Geeked on Golf


Leave a comment

COURSE WORK AT KAMPEN

The third edition of this season’s Upping My Dye-Q series takes a look into the multi-dimensional Kampen Course at Purdue University’s Birck Boilermaker Golf Complex

As an alum of the University of Illinois, it is not easy to give praise to Purdue. The simple truth, however, is that the golf geeks in West Lafayette have a facility at their disposal that is tough to beat. The Birck Boilermaker Golf Complex sits within earshot of the football stadium and is home to two Pete Dye golf courses. Each course occupies land with distinct character and each has its own style. Architect and long-time Dye collaborator Tim Liddy served as the project lead on the creation of the Kampen Course, which is not just a fun and challenging test of golf. It is also a classroom for the University’s turf students and a laboratory for some of its environmental sciences majors. Multiple dimensions of thoughtful value-added are the theme here.

Pete’s Par-4s

Although Kampen is strong from start to finish, the brains of the course are contained in its par-4s. They embody Pete Dye’s commitment to strategic golf, while delivering strong variety. Beginning with the two-dimensional view, the four pars vary in length, direction and shape.

On most, but not all, flanking hazards on one side of the fairway give an initial indication of the question posed to players. Is there a reward for flirting with the hazard? The answer is typically in the affirmative, as the greens are set at angles to the fairway. The degree of advantage gained is impacted by the size of the putting surface and composition of the surrounds, which differ from hole to hole. The seemingly straightforward scenario presented by each hole becomes more complex the closer one gets to the green. Dye and Liddy deceive and confuse players to knock them out of their comfort zones.

Baked into the layout of these two-shotters is a nod to old school golf—the switchback. On several holes, ball strikers who are able to work the ball in both directions may steer away from the hazards without sacrificing birdie looks. Rare today is the player who can hit a draw off the tee and then fade an approach into the green, or vice versa. The opportunities are there at Kampen, but only for those possessing the ability to see and hit the shots.

Moving beyond paper and out onto the course adds a third dimension that is visually appealing and, at times, intimidating. The land is adjacent to Celery Bog Nature Area, a large wetland that harbors hundreds of species of wildlife. Liddy and his team drew upon this prairie-to-wetland transition location to deliver an aesthetic that skews toward naturalized by Pete Dye standards. The shaping of bunkers and green surrounds has a sophistication that further enhances Kampen’s beauty, as evidenced in the gallery of four pars below.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

The site does have some movement, and it is used to great effect to lend additional complexity to the par-4s. Landing areas and putting surfaces are not always visible, demanding confident selection of lines based on cues from the horizon. On three holes (#1, 12, 15), Dye and Liddy force average length players to choose between the ideal approach angle and visibility by building Alps style mounding to obscure the view from half the fairway. This is a brainy golf course where the designers have presented a game of chess, not checkers. There is no “right” way to play Kampen’s two shotters. Trial and error over time will reveal the best plan of attack for each player.

The Outliers

Although there are consistent strategic themes throughout, two of the four pars stand apart from the bunch, and in doing so, point to yet another dimension of the design. The 7th is a short four featuring fairways that wrap around both sides of a central waste bunker. The horseshoe green has a pronounced central spine that makes being wrong-sided on the approach or recovery a real challenge.

The layout of the 7th serves another purpose beyond confounding players though. “That double fairway was created to allow testing for turf school,” explained Liddy. One interesting example of the many ways that the Purdue Turfgrass Science program uses the facility. Under the direction of Superintendent Jim Scott, students get hands-on experience by maintaining the Birck Boilermaker courses. The environment of learning and experimenting does nothing to diminish the conditions, however. Quite the opposite—these students provide players with stellar surfaces.

The 14th is the only par-4 that employs water as its primary hazard. A wetland runs along the left, allowing players to shorten the hole significantly by cutting across. Long on the approach is the only completely safe bailout but leaves a tricky recovery from a short grass runoff to a gently rippled green.

