I’m intentionally avoiding any reference to the origins of the game or the development of links golf which had more to do with finding holes and natural green sites. What I wanted to talk about in this series is the hand of man, where he made changes, what features he added and his eventual impact on architecture. The idea is to take a look at the good and the bad ideas that were introduced along the way and their overall impact on the architecture we have today. This by no means is intended to be definitive since I do not have the time or the resources to really be accurate enough – this is an opinion piece where I will try my best to show the development of golf course architecture.
For perspective, I will make quick mention of Tom Morris and the earliest designers of the late 1800’s who largely spent a single day on site laying out the entire course or making changes to the rudimentary courses that existed at the time. For the most part these architects went about finding natural green sites and linking holes from one great green site to another. The courses were full of blind shots, narrow fairways and were largely bordered by whins which while difficult were simply part of the game. Over time the courses were made easier through additional widening, or tougher through the introduction of created or formalized hazards. Professionals like Alan Robertson (the Old Course) and David Strath (North Berwick) were entrusted to make adjustments to the courses and thus became the earliest golf course architects – their work would eventually have a huge hand in the development of golf architecture. They began to build new greens and add hazards to influence play and make the courses more interesting – they ended up creating many of the earliest strategies like the Redan.
The Redan before the turn of the century
At the same time there was another group of architects, like Willie Dunn, who were building manufactured courses that were far different from the links. They largely gave rise to the penal school of golf courses architecture and featured artificial landforms that were often geometric. They had a tendency to offer courses with steeple jump like hazards that had to be carried, and the architecture tended to tell you where not to go and what not to do. When compared to the open invitation to find the ideal route presented by the links, it is no wonder that Tom Simpson describe this as “the dark ages: “They failed to reproduce any of the feature sof the courses on which they were born and bred, or to realize the principles in which they were made. Their imagination took them no further than the conception of flat gun platform greens, invariable oblong, round or square, supported by railroad embankment sides or batters….The bunkers were constructed on the fairways way be described as rectangular ramparts of a peculiar obnoxious type, stretching at regular intervals across the golf course and having no architectural value whatsoever.”
A Willie Dunn bunker
The penal school’s influence was not all bad and the philosophy was carried through into a number of very famous layouts we revere today, but the early rudimentary geometric architecture was quickly replaced by a desire to have more natural looking features and an aesthetic which we also revere today.
Some key moments of the century included: St. Andrew’s changing the holes closest to the clubhouse leaving only 18 holes in 1764, Tom Morris introducing the idea of returning nines and the double loop at Muirfield, the subtle introduction of strategy into the links course through the placement of some of the earliest introduced hazards and formally planned greens.