From the Golf Journal Archives - A Calling of Correct Proportions

Aug 06, 2010

Some thoughts about golf course architecture from America’s foremost golf writer.

By Herbert Warren Wind

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1977 issue of Golf Journal.)

Early this year, the American Society of Golf Course Architects presented its Donald Ross Award, named in the memory of America’s most prolific golf course architect, to author Herbert Warren Wind. The society cited Wind for his work in fostering a greater appreciation of the game and the role of the golf course architect through his reporting and writing. Wind is the second recipient of the Ross Award; the first was architect Robert Trent Jones.

The following remarks on golf course architecture were delivered by Wind to the American Society of Golf Course Architects at the group’s Donald Ross Award Banquet during its annual meeting at Hilton Head Island in February.

I think there are an awful lot of important awards in golf, but there are few that are as important as this new award by the Society because golf and golf architecture are one and the same thing. You cannot love one without loving the other, and I am very, very pleased and delighted by this honor you’ve paid me.

I am pleased for two reasons. I know many people who are in the audience tonight. They have been a good part of my life and I have respected them individually and for their work and also because, like everyone who writes golf and everyone who plays golf, I really do have a great affection for golf course architecture. You can’t play golf and not be interested in it. I think the grass may be always greener in the other person’s fairway, but if I can’t come back as Louis XIV or as the young Ronald Colman, I think I’d like to come back as a golf course architect. It seems like an awfully good life to me. It really does seem to have the right proportions. You get enough sunshine, you get enough money, you get enough creative chances, which are very important, and you are associated with golf which, when you take all the baloney away, is still a magical game that does wonderful things for us.

I’ve always been intrigued by the reason that Alister MacKenzie gave when he was asked why he had changed from being a doctor, which he had been educated to be, to a golf course architect. He said, “One of my reasons for changing professions was my conviction of the extraordinary influence on health of pleasurable excitement, especially when combined with fresh air and exercise.” It’s a remarkable statement. It really means that he preferred to do golf course architecture than anything else in the world. I don’t think he was an unwise man at all.

People like myself who write about golf and golf course architecture do it out of affection and out of a certain sense that we have enough knowledge to write about it. We sometimes think that we are enlightening when we do that. At the same time, we know relatively nothing about golf course architecture compared to the people who practice it. I think it’s the easiest thing in the world to criticize a finished course. When you go out there and you see the rolling fairways, the green grass, the bunkers filled with white sand, it’s very easy to say, as I’ve said often, “Now look, I’ll tell you where So-and–so went wrong here. When he canted this green, he should have continued the bunker the whole way around, but the damn fool didn’t do that, and besides, if he’s going to make this green so thin, that bunker behind the green is wrong. What he should have done was mound that area.” We all go through life talking like that, and it’s inevitable that we do. This just means that we’re “in the game.” But it’s helpful if one occasionally sees a golf course before it is finished. When you see it in its rough, rude form, the landscape that the golf course architect takes over tells you something. I’ve often shuddered when I’ve walked out and seen the land that certain friends had to work with – part of it swamp, no natural features in sight, and the worst sort of trees. On top of this, the architect had a low budget to work with. You see all this and wonder what remarkable systems of drainage and irrigation will have to be devised to make the land serviceable. You wonder how the architect is going to change things so that the featureless land really plays. When you return to this land and see what he’s done with it, then you can appreciate the work that a professional architect is able to do. His talent is altogether different from that of the “golf architecture appreciators,” which people like myself should probably be called.

I think anyone who likes golf course architecture should see a course in its rude form in order to understand what the profession is all about. To see a course ready for the National Open or the Masters is to see the completed article only. I want to tell you about one of the courses I saw in its early stages. It was a course that an old Scottish architect by the name of Sir Guy Campbell was building in America. He was past 70 by that time. He’d already finished one career. He had been an officer in the British Army, fighting in the northwest frontier of India for many years. When he finished that career, he became a golf course architect and a pretty good one. He built Killarney, did a lot of the revision of Deal and Rye, built the new Prince’s, and later he came over here and he worked on nine holes in Virginia. As I say, he was very old and very British. The construction crew hadn’t started to clear his fairways at the time I visited his course, and it was still full of bushes and trees. I went out with him, and as we were picking our way along a trail, kicking up sand, a small snake slithered in front of me. I recoiled, naturally, “Sir Guy, there’s a snake here,” I said to him. He came back very coolly. “Oh that’s just Brownie,” he replied. “He’s all right. He’s a very friendly type.” Then he went and addressed the snake and said, “Brownie, it’s been two or three days since I’ve seen you. Where have you been? I’ve been lonely out here without you. Come back again. I need your company.”

