The last two weeks have provided plenty of discussion material for students of golf course architecture.
Last week, the PGA Tour bid farewell to Firestone Country Club's South Course, ending a decades-long relationship between the PGA Tour and the Akron, Ohio layout.
For some, this was cause for celebration. Firestone, with its back-and-forth routing and mostly straightaway, tree-lined holes, had become a poster child for golf course architecture’s “Dark Ages,” which lasted from roughly the end of World War II to the 1995 opening of Sand Hills Golf Club, the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw masterpiece that ushered in a new era of “minimalist” golf course design that signaled a return to principles of prewar classic architecture.
During an otherwise thrilling event, PGA Championship host Bellerive Country Club drew plenty of criticism for its straightforward layout and relative dearth of strategic intrigue and character.
Many modern golf course architecture hobbyists and experts would visualize golf course architecture history as two high plateaus separated by a long, deep valley. A Biarritz, if you will.
Things were better long ago. Classical strategy and rustic, lay-of-the-land construction by architects like Macdonald, Raynor, Ross, Mackenzie, Tillinghast and Flynn yielded golf courses that have stood the test of time. Many holes offered multiple ways to get from tee to green, and determining the best route was one of the chief concerns of the golfer. More recent courses, designed by architects like Coore & Crenshaw, Tom Doak, Gil Hanse and other neo-minimalists, represent a return to such “Golden Age” design.
The period between is often referred to as the “Dark Ages.” Bellerive is a prime example of this period, when golf courses became one-dimensional. Narrow fairways, choked by punishing rough and pinched by fairway bunkers and water hazards, took strategy and course management out of golfers’ repertoires. If you couldn’t hit a long, straight tee shot followed by a long, straight (preferably high) iron shot, you were not likely to have any fun. “Hard par, easy bogey” was the mantra.
Dark-Age golf courses have some other characteristics, too: artificial mounding, manmade water features, aesthetic-minded landscaping and significant earthmoving all feature. Classicists love to praise the looks of modern minimalist courses with statements like, “This hole looks like it’s been here forever.” If you look at, say, Rees Jones’ courses from the 80s and 90s, the mounding that lines the sides of his fairways is anything but naturalistic. His course at LPGA International in Daytona Beach, Florida, takes this theme to an extreme.
So, critics of Dark-Age golf course architecture seem to have two main grievances with the courses of this era:
1) Dark Age golf courses look unnatural.
2) Dark Age golf courses don’t engage with a golfer’s decision-making.
Do the thousands of courses built between World War II and the opening of Sand Hills deserve the scorn they get?
Let's engage with these two points a bit.
How Dark Age golf courses look
Dark Age courses tend to be larger in scale than their predecessors, in large part because advances in construction equipment technologies allowed for it. “The courses of the 1950s to the 1970s,” said Gil Hanse in a LINKS Magazine article, “typically featured smooth lines and oversized features that did not necessarily tie into the landscapes they were created on.”
Hanse has one of the keenest minds in golf, and he is absolutely right in this case. The tools Robert Trent Jones and his peers (and sons) had at their disposal allowed them to alter the landscape of an emerging golf course ways their predecessors – even Charles “Steamshovel” Banks – could not. It is evident at Bellerive: large, amoeba-shaped, broad-bottomed bunkers stare at players trying to avoid them. They draw the eye away from the safe harbor fairways and greens offer. This makes it even more difficult to execute the desired shot. It is a confrontation of both a physical and a psychological hazard.
On Golden Age and contemporary courses, such intimidation and trickery is rightly applauded. But at Dark Age courses, it may be dismissed part of the problem. Such holes on Dark Age courses are pooh-poohed as "over-bunkered." Meanwhile, Pine Valley Golf Club, the consensus "greatest course ever built," has trouble lining both sides of many narrow fairways. Such criticism can be inconsistent when prejudices about when a course was built are too strong.
