Artists of the Landscape

John Russell

Oct 8,2013

Artists of the Landscape

Take a selection of artists and give each a canvas, brushes, paints and palette, and the same subject to paint. Unquestionably you will receive very different pieces of art in the finished works. Interpretation, style, and rendering sets each artist apart. When the canvas becomes 85 hectares of land, the subject is a par 72 eighteen hole golf course, the palette contains a rich array of flora, soil types, sand, rocks and water, and the brushes are bulldozers, excavators, shapers and shovels; our artists are golf course designers. And like famous painters, great golf course architects are known for their unique style and are highly sought after. Just as art progressed through distinctive periods, so did golf course design, with notable characters putting a stamp on their era.

Old Tom Morris

In the early days of golf in Scotland, professional golf course designers did not exist. Golf courses occupied those sandy seaside dunes where land could be put to little use, save grazing sheep in its protected hollows.
These relatively greener strips became the defining paths for each hole—the fairways. Breaks in the adjoining rough vegetation by wind and erosion exposed patches of sand, the forerunners of what we now call sand bunkers. The layout of these early courses was simply one large loop, with holes progressing away or outward from the starting point from and turning back mid-course to finish near the starting point. There were no consistent standards, with the number of holes varying with each course.
Appropriately, the embryo of Golf Course Architecture started to form at the home of golf, St. Andrews. A native of St. Andrews, Old Tom Morris started his career as an apprentice making feathery golf balls, and given that golf was a small and rarefied activity practiced by amateur enthusiasts, he inevitably took on a range of responsibilities as an employee. Morris became one of the early golf professionals and by 1851 a green keeper who also laid out and built new golf courses.

Overcoming centuries of inertia, Morris introduced top dressing of greens with sand which promoted healthy growth, introduced push mowers to cut them for a finer putting surface, widened fairways for faster and more enjoyable play, enlarged greens, and created separate tee boxes on each hole. Instead of accepting naturally occurring wild patches as hazards to be suffered without question, Morris treated them as an integral part of the game, clearly defining them and maintaining their ongoing condition. Morris also promoted the more convenient concept of two separate loops comprising nine holes each running out from and back to the clubhouse, instead of one big single loop of eighteen holes. Looking back, Morris was clearly the father of modern green keeping and golf course design.

Muirfield Golf Course and clubhouse – photo by Alistair Brown

The next significant personality was Charles Blair Macdonald, who ushered in what has been called the golden years of golf course development. Macdonald grew up in Chicago and was sent to study at St Andrews University in 1872 by his Scottish-born father. It was there that he discovered golf and was tutored by Old Tom Morris, becoming an enthusiastic and proficient golfer. Some years after he returned to America his interest in golf reignited and, with a group of local Chicago businessmen, completed in 1893 a basic but full 18 hole course in 1893, the first in America.
After moving to New York, Macdonald decided to create a memorable course where every hole replicated strategic challenges from courses he had played in Scotland and Great Britain. Until then, all courses in America were made up of mundane straight-away holes that did not test a golfer’s thinking. Organising a group of 67 investors with the promise that their new course would be the greatest outside the British Isles, Macdonald completed The National Golf Links of America in 1909 to great acclaim. True to his promise, every hole either replicated a famous British hole or at least a significant feature of one (something he was to repeat with future designs).

For example, the 8th hole named “Bottle” is a par four that resembles the 12th hole at Sunningdale Golf Club. A timeless classic, the course was still rated the 10th best in America by Golf Digest in 2013. Not only did he coin the expression “Golf Course Architect”, Macdonald introduced to golf the notion of creating a spectacular golf course driven by the egos and ambitions of wealthy businessmen—a noticeable feature of golf course development 80 years later.

The Old Tom Morris Golf Course, Askernish Golf Cub, Outer Hebrides – photo by Paul Marshall

The golden years of golf architecture lasted until the Wall Street collapse in 1929, but in this period the number of courses in America alone shot up more than threefold to nearly 7,000. Wonderfully talented designers created masterpieces, albeit they were given prime sites to work with. The most notable was Dr. Alister McKenzie who brought with him his wartime training in earthworks camouflage and a philosophy that the golf course should merge with the beauty of its natural surroundings.
At that time, working in with the natural landscape was a pragmatic approach, as the main means of moving earth was still powered by horses. With an eye for spectacular sites and a strategic design approach featuring longangled and undulating greens, large free form bunkers and selective contouring, McKenzie created legendary courses such as Augusta National, Cyprus Point, and Royal Melbourne in Australia.
The Great Depression and WWII created a void in golf courses development. It would be almost 20 years before the dawning of the modern area of golf course architecture.

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