The Old Course Syndrome

“I could take out of my life everything except for my experiences at St. Andrews and I would still have a rich, full life.” – Bobby Jones

Until you play it, St. Andrews looks like the sort of real estate you couldn’t give away.” – Sam Snead

One of the stark realities of my life is I will never be able to play the Old Course at St. Andrews enough to fully grasp its greatness. I’m sure at some point I will finally visit Scotland, linger around the town and college, play some of the courses and before I even have to time to get comfortable, I’ll be on a plane returning home, back to the real world. And as I get older and my children start learning the game, I’m sure I’ll take another trip or two. I’ll show them what their old man is so passionate about; the golden links where I’ve experienced much of the beauty of the world. I will play the Old Course a couple more times. Probably not moving as well as I did the first visit, I’ll take it all in, will hopefully have a nice old man’s game by then (short yet straight with a hell of a short game), take some photos with the kids and before I get in the car to the airport, will take one final glance at the course and the horizon beyond. Grateful to have seen one of the places on earth I’ve studied and revered for so long, there will be a tinge of sorrow. Sorrow for the finality yes, but more poignantly for the realization I never was able to develop a relationship with the old land.

There’s simply never enough time.

The Old Course signifies much of what’s the soul of the game. Its surrounding natural elements formed the foundation of the course over time, the only way to truly understand the course in an all its complexity is to play it, as it’s visually underwhelming in many respects. Strategy, not succumbing to temptation and its deeply personal connection with each player make it a legendary match play course, which can be played a variety of ways. Its uncanny ability to transform into a different course with each play, with wind, rain, or even the sun baking the fairways all factoring in substantially. The course is far from perfect, but relishes in its imperfections, which ultimately enrich its character. I can’t do it justice with these few sentences. The Old Course is golf of the finest order.

It’s no surprise the Old Course has been emulated for hundreds of years by others.

In fact, there has always been an overarching attempt to emulate the iconic courses of the game. Template holes are one of the more historic forms of this, where the design concept of a particular hole is used by other courses. The National Golf Links of America is the best (and first) example of how brilliant template holes can be used within the existing terrain to create splendid golf and there are now several well regarded courses with template holes. Many of these template holes were taken from the Old Course.

More recently, we have seen golf courses try to emulate the pristine look of Augusta National that everyone is in awe of each Spring. Known as the, “Augusta Syndrome,” at its height this emulation resulted in an over emphasis on conditioning and visuals, which took priority over design principles. How a course looked became a lot more important than how it played. As I’ve written before, building and operational costs became unsustainable in a lot of cases and unfortunately many courses closed, or will be closing soon, trying to achieve such unnecessary perfection. The Augusta Syndrome is still alive and well, however. There are courses out there that continue to strive for the meticulously groomed appearance, as well as the exclusivity, of Augusta. The preconceptions about conditioning and how a course should look green, lush and floral is something the golf course architecture industry continues to face as it tries to convince its clients and the public that playability and appearance are two very different things.

There is also the, “Pine Valley Syndrome.” Pine Valley is famous for its extraordinary design, with one of its well known features being each hole is more or less isolated from the others so your attention is always on the hole you are playing. This isolation concept caught on and courses began the tree planting so they too could claim, “you can’t see anyone else on the golf course.” Alternative to tree planting, golf holes were placed unheard of distances away from each other to achieve that isolation, which overjoyed the golf cart and cart path people. Miles and miles of concrete along with 5 minute drives between holes were not uncommon, but hey, you can’t see any other holes, right? Again, these imitations did not lead to ideal golf and were often misled intentions in the first place.

While not really part of what’s been coined the PV syndrome, the all-encompassing challenge of Pine Valley have caused many to pursue similar appeal. Medford Village is a course nearby that specifically strived to be as hard as Pine Valley, but finally softened its difficulty to attract more golfers. It is far from alone. On the other hand, Bethpage Black was Tillinghast’s “great test” that he wanted compared to Pine Valley, which enjoys that well regarded reputation today. Course difficulty, however, has always been overemphasized, even today. While there are courses that are great for their test of golf like Bethpage, Pine Valley or Oakmont, there are too many instances of courses ramping up difficulty as a way to stoke interest, or attract a tour event. Unfortunately, this includes several of the high profile restorations we’re seeing recently, but more on that in a future chat.

What is evident with all of these syndromes is that they often lead to undesirable golf. A design component is driven to excess or not executed well all so a contrived comparison can be made for nothing more than bravado. The above are the more prevalent examples, but it’s indeed rampant. A row of trees appeared on the side of a golf green at a course that won’t be mentioned by name. When asked why, the response was, “Because Oakmont has the same thing.” Imitation is indeed the best form of flattery and as there are many that want to ingratiate their designs or set ups to the few storied venues of the game, the efforts that don’t work far outweigh those that have.

The Old Course too is an object of emulation, arguably more than any where else. It’s a constant source of inspiration and study for course design. C.B. Macdonald was the first to bring such inspiration to the U.S. and countless others have since travelled to the old land for insight, including Wilson, the Dyes, Keiser and Doak. The subtlety of its design primarily relying on ground contours and the elements for its strategy and challenge, the complexity of it all is only revealed slowly while in its trenches. The very essence of golf is here. Accordingly, it’s only natural the Old Course is pursued in several forms. Among those include template holes, Jack Nicklaus designed the likeness of the Old Course down in Florida (Grand Cypress), yet this imitation even includes a more general emulation of links golf in general. In its cheapest form, the “links style” monicker seems to be used by marketing types for courses that have few trees as way to tap into this aspect of the game. That’s far from the syndrome, however.

