Art in Golf Architecture
by Max H. Behr
In celebration of the release of Mike Miller and Geoff Shackelford’s The Art of Golf Design, the following Max Behr essay is reprinted here in its entirety (it is included as an abridged sidebar in the book). This essay appeared in the August, 1927 edition of The American Golfer with a photo of Behr’s Lakeside Golf Club under construction.
Nature was gracious and kind when it spread before our forefathers that peculiar undulating ground known as linksland which the receding sea had left as it were, especially designed as a playground for golf. Even the rabbits which infested its sandy soil and the sheep which roamed its hills and hollows were put there, it would seem, to crop the grass which throve so delicately in this newborn soil. The softness of the sea air, the purity of vegetation, the distant horizon and spring of turf under foot, all went to present a beguiling aspect of Nature in its vastness and its simplicity. And the idea that man projected into these surroundings was as simple. To strike a little ball and consecrate the task by playing it into a little hole was as naÃƒ¯ve an enterprise, and yet as ominous, as the patient struggle of vegetation to conquer the white army of the booming deep among the dunes.
So lovable was this adventure that man was not content to pursue it apart in its natural habitation, but must needs transport it to situations unaccommodating to its playing. But to transport it he had to commit sacrilege â€œ he had to analyze it, tear it to pieces the more easily to pack it in his mind. And, in so doing, he did not realize that what he carried away with him was the letter only, and that he left behind something intangible, that property of unsullied nature, innocent beauty undefiled as yet by the hand of man.
It was inevitable that his first review of linksland golf should have engendered a type of architecture which disclosed a conscious adhesion to a formal order of things. It was not to be expected that the mind would immediately seize the sensuous appeal of native golf. Hence, it was not considered in the construction of our first inland courses. The natural architecture of linksland, passed through the sieve of the mind, came out utilitarian in aspect and mathematical in form. The novice at landscape gardening cannot see the planting of trees otherwise than in rows, nor the lawn in front of his house otherwise than in a series of terraces. The conscious mind delights in the fitness of things, in the easily comprehensible, and thus dwells on the surface of phenomena.
Indeed, appearances are never transferable. They are always the produce of certain relations which exist once, and are only appropriate to a certain condition. Hence, the impossibility of transferring the aspect of linksland. This had to be left behind. But that which in linksland appealed unconsciously to the golfer was the absence of any evidence of man’s handiwork. He was in the presence of Nature unstained by artificiality.
The merit of this gradually came to be realized. Its recognition is revealed in the efforts now being made to achieve naturalness in construction of the various features that go to make up a golf course. The straight line has well-nigh disappeared from out bunkers, tees and greens. They are acquired curves. Without doubt this phase is more pleasing to the eye. But the arbitrary manner in which we continue to deal with these components makes them manifest an individuality apart from their surroundings. We have succeeded in prettifying them, but we remain under the delusion that what is pretty, or picturesque, is beautiful.
We have only to consider the fashions in bunkers that we have already passed through. Today we think we have accomplished something when we have spotted funny little plots of grass in their midst, or run ribbons of sand up their faces. All such pretentious and affected elaboration is attractive to the uncultivated eye. This craftsmanship comes to be credited with artistic significance. But the revelation that lies in the mists ahead is form that reveals true beauty. This we will achieve only when the features we must create are considered, not solely as ends in themselves, but as means of expressing authentic landscape form. It is structural integrity that we are seeking.
What, then, is art in golf architecture? What are the values we should seek, and the method we should adopt to arrive at them?
If we examine golf courses in general, we shall find that wherever the modifications of the ground have been so inwrought as to seem inevitably a part of their surroundings, not only are they liable to manifest beauty, but we can be relatively sure the work promises to endure. Experience has taught us that courses constructed with no higher end than merely to create playgrounds around which one may strike a ball present the golfer with little more than a landscape brutalized with the ideas of some other golfer.
