Preservation of Architecture as Art
by Gib Papazian

March, 2004

As in all art forms, the great wheel of fad and fashion continues to turn – a supposition that implies a progressive march forward with scientific innovation and aesthetic refinements.

However, in the case of Golden Age architecture, time and circumstance conspired to rob several generations of the sublime genius that once embellished our playing fields and contributed to golf’s early growth in America.

Yet here we are today, decades removed from the social and economic upheaval of two World Wars and the Great Depression, observing this same wheel returning to its starting point. The endless thirst for novelty and pointless changes that marred the eras between Japan’s surrender and the early 1990’s is nearly passed – finally given way to a rediscovery of the original masters.

Is this meant to summarily dismiss nearly 50 years of golf construction as a dismal failure? No, but only to emphasize that with few exceptions, its philosophical and creative direction evolved towards one-dimensional and intentionally frustrating obstacle courses – hardly an environment to encourage the game as an enjoyable activity for everyone.

Whether golf architecture has emerged the better is a circular discussion with no definitive answer. However, even today, the scars of malpractice and amateur experimentation on some of America’s golfing shrines remain – a stark and cautionary reminder of the damage that can be inflicted on great art in the hands of fools.

In retrospect, the untimely death of Seth Raynor in 1926 marked the first sign ofGolden Age architecture’s passing. Of course, Tillinghast, MacKenzie, Ross, Stanley Thompson and Charles Banks continued on into the early 1930’s, but the Great Depression soon tore the canvas from their easels. Twenty years and a World War passed before America fully recovered. By then their time had passed – with much of their work altered beyond recognition or lost to bank foreclosures.

With rampant unemployment and the flow of money at a standstill, Depression era clubs struggling to survive, took measures to cut operating and maintenance costs. Fairways were narrowed, bunkers grassed over, alternate lines of play eliminated and greens drastically shrunk down. Many were forced to sell off portions of their land at a fraction of their previous value, trying to stay afloat until better times arrived.

But with mounting debts, better times did not come soon enough – sadly these desperate efforts only delayed the inevitable closure. Some clubs, like Charles Banks’ Whippoorwill, were reduced to suspending operations, using a local farmer to come in once a month to ‘cut the hay.’ Hay that was manicured fairway and greens just a few a short years before..

With the end of World War II, the economy turned slowly upward. Yet so much damage had been inflicted from years of cutbacks and neglect, many clubs were forced to do their greens completely over. Lost forever were the thoughtful Golden Age contours and undulations, replaced by bland putting surfaces and utilitarian, oval-shaped bunkers. Often, the original plans had been lost, making correct restoration all but impossible in that less sophisticated era.

The majority of clubs in America before the crash of 1929 were at least partially financed by loans from banks, flush with cash as the stock market continued to climb skyward. For a brief period, the American middle-class enjoyed a lifestyle undreamed of before – a new world where country club memberships were no longer reserved for elite families.

However, this balancing act with no safety net proved a precarious foundation to build upon. As failing banks called in their loans, preservation of golf architecture was understandably the least of their worries.

In contrast, even in the worst of times, some fortunes are so enormous as to be ‘depression-proof.’ As luck would have it, when the inevitable crash arrived, most of Seth Raynor’s best work was spared. C. B. Macdonald counted as his closest friends some of the world’s wealthiest people – and it was these same men who initially sought out Macdonald and Raynor to build their exclusive enclaves.

Yes, everyone was affected in some measure by the Depression, but owing to the monied lineage of clubs like Piping Rock, Creek, Chicago and National, their memberships had the luxury of patience. The lavish lifestyles of these social and economic elites may have been curtailed, but they still possessed the funds to keep their clubs afloat.

Though these smaller, more intimate clubs survived the storm, Lido sadly did not. Considered one of the nation’s top three courses, along with Pine Valley and National Golf Links, Lido fell victim to bad timing and a crushing burden of debt.

As America began to adjust to life after World War II, golf was largely a forgotten sport for all but the wealthy. New golf course construction proceeded at a snail’s pace, and for the average family there was still little money to spend on a luxury like golf clubs.

Yes, the nation cheered as spectators for the exploits of Hogan, Snead and Nelson, but their skills and achievements were far removed from everyday life. Public golf was mostly confined to crude WPA courses or poorly maintained municipal facilities, providing little but grassless tees and scruffy greens, punctuated by muddy dirt pits that passed for bunkers.

It was a low water mark for both golf architecture and appreciation for the genius that preceded the Great Depression.

