I’m the only one around who knew Donald Ross, and I knew him well; talked to him. If he was alive today, he wouldn’t do what he did in 1923. – Pete Dye
If you go outside from wherever you’re reading this and throw your car keys in any direction, chances are pretty good you will hit a golf course that is undergoing, has just undergone or has plans to undergo some type of restoration project. The renewed interest and fascination with classic golf course design of the Golden Age has led to several high profile courses pursuing restoration in an attempt to return to the original intent of the golf course architect. Indeed, restoration has become a sub-industry and for many reasons, that’s a good thing for all of us. Opening up lines of play that may have been confined with trees overgrown through the years, rebuilding bunkers or tees that have broken down through traffic, erosion and time, or maybe something more dramatic can lead to more engaging, interesting courses.
Prior to the restoration trend, renovation was all the rage. The majority of the work done was to move courses towards what I’ll call Championship mode. That’s because many courses wanted to position themselves to host tournaments and as technology began to creep into all facets of the game, there was a general feeling that architecture needed to adjust accordingly to remain sufficiently challenging and confront technology head on. One of the famous examples of this is Augusta engaging in “Tiger proofing” by lengthening the course, adding trees to the Eleventh and Fifteenth, narrowing the fairways and growing more rough. Augusta also mows from green to tee so the grain helps prevent roll out, amongst other changes. At some point the changes courses underwent at this time translated into a premium on challenge. Courses were evaluated by how difficult they were above all else. This era saw fast greens, deep rough and treacherous forced carries as the features du jour. The game was growing along with the economy and the worst insult bestowed upon a golf course was that it was too easy. Along with challenge, there was an an enormous emphasis on conditioning. Golf courses began expending a vast amount of resources to look like Augusta, which has aptly been termed the “Augusta Syndrome.” With the economy booming, golf began to elevate its status as a luxury game. Elaborate clubhouses, mansion-lined fairways, double wide cart paths, carts with GPS and air-conditioned massage seats, immaculate conditions and a slope rating in the stratosphere were the standard. And the more exclusive or higher the green fee the course was or had, the better. In terms of golf course architecture, a premium was placed on difficulty, conditions and tournaments hosted.
While there were good and bad things about this trend, there seemed to be an overarching desire to make sure the golf was interesting. Just like today, everyone believed they were actually improving the courses. The problem was that interesting golf was equated with difficulty while anything easy was seen as boring. It was only a matter of time before this perspective was recalibrated. It was necessary and self evident even back then.
As with most historical trends, one started as the other was still in full force, overlapping for quite some time until the other eventually pervaded. Arguably, restoration can be traced back to the work Rees Jones did at The Country Club in 1985. While Rees is known as the “Open Doctor” for renovating courses by increasing their difficulty so they could provide a sufficient challenge for the pros, he went in a different direction here, returning modern features to their original style. Greens were returned to their original shapes as well. All of this was done for the 1988 U.S. Open, hosted at Brookline. There was also the rising popularity of Tom Doak, whose design philosophy diverted away from championship design and instead, showed that difficulty was not the only avenue to interesting golf. Strategy, alternate paths to the green and fun without soul crushing difficulty was in fact possible and a lot more relatable to the majority of the golfing public. A more minimal approach that did not require the uber labor intensive work necessary to maintain pristine conditions also began to be a lot more attractive as the economy waned. In effect, golf began moving back to its roots for these reasons and more. An emphasis on strategy, options, engagement and naturalism is now en vogue. Classic design is revered, while many have reached the extreme on the other end of the spectrum, referring to “modern” design with disdain, insist on walking and shudder when they hear names like Fazio or Jones. Alas, here we are, restoration is now commonplace. Like trends before it, there is good and bad from this.
Embracing absolutes never seems to work out well. I have seen plenty of courses undergo what is termed restoration, but then the greens are stimping at 15 and players are using their 800cc driver heads and 8 irons they can hit 190 yards. These courses may have been restored to some original version, but it’s decidedly not being played as it was intended.
The greens are typically the most blatant issue. Most classic designs shaped greens with much slower speeds in mind. Putters used to be made in higher lofts to accommodate this and putting was a lot more strategic and personal. Just like shot shaping, one was able to hone a draw, hook or fade to their putts and in conjunction with the contours, could approach each green accordingly. It’s essentially a lost art. Ironically, most courses do not embrace the move to slower greens despite the current rage of strategic golf and the restoration frenzy overlooks it most of the time. In the words of Pete Dye, “putting nowadays is a test of nerves instead of skill.” Many restorations overlook this component, or at least the superintendent or green committee does, usually (again ironically) to ensure the course is adequately defended. The green contours of classic courses included intricate and bold shaping that can make a round thrilling, but these features simply lose their involvement in play when green speeds are faster then they were ever intended to be. Bunker and tee placement is the other. Some holes were intended to be played long, with longer clubs into the greens. Restoring bunkers to original locations may not do much if tee shots streak past it based on the increase in distances seen across the board.