We forget that the playing of golf should be a delightful expression of freedom. Indeed, the perfect rhythmic coordination of the muscles to swing the club makes the golf stroke an art. And, being such, it is apt to induce an emotional state, under the stress of which human nature is not rational, and resents outspoken criticism. It follows that when the canvas of Nature over which the club-stroke must pass is filled with holes artificially designed to impede the golfer’s progress, these obvious man-made contraptions cause a violation of that sense of liberty he has every right to expect. This accounts for the checkered history of every artificial appearing golf course.
But, if we look more closely, we shall discover that the changes rarely involve natural hazards. Indeed, the veriest tyro is unconsciously aware that golf is a contest with Nature. Thus, where he meets her unadorned, unblemished by the hand of man, he meets her without criticism. May we not say, then, that in the degree the golfer is conscious of design, in that degree is the architecture faulty according to the highest tenets of the art?
Indeed, beauty may well prove to be the economic solvent to that continual evolution in the way of innovations and alterations to which most all golf courses are subject. If the holes have been most advantageously routed in the beginning, beauty should then become the ideal to be striven for in construction. And all the more so because beauty always accompanies economy of structure. When we perceive it, we first become aware of truth; and only in the presence of truth do we recognize stability and permanence. And this is true because beauty rests upon the fundamental â€œ its lineaments are the surface revelation of a perfection that lies beneath. Hence, it is fundamental principle that we must search for; that basic principle of all which, in the degree it is apprehended, points the way to beauty and order, to the law of Nature. It is the consummation of this in design that alone can give to outward expression an inward meaning. It follows that where beauty is lacking there must likewise be a lack of intelligence.
If this be true, it follows that, even if at all times we cannot succeed in creating the beautiful, it behooves us at least to achieve the semblance of the inevitable where we must impress our ideas upon the stubborn natural material to lend it to the playing of golf. Obviously, we cannot proceed to lay our law upon the ground regardless of geological law which, in the first place, is responsible for its conformation. Golf architecture is not an art of representation; it is, essentially, an art of interpretation. And an interpretative art allows freedom to fancy only through obedience to the law which dominates its medium, a law that lies outside ourselves. The medium of the artist is paint, and he becomes its master; but the medium of the golf architect is the surface of the earth over which the forces of Nature alone are master.
In golf architecture, accordingly, we are in the presence of an art closely akin to landscape gardening. What are the requisites to perfection in this art? Repton, the great landscape gardener of the XVIIIth Century, has perhaps most concisely and perfectly stated them.
‘First, it must display the natural beauties and hide the natural defects of every situation. Secondly it should give the appearance of extent and freedom by carefully disguising or hiding the boundary. Thirdly, it must studiously conceal every interference of art, however expensive, by which the scenery is improved, making the whole appear the production of nature only. And fourthly, all objects of mere convenience or comfort, if incapable of becoming ornamental, or of becoming proper parts of the general scenery, must be removed or concealed.’
It may never be possible to live up to such an ideal. In our endeavors to create a beautiful bit of Nature, there are tees, greens, fairgreen bunkers, and many other things that we must account for. Nevertheless, where it is necessary to create these features by making changes in the earth’s surface, there lines and gradations can be made to seem as if they had always been. And, because necessary to golf, their civilized aspect will not then be an affront to the beauty they reveal. And this will, more and more, become incumbent upon us to do. The golfer of the future will demand of a golf course that ‘relief to be found in the aesthetic pleasure to be derived from landscape which expresses not man’s will but the operation of natural forces.’ Thus every feature that requires a modification of the ground becomes something more than a separate problem by itself. And to succeed with each the golf architect must work in the spirit of the landscape gardener.
