Feature Interview with Keith Cutten
February, 2019

Keith Cutten is a golf course architect and author.  After starting on a shovel and rake in 2007 at Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club, he has spent more than a decade working alongside (his mentor) Rod Whitman.  Keith has participated in the construction of several of Canada’s highest-profile, contemporary golf course projects, including Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs.  Again with Rod, Keith completed the renovation of the historic Canadian Algonquin Golf Course in St Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick this past spring. In addition to his experience in the design and construction of golf courses, Keith has also achieved academic success.  He gained an undergraduate degree in Planning and Environmental Design from the University of Waterloo, which led to a stamp as a Professional Planner.  Additionally, Keith holds a masters degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Guelph.  More specifically, Keith’s masters thesis research explored the voluminous history of golf course architecture; which greatly assisted when laying the foundations for his new book – The Evolution of Golf Course Design. Keith serves on the Board of Directors for the Stanley Thompson Society and lives in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada with his wife and three children. Copies of his book can be purchased on his website here (https://cuttengolf.com/the_evolution_of_golf_course_design/).

1. Why undertake the five year creation of The Evolution of Golf Course Design? Was there a particular void you were trying to fill?

The research for the book actually started as a thesis, a requirement in my pursuit of a Masters of Landscape Architecture degree from the University of Guelph.  After the major years of construction at Cabot Links in Inverness, and having worked with Rod Whitman since 2007 at Sagebrush, I decided to return to school as a mature student in 2012.  The recession had made me realize that the golf industry, specifically the profession of golf course design, was getting smaller and more competitive.  I wanted to do something to set myself apart.

However, I did not start the thesis process with the intent of turning the results into a book.  Instead, my research was simply the product of trying to answer my own questions as they pertained to the history of golf course architecture.  In fact, and also commencing in 2012, it was the restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 which started the ball rolling.

After hearing Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw declare that they were ‘not environmental crusaders’ but simply wished to ‘restore the classic course to its intended design’, I began to ask myself how these changes could have been allowed to occur to such a masterpiece.  Further, while sitting in a first year history course, I began to process the many events and external influences which would shape the top practitioners and history of landscape architecture.  To me, having also taken similar courses in my undergrad in Planning and Environmental Design, the connections were both fascinating and revealing.  Moreover, I was quick to realise that this method of study would be essential to our later success as landscape architects.  As such, I began to ask myself why the study of golf course architecture had not been undertaken in such a manner.

Following a detailed review of the literature of golf course architecture, a journey which really started for me at the age of fourteen, I set to work to fill in the blanks.  I decided to look at each designer with fresh eyes.  Instead of fixating on their ultimate design philosophies and portfolio of work, I aimed to distill their influences and development as an artist.  The effects of world history, economics, prevailing artistic trends, social movements, and the inter-personal relationships were illuminated and contrasted to reveal a more complete history.  The resulting chronology and profiles revealed a deeper understanding of the profession.  An understanding which I believe has made me a better architect in this age of renovations and restorations.

Because I needed to submit my research to a committee comprised of landscape architects, my thesis had been written in a manner which was accessible to even the golf architecture novice.  So, when my degree was complete, I began to wonder if the golf industry would enjoy my findings.  After contacting my friend Paul Daley, the Australian writer, editor and publisher, we soon decided it was a worthy project.  We would spend the better part of the next two years polishing my research into The Evolution of Golf Course Design.

2. How did being an architect shape how you went about the task? Most writers are just that – writers! Some are researchers and they turn to writing to share what they have found but you are first and foremost a golf course architect.

Since 2008, the primary focus of the industry has been renovations and restorations.  Thankfully, my mentors instilled in me a great respect for the history of golf course architecture and for those who, through their pioneering talents, helped to craft the incredible playgrounds on which I get to work.  In order to complete a sensitive restoration, a designer must place their own influences aside and be able to step inside the mind of the original designer (or various designers, over time).

Similarly, working as a shaper on numerous new build projects, I have often forced myself to look at my work through the eyes of my mentors.  Regardless of whether these project were under the direction of Rod Whitman, Bill Coore, Dave Axland or Jeff Mingay, it was important that my efforts complimented the project as a whole.  As a result of this mentoring, I believe I was ultra-sensitive to these types of relationships during my research.  Indeed, the importance of mentorship as a design influence is a key thread within the book.

