Those Wonderful One Hit Wonders

I’m so used to people slagging me off. Since the beginning of my career I’ve been told I have no talent, I can’t sing and I’m a one hit wonder.” – Madonna

I have a very vivid memory of being at a party in college. There was music playing. People were drinking. People were playing pool. People were talking. People were doing a million things that included not paying particular attention to the music. But when Los Del Rio came on, there were shrieks of unadulterated joy. Someone turned the music way up and almost methodically, yet with as much genuine enthusiasm as I’ve seen anyone do anything before, they all began doing the Macarena with absolutely no sense of irony whatsoever. That’s because back then, even at my coastal college that did its best to shun anything mainstream, the Macarena was pretty f-ing cool.

Whether it’s working out to “Eye of the Tiger,” rolling in my 5.0 down A1A – Beachfront Avenue! – or taking a whiskey drink, a vodka drink, a lager drink and a cider drink, there are one-hit wonders in the music industry that could define an entire generation. The pervasiveness of some of these songs and just how timeless they are begs the question: would you rather have moderate consistent fame and success for an extended amount of time or catch that lightning in a bottle, soar to global fame, then have that one song define you, always remembered and likely covered by a billion garage bands?

Is there any rhyme or reason for why one song gets so popular, but the artist can’t replicate it, or even come close again? And what was it about the one song that gets etched into the annals of history? Is it a catchy tune? Is it a new sound or something never tried before? “99 Luftballoons”, “Take on Me” and “Rico Suave” don’t sound revolutionary but I’ll listen to each of them every time they come on (fun fact – two of those switch between different languages throughout the song!).

Can anyone explain a one hit wonder?

Golf has its one hit wonders. And yeah, a lot of them are catchy tunes. Some would say as catchy as they come.

  • Pine Valley
  • Oakmont
  • Merion
  • Pebble Beach
  • Ballybunion
  • Portmarnock

When discussing the one hit wonder golf courses and trying to explain them, the questions to ask are a bit different than in music. For starters, there are completely logical reasons why many of the people that designed these courses do not have revered others to their credit. And there are a number of logical explanations why the one course receives the acclaim it does. No. For us, the more important questions to ask are how did the course become the wonder it is by the people who made them and; will we ever see a one hit wonder golf course again? Does it matter? While a one hit wonder in the music industry seems to be a stigma, as the above list shows, in golf it is anything but.

“One of nature’s true masterpieces is Pine Valley. It’s an awesome blend of turf, sand, scrubland, trees and water. Foursomes have left the First tee here and have never been seen again. They just find their shoelaces and bags.” – Bob Hope

We don’t have to look any further than what’s regarded as the best golf course in the world in Pine Valley for the power of the one hit wonder. George Crump had never designed a golf course before when he purchased the property in 1912, but had a very specific vision of the type of course he wanted. The property was ideal for golf in a number of ways, with its sandy soil, rolling terrain, windswept native grass and pines that would remain in bloom all year long. Crump’s tenets for the course included no hole was to run parallel with the next, no more than two consecutive holes should run in the same direction, and the hole being played is the only one that should be in view. Crump was also very specific on what he wanted on the balance and lengths of the golf holes. Construction of the course was challenging in clearing trees, draining marshlands and ensuring the immense bunkers were able to withstand erosion on the sandy site. Crump lived on the property during construction and went to great lengths to ensure the course was finished. With his fortune and health dwindling in the midst of the uncertainty accompanying World War I, Crump committed suicide at the age of 46. This tragedy even more so by the fact Crump never saw the course completed, or enjoyed the accolades bestowed upon it. Apparently dead broke from directing his fortune into constructing the course, one could argue he scarified his health, wealth and perhaps sanity in the name of building the ultimate shrine to golf.

VAYA CON DIOS

While Pine Valley is Crump’s dream realized, he certainly collaborated with several architects in the design and construction of the course, such as Colt, MacKenzie, Wilson, Thomas, Travis, MacDonald and Flynn. Moreover, the course was completed (the Twelfth through Fifteenth) in large part by Wilson once Crump passed.

