating about standing on that green that it was ‘this’ site that gave credence to the whole idea. To our whole profession. More than likely, just by being there is exactly what makes the links courses of Scotland so great. At the very least, the fact that they were laid out exactly where they were is what makes them so important.
So, is it good because it was there, or is it good because it’s great? It likens me to the adage, ‘what came first, the chicken or the egg?’. My only sensible conclusion being – maybe it doesn’t matter and maybe it’s both. Thank the golfing gods it happened like it did because now it is a part of our beautiful, historic game. One thing to be sure, my time on the linksland has inspired me to keep studying, keep learning, keep thinking, keep taking risks, and keep driving my work, perhaps one day to be talked about the way I speak about our predecessors here.
Rob Gavarkovs is a golf course architect and partner at Pelz Player Greens and Jansen Golf Design