Further, I believe the link between literary production and professional practice has been overlooked.  At the high points of design, the architects themselves acted as the curators of the knowledge pertaining to their craft.  Designers like Walter Travis, Albert Warren Tillinghast, Max Behr, Robert Hunter and Tom Simpson all contributed frequently to prominent publications.  Moreover, some of these men even acted as the editors!

The most important factors were the transparency and accessibility of this information.  New ideas were debated in the public arena, whereby the most thoughtful arguments would prevail.  The biggest benefactor was the game itself.

Today, we see a similar blurring of the lines between the golfing media and the profession of golf course architecture.  Tom Doak has done tremendous work in this field.  Geoffrey Shackelford has come from the other side, but has also dabbled in design while working to expand our golfing knowledge.  While there are numerous other examples from both past and present, it is my belief that the art form is strengthened when the practitioners concern themselves with its history.  Furthermore, I believe it is our duty to educate both ourselves and the golfing masses, all in an effort to strengthen the game.

3. You note in the Preface that “Whereas the ‘what-and-when’ of golf course architecture has been well-documented, the ‘how-and-why’ has lagged.” Please expound on that.

The benefits of this research stemming from my thesis, is the reality that the ‘need’ for my research topic had to be proven through the completion of a detailed literature review aimed at determining gaps in the existing knowledge.  From this review, I determined that in excess of 15,000 books, and many more articles, have been written on golf’s vast subject-matter.  Typically, the topics most heavily scrutinised involve those pertaining to the playing/teaching aspects, the game’s greatest players, the sport’s rich history, its equipment, to name a few.  However, comparatively little has been written on the subject of golf course architecture.

Further, of those publications focused on golf course design, much has concentrated on maintenance and individual course designs. While literature in the field of golf course architecture has existed since 1888, this work has been frequently limited to individual architects, their design principles, and their portfolios of work.  Essentially, we have unconsciously divided the study of golf course architecture into silos, whereby individual architects (and their portfolios of work) have become the macro unit of analysis.  My research aimed to broaden this view and deepen our understanding of the ‘how-and-why’.  As I stated previously, I believe that by analysing the effects of world history, economics, prevailing artistic trends, social movements, and the inter-personal relationships of the industry’s most influential practitioners, I was able to reveal a more complete history.

4. You tie equipment to the change in design. What are the three biggest changes in equipment since the game’s origins?

As you didn’t specifically reference playing equipment, I will use this opportunity to highlight the biggest equipment changes in three main areas – playing equipment, operations, and maintenance.

Early on, the formalized golf course, as we know it today, did not exist.  Match play was the order of the day and was played in various locations on however many holes there happened to be.  The equipment and playing techniques of the early players became tailored to courses, which suited low-trajectory shots.  Linksland provided the ideal playground, where the conducive, free-draining soils, undulating topography, naturally occurring hazards, and ever-present winds, advanced the original strategy and challenge of the game.

Of all the various changes and modifications of playing equipment, the changes and modifications to the golf ball have had the most impact on golf course design.  The early balls were wooden, and as long as this was the case, the game changed very little. In the early 1600s the feathery was introduced.  These balls were able to travel higher and farther than wooden balls.  In the mid-1800s, gutta-percha began being molded into golf balls. These cheaper, more durable balls began to be favored by the thrifty Scots. This ball became very hard, and wooden clubs began to be replaced by iron-headed clubs.

In 1898, Coburn Haskell made a discovery when he wound a rubber thread into a ball and it bounced.  The process of making the rubber Haskell golf ball evolved over the years, but typically involved a round core which was wound with a layer of rubber thread.  This core was then covered by a thin outer shell made of balata sap.  In the mid-1960s, new synthetic resins were introduced (along with urethane blends) which provided a more durable cover.  Golf balls began to be classified by how many components were used in the layering and construction process (i.e. 2-piece, 3-piece, 4-piece, etc.).  The modern Pro V1 is simply the latest in this layering evolution, one which has allowed manufacturers to create golf balls with different properties.  Today, some balls can fly farther, while others have been designed to generate more spin.

