I’ve been attempting to catch up on golf literature and my wife assisted this Christmas with a copy of Golf Has Never Failed Me, a compilation of Donald Ross’s scant writings, organized to provide insight into the Scot’s approach to golf course design.
It won’t provide many mind-boggling realizations for those who have a generalized understanding of Ross’s rather generalized style. Simply the bare necessities for planning a golf course (from finding a property to draining it) and the strategy of laying it out (from routing to Ross’s range of sand hazards).
There was one subject that intrigued me, however, which Ross put far more emphasis on than the average 2020 GCA conversant:
“The old courses in England had separate tees at every hole. The old courses had tees so long and wide that you never knew what kind of shot you were going to have at any given hole,” he wrote. “The modern golf course should either have tees fifty yards long or three or four separate tees at every hole.”
That’s a lot of tee…a lot more than you see at the average golf club during 2020. So I got to thinking…what holes would benefit from the application of this Ross principle? The possibilities were endless, but I’ve narrowed it down.
Many are tweeting their “best golf courses I played for the first time during 2020” lists. So I decided to jump onboard the rubbing-it-in train, while also creating some worthwhile conceptual content (hopefully).
So here are the six best courses I played for the first time during 2020 (not in order), with emphasis on how they currently practice Ross’s teachings or, more likely, my radical reinterpretation of one of that course’s tees to change the hole’s play.
A recent round of golf played made me consider what made for quality residential golf, and it seems like I haven’t been the only one thinking on it. Adam Lawrence of Golf Course Architecture just dropped a feature in last month’s issue, speaking with golf course architects on how to best bring golf courses and housing together.
A slight bother in that conversation, for someone who lives in Columbus, is that Coore and Crenshaw’s new Cabot St. Lucia is that these are not the same caliber of course I’m referring to when I refer to “residential golf.” I may not be talking about poor people, but I am talking about Ohio.
Said recent round was on a course designed by none other than Arthur Hills, which exuded healthy habits in building a real estate development course.
Donald Ross fans in Ohio are in the midst of a few good years. At the top of the list, most obviously, is Andrew Green’s restoration at the Inverness Club, and Scioto Country Club will seek to usurp the throne (as the state’s preeminent Ross) when Green undertakes an overhaul during 2021. Brookside Country Club in Canton beat both to the punch when Brian Silva restored its Rossiness during 2003. Although not quite at major-host level like those courses, Kevin Hargraves’s work at Columbus Country Club is earning raves.
The Columbus metro area will continue the theme, at least theoretically: Some big-name, big-walleted Denison University alums are making it possible for Gil Hanse to create a masterplan for the school’s course, which was designed by Ross as Granville Golf Club. We’re hoping like heck work begins sooner than later, and we’re especially eager to see what happens between holes Nos. 14 to 17.
This blog is not about how Bandon Trails is my favorite course at Bandon; I’ve only played two of them and I’ve got to side with the majority of raters in that Pacific Dunes was the better of the two. That said, there’s something about Bandon Trails that is inherently bloggable; it’s a non-links course among four trve links courses (a contentious argument on several fronts)…and that’s probably why I’ve seen more blog posts about Trails than I have any other course. Even if Trails is on numerous Top 100 in The World lists, we sometimes act like it’s the ugly little Bandon brother.
Basically, people like me feel like we’re fighting some hipster battle when we declare Trails to be our favorite at Bandon (I make a similar argument regarding St. Anger being the best Metallica album post-“Black”).
But again, this isn’t a blog post about why Trails is actually the best (and seriously, I don’t hold it against anyone who believes that to be true). Pacific Dunes was the best course I’ve yet had the opportunity to play, but right now I haven’t quite formulated thoughts beyond the standard 18-hole-tour blog post thesis: “dude, the views” (I’ve gotten a bit beyond that but I’m not sure it’s an interesting post).
So I too am writing about Bandon Trails. And my topic is “dude, the views.”
One of the wonders in the era of re-appreciating the classic era of golf course architecture is the touch of mystery that lurks behind much of it. Documentation has been lost on most of the world’s most acclaimed golf courses, and dedicated devotees are always digging to get back what was lost.
George Bahto was among the best of them, and was held among the foremost academics on C.B. Macdonald. His book, The Evangelist of Golf, is often the first step in an education on Macdonald’s template system, and their place at the National Golf Links of America.
We’ve come to accept Bahto’s answers — as well as those from numerous experts — as concrete. Should we? No doubt, Bahto put the work in…but an extreme lack of first-hand sources means nothing is infallible. The Evangelist info on the “Bottle” template is not a clear example of this. After all, Macdonald himself described what the origin of the concept was. But if I may be so bold…I’d argue — as someone who frequently and subconsciously chooses to misremember — that Macdonald may be guilty of the same.
Here I argue, dangerously, that our accepted understanding of the “Bottle” has long been misled by none other than Macdonald’s own words. It’s a proposal that can’t be proven…but there’s evidence it’s not a throwaway theory either.
Several months ago, scratching a creative itch, we set about creating The Appalachian Golf Trail, consisting only of notable golf clubs located within walking distance (less than 5 miles) from the most famous hiking trail in the United States. The results, of course, were a disaster. Of the eight clubs identified, only seven have survived until the publication of this post. One, the Hanover Country Club, has since been closed by Dartmouth College. The others are fine, to our knowledge.