Here again, there is more than meets the eye with this water hole. The Kampen Course was envisioned and built with scientific study as one of its objectives. Specifically, Zachary Reicher and his team of researchers wanted to know if a golf course with managed wetlands could filter contaminants contained in stormwater runoff from neighboring developments before the water reached the ecologically sensitive Celery Bog. According to Reicher’s report, “Samplers were located to track the progress of water as it enters the east edge of the courses, through the wetland system, and exits the far northwest edge of the course.” Water samples were collected during and after storm events over a period of several years, and the team of scientists concluded, “…created wetlands are improving the quality of water as it moves through the system.” Quite the benefit beyond birdies and bogies.

Kampen proves what can be accomplished when smart people put their heads together with the goal of maximizing the value of land use. Pete Dye, Tim Liddy, and the staff and faculty at Purdue brought to life a course that simultaneously and seamlessly adds value to players, the university and the community at large. Dye’s designs have been renowned for making players’ heads hurt. Trying to comprehend the multi-dimensional complexity of what was achieved at Kampen goes well beyond a headache to a completely blown mind.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


1 Comment

A WEE CHANGE AT CANAL SHORES

Part 26 of the Journey Along the Shores series takes a look at the creation of the Wee Burn

When Cypress Point opened, it received universal praise. One would assume that a categorically positive reaction would please the architect. Instead, Dr. Alister MacKenzie famously expressed concern—in his experience, any golf course that didn’t turn off at least a few players wasn’t well designed. As we continue to tinker with Canal Shores, we understand the Good Doctor’s conditioned expectations. Each change we make to improve the course yields mostly praise, but also the predictable batch of complaints. The creation of the Wee Burn short of the 17th green is no exception, providing an interesting look into player perceptions and reactions to change.

The Problem

We are often asked why we don’t address issues of standing water by installing drainage that flows into the canal. The short answer is that we are not permitted to do so by our landlord. That prohibition makes sense in the context of the purpose of the land. Canal Shores exists fundamentally to provide a green space buffer for stormwater management from the surrounding neighborhoods. The course is there to hold water, not pour it into the canal. Unfortunately, that function is not well balanced with playability for golfers, and it will take a well-conceived renovation to reconfigure the course to achieve both objectives. Until that time, we are forced to do triage.

Standing water across the front of the 17th green

The 17th hole is one of many problematic spots on the course with regard to water retention, particularly across the front of the green. Spring rains caused the entire approach to flood. It would stay wet and muddy long after the rest of the course had dried out, and any subsequent rainfall would put us right back to square one. Plugged or disappeared balls were common, and growing healthy turf was impossible. The area was essentially unplayable for most of the season.

The Wee Burn

After lengthy consideration, we decided to stop trying to fight Mother Nature, and instead provide a better place to store this water. A wee burn wanted to exist, if we would do the digging. The idea was to dig down front-right of the green where the water was collecting so that a greater volume could be held in a smaller footprint. The removed soil was used to raise and slope the front left to help it remain dry by surface draining into the burn.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

Our friends Matt, Mark and Matt from NewClub put on their artisans hats and came out to do the digging and shaping. We didn’t want the feature to look like a boring ditch, but rather a burn that might be found on a course in the British Isles. Aesthetics were enhanced with wetland plants and stone chunks donated by a neighbor. We were excited about how the burn looked upon completion, but the real test would have to wait for the next rain. Sure enough, the rains came and the burn worked as intended, holding water while allowing the front-left approach to the green to dry out quickly. Players’ balls will no longer plug and their shoes will remain mud-free.

Player Perceptions

Although we were happy with how the burn looked and functioned, some players were not enthused. Change creates complaints, presumably because it makes us uncomfortable. Those complaints open a window into the quirky manner in which our minds work. When asked why a player doesn’t like a feature, they will produce an answer even if it is poorly founded. For example, in the case of the burn, we heard that it makes the hole harder. The burn is not marked as a hazard—it is essentially a depression in the fairway where casual water collects. If there is water in it, players are entitled to a free drop. Looking at the before and after photos above, it is readily apparent that we took a large problem and made it smaller, thereby rendering the hole more playable. That’s not harder, it’s easier (and more interesting).

