What we think of as golf course architecture today is vastly different from what it was 20 years ago, let alone 50 or 100. So where will it be in another decade, two, or 10?
By Thomas Dunne
In the late 2000s, course architect David McLay Kidd had what he describes as an “epiphany.” The critical drubbing he took for punishing designs like the Castle Course in St. Andrews could be written off easily enough, but the comments from paying customers were another story. “It was only when I heard golfers responding, ‘Oh, I’m a terrible golfer. This course is great, but it’s obviously too much for me,’” Kidd said. “I thought: What am I doing? This guy’s not a bad golfer. He’s an average golfer, just out to have fun. And he’s getting beaten up and driving away deflated.”
Beginning with Huntsman Springs in Idaho and continuing with Gamble Sands in Washington and the soon-to-debut Mammoth Dunes, at Wisconsin’s Sand Valley, the Scotsman swung the pendulum decisively the other way, toward a more forgiving mode of golf—ultra-wide fairways combined with big greens and surrounding contours to gather balls toward the target. He even came up with a tagline—“defense of birdie”—that’s as catchy as Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s “hard par, easy bogey” philosophy of the postwar period.
While Kidd is nothing if not a savvy self-promoter, and his peers are not unanimously convinced this approach yields great golf—“If I break 80, I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something,” grumbled one usually mild-mannered architect—the idea of leaving the door open for good players to go low (and for hacks to break 90) is both novel and popular enough that it’s easy to picture other designers giving it a try in the future.
This “kinder, gentler” mode is just one of the avenues that the next era of design might take, though. Looming over the entire conversation is the issue of distance, which isn’t just about Merion’s continued viability as a U.S. Open venue. In a time when golf badly needs to move closer to where people actually live in order to make a claim on our dwindling and highly contested leisure time, distance heavily influences new development, as well.
Tiger Woods made headlines recently when, appearing on UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma’s podcast, he called for a rollback of the golf ball. “If the game keeps progressing the way it is with technology,” Woods said, “I think the 8,000-yard golf course is not too far away. And that’s pretty scary because we don’t have enough property to start designing that type of golf course, and it just makes it so much more complicated.”
Woods is on the mark in every way but one: These courses are already here. Pete Dye rolled out an 8,100-yarder at Indiana’s French Lick Resort almost a decade ago, and had the USGA wished, they could have stretched 2017’s U.S. Open venue, Erin Hills, past that mark without breaking a sweat. The question is whether in the years to come the game’s governing bodies will render the back tees of these venues competitive necessities or merely curiosities from the age of the megafauna golf course.
In an interview at USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., Executive Director Mike Davis discussed other ways golf architecture might move in the years ahead—with or without a rollback of the ball. Our conversation came on the heels of a successful Walker Cup at Los Angeles Country Club, a golf course very much in the wheelhouse of Davis’s enthusiasms.
“George Thomas wrote about the concept of a ‘course-within-a-course,’” Davis says, describing L.A. North’s flexibility. “He felt that it was all about the experience, [and that] par is irrelevant.” Teeing areas on certain holes could be moved over 100 yards to dramatically alter playing strategies, transforming, say, a par three into a drivable par four.
Nearly every stakeholder in the future of golf also talks about the time pressures of life in 2018. “I definitely think people want a great one-hour golf experience,” Davis says. This comment speaks to the rise of short courses at both resorts (Bandon Preserve; The Cradle at Pinehurst) and private clubs (Tiger Woods’s Playgrounds at Bluejack National in Texas). This is likely to continue, and other than the logistics of moving golfers around, there’s no compelling reason why a short course can’t be nested within a regulation 18.
It’s important to remember, though, that the American golf landscape used to be dotted with stand-alone short courses—the pitch-n-putt next to the drive-in movie lot; the land-bank par-three course; the mom-n-pop “executive” layout of no great distinction. Somewhere during the boom years, when many of these facilities were swallowed up, it was forgotten that these unintimidating and inexpensive places were factories for turning rank beginners into real golfers. Much-loved layouts like Bandon Preserve have proved that great design can come in small packages; the question is whether innovation in this area can lead to a thriving stand-alone facility, rather than as an amuse-bouche at a destination resort.
Where does “minimalism,” the dominant trend (or, more accurately, buzzword) of the past couple decades, fit into the future of design? The answer unspools in slightly different ways depending on whether one focuses on finished products or the process behind them.