Well, long before I met people like Sir Guy, I think I’d begun to know golf course architecture a little bit – like we all begin to do whether we end up as businessmen, administrators, players or golf course architects – by going out on golf courses and being exposed to good golf holes. I was pretty lucky in that respect. I come from Brockton, Massachusetts, which, when I was a boy, was a town of 63,000 people. It had four golf courses and it was very golf-oriented. I played at Thorny Lea, a very good course. We had one wonderful golf hole, the sixth. It was a par 4 about 435 yards long.

Let me try to describe this sixth hole to you, because it still stays in my mind as a very good 4. The whole hole was completely framed by heavy forest. The tee was stuck back deep in the woods, and you came out through a narrow chute that widened. The fairway went gradually up to the crest of the hill some 250 yards out. There was a big, gathering trap on the right. From the crest of the hill, the fairway fell down about 110, 120 yards to an hourglass-shaped pond, and about 60 yards beyond the hazard was a double-decked green. Now if that wasn’t a hard enough hole, there were more trees all around the green, and it was bunkered on both sides. It was a par 4, but whenever you got a 4 you felt you’d really birdied the hole. However, we all loved it even though the 6s and 7s and 8s we had on it were numerous. We loved it because we could sense it was a good hole – the best hole on the course. When you hit two good woods there – and you needed to in order to get home if you were an ordinary player – you thought you had accomplished something. For another thing, it was an excellent test for the expert golfer.

I saw Hagen play it as a boy. He handled it very well. He hit a big drive down the left, which kicked into the edge of the woods. This set up the perfect shot for Hagen: he had to play an intentional hook. He took a 5-iron and drew the ball out through the trees and brought it around onto the upper level of the green where the pin was positioned. He left himself about a 17-footer for the birdie, and made an awfully good attempt.

Growing up on a good golf course helped me a great deal to understand golf, as did certain other fortunate opportunities that came to me. I was able to see the 1936 Open at Baltusrol, and I learned something from that. When I did some graduate work in Britain, I got up to St. Andrews for the 1938 Walker Cup Match, and that experience helped a good deal, too. Exposure to the great British courses excites you, and this excitement carries on and you start to learn more, and you never stop learning. Learning about golf courses and golf course architecture is an inexhaustible process. In a way, it’s like the quotation above the entrance to the Library of Congress, which reads something like this: “He who would carry knowledge out must carry knowledge in.” That’s a rough working of it. The more you know about golf architecture, the more you can learn.

About a decade ago I went up to Dornoch, Donald Ross’ hometown, north of Inverness and well past the Highlands. The course there is one of the oldest Scottish courses. Old Tom Morris put it together formally in about 1870. If there are not too many people on the course when you go out and play it, you don’t know what century you’re in. It could be the 15th or 16th century just as well as the 20th. The topography seems utterly natural, and if an old Scot with a halberd jumped out from behind a dune, that would seem perfectly natural, too. The course is a little different from most seaside courses in England and Scotland in that the terrain is more rugged than it usually is that close to the ocean. The duneland features excellent natural green sites. When you play Dornoch, you can see the effect that this exceptional Scottish course had on Ross’ architecture in America. Dornoch was in his blood, and he created many modifications of it.

We’ve just come through a very interesting period in golf. I think the boom years after World War II saw golf reach terrific proportions that we never thought it would approach. I also think the 5½-hour round was probably one of the greatest assets of the recent tennis boom, and this is a problem that will take some solving. In this post-war period, a lot of good golf courses were built in America – many courses most of us know of, and many fascinating golf courses we probably don't know of, because they are spread all over the country, and in remote places. But at the same time, I don’t think we’ve exactly had the Golden Age of Golf Architecture that we had expected during this affluent period, and there are a lot of reasons for it.