Pine Valley is indeed one of if not the greatest golf courses on the planet, thought of and built by an amateur golfer with no golf design experience to speak of and the financial means to accomplish his dream course. There is no denying, however, he had a dream team of legendary architects behind him, whom visited the site often and significantly contributed to the formation of the course. The terrain is ideal in many ways for golf, which Crump recognized, and no doubt there were countless days and nights spent discussing his vision with these other architects, which certainly changed and molded a more concrete path to his vision. In addition to the input and contributions of others, Crump’s determination, passion and relationship with the land was primary in cultivating the course we see today. Yes the course has undergone design changes since its inception like any other course and those changes have certainly improved upon it, but two of the main components that make Pine Valley legendary are Crump’s passion and vision, as well as the collaboration of an array of architectural greats that made sure Crump’s vision came alive.

Pine Valley was destined to be a one hit wonder. There are other courses that have set out to create the type of challenge and intrigue Pine Valley presents, and there are even courses built on the same terrain conditions attempting to replicate its aura, but none have reached such reverence. The unending passion of one man, who likely discussed and thought about each hole every waking minute and knew which input to take and which to pass on, simply would not have been possible any where else for him.

Perhaps that’s what’s necessary for a course to surpass the monicker of being very good, or even great, to an upper echelon of otherworldly acclaim. Passion and time. Maybe even obsession. Pouring all of oneself into the golf course, leaving nothing for any other project. There are certainly courses in that upper echelon created by experienced architects who were naturally impassioned about it, which shows that the dedication Crump had is not the only way to achieve a masterpiece, but such devotion to a single piece of property over time has shown the type of brilliance we all hope to experience. Alas, there is no alternative other than these courses being one hit wonders and the designers likely wouldn’t have it any other way.

One of the best examples of greatness as the product of passion and dedication to a property to ensure a specific vision is Oakmont Country Club. Henry Clay Fownes was an iron and steel magnate that sold his empire to Andrew Carnegie. With his fortune and as an accomplished golfer in his own right, he began searching for land to build his own golf club around 1901. Ultimately finding that land just above the the Allegheny River northeast of Pittsburgh, Fownes routed the course himself and adhered to a number of his own design principles. Fownes wanted Oakmont to play like a links, so the course was built with no water hazards and few trees. As a tournament player himself, Fownes wanted a course that could host championships and realizing that technology was increasing distance even back then, lengthened the course significantly for the time to a whopping 6800 yards. It actually played to a par of 80 when it opened because of its length. Despite its length, Fownes wanted holes to vary considerably in their distance to add to its diversity.

What really separated Oakmont from its peers at the time, however, was there were no bunkers on the course when it opened (except for one). There came to be over 200 at one point, but that has since been reduced. Fownes wanted to see how the course was played over time before deciding where the bunkers belonged. He also did not want any steep climbs or blind shots, which had to be a challenging task with the rolling terrain. Then there were the greens. Fownes desired undulation and lots of movement, even rolling the greens with barrels of sand weighing a quarter of a ton each. The routing was superb, breaking away from the out and back or two-loop nature prevalent at the time. It has rarely changed since Fownes drew it up over 100 years ago and is regarded as one of the finest ever. Oakmont was the only course Fownes designed.

Oakmont is quite possibly the ultimate one-hit wonder. Most of Fownes’ work remains today and remarkably, he did not have much assistance or input from others, nor were there an abundance of golf courses at the time that could have aided him. There were architects in Pittsburgh at the time and I believe there is evidence that Fownes at least spoke with them about the course (including Emil Loeffler and Arthur Jack Snyder), but he did not have the team behind him that Crump did (nor did he pay anyone as a consultant, like Crump did with Colt). Norman MacBeth possibly assisted Fownes as well, another individual whose impressive work can be considered a two or three-hit wonder. The point is that Fownes largely conceived and executed Oakmont on his own. Significantly, he recognized that the course would evolve over time and could be improved upon, so allowed such work to continue after its opening. Indeed, Oakmont was a labor of love for Fownes that he saw as work never finished, spending the rest of his life perfecting.

