By Tony Dear
The South Course at Firestone CC in Akron, Ohio, has hosted big-time golf since the mid-1950s. First came the Rubber City Open whose winners included Tommy Bolt, Ed Furgol, and Arnold Palmer. It staged three PGA Championships—1960, ’66, and ’75. From 1962 to ’98, it was the venue for the World Series of Golf, which began with the four major champions competing over 36 holes, and evolved into an official PGA Tour event with a 50-man field playing 72 holes (the North Course staged the tournament in ’94). In 1999, the World Series became the WGC-NEC Invitational (played at Sahalee Country Club near Seattle in 2002), and Bridgestone took over in 2006.
Originally designed by Bert Way, the South opened in 1929. Thirty-one years later, however, the club hired Robert Trent Jones, golf architecture’s man of the moment/year/decade/era(?), to bolster its defenses in preparation for the PGA Championship.
Just as he had at Oakland Hills 10 years before (ahead of the 1951 US Open), Baltusrol in 1952 (’54 U.S. Open), the Olympic Club (’55 U.S. Open), Oak Hill (’56 U.S. Open), and Southern Hills (’58 U.S. Open), Jones went to town, erasing much of the course’s character and increasing the level of difficulty considerably. He added over 50 bunkers, two ponds and more than 500 yards in length— the now famous 16th hole becoming a 667-yarder that Palmer labelled a monster. The cry in recent years from contemporary designers and commentators has been that Firestone CC’s South Course is now horribly out of vogue, and has outstayed its welcome. What once was considered a great test of championship golf, is now criticized for its rather unimaginative and monotonous layout. Today’s PGA Tour players may like it because it’s predictable and invariably in great condition, but it has little of the intrigue, strategy, and charm that characterize the great courses from the early part of the 20th century.
Though it would probably be unfair to suggest Jones is wholly responsible, what he did to the South Course as well as all the others, did have a major influence on course architecture at the time, and resulted in a period Rob Collins, co-designer of the highly acclaimed Sweetens Cove in Tennessee, calls the “Dark Ages.”
“Courses from that time lack many of the key elements of courses built during the Golden Age of Architecture,” he says. “A.W. Tillinghast, Alister MacKenzie, C.B. Macdonald, Seth Raynor, Harry Colt, and others stressed strategy, artistry, shotmaking, playability, and variety, whereas much of what was produced during the ’50s and ’60s lacked those features.”
Former President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects Steve Smyers likewise refers to this period as the “Dark Ages.” “The depression of the 1930s, and the world conflict of the ’40s did not encourage any part of the game, be it instruction, club design, or course architecture to innovate,” he says. “And the talented course designers of the ’20s were no longer around.”
Gil Hanse believes courses from that era tend to have been a reaction to the Golden Age, and that architects were seeking ways to differentiate their designs stylistically from the classics. “The courses of the 1950s to the 1970s typically featured smooth lines and oversized features that did not necessarily tie into the landscapes they were created on,” he says.
Smyers agrees, saying most courses developed at the time were fairly low budget and built “on top” of the land as opposed to “into” the land, with the placement of hazards directly opposite each other. “This might have resulted in a very demanding shotmaking course,” he says. “but not one that connected well with the surrounding landscape.”
Smyers, Hanse, and Collins all agree on the culprit—big, earthmoving machines that allowed architects to create artificial features. “By using the newest earthwork technologies, the designers of the time created courses that looked less natural and more manufactured than their predecessors,” says Hanse. “With the ability to move significant amounts of earth, developers and their architects were no longer constrained to finding sites that had natural advantages suitable for golf. They could create “golf landscapes,” and those created landscapes don’t really match up with the beautiful work that came before.”
The reemergence of golf construction in the late ’50s came with a new method of construction, says Smyers. “But very few people had any experience with the new heavy machinery, so what they created was rarely aesthetically pleasing.” Collins thinks it ironic that even though they had the new equipment at their disposal, architects from the “Dark Ages” built courses that looked contrived and lacked the characteristics of the great courses. Likewise significant was that this new age of large earth-movers coincided with the rise in demand for golf course living.
“The shift can largely be attributed to the fact that golf began to be seen as an amenity for other interests, primarily real estate,” says Collins. “That placed a secondary importance on the quality of the course. With the ability to produce courses quickly, and for reasons other than creating interesting and lasting golf, the resulting product was usually a homogenized layout indistinct from so many others.”
Tom Doak weighs in, saying many of the courses built in this era had length and narrow fairways as their principal challenge. “The South Course has been better since Jack Nicklaus remodeled the greens 15–20 years ago, but it still has a lot of back and forth holes,” he says. “I actually much prefer the North Course because it wanders the property a bit more.”
Smyers picks up on Doak’s point about fairway width. “Automatic irrigation had not yet been introduced, so the most common irrigation system was a single row manual or quick-coupler system,” he says. “This was mainly done because of budget. The throw of water was therefore only about 90 feet, so fairways were never more than 30 yards wide.”
Most of the courses from the time, Smyers adds, were also constructed on farms and lacked trees or any other type of vegetation. President Johnson was in office at the time and the First Lady (Claudia Johnson, otherwise known as Lady Bird) campaigned to make America beautiful by planting trees. “Areas of irrigated rough looked ugly compared to the green lush fairways,” says Smyers. “So, in order to make them look better, golf facilities took Lady Bird’s advice and planted trees after the course was constructed. The lack of coordination between the golf architect and landscaping meant courses looked and felt totally disconnected from the surrounding landscape.”
Collins insist the credit for hauling architecture out of its mid-20th century rut should go to Pete Dye whom, he says, reintroduced strategy, shotmaking, and a flair for the dramatic. Doak, a disciple of Dye, must also get a mention for advancing minimalism, and bringing back the natural to golf.
Hanse, a former associate of Doak’s, believes the game is currently in a phase where architecture is based on a reverence for the classic courses. “There is a more organic, rustic presentation of courses and landscapes,” he adds. “But aesthetics change. Give it time. Everything in all fields of design comes back again sooner or later. In a 2050 LINKS newsletter, we may be celebrating the 1950s and ’60s just like we do the Golden Age now.”
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