Arts and Crafts Golf Part I
by Thomas MacWood

Alister MacKenzie's 16th at Pasatiempo

The Golden Age of golf-architecture, it is difficult to have a discussion with a serious student of golf design without it entering the conversation. The accomplished golf-architect Tom Simpson and his co-author Art historian Newton Wethered are said to have invented the term in their book The Architectural Side of Golf (1929). While it is true Wethered and Simpson did use the term ‘Golden Age’, they used it to describe a period of golf, from the haskel ball to the time of the book’s publishing. They claimed it was a great age due to the advent of modern equipment, improved maintenance practices, bright clothing, and well-furnished clubhouses, but surprisingly they never used the term in a golf-architectural context. The great Bernard Darwin did not use the term, nor did Herbert Warren Wind — actually Wind did allude to a ‘Golden Age’ in 1966, but he used it to chastise the disappointing state of contemporary golf-architecutre, writing that regrettably we were not enjoying a ‘Golden Age’ despite so many apparent advantages. It appears the first time it was used to describe a period of golf-architecture was 1976, by Donald Steel in The World Atlas of Golf, followed by Cornish and Whitten’s The Golf Course in 1981, and then Doak, Shackelford, Klein and an army of succeeding writers.

Although nearly everyone agrees on the general concept of the ‘Golden Age’ and the many talented golf-architects involved, the exact time frame varies from writer to writer — between the wars (1919-1936), turn of the century to world depression (1900-1930), the twenties (1920-1929), and the National Golf Links to Prairie Dunes (1911-1937). Perhaps a merger of these dates would make the most sense, after all many of these men, including Donald Ross and Harry Colt, created excellent work before and after these narrower periods. And to emphasize the 20’s reflects a purely American perspective, the 1930’s were productive in Europe, Japan and Canada, and the high point of British economics/golf course development occured after the turn of the century but before WWI, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate British development from that in America, or the rest of world for that matter.

For the sake of argument if we accept this larger time frame, and we agree that this extraordinary period began at the turn of the century, the next logical question is why it began, what were the circumstances that led to its birth. A great deal has already been written of Willie Park-Jr. launching this remarkable era at the turn of the century with his dual heathland designs of Sunningdale and Huntercombe. Sir Guy Campbell wrote that Park had laid ‘the foundation stone of golf architecture’ and ‘set the standard by which the famous architects who followed . . . developed his methods and amplified his art.’ He went on to say that Huntercombe and Sunningdale were ‘two courses of quality and continuing charm that may be said mark the springboard of modern practice.’ And we know that Herbert Fowler and Harry Colt soon followed Park, and that these three rescued golf design from the’dark ages of golf architecture’ giving rise to the so called ‘Golden Age.’ This story has been told many times — the dark ages, the heathland breakthrough, and the subsequent ‘Golden Age’ with its icons of Ross, MacKenzie, Macdonald and a number of other greats. What has not been explored, however, are the reasons why this era began. What were the circumstances that led to this dramatic change in direction that elevated golf architecture from mundane task to high art? Why are these golf courses so appealing? And what about these men who created these courses, what were their influences, what did they have in common? And finally if we are able to discover the answer to these questions, can the lesson be applied to our modern art?

The Dark Ages

It is not known exactly when golf was first played in Scotland, the earliest references date from the mid 1300’s, although some speculate a form of the game may have been played as early as 1200. We normally think of golf as an ancient game, but its popularity is relatively recent. The common image of a sport which enjoyed universal popularity throughout Scotland is not entirely accurate, its popularity was limited to specific coastal pockets. In fact in 1850 there were only 17 golf clubs in Scotland, this is when the feathery was replaced by the more practical gutta percha. The cheaper more durable gutta allowed the game to expand throughout Scotland, and to move out beyond her borders and into England. The result was an increase in the number of golf courses from 17 to 43 — still fairly modest growth. However due to the economic explosion of the late Victorian Era, fueled by the Industrial Revolution, that growth accelerated and between 1880 to1900 there were 150 new clubs established. This is the period when the modern sport of golf began.

The rugged beauty of links golf.

Naturally with the game’s widespread popularity came a need to establish new golf courses and most importantly a new type of expert to lay them out. Those first golf course designers were the greenkeepers and professionals, men like Old Tom Morris, Willie Dunn and Tom Dunn. They were the native sons of the old natural golf links — St. Andrews, Musselburgh and Prestwick. But despite their familiarity with these ancient models their work was very disappointing. Tom Simpson wrote, ‘They failed to reproduce any of the features of the courses on which they were bread and born, or to realize the principles on which they had been made. Their imagination took them no further than the inception of flat gun-platform greens, invariably oblong, round or square, supported by railway embankment sides or batters . . . The bunkers that were constructed on the fairways may be described as rectangular ramparts of a peculiarly obnxious type, stretching at regular intervals across the course and having no architectural merit whatever.’

