The first few decades of the 20th century are much celebrated for their artistic and cultural awakenings. Louis Armstrong. Duke Ellington. Scribner’s published the first novels of a pair of expat authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Surrealists such as Man Ray and Salvador Dali dazzled the art realm, and Coco Chanel unshackled the fashion world from the constraints of Victorian life.
Equally impressive was the emergence of a Golden Age in golf course architecture, especially in the United States. Having established its first toeholds in America in the late 1800s, the sport was an increasingly popular diversion. As it grew, men such as Charles Blair Macdonald, George C. Thomas, A.W. Tillinghast, Alister MacKenzie and Donald Ross employed Old World design principles at places like Bel-Air and Riviera in Southern California and the National Golf Links of America outside New York City. Other gems that came on line in that period included Seminole in South Florida, Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula and Shoreacres on the north shore of Chicago. All these years later, they still stand up as among the very best in the country and the world.
Decades later, a pair of modern-day Medicis – Dick Youngscap, who loved the Nebraska cowboy lifestyle, and Mike Keiser, who made a mint in the greeting card business – instigated a renaissance in golf design by engaging present-day architects such as Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw, David McLay Kidd and Tom Doak to construct links-style tracks on remote, sand-based sites. The results, first at the Sand Hills Golf Club that Youngscap created in central Nebraska in 1995 and then a few years later at Keiser’s Bandon Dunes resort on the southwest Oregon coast, were throwback tracks that evoked the game as it was played in its ancestral home. With generous and wildly undulating fairways and greens, and holes that ran both long and short, those courses were so well-received that they spawned other layouts of the same ilk. At Pacific Dunes and Bandon Trails at Bandon, for example, Friar’s Head on Long Island and Ballyneal in northeastern Colorado, too. The movement even took hold overseas, with the highly regarded Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farms courses in Tasmania, as well as the acclaimed Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand. It was as inspired and creative an era of architecture as golf has ever seen. And it represented the start of a second Golden Age.
That revival remains in full swing even as market forces have slowed new course construction to such a trickle that only half a dozen or so are completed each year. Lack of quantity in new golf has elevated quality. Kidd, for example, has described his just-opened Mammoth Dunes course at Keiser’s Sand Valley resort in central Wisconsin as his best work, surpassing even Bandon Dunes. And more than a few design aficionados believe that the Tara Iti track Doak recently laid out in New Zealand is his finest.
At the same time, a number of architects have been making the greatest classic courses in America even greater through renovation projects. Among them Maidstone on the East End of Long Island (Coore and Crenshaw) and the North and South Courses at the Los Angeles Country Club (Gil Hanse). And many of those same designers have been creating short courses that are both charming and challenging, such as the Sand Box at Sand Valley (Coore and Crenshaw, again) and the Cradle at Pinehurst (Hanse).
Collectively, those developments have taken modern golf course architecture to a new level.
Call it Golden Age 2.0.
There were several things that made the first Golden Age so good, starting with extraordinary sites on which the courses were built. As golf was a relatively new sport in the United States at the time, developers and the architects they hired were able to access the best land. The dunesland on which the Cypress Point course was routed, and the terrain overlooking Peconic Bay on Long Island where Charles Blair Macdonald laid out the National Golf Links, were breathtaking in their natural states. Routings also took priority ahead of real estate back then, ensuring that the best land was reserved for golf.
As for the architects, they were, as a rule, good at their craft. Having lived and traveled extensively in the British Isles, for example, Macdonald created renditions in the States of classic golf holes from that part of the world: Redans and double plateaus, for example, Edens and shorts, too. As for Donald Ross, he had learned about golf and course design while growing up on the brilliant links of Dornoch.
Given that those men had only limited abilities to move earth and manipulate landscape, they became quite adept at getting the most out of the land as it lay. MacKenzie applied to his designs what he had absorbed about military camouflage during the Boer War, where he served as a civil surgeon. As for Thomas, who helped to lay out Riviera, Bel-Air and the two tracks at Los Angeles Country Club, he made things interesting with the limited resources at his disposal in part by developing a “course within a course” approach in which tees could be changed so that a hole could play as a long three-par one day and a short par-4 the next. They had a knack for making the best and most creative use of what the land and the Good Lord gave them. If that meant having back-to-back par-5s or creating four-pars as short as 290 yards and as long as 450, so be it.
