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The Classic Golf Course

Article courtesy of "Inside the Tour"

Trevor Ledger asks whether the development of the modern game has rendered the great layouts of the past century obsolete.

"And now these three things remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." 1 Corinthians 13:3

If only St Paul were here to unravel another conundrum. The man who could define love and make his definition sound so plausible could surely define what it is that makes a golf course a 'classic', a classic that can endure. But St Paul is elsewhere in his spiritual reverie, so the question remains, and far too many people, this author included, who think they know the answer.

To judge one golf course against another is subjectivity in pure form. It cannot be accurate and should not be regarded as anything other than a bit of fun. Sure, the record books will show that certain courses have consistently produced exciting tournaments and close matches but this is hardly the criteria by which ratings are set. If it were, then The Belfry would be No 1 or thereabouts. Yet with the best will in the world, even architect Dave Thomas would not claim that.
However, rating lists continue to be produced by magazines and the like. So influential are they that reputations may be elevated or blighted by poll positions and golfing destinations across the globe are always angling for inclusion in some 'top ten' list or other.

But put the 'panels of experts' in the spotlight and ask them what makes a given golf course either good, bad or indifferent and if anything other than an embarrassed shrug of the shoulders is the response then it is likely that they are charlatans.

Despite this, there exists a set of questions which the reviewers use - slope, access, green speeds, bunker sand quality, etc, etc. While this might go some way towards increasing consistency of 'marking', it is extremely doubtful that such measures alone can determine the quality of a golf course. Indeed who makes such criteria lists in the first place? The architects themselves? Journalists? Whoever it is would be hard pressed to justify such a method - "It's like trying to judge the Mona Lisa against a paint-by-numbers copy of The Laughing Cavalier," said course construction expert Ingrid Eichler of Contour Golf. "Given the right set of questions the result of such a poll would be far from unanimous." The absolute bottom line is that many of the accepted classic golf courses rely on two things over which the architect has no sway whatsoever - location and the weather.

Take St Andrews Old Course for example; that exact layout could be reproduced anywhere in the world if enough money and expertise were available but would it be as popular? Would it be as 'good' a golf course? Would it be a new 'Mecca'? Nay, nay and thrice nay. The replica would not have the Eden Estuary to provide the scenic backdrop and coastal weather systems. Moreover, the replica would not have the history that 'the home of golf' carries.

Take a look at the recent trend in the United States towards 'copycat courses'. Construction may be excellent and the infrastructure perfect; they might even be fun to play but they are not the real thing and never will be. In this instance it is not a case of the design of the golf course being sublime - indeed the design of the 'Old' was mostly the result of natural forces. The real mastery of the traditional 'No 1' is its sheer randomness. Random bunkering, random slopes and random weather. This last being the most important.

Unsurprisingly, most of the courses that people consider classics are links courses. Why? The fact that they were the original golfing venues helps, but the real reason must surely be the unpredictability of the weather. Such courses can withstand the test of time because, regardless of hickory shafts or graphite, a force eight sou' wester will make a monkey of any golfer. In these days of 'toughening up' older courses due to the advancement of equipment, the links courses can sit pretty smug. As the homespun Scottish homily dictates, "Nae wind, nae gowf."

All of which sounds feasible, with one major problem; clearly some golf courses ARE better than others and not all of them are sat by the sea. What is it then that elevates a golf course from the mundane to the sublime?

"How about Wentworth?" asked David Kidd, architect of the revered Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Queenwood in Surrey, England, which is currently growing in. "Is that a better golf course than say Hankley Common which is just up the road in Farnham?"

Kidd's comparison bears scrutiny: Wentworth was designed by Harry Colt in 1924 and Hankley Common by James Braid in 1896, though its redesign and new back nine in 1936 were overseen by, you guessed it, Harry Colt. Similar terrain, similar soil, same architect, same era. If a straw poll were taken anywhere outside the European golf industry, Wentworth would be recognised immediately, Hankley Common would not.

However, ask an 'insider' which course they prefer, and Hankley Common would likely run away with it. "Maybe it's a case of 'fame for fame's sake," continued Kidd, "like a celebrity who appears on TV game shows so often that they become famous for being famous. Wentworth has hosted the World Match Play for donkey's years, and the Volvo PGA for almost as long. It's a hard course, it most definitely is a classic, whatever that might be. But from an architectural standpoint and from the point of view of variety and interest, Hankley Common wins by a knockout."

Kidd's opinion is valid here for more reasons than one - not only has Bandon Dunes been elevated into the realms of 'classic' by the aforementioned golfing cognoscente, it was designed by an architect who works in the manner of the original old masters - Tom Morris, Harry Colt and Alister Mackenzie.

Unlike most of his contemporaries on either side of the Atlantic, Kidd oversees a project throughout construction, takes accommodation on site and then lives at the course until it is finished. Old Tom Morris regarded the design of the 18th green at St. Andrews as his major achievement - coincidentally he looked at it every day from his shop window? Morris knew the land, he knew how it behaved, where it drained to and where a golf ball would end up from any given shot. Such in-depth appreciation of the land in front of him gave him the ability to enhance what was already there and not battle against what the land wanted to do before the golf course was established.

