One of the best things I watched on television last year was the Netflix series "Civilizations," which gazes with awe at the arc of human history through the lens of art.
Along the way, a theme emerges: unexpected common threads that unite seemingly unrelated individual works and entire movements across miles and centuries.
Indeed, the same dynamic goes on in the niche art form that is the golf course. Here in 2019, time unites two very different-looking golf courses, each with a lasting influence on the game we love and the places where we love to play.
1969 was a big year for American culture at large and, in its own way, the golf world. Woodstock ushered in a Golden Age of popular music in upstate New York. A few hundred miles south, a golf course opened that would usher in a new era in golf course design and development: Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
[Harbour Town] proved that 7,000-yard-plus golf courses weren't required to challenge the top professionals.
Harbour Town changed the way the golfing public thought about design. Yes, it helped elevate then-44-year old Pete Dye to the upper echelons of the profession of golf course architect. Dye had built a solid reputation with efforts like Radrick Farms at the University of Michigan and The Golf Club outside Columbus, Ohio. But Harbour Town was his major foray into both resort golf and high-caliber tournament golf, as the PGA Tour event now known as the RBC Heritage was held for the first time in November of 1969, won by Arnold Palmer at just 1-under par.
But there were greater implications to Harbour Town's notoriety. In a chapter on the course in Dye's autobiography Bury Me In A Pot Bunker, he wrote, "I believe the Heritage Classic at Harbour Town marked the first time that the architects of a golf course were featured along with the course itself." Harbour Town challenged the pros' powers of distance control and shotmaking as few American championship courses had.
"Small greens, pot bunkers, bulkheaded banks, and Arnold Palmer may have grabbed the headlines in that first year, "wrote Dye, "but the Links proved that 7,000-yard-plus golf courses weren't required to challenge the top professionals." The course's championship yardage has crept up to 7,099 yards, but it has more teeth than several 7,400-yard Tour venues. The winning score has been better than 13-under par just twice this decade.
Harbour Town also changed the business of golf course design. Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser matched Jack Nicklaus with Dye for the Harbour Town job, and this successful collaboration would launch a trend of "signature" golf course design, where pros like Nicklaus, Palmer, Greg Norman and several others would start up design firms, producing hundreds of courses over the following half-century. Developers were (and still are) understandably attracted by the cachet of these names and the professional-style designs they produce. Nicklaus alone has lent his time and name to more than 300 courses. Recent golf course architecture developments have led us to rightly question the playability of several touring pro-designed courses, but there is no denying the era's influence on the playing fields of today.
Fast-forward a quarter-century. As it turns out, 1994 was the most important year in golf course architecture since, well, 1969. Just as Harbour Town helped establish modernism as the prevailing aesthetic and attitude of design, predicated on a more manufactured look, in remote central Nebraska, a disciple of Pete Dye's and another champion golfer conjured a bit of golfing heaven whose pendulum-swinging design turned back the clock somewhat. Sand Hills Golf Club* and its minimalist design courtesy of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw harkened back to the pre-World War II "Golden Age" of golf course design.
(*Having seen both 1994 and 1995 used as founding years for the course, I'll admit to using '94 to fit the narrative. I suspect both dates are used because there may have been some "preview" play at Sand Hills in 1994 before the course fully opened in '95.)
Sand Hills cost just $1.2 million to build, in the midst of a construction boom when $10 to $20 million courses were commonplace. How could one of the world's greatest courses come at such a discount? For starters, Coore and Crenshaw had thousands of acres of rolling land from which to find the best possible routing of 18 holes. There was no need to force golf features onto that land, and as a result they moved only "teaspoons" of dirt, per fellow minimalist master Tom Doak. Secondly, the sandy soils of central Nebraska are ideal for golf, much like the seaside linksland on which the game began half a millennium ago. Sand Hills' understatement was radical at the time, but its smashing success has spurred a generation of architects to do more by doing less than was considered normal in the modern era.
Along with Coore and Crenshaw, Doak, Gil Hanse, Mike DeVries and several others have built dozens of latter-day courses of distinction, all united in the goal of disturbing the land as little as possible, just as was done at Sand Hills.
If you have a golf bucket list, chances are that any course on it built in the last 50 years owes a debt Harbour Town and Sand Hills.