How Fownes was able to achieve such a timeless design is a source of infinite discussion. The freedom Fownes had to implement his vision, along with the foresight to realize his work would never be done, constantly striving for a better course, certainly demonstrates that Oakmont was destined to be yet another transcendent one-hit wonder. The fact Fownes did not delve into any other projects, yet remained faithful to Oakmont, is proof enough of this. While Fownes was able to see his vision come to life unlike Crump, Fownes’ dedication to the course is arguably a similar approach Crump would have taken. Again, both of these legends devoting themselves to their respective land, cultivating it in an endless pursuit of excellence and fulfillment. Both, inevitably, one hit wonders.

MORE THAN ONE WAY TO A WONDER

While time, passion, resources, vision and talent have shown it’s possible to get out there and create greatness, is there any other way? Most gifted architects have all of the above, while time may be the more critical factor for them in meeting the demands of their client. So then, is it any more impressive when one is able to create a masterpiece for a client, under time constraints, during his first foray without the opportunity to return at will and revise as he pleases? Hugh Wilson headed the Construction Committee as a member of Merion, so while not an architect for hire, he certainly needed to win the approval of others and was on a timeline, while Crump and Fownes headed the helm at their own courses. While Wilson went on to design a couple other courses after Merion East, the East was his first design and some would argue his other works did not reach the level of his first. Alas, Merion East can be considered a one-hit wonder.

Wilson was well experienced in golf when tasked with designing Merion. Yet he also knew enough to know he didn’t know enough to build the best course possible without significant input and help. Wilson visited C.B. Macdonald at National Golf Links, studied that course and studied various designs with Macdonald himself over a few days. He was also able to visit Pine Valley when necessary for inspiration. When the routing and construction of the East was complete, Wilson travelled to Scotland and England to personally study those courses, mainly to fortify and improve his knowledge and design acumen, as he would be able to revise the course (and construct the West) based on this voyage.

Wilson was selected by his membership and did everything he could to educate himself to design a suitable course. Even back then, the piece of property for the course was small. Yet Wilson routed the course ingeniously. The course flows over the land effortlessly, with no hole crowding on the other and as diverse as you could ask for. The course is considered one of the world’s best for its complex and charming strategy, naturally laid out as if it had existed since creation.

While Wilson was involved in the design of Merion West, Seaview, Phoenixville and the soon to be restored Cobbs Creek, the East was to be his crowning achievement. What makes it especially impressive is the design challenges Wilson faced with the acreage size while answering to his membership. Not just any course would do and from all accounts, Wilson did not take his charge for granted. With these constraints imposed on Wilson, instead of the freedom of resources, accountability and time others enjoyed such as Crump and Fownes, Wilson’s feat at Merion East as a first design was otherworldly.

Wilson achieved his one hit wonder with feverish study and consultation with legendary designers. Undoubtedly his talent congealed with what he learned to become astute quicker than most in effective design. While time was not one of his advantages, the passion, talent and thirst for knowledge was, which all came together splendidly. Naturally the course has changed since its opening, especially with the purchase of additional property in the 1920’s and the increase in traffic on Ardmore Avenue that splits the course in two. Yet Wilson’s achievement at Merion pervades today with its basic structure in place, all the more remarkable considering the original property constraints.