If we are honest with ourselves, we can all admit to having reactionary moments like this when faced with change, which is why we don’t sweat the feedback. Dr. MacKenzie accepted that it was part of the deal, and he knew much more about golf architecture than we ever will. When the complaints come, we comfort ourselves by imagining that he would have approved of our Wee Burn, as well as our ongoing efforts to push Canal Shores forward.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


1 Comment

BOLD, BEAUTIFUL BAYONNE

A LinksGems course tour and appreciation of the Eric Bergstol designed Bayonne Golf Club by Jon Cavalier

Bayonne Golf Club is, to put it mildly, one of the more unique golf clubs in the United States. Built entirely from scratch by Eric Bergstol, the course represents the antithesis of the “minimalist” trend in golf course architecture, and yet, somehow, appears more “natural” than many other courses built in the last 20 years.  The result is, in a word, spectacular.

The course winds its way through man-made dunes, some nearly 100 feet high, constructed from muck and filler dredged from New York Harbor. Look to the north from the course’s high points and you’ll know you’re within the shadow of one of the world’s largest metropolises. But down in the dunes, you’d be forgiven for losing yourself for a moment and imagining you’re walking the fairways at Pacific Dunes or Ballybunion.

Meanwhile, above this dreamscape looms a gorgeous clubhouse reminiscent of a New England lighthouse and one of the largest American flags you’ll ever see. It is fair to assume that the melding of these three elements—the distant cityscape, the rolling dunes, the majestic clubhouse and flag—would be at best disjointed and at worst an overblown disaster. In the case of Bayonne, however, such an assumption would be completely wrong.

Bayonne is a club that, perhaps due to its youth or the fact that it has yet to host a significant event, flies under the radar of many people outside its immediate geographic area. In fact, when brought up as one of my favorite New York-area courses, no course generates more quizzical looks than Bayonne. One purpose of this tour is to shine much deserved light on this modern architectural gem.

With the possible exception of Shadow Creek, no course more clearly illustrates what a golf course can be with a blank canvas, ample funds, and a dedicated and motivated developer. From this standpoint, Bayonne warrants our study. I hope you enjoy the tour.

The Clubhouse and Flag

Together, Bayonne’s clubhouse and accompanying flag play a larger role in the club’s identity and have a greater impact on the feel of the golf course than at perhaps any other modern club. Situated on the highest point of the property, the flag and the clubhouse are the first things the player sees when approaching Bayonne by car, and they are the most identifiable aspects of the property when approaching by air or sea. 

The clubhouse itself is spectacular. Built to suit the club’s location on the water, the lighthouse-inspired building manages to impress without seeming ostentatious and feels welcoming rather than forbidding (no small feat with a building such as this). 

The lighthouse contains an incredible bar and grill room with spectacular 360 degree views. A terrace provides a wonderful place for a post-round lunch. The interior of the building is entirely hardwood and gives the appearance of a rustic retreat.

The top of the lighthouse affords the club’s members and guests some of the best views in New Jersey.

Bayonne’s flag is perhaps even more impressive than its clubhouse. Flying at the top of a 150 foot pole, the 40×70 foot flag is the second largest American flag flying on the East Coast.

The flag is so large that the flagpole is 22 inches thick at its base and is set 15-feet into a concrete block to anchor it against the tremendous forces on the pole that are generated by the wind catching the flag. In a nod to tradition, the flagpole is topped with a 24-inch, 70 pound gold plated copper ball.

The massive flag is easily visible from tall buildings in Manhattan, including the new World Trade Center, and is a memorable and distinguishing element of the club’s presence.