One of the reasons these men failed was due to the methods they utilized in laying out these golf courses, or the lack there of. The ancient links may have taken centuries to be formed, these men preferred a much shorter duration. There was very little time and even less forethought put into the design of a golf course. As Bernard Darwin’s described, ‘The laying out of courses used once to be a rather a rule-of-thumb business done by rather simple-minded and unimaginative people who did not go far beyond hills to drive over, hollows for putting greens and, generally speaking, holes formed on the model of a steeplechase course.’

Harry Colt recalled a particular incident, ‘A leading man on the subject was introduced for the first time to 150 acres of good golfing ground, and we all gathered around to see the golf course created instantly. It was something like following a water-deviner with his twig of hazel. Without a moments hesitation he fixed the first tee, and then, going away at full speed, he brought us up abruptly in a deep hollow, and a stake was set up to show the exact position of the first hole. Ground was selected for the second tee, and then we all started off again, and arrived in a panting state at a hollow deeper than the first, where another stake was set up for the second hole. Then away again at full speed for the third hole, and so on. Towards the end we had to tack backwards and fowards half a dozen times to get in the required number of holes. The thing was done in a few hours, lunch was eaten, and the train caught, but the course, thank heavens, was never constructed!’

Stories like that became common place as a result of the great demand to build courses near or within the large towns and cities, especially in urbanly concentrated England. In the early years the game was exclusively seaside, but the new generation of golfers were busy men unwilling or unable to waste precious time traveling. Unfortunately many of the inland sites were ill suited for the game, featuring heavy soil and poor drainage. The weaknesses of the sites were compounded by their odd Victorian design methods. C.H.Alison wrote, ‘The construction of these courses was simple in the extreme. There was only one form of bunker. This consisted of a rampart built of sods with a trench in front of it filled with a sticky substance, usually dark red in colour. The face of the rampart was perpendicular. It was precisely 3 ft. 6 ins. in height throughout, and ran at an exact right-angle to the line of play. The number of these obstacles varied according to the length . . . A stranger, therefore, was able to ascertain the bogey of hole by counting the number of bunkers, and adding two to his total . . . There were no side-hazards except long grass and trees. The fairways were invariably rectangular, and the putting-greens were square and flat . . . It will be realised that this stereotyped placing of bunkers rendered the game extremely monotonous . . . moreover, the rampart style bunker did not add to the beauty of the landscape, or lend an additional thrill to the stroke by its awe-inspiring appearance. Another notable feature . . . was the extreme flatness of the approaches. Any bold features which existed were used as hazards for the tee shot if they were used at all. Very seldom was a green placed in such a position as to render the approach play naturally interesting, while to create grass slopes or hollows artificially was an unknown art.’ New seaside construction also suffered, ‘some excellent courses already existed in 1890, but in constructing new course near the sea there was in the Victorian Era a tendency to take all hazards at a right-angle and to include a very large number of blind approaches.’

Cassiobury Park was a typical inland course.

Golf architect Alister MacKenzie added, ‘In the Victorian Era . . . almost all new golf courses were planned by professionals, and were, incidentally, amazingly bad. They were built with mathematical precision, a cop bunker extending from the rough on the one side, to the rough on the other, and similar cop bunker placed on the second shot. There was entire absence of strategy, interest and excitement except where some natural irremovable object intervened to prevent the designer from carrying out his nefarious plans.’

Of all the inland creators Tom Dunn seemed to be the busiest and most notorious. Horace Hutchinson described the scene, ‘He went about the country laying the courses out, and as he was a very courteous Nature’s gentleman, and always liked to say the pleasant thing, he gave praise to each course, as he contrived it, so liberally that some wag invented the conundrum. ‘Mention any inland course of which Tom Dunn has not said that it was the best of its kind ever seen.’ His idea—and really he had but one—was to throw up a barrier, with a ditch, called for euphony’s sake a ‘bunker,’ on the near side of it, right across the course, to be carried from the tee, another of same kind to be carried with the second shot, and similarly a third. It was a simple plan, nor is Tom Dunn to be censored because he could not evolve something more like a colourable imitation of the natural hazard. A man is not be criticized because he is not in advance of his time.’

While these new golf-course designers were successful in bringing the game to new districts and providing venues for legions of new golfers, they were utterly guilty of ignoring their native traditions — for these new golf courses were radically artificial and in direct contrast to the wonderful natural links. Instead of embracing the vernacular models of St. Andrews, North Berwick and Prestwick, these men turned their back on their traditions and on the natural. But as Hutchinson said, it was not entirely their fault, after all they were traveling unchartered territory, and when forced to cover new ground there is a tendency to fall back on current trends, and these odd designs were very much a reflection of popular aesthetic tastes.

