Continuing our ‘My Top Ten’ series, we asked Icelandic designer Edwin Roald about his favourite golf courses.
Before moving to England to study golf course architecture, I enrolled at the University of Iceland to study history. I quit before the first class, told my parents that I couldn’t do it and went abroad to follow my love for golf and passion for golf architecture.
But history has always intrigued me. Ever since, I have seen myself as one of the self-proclaimed golf historians. In 1999 I wrote an essay titled ‘The Ten Most Influential Golf Course Designs in a Historical Context’. Since then, I have played or visited most of the courses on that list. Regretfully, I still have not visited Pinehurst, Harbour Town or Sand Hills. These were either on my original list or possible candidates for inclusion in a revised edition. The following is, therefore, a modified list of the most influential courses that I have either played or visited.
1. The Old course at St Andrews, Scotland. Most people seem to be under the impression that the Old course is held in high regard mostly due to its age, its status as the home of golf, and all the history around it. But there is much more to it, I assure you. For example, it is in many ways the birthplace of strategy in golf and golf course design. This is largely due to the widening of the course, driven by Old Tom Morris, alongside changes in the development of the golf ball. The course is also the reason why we play eighteen holes today. Actually, that was never planned… it was shortened from 22 holes to eighteen, seemingly because it was a more interesting layout on that site. You could say that this move was later misinterpreted in the gradual formation of the eighteen-hole convention throughout the world of golf.
2. Royal County Down, Northern Ireland. Along with Muirfield, Royal County Down was the first course featuring two loops of nine holes. Old Tom Morris broke away from the tradition of outward and inward nine holes, as seen on the Old course at St Andrews, and designed two sets of nine holes routed in opposite directions. The front nine playing clockwise and the back nine counterclockwise. In this manner, Old Tom made maximum use of the wind factor. In a short span it would be confronted from all angles, and it was guaranteed that the number of holes against the wind would not aggressively exceed the number of those played with the wind helping. Only once did three consecutive holes play in the same direction. Royal County Down could well be Old Tom’s best course, although it has been redesigned to some extent.
3. Woking, England. Woking is one of two courses on this list that I’ve picked from the many fantastic heathland courses of Surrey and Berkshire. This is where I received my golfing upbringing, so to speak, when studying in England. This is also where Stuart Paton and John Low spearheaded the beginning of a new era in golf architecture at the start of the 20th century by finally giving the newer, more engineered courses near London, the strategic and natural character found on the seaside links. The latter were found, and not built. This was epitomised by the placement of the central hazard on Woking’s fourth hole, a homage to the Principal’s Nose bunkers found on the sixteenth hole of the Old course at St Andrews.
4. Sunningdale (Old), England. The Old course at Sunningdale was originally designed by Willie Park in 1898 and was reportedly the first golf course created by clearing dense woodland. It was also grown-in entirely by seeding, which had not been done anywhere else. It even featured what may well be golf’s first artificially constructed water hazard – the pond on the fifth hole. The course was refined by Harry Colt during his tenure there as club secretary, during which he reintroduced some of the heathery features. He also expanded the playing areas somewhat to adapt the course to the dominating ball-change in worldwide golf: going from the gutta percha ball to the rubber core, which flew about fifteen to twenty per cent further. This course is the older sibling of what is perhaps the best 36-hole golf club in existence, and all less than 20 miles, as the crow flies, from the centre of London. It also has one of the best halfway houses in golf.
5. National Golf Links of America, New York. The designer and course developer, Charles Blair Macdonald, is regarded as one of the fathers of American golf and its architecture. After spending his younger years at St Andrews, under the wing of Old Tom Morris, before developing his own career, Macdonald wanted to introduce world-class golf architecture to America. The NGLA was the last of three landmark US courses, along with Myopia Hunt and Garden City, to be built around the same time. These were all laid out due to the demand of America’s better players for golfing grounds of higher quality. At the NGLA, Macdonald built several so-called template holes, based on some of Great Britain’s most celebrated golf holes. This is still something of a guilty pleasure among golf architects.
6. Cypress Point, California. Of all the architects operating in the 1920s, Alister MacKenzie was probably the most influential. His design philosophy set a standard for golf course architecture that even lives on today. Of all the great courses designed by the golf architects of the roaring twenties, Cypress Point may well be the cream of the crop. The Cypress Point project was, in many ways, the highlight of MacKenzie’s career. Here, he produced somewhat of an unusual routing to embrace the natural features and attractions of the site. This culminated in his use of two consecutive par threes, the fifteenth and sixteenth holes, on the remarkably picturesque clifftop edge of one of the world’s largest water hazards, the Pacific Ocean. There, MacKenzie’s flair combines with the rocks, the crashing waves, sea spray and cypress trees to form an unforgettable, revealing walk from the fourteenth green to the fifteenth tee. This has inspired many golf architects, and I am one, having used it as inspiration for my sixth and seventh holes at Sigló in Iceland.
7. Seminole, Florida. Donald Ross has undoubtedly left a lasting golf architecture legacy. From what I can see, Seminole is unique among his works and possibly one of the best examples we have to really understand how good he was. His routing across the modest dune ridge-flanked seaside site is most intriguing, where the vast majority of holes lead the player to the more interesting high country on both the east and west, without ever falling victim to the pitfalls of monotony, or a back-and-forth routing. The design features may also be considered more sympathetic to the site than those found on most Ross courses. It also has the best locker room in golf.
8. Royal Melbourne (West), Australia. Redesigned by Alister MacKenzie and Alex Russell, this is the only course in the southern hemisphere on this list. It is one of the world’s best courses and a worthy representative of Victoria’s sandbelt. Its quality is incomparable, as is the no-nonsense approach to golf course and bunker management that is exercised there. The stretch of holes from three to six is second to none. While there is water on the property, none of it really comes into play. If it does, then you really have done something wrong, to call upon the wrath of the golfing gods.
9. Augusta National, Georgia. In recent decades, ANGC has perhaps become more famous for being the only major always played at the same place, for the aesthetics owing to the intensive turf management and landscaping, and for the exceptionally difficult greens. Few seem to talk about the true genius behind the design. Here, Alister MacKenzie was able to introduce meaningful strategic elements, almost entirely through topography. This was also achieved by, and while, incorporating multiple elements found on the Old course at St Andrews, one of the major sources of inspiration for MacKenzie and Bobby Jones. At least six holes at Augusta National are inspired by holes on the Old course. Many people find this hard to believe, because the two courses are in two very different landscapes.
10. TPC Sawgrass, Florida. This is a fusion of golf architecture concepts, courtesy of Pete Dye. Here, inspiration is drawn from the oldest of golf courses, from the linksland. This is not only seen from the apparent features, such as the pot bunkers and sleepers, also referred to as railroad ties, but also in the less obvious elements, including the playing strategy. Here, this homage to golf’s roots is combined with more modern elements like the expansive lakes, often man-made, and containment or spectator mounding. These have since become mainstream.
Edwin Roald is an Icelandic golf course architect and the founder of the Carbon Par project, which examines carbon storage in golf course turf. Read more on his firm’s website: eureka.golf.