Thursday, March 29, 2007

So....What’s in the Future?

Well I’ve either entertained you or bored you to death with a three week out look at the history of golf course architecture. This wasn’t an accurate history, but rather a look at the key players and key developments along the way and how they shaped the current state of golf architecture.
I’ve identified Coore and Crenshaw both as the leading architects and the most influential designers of this era. I’ve also pointed to Tom Doak, who looks to be trying his damn hardest to be considered the greatest architect of his generation. While he’ll certainly build more than Crenshaw and Coore, that may also be his undoing since he also tends to spread himself too thin at times. His work in the southern hemisphere has certainly turned all heads in his direction though. Coore and Crenshaw’s insistence on handling no more than two jobs at a time means they will remain more selective of properties and projects and put more personal time into each site. That is the recipe for greatness.

The Minimalism movement will begin to dominate golf course architecture and slowly push aside a few of the older modern architects as times get a little tougher. The cheaper to build “minimalist” course will continue to make more economic sense and minimalism will continue to get more critical support as time goes forward. Golf will have a recession in the next few years and this will also help to push the Minimalist design style as the logical answer to continuing to build. Golf will go through some harder times in the near future but as usual there will be more building on the other end beginning with the more sensible economic models first and then getting back to some more ambitious projects later on. The driving force in new projects will be the value of real estate – either surrounding the courses – or the value of land under the course.

In my heart I want to believe that the infatuation with celebrity designers will stop, but society is so celebrity obsessed that I don’t hold out any hope. Britney Spears will design her first course….just kidding. Tiger Woods will become the biggest designer of the next era. Tiger will quickly topple Jack Nicklaus from the king of the player designers and Jack will retire at the end of this decade due to health. Tiger will employ half of the existing Team Fazio, at first as a partner and 10 years out as the owner when Tom sells the business to Tiger. Tiger will build far more courses than anyone else beginning about 5 years from now.

The greatest architect of the next decade will not have played professional golf. They will not come from a large office. They will be able to run a dozer and a computer, but do neither in the end. They have already interned or worked with an architect. They are not yet 30. They won’t move much earth. They will be fluent with philosophies and principles of the Golden Age. They will know the entire history of golf course architecture and have built their personal design style on that knowledge. They will not be a minimalist but have a style completely different from Coore and Doak. They will start the "next movement in golf course architecture."

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

2000 – 2007 Minimalism becomes.......Popular?

Bandon Trails by Crenshaw and Coore

Coore and Crenshaw have established themselves as the best architects in practice – their reputation clearly eclipses former decade leaders Fazio and Dye. Both are still busy, but people have found Fazio too predictable and Dye to…well….to unpredictable. A new crop of designers have also emerged to take over from the previous generation and while a few practice a version of modern design, most practice a style similar to Coore and Crenshaw. This style has been given the name “Minimalism” and this has become the new buzzword in golf design – it’s the name of the movement that defines this decade. The trend appears to be very firmly rooted and will quite likely be the defining trend for the near future.

Old Sandwich by C&C

Minimalism is actually a lousy term for what the movement really is since it was incorrectly named for the assumption of no earth movement in these new “retro” designs. The new movement is more a return to the roots of golf design. The latest crop of architects are choosing to ignore almost anything done recently and instead look all the way back to the work of the Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture. They are influenced by Colt and Mackenzie, rather than by Nicklaus or Fazio. They love early Pete Dye but have little regard for his latest work. They all love Bill Coore and want to build courses like he does. He has become the benchmark for this generation, their inspiration and often their mentor too.

Pacific Dunes by Tom Doak

So why is this style better than modern or post modern? It’s the playing experience itself. Golden Age Design is about freedom and discovery. Modernism or Post-Modernism tends to tell you what to do and where to go. Golden Age design invites you to gamble or “to shoot the bones for the whole works,” but also provides you with the freedom to take any route, including a tentative longer route to avoid risk. The great Golden Age layouts always compel you to take on greater risk than you should.

Barndougle Dunes in Tasmania by Tom Doak

While architects like Gil Hanse (Rustic Canyon), Mike DeVries (Kingsley Club), and others have create wonderful and interesting layouts, the architect who has moved to the forefront to take on Coore and Crenshaw is Tom Doak. Doak is to some a controversial figure due to his strong opinions and Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, but without question one very talented designer. Tom made his name initially with his writing and opinions and back them up with a very interesting first course called High Pointe, but his work at Pacific Dunes was his coming out party. The course received immediate comparisons to Cypress Point for its architecture, stetting and unusual hole sequences. The course was shorter than normal, wider than most, but brilliant in the use of the environment and the land to create a series of very compelling holes. Doak followed that up with a series of spectacular sea side courses in Australia, New Zealand and in the US. His work is comparable to the work of Coore and Crenshaw in both playing style and aesthetics – and now in quality too. There is no question he is clearly influenced by the work of Coore and Crenshaw – the question now is can he surpass it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

1990 – 2000 The decade of Contrasting Styles

Sand Hills opener

This is one of the most interesting decades due to the explosive divisions in architectural philosophy practiced by a series of high profile architects. You have Rees Jones continuing on the legacy of his father with his new work like Atlantic Golf Club. His renovation work at Bethpage Black and other famous layouts provides him with the “Open Doctor” moniker just like his dad had and he become the USGA’s go to guy – like his dad. Nicklaus continues to work on hundreds of projects with many being outside the US, but gets into financial problems with the development and construction arm of his company. Pete Dye becomes the very antithesis of his early origins, while he continues with the remarkable design ideas that brought him to prominence, he now shapes and moves everything – a far cry from The Golf Club. His courses are still strategically excellent and fascinating, but the work lacks the same charm of the early courses. This culminates at Whistling Straights where he takes an average albeit lakefront property and moves millions of yards of earth to build a stunning “links” layout with so many bunkers that nobody has ever counted them.