Grand Cypress

The glorious tenets of links golf have recently seen a revitalization of emulation, which has led to what I call the Old Course Syndrome. This syndrome has to do with the recent fascination with returning to a more rugged minimalism and naturalism in golf course design. Often, it has led to many believing that eviscerating rough and trees is the path to utopia, where one will find endless width, enormous greens, short grass collection areas and blown out bunkers. This syndrome has expanded to a whole sub-culture of pseudo-elitism, whom are convinced most modern designed courses would do well to engage in a comprehensive slash and burn program, mow the entire property at the same height and trick up the greens. Burn the golf carts and clubhouse while you’re at it, deify Raynor, Old Tom, etc. and vilify Jones and Fazio. The closer you can project like you belong at the Old Course at the turn of the 20th century, the better.

Fazio’s Congaree

This is a good thing gone awry. The move towards naturalism and more focus on engaging the terrain with firm and fast conditions has been spectacular, but it’s simply gone too far. To be sure, there are a good number of situations where overgrown trees need to be cleared and greens restored to their original size, or where ground contours would add a lot of excitement to how a course plays. The recent work to Pinehurst 2 and its hosting of the 2014 U.S. Open was one of the first mainstream introductions of browned fairways with firm and fast conditions playing through and around the greens. Many of the players were confounded by the short grass collections areas near the greens, which Kaymer smartly negotiated with his putter all the way to victory. Not very coincidentally, Gil Hanse recently referred to Pinehurst as the American St. Andrews. Oakmont cleared a gang of trees prior to the 2016 U.S. Open, returning to its roots of a challenging low profile unassuming layout that just happens to be one of the most difficult championship venues. Chambers Bay started as a links course (resembling more of the Irish links courses to be fair), yet again emphasizing contours over trees and rough. Problems with its greens at the 2015 U.S. Open overshadowed the challenge it presented to the players, as fairways with seemingly never-ending width lured players into a false sense of security, where hidden contours, depressions and knolls dealt with shots to the wrong sides and areas of the hole. Bandon Dunes is a shining example of links golf embraced in the U.S. Among those courses is one of my favorite, Old Macdonald, utilizing template holes of C.B. Macdonald . . . and the Old Course.

The strong move towards links principles was refreshing at first, but is now at the tipping point that risks homogenizing course design at the expense of variety. As we’re seeing the arms race to the 1920’s unfold before us, many courses are attempting to tap into this newfound popularity with “restoration” projects. A promise to return the course to original design tenets has very often turned into dolling up the bunkers, removing trees and replacing rough around the greens with short grass collection spots. Traditional parkland courses, no matter how ingenious in design and execution, are frowned upon for their reliance on trees, rough and water. Often, these courses are seen as outdated and by many, “bad designs.” In reality, it’s a general rejection of anything not in line with this movement of emulation, which again is destroying diversity one course at a time.

The measure of a good course, or a good design, at least in my opinion, is whether it holds interest for the entire round. Each course has a personality, or identity. How well the course asserts that identity usually weighs heavily on the interest it has for me. The broad range of course identities is one of the best aspects of design. They range infinitely, from challenging, fun, intense, strategic, easy, accessible and confounding. If a course is meant to be a stern test, how well does it carry that purpose out and hence, its identity? Whether a course is one dimensional in its purpose is irrelevant; does it hold interest for that stated purpose in asserting its identity? If Tillinghast intended Bethpage Black to compare to Pine Valley as a great test, how well does the course carry that out?

The Old Course Syndrome is an overcorrection that runs the risk of tarnishing the revitalization we seem to be enjoying. Clearing overgrown tree lines does not mean every tree on every course needs to go. Lightening rough areas in favor of firm and fast conditions does not mean rough can’t be effective in proper challenge. In other words, not every course should be striving for links golf. Each course is obviously site-dependent and what works well for the Old Course inevitably will not work for the majority of courses out there. Like the projects now revising what was popular in the past, there is no singular concept that should be applied across the board. A climate that gets a lot of rain has different needs and considerations than a more arid climate. Terrain that is flat will need to be approached differently than a hillier site. Specifically in this context, trees are compelling design features when used effectively. Flynn used trees regularly to frame dog legs and holes. Yes, gulp. The great nature faker. Rough is likewise effective if used properly. Grass bunkers are an overlooked design feature that would do much better than some elaborate bunker monument in many circumstances.

More generally, course design would do well if all these syndromes went away altogether. Instead of striving for some design component of a well known course, there should be an effort to strive for originality in identity. That starts by evaluating the strong suits of the terrain, then accentuating them. It goes to the routing and having the course flow effortlessly through the land. It goes to what it wants to be, or who it’s for. It goes to interest in play, not how fast the greens or lush the fairways are. Or how many trees or run off areas there are. Or whether the course falls into a particular style. Diversity and variety in course style is one of the most important benefits there is to golf course design. If the Old Course has taught us anything, it’s that greatness means being comfortable in your own skin, with all its quirks and imperfections. That is what makes memorable character and establishes the best personalities of all.

One thought on “The Old Course Syndrome

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.