I think we learned, for example, that the Fake Championship Course came in. This was the 7,000-yard course in a real estate development. The developer didn’t bother to give the architect very good land, and an architect needs good land. He can’t do wonders with second-rate or third-rate terrain. The developer was aware that “championship courses” had now reached the point where they extended to around 7,000 yards, so he wanted a 7,000-yard course, and he got one. But a 7,000-yard course isn’t ipso facto a championship course any more than a man who stands 6’9” is ipso facto a great basketball player.

The architect, we learned, is only as good as his client. If his client has a sense of beauty, a sense of what is needed to build a good golf course, then the architect has a chance. I think an excellent example of this is Pebble Beach. Sam Morse had the foresight to give the very best land on the Monterey Peninsula to Jack Neville – all those beautiful cliff-lined headlands on Carmel Bay – and Jack Neville went out and built a really wonderful golf course. Interestingly, it is just a figure eight in its routing, but Neville used the land superbly. I think that whenever golf course architects get good land to work with, they will react to it properly and build courses that will endure. Pebble Beach isn’t up-to-date in every respect, but when you see a run of holes like eight and nine and 10, par 4s that were built in 1922, and realize that they are still remarkably testing for the long-hitting professionals today, then you know that creating them was evidence of a certain genius on Neville’s part. Great courses like Pebble Beach are few and far between, but good land helps.

I think we also learned in the post-war era that it would be a good idea if golf course architects were given the opportunity more often to come back to their courses a few years after they had finished them and change a few things. You can’t get everything right the first time. You should have a chance to come back and make a course much better. I wish this were a more common practice.

Now you take a course like Augusta. We know how continually Augusta National has been changed down through the years. Holes that started out as just ordinary holes have become superb holes. The 10th would be an excellent example. Originally it was the first hole, and the green was not where it is today – up on that small plateau. It was in front of the present green, at the base of the hillside, and the hole was just a so-so “straight-down-the-hill” par 4. Now, of course, it’s one of the outstanding par 4s in the world, and probably one of the most beautiful inland par 4s as well.

Another thing I think should be brought out is that an architect needs to have a very good construction superintendent. Going back to MacKenzie, if you travel down to Buenos Aires and see his Jockey Club course, you are astonished that it’s a MacKenzie course, because it isn’t a very good course. There are several punchbowl greens – a MacKenzie favorite – but they are not quite right. All in all, the holes don’t quite sing. While I don’t know this for a fact, I would guess that MacKenzie probably left Buenos Aires after finishing his design, and that the man who built the course was someone who didn't have the feel that MacKenzie intended. That is all supposition, as I say, but it’s based a bit on the fact that if you go to Melbourne and visit Royal Melbourne, you recognize that MacKenzie course as probably one of the 12 best in the world. One of the people who made it so was the course superintendent, Claude Crockford, who understood what MacKenzie was after. If you talk to the people at the Royal Melbourne club, they will say that Crockford not only maintained what MacKenzie had designed, but also in certain ways even sharpened some of his ideas and made them better. That would be rare, but that is what you need. You have to be lucky in having a very good construction engineer and a very good course superintendent. The luckiest man of all is the golf course architect who designs a course which is chosen for an important championship. That is the quickest and best way to build a reputation. If you are fortunate enough to have a course that is chosen for the Open, say, or the PGA Championship, then everyone gets to read about it, everyone gets to see it on TV, everyone gets to hear about it, and your work becomes known and appreciated.

The best known course in the world today is probably the Augusta National for the very reason that it’s the only course over which a major championship is played annually. People throughout the world probably know the holes on Augusta better than they know those of any other championship course. On the other hand, I would suggest that one of the genuinely great golf courses in the world is Ballybunion on the southwestern coast of Ireland. I think it ranks right along with Pebble Beach. It’s a seaside course and one of the most thrilling in the world, but few people know of it because no major championship has been played over it, and it’s only the intelligent visitor who goes out of his way to visit Ballybunion.

I would propose that we need more first-rate golf courses in America, even though we have many. On the other hand, I think that in certain respects we have raised the standard so high that sometimes we don’t appreciate some of the advances that have been