Getting There

The drive into Bayonne is…interesting. To say that the club’s immediate surroundings give no clue as to the beauty within is an understatement. From the south, the club is minutes off the Bayonne Bridge from Staten Island. From the north, it is accessed via the Newark Bay Bridge or the Manhattan tunnels. Regardless of the direction of travel, the golfer passes industrial sites, harbor terminals and empty lots before hitting the entrance.

Though an overused description, entering the gates at Bayonne is quite literally like entering a different world. Industry gives way to a driveway bordered by tall dunes, with Bayonne’s massive flag and clubhouse emerging on the horizon. The experience is truly one of crossing a threshold.

For those who prefer a different method of travel, Bayonne has its own ferry to shuttle members and their guests to and from Manhattan, as well as a helicopter landing pad. These fine amenities are located at the far end of the property, adjacent to the 16th green and 17th tee.

Practice Facilities and Driving Range

Bayonne provides players with a typical practice green, set mere paces from the clubhouse and the first tee. The practice green affords the player a view over much of the golf course and city skyline, heightening the pre-round sense of anticipation.

The range at Bayonne is yet another unique aspect of the club. Pressed for space, the club’s range is the harbor itself. Golfers tee off from a narrow strip of manmade land out into a section of water roped off with floating line.

The range balls used at Bayonne perform like regular golf balls, but they float. The prevailing currents and tides typically push the balls into a corner of the range, where they are scooped up with a net by a club staffer in a small boat. The views from this range are impressive, as the Verrazano Narrows Bridge looms large to the south.

The Golf Course

As noted above, the course at Bayonne sits on an entirely manufactured landscapes with dunes rising to nearly 100 feet. The result is a winding, thrilling ride up, down and across some of the largest dunes in the East. The course is maintained in impeccable condition and provides its members with true links style golf—firm fairways, fast greens and ever-present wind—and despite the size of the dunes, the course remains quite an enjoyable walk.

The course stretches to a Championship yardage of 7,120. Typically, members play from a respectable 6,712 yards (the yardage used for this tour) or 6,303 yards. Each of the holes at Bayonne is named—a practice I wholeheartedly endorse—and can, on several occasions, give the golfer an idea of how a hole is meant to be played.

The routing at Bayonne is superb, beginning in a northwesterly direction and meandering out to a corner of the property, turning back and forth on itself before returning to the clubhouse at the turn. The back nine begins by playing to the southern edge of the property before returning to the clubhouse after the 13th, 15th and 18th holes. No two consecutive holes play in the same direction.

HOLE #1 – “Dell” – 343 yards – par 4

The first tee at Bayonne is so close to the pro shop, the player almost feels as if he is teeing off from inside the building. A gorgeous tee shot it is.

From the elevated tee, the first plays down through a canyon of dunes to a generous fairway. The Bayonne Bridge is visible in the background.

This undulating fairway, standard at Bayonne, is sure to provide an array of interesting and challenging lies to the golfer. Notably, the green sits hidden to the left and is only visible from the far end of this fairway…

…and only then is the magnificent punchbowl green revealed.

The greens at Bayonne are quick, firm, undulating and extremely challenging. Their brilliant design allows for numerous interesting hole locations on each putting surface.

From the green, only the dunes, the clubhouse and the flag are visible. The first at Bayonne would be a signature hole on most golf courses. Here, it’s merely an appetizer. 

HOLE #2 – “Wee Burn” – 386 yards – par 4

Like its namesake in Connecticut, Bayonne’s “Wee Burn” does indeed have such a feature running through it. But first, golfers must find this rolling and partially hidden fairway with their tee shot, which given the stunning background, is easier said than done.

From the fairway, the approach to the second green is a short iron or wedge over the burn, here a wide tidal depression from which there is no recovery.

The green itself is small, and there is little room for error—there is simply no good miss on this tough but fair two-shotter.

HOLE #3 – “Redan” – 170 yards – par 3

An exceptional rendition of this classic template, the third at Bayonne plays like a traditional redan and has all the traditional elements, save for the drop-off and bunkering behind the green (though missing long here might be more of a penalty).