There also may be very practical considerations as to why original features were changed. Recently on golfclubatlas.com, photographs of the Seventh at Pebble Beach were posted that showed an earlier version of that hole. The front bunker was much more prevalent and level with the green, almost seeping into it. That version looked terrific and had a lot more character to it than what we see today, but it was quickly pointed out (by Doak) that wind and the required maintenance involved likely made that version short-lived. Others have bemoaned the bunker work Bethpage Black underwent, but with the amount of traffic the course sees, the original styled bunkers would not hold up (and there’s some debate as to whether determining the original style is even possible). These practical considerations oftentimes don’t reveal themselves until sufficient passage of time. Other instances may not reveal themselves until there’s a significant change to the course, like going from private to public and seeing an uptick in play. Other times, you simply need to see how the course is played to determine changes. There’s a famous story about the opening of Cypress Point and while everyone heaped praise of the course on Mackenzie, he kept asking, yes but what’s wrong with it [what can be improved]? These factors could show why a true restoration may not make a whole lot of sense.
Truth be told, not everything from classic golf architecture is worth restoring. Not every course from that era is a Mona Lisa and if they were alive today, there are plenty of courses those architects would likely admit were not even meant to be that big of a deal. In fact, most courses from that era fall into this category. Considering the historical context, there were times a course was created without much thought but in haste to simply be able to golf. Colt wrote once he watched a group walk around and put stakes for green locations in any hollow they could find. The task was done in half a day and he was glad to hear the course was never built. Other times, a lack of the proper resources resulted in not being able to utilize the terrain as brilliantly as possible. Many of the courses that have survived and are well regarded were built by the wealthy with abundant resources behind them and the ability to visit Scotland a number of times for inspiration. The refinement and work behind those courses was evident from the get go, setting themselves apart from most other courses even back then. Also consider that with modern technology and the proper motivations, there are countless courses that would benefit more from a total renovation than restoration. Case in point, Augusta National. As recently pointed out by Feed the Ball’s Derek Duncan, Bobby Jones recognized early on that the course needed to be changed from its original design and Tom Doak has commented that the revisions have made the course superior to what it started out as.
Considering all of this, what’s a good restoration? A general recognition of the progress and evolution of course architecture, then focusing on restoring certain characteristics of a course that have changed or faded over the years. Relinquishing width and strategy to a point. If necessary and applicable, returning fairway conditions to firm and fast instead of striving for impeccable lushness that lends itself to target golf. Addressing green speeds and adjusting them to something that makes sense considering the contours. At the same time, incorporate tenets of the modern game in a way where it could enhance the course and possibly make it more interesting and better than it originally was. Yes make sure that it’s consistent with the design pedigree and philosophy, yes make sure it’s in line with that style and yes, make sure if the architect was alive today, it would be something they would do themselves. But consider length and tee concepts. Consider renewed irrigation and drainage systems that could improve playing conditions, especially in trouble spots. Consider modern concepts that could either utilize the terrain better than it could have been back when the course was built and/or improve the design in ways that time and rounds played have revealed. Take the best of both the classic and modern, guided by the design philosophy, all for the sake of conjuring the best golf course possible. It definitely should be more than just designing according to old plans and photos. Re-discovery can be a great thing, but not if it means ignoring everything else.
In other words, you can’t completely look to the past for the future. Golf course design evolves along with everything else. Even the Golden Age architects would return to their courses and tweak them, shifting from the original design for a variety of reasons. Even those courses that have been able to and inclined to preserve their design over time institute change, albeit under close scrutiny. The Old Course, in all her glory, has changed considerably over its hundreds of years, with the natural elements shaping and re-shaping the course, adding to its complexity. Its changes are numerous.
It’s a great time for golf course architecture. The renewed interest in classic design, the emphasis on a refined craft that accentuates all that’s soulful in golf and a reconnection with a more rugged perception of natural conditions are all really promising for what lies ahead. While restoration is now a prevalent way for golf courses to plug into these principles, we all benefit if these projects take a holistic approach. Embrace it all, which includes both classic and modern design tenets. A great restoration consists of interpretation, research, contemplation and consideration of all facets; a concerted effort to reinvigorate and in some instances, reincarnate. Elevate the golf course to a higher level than it was beforehand. Don’t focus on what Donald Ross would have done in 1923; focus on what he would do if he was here today.