Recently, the profession of golf course architecture has begun to voice concerns over the golf ball and its impacts on the game, specifically the alteration of our classic layouts in a bid to keep them ‘relevant’.  The most interesting facet about this whole debate might be the common misconception that this is a new problem. In fact, the great architects of the Golden Age encountered these same issues with the invention of the dimpled golf ball and steel shafts.  Architects such as Max Behr, Albert Warren Tillinghast, Robert Hunter, Alister MacKenzie, Harry Colt and George Thomas Jr. wrote about the changes they were seeing in the game and a different vision being crafted in North America versus that which had evolved in Scotland.  These architects believed the game was being diluted from its ‘sportier’ heritage into a game of exact distances.

Their writings and courses employed timeless strategies to mitigate the effects of technology on the game. Strategic design (angles of play) and width, combined with thoughtful ground contouring, was the prescription of the day, intended to stunt the effects of technology.  More importantly, this method of design was intended to challenge the best players, yet allow the beginner to still navigate his/her way around the course.  These designers understood that their job could be distilled to one mission – doing that which was best for the game.  Golf is, after all, a game, and the best designers understand that it is their job to make it fun.

Unfortunately, following WWII and the Great Depression, this progression of knowledge was interrupted and the prevailing mindset changed as architects began to narrow fairways, grow rough, and eventually soften contouring (especially in greens).  These wide sweeping changes were influenced heavily by other modern advancements, most notably, maintenance equipment.  Developments in irrigation technology would alter the game for many decades.  Whereas the greens were typically the only area irrigated prior to the 1950s, soon firm and fast conditions (which highlighted the playing impact of natural or created contouring) were replaced with lush green turf.  The modern golf ball was adapted to fly higher, and golf course architects tried to reinvent the wheel in a war where the parameters continued to change from year to year.

Since the early 1990s, a renaissance of sorts has been occurring.  Architects, dubbed ‘minimalists’ by the media, have begun to reintroduce classic design principles and construction methods.  This shift has been aided by both the proliferation of information (via the internet and social media) and a general paralleling of social tastes.  However, today we as architects are confronted with a difficult situation, and it has to do with length versus width and the economy of golf.  Though steps are being taken to promote the environmental and economic benefits of firm and fast conditions, not to mention the benefits for all levels of golfers, the golf ball is still going too far.  More importantly, the industry has been muzzled by the equipment manufacturers who fund both the media and the players.

The most important role of the profession of golf course architecture moving forward will be education.  The correct application of classic design principles, and the responsibility to uphold that which is in the best interest of the game, must be our primary objectives.  The golf cart, for instance, is another example of a monetary-based, operations decision which has negatively impacted the health and social aspects of the game.

We all love this game, and we must do that which protects its future.

5. There are two parts to the book. Part One is The Evolution of Golf Course Design, broken into twenty-one chapters and Part Two are profiles on architects, authors and visionaries. Let’s tackle Part One where essentially each decade starting from 1830 through 2010 gets its own chapter after the origins of the game. Is there a decade from 1830 to 2010 that you feel has perhaps been shortchanged (i.e. where more was accomplished than people understand)?

Though this period stretches for more than a decade, the importance of the work done by those operating between 1900 and 1914 (the onset of WWI) has frequently been undervalued when compared to the inter-war period (the Golden Age of Golf Course Design).  After all, golf architecture as a profession was established in Britain.  The decimation of the British economy and population following WWI prompted the movement of many to North America.  Golf architecture’s pre-war practitioners made the move in an effort to exploit the budding markets across the Atlantic.  However, the accomplishments achieved prior to the great wars set standards which last to this day.  Further, it was the relationships between those challenging the conventions of the day which would change the industry.

In 1898, Horace G Hutchinson was instrumental in establishing The Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society, commonly referred to as The Society.  Interestingly, Hutchinson served as its first president, while John Low, his good friend, filled the role of captain.  Arthur Croome was secretary, with Harry Colt a committee member. Bernard Darwin played in the first match, following The Society’s establishment.  These relationships, formed between Hutchinson and the other members of The Society, have been largely taken for granted in the history of golf course architecture.  In fact, these men took their relationships to the R&A, serving on multiple committees.

Moreover, the impact that Low, Colt and Darwin made on golf course architecture in the 1900s cannot be understated.  Low’s efforts at Woking, Colt at Sunningdale, and Darwin with his pen, all worked to further the profession and deepen our understanding of golf course architecture.

If I am every crazy enough to write another book, I would love to devote more time into exploring this important era.