The beautifully sculpted green will direct balls to the left-hand pin locations, though here, care must be taken to ensure a kick to the proper tier.  The pin position on the high back shelf is the most difficult to access.

The back half of the redan green, as seen from the walk to the fourth tee. Gorgeous.

HOLE #4 – “Church Spire” – 534 yards – par 5

The first three-shot hole at Bayonne is named for the spire of the church visible from the tee. The hole demands a tee shot to a generous fairway that runs out into a large bunker.

The bunker, reminiscent of Hell’s Half Acre, will catch overly-aggressive drives and/or meek second shots, depending on the day’s wind.

The fourth green, like the second at Myopia Hunt Club, sits below fairway height and is thus invisible for all but the final few yards of the hole.

The green can be reached in two by longer hitters electing to use the right side of the fairway, which leads down into the approach, but the fronting hazard makes for a difficult recovery.

The putting surface on the fourth is one of your author’s favorites at Bayonne.

HOLE #5 – “Butterfly’s Feet” – 140 yards – par 4

Playing back in the direction of the clubhouse, the one-shot fifth is slightly uphill to a blind green fronted by a large, deep pot bunker.

As the name of the hole implies, a high, soft iron is the preferred shot to this well-protected green.

The green itself, while not small, is divided by a ridge crossing from 3 to 6, while another ridge protruded into the green from the 12 o’clock position. Precision is a must on this hole.

HOLE #6 – “Bay’s End” – 331 yards – par 4

An exceptional short par-4, the sixth runs out to the far northwestern end of the property. As all great short two-shot holes do, the sixth at Bayonne offers a choice: lay up to a preferred distance and approach the green over the waste area on the right…

…or go for the green via the fairway to the left, using the terrain to circumvent the hazard.

A brilliantly designed hole that one would never tire of playing.

HOLE #7 – “Beach Rose” – 415 yards – par 4

Changing directions once more, the seventh transports the golfer back to the higher ground amongst the dunes. Playing to an angled, rising fairway, the it demands a long, straight tee shot if the green is to be reached in two, especially when playing into the wind.

Once again, a rumpled, canted fairway provides an added degree of challenge and interest on this long two shot hole.

Entirely open in the front, this green is built to encourage and accept running shots which, due to the length of the hole and the wind, will be the preferred choice for many players. However… 

…accuracy is still in high demand, as the encroaching finger of rough must be carried or avoided.  A challenging hole.

HOLE #8 – “Salt Marsh” – 565 yards – par 5

The longest hole on the course, and the most difficult of the three par-5s, the eighth begins on an elevated tee and plays back toward Manhattan. Most of the hole, including the green, is not visible from this tee.

The eighth offers the brave player an opportunity to attack the green in two, but such a shot requires negotiation of a salt marsh and is all carry. The typical player will lay up down the right side of the marsh.

Even from the safer right side, the approach is no bargain—the marsh must still be carried from this angle, and the green is well protected on all sides.

The green is heavily contoured and, once past the halfway point, slopes substantially from front right to back left.

The slope of the green makes front right pin placements very challenging…

…and putting to a back left pin position can easily result in a chip for one’s next shot. This is an exceptional green.

HOLE #9 – “Plateau” – 390 yards – par 4

Bayonne’s ninth asks for a tee shot to an angled fairway and allows the golfer to pick his line. Generally, the preferred line is just left of the bunker shown below. Any ball left short will end up in deep grass on the side hill, making for a nearly impossible recovery. Bayonne’s clubhouse and flag loom large above this hole.

The approach to the ninth must carry a break in the fairway and negotiate a false front before reaching a green set in a bowl. The contours on the ninth green are some of the wildest on the property. Putting from back right to a front left pin on this green is an adventure, and then some.

