All the great museums of the world, enriching as they are, share one common cardinal rule:
Do not touch the art.
We cannot feel the sturdiness of the marble Michelangelo used to craft his David. We cannot feel the brushstrokes that Da Vinci used to create Mona Lisa.
In the presence of priceless paintings, drawings and sculptures, all we can do is look.
Golf courses are the exception. Our own preferred art form is interactive by nature. Part of the charm of looking at a photo of 18 at The Old Course or 17 at TPC Sawgrass' Players Stadium Course is knowing that we can go there and play the course. We can touch the art.
And as in art, aesthetic trends in golf course design come, go and return over time. We are in the midst of a renaissance, where principles that marked the early days of American architecture - compactness, austerity of land manipulation, conscious nods to the ancient links of the British Isles - are coming back into vogue, albeit with the benefit of refined agronomy and maintenance technologies.
Each era of design has had its exemplars, embodied both by great courses and idiosyncratic ones that make architecture geeks scratch their heads. Here is a representative (if eclectic) mix of courses from each decade in U.S. golf history, including private and public access:
1895: Van Cortlandt Park| New York, N.Y. - The country’s first public/municipal golf course, a Bronx borough treasure that’s still extremely popular and – get this - accessible via subway on the city’s No. 1 line.
1896: Myopia Hunt Club| Hamilton, Mass. - A quirky, quaint, scruffy looking gem designed by Herbert Leeds that was good enough to hold four U.S. Opens (1898-1901-1905-1908) and that at 6,539 yards today still challenges the best players with its mounding, steep bunkering and small greens.
1903: Oakmont Country Club| Oakmont, Penn. - The first self-proclaimed American torture chamber of a golf course, it championed the cause of penal architecture. It’s tamer than it used to be, with the emphasis today on its slick greens rather than on its circa-200 bunkers – which used to number over 300 and were maintained with a deep furrowed rake, courtesy of one-hit-wonder founder and architect Henry Fownes.
1909: National Golf Links of America| Southampton, N.Y. - This curio cabinet of museum-piece architecture on the South Shore of Long Island was golf patriarch Charles Blair Macdonald’s way of honoring the Old World. He ad libbed from some of the best holes in Great Britain and France, placed it near one of the wealthiest enclaves of New York summer life, and in the process creating a mecca for generations of serious fans of golf architecture.
1919: Pine Valley Golf Club| Pine Valley, N.J. - Philadelphia hotelier George Crump sacrificed his fortune and, ultimately, his own life, in creating this idiosyncratic gesture of sand-strewn, punitive design in the Jersey Pine Barrens. Harry S. Colt finished the project, one that remains atop every compilation of great courses and every personal bucket list for anyone who worships classic design.
1919: Pebble Beach Golf Links| Pebble Beach, Calif. - There’s no greater meeting of land and sea than this figure-eight routing on bluffs overlooking the Northern California coastline. The original effort by Douglas Grant & Jack Neville has been much-enhanced by the likes of Alister MacKenzie, H. Chandler Egan and Jack Nicklaus. It remains a fascinating mecca for everyday resort goers while challenging the world’s best players via U.S. Opens every decade since 1972.
1923: Winged Foot Golf Club | Mamaroneck, N.Y. - When the New York Athletic Club hired Gotham’s own, A.W. Tillinghast, they told him to build “a man-sized course.” Tillie responded with two epic layouts in suburban Westchester County, carved out of a rocky site and shaped with steep bunkering to create lasting tests of championship golf. Both his West and East Courses remain today impressive strategic achievements from an era when golf design was at its creative apex.
1926: The Course at Yale| New Haven, Conn. - The Roaring 20s were a time of unprecedented growth and prosperity in America, and it turns out that this decade produced a panoply of enduring courses. When it opened, this Charles Blair Macdonald/Seth Raynor masterpiece was one of the most expensive courses ever built, at a cost of more than $400,000. It was worth every penny, as more than 90 years later Yale is as awe-inspiring in its Gothic scale as an inland course in the world. Nobody who plays it fails to be impressed by its massive scale and thrilling mix of template holes and one-off marvels.
1930: Golf Courses of Lawsonia (Links)| Green Lake, Wisconsin - William Langford and Theodore J. Moreau aren’t household names, even for fairly avid golfers. But their phenomenal central-Wisconsin beauty is as good an everyday-public golf course as this country has. It can be walked for around $50 for much of the year, including the peak summer season. Playing the back nine as the sun sets over bucolic Green Lake is a spiritual golfing experience. They dabbled in deep-dish forms and stark angular mounding, and it’s all here: the best-preserved version of their Golden Age work throughout the Midwest that has otherwise been neglected, if not erased.