That disaster being completed, and our boredom continuing, we began seeking another topic to fill some blog space. A chance encounter with a ‘90s computer brought forth the obvious solution: The Oregon Golf Trail.
There is a significant difference between this and the Appalachian Golf Trail, namely in that you can still hike the Appalachian one, and the Oregon Trail has largely been paved over. After all, using Bill Coore’s routing logic (he follows animal trails, assuming they’ve already figured out the best ways around a property), the Oregon Trail existed for a reason. It was the most passable way to get from Kansas City to Portland. Therefore concrete roads have often been built along the rivers where a dirt one once ran. The point is you can’t, safely at least, hike the Oregon Golf Trail. That said, for the fun of the exercise, we’ve left the “five mile” rule in place. The result is a collection of six public golf courses, along with a collection of privates that you can try to tap as you travel West.
Here’s a map of the Oregon Trail so you can plan your trip and follow along with this ridiculous exercise. One bit of advice: Never try to ford the river with your golf clubs.
Blind approach shots make for uncomfortable discussion among “woke” golf course architecture folks. On one hand, the idea of simply launching a ball into space and trusting your distance is not a hip concept to those committed to the “Strategic School” of golf course architecture. How much “luck” should be required for something that’s allegedly strategic? On the other hand, even C.B. Macdonald could not deny the appeal in the original “Alps” at Prestwick, bringing the concept back to his American designs. Very few have the backbone to suggest Macdonald is “wrong.”
At its base are two contrasting values. The second value is the principles of Strategic golf, which places almost all emphasis on the player; both their ability to gauge risk and reward, and execute upon them. But golf’s roots in the Scottish links relied on a bit more. It relied on luck. Great courses require great players to execute strategically, but it also requires them to react to wild bounces and curious results. Blind shots into punchbowl greens are more at home in this philosophy.
And so there’s some uncomfortable thumb-twiddling when the idea comes up in modern architecture conversation. The intrigue and suspense of walking up to your ball after launching it into the (relative) unknown, versus the inherent unfairness in blinding the green.
Pete Dye takes an alternative tack to the blind approach at Pete Dye Golf Club. In fact, he does it three times.
Singapore has a space problem. Being the no. 29 city in the world for population density makes it thicker than any American city. And, among those 28 ahead of Singapore, only Seoul comes close in terms of being relatively-not-impoverished (RNI, a metric tracked by the BPBM Economic Forum). The difference between Seoul and Singapore is that one is an island, and one is not. Seoul can play the suburbs game, and Singapore cannot.
This spells trouble for Singapore’s golf courses, as its government has asserted it will focus on housing developments and infrastructure, while cutting an estimated 40 percent of golf courses by 2030 (there’s a big asterisk on that number, which we’ll get to in a minute). I’m not saying I like the idea of cutting 40 percent of golf courses, but Singapore is displaying reasonable growth. It’s not a flocking point for nouveau rich and NIMBY Democrats. It’s an economically-accomplished one-city nation with no land for its next wave of births.
But that doesn’t mean the golf courses need to disappear.
The most frequent complaint I hear from those who visit Erin Hills for the first time: “It’s long for the sake of being long.” The solution to this problem is fairly simple: Just play from shorter tees. Guys who play from the tips at Local Golf & Country Club shouldn’t be playing the tips at a 7,800 course, much less one designed with the U.S. Open in mind. Consider the length differences from the Black to the Green (6,750 yards) on No. 14, my favorite hole at Erin Hills…106 yards, down from 613 to 507. It’s intended to be a risk/reward hole. If you don’t think about going for it after a solid drive, you’re playing from the wrong tees. Guys who average 295, hitting downhill, can do that. You cannot.
That rant aside, we turn to a hole that actually gave the pros trouble, despite its relative lack of length: No. 4.
“I have known Charley Macdonald since the earliest days of golf in this country and for many years we have been rival course architects, and I really mean rivals for in many instances we widely disagreed. Our matter of designing courses never reconciled. I stubbornly insisted on following natural suggestions of terrain, creating new types of holes as suggested by Nature, even when resorting to artificial methods of construction. Charley, equally convinced that working strictly to models was best, turned out some famous courses. Throughout the years we argued good-naturedly about it.”
If you were to take A.W. Tillinghast’s word for it, the Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture was broken into two camps: those using templates, and those going without. There’s a kernel of truth to this…and plenty untrue as well. Tillie, for all his hay about the “natural suggestions of terrain,” frequently turned to templates. Tillinghast went as far as developing his own portfolio of templates. There are four, and this series will shed some light on these “lesser templates,” typically ignored in today’s conversations on the subject of designed holes.
Today’s is perhaps the most legendary of Tillie’s templates, because it’s the toughest to find in the “ideal” state that the architect described during his writing. Most of us are familiar, at this point, with the Great Hazard, and many even know the “Tiny Tim,” Tillinghast’s more famous short hole template. He was no slouch for strategy, but Tillie enjoyed coupling such thought with a fair amount of brawn, including within Par 3s.
And so, today, we examine the last of Tillinghast’s templates, the “Reef.”