6. Horace Hutchison was both a formidable player and writer. Add the two talents together, and you credit him with being the primary voice for both the sport and golf course architecture in the 1890s. You also delve into his intellectual curiosities which included painting and sculpture. Tell us about his mentor George Frederic Watts and the Symbolist Movement and how they influenced Hutchison’s view on architecture.

In the early part of the 20th century, Horace Hutchinson’s playing history, social status, and his role with Country Life magazine, commanded great respect throughout the golf world.  However, the influences which would shape Hutchinson, and golf course architecture as we know it, would begin to form much earlier.

In Britain, the damaging effects of machine-dominated production on both social conditions and the quality of manufactured goods had been recognised since around 1840.  But it was not until the 1860s and 1870s that new approaches in architecture and design were championed in an attempt to correct the problems of the Industrial Revolution. The Arts and Crafts movement in Britain was borne out of an increasing understanding that society needed to adopt a different set of priorities.

In 1890, with his sixth-place finish at Prestwick, Horace Hutchinson achieved a career-best performance in the Open Championship.  He capitalised on this success, and later that year released Golf: arguably, his most successful publication.  Feeling fulfilled with his accomplishments in golf, Hutchinson acted as most socialites did at the time: he selected a new, exciting hobby to captivate his attentions.  Hence, in 1890, Hutchinson moved to the booming metropolis of London where he began a serious study in painting and sculpture.

For the next year Hutchinson was mentored by George Frederic Watts, a renowned and popular English artist.  However, unlike most other artists of his age, Watts was multi-disciplinary and worked as both a painter and a sculpture.  Watts spearheaded the Symbolist Movement in Britain, which used mythological and dream-based imagery to convey deeper meanings than what was being expressed through the Victorian aesthetic; which was largely one-dimensional.  Watts’ associations with John Ruskin, the pre-Raphaelites, and William Morris, all worked to further the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain.  In fact, Watts even married Mary Seton Watts (nee Mary Seton Fraser Tytler), a Scottish craftswoman, designer and social reformer.  The pair was well-established in their London studio when, in 1890, Horace Hutchinson began his studies.

However, due to a recurring illness which plagued Hutchinson his entire life, his studies under the great GF Watts lasted just one year.  Notwithstanding, this education would have a lasting effect on the prominent golfer, writer and golf course designer.  This connection is made more tangible when one considers two publications by Horace Hutchinson, which, due to their non-golfing subject-matter, have been largely forgotten by the world of golf.

The first of these literary endeavours was simply titled Cricket.  Published in 1903, the book represents a series of essays on the bat-and-ball game, edited by Hutchinson.  Although a handful of references pertain to golf, the most important connection is between the illustrations found in this later text and those found in Hutchinson’s first book, Hints on Golf.  Whereas crude stick figures are used to depict proper golf swing positions in Hints on Golf, Hutchinson employs the skills of his mentor GF Watts to provide seven wonderful drawings within Cricket; which show the cricketers in the various positions of defence or attack. This revelation is important, because it shows that this mentor-protégée relationship was not fleeting.  In fact, it lasted at least a decade.  More importantly, the connection lasted into the early 1900s: a period when golf course architecture irrevocably changed; and Horace Hutchinson was the person helping to plot the course.

George Fredric Watts and his cricket sketch.

Then, in 1920, Hutchinson penned his last publication: Portraits of the Eighties, in which he acknowledged the work of George Watts, William Morris and the pre-Raphaelites. Hutchinson even describes his own ‘Watts-worship’, in a story relating an event at Tate Britain (Gallery) of London.  Further, he articulates that posterity is funny and no one can ever predict how time will judge them; but proceeds to declare that Watts will ‘rank with the immortals.’

Clearly, Horace Hutchinson was fascinated by Watts.  More so, his respect for the artistic ideals starting with Watts, and extending through the pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts leaders into British society, remained with him late into his career.  Crucially, he soon imported this reality back into the world of golf.

In 1892, Hutchinson created his most celebrated golf course: Royal West Norfolk, often referred to as Brancaster.  Suitably proud of the achievement, he observed ‘its distinguished features are the absence of artificiality and there is great variety to be found in the holes.’

Five years later, in 1897, Hutchinson took up his post as inaugural golf editor of Country Life. From this position, Hutchinson would use his literary soapbox to direct the next two decades of golf course architecture in Britain.