Wilson’s involvement at Merion was similar to how some golf courses in the United Kingdom were created. This is a generalization, but oftentimes either the golf professional, or even one with some modicum of golf knowledge, would be tasked with building the course for its club. Ballybunion is one example, with James McKenna credited for the design as professional and general manager of the club. Portmanorck is another, with William Pickerman and George Ross credited for its creation. Lore has it they rowed across an estuary near Dublin in 1893 and visualized the course amongst the wild dunes. Then and there they established their golf club and began construction of their course, under the supervision and consultation of Mungo Park. While some of these professionals might assist nearby courses in their development, many times the course was their club and they had no reason to seek other such work. Admittedly, some of these courses were refined by those more skilled in the craft (such as Tom Simpson at Ballybunion), but these courses remained fundamentally intact from their inception. The knowledge of the terrain, ability to revise as time wore on, and inherent passion that their course could host memorable golf all factored in to creating some of these masterpieces. They were one hit wonders out of function, yet their impact on golf design is still perennial. Indeed, there are many more of these courses that simply have not shown such timeless appeal. The age of these courses makes the feat much more impressive and shows us that vision, passion and a relationship with the land can reveal great golf, even for first timers and/or one and done-ers. It could be argued that these courses in the UK were made known to the likes of Crump, Fownes and Wilson, emboldening the devotion to their respective cause.

ROME

Something must also be said for the greenskeeper. Old Tom Morris not only designed, but maintained and improved upon Prestwick when he was the professional at that club. He then returned to St. Andrews as the greenskeeper and professional, at which point he revitalized the course by tweaking its design, building new greens at the First and Eighteenth, and implementing greens-keeping techniques he learned at Prestwick. In this role, the Old course was restored to glory. When it comes to knowledge of the terrain and devotion to it, the greenskeeper is it. From Old Tom Morris to Fownes, these men develop a bond with the course, learning its moods and complexities. Determining how the course can improve, either through changes in design, maintenance or even turf, the greenskeeper is invaluable. Historically, the greenskeeper has elevated his course to prominence in several well known instances. Charged with ensuring the course showcases its best each day, they make it so in large part based on passion and knowledge of the land.

On our side of the pond, Seminole Golf Club presents a terrific example of how invaluable the greenskeeper can be. The course was designed by Donald Ross with the assistance of T. Claiborn Watson, who stayed on as greenskeeper after the course opened. Seminole was designed to emulate linksland courses, using the sand ridges and elevation undulations accompanying the coastal land. It became one of the finest courses in the South, with its refinement matched by its exclusivity. Watson’s work in resurrecting the course after the Depression and World War II largely contributed to the prominence the club enjoys today. This included figuring out the best strain of grass to use considering its climate for ideal playing conditions and re working some of the greens. Watson’s input, in both the design and improvements thereafter, were key in the proper evolution of the course. And while not in one hit wonder territory, the role of Watson at Seminole is a great example of how important an ongoing relationship with the course is to its success. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor are seminal golf courses. Most one hit wonders in golf are not the lightning in a sound studio variety, but are carefully crafted from vision and talent, then cultivated and revised over time. The reason many of these courses are the gold standard is because of the limitless commitment to their profoundness from inception, along with the recognition that it’s a living breathing thing, which will evolve over time.

Is the one hit wonder possible nowadays? In the age of hiring the big famous name, or bringing the famous name in to restore or redesign; relying on professionals who are well versed in the craft and are the best chance of conjuring the best golf possible from the land, or at least bringing instant credibility to a project? Owners are investing millions in projects nowadays and need to maximize the probability of success. This usually means the chances of handing the keys over to an inexperienced amateur and allowing him free reign and abundant time are zero. The stakes are too high now. These big name professionals know how to work with the desires of the client and within the confines of the demands set upon them. Or, their resume justifies an owner having complete confidence in giving them free reign. Of course, there are instances of an owner improving upon a design, such as when Keiser had the Seventh green at Old Macdonald moved to a bluff overlooking the ocean, proclaiming, “I think Macdonald would have put the green here.” At any rate, the freedom in vision and time, as well as the availability of new construction, has reduced the possibility of a one hit wonder flourishing. Even if built, there is no guarantee it would receive enough play to be properly recognized.

CARPE DIEM

Exceptional circumstances exist, however. And when the one hit wonder has come along in the last couple decades, it has been glorious. Of course, it’s too early to call any of the designers one hitters, as they have all moved on from their maiden projects and clearly have extraordinary talent. But those maidens are tough to surpass and are telling in how they came about. A couple representative courses of the modern day one hit wonder show just how impactful they still can be.