Whistling Straights 17th

Mike Strantz
, who had previously worked for Tom Fazio, was an architect walking completely out of step with all other – to my delight. The first signs of his genius are with a small tight property at Caledonia where he builds a remarkably clever and interesting layout that is a little different looking and playing than what people are used to. But there was so much more to come when you listen to this quote from an interview, “It is important to make the golf hole look more difficult than it really is." That is almost always the case on our courses, but if your mind convinces you that it really is a difficult shot, you’re beat before you even take the club back.” Caledonia was tricky in places but when he built Tobacco Road he built the most intimidating and controversial course constructed in recent time. This course is either loved or hated. I personally think this is because the course needs to be understood and respected before you can try out play it. The course uses large doses of intimidation – including blind shots – to overwhelm the player into playing in fear. The course also has width and short cuts galore to encourage a risky style of play, add this all up and you have one of the most unique and entertaining courses I have played. His work eventually softened culminating with his last course - the sublime Monterey Peninsula Shore Course - but one thing you can say about Mike’s work is that it was always interesting.

The 13th at Tobacco Road

The final prominent architect of the decade is Bill Coore. Bill began working with Pete Dye as a superintendent but became interested in architecture working on a few smaller jobs. He became involved with Ben Crenshaw and began to design so very lay of the land layouts with lots of interesting ground options and alternate strategies. The work caught immediate attention for the enjoyment in created when you played the courses. Everything changed overnight when they were asked to do Sand Hills in the middle of the Sand Hill country in Nebraska. Sand Hills was an exceptional property. Coore and Crenshaw showed the patience to walk and walk the property until they had found the right routing. While 100’s of perfect holes were available, they walked until they found a routing that would work, without having to disturb any of the natural site. Many of the hazards are natural blow outs, and others that were created to look like they were also blow outs too. The course is like Prairie Dunes where the line between golf and nature is blurred. The golf course is a perfect reflection of the site, has a perfect set of holes and will be this era’s greatest course.

The 17th at Sand Hills

Bill Coore caught everyone’s attention and ultimately ushered in a new movement called Minimalism. It may have originated with the Golden Age, been picked up by Pete Dye with The Golf Club, been regenerated with Tom Doak’s High Pointe, but it was Coore and Crenshaw that really made the statement that this movement was here to stay. They built the ultimate example at Sand Hills and then built a series of excellent examples at other less spectacular sites. Now their style has been copied by all the other architects including Nicklaus and fazio. Coore and Crenshaw became the trend setters.

Monday, March 26, 2007

1980-1990 - The Road to Excess

This happens to be the era I care for the least.

It began with Pete Dye building a new tournament course called The Tournament Players Club of Sawgrass. This was part of a grandiose dream of Deane Beaman to build tournament courses belonging to the players where the average guy could pony up some significant dollars to go tee it up on the same courses. The players would begin a slow and steady investment in these courses and would reap major profits down the road. They would even joint venture these with resorts and housing developments to bring in a bigger return. They would rule the world……well IMG would do a much more efficient job later, but that’s another story. The TPC courses (beyond Sawgrass), built using player consultants, are largely forgettable courses that have all gone under massive renovation. The most unfortunate thing about the look and nature of the course was it was roundly copied by many architects all over the world - and while I really like the course - there never should have been a second one.

AT Sawgrass, Pete took a lousy property that was barely above water table and covered with bush, and slowly turn it into a brilliant piece of architecture and engineering. The course was based around most of his ideas involving smaller wilder greens, strategic placement of tee shots, clever strategic choices, but where it went two full steps further than his previous work was the addition of so much water directly into play. Pete had made the decision that the only way “to get those dudes thinking” was to use the finality of water as a way to make them blink. The ultimate statement of this was the island green built at #17, which came about by accident. This was the best source of sand on the site and they over mined it in order to cap all the fairways - and found there peninsula green had become….an island green. Once in play, they knew they had created the perfect tournament hole and a place the players feared from the opening tee shot. He had those dudes thinking and Pete Dye was in control.

Another architect who also would go on to embody the word “control” was Tom Fazio. Like Pete, the more courses he created, the more he wanted to control the site. Tom began with his uncle George Fazio creating tough layouts like the National in Toronto, but would eventually go on his own and create a very player friendly style that would define him as an architect. While Pete was into carry angles and deception, Tom preferred defining bunkers and a clear path to the hole. Tom seemed to be more concerned with hiding cart paths and grading tie-ins than he was about creating dilemmas. If anything, much of Tom’s work can be characterized as too safe and too fair to be great. Mackenzie always theorized that great holes began with initial controversy until they were understood - Fazio avoided controversy in favour of making a beautiful player friendly landscape.

The ultimate expression of his ability and style was Shadow Creek built in 1989. The course built for Steve Wynn in the desert and was a remarkable undertaking. Fazio began with a flat featureless site and moved millions of yards of sand. He then planted a massive amount of pine trees and landscaped the entire proprety to create a lush oasis with ravines amd wonderful rolls where you could only see the mountains in the distance but none of the flat desert right next door. The course is stunningly beautiful.

When asked about Tom as a designer, Bill Coore once remarked that he thought Fazio was a remarkable “Landscape Architect.”