On one hand, as golf continues to fit itself into smaller sites and audiences become more accepting of different formats, we may well see architects working sites harder to draw out more entertainment per yard. Sweetens Cove, the Tad King-Rob Collins design near Chattanooga, is the most acclaimed nine-holer since Dick Nugent built the Dunes Club in Michigan for Mike Keiser. It is designed to maximize replay value. With its vast sweeps of sand, bold fairway contouring, and undulating greens, Sweetens Cove stakes out aesthetic terrain somewhere in the neighborhood of the devil-may-care designs of the late Mike Strantz, but it also mixes in template elements in novel ways.
“I think there is a stylistic shift coming soon,” says George Waters, a shaper and architect now employed by the USGA. “A lot of the great restorations and sand-based designs of the past 20 years may have come and gone at this point.”
It does seem apparent that world-class, coastal new-build sites are going to be increasingly rare in the future, but most of the architects associated with the “minimalist” school are still in the prime of their careers.
It’s worth noting a couple of things the “minimalists” have in common that have more bearing on the future than, say, frilly-edged bunkers. One is a common construction philosophy. With new courses and many renovations, the design-build approach reduces the need for drawing elaborate plans for contractors, as well as the contractor’s change orders, which is where things get really expensive. As golf moves in its fitful way toward a more sustainable future, the ability to build well on smaller budgets will gain in importance.
The second, related point is that as a by-product of the process, most of the “minimalists” have assembled deep pools of talent behind them. Within this milieu of associates and shapers one can find a wide range of personalities and ambitions. Some will continue to mine their particular area of expertise, but according to Riley Johns, a 30-something former Renaissance Golf intern who works both for the signature names and on his own projects, expect the next generation of architects to be more jacks-of-all-trades.
“I think you’re going to see a lot more golf course architects coming up through the ranks that can do it all,” Johns says. “They know the history, they can run equipment, they can shape, draw, [and] articulate a vision to a client. They know their turfgrass and soil science and hydrology. They love to play golf, and they’ve gone out and seen many courses and can have intelligent discussions about them.”
Most would agree that there will be fewer total projects (big or small) in the years to come. It stands to reason that competition for these jobs will be more intense, but a tighter market and closer scrutiny will likely motivate many architects to bring their “A” game more often.
One of the dominant narratives from the era of golf now done and dusted is the story of Chambers Bay. At the height of the Tiger Boom, the familiar tale goes, John Ladenburg, county executive of Pierce County, Wash., watched the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black and decided he wanted to bring the national championship to Tacoma. Miraculously, with the help of Robert Trent Jones II, Jay Blasi, Bruce Charlton, and somewhere north of $20 million, he ultimately succeeded.
It was (and is) a great story, and Chambers Bay has definitely paid dividends for its community. But golf needs more than shoot-the-moon visions. It’s possible another county executive somewhere has already paid a visit to the Winter Park Golf Course where Johns partnered with Coore & Crenshaw associate Keith Rhebb to reinvent a pancake-flat Florida layout for a third of the price other renovating architects had quoted the town.
“Muni golf has a stigma to it—y’know, guys in jeans and divots on greens,” Johns says. “Our goal was to see how good we could make a muni look.” The result is a short, compelling, player-friendly nine that can be enjoyed in an hour and change. With its thriving junior program and openness to non-traditional ideas (like weekly night-golf outings with glow-in-the-dark balls), it has quickly re-established itself as a community magnet.
In a time when media reports of golf’s impending demise are everywhere, it seems that the future of architecture, in no small part, depends on its ability to restore the grassroots of the game. If there’s one thing to take heart in, it’s that there’s no shortage of smart young people who would be proud to be a part of that movement.
Here’s what all this means for the next era. All of the above flows from two overarching points. First, more than ever, golf needs to focus on fun to remain relevant. And second, architects and developers are abundantly aware of this, but find themselves tinkering at the margins due to the increased land and resource commitments that modern golf equipment demands. It’s beside the point that very few of us are actually bringing 6,400-yard designs to their knees with our Pro V1s and Callaway Epics: As our cities and suburbs mature and gather density, just finding good sites for new golf will only grow more difficult.
The next era, which is already underway, finds the game squeezing into niches that have been overlooked for a generation or more. The artistic bar for nine-holers and par-three courses has been raised dramatically. Recycling municipal and other affordable public courses will be a growth sector for architects who can do the work themselves.
We’ll still see the occasional grand slam in a far-flung destination—the Tara Itis and Cabot Cliffs of the world. But for all the time and expense it takes just to log a couple of rounds at these “super-courses,” there’s a chance that a new generation of golfers will begin demanding a backyard renaissance. Intricate and elastic jewel boxes, built affordably and on a human scale, designed to reveal their mysteries over years and years of play. Such courses may or may not crash the “Best New” lists, but they will be ones that are truly celebrated.