Sweetens Cove is one of the premier modern day courses closely resembling the formation of the classic one hit wonders. Rob Collins and Tad King completely re-designed a nine-hole course, previously known as Sequatchie Valley. On absolutely flat land with an excess of vegetation, Collins and King knew this was their opportunity to showcase their artistry. Shortly after the economic downturn in the late 2000’s and short on work as it was, the two dove into the project. It was their chance to prove that in-house design/build leads to better golf but more importantly, it was their chance to mold a course in their vision. Ultimately, they were able to maintain control of the course after opening, with Collins living nearby, visiting at will and facilitating necessary changes. In the middle of no where, Tennessee, the course has skyrocketed in popularity, soaring in course ranking and social media approval.

Just like the one hits of yesteryear, Sweetens benefitted from talent, vision and an ongoing commitment to see that vision through even as the course begins to evolve. Yet there were other factors at work here, some of which are the product of the industry nowadays; realization of opportunity. Especially with the state of the economy at the time of construction, King/Collins knew Sweetens could realistically be their only opportunity at creating what they wanted but more importantly, to showcase it. This realization that it was more or less now or never likely provided even more focus and motivation to pour their souls into the course. And that absolutely comes through as you play the course. A product of passion, artistry and industry altering design principles, there’s a reason Sweetens has risen to the status it enjoys today. While it probably will not remain a one hit wonder, it was certainly treated that way to the benefit of us all.

In a remote location, as a re-design by two guys no one had really heard of, a nine-hole course nonetheless with a shack for a clubhouse, Sweetens gained traction by word of mouth as more and more came away mesmerized by its play. The pilgrimages began to find out if the rumors were true and momentum followed. Not as a commercial development, resort, or real estate deal, but as a labor of love and opportunity to make an impression. If Sweetens was going to be a one hit wonder, King/Collins was sure as hell going to make the most of it.

Similarly, Wolf Point Ranch in Texas is a modern day marvel. Alfred T. Stanger decided he wanted to build a golf course on his property a couple hours south of Houston. Not as a business, but just some where he could golf with his friends. Stanger contacted Mike Nuzzo and asked if he could build the course with the following parameters: challenging, interesting, tough to lose a ball and could provide scenic views from his house. Nuzzo enlisted the help of Don Mahaffey, a golf course superintendent he met at a Golf Club Atlas event. The two built the course together. Under no time constraints or creative confines, Nuzzo and Mahaffey took cues from the land to build a ground based prairie links style course fashioned after St. Andrews Old. Nuzzo incorporated principles from other well known courses such as Seminole and National Golf Links of America and focused on a strategic, challenging layout that mainly relies on ground contours and wind direction while firm and fast conditions prevail spectacularly. A modest cost to build and maintained brilliantly (by Mahaffey), Wolf Point is one of the best kept secrets in golf. Once the course was completed, Al and one of his friends would play a round each day, so the course fulfilled its purpose. While Al seemed to be very low maintenance in what he was looking for, Nuzzo didn’t settle for simply giving Al any old golf course; he recognized the opportunity given to him on a great piece of property and made it the best he could. He and Mahaffey did it for a modest cost, without significant earth movement, turf science or any other high cost methods. In fact, at one point during seeding, a tropical storm rolled through and eroded the Eleventh green. Instead of repairing it, Nuzzo liked how nature had reshaped it, so it was left as is. Nuzzo’s vision, as well as Mahaffey’s collaboration and continuous involvement, to craft a natural minimalist strategic design, is a one hit wonder for the circumstances under which it was created. Knowing this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, a first time designer in Nuzzo, calling in his buddy from GCA, created a modern masterpiece.