This appreciation and knowledge of the bare canvas from which a golf course develops is seemingly passed on to the golfer who plays it. Perhaps this is that indefinable 'something' which marks a course as a classic, the subconscious knowledge that the course is at one with the land whence it came. And subconscious it undoubtedly is to most of us who weakly manage "Yes, that is a fabulous golf course" without ever knowing why. This is only ever possible when the builder/architect of the golf course has an intimate knowledge of the nature of the site.

Mackenzie had intimate knowledge of the ground at Pasatiempo (above) in California, loving it so much that he built his last home there in 1932 and his ashes were spread across it in 1934. Doak himself is refreshing in his admission of awe at the subtlety that Mackenzie employed, finishing his review with: "True to Mackenzie form, it plays much longer than the 6,400 yards on the scorecard; I wish I knew how he managed to do that."

Donald Ross, with over 400 courses accredited to him, has built too many for the great man to have supervised them all personally. Yet Ross had several 'exceptions' that maybe prove the 'rule', Pinehurst No 2 at the forefront. At Pinehurst the former clubmaker, greenkeeper and professional spent 48 years getting to know the estate, 30 of them evolving a true classic in No 2, the key word being 'evolving'. Again it may be coincidence that Ross had the experience of St Andrews behind him before becoming so entwined with Pinehurst that he created a masterpiece that many would say rivals the Old Course itself for premier status.

Just as it may be coincidence that MacKenzie's homage to golf course architecture was entitled 'The spirit of St. Andrews' or that the doyen of late 20th century design, Pete Dye, developed and influenced a whole generation of designers following inspirational tours of Scotland which took in St Andrews.

But merely to love (even by St. Paul's definition), to appreciate the subtleties of, and understand the strategy inherent in, the classic designs, is not enough. Which is maybe where golf courses that do not endure are lacking. St Andrews over ages and Pinehurst over 30 years were evolved, were adapted to suit both nature and the game of golf by men who lived on-site, who understood how the ground worked. Mackenzie was responsible for many fine golf courses but he lived on the one that is regarded by Doak as his best in the United States. There are surely too many coincidences occurring here.

Golf courses which need to be seriously revised and even redesigned are not often the fault of the totally incompetent, more often they are the result of a lack of harmony. Many very good architects will spend little more than two months on the ground at a course project - hardly enough to get 'a feel' for the land and its characteristics. Whether by chance or canny calculation, Kidd emulates the old 'sons of the soil' at every opportunity. At Powerscourt in Ireland where he is about to commence construction of a second 18 holes for the gardens/golfing resort in County Wicklow, he said: "The client farmed much of this land for 30 years or so and can point to an area and say without any doubt, 'That is a very wet spot'. Just knowing that from the outset makes my decisions so much easier, if I planned a pond for example I would then have a feasible site for it. Why combat nature with drainage when you can accommodate it with local knowledge?" Why indeed.

The entire 'harmony with nature' tenet is central to a classic golf course. This doesn't mean that a course design has to acquiesce - that would be an imbalance of a different kind - it is more that a course should ingratiate itself into the landscape in such a way that it complements nature, retaining a balance.

Bunkers on dunesland being formed by wind scour and sheep shelters are meant to be there whether a course has blossomed or not. The random nature of such sand pots throws up the possibility of finding a deep hole some 30 yards off the fairway just 90 yards from the tee box. Pointless? Maybe. Unfair? Sure, but golf isn't meant to be fair. Natural? Most definitely.

This very unpredictability can so often keep a course interesting through the ages. A high handicapper would definitely remember taking seven to get out from the original 'Big Bertha' - a bunker on the 17th at Royal Portrush - as much as Gary Player remembers taking eight from the same monstrous sandy waste. But merely to throw bunkers around in a haphazard fashion in order to attempt to create randomness just won't do. The revered Pine Valley in New Jersey has so many wonderful attributes that it seems churlish to mention the row of ghastly bunkers up the right of the otherwise classic second hole. But there it is, that jolt of interference that jars the senses, that knocks the brain off kilter.

Minimalism is not an excuse for a lack of imagination, it is often core to a course’s appeal. Minimal is not nothing, it is the minimum required. If a site has been ploughed flat for five hundred years then minimum change could still be a massive undertaking. This is where the truly minimalist architect can prove his worth.

A recent tour of the East Coast of Ireland by four knowledgable golf industry specialists took in a veritable feast of courses, all of which are regarded as classics. Straw polls gave surprising results. The favourite? County Louth at Baltray for its thorough naturalness, followed closely by Royal Portrush for its magnificence and Royal Dublin for its quirky minimalism. Again, a case of differing opinions but the favourite hole was a unanimous vote - the 13th at Baltray - which took but a heartbeat. It took a week of discussions, though, coupled with gallons of Guinness before the reason why was thrashed out. "It just looked right".

The fact remains, the reality of what exactly makes a "classic" golf course will never be resolved. But these three ingredients are a must: location, history and harmony and courses like St Andrews, Pinehurst No. 2 or County Louth have all three in spades.

Article courtesy of "Inside the Tour"

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