The second Golden Age took its inspiration from that period and grew largely out of the vision and passion of Keiser. A Midwesterner and a lifelong golfer who fell for the game while caddying as a young man, he came to wonder after a series of golf trips to the British Isles why the courses being built in the States in the modern era were so far removed in terms of design, playability and atmosphere from those he was visiting abroad. So Keiser decided to bring the game in its most traditional form to the States. That meant finding windswept, waterside property with great character and then engaging bright young architects who shared his zest for classic course design to construct courses. There would be no real estate plays in anything he did. And Keiser cared not one whit where the land was located so long as it was well-suited for golf, fervently believing that if the courses were good enough, people would come.
His first effort was Bandon Dunes, and the architect he chose was a 26-year-old Scot named David McLay Kidd. The result was a superb links-style track that was as fun to play as it was challenging. It was also so well-received that soon after, Keiser engaged another wunderkind in the architectural realm, Doak, to build on neighboring property a second course, called Pacific Dunes.
As for the 2.0 version of the Golden Age, its dawn can be traced to a number of recent developments, one of which is the growth and maturity of today’s top designers. Many of them apprenticed in the 1980s and ’90s for legends such as Pete Dye and then hung out their own shingles, garnering more experience through the years and getting better at their crafts. Along the way, they also earned advanced degrees in golf-course architecture through the restoration work they did on classic courses designed by Old Masters such as Macdonald and MacKenzie, Ross and Seth Raynor. Kidd’s comments about Mammoth Dunes speak to how many of the current architects have improved. And so do visits to places like Tara Iti. Those playing that track may be instantly smitten, starting with the angled, half-blind approach to a well-bunkered green on the first hole. It only gets better from there, with the par-3 second playing to a putting surface that features a small pot bunker, much like the fabled sixth at Riviera in Los Angeles. No. 3 is one of the most unusual and exhilarating punch bowl greens a player will see, thanks to Doak positioning it downhill and to the left. And there is the awe-inspiring par-4 sixth, where the wild undulations of the fairways are designed to mirror the swells of the ocean that runs alongside it, and No. 11, a five-par that favors the golfer who can fade the ball and plays toward a giant dune that rises like a sandy mountain. When visitors are finished, they may feel like they have played Doak’s best course – even better than Pacific Dunes – and also one of the very best in the modern world.
Talk to other course designers, and they will point to other reasons for the advent of 2.0. “People are going back more and more to the old way of doing things,” says Rod Whitman, the Canadian architect who designed the renowned Cabot Links course on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton in between shaping jobs for Coore and Crenshaw. “They are hand-crafting courses, spending tremendous amounts of time on their jobs and taking great care in what they do because they appreciate how much very good competition there is for work these days and how they have to get it right.”
They are also fully engaged in the design world, not pursuing it as a sideline, Whitman adds. Architecture is their only profession.
Bruce Hepner, a longtime associate of Doak’s who now operates his own design business, thinks things have been helped by the talent available for any job of note. “With so few courses being built these days, architects pretty much have their choices of shapers. That means they can get the very best for their jobs,” he says. “Guys who have been doing this work for the very best designers in the game the past couple of decades, and who have helped build some of the very best courses in the world. They bring a lot to whatever jobs they join.”
Designers are also pushing each other like never before. “I helped Tom (Doak) build the Blue at Streamsong around the same time that Bill (Coore) and Ben (Crenshaw) built the Red there,” Hepner recalls. “And there were times that we were all climbing dunes and looking at what the other was doing across the way.”
Hanse, whose recent efforts include restorations of Pinehurst No. 4 and the East and West courses at Winged Foot, as well as original designs of the Olympic Golf Course in Rio de Janeiro and the stunning Ohoopee Match Club outside Savannah, Ga., chuckles when he thinks back on designing and then constructing the Black at Streamsong. “I took a lot of looks at what Tom and Bill and Ben had done,” he said. And he acknowledged that all of them were getting pushed by developers like Keiser who were not at all adverse to holding bake-offs for upcoming gigs.
One of those recent competitions, for a third 18-hole course at Sand Valley, ended with Keiser awarding Doak the commission for a track that is going to be called Sedge Valley. The idea is to create a U.S. version of the great Swinley Forest outside London, a par-68 track just 6,200 yards or so in length. It likely will be fast to walk, easy to maintain, fun, and interesting to play.
Thankfully, Golden Age 2.0 lives on.
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Main photo: (top row) Charles Blair Macdonald; David McLay Kidd; Mike Keiser, Tom Doak and Jim Urbina; Alister MacKenzie (bottom row) Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw; Gil Hanse; Donald Ross; George C. Thomas
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