photo credit to golfclubatlas.com

Two courses, in remote areas, first-time designs, on limited budgets, with little fanfare upon opening, achieved much more than most do their entire career; built lasting courses that will define (or at least have the potential to) the next progression of modern design. Another striking difference with the one hits of today; those designers are professionals. Golf course design has developed as a profession over the last several decades, so very rarely is anyone deciding to build a course on their own. Just as we all used to build our own homes and hunt our own food, there are those more adept to rely on. So it also goes in golf course design. The one hit wonder definition changes because of these circumstances to something more like, “first time wonder.” The professional’s desire to make their mark is now what drives the one hit wonder era. Seizing the unique opportunities presented to them, the one hit wonder phenomena has transformed. Instead of dedicating oneself to that one course for life to ensure it continues to remain memorable, that dedication is now based on the realization such chances to showcase and make an impression are rare. That realization, however, is double-sided. Seize the opportunity in case it’s the only chance and make it the best one hit wonder possible, yet make it the best course possible to make sure it doesn’t remain a one hit wonder and opens up more opportunity. The talent, the genius, the vision, the passion; all of that bursting at the seams just waiting to express itself, knowing if it just had that one chance, they could move mountains. That thirst for expression can be felt in these modern day one hit wonders and contributes to their brilliance.

“Respect the one-hit wonder not for his one hit but for all the days he must have suffered afterward, trying for another.” – Sarah Manguso

Despite the genius of Sweetens and Wolf Point, much of the high profile work out there goes to the familiar big names. King/Collins continue to thrive with the growing success of Sweetens and is in the midst of re-designing the course at Sea Palms Resort, as well as constructing a new short course there. They have also been tied to designing the Buck Club’s course, which is PGA tour player Zac Blair’s project. If or when constructed, the Buck Club will be yet another one hit wonder case study, but that chapter has yet to be written. In vying to build one of the courses at Sand Valley, Collins guaranteed it would be nationally ranked if he was chosen. Showing confidence in his abilities and taking a bold approach, all in the name of getting the recognition he deserves for more opportunities at another Sweetens.

Nuzzo’s second project, Nine Grand, is a 9 hole regulation course, 9 hole par 3 course and 9 hole putting course, set to open shortly. The course opens with much anticipation, with its different structure utilized to accommodate the real estate development. Mahaffey has been heavily involved in the re-design with Doak at Memorial Park. Many have been waiting for Nuzzo and Mahaffey’s encore and it will soon be upon us in Nine Grand.

The question remains, however. Why aren’t these guys getting more work? They showed the capacity to create brilliant golf that attracts golfers globally to remote destinations. They showed they can do so with limited resources. Shouldn’t a one hit wonder in today’s climate beget more of them? Mike Keiser took a chance on first time designer David Kidd and Bandon Dunes projected him to stardom, while the course vaulted the resort to fame. Despite that success, Keiser has not hired a first time designer since, instead falling into the rotation of the “big four (which includes Kidd).” Time and again, however, “first timers” are producing greatness. There are a lot of factors here and it’s for another article, but the short answer is it’s much easier to hire a bigger name that has shown a steady stream of great courses throughout an extended amount of time, under the normal constraints faced on most projects.

Yes, one hit wonders matter nowadays, in fact now more than ever.

The talent pool is deep today and when presented with the opportunity, these designers are taking advantage. It may not be such a gamble looking beyond the big name designers to these guys. These projects represent the next generation showcasing their abilities and more importantly, diversify what we see in today’s courses. Many younger designers have actually come to terms with the fact they may never design their own course, instead relegated to restoration, renovation or working on a team with one of the big names. At the same time, it keeps me up at night wondering if there are other one hitters out there, other Sweetens and Wolf Points, just waiting to be discovered. Will they ever get the chance?

For the sake of the art, they should. The one hit wonders and first time designs show us how remarkable they can be and again, give us a much needed intelligent variety of style. If one hits have shown us anything throughout time, passion and soul yield greatness. Allowing the opportunity for the incredible talent in the industry to harness their passion and soul to show the world what they’re capable of, has and will give us golf for the ages. The established greats will continue to amaze us but it’s time to let in the next watch. The talent is there, the high level of refinement is there – the yearning – is there. The door just needs to be opened. Let the one hit wonder breathe life!

3 thoughts on “Those Wonderful One Hit Wonders

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