Golf soon took a new direction as a one-man renaissance emerged from this dark period. By way of Cornell University and an apprenticeship under the legendary Stanley Thompson, the golf world quickly became introduced to Robert Trent Jones – a man of strong opinions and defiant golf courses. For better or worse, his philosophy of the game as a difficult and objective examination defined the direction of architecture for the next quarter-century.

Is this an indictment of the ‘Father of Modern Architecture?’ Certainly not. But if we are to examine golf history through objective eyes, unfettered by the tendency to canonize the giants of our collective past, the far-reaching effect of Robert Trent Jones, Sr. on our game remains a complex dichotomy.

On one hand, Jones led the game to new heights with his bold designs – creating demanding challenges for professionals and low-handicappers. His innovations, designed to offset improvements in equipment, demanded golfers strike the ball with length and precision or suffer the consequences. Admire his work or not, there is no denying the seminal effect Jones had as the game reawakened after the end World War II.

That said, it is his self-assured goals of ‘hard par but easy bogey’ that contributed directly to the downfall of many of the basic precepts and foundations of Golden Age architecture. The traditional use of fairway and greensite contours to direct the ball gave way to an aerial game – one that rewarded power golf over thoughtful finesse.

In Jones’s world, if golf is to be an unyielding examination with a clearly defined line of play, it logically follows that strategic choices will be limited. You either run the gauntlet and meet the challenge, or decline the danger and play for bogey.

This stark conundrum stands in diametric contrast to the incremental challenges presented by the Golden Age masters. How much to bite off? Do I dare pick that line of play? Infinite choices and complex combinations provided the intellectual texture of their work. A texture that soon became viewed as ‘old fashioned’ and in need of modernization and length.

In the context of the times, this change in philosophy must have seemed a natural progression of golf’s evolution – just as the Model T was replaced by more powerful and reliable automobiles. Yet in retrospect to modern golf scholars, this period carries the stigma of lemmings racing over a cliff.

When this call to arms began, it was Jones himself who was often there to provide the expertise in ‘updating’ older courses. Yet in fairness, even the most ardently critical fans of the Golden Age must acknowledge that by the time Jones arrived, there was often little left worth saving. As years pass, there is an erroneously romanticist tendency to fancy every course built before the Great Depression as a masterpiece.

But some assuredly were masterpieces – their salient features lost in a misguided attempt at improvement. Many fell into the hands of less capable architects than Jones, capitalizing on the revisionism of the time; ‘talking the talk’ to unsophisticated Green Committees, but lacking the talent to deliver the goods.

Too often, the result was an eradication of classic architecture, leaving behind a hodgepodge of design styles. Worse yet, some work produced little more than an expensive and contrived mess. A mess many clubs – now acutely aware of their architectural pedigree – are still trying to untangle decades later.

History may be repeating itself in some measure. Ironically, many of the same clubs that once raced blindly forward, embracing change with no thought to preserving their heritage, are now grappling with how to restore the gifts left behind by the Golden Age.

In cases where the original plans remain – ideally in conjunction with aged members blessed with exceptional memories – an accurate restoration in the right hands is possible. But the practitioner must be without ego, for few have the sensitivity to reconstruct the past without imprinting their mark.

More often, where land has been sold, or original plans lost, only the most learned scholars of a particular designer can correctly simulate original work. How is this done? With experience and a keen enough eye to seamlessly blend in contours and land forms peculiar to the original architect.

In this era of specialization, some modern architects are far better with a blank canvas than an incomplete puzzle requiring skillful improvisation. In truth, recent evidence clearly suggests they are rarely the same person. Green Committees would be wise to consider carefully – independent of reputation on unrelated projects – whom to select to erase past mistakes.

However, searching for a definitive answer or magic formula can also be a fool’s quest. Some of our greatest courses are the direct result of thoughtful evolution. There is ample precedent of once mediocre courses – Olympic’s Lake course comes immediately to mind – that slowly evolved into greatness through well considered alterations. Clearly, all change is not necessarily harmful.

History clearly illustrates that the surest prescription for failure lies not in change itself, but in ill-considered and rudderless tinkering over a course of years. If each succeeding Green Committee brings a new philosophy based on the latest fad, the result is surely doomed to be no more than a collection of holes. There must be a common thread in the tapestry if it is to be considered a finely woven cloth.

It is a pity that with few exceptions, golf architecture seems today more science than art, with competent technicians simply parroting watered down versions of classic strategies. Pleasing to the eye, yes, but too often exuding a cold mechanical quality. Technical perfection has its limitations.

For in the end, the key to preserving Golden Age genius lies less in simply building or restoring a golf course atop the ground, but more in enjoining the texture of the Earth with an expression of art. An art that speaks less to the golfer, but more directly to the human soul.

The End