HOLE #10 – “Highlands” – 440 yards – par 4

The back nine begins with a tough par four. The length of this difficult two-shot hole is mitigated by the fact that it plays substantially downhill, but the hard dogleg right nonetheless requires accurate placement of the tee shot.

The tenth fairway can assist shorter players who are able to use its contours to negotiate the dogleg.

Once again, the green is entirely open in front to encourage a ground attack, and the undulating putting surface provides one final challenge on perhaps the most difficult hole on the course.

HOLE #11 – “The Nook” – 210 yards – par 3

An outstanding one-shot hole, the eleventh requires a wood or a long iron to a green surrounded by large dunes. In the background, only the very top of One World Trade Center pokes into view.

Partially obscured from view by dunes, the eleventh green is roomier than it appears from the tee and provides an apron to allow balls to be run or bounced onto the green.

HOLE #12 – “7 Sisters, 6 Brothers” – 417 yards – par 4

This stunning par-4 runs downhill away from the clubhouse directly toward New York harbor. The tee shot must carry scrub and waste area before finding the wide fairway below. The Verrazano Narrows Bridge is visible behind.

Once in the fairway, the approach must carry the ridge of a crossing dune pocked with the bunkers that give this hole its name.

The horizon green makes judging distance difficult, and the surroundings make focusing on the task at hand a challenge.

A beautiful spot for golf.

HOLE #13 – “Old Glory” – 544 yards – par 5

Your author’s favorite three shot hole at Bayonne, the thirteenth, playing back up through the dunes toward the clubhouse, appears ripped from Turnberry or Lahinch.

The movement in this wide fairway and the bordering dunes make attacking this beautiful hole in two an enticing proposition, but it plays longer than it appears.

As is the case with nearly every long hole at Bayonne, the green is open across the front. But this double-plateau is no pushover—being on the wrong tier of the putting surface can easily lead to a three putt…or worse.

This view from behind the green illustrates the severity of the slope in the green and the fairway, and gives a sense of the elevation change in this excellent par-5.

HOLE #14 – “High Tide” – 202 yards – par 3

This long downhill par-3 backdropped by the harbor and the New York skyline plays to an elevated green that falls substantially on all sides.

Once again, simply hitting the green does not guarantee a par, as the many ripples and hollows can frustrate even the best lag putter.

HOLE #15 – “Sheep’s Bed” – 293 yards – par 4

The fifteenth begins the outstanding closing stretch at Bayonne. A wonderful short, uphill par-4, it plays over a large ridge in the fairway which hides most of the landing area from view, adding tension to this otherwise straightforward tee shot.

The fairway narrows considerably the more aggressive the tee shot, and a large waste area right provides a formidable hazard for wayward drives.

The putting surface is protected by a massive false front that will repel tee shots up to 50 yards back down the fairway.

The elevated green and the false front make judging even a wedge shot into this hole a challenge.

The fourteenth green, though relatively tame by Bayonne standards, can nevertheless create challenges—any putts from above the hole on this green are terrifying.

A flat out gorgeous hole, and a superb short par-4.

HOLE #16 – “Heaven’s Gate” – 453 yards – par 4

The back to back 15th and 16th holes are equally spectacular but diametrically opposite. The sixteenth plays downhill toward the harbor to a wide fairway. The view from the tee is one of the best on the course.

A dogleg left, the sixteenth plays to a green tucked into a far corner of the property and bordered on all sides by dunes and bunkers.

Like the 17th at National Golf Links, tee shots out to the right play shorter into this hole but are left blind by the dunes…

…while the farther left one plays, the better the view of the green.

Open in front to receive shots on the ground, the sixteenth green is slightly elevated and substantially contoured.

The view from the sixteenth green is almost as good as the view from the tee. A stunning hole.

HOLE #17 – “Water’s Edge” – 450 yards – par 4

The aptly named seventeeth is a long, cape style par-4 that hugs the shoreline of the harbor. The player has the option to play farther to the left to shorten the hole…

…but the penalty for misjudging one’s ability is high.

