The Magazine

Putting Golf Back on Course

Another hideous design trend of the 20th century bites the dust.

Oct 15, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 05 • By DEAN BARNETT
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Holyoke, Colo.

Golf is supposed to be fun. Seriously. This may be news to a general public weaned on Caddyshack, which led them to think most golfers play the game solely to berate their country club's staff and avail themselves of networking opportunities. But they've got the wrong impression--golf is supposed to be fun.

For people who love golf and consider it fun, everything starts with the Old Course at St. Andrews. Golfers have been playing and enjoying the game there for over 500 years. Ben Crenshaw, one of golf's finest practicing architects, has written, "Every course worth playing retains some small element or spirit of the Old Course at St. Andrews. She is the original."

Tom Doak, the 46-year-old erstwhile golf outsider crowned golf's "It Architect" by Sports Illustrated this summer, caddied at St. Andrews after college. During his two months at the Old Course, Doak "looped" for both scratch golfers and a couple of novices who had never played 18 holes before teeing it up at St. Andrews. Doak noticed that the course allowed every player, regardless of ability, to design his own way around the course. In effect, each player got to serve as his own architect. And everyone had fun.

Golf architecture in America had a golden age in the first 30 years of the 20th century. Masters like Donald Ross, Alistair MacKenzie, A.W. Tillinghast, and Seth Raynor designed and built courses across the country (and indeed around the world) that like St. Andrews stirred the golfer's soul and were fun to play.

But there followed several decades of golf architecture dreck. Architects like Robert Trent Jones and his regrettably prolific scions dotted the American landscape with courses that were difficult and unpleasant to play--largely because they deviated from the tradition born in St. Andrews. Instead of letting each player figure out his own route from hole to hole, they funnelled all into a single narrow path.

Rees Jones, Robert Trent Jones's son, is still one of golf's most prominent architects. He describes his theory of golf architecture as follows: "My style emphasizes definition. I work hard at giving the golfer a concept as he stands over the ball. I want him to see the intended target and be able to visualize the shot." What Rees Jones omits from his reckoning is that some golfers, indeed most golfers, may be incapable of pulling off the shot that he compels them to see. Golfers have enjoyed finding their own way around St. Andrews for over 500 years. Speaking on behalf of the modern golf architecture establishment, Rees Jones in essence insists that he has discovered a better way: He will officiously preside over each and every golfer's each and every shot.

Jones family members haven't been the only architects guilty of committing affronts to golf history and ignoring the imperative that the game be fun. Perhaps the most serious offender has been Jack Nicklaus, arguably the greatest golfer ever. Nicklaus has had a hand in designing 207 courses. While some of his courses are picturesque, few are fun unless you're able to play golf as well as Jack Nicklaus. On many of his courses, the average player will lose half a dozen balls a round, many of them having found a watery grave in one of the man-made water-hazards of which Nicklaus is so fond. As a player, Nicklaus probably wouldn't even notice many of the water hazards that litter his courses. But the typical golfer does.

Worse still, Nicklaus the architect has often violated the most fundamental precept of golf course design: Put a golf course where nature intended there to be one. Let the shape of the land dictate the shape of the course. People began playing golf at St. Andrews because the terrain cried out for it. Five hundred years ago, eager proto-golfers had limited ability to alter what nature had done. The tools of the game were adapted to the challenges of the terrain.

Modern golf architects can move copious amounts of earth, and they've often abused this ability to create uninspiring golf courses on land better suited for strip malls. Some Nicklaus courses are jammed into almost ludicrously inhospitable spots. One can stand on many a Nicklaus-designed tee box thinking, "Start it at the Home Depot, and fade it to the Best Buy."