1932: Augusta National Golf Club| Augusta, Ga. - As the only perennial host of a major championship this co-design of Alister MacKenzie and Robert Tyre (“Bobby”) Jones stands as among the world’s most recognized collections of great holes. It was trend setting in its day for its sparse, strategic bunkering, its width and its deployment of reachable (in two) par 4 1/2s – called par-5s. It has been much changed over the years but remains impressive for its scale, terrain and impeccable quality of maintenance.
1949: Dunes Golf & Beach Club| Myrtle Beach, S.C. - The "hard par, easy bogey" philosophy of the prolific Robert Trent Jones, Sr. came to dominate post-World War II golf course design, and the Dunes is one of its best examples. Short on tricks but long on shot values, the course has enjoyed a storied tournament-hosting history that includes elite events at the college, amateur and professional level. Drive it long and straight, hit it high and putt lights-out and you should be fine. And if you can keep your golf ball dry around the iconic par-5 13th "Waterloo" hole, even better.
1951: Oakland Hills Country Club (South)| Bloomfield Hills, Mich. - In a relentless rebuke of classical course design, Robert Trent Jones Sr. all but declared Donald Ross’ style of cross bunkering and offset hazards as obsolete. By moving all the bunkers to designated landing distances of 240-260 yards and placing them on the side of landing areas, Jones declared himself the arbiter of modern championship golf and thereby set himself as “the Open Doctor.” Equally important as Jones’ modernization was a long, laudatory article on the work and the Jones family published by Herbert warren Wind in the Aug. 4, 1951 issue of “The New Yorker.” It not only made Jones’ reputation; it also established Wind as the leading critic of course architecture.
1957: Prairie Dunes Country Club| Hutchinson, Kan. - Twenty years after Perry Maxwell’s design of nine ground-hugging holes (current 1-2, 6-10, 17-18) in the grasslands of this small central Kansas town, his son, J. Press Maxwell, seamlessly blended in an additional nine to create one of the game’s truly innovative 18-hole layouts.
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1961: Pine Tree Golf Club| Boynton Beach, Fla. - Dick Wilson, who worked with great Canadian architect Stanley Thompson, turned the profuse flanking bunkering and runway tees that marked "Dark Age" golf course design into high art. The tee box on the par-5 16th at this private club in Boynton Beach is 147 yards long. Sam Snead used to bet visitors that they couldn't hit a 7-iron from end to end. He cleaned up. Hogan called the course "maybe the best flat golf course in America." He's not far off; it's a wonderful example of post-war architecture.
1969: Harbour Town Golf Links| Hilton Head Island, S.C. - Pete Dye had begun to shake up golf course design with The Golf Club in Ohio and Crooked Stick in his native Indiana, but Harbour Town, being the centerpiece of the growing Sea Pines Resort helped to bring his singular style to the masses. It also launched the design career of one Jack Nicklaus, touching off the era where "Signature" designs attached to the names of leading professional golfers would be built by the score.
1974: Innisbrook Resort (Copperhead)| Palm Harbor, Fla. - Larry Packard's sidewinding, sinewy Southwest Florida test continues to bite elite professionals with its relentless tee-to-green demands. The double-dogleg par-5 14th, a Packard template, asks players to shape the ball in both directions. It's hard to play around one's weaknesses here: you either have what it takes or you don't. That's a common refrain at championship courses of this era.
1974: Muirfield Village Golf Club| Dublin, Ohio - A brilliant routing by Desmond Muirhead created two counterclockwise loops through an expansive real estate development that works from high point (tee) to high point (fairway) across lows; and Jack Nicklaus’ characteristic attention to strategic detail and flawless manicuring culminated in one of golf’s most elegant championship-quality venues.
1981: Wild Dunes Resort (Links)| Isle of Palms, S.C. - Don’t let the current surfeit of multi-until dwellings along the fairways obscure the elegance of the shaping. This is the layout on what was then-pristine maritime dunes and pines land that established Tom Fazio as a leading visionary of manufactured naturalism – in no small part due to the efforts of his newly-recruited lead shaper Mike Strantz.
