Books. Remember them? For those of you who still read long form, I’d suggest making a study of the high-profile golf courses you’re playing. Start the book before the round; then finish it after.
All but one of the courses listed below are public. Selection criteria for this list include golf course design interest and the quality of the written analysis. Think of it as the syllabus for a college-level course on courses:
Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Trail
Robert Trent Jones (1906-2000) lived one of the most interesting lives of any golf course architect. Thanks to James R. Hansen’s scholarly (and readable!) biography, we can now trace the Horatio Alger’-like story of his emergence as an epic character in American golf.
A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Sr. and the Making of Modern Golf (2014) weaves together the curious combination of talent, hucksterism and family dysfunction with the postwar economic boom that helped make golf (and Jones) popular. You’ll get a sense of the brash, bold and grand scale of his ego when you visit any of the RTJ Trail’s 11 sites and 26 courses that cover the state from Mobile to Huntsville.
The expanded edition of Steve Goodwin’s Dream Golf: The Making of Bandon Dunes (2010) carries the story of this singular resort’s development up through the opening of Old Macdonald, the fourth course. It’s a good read, and you’ll need it to fill the travel time for what seems like an endless first trip to this remote golf outpost on Oregon’s southwest coast.
As the four 18-hole courses – supplemented by a 13-hole par-3 layout called The Preserve that opened in 2013 – make immediately clear, the journey is worthwhile. Goodwin explains how owner/developer Mike Keiser didn’t just stumble into the venture; he had his eye the whole time on the savvy “retail golfer.” That’s probably you.
Pinehurst Golf Resort, Pinehurst, North Carolina
It’s hard to keep track of a golf resort that embraces nine 18-hole layouts over four separate sites (not to mention the incomparable Tufts Archives). But Pinehurst keeps growing, including recent inclusion of a scintillating little par-3 layout called The Cradle right in front of the historic clubhouse. The single best guide to the place is a documentary history by locally based golf course architect Richard Mandell, whose book, Pinehurst: Home of American Golf (2007) details the evolution of the resort’s courses. Along the way, you’ll pick up an appreciation of Donald Ross’ most famous design, Pinehurst No. 2. You’ll also learn how the sandy ground conditions proved ideal for a golf-intense resort whose grandeur survived all manner of stressful economic times.
If you want to go depper on Ross, my book, Discovering Donald Ross (2011) is as much a pictorial resource as a detailed evocation of his life (1872-1948). The focus is on his design skills – as a router of golf holes and as a shaper of interesting greens. The irony is that Pinehurst’s elusive turtle-backed surfaces are not at all characteristic of his work elsewhere. Lesson No. 1 in design: the best architects evade easy characterization.
Forest Dunes Golf Club – The Loop, Roscommon, Michigan
Tom Doak’s The Anatomy of a Golf Course (1992) is very strong on clear prose and common sense. No one in the postwar era has done more to demystify the craft or to excoriate those of his colleagues who deviate from basic norms. “The greatest goal of golf architecture,” he writes, “is to arrange a course difficult enough to hold the interest of the accomplished golfer, without so many hazards that the weaker player becomes discouraged.”
Now build that principle onto a reversible playing field. That’s what makes Doak’s Loop course(s) in north-central Michigan so interesting. He’s managed to create two layouts, Red and Black, that incorporate the same fairway corridors and the same greens and that hold your attention when played forwards and backwards on consecutive days. Sound complicated? It is, until you get out there to play it.
Merion Golf Club – East Course, Ardmore, Pennsylvania
Jeff Silverman’s monumental book, Merion: The Championship History (2013) conveys the fascinating tale of one of the game’s most famous layouts. The story begins in 1896 and runs through the most recent of four U.S. Opens (1934, 1950, 1981, 2013) held at this diminutive tract on Philadelphia’s west side.
With its red wicker basket flagsticks, an opening tee shot played across a corner of the clubhouse patio restaurant, and stretched to the bursting point on a 115 acre site, with a seven hole stretch (7-13) where no hole on the championship card measures mote than 402-yards, Merion is a marvel of intricate design. Silverman’s mix of golf course detail and tournament history is just as compelling as the layout.
The Old Course at St. Andrews Links
There are dozens of books about the world’s most famous links course, but none of them comes close to explaining what makes the place so compelling as The Architectural Side of Golf by H.N.Wethered and T. Simpson (1929, 1995).
This is the single most illuminating volume on the craft written during the interwar years. You can thank their clear-cut prose, the way they combine their playing skill with their aesthetic sensibility. And also thanks to Simpson’s pen and ink analytic drawings, which do more than any drone photography to explain the strategic genius of the place.
More books to read this holiday season
Pebble Beach Golf Resort, Pebble Beach, California
I get asked one question more than any other – is Pebble Beach worth it. My answer is always, “yes, if you haven’t been there – despite what will be an expensive trip. Additional advice – the more know you know before hand the more you’ll appreciate the magnificent coastal setting and the quality of golf there.
The virtue of Neil Hotteling’s Pebble Beach: The Official Golf History (2009), with photography by Joann Dost, is that you’re immersed not just in a golf course but an entire region. This lavishly illustrated book includes the story of such adjoining public gems as Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Course and Spyglass Hill. The history, detailed in maps, aerials and tournament results, includes fascinating details of every major there as well as the annual PGA Tour event that began life in 1947 as the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am. The point, after all, is to make your own round there feel part of something bigger.
Pete Dye’s Bury Me in a Pot Bunker (1995, 2013) reads like the diary of a crank who occupies that precarious borderland between goofy and ingenious. Which is exactly what Dye has been for the last half century in golf. He revolutionized design, rescued it from the Jones-inspired modernist power game and restored ground game strategy. In the process he created a school of acolyte designers (Tom Doak, Jim Urbina, Bill Coore, Bobby Weed, Lee Schmidt) who forged a Second Golden Age of Design.
The only thing better than reading Dye on design is playing one of his seminal layouts. The Players Stadium Course is just that. With its maddening ability to make you out-think yourself, whether it’s on a dead-straight hole that looks like it doglegs both ways, a drivable short par-4 that you can’t hold in two, or a short-iron shot to an island green surrounded by four decades of liquid infamy.
Do you have any favorite golf books you've read about a specific course or destination? Let us know in the comments below!