Joshua Crane In The Golden Age, Part IV
by Bob Crosby

A Postscript:

Why the Penal v Strategic Architecture Distinction is the Wrong One; A Modest Proposal for a Better One; Or Why Joshua Crane Helps to Make Sense of It All

There are a number of reasons why revisiting the Crane debates is worth the candle. Among them is that the debates help untangle a number of thorny issues in the long-lived contrast between “penal” versus “strategic” architecture. What follows explores how the Crane debates help to sort out some of those issues and how they suggest a better way to distinguish fundamental differences in architecture philosophies.

As will be recalled, Crane deeply resented the “penologist” tag that Behr and MacKenzie gave him. It’s a safe bet that it was one the things they argued about when they got together in St Andrews in the summer of 1929. Crane thought the tag had been concocted solely to belittle him and his ideas. Objecting to MacKenzie’s use of the term, Crane wrote, “This is a direct literary piracy of Max Behr’s classification of golf architects where the goats are put in the ‘Penal School,’ and the sheep in the “Strategic School.” A pretty way of attributing false sentiments to an opponent then proceeding to condemn him therefor.”

In the last years of the Golden Age it was taken as an article of faith that the two schools were locked in combat. All of the era’s best books had set piece confrontations between good guy strategic architects and bad guy penal architects.[1] These books were not neutral, expository guides to golf architecture. Little attempt was made to give a balanced overview of different design philosophies. To the contrary, when the authors turned to philosophies of golf design, these books read like position papers in a heated argument and they all took the same side of the argument. Three decades or so later Robert Trent Jones revived many of the same themes, endowing the penal v. strategic distinction with the canonical status it currently enjoys. The distinction is today a core concept in golf architecture.

But the distinction’s long life ought to be seen as surprising. First, it’s never been clear who exactly the advocates for penal architecture were. If you’ve gotten through the earlier parts of this essay you know that Crane wasn’t one – at least not the one depicted by his opponents. But it’s not just about Crane. Architects boasting of their penal designs have always been scarce on the ground. As Tom Simpson noted in 1929, “..every golf architect, if he were asked the question to which school he belonged, would profess to be strategical.” Penal architecture is not a banner which many people have flown. MacKenzie and Behr notwithstanding, the penal school is a school without alumni.

But it isn’t just that penal architecture is an idea without a following. The concept itself is a muddle, one that obscures more than it clarifies. Given the origins of the term, that’s not surprising. Most of what we know about penal architecture we’ve learned from its opponents, architects like Behr, MacKenzie, Simpson and others. Their depictions tended to be less than even-handed – even cartoonish – for all the obvious rhetorical reasons.[2] Their strawman caricatures, however, ended up shaping modern understandings of the term. What people think they know today about penal architecture tends to be what MacKenzie and others told us it was. In short, the strategic/penal divide is not only one in which the identity of the antagonists is unclear, the meaning typically ascribed to one of its key terms is something about which we ought to be very skeptical.

The Crane debates help to clarify not only what’s wrong with the distinction, they also suggest a better way to parse fundamental differences in architectural philosophies. The debates tell us that seeing fundamental differences in design philosophies as turning on a distinction between strategy and penalty is misleading, both conceptually and as a matter of history. What has really been afoot over the years is a different sort of disagreement. A better antonym of strategic architecture is not penal architecture but rather something akin to Crane’s actual views – something like Crane’s CP&P principles. A better framework for seeing historic debates over basic design philosophies is to see them as debates between, on the one hand, strategic architecture and what might be called “equitable architecture” on the other.

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Criticisms of penal architecture have always zeroed in on what is usually understood to be its core dictate – that all bad shots should be immediately punished. But that way of seeing “penal” architecture distorts what Crane and others were really up to. The emphasis on shot testing – the central importance to Crane of “shot controls” for example – is not just about punishing missed shots. The significance of “shot controls” is that they were a means to a larger, more important goal. For Crane and others the point wasn’t simply to punish missed shots. It’s not a matter of retribution. Rather, the idea was that missed shots needed to be punished because that is the best way to reward good shots. And vice versa. That is, if you didn’t impose “controls” on shots, there was no equitable way to sort out good from bad play.