1989: Shadow Creek Golf Club| North Las Vegas, Nev. - This is the paragon of “anything is possible,” Tom Fazio’s culminating achievement of creating powerful aesthetics and imagery on a barren site. It’s amazing what $37 million could achieve, though it wasn’t just the money spent but (also) the willingness of Fazio and his client, casino magnate Steve Wynn, to create lush panoramas on lifeless ground.
1990: Troon North Golf Club (Monument)| Scottsdale, Ariz. - Troon North helped accelerate the development of high-end golf in the desert surrounding the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, and it also helped institute the country-club-for-a-day model, where daily fee golfers started to be treated to perks like cushy locker rooms, personalized service, immaculate course conditions and triple-digit green fees. Architects Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, who had considerable success in the last two decades of the century and the early 2000s, added to their successful Troon North debut with the 1995 opening of the Pinnacle Course.
1994: LPGA International (Jones)| Daytona Beach, Fla. - Rees Jones is famous (and infamous, in some cases) for a distinctive design style that favors bold mounding around the periphery of many holes, often creating an amphitheater effect. To overcome the dead-flat, otherwise featureless site he was given here, outside Daytona Beach, he took mounding to an extreme, running sometimes 10-foot-high berms of mound between holes to isolate them from one another. Large, amoeba-shaped bunkers abound, too. One, guarding the green of the par-3 14th hole, is several times larger than the putting surface itself. Think of it as the epitome of his design style.
1995: Sand Hills Golf Club| Mullen, Neb. - No course did more to reverse the entire history of golf design modernism than this remote private layout in the middle of Nebraska. Construction cost $1.1 million, three-quarters of it on irrigation. The place does fine without paved cart paths and offers accommodations not more elegant than Boy Scout camp. The design team of Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw moved all of 5,000 cubic yards of dirt in teasing out this natural concatenation of native blow outs and prairie grass dunes.
2001: Bandon Dunes Golf Resort (Pacific Dunes)| Bandon, Ore. - Pacific Dunes, a stirring oceanfront layout by Tom Doak, helped consolidate the status of this southwest Oregon golf outpost. The universally acclaimed layout, with an uneven routing that includes four par 3s and three par 5s on the back nine, marked the start of steady expansions to the original 18-hole layout by David McLay Kidd from 1998. In quick succession Bandon opened up Bandon Trails by Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw (2005), Old Macdonald by Doak and Jim Urbina (2010) and the 13-hole par-3 Preserve by Coore & Crenshaw (2013). With almost all of its 18-hole courses playing at or under 6,300 yards from the main set of tees, the resort proves that great golf can be fun, not taxing.
2006: Sebonack Golf Club| Southampton, N.Y. - In an unprecedented collaboration between two designers with totally antithetical design styles, Jack Nicklaus & Tom Doak combine on a dazzling waterfront site adjoining National Golf Links and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club to create one of the most exclusive private clubs in the world. The routing is by Doak, the strategy primarily by Nicklaus, and the greens incorporate Doak-intense contours on a Nicklaus scale.
2007: Hammock Beach Resort (Conservatory)| Palm Coast, Fla. - Y2K came and went, and as Tiger Woods continued to dominate professional golf, real estate developers spent themselves - and the American economy - into near-oblivion. Golf courses were built at a crazy rate before the Recession brought things to a screeching halt. The Conservatory opened practically on the eve of the bust. A long, intricate Tom Watson design (Watson, like many notable pros, got into the "signature" course design game during the boom) that ripples in decidedly un-Floridian fashion but nevertheless provides a fun round, the course was built to sell 143 homesites, of which a scant few sport completed houses more than a decade after its debut. Though The Conservatory was originally marketed as a tony private club, resort guests now benefit from huckster developer Bobby Ginn's excess.
2017: Streamsong Resort (Black)| Fort Meade, Fla. - The opening of this Central Florida resort’s third course in 2017 confirmed Gil Hanse’s place as among the elite of contemporary design thanks to a vast but interesting playing field, replete with wildly contoured greens averaging 14,000 square feet and thoughtful placement of hazards relevant (but negotiable) for all classes of players.
2018: Inverness Club| Toledo, Ohio - The restoration of the original Donald Ross character (enhanced by A.W. Tillinghast) managed to eliminate all traces of the notoriously clumsy George & Tom Fazio renovation prior to the 1979 U.S. Open. Relatively unknown designer Andrew Green established a reputation for himself from a historically crafted master plan that paid homage to Inverness’ historic character in a path-breaking hybrid restoration.