Here’s a good one for you. Roughly one year ago, I was invited to design a golf course. In China.
Now, what I didn’t know about golf course architecture—and for that matter, China—could have filled an encyclopedia. That made me a perfect fit for the developer—he had no budget.
This all came about as a result of a little business I’d launched a year earlier—ChinaLinks Golf Consulting—wherein I partnered with two Chinese publisher friends to represent American course architects for opportunities in China. (We signed six distinguished designers—Mike DeVries, Dana Fry, Don Knott, Mark McCumber, Kyle Phillips and Baxter Spann—and to date we have four projects off the ground—or is it in the ground?)
At an early business strategy meeting, I said to my partners, “Hey, if you guys should find a developer who can’t afford to hire a proper designer, tell him he can have me for next to nothing.” I was joking—well, half-joking. Like just about every serious golfer, I’m a frustrated architect.
Then suddenly, unfathomably, I was summoned!
Brimming with ignorance, I flew to Beijing, hopped a connector to Shenzhen, lunched ceremonially with the developer, squinted briefly and cluelessly at a topographical map, and then hiked through three life-threatening kilometers of Rambo country.
The site was gorgeous—600 rolling acres, clad with lush tropical vegetation and nestled in a stream-threaded valley at the nexus of three massive hills. But even I could see there would be some difficulty putting a golf course on it.
Then, as we stood atop one of the hills, the developer dropped his bombshell. He didn’t want a golf course—he wanted two courses, along with a palatial clubhouse, a five-star hotel, 50 condominiums, and an American school (don’t ask).
“Give me a sketch,” he said, “and if I like it, the job is yours,” adding inscrutably “and this will be the first of many major projects we will do.”
Right. Now all I had to do was speed-school myself in the fine points of schematic design, geological engineering, soil agronomy, subsurface irrigation, turf analysis and artful earthmoving—not to mention chopstick dexterity and conversational Mandarin.
Ah, but I had a plan—or at least a man. Back in Cradletown was a fellow member of the St. Andrews Golf Club, a tall, dark and handsome New Zealander named Scott Macpherson. He had trained with five-time Open champion cum architect Peter Thomson and had had a hand in the construction of the two courses at the Fairmont St. Andrews (formerly St. Andrews Bay). He was young, hungry, talented and best of all, shared my esteem for the Old Course. Our design philosophies, I figured, couldn’t be too far apart, especially since I didn’t have a design philosophy.
“Let’s be partners,” I said, doing my best to mask the desperation in my voice. Blessedly, he agreed to look at the map and photos I’d brought, and three weeks later he returned with a detailed four-color rendering of the project. It was brilliant, reserving the best land for the 36 holes while comfortably and ingeniously incorporating all the other elements. Immediately, I photocopied it and beamed it to Beijing.
What happened next? Nothing. Turned out our patron’s budget was even less than zero. Naïve me—I suppose I should have known what I was in for the moment I heard the developer’s name: Wong Wei.
It was a shame, really. While I’m not sure what kind of golf courses Wong, Scott and I would have produced, I suspect the whole adventure would have been prime fodder for a book. Speaking of which, let me get to the reason for this whole saga. In the time since our abortive collaboration, Macpherson has published a book, and it is one of the most significant contributions to golf literature I’ve seen in many years.
The title is St. Andrews: The Evolution of the Old Course. The fruit of six years of research, hands-on observation and careful compilation, it is the definitive biography of the world’s most famous course.
The popular notion is that the Old Course has not been altered substantially in the last two or three centuries. Macpherson’s book shows emphatically and graphically that every hole has changed—substantially.
Take the 18th hole. Until 1840 there was a large, deep bunker smack in the middle of the fairway. The original green was in the area now known as the Valley of Sin, several yards short of the current green, which was created by piling heaps of rubble, refuse and—some say—human bones. According to Macpherson, there’s also evidence that as many as three former seawalls were buried under the 1st and 18th holes, as land was reclaimed from the North Sea.
Among the other revelations in this book:
• The Old Course has been lengthened by less than a thousand yards over the past two centuries, and only 283 yards in the last 50 years. (Augusta National was lengthened 285 yards in 2001 alone.)
• Four times in history, the Old Course has actually been shortened from one staging of the Open to the next.
• The par-5 14th hole, lengthened 37 yards in 2005 (to a total of 618), actually played easier than it did in 2000.
• Only once—in 1990—has the average score for the field in an Open on the Old Course been under par.
But this is more than a compendium of facts. It is an engaging saga of how the course has adapted to the concerted advancements in equipment technology, agronomy, and player strength and skill, and how those adaptations have wrought changes in the rules of golf and the game itself.
There are also some fun tidbits along the way. For instance, Jack Nicklaus’ practice of using an interim alignment point—a blade of grass or divot a few feet in front of his ball—arose at St. Andrews in 1964 when, because of the numerous blind shots, he had trouble finding objects to aim at.
Archival photos show the famed Road and Hell bunkers as they were more than a century ago, while Macpherson has used his own draftsmanship to depict the carry and roll on various holes in various eras, the severity of slope on every inch of the fierce 11th green, and the daily pin placements at each hole for each of the last several Open Championships.
But the true treasure—the element that will make Macpherson’s tome a researcher’s goldmine for generations to come—is his comprehensive timeline, presented in a three-foot-wide double gatefold, which shows the changes made and scores posted for every St. Andrews Open from 1873 to 2005.
Only 3,000 copies of St. Andrews have been published, and despite its hefty price—$90—and its lack of availability either in bookstores or online, those copies will surely vanish quickly to the homes and offices of golf historians, architects, media, and St. Andrewphiles. If you fall into any of those categories—or if you just want to boost your knowledge of all aspects of the game, I strongly suggest you visit Scott’s Web site, tmgolfdesign.com.
Personally, I’m reading my copy intently, hoping to learn as much as I can about the enduring challenge of the Old Course—just in case I get a call back from Wong Wei.
From the Middle Kingdom to the Home of Golf, the author's misadventures and revelations from the world of architecture
By: George Peper