Famous Links That Were Not Designed, But Simply ‘Happened’
Melvyn Hunter Morrow
Could a Golf Course Designer/Architect who knew his chosen subject/career ever have uttered such a statement “Famous Links That Were Not Designed, But Simply ‘Happened’”? Not only was it uttered but by one of those architects who many today describe (very questionably in my humble opinion) as being associated with the period regrettable known as ‘The Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture.’
The article which the above was published within was from The Evening Telegraph printed on the 28th June 1934 signed off by A Golfing Correspondent. The article format is below, with my thoughts and opinions based upon factual research and family knowledge. You may each form your own opinions and with thanks to Ran & Ben you have a facility to respond if you so wish.
Now that all sounds fair and reasonable, perhaps just a good dose of common sense, however to say 12 out of a million could be course designers is a little rich as I wonder where this statistic comes from, surely not from the little group that we will later describe as the architects of the Golden Age of GCA. Sorry, but that is questionable, the correspondent is just pandering to this small group of known Architects/Designers. To say only 12 existed is not I believe supported by the records as we see many a course being laid out by individuals not defined as course designers and certainly not one of these 12 Apostles of the Game of Golf.
The knowledge specified i.e. seeds, grasses, manures, fertilisers, the physical and chemistry properties of various soil and the different methods of drainage were all known in the latter years of the 19th Century, they did not just burst upon the scene in the 20th Century. Again for those willing to look at the record which shows that the Green Keeper of old knew of them, but they were not an overnight fix they took time and money to include within the infrastructure of the course and club. The difference being that in the 19th Century less money was available with clubs, many short of cash, just trying to establish themselves and their Membership so wanted to have their course opened as fast as possible to attract even more Members to increase revenue. Again records show that in their second or third year many a new club which starting with just a few Members generated enough revenue not just for a Clubhouse but sometimes to lease or purchase new land to extend their course or build afresh a new course of 9 or 18 Holes.
The Evening Telegraph article was published in this format shown below but for ease of examining it I have broken it down into easy readable sections. Yes that is the 17th Road Hole at St Andrews Old Course.
The Article starts to heat up, quoting Tom Simpson who appears not to understand the history of his chosen career. Statements will be made that question the very basics of his modern train of thought shutting out the massive amount of development that went on in the 19th Century. It was a known fact reported on many occasions that the quality of The Old Course from the late 1870’s to the 1890’s had taken some 8 strokes off the course record from Young Tommy’s day. This was not claimed through new equipment but through the improvements in Green Keeping of the course from its drainage, to the feeding and general care of the course. Seeding was used but due to volume and/or time which was always against seeding so turf was preferred allowing the section to come back into play quicker. Bunkers front face were generally layered with turf offering up stability where golfing traffic was greatest while rear and side were allowed to retain their natural look. Today they have the whole bunker faced with layered turf. Why was this not remembered, why in such a short period of time was this forgotten? If in any doubt just read the book by Scott Macpherson ‘St Andrews The Evolution of The Old Course’ and you will see the design and on-going development that occured in the 19th Century.
I have for many years voiced my concern that the Golfing Industry, more so the Golf Course Architectural Design side just does not know its roots or its history. Worst still there is no desire to understand, to the point that modern day ignorance has allowed someone to credit a group of Designers/Architects from the early 20th Century as coming from the Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture. Pray tell me how anyone could be so irresponsible to voice such a claim bearing in mind they do not seem to know and certainly do not understand that sector of the industry pre 1900. There is nothing new in the procedures of designing a golf course if you examine the 19 or 20th Century methods, apart from the self-promotion of the 20th Century so called Golden Age Designers who were quick to having their thoughts printed. However the difference being they inherited an established game, the expanding interest resulting in courses being formed nearly daily and the understanding that sites for golf course were no longer cheap, to build cost money.
Designers no longer only charged £1 per day, Old Tom Morris maintained that charge from the late 1850’s through to 1904. Seemingly unbeknown to Simpson, Old Tom Morris designed courses for All Comers that is for all golfers not just the Professional. The Old Course is a working proof of that so are the other three older St Andrew’s course.
Again we see comments ‘Golf Architect’s was not the specialised professional that it is today’ where has this man been living, where does he get his information, why does he not understand or for that matter read some of the histories of golf. The period that people like to ignore saying that no designer or architect existed is the period where many of our great Holes, hazards and Green have been designed and built. The Road Hole, The Redan then we look to Prestwick, Dornoch, Cruden Bay, North Inch, Montrose, Carnoustie Westward Ho, Lahinch and so many, many more. What occurred – did such courses just suddenly happen?! If that’s the case do not waste any money securing an architect today, just go outside and wait for it to ‘happen’ – sorry but what a load of bollocks! How can anyone fall for such rubbish and then be stupid enough to call it a Golden Age, remembering that these Golden Age guys promoted much of the pre 1900 designs in one way or another into their own schemes?