In its broader aspects golf architecture has always been an interpretative art. In routing the holes the object sought has been to take as much advantage of the topography of the ground as possible. But when this has been accomplished, there usually follows a retreat within the order of the mind to escape the disorder of Nature. And what is the result? Simply the imposition of ideas upon situations which are in no way fitted by nature to receive them. But had the architect continued as he began, endeavoring to perceive how it would be possible to render order out of disorder and yet make the result appear the action of natural forces, he would be, as he should be, an artist.
It is the especial province of the artist â€œ and his profession may be any calling in life â€œ to rivet out ideas into tangible things, to translate them from mere thought to a form whereby they may be apprehended by the senses. And as the nature of any ideas has its peculiar medium of rendition, it follows that the artist wins the battle only if the form he gives to it is a complete statement within the limitations of its particular medium. But, as we have seen, the golf architect as artist is not master of his medium. He cannot perpetrate ideas upon the ground regardless of its topography. It is for him to discover in what way the terrain most naturally lends itself to modification. He must first perceive its willingness before he can impose his will upon it. Hence the inspiration of his ideas can only proceed from a most intimate perception of the singular character of each actual bit of ground with which appears real. And success will depend whether he, in visualizing what is to be, works in imagination with the tools of Nature, the elements.
Of these, inland, undoubtedly the most influential is the erosion of water; by the sea, in linksland, the molding element of wind is a consideration. An apt illustration of the proper use of one of these would be in work done abutting upon running water. The life represented by this element in motion should be projected into the modifications of the ground. The multifarious forms it occasions must be made to seem responsible for the new dispensation. Otherwise the work will appear artificial. This is one illustrating the method by which structural integrity can be achieved. Therefore, in the prosecution of his designs, if the architect correctly uses the forces of Nature to express them, and thus succeeds in hiding his intention, and then, only, has he created that illusion which can still all criticism.
Viewed in this way, it cannot be said that golf architecture has as yet attainted maturity as an art. It is still primitive. In place of particulars, it gives us types.* Its features adhere to formulas instead of being individualized by making each a natural expression of its surroundings. Unreplenished by Nature, the mind’s eye soon comes to see things in a stereotyped, conventional form. And because the architect, with clay or contour lines, still feels free to modify the ground to his will, it is inevitable that he should continue to stumble over these crystals of his fashion. Driven by a self-complacency in his own omnipotence, the bark of his architecture, without the rudder of geological law, must drift from one fallacy of design to another.
It should now be apparent that true architecture can alone spring from observance of the laws accountable for the character of the earth’s surface. The forces of Nature must expend themselves in the design. Only in this way may golf architecture reach finality as an art. It follows that when these laws are made light of, its body becomes diseased and is subject to the inroads of parasitic ideas. Sand is now being used, not solely for its legitimate purpose â€œ a hazard, but as a species of beacon to guide the player in estimating distance. Thus a crutch is thrown into the landscape upon which the eye of the golfer may lean, and the hazard of indefinite space, calling for intelligence to solve, is to that extent mitigated. And greens are now being purposely tilted toward play, collars and mounds are being placed around them to keep the ball from straying, and enfeebled skill rejoices. Loose from any responsibility to obey geological law, the architect continues to invent devices to coddle the golfer. It is this disregard for the laws of the medium that explains ‘freak’ architecture.
But the architect who has come to look upon his work as a true art will ever be humble for his search is beauty. With so high a purpose, his will must ever be subservient to his quest. It becomes his handmaid by which he brings to fruition his intuitions of truth. He must first feel before he thinks. He must perceive in the ground what might be, not conceive in his mind what must be. Thus with no matrix of irrelevant ideas to dim his sight, with innocent eyes he perceives the forms of nature. He then rearranges them as they might once have been, or anticipates what they are to be, blending with his work that modicum of necessity which golf demands. And because two situations can never be exactly alike, he will not fall into the error of copying. Working in this spirit he must work creatively. It follows that every hole he designs must have an individuality of its own. Indeed, if golf architecture is to be what it should be, we must finally come to realize that golf is as much an aesthetic experience as it is one of skill.