Crane was by no means  the first to link penal features with such larger equitable goals. H. Mallaby-Deeley, the architect for the highly regarded pre-World War II version of Prince’s in Sandwich, England, noted that:

Bunker your course so that every bad shot is punished; place your bunkers so that every shot must be played and played well; make the length of the holes such that if a shot is foozled it costs the player a stroke; guard the greens right and left and even onto the very edge and on to the green if necessary and at one-shot holes make the green a long fort with surrounding bunkers, and guard the tee shot…

All of which sounds like a “penologist” that might be satirized by Behr or MacKenzie. But Mallaby-Deeley goes on to put such ideas in a broader context:

[G]olf is a game of handicap, and you can not make a course fair to the plus man where he is giving strokes unless you make it very difficult, and on badly laid out courses the best men are handicapped to an extraordinary extent.

Mallaby-Deeley’s point is that if and only if you make courses difficult can you properly reward good play. In the same vein, only difficult courses prevent the weaker player from getting away with bad shots. “Penal” features were seen as an indispensable means to that end. The raison d’etre of “penal” features was to make golf courses function as more equitable venues for golf competitions.

J.H. Taylor also might have been tagged as a “penologist.” Taylor believed that “[a]n underlying principle of golf construction is that of placing bunkering so that shots which deserve no better fate shall be punished for the error that is in them.” But Taylor’s concern that all foozles be punished was just one aspect of a larger program to build golf courses that would serve as more equitable venues for golf competitions. Taylor wrote that:

The punishment must be apportioned to fit the crime; in other words, bunkers that lie near the fairway ought not be made as difficult as bunkers that lie farther out to the left or the right, to catch shots of the worst type.

For Taylor, as for Mallaby-Deeley, the point wasn’t simply to punish missed shots or to make holes more difficult for the sake of difficulty. The point was to design courses that would yield “sporting” play. Such courses, on Taylor’s view, should punish missed shot relentlessly, immediately, predictably and proportionately. In the same vein, visibility was seen as a primary virtue. Taylor noted:

Visibility is a most important point to consider in the placing of hazards…because a shot that finishes in a visible trap cannot have been well played. I like the idea of the Americans who read on every bunker an imaginary sign-post which says – “No road this way.”

Taylor’s criticism of centerline bunkers – he might have had John Low’s and Stuart Paton’s famous centerline bunker on the 4th hole at Woking Golf Club in mind – is revealing. His objection was not just that such bunkers failed to punish foozles (they are, after all, centerline bunkers), but their lack of “sporting usefulness”:

…there can be no greater or more depressing error than to place a hazard on the direct line to the hole at such a distance that a well-hit ball will be trapped; in fact, that in order to be trapped, a ball must be well hit. That is tantamount to saying to a good player, “you must play badly here in order to escape that menacing obstacle in front of your.” Surely nothing can contribute more to the making of any course uninteresting tantalizing [sic] than the placing and arranging of bunkers in this provokingly unscientific manner. Every golfer desires to hit a long ball and no sportsman wants to derive advantage from the fact that he cannot hit a long ball, while an opponent who can hit a long ball is penalized for his ability.[3]

During the latter years of the Golden Age Crane brought the issue of competitive fairness to a head. For Crane a golf course’s highest duty was to serve as a rigorous but even-handed sorting device. To the extent that all players were tested under similar conditions – on a shot by shot basis – to that extent comparisons of skills would be both more equitable and exacting. If a shot wasn’t “controlled,” there would be no way to separate the good from the bad. Such pass/fail examinations should be conducted against a backdrop that was as neutral as possible. Quirk and fluke were the enemy. Different results for similar shots were anathema. And the punishment should always fit the crime. In short, Crane’s CP&P principles.

To call such views “penal,” however, is misleading at several levels. First, it’s not as if one school of architecture employs penalties and the other doesn’t. Penalties and hazards are essential to both. All good strategic designs penalize missed shots, though sometimes the punishments are deferred.[4] Nor are strategically designed courses defined by kinder, gentler hazards. To the contrary, hazards on such courses are often more “penal” than those on “penal” courses.[5] In fact dramatic, unforgiving hazards were important to Behr and MacKenzie because of the added drama only draconian hazards could provide. Consistent with such views (and contra Crane), strategic architects in the Golden Age did not worry overly much about graduated hazards proportioned to fit the degree of a foozle.

Another, perhaps bigger, problem is that the two concepts – strategy and penalty – operate at different levels of abstraction and as such fail to engage each other properly. Behr’s and MacKenzie’s favored “strategic school” defines a type of golf architecture in terms of its ultimate ends – the creation of strategic playing choices for the golfer. The disfavored “penal school” is defined by one of the means – penalties – used to achieve its goals – equitable venues for competitions. In long-running debates over architectural philosophies, the mere act of naming one camp as “penal” was to put its adherents at a disadvantage from the very outset. 

