Golf Course Architects & Architecture

<----- Page down to the expanded menu on the left to find brief biographies, styles, courses, mentors and disciples of various notable golf course architects

The Golf Course Architecture Tree

by Fat Guy

I don't recall exactly when I started paying attention to golf course architects and their various styles, probably around when I was approaching 30.  It's a near-certainty that damn near every American who's ever played a few dozen rounds in a lifetime has probably heard of Donald Ross somewhere along the line, and anyone who's ever watched the PGA Tour on TV has probably heard of Pete Dye and knows that Jack Nicklaus designs golf courses.  But beyond that, what do most casual golfers really know about the theory of golf course architecture?

I don't recall who was the first architect to really grab my attention, possibly Tom Fazio as he was starting to gain a rep as a visual virtuoso, or maybe Mike Stranz after my first round at Tobacco Road captured my soul with regard to how an architect can turn a round into an adventure.

One of the things that makes the study of course architecture fun is applying your knowledge of their style and trademark gambits into your course management strategy as you play their courses, particularly on your first time around one of their tracks.  I'll never forget standing on the tee of a par-3 at a Ross-designed country club I'd never played before, along with my boss during a work outing.  He and the rest of our foursome (all first-timers on the course) were standing on the tee contemplating club selection, saying the green-front bunker looked much closer than the yardage on the signpost.  I remember grinning when I pulled out my architecture knowledge for the first time, saying, "This is a Ross course, and he liked to play with optical illusions to make it look like fairway bunkers were right up next to greens when they really aren't.  I bet that bunker is a good 20 or 30 yards short of the green."  Duly impressed, they all hit safe tee shots with the proper club based on my advice.  And sure enough, as we drove up to the green, the bunker was a good 30 yards shy of the fringe.

The legacy of golf course architects goes all the way back to the original course "architect", Old Tom Morris, a club and ball maker from St. Andrew's Scotland.  Seemingly everyone who has ever picked up a golf club knows Morris laid out 18 holes at St. Andrews Old Course, among other famous courses in the British Isles.  Among numerous other innovations, he's the reason the vast majority of golf courses have 18 holes today.

Modern golf course architecture has moved from the Golden Age of course design (roughly 1910-1940) through the classic parkland designs of the post-World-War-II Modern era to the bland muni's of the oil-strapped 1970's onto the mounded target movement of the '80's, the more visual "upscale" designs of the '90's, and having come full circle back to the minimalist trend of the New Millenium.

I can't claim to be overly well-read about course architecture or architects, but I remember coming away with a much better understanding of the realities of the current-day design process after reading Stephen Gummer's The Seventh At St. Andrews, which chronicled David McLay Kidd's building of St. Andrews' Castle Course.  Gummer's tale relays that the job of course designer isn't always just some big-name former-player/architect making pie-in-the-sky brush strokes on a CAD program, or even on a rolled out map on a sawhorse table standing in the mud on one of his four-to-six required site visits during construction. Most of these guys are constrained more by budget, difficult clients, course drainage requirements, course flow and pace of play issues, weather during construction, environmental regs, and even archeological finds, than their imaginations. They are not only creative director of the project, but also contractor, mentor, motivator, mediator, marketer, manager, accountant, public relations guy, and president of the fraternity when the construction crew retires to the pub after darkness falls. And with many high-profile projects (such as St. Andrews Castle course), the shaper on the bulldozer is more artist than earth-mover. By the time the place sees grass seed, he's probably input more creative license into the details of the design than the guy who's signature goes on it.

Through all of the various design eras and trends, I've always been surprised that someone hasn't come along and put together something of a golf course architecture "family tree", tracing the mentorship and influence as well as the knowledge and philosophies handed down from one architect to another... Colt mentored and partnered with MacKenzie; Colt and Park Jr. begat Crump; McKenzie's Augusta National was a major influence on Nicklaus, and so on.

I won't claim to even approach the depth of knowledge on architecture to even attempt such a thing as an architecture tree (I'm much more of a broad strokes kinda guy, and with 3 kids I don't have that kinda time), but to garner some knowledge from guys who know architecture on that kind of a level, I highly recommend checking out www.golfclubatlas.com .  Their articles and interviews examine architecture on a level rarely seen in the golf mags, and working architects like Tom Doak regularly comment on their discussion board topics.

In the various architect profiles you'll find by paging down to the left, I'll just try to paint the broad strokes of various architects for you... brief bios, courses they've designed that you've probably heard of, their overall style and trademark design features, influences, etc.

Below are some of the more notable architects and influential courses from the various course design eras:

Craftsman Era: 1848-1900

Old Tom Morris, Willie Park Jr., Allan Robertson, James Braid, C.B MacDonald, John Sutherland, Horace Hutchinson, George Combe, Harry S. Colt, Tom Dunn, Charles Gibson, George Lowe, Willie Campbell, James McKenna, Charles Hunter, Walter Travis,

St. Andrews Old, North Berwick West, St. George's, Muirfield, Royal Dornoch, Royal County Down, Sunningdale, Lahinch, Machrihanish, Musselburgh, Carnoustie, National Golf Links of America

Golden Age:  1900-1940

Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast, William Flynn, Seth Raynor, Alister MacKenzie, Herbert Strong, George Thomas, Stanley Thompson, Alex Findlay, Perry Maxwell, Henry C. Fownes

Oakmont, Aronomink, Cherry Hills, Augusta National

Modern Era: 1948-1980

Robert Trent Jones, Dick Wilson, Bob Cupp

Post-Modern Target Era: 1980-1993

Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus, Desmond Muirhead, Mike Stranz, Steve Smyers, Hurzdan & Fry, Tom Weiskopf, Jay Morrish, Greg Norman

Harbortown, Stone Harbor, The Pit, TPC Sawgrass

Upscale Era: 1993-2002

Tom Fazio, Tom Doak, Mike Stranz, Brian Silva

Tobacco Road,

Minimalist Era:  2002-Present

David McLay Kidd, Ben Crenshaw & Bill Coore, Gil Hanse, Martin Hawtree, Rod Whitman

Bandon Dunes, Sand Hills, Streamsong Red & Blue