Playing safely out to the right side of the fairway allows for a full view of the open green.

Once again, the green abuts the water so tightly as to make judging distance difficult and to inject an element of perceived challenge into even the most standard approaches.

Use of the ground to approach the green is again an option.

Water’s Edge indeed. Beautiful.

HOLE #18 – “Lighthouse” – 429 yards – par 4

Perhaps the prettiest tee shot on the course, the final hole of the day requires a drive over a large dune obscuring the left half of the fairway. Befitting the name of this hole, the ideal line is directly at the lighthouse. Standing on this tee, it is hard to believe Manhattan is over your right shoulder.

The final approach at Bayonne is to a green ringed by a stone wall and set at the base of the gorgeous clubhouse.

From this fairway, nothing is visible beyond the green besides the clubhouse and the flag.

As nothing else would suffice, the eighteenth green confronts the golfer with one last putting challenge. Walking off, the view back down the final fairway instills players with a deep sense of accomplishment.

To be frank, I was quite surprised with the impact that Bayonne had on me after my first visit. Like most architecture geeks, I tend to prefer my golf courses old and traditional. But I found myself continually flashing back on my round at Bayonne. The course is truly unique in modern golf, and certainly on the East Coast, and is unquestionably an achievement in engineering and design for which Eric Bergstol is to be commended. But more than that, and unlike some of its neighbors, Bayonne is a course that focuses on providing its members with enjoyable golf. In that regard, Mr. Bergstol truly does deserve our acclaim, and our thanks. After all, isn’t that what golf is all about?

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


6 Comments

LANGUAGE MATTERS

Getting back on track with use of the term ‘minimalism’, among others in golf course architecture

It is a common tendency to label and categorize the things and experiences in our lives. That is part of the way that we understand and make sense of the world around us, and it is useful to a point. When applied to works of art, an argument can be made that our impulse to categorize can be a hindering distraction. If a song kicks ass, does it matter if it is labeled hard rock or heavy metal? Of course not. Art is one of those realms in which we are best served by turning off the labeling function so that we can fully experience the work, giving it every opportunity to move us deeply. In reality, that’s easier said than done.

The negative impact of our internal machination is exacerbated when the labels are ill-defined or misunderstood. That is the point at which we currently find ourselves with the label “minimalist” in golf course architecture. The term has been overused and misused to such a great degree that it has lost meaning. If the only value that labeling has is to aid our understanding, then a meaningless label is worse than no label at all.

Perhaps you say, “Lighten up geek, it’s just golf.” Fair point, but I also believe that the parsing of language as it relates to architecture is a worthwhile pursuit. Words are the basis of understanding, which leads to appreciation, and ultimately more enjoyment on the course.

The 11th at Shinnecock Hills – Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier

Before returning to the language, allow me to give you two good reasons to dig deeply into golf architecture: First, studying the craft of talented artists is inherently interesting. I recognize that some golfers might not find architecture resonant at that level. They just want to play. Increasingly though, I hear from players who, after an initial exposure to GCA, find themselves happily headed down the rabbit hole. The second reason that I choose to study the subject is that it’s my mission to spend my scarce play time on courses that are interesting and fun. Knowing a little bit about how architects approach creating the playing fields helps me be more discerning in the courses I choose to play, as well as adding value to my experience of each course.

In that spirit, I propose a repurposing of the minimalist label into a framework that will hopefully foster understanding, appreciation, and joy. Minimal is one end of the spectrum of intervention, with maximal at the opposite end. Intervention refers to the degree to which the architect alters the land to create the course. To some extent, the land dictates how much intervention is required to make a great course. That is why labelling an architect “minimalist” is off base, especially where the best architects are concerned. Those designers are dynamic, responding to the land. Their courses may be minimalist or maximalist, or somewhere in between. It all depends on the site.