That was at the root of what Crane’s disliked about the “penologist” label. It wasn’t that penalties didn’t play an important role in his design philosophy. They clearly did. He disliked the terminology because it distorted his real goals. The label itself tilted the scales against him. Since that terminology was originally devised by Behr to score debating points – mostly against Crane – that tilt was probably not accidental. If, however, the idea is to find a more neutral way of naming  the design philosophy that has actually competed with strategic architecture over the decades for the hearts and minds of golfers, that competing philosophy might be called “equitable architecture”. It is a term that captures more accurately not just Crane’s design philosophy and the issues actually in play in his debates with his “strategic” opponents, but also captures age old perspectives on golf design issues of which Crane is representative.

Seeing things in terms of strategic vs. equitable schools not only better describes the conceptual differences between those factions, it also maps better onto the historical record. Disagreements about golf architecture between real people (as opposed to strawmen concocted for rhetorical purposes) during the last century have not involved proponents of “penal” designs as usually understood. There have never been many campers in that camp. On the other hand the historic record is replete with people who think that “testing but fair” courses ought to be the standard for good golf design. Which is to say that views very similar to Crane’s CP&P principles seem to have been not only popular for decades, those principles also capture much more accurately the actual views of what is called the “Penal School”.

The recent historical record affirms the continuing popularity of “equitable architecture”. Nothing captures the essence of the “equitable school” better than Sandy Tatum’s 1974 response to player and press complaints about the overly “penal” nature of the US Open at Winged Foot that year. Tatum quipped that, “We are not trying to embarrass the best players in the world. We are trying to identify them.” The oft-repeated mantra that the central mission of a golf course is to “separate the wheat from the chaff” also captures the idea. Other nostrums such as, “This course is tough but fair” or “I like this course because it is all in front of you” or “there is nothing tricky about this course, you get what you deserve” or “I can’t complain, the punishments fit the crime” are other examples. Such locutions have become clichés. And they all, at root, assume that a golf course’s central mission is to function as a venue for equitable golfing competitions.

Trent Jones and other post-World War II architects broke with their Golden Age forebears in a number of different ways, but one of the most significant was the added emphasis they put on shot “controls” and sporting equities in their designs. The concept of a “Monster” course, an idea that first became popular in the early 1950’s, is in many respects the application the Crane’s CP&P principles in extremis. Trent Jones, summing up the design philosophy that informed his changes to Baltusrol for the 1967 US Open, wrote:

…[W]e have come to two definite conclusions: first, that modern players are hitting the ball farther and second, that they are hitting the center of the fairway more often. Therefore it is my contention that values should be tightened to meet the high standards which the great improvements in clubs and balls have made possible. In doing this, traps must be moved out to where they will have the same meaning they had in the Jones era, and fairways must be narrowed to develop a comparable latitude for error as when they were played by wooden-shafted clubs.

In tightening these values we have one sole objective – to test the play of modern golfers, so that the best man wins, and the golfer who has made the least shots and played the most brilliant golf is declared the champion. The tightening of any values must be done fairly. There should be no tricks, nor any trickiness on any part of the course.

Writing about his work at Oakland Hills in 1953, the original “Monster” course, Trent Jones noted:

…We have tried to eliminate anything that might be considered tricky. Al Watrous, the club’s popular pro, has hit hundreds of balls to prove the values were testing but just.

In a nutshell, Oakland Hills has been redesigned with target areas to be hit from the tee and by second shots on long holes and pin areas to be aimed for at the green. The truly great and accurate shots will earn their just rewards. The slightest miss or badly executed shot will be punished. A great champion should emerge.

Trent Jones’s set-up philosophy for US Open venues has been, in effect, institutionalized by all of the major sanctioning bodies in the US. But they are views that might have been lifted from a passage written by Crane eighty years earlier. Narrowing of landing areas with rough or bunkering is about “shot controls”; using stimp meters to assure consistent green speeds; using “thumper” machines to assure consistent turf firmness and carefully conditioning turf are all about “predictability”; and the emphasis in recent years on graduated rough and penalties are all about “proportionality”. All of which means that there is not much light between modern tournament set-up philosophies and Crane’s CP&P principles.