Victorian Aesthetics

Nature designed the first golf courses. It has been repeated often, the first golfers developed the game over the barren linksland. The first golf courses were discovered not built and evolved slowly and naturally. So when the game’s popularity took off in the second half the 19th century and there became a demand for new courses in new locals, it no doubt presented a dilemma. The old links had not been’designed’ by man and there was very little precedent for the design process. Certainly there had been limited intervention by early golfers on these natural links, but now these golf professionals were asked to devise completely new golf courses. Although most of these men were ill educated, they were still products of a modern nation — a nation blessed with superior know-how, artistic sophistication and technological advantage — so when presented with the challenge of ‘design’, these first golf designers naturally turned to the cultural influences and contemporary aesthetic tastes for their creative model.

To fully understand contemporary Victorian tastes, you must look to the preceding period. Pre-Victorian Britain benefited from the defeat of France at Waterloo and an economic boom as a result of the early industrial revolution. The culture of this period was dominated by the aristocratic class. Britain was ruled by an opulent landed aristocracy, whose life style was highly enviable. This lifestyle was epitomized by the large country houses, supported by great estates and filled with collections of antiques, sculptures, books and fine pictures by old masters. The acknowledged measure of taste for the aristocracy, at least for those formally educated, was provided by the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome (whose prestige had been amplified by the Renaissance), a result of an emphasis of Greek and Latin in the curricula of schools and universities all over Europe. Classicism was the pattern of taste to be found in all the major European states of the 18th century and dominated imperial Britain. The return to the principles of Classic art and architecture was a return to strictly defined aesthetic order, as well, evoking the glories of Ancient Rome. The result was architecture based on rules, order and clarity, where straight lines were favored over curves, of strict proportions and defined volumes, and above all brutal symmetry.

Ironically as architecture was emphasizing rigid structure and order, garden art was rejecting the formal for the natural. In the eighteenth century men like William Kent, Capability Brown and Humphry Repton began creating idealized visions of the natural landscape as opposed to the geometric formality of their predecessors. This phase was known as the Picturesque and it was inspired by the carefully contrived landscape paintings of the 17th century and a renewed interest in the medieval past. At the dawn of the Victorian era (1837 -1901) these two styles, the Picturesque and Classical, existed amicably side by side.

Entering the early Victorian era (1830 -1850) the Classical tradition in architecture continued to dominate, Classical being the natural choice for most public buildings throughout the period. During the High Victorian period (1850 -1870), although neoclassical buildings continued to be built, it was the Renaissance revival which was predominant. The new richness of this mode was largely French inspired and featured opulent decoration. This was also when a Gothic revival began to gather pace, sparked by the House of Parliament by Sir Charles Barry, the result of a design competition in which ‘Gothic’ or ‘Elizabethan’ styles was stipulated. But even the normally organic Gothic was presented by Barry in a Classical form in the general symmetrical arrangement of the building.

As the Picturesque garden style was becoming fashionable throughout Europe, ironically Victorian designers were rediscovering the geometric gardens of the Italian Renaissance. The naturally inspired garden had enjoyed its day, and from around 1830 the formal garden was back in favor. Not unlike the over stylized Victorian interiors, the gardens of this period were stuffed with ideas — geometric topiary, color, structures, themes and exotic plants. Even the conventional arts were not immune from this insistence on formality and strict order. The Royal Academy, which dominated all aspects of artistic thought, taught art students to compose paintings with pyramidal groupings of figures, one major source of light at one side matched by a lesser on the opposite, and an emphasis on rich tone at the expense of color.

Victorian symmetry and formality.

It was under this backdrop that the early golf designers began, but Victorian aesthetic tastes were not the lone factor effecting those first golf-architects. A number of other sports were gaining converts among the middle class — cricket and tennis in particular were enjoying similar popularity. Like golf these sports featured a weapon as well as a ball, and like golf these games were played on grass, however cricket and tennis were played over a level lawn of strict geometric dimensions. So when golf was brought inland to the urban centers, it seems reasonable to believe that many of the turf specialists involved in constructing these playing lawns, would have also been involved in some capacity with these early golf fields. And beyond these aesthetic influences, there were also cost factors, golf required a fairly large parcel of land which was comparatively expensive. These first designers were keenly aware of the finacial pressures of their sport, and believed quick, simple and cheaply constructed courses was the only way to proceed. Considering the entire cultural climate, it is not difficult to comprehend why the Victorian golf-architects produced such unnatural work.

The End