As for the aims of the architect, did Old Tom Morris not select some wonderful Greens/Tees sites, look to at Dornoch, few of his Greens were ever of the platform pattern as he preferred plateaus, hallows/dells, sloping elevated or two tier too. Some say Ross took the ‘Foxy’ green concept to the USA making it his own signature feature I believe. Why did Old Tom place Tees in front of large Dunes, heaven forbid that had any design intent but then I am reminded of Westward Ho and Prestwick (the Alps). Look to many an old pre 1900 course, look to Old Tom courses from the 1860-1900 and you will find his Greens protected by a vast range of hazards i.e. bunkers, hedges, fences, streams, hallows, turf dykes, pot bunkers, dry ditches, ponds, trees, whin, railway tracks, quarries and a selection of pits. All carefully located with the Green suggesting design intent and as well as a fair degree of architectural knowledge.
Construction methods have changed over the years but not necessarily for the better. But then let’s not forget that pre 1900 most of the courses, yet not all were Links courses on sections of land devoid of trees and just suitable for sheep. Yes many inland courses were also built pre 1900 but on carefully selected land, I wonder why the modern generation of 2013 or 1934 never think of the limitations of that time or the restrictions in technology to build their courses. Money pre 1900 for golf course was tight, not many clubs had big budgets, so land selection was important to minimise cost; pity some of the modern designs no longer consider this rather valuable concept when formulating a design. Ignore the time period, you ignore the potential problems, and has anyone ever wondered why Old Tom took just under a week to get to Lahinch when all he had to do was jump on a plane and the get into a car to take him the last stage – ops sorry no jets or cars only steam trains, steamers and pony and trap for transportation! The need to understand the times is just as important then as today, yet we seem to find Simpson oblivious of all things from the 19th Century, why, why would a good designer refuse to accept the history of his chosen career? Is it down to ignorance or arrogance verging on contempt?
So Golf Course Architecture it seems is based upon the writings of the so called Golden Age of GCA dating between WW1 & WW2. If that is the case then the industry has built its future on the flood plains of a river prone to bursting its banks. These Golden Age guys are not as Golden or pure as one would suppose in fact they seem to have obtained many ideas from the earlier guys, those from the real and only Golden Age of Golf and Golf Course Architecture which I believe spanned the last 30 years of the 19th Century. The innovations, the development, the stabilisation of the game of golf and that of design were firmly resolved well before the end of the 19th Century. The gutty ball had offered up nearly 50 years of sustainability allowing the clubs to catch up with the development of the ball and courses to be designed to comply with both the ball and the sustainable set of clubs. All that the other guys did, and let’s be honest they did a good job but they only worked within the parameters of the 19th Century Guys, cashing in on the bigger budgets based upon the increasing popularity of the game thus allowing more money to build courses on not so suitable sites.
This article is nothing more that conveying not just ignorance of the history of the game of golf but showing ones utter contempt for all those who have gone before.
Is it all down to the failure of the industry to recognise then accept that Golf Course Architecture has its roots born out of the inquisitive mind rather than from the belief that “Famous Links Were Not Designed, But Simply ‘Happened’”?
I feel that this has a serious bearing on GCA and how we view the Golden Age guys from between the wars. Did they really contribute to GCA, or did they copy or deliberately down play the actions of their processors in seeking fame and fortune for themselves through design of golf courses? It seems rather questionable but then to come out with a statement like that I feel must be questioned as many have built their faith in these guys and ignored the real 19th Century heroes when it was truly a Golden Age not just for Golf but for Golf Course Architecture.
Is it not time that GCA was built upon solid foundations and not the paper towers of Simpson, do you not think it is time to question not just the direction but the stability of the design and build process which seems to have been born out of sticks of dynamite – a very destructive MO IMHO.
Its articles like this that have hurt the industry, sending out the wrong message, seemingly to praise the so called Golden Age Design guys from between the wars instead of telling the true story of the real Golden Age Men of Golf and Golf Course Architecture that lived and worked in the 19th Century.
No – “Famous Links That Were Not Designed, But Simply ‘Happened’ – is a statement not worthy of consideration by any student of GCA, it is in fact an insult to all designers/architects belittling their talents and experience in producing golf courses. Nevertheless it is important that they know the roots of their industry and not be conned into believing such rubbish as that printed in the Evening Telegraph on Thursday the 28th of June 1934.
The existence of GCA in the early 20th Century is the direct result of its development into maturity in the 19th Century, GCA is not an Act of God. Rather, it is through the very actions of Man with Nature that generates the best golf course architecture.