Critics often dismiss Dark Age golf courses for not being “beautiful,” which is another way of saying their shaping is not in harmony with the surrounding landscape. In that same LINKS article, Hanse says, “By using the newest earthwork technologies, the designers of the time created courses that looked less natural and more manufactured than their predecessors…those created landscapes don’t really match up with the beautiful work that came before.”
Thinking again of Rees Jones’ LPGA International course, Hanse is, again, correct. The mounding does not reflect or imitate anything anyone would expect to see on dead-flat coastal Florida lowlands. Generously taken, this earth-working is a statement about Man’s capacity to create shapes that stand out from the natural world, instead of concealing his work within that world.
If we rejected this project, wouldn’t we be inclined to reject the forms and expressions of the noted abstract painters and sculptors,too? If only minimalistic and naturalistic golf courses are acceptable, then is landscape painting that medium’s highest form? Shouldn’t we be more open to having our aesthetic conventions challenged?
Isn't there room for manufactured golf features, provided they contribute to a compelling playing experience?
How Dark Age golf courses play
Along with the new sort of shaping of golf courses came a modification of the philosophy of golf course strategy. “Width and angles” is a popular refrain these days, and to be sure, golf holes that encourage thoughtful play toward the margins in order to get a direct view of the target are fun and interesting to play repeatedly. Some of my favorite holes are like that. Dark Age golf courses, on the other hand, do not encourage strategic play.
Or do they?
Admittedly, this is by far the stronger criticism of courses from this era. Dark Age courses do tend to be more demanding of certain shots, especially off the tee; bringing your A-game with the driver to any Jones course is a very good idea. But blanket statements that imply that all Dark Age golf is anti-strategic and lacking in variety are nevertheless inaccurate. It’s important to remember that no golf course is ever the same one day to the next, and will inevitably invite different shots as winds, ground conditions and hole locations shift.
But contrary to the dismissals of this era of golf, I have found many worthwhile holes on the Dark Age courses I’ve played. Heck, I learned the game on one: the Geoffrey Cornish-designed Hop Meadow Country Club (1961) in Simsbury, Conn.
Have a look below at the shortish par-4 sixth at Tanglewood Park’s Championship Course, a Robert Trent Jones, Sr. design where Lee Trevino outdueled Jack Nicklaus in the 1974 PGA Championship. Tanglewood is a typical Dark Age course: it’s challenging, built on a big scale and demands good execution.
There are at least three distinct ways to play this hole, each of them viable depending on the golfer’s individual strengths. Feeling good with your driver? Take on the bunker on the inside of the dogleg and you can have a flip wedge into the green (yellow). The other two routes are more conservative. You can opt for a low-stress tee shot by playing short of the bunker followed by a mid-iron up the axis of the green from the left (red), or split the difference by playing out to the right (blue). It is fashionable to bash the likes of Tanglewood for lack of strategic merit, but it is clear that reality is more nuanced.
One of my favorite Dark Age courses is Pine Tree Golf Club in Boynton Beach, Fla., a Dick Wilson design that opened in 1961. Ben Hogan loved to spend time there over the winter, calling it "the greatest flat course in America." In the absence of interesting topography, Wilson leaned on profuse bunkering to define the route from tee to green on every hole and make for compelling play. No, Pine Tree's fairways are not 75 yards wide, but there is nevertheless plenty of strategic merit, driven by angled, undulating greens where a given hole location demands certain angles of approach. Dismissing Pine Tree based on the era in which it was built would be a huge mistake for any student of golf. In the public and resort realm, I love the Wilson-designed Mountain View Course at Callaway Gardens Resort in southwestern Georgia.
Is every hole on every Dark Age course rich in possibilities? No – the guiding philosophy at work on these courses puts more emphasis on pure shot execution. Quirk and whimsy are in short supply, and that does admittedly limit the potential of some of these courses. Still, do not let anyone convince you that all courses from this era are worth skipping. There is more room under architecture's big tent than these golf courses have been given of late. We golfers can enjoy both the darkness and the light.