7. The Morris and Park families are well-heralded, but you make sure the Dunn family gets its fair credit too. For instance, I was shocked to read that Tom Dunn is credited with 137 courses, many of which were essentially fields (often times not on great soil) upon which to play golf. From a design perspective, is there much to be gleaned from studying his work?

Yes, there is much to be learned.  Courses such as Broadstone and Woking surely illustrate his talents.  While I recognise that others polished many of his best-regarded courses, he undoubtedly conceived their general structure.

To quote Horace Hutchinson in defence of Tom Dunn: ‘A man is not to be criticised because he is not in advance of his time.”  I also take this to mean that a golf course architect is a product of their time (and the influences which lead to their own personal evolution).

Bill Coore once told me that he learns more from seeing a bad golf course than a good one.  I think the same can be said for those who study history.  Understanding what not to do, and more importantly why, can bring about greater understanding when compared to simple success stories.  The study of golf course architecture should be considered in the same way.

Today, we hear many voices downplaying the work completed by golf course architects between the early 1960s and late 1980s.  Yet, at the same time, we praise ourselves as members of some sort of ‘second golden age’.  More study needs to be completed so that we truly understand this history.  I know my book has only started the ball rolling.  Such work assumes importance on another front, too, for when the current framework of social and economic influences changes, as it inevitably will, only a clear vision of the past can inform decision-making surrounding this game we love.

8. The book is beautifully illustrated with many diagrams and photographs I have never seen before. One broke my heart: the picture of the burn at Carnoustie circa 1880s that is much wider, far more handsome and interesting than what exists today. Is that the peril of a waterway (i.e. that at some point in time, it becomes more about function than form)?

Firstly, thank you.  Paul and I spent more than three months, poring over thousands of images and plans, in an effort to select those which would bring the words to life.  We are truly proud of the book, and the initial feedback from people has been incredible.

Due to the support of people like Dale Concannon, Jon Cavalier, Evan Schiller, Gary Lisbon, Simon Haines and Ron Whitten, we were able to secure some spectacular imagery, spanning some 250 years.  I also scoured the archives in Guelph (Stanley Thompson), North Carolina (Tufts) and Massachusetts (Frederick Law Olmsted) to source some incredible plans.  In total, the book has more than 300 images and plans, showcasing architectural efforts from all over the world.

I agree, the Carnoustie image is truly exceptional.  Not only does it show the inclusivity of the game at that time (with the young boys playing golf), but it also shows the more rugged and natural look of this famous Open venue.  Though I am not an expert on Carnoustie per se, I would hedge my bet that this burn has endured the same social pressures as most other golf course features following WWII.  As modernism became a global phenomenon, man’s desire and ability to control nature permeated all forms of landscape design and architecture.  The burn is likely a casualty of such an evolution.

9. From which decade do your own personal favorite courses emerge?

The decade in which my favourite courses emerged was the 1900s (technically 1903 to 1913).  Likely because my father and grandfather are English, and they both heavily influenced me to become a golf course architect, the Heathland courses of England hold a special place in my heart.  In fact, during my undergrad I did a two month exchange in Oxford to explore this area.  My experiences at Sunningdale, St. George’s Hill, Swinley Forest and Woking have been seared into my memory.

Harry Colt inspecting a green at Sunningdale.

… Of course, as a Canadian, it is very difficult for me to not recognize the incredible work of Stanley Thompson in the 1920s and 1930s.  In fact, it was his work at Westmount Golf and Country Club in Kitchener which first blew my golf course architecture mind.  I worked on the grounds crew there during my undergrad at the University of Waterloo.  I find it interesting that Stanley Thompson was clearly influenced by Harry Colt’s work at Toronto and Hamilton.

10. Why do you reckon that those courses resonate more with you than courses from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s?

This may be simplification of events, but I believe it was due to the motives of the designers and owners.  Prior to WWII, the focus of the golf course designer was on crafting distinctive courses that reflected an accrued knowledge pertaining to what would produce great golf.  There is a sense of place found at earlier courses which doesn’t exist at those produced during the later decades in question.  As this focus shifted, architects began to emulate the latest trends, all in an effort to produce marketable golf.  Design became a business, one which was good for certain people, but not the game itself.  The architect-contractor model was a result of this business minded approach.  I am a firm believer that the results are best when the artists wields the paintbrush.  In the case of golf course architecture, this means the architect must be onsite and active in the construction process.

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