This dynamism is the essence of the current era of design that has been mislabelled the “minimalist movement”. Leading architects have certainly shifted away from defaulting to ego-driven maximal intervention to a more thoughtful, response relationship with the land. That shift does not mean, however, that they do not do what is necessary to ensure that their courses function and play properly.

The 9th at Sweetens Cove

Another helpful spectrum to understand is that of style. It has natural at one end and artificial at the other. Again, there are degrees on this spectrum, but a guiding principle is contained in the question, “How does a course fit into its surrounding environment?” The more the architect takes cues from the local landscape, the more natural the course. To add a layer of depth and detail to the style consideration, one can observe both the overall look of a course, as well as its features. Bunkers and green complexes are of particular importance in determining style. Does the architect seek to integrate features into the landscape, or purposely design and build them to stand out through contrast?

Using the intervention and style spectra, we can begin to compare and contrast courses in a manner that increases understanding. Two examples:

Shinnecock Hills and National Golf Links of America are neighbors on Long Island, and although they are both packed with strategic brilliance, that is where the similarities end. In building Shinnecock, William Flynn laid the course on the land, which stands in contrast to the work of Macdonald and Raynor who were known for their willingness to move earth. From tee to green, the building of NGLA’s holes and features involved a much higher degree of intervention than the course next door. It should also come as no surprise that an architect known as “the nature faker” built features that are much more reflective of the natural landscape than the artistically bold, artificial greens and hazards of The National.

The 6th at National Golf Links – Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier

Minimalist references are often made to Sweetens Cove, which has always been a head-scratcher to me. The design team of Rob Collins and Tad King took a poor draining course, blew it up and fixed the drainage issue by reshaping every inch of it to drain to a central lake, which they created. The course was sand-capped and shaped into a wondrous variety of wild contours and features that captivate players. That process of intervention is the definition of maximal. As a comparison, the work of Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns at Winter Park 9 had a much lighter touch. They did not have the major infrastructural issues to fix and instead focused on rebuilding and gently infusing interest into the new course. Both transformations were profound, but one was maximal and the other was minimal. On the style front, these nine holers are also divergent. WP9 takes understated cues from its surroundings while Sweetens Cove is packed with artistic flourishes that give it a unique visual identity. Creative bunkering with wood sleepers, expansive sandy wastes, large stones and the outstanding greens are all fantastic, but they are also artificial.

The 5th at Winter Park – Photo Credit: Keith Rhebb

It is a good fodder for geeky discussion to compare other pairs like Sand Hills and Ballyneal, or Lawsonia and Whistling Straits. How was each course made? How does each course look? Taking into consideration these comparisons of intervention and style together, it’s possible to dive even deeper. I rated the course pairs above on a 1-10 scale for both intervention (0 = absolute minimal, 10 = absolute maximal) and style (0 = completely natural, 10 = entirely artificial) to create a scatterplot. As a visually oriented person, it is interesting to me to see how the courses compare and group into “categories” when I force myself to rate them.

Two important notes about this categorization. First, it has nothing to do with identifying what’s best or “right”. Golf course architecture is art, and therefore deeply intertwined with personal preference. It is pointless to tell anyone what they should love. Second, these categories have nothing to do with the quality. Across all golf courses, wherever they may land on the chart, there exists a wide range of quality. The quality of engineering and construction can be objectively judged by how well the course functions over time. Does it drain? Does it stand up to traffic? The quality of the design becomes a bit more subjective, but one simple criteria is inclusiveness. Can players of different skill levels play and enjoy the course? Beyond that, the water gets much murkier with regard to design quality.

Circling back to the purpose of this exercise, the aim of studying any artform is to deepen understanding, building a foundation for appreciation. Golfers are afforded a unique opportunity to directly experience the art of golf course architecture. By taking a deeper understanding onto the course, players are assured of greater enjoyment. Further, refined personal preferences allow us to more effectively pick courses we will love. That is why it’s worthwhile to explore and share our findings. At the end of the day, more people having more fun playing the game is the goal.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf