THE ARCHITECT AS GENIUS
by Mike Young

Mike Young Designs
Athens, Georgia

Golf course architects are getting a lot of attention these days. The golfing public cares about course designers. People know the names of architects, their styles and their courses. As part of this new attention, some architects have become media super stars, appearing on TV and on the lecture circuit. All of the national golf magazines now rate courses and give lots of ink to designers. Everyone seems to have his favorite architect, old, new, living or dead.

It wasn’t always like this. Not too long ago architects got very little attention. Golf courses were just places where you played golf. They weren’t ‘by’ anyone and they weren’t in any particular ‘style.’

Consider, for example, Bernard Darwin’s famous Golf Courses of the British Isles, a book that brought public attention to legendary courses in England, Scotland and Ireland for the first time. Discussions of golf architecture are central to the book, but there are very few architectural attribution to be found. Or consider Pete Dye who wrote recently that while in the army during World War II he played Pinehurst No. 2 many times, never knowing who the architect was. He says he wouldn’t have known ‘Donald Ross from Betsy Ross’ at the time. Likewise, Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf in the 1960’s was filmed at some of the greatest courses in the world, but rarely was the architect identified.

It is a sign of how much things have changed that in a recent edition of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, the course architect was not only prominently mentioned, he introduced each hole on air. Entire real estate developments are marketed on the strength of an architect’s reputation. Architects and their remodeling work now figure prominently in media coverage of major golf tournaments. Never before have architects received this kind of attention.

All of this adulation gets ratcheted up another notch when it come to ‘Golden Age’ designers. If there was a time when Dye didn’t know who Donald Ross was, that time is over. Ross, MacKenzie, Tillinghast, Thomas, MacDonald, Raynor, Flynn and the other members of the Golden Age pantheon are now household names and they are treated like deities. That’s not an altogether bad thing. They were an extraordinarily talented group and recognition of their special talent was long over due.

But sometimes I wonder if all of this adulation hasn’t gone too far. As good as the Golden Age architects were, the reverence for them can sometimes be over the top. Their courses are sometimes treated like sacred texts. Every swale, tree, and ridge (or lack of the same) is taken as a sign of the master and invested with deep architectural significance.

All of this might be disregarded as so much harmless hero worship if it weren’t for the fact that courses from the Golden Age courses evolve and change like any other course. Questions of restoration or other changes inevitably come up, and dealing with these issues on Golden Age courses can get crazy. Especially if the people you are dealing with believe that the designer of their course was a genius (which is sometimes true) and that every feature on their course is a sign of that genius (which is almost never true).

The sanctification of courses by these famous architects can get in the way of thoughtful restorations. I’ve had people tell me that an architect carefully placed a tree behind a green for depth perception. The tree would have been no more than a two foot sapling when the course was built in the 1920’s. Swales in fairways, dug for drainage, are seen as marks of unsurpassed artistry. Odd bunker locations are taken to have deep aesthetic significance when many were placed in these odd locations simply to provide fill dirt for nearby green pads.

It’s not possible to know all of the details of what an architect wanted for a course more than eight decades after it opened. Even if you are fortunate enough to have detailed drawings, it’s still not possible. Bunker depths, green contours, run-off areas, lake and creek borders, trees, tee elevations and other details are rarely specified. There is also always slippage between the drawing and what is actually put in the ground. Especially when construction crews are unfamiliar with building golf courses (as many were in the 1920’s) or unfamiliar with the architect’s preferences or, worse, if the architect made few or no site visits during construction. The details Ross would have wanted on the 300 or so courses he designed but never saw will always be an open question because it’s likely that even he didn’t know what details he wanted.

A related problem in divining an architect’s original intent is that many clubs are convinced that older features on their course, merely because they have been there since time immemorial, must have been designed by the architect. For example, raised green fronts are taken to be classic domed Ross-designed greens. Members, even when shown that Ross’s own drawings indicating that the green were not to have these fronts and even when all the evidence points to the accumulation of topdressing over the years, still want to believe that these raised fronts are signs of their authentic Ross greens. It’s as if the mere survival of certain features over many years means they must have been intended by the original architect.

All designers from all eras left a great deal to the interpretation of construction crews, owners and club members. Even when architects oversaw construction, features were constantly being changed in the field and the process continued after the courses were completed. Ross tinkered with Pinehurst No. 2 his entire life. MacDonald was still changing National Golf Links 25 years after it opened. MacKenzie was rethinking features at Pasatiempo until his death.

It’s entirely possible MacKenzie would have also tinkered with Augusta National had he lived. It is the only clay-based course he designed. Unlike sand-based courses with their high percolation rates, clay-based courses present unique drainage problems. From opening day Augusta National had drainage problems on nos. 4, 10, and 11. These problems were one of the main reasons Perry Maxwell, Robert Trent Jones and others were brought in to make changes on these holes. MacKenzie would have understood the need for these changes. And though he probably would have made the changes differently, he wouldn’t have objected on principle to altering the course. He, like other famous architects of his era, fully expected course modifications would be part of the natural evolution of their golf courses.

When asked to restore or repair an older course, the first, middle and last question is ‘What is it you are restoring?’ The course details as originally intended? As originally built? As it looked at some interim date? And what if the current membership has its own ideas about how the course used to appear? These are all important questions that should be debated and resolved in any restoration project. It would be wonderful if there were a way to avoid the debates that always accompany these questions. But the masters of the Golden Age would have scoffed at the idea that there was a Rosetta Stone somewhere that would magically reveal their true intentions and painlessly resolve all of these issues.

The best of the Golden Age were unmatched geniuses at using existing landforms to create strategy and interesting shot options. I stand in awe of what they were able to do. My point, to turn the old axiom on its head, is that their genius does not reside in every detail. It can be counter-productive to treat Golden Age courses with too much deference. Cults, whether about Mao Tse Tung, The Grateful Dead or Donald Ross, always get in the way of clear thinking. Too much reverence for practitioners from the Golden Age can get in the way of thoughtful restorations. A balance has to be struck between respect for their genius and the needs of the modern player, new turf types, the current regulatory environment, and, most importantly, the fact that we will never know exactly how they would have built every feature of the course. Trying to balance all of those factors is the hardest part of a good restoration. But when done well, it is also the most satisfying part.

The End