It’s also not coincidental that Crane and Trent Jones had similar responses to improvements in balls and clubs. While Behr, MacKenzie, Bobby Jones, Simpson and others wanted improvements to equipment rolled back rather than tamper with classic golf courses, Crane’s response to such improvements was to “modernize” those very same golf courses. Trent Jones would have concurred with Crane. In their respective eras both embraced advances in technology and believed those advances demanded a range of “improvements” to older, classic golf courses. Such sentiments have only gained momentum in recent decades as further leaps in technology have heightened the pressure to “fix” Golden Age courses.

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The ideas that underlay what I have described as “equitable architecture” have dominated popular views of golf design since before the Golden Age.[6] That domination is now so pervasive and has lasted so long that it is widely believed today such views are timeless and beyond questioning. But the Crane debates are a reminder that such views represent only one perspective – and a controversial one at that – of what the fundamental organizing principles of good architecture ought to be. Those debates recall to us that equitable architecture has a history, that its prominence today was not preordained and, most importantly, that as a design philosophy it is fraught with worrisome issues.[7] Perhaps by giving those views a more fitting name, we will be better able to assess its strengths and weaknesses.

The claim here is not that Crane is somehow responsible for the most widely held modern views about golf architecture. He’s not. Golfers aren’t thinking of Crane when they say that “fairness” and resistance to scoring are the sine qua non of good golf design. Nor is the claim here that the USGA, the PGA or Augusta National all have Crane in mind when preparing their venues for golf competitions, even if the ideas on which their preparations are based are remarkably similar to Crane’s. By the time golf architecture awakened from its long sleep during the Great Depression and World War II, Joshua Crane was a forgotten figure of a bygone era.

The claim being made here about Crane is not a causal one. The claim is rather that, first,  Crane and other the proponents of equitable architecture all draw on similar intuitions about “fair play”. Second, that Crane helps to see why importing such ideas from other sports into golf architecture seems so natural and how central they are to the most widely held views about golf design. And finally, that the responses of Behr, MacKenzie, Croome and others to Crane’s project give us the clearest, most thorough articulation we have of why taking equitable concerns appropriate to other sports and importing them into the design of golf courses is a problematical enterprise. Which is to say, if you want to understand the real points of friction in disagreements over foundational issues in golf architecture since the Golden Age, you would do well to use Joshua Crane and the fuss he stirred up in the 1920’s as your starting point. 

Robert Crosby, All rights reserved

The End 


[1] The outpouring of books during this very brief period by Mackenzie, Robert Hunter, C.B. MacDonald, Tom Simpson and George Thomas has no parallel in the history of golf architecture as to either quality or quantity. Equally remarkable was the outpouring of magazine articles on architecture during the same years by Behr, Darwin, Flynn, Tillinghast, Croome, Crane and many others, articles fighting many of the same battles over the same ground and, again, of a quality and quantity unmatched in the decades since then.

[2] The suggestion is not that Behr and others misunderstood the role equity played in Crane’s design ideas. Behr, as discussed above, not only understood it, he argued against it explicitly and with great passion. But that is not how Behr labeled their differences and it is his label that got all the historical traction.

[3] The design theories of Crane and Taylor overlap in many ways. On the idea of proportionality, for example, Taylor wrote about Mid-Surrey:

The value of [the Mid-Surrey] system of bunkering lies in it’s powers of graduating the punishment meted out to those golfers who at times wander from the narrow, straight path. The hills and hollows can be constructed that the further the player gets off the course the worse the punishment. The punishment can be made to fit the crime, as it were, and there are few to be found who will not agree that this is as it should be. It is obviously unfair that the ball just finds its way off the course should be treated with the same severity as the ball that is half-way towards the next county.

With skillful construction the element of luck can be reduced to a minimum. The accurate player will receive that reward consistent with his superior straightness, and there will be left little scope for the individual who largely trusts to luck to help get near a hole.

[4] Behr’s distinction between a “direct” and “indirect” tax nails the idea of deferred penalties wonderfully well.

[5] Behr thought that hazards on strategic courses should be more vicious than those on non-strategic courses as a general rule – on the theory that on strategic courses a player could always elect to avoid them.

[6] MacKenzie, Behr and other Golden Age designers had no doubt that such views dominated during the Golden Age. Rightly or wrongly, these architects often depicted themselves as a misunderstood minority swimming against the tide of popular opinion. 

[7] Why it is misguided to transpose equitable principles from other sports into golf goes to the very heart of the theory of strategic architecture. Strategic golf design entails (in a strong sense) a view of golf as being agnostic to the kinds of competitive equities that play a central role in other sports. The case for that entailment is, in essence, the flip side of the narrative above. That, however, is a topic beyond the scope of this essay.