GCA – Half science – half art really!!!

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    Melvyn Morrow

    I was reading Ian Andrews topic “Sorry, But you Can’t Define How To Create Exceptional golf Architecture”.
    I do not think he is right, well based upon his belief that its half science and half art.

    Perhaps is this where modern designers – by the term modern I refer to those who have been trying since the late 40’s – that’s the late 1940’s have been getting confused, no sorry most just getting it bloody wrong. In fact being honest, much of the blame should not be place upon their shoulders, but more on the Governing Bodies, for their appalling management of the game since the early days of the 20th century. Add to that the clear madness of not selecting good sites for golf course, believing that money will conquer all and result in a chocolate box country club come golf club.

    Land selection, was in the 19th Century very important, because many of the early club did not have money their budgets were small coming from those who were interested in joining a club close to their home. Remembering this was the day of walking, pony trap, steam trains and local steamers that went to the islands in Scotland. So land was important, so was the selection as mentioned money was scares, and while most clubs want 9 or 18 Holes, some of the sites selected could really only hold perhaps half a dozen Holes, courses appeared with different numbers of Holes, i.e. Prestwick 12 Holes this slowly became 9 and with some clubs having more access to funds/money the demand was for 18, because St Andrew possessed 18. Yet not always available initially i.e. Muirfield was 16. Site selection was very important and the land would only accommodate a certain number of Holes – this was not science nor was it art, it was simple honest golf design at – and I am bias, its very best. Courses were designed by more than just competent golfers , these guys understood the land, in the early days they worked with small teams with spades and wheelbarrows, using much of what was there. Some not placing bunkers until the club had used the course for some months, thus guided by the quality of the golfers and placing bunkers within the average players landing zones. The very thought of that today seem to horrify many designers, however, I wonder why, or is it because each modern designer seeks to develop a brilliant Championship design irrespective of the quality and ability of the clubs members. Today many also seek narrow fairways, again disrespecting the majority of club Members who have a problem hitting a straight shot and tend to tack side to side on the fairway rather that sail straight down the centre.

    The modern course more so State side has been developed into being a super country park with grass cut so short that many of their fairways could easily be used as Greens – and oh so green and lush with all the watering, yet I am finding it difficult to remember that its golf that is meant o be played, only being reminded by the carts whizzing up and down with players using GPS and other forms of distance aids just to find their carts again. To delve further into these modern course some have noted that bunkers are no long filled with soft sand but rather compacted sand that makes the bunkers as firm as the fairways, assisting the player instead of being a hazard that it was meant to be.

    Perhaps we should look into the construction methods of many a modern course. Even if care was taken in selecting the site, the very nature of modern construction methods reduces the land to the point that its no longer recognisable as the land originally selected, then the shapers terraform the land into a beautiful well-watered, super manicured super smooth course that would be more at home in the gardens of some European King or Queen. I suppose some might call that half science and half art, but certainly not a golf course for The Royal & Ancient Game of Golf.

    No, we have lost touch with the very essence that was golf course design, we have developed as many are trying to develop the game of golf into a sanitised version of its original self, because modern players believe that the course owes them a low score and nowadays they are not required to think let alone break into a sweat when playing golf, hell that why there are so many aids. A half science and half art, really – sorry Ian, that just a cop out, a refusal to understand the roots your profession. Like modern players you are seeking the equivalent of carts and aids to easy your own commitments to design. Designers should be responsible for the full design, not offer different parts to various underlings. Too many course have too many involved within the design, more so on the larger design houses who seem to design course by numbers.

    Inspiration comes from being active within the game, understand golf course architecture history and the underling values learnt in the 19th Century which take design way out from being science or art. Understand the land is so important, not the budget one has to undertake the work – look at the Castle Course and the land it was built upon, a classic example of what is not a St Andrews course.

    Golf Course Architecture is not all about terraforming, its not about over engineering, it’s about the freedom and spirit of the game, a touch of wildness reflecting the wildness of the sea – even on inland course. It should reflect or offer up a thrill an enjoyment to accept the challenge the golfer see before him/her, it’s the ability to allow the golfer to play the course as well has his/her companions, its about the golfer and the environment, Nature and the mind of Man – I see no science let alone art in that, perhaps other do, if so then where can that experience be found on course built since the 1940’s.

    Just a thought!

    Perhaps the following might give an example of Golf, Man and Nature – to understand my comments it might be easy to view the following web site of Machrihanish Golf Club video on their site on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfZbXyd4Mqs

    Brent Gremillion

    That’s great for you to have such land to work with. The one major problem with your point is that God did not make all Coast land such as that. Where I live, if we leave the land as God created it we would get this:
    When you figure out how to make a golf course out of that without using art, science, architecture, and moving dirt, please let me know.

    Ben Cowan


    In regards to fairway width. Many fairways have shrunk due to irrigation systems and tree planting programs which encroached fairways. This is from a US perspective. I agree completely that most fairways at private US clubs are overwatered. I however do NOT want any Governing body telling them how to properly maint their course.

    I agree with you Golf Architecture or design should be about the land and common sense ways to make the golfer think. I wanna say that if a site is rocky, I have no problem with using TNT to make cool non-uniform fairways. People used to go as far as they could see (build as many holes as they could afford) and then go a little farther. Not this debt ridden society.

    I really like the Aussie maint meld (haven’t been there though), they seem to focus on fairway and greens and let the rough go natural. I don’t see Art in Architecture, if one does that means possibly the course was over-shaped. Science is needed when you are focused on running your greens at 12 or more imo. No science in Golf Arch imo, even Donald Ross was afraid of the man with the yard stick….

    The problem in the US is too much money is allocated to the clubhouse (money loser) and not enough attention to the golf course and making golf affordable to a bigger audience, which has lead to more natural designed destination golf courses in the US.

    What about TNT fairways or making man made gully’s? Man made burns? Design elements that are common sense and create avenues for strategic design!

    • This reply was modified 6 years, 2 months ago by Ben Cowan.
    Melvyn Morrow

    Ben – the art if you believe in art as related to any form of golf course design would be – well in my way of thinking relate to first of all The Land is Fit for Purpose. As for others telling clubs what to do – well again we have to look at location, climate and then add common sense.

    As for rocks, leave them, use them, we need designers to think outside the box – rocks are great hazards and should be used if it makes the Hole more challenging therefore entertaining. Many course have worked around rocks and that will lesson the pressure on the budget strings.

    The main problem in the USA is that you spend too much money first on the course design , then on building them, destroy everything first then rebuild from bedrock – why – what the point, we need to remember that the natural and Nature should be involved with the design and build of the course. Just too much looking for perfection, but golf has never been about perfection, its about challenging oneself first, then the course and anyone else if appropriate . We must stop being fixated on the super engineered, super manicured super Green and smooth courses and get to grips with the fundamentals that defines The Royal & Ancient Game of Golf. Once we do that the toys will no longer matter, in fact players will become golfers and put away childish things like carts (unless required for age/medical reasons) GPS’s Distance devices and may even revert back to Hickory Clubs with gutty ball.

    Courses should be judged by how they play using Hickory, that really defines the game and IMHO the quality of the course for it pulls you the golfer back into the realms of golf – the real stuff when its your abilities that achieve the result not the over friendly course and equipment more so the ball. As for trees, – there is no place for trees on the course nor do I believe that they should be in the rough because trees are thirsty things and consume fasts amount of water Either the abundance of water or its lack has a serious effect upon the course. No, love trees but not on a course.

    Again we keep coming back is the land fit for purpose, with all your man made gullies, burns etc, – courses need penal otherwise strategic does not get a look in – it just does not exist.

    In my early days some of the old 9 Holes course in Scotland were penal, they allowed the golfer the facility to retreat backwards if he fell fouls of the penal bunkers and hazards but never really was it possible to go forwards, to cost was just too great, – alas today very few course survive that teaches golfers the wisdom of how to play, how to read the land and more so the Hole. A lesson my father taught me was pull the shot short or suffer the consequences, being young, I always went for it while my father was way out ahead winning each Hole by orienteering to the Pin. Golf is not all about wham bam thank you mam, we have to judge our ability with that of the design (lay of the land and cunning of the designer), remembering not to forget the weather, if you get it right the game is beautiful get it wrong and you may never want to hit a ball again, then that golf to many.

    No trees and no TNT , minimal budget and lots of thought and searching for the right piece of ground – money alone is not the issues but it is in the mind of many today, mores the pity. Still, have never, as yet found the art in golf.

    Ben Cowan


    First off TNT is not that much money. 2ndly I don’t wanna travel 2 hours to play Golf on Sand every weekend I’m off. Here is Greywalls, in UP of Michigan, designed by Mike DeVries, a great architect. He did minimum TNT and used the Rock outcroppings to make great holes. Some TNT was used to make the 7th fairway do-able. It’s very wild terrain. Mostly sandy soil areas on the property. It was built for $3M or less. Inflation adjusted that is very inexpensive.

    A few trees are okay on inland courses as long as they don’t interfere with the lines of play and enough wind is able to circulate the property.

    Hickory Golf is on the rise in the US. Its voluntary.

    IN THE US WE SPEND TOO MUCH ON CLUBHOUSES AND OTHER NON GOLF ITEMS. Don’t use TPC of Sawgrass as an example of ALL US golf courses. That was a mistake, but I didn’t pay for it. In the US we have exclusive private golf clubs, that make up 1-5% of the golf courses. Try and focus on the other 95%!


    Hickories used by Keeper!

    Brent Gremillion

    Mr. Morrow, I agree with everything you mention with 100% convictio but I must add one caveat… when applicable. If a property is available with the attributes you mention I fully believe that your points should be followed to the letter. However, much of the land here does not allow that. It’s just not the reality of the situation. Let me explain.
    We have trees! Lots and lots of trees in much of the undeveloped property that could become golf courses. We also have lots of property covered in grasses that are unsuited for golf. Or, we have property that is lowland and needs to be filled in places to create the playable portion of the property while also creating natural drainage. Having trees or lowland should not give permission to create a contrived concept such as TPC Sawgrass and the like. It does allow a conscience designer to use his artistic talents to create something that blends well and works with the natural setting. Sometimes, it’s a conflicting presentation that makes the experience enjoyable.
    One example that is front of mind is Sweetens Cove in Tennessee. It was once a field or pasture at the bottom of a valley in the mountains. On a foggy morning, when the mountains are not visible, one could easily mistake their location as somewhere like a links. It was completely created from an artistic vision and concept. It’s completely unnatural yet feels completely natural and organic.
    Other examples include inland courses, on great property, where trees were removed only to make fairways and green complexes. These are very common and make for wonderful golf experience. The trees that shape the holes were there. The artistry is not in what is built but rather how little is removed to give us a golf course.
    Many of us appreciate true links and wish it were more available here. My response to you is not to create dissent or disagreement with you. I just ask that you recognize and give legitament value to other ways of achieving the same goals. God didn’t make the entire earth a links so we need to develop what we have.

    Melvyn Morrow

    Brent Gremillion I understand you point – I understand the need to terraform, I understand the need to cater for what you are given – but I do believe that with a little more design input in the right areas, the course could well be made into a good inland course. However I do not believe that’s down to science or art but simple common sense much of which was laid down in many of its various forms in Scotland course back in the 19th Century.

    The pity is that we have a design industry that does not know its own history – so has lost its way, not knowing from were it came – suddenly hit course pre 1900 and everyone seems lost – its as if suddenly design appeared on the 1st of January 1900. What has been ignored is that much was done pre this date in developing designs, more so than many believe – all one has to de is not just look at the courses, but more so the Holes – The full depth of Holes like Machrihanish 1st Hole the Road Hole, and many many more besides. Take also into account the courses have been mellowed over the years because come 1900 penal was not a word to be spoken, it created too much of a challenge. So much has been forgotten – in closing I found the other day, in my 19th Century research, a short article on a Scotsman’s visit to the pyramids in Egypt – he climbed to the top of the largest one and pull out of his pocket a Morris Gutty ball which he placed close to the top and then used the curved end of his umbrella to tee off the ball – mad actions like this makes me feel that golf has a future with individuals like this – however do we still have nuts who might do this – a thought came to my wife as I told her about this guy and she said that if they find that ball way in the future they may well believe that the ancient Egyptians invented golf. What some people do to practice their swing – surprised the old fool did not fall off the pyramid. My point is much was tried in the 19th Century re golf and golf course design.

    Nevertheless, I do take you point, and only wish that more time was taken to find the land that is fit for purpose.

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