Since the beginning of golf design’s Golden Age in the early years of the twentieth century, it has been the received wisdom that courses should appear to be as natural as possible; that architects should use whatever natural features a site gives them, and that, where they have to build artificial features, they should be as indistinguishable from nature as can be achieved.
Harry Colt, the true founder of the profession of golf course architecture, was a rigorous naturalist, as this quote from an article by his friend Arthur Croome shows: “When a new bunker is made at Sunningdale, he [Colt] directs operations as an artist in landscape gardening. He has the banks built up in gracefully waving lines and decorates their surface with patches of heather taken from and assimilating with the surrounding country.”
At the same time that Colt was developing the skills to build natural-looking features, though, another, very different style was gaining ground on the other side of the Atlantic. Actually, although the ‘geometric’ style, which is defined by straight lines and right angles, in mowing lines and the shapes of features alike, is mostly associated with the ‘Father of American Golf’, Charles Blair Macdonald, and his protege Seth Raynor, it is probably fairer to say that those two actually made the style acceptable to the eyes of the Golden Age and beyond. For in the pre-1900 era of golf course design, damned by Tom Simpson as the ‘Dark Age’, straight lines were common; indeed Sunningdale, to which we referred earlier, had plenty of them in its original, Willie Park-derived form. But it was Macdonald, and especially Raynor, who went down to history as the greatest executors of the geometric style.
Macdonald’s Chicago Golf Club, later extensively remodelled by Raynor, is perhaps the poster child for this style, and has come to more prominence of late because of its use as inspiration by architect Dana Fry for his South course at the Arcadia Bluffs resort in Michigan (see page 50 of the April 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture). “When you play it, your eyes find it visually appealing,” says Fry. “The multitude of shots you can hit into the greens because of the internal contours becomes the test for all golfers. Try to run it up, fly it to the pin or let it feed off a big internal slope in the green to get it close to the hole. Raynor had a way of taking natural ground contours and then building features that were not only visually beautiful but also fit the land exceptionally well.”
Perhaps the key question about Raynor-style geometric design was the extent to which it was a conscious choice. Macdonald himself was at the cutting edge of a new art form in golf course design and construction, and there is little evidence from his own writing that he thought too hard about the aesthetics of his courses. His focus, above all else, was strategy; if a hole set the strategic challenge he was after, it was a success. And Raynor, an engineer by training and a man who hardly played golf at all until well into his career as an architect, can hardly have been expected to formulate any sophisticated theory of aesthetics.
Tom Doak, who, along with a hotshot team of design, construction and historical experts, built the Macdonald tribute course, Old Macdonald, at the Bandon Dunes resort, goes along with this line of reasoning. “We decided that our model for Old Macdonald shouldn’t be to copy the templates in physical form, but to go back to the same models that Macdonald knew from Scotland and England, since we were building a real links course like those, and not a parkland course,” he says. “I also felt like the Macdonald/Raynor ‘style’ was not as much of a conscious decision as a default choice given Raynor’s engineering background. Macdonald never wrote anything about a preference for straight lines and rectangles; he was having to sort of invent golf course construction as he went, and I just don’t think he put that much thought into that part of it.”
So why do golfers like those features so much, and why do golf architects choose to use them? Texas-based architect John Colligan has built or renovated a number of courses using geometric features. He says: “Based on historical information and aerial photographs, these green shapes were the norm back in the day. In the case of the Mustang course in Amarillo, we were creating a links-like design at this 36-hole facility that would be a contrast to the more modern parkland-style existing 18-hole course. I think people enjoy these shapes, on our courses at least, because they are not as common in the south and south-west of the US as they are in the north-east, where many greens have not lost their original character through renovations. Old is the new New.”
“I find this form of architecture very appealing, but only in the right circumstances and settings,” says Steve Smyers, another designer who has used geometric design extensively. “The key is to get the features to fit and to conform with the space and highlight a uniqueness in the surrounding landscape and to develop strategy. I always felt that Macdonald, Raynor, and William Langford used the concept to highlight targets, landing areas and putting surfaces. Most of their projects were on beautiful rolling parcels of land, and the geometric shapes which they created contrasted with the rolling topography.
“This yin and yang would draw the golfers’ attention to the target and create a very interesting or thrilling space to hit to. Raynor’s Fishers Island is a very good example of using geometric shapes to draw one’s attention to the target, while highlighting the beautiful surrounds. The shapes of the targets, putting surfaces, are very similar but the grading of the surrounds and the surfaces themselves varies from hole to hole. The grading conforms to the site and space and the lines draw one’s eye in a very subtle way to the powerful landscape surrounds.
“Golfers enjoy beautiful natural surrounds but also are very stimulated when their target is well defined. Geometric features create these types of situation. This is why I believe most golfers respond favourably to this. Pete Dye used hard and straight lines on several of his designs. While some felt that at times he went too far and did not harmoniously blend his design with nature, his targets were well defined and created stimulation and thought.”
Read more: Five geometric courses for your bucket list
Andy Staples built some extremely geometric features on his recent, highly acclaimed rebuild of the Meadowbrook CC course in Detroit, in this case, in honour of the course’s original designer, Willie Park, and in particular his work at Huntercombe in England. “If you go to many of the old courses, especially those built closer to the turn of the century, like Chicago GC or Oakmont, you see these details in green shapes, mowing lines, hard-line edges of bunker slopes and angles, and you immediately get a feeling of being from another time, and I really like that,” he says. “I think the attraction of good, interesting architecture, be it a piece of furniture, a building, or a golf course, is you know immediately when there is something unique about it, and whether or not you are drawn to it. Creating this feeling from scratch is really difficult so, in my opinion, building these types of forms makes golf architecture feel authentic, and notable.
“I think there is something that tugs on the human psyche when this type of design is done well. These intangibles are what separates decent courses from really good courses. It comes down to using landforms to set up shot values that make sense to the golfer, but also feel like they fit into the landscape. It’s one of the reasons I really appreciate Seth Raynor; he was able to bring his entire repertoire of templates to a variety of sites and fit them into a routing that works really well.
“Raynor showed that it is possible to go geometric on about any site possible. Fishers Island or Camargo sure fit the bill of natural, flowing sites, and he made them work beautifully. So, as with many things in the golf design world, there are no absolutes, so I couldn’t say when I’d do it again, or when I wouldn’t. What I will say is I really enjoy creating golf grounds that evoke feelings of excitement for the game, and if these types of features fit my client’s objectives, can be built cost effectively, and also fit the nature of the project we’re trying to create, I’m game. They’re an interesting and important aspect of good golf design, and they make the game more fun, as long as they aren’t overdone.”
Brian Silva, an architect who has become known for using a Macdonald/Raynor style in his work, notably at Black Creek outside Chattanooga, USA, takes a slightly contrarian view. “I appreciate the features that are part of Raynor’s stuff, but the more important part to me is the solid and inventive structure of the golf holes,” he says. “Without this, one would merely have had some interesting features – some quirks, really – laid down upon uninventive/uninsipring golf holes that did nothing to make the player think and make them long for their next round on a Raynor! Golf is a game played on a field of no rigid dimensions. Part of the charm of these courses is that they are different from the basic set up/structure of the holes and this continues right through to the character of the features. Their features can be copied all day long, but if the features are not placed onto fundamentally sound and interesting golf holes, close to all can be lost.”
French architect Robert Berthet, who has cultivated an image as an iconoclast for over three decades, has a rather different take, however. Berthet likes to take a theme for his designs, not necessarily directly related to golf. Most famously, his Golf de Dunkerque course was inspired by the fortifications of the seventeenth century French engineer Sebastian de Vauban, and the course is full of redoubts, moats, bastions and the like. He has also used straight line features at a number of other courses, including the Metz Technopole course in the eastern French city, and the Cotes de Isles club in Normandy. “When I use geometric items, they are not gimmicks,” he says. “I consider the golf course not only as a sports ground, but as a landscape, and if the landscaping concept matches with a geometrical expression, I use it. Dunkerque, for instance, reflects the architectural vocabulary of the 17th century fortresses, the golf course design develops the analogy with military architecture, because the golfer behaves like a soldier (he attacks the greens, uses a Big Bertha, explodes out of bunkers and so on). The location is of major importance: Dunkerque was among the most important fortresses of the French kingdom. But I would not design a military layout golf course in a place not linked with this aspect of history.”
So why do golfers embrace these features? In my eyes, a lot of the time, it is due to their visual simplicity. Take the famous Short hole at Macdonald’s Sleepy Hollow in New York. The green is surrounded by a geometric bunker, but the bunker is very low profile and does not attempt to compete for visual attention with the spectacular view over the Hudson River. There is no clutter. And so, ironically, an obviously artificial feature actually ends up emphasising the natural beauty of the site!
This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.