From mists of time to feats of engineering;

The story of the golf course

There was nothing pre-planned or ordained about golf’s early courses; the game just evolved through the mists of time, in all probability somewhere up Scotland’s East Coast between Dundee and Aberdeen. It was all true links land there, soil and silt washed down and out of river mouths for untold centuries and deposited along the sea shore; sour earth, no use for cultivation and on which only marram and fescue grasses could thrive.

It was common land, worthless for any other pursuit than healthy exercise in bracing airs. To break the monotony spherical objects were sometimes knocked along these shores, and when they dug the odd hole into which these objects could be struck, golf was born. Slowly the game became formalised, small gatherings of ‘players’ turned into the first clubs and all by itself Scotland devised a game that was to become a worldwide obsession.

Local outdoor lads became ‘keepers of the green’, minders of these rough stretches of ground over which this new game was played. They did their best to look after the areas round each hole and on which the more delicate shots were played. In time the more progressive went further afield and repeated the process on other stretches of unwanted seaside turf. You might call them the first course designers; architect was still too grand a word.

The first big name to turn his hand to course architecture, to try and make something more of these early courses than just levelled pieces of seaside turf, was ‘Old’ Tom Morris himself. On many of the oldest courses around Scottish shores his name appears as the man who laid out the first course on that particular spot. When the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers finally settled on the ‘watery meadow’ at Muirfield, he was responsible for their first 18 holes.

Despite the fame of Morris father & son, it was Willie Park who won the first Open Championship at Prestwick in 1860. His son would also win it the best part of 30 years later and he too would add course design to his portfolio of activities in later life. It was he who would lay down and leave behind perhaps England’s most loved and respected inland course, The Old Course at Sunningdale. So, he can be directly credited with being a strong influence on the work and style of Harry Colt, for many the godfather of golf course architecture in Britain. Colt was, for 10 years, the first Secretary at Sunningdale and the Old Course was just outside his office window.

Colt was the man who laid down the principals of designing courses inland. For all the great seaside tracts, the absolute bedrock of the game throughout the world, very little of any quality was done inland. Greens were square pieces of mown grass at the end of a dead straight, featureless set of holes, of varying lengths but little different in any other ways. Bunkers were always set at right angles to the line of play and were uniformly 3’6” in height, usually with a gooey, reddish brown substance in the bottom.

Colt changed all that. He genuinely worked out what it was that worked so naturally on the links and did all he could to recreate it inland. He introduced curves and contours; the dogleg – at least those doglegs where you had to work out how much of the corner to cut off – was his idea. Bunkers were randomly set to punish wayward shots and to influence strategy; above all to make the golfer think. The better the player, the narrower the target he was given to aim at. Most importantly, he wanted his courses to blend in with their surroundings – seem to have been part of them from the beginning – rather than having been imposed upon them.
He set out to build courses that would last, that people would want to play time and time again. His success is that he set the standards by which all subsequent courses are measured. There were other architects starting up about the same time, many of independent means who turned to course design to give some point to lives that would otherwise be seen as hedonistic. Herbert Fowler and Tom Simpson were two in point; Fowler being responsible for a number of good turns of the century courses such as the pair at Walton Heath, and also some work in America, most notably creating the most memorable final hole in golf at Pebble Beach. Simpson worked in Britain and on the Continent and much of his work was over the same fine ground and in largely the same style as Colt.

Colt’s name survived more than the rest as he brought in other, younger partners as demands for his services grew. He and they put together a body of work unmatched by any other architect from that era. With Charles Hugh Alison and John Morrison the name Colt & Co carried on after his death and the spread of their work is truly global; Morrison worked extensively in Continental Europe, Alison went to America and Japan and, of course, Dr Alister MacKenzie will forever be associated with Colt, who started him off in the 1920s, even though their association only lasted some 4 years.

Worldwide, MacKenzie is probably the better known. After learning his trade with Colt he went first to Australia and laid the foundations of his reputation with that astonishing collection of courses in the Melbourne Sandbelt and others in Sydney and Adelaide. Later he would run into Bobby Jones in California when he was working on one of the most stunning pieces of ground ever given to a golf course designer – Cypress Point – and from that meeting would be asked by Jones to help him build Augusta National. America has four great iconic golf clubs and MacKenzie designed two of them; Seminole and Pine Valley being the others.

Golf in America is inevitably younger than in Britain and dates back to the last years of the 19th century. Charles Blair Macdonald was the founding force. He went to university at St Andrews, took up the game and represented his college, whereupon golf became the abiding passion of his life. Originally from Chicago he started designing courses in the New York area and the lasting tribute to his memory is to be found out on Long Island. To this day The National is THE club to belong to and even today remains the last word in exclusivity. Unashamedly based on the links of Scotland - the 11th and 17th holes of the Old Course of St Andrews are to be found there, so too the Redan hole from North Berwick. Macdonald was a player too, winning the first official US Amateur Championship in 1895. He had been the beaten finalist in two previous events before the ‘ US Amateur’ was formally established under the auspices of the newly formed USGA, and was a moving force in having 1895 designated as the first official year of the Championship. Thus he became its first winner!

Seth Raynor worked alongside – or more accurately under – Macdonald who was too much the egotist to share top billing, but Seth died too young to carry the Macdonald design philosophy much further when the old man passed away. That left room for another expatriate Scot, Donald Ross, to pick up the course design mantle when the game really caught on after Francis Ouimet’s surprise victory in the 1913 US Open. He assumed much the same role as Colt had in England – founder of the profession of golf architecture - and will forever be known for his collection of courses at Pinehurst, North Carolina. No 2 remains the jewel in the crown and to this day is regarded as one of the best and most natural of current US Open Championship venues. Several other of his courses are regular venues for US Opens and Ryder Cups, and if there are any questions as to a course’s suitability, they are usually silenced by, ‘...and don’t forget it’s a Donald Ross course.’

While a number of other worthy but not particularly sensational courses came into being around then, the only other man really to leave courses of note was A W Tillinghast. A dilettante, he laid out a number of superb private courses – mostly for his well heeled and well connected chums - firstly in the West, including the San Francisco Golf Club, and then moving East to offices on Broadway from where he left behind several great layouts including the championship courses at Baltusrol and Winged Foot. He became a victim of the Depression and died quite young, but his one last commission was to turn the public park at Bethpage to the East of New York into a clutch of courses for public use. Four of them are quite mundane, but he found a piece of land to one side where he could fashion a course right up to his best traditions; he believed that above all a round of golf should be a beautiful walk. The result was Bethpage Black, and it may just be the best course he ever designed.

Post War, the only designer to survive from that earlier era was Robert Trent Jones, the name ‘Trent’ being regularly used to differentiate from the earlier and more famous ‘Bobby’. He turned golf course architecture from a hobby, or cottage industry, into a serious corporative activity. With earth moving equipment getting ever more sophisticated, he could take the most unpromising pieces of land and turn them into attractive places to play. Not only that, whatever the size and shape of the ground he could leave the whole thing looking pristine by the time he packed up and moved on; no two to three year gestation period while the course matured. He made golf courses the shop window of many of the emerging residential golf developments springing up all over America as the game really took off in the Arnold Palmer and colour television era of the 1950s and 1960s.

Since then the game of golf in America has enjoyed an almost continuous boom, with limitless quantities of money available for ever more dramatic schemes. Trent Jones’ two sons have carried on where the old man left off, RTJ II enlarging the family design empire and Rees becoming the architect of choice to work for the USGA in ensuring their various selected locations for the US Open are able to defend themselves against the onslaught of advancing technology. Two generations of Fazios have done some of the most highly acclaimed work throughout America, but it may be Pete Dye who will leave behind the courses that future generations look at as the icons of this explosive age.

His course at PGA West is now 20 years old and was the most daunting and difficult ever constructed at the time; the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is the nearest thing to a true links to be found in the States and the Stadium Course at Sawgrass is still held up as quite possibly the best test of golf the modern professional faces when he attends the Players Championship each Spring. And Crooked Stick in Indianapolis established his penchant for ‘railway ties.’

As well as the design dynasties, the top players of the post war era have got in on the game. Jack Nicklaus has been by far the most dominant, with a raft of courses throughout the world. Technically impressive, each one will be a test for anyone off the back tees, but rather like the man himself very few if any will be loved by ensuing generations of golfers. A bit like Donald Ross at Pinehurst, he will best be remembered for his own course at Muirfield Village, where he grew up and at which he hosts the annual Memorial Tournament.

Of all top players turned designers, Ben Crenshaw will probably be the most highly regarded. With no attempt at limitless volume, Crenshaw with his long time colleague Bill Coore has come up with a handful of superb courses. They restrict themselves to sites and circumstances that will allow them to lay out courses with all the best attributes of that earlier generation. The star of the collection is Sand Hills in Mullen (Nebraska) where true aficionados make regular pilgrimages; an inland links amidst desolate dunes, miles from anywhere.
Talking of distant treasures, a strip of land has been found on the coast of Oregon, miles to the south of the capital Portland, called Bandon Dunes. It is certainly as near true links land as can be found on the West Coast and a number of brilliant seaside tracts have appeared in recent years. David McLay Kidd, son of the one-time Course Superintendant at Gleneagles, is responsible for one, but the stars of the show are likely to have come from legendry acerbic critic of much modern design, Tom Doak. His Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald courses are a couple that may well stand out with the passage of time.

Only one family stuck to the design business back in Britain. Fred Hawtree was the founding father and is best known for being the creator, along with James Braid, of Royal Birkdale. Two further generations have continued the business. Generally though design work in Europe was sparse post war; Britain and the Continent were physically and economically exhausted for the best part of 30 years and the only two courses of note from that time were the Duke and Duchess at Woburn and the Peter Alliss/Dave Thomas courses on old farmland at the Belfry.

Whilst not appreciated at the time, these two Ryder Cup players deliberately set out to build an American style course with professional tournaments in mind. The intention was that our top performers would have some experience of that type of golf should they ever reach the giddy heights of being invited over to play in the Masters or US Open. Short of money to start with, the Brabazon Course really was an ugly duckling. Then it became synonymous with the turnaround in the fortunes of the Ryder Cup and has since, with the aid of considerable investment, turned into quite a beautiful swan.

The golf boom even reached Europe’s shores towards the end of the 20th century and some exceptional courses have sprung up in the last 20 years. After decades when all top architects claimed that the links of Britain were at the heart of all their creative efforts one or two genuine links have emerged. Kyle Phillips created Kingsbarns just to the East of St Andrews, but while there had been a nine hole course there many years ago, his layout was brand new and as with reproduction furniture it can only be a copy of the real thing – man made, rather than evolving from the land laid down by nature. This is also true of Greg Norman’s Doonbeg in Ireland and Gary Player’s The Links of Fancourt in South Africa, both of which are astonishing replicas of what nature gave us to start with.

Obviously there are fine and distinctive examples of imaginative courses to be found throughout the world, but the sheer volume of new courses from these past 50 years will make it difficult for any one or two to stand out. But while there is inevitably a lot of dross from that period, there are also some superb specimens. There will now be something of a pause with the world facing more pressing and global economic problems. No bad thing while we digest the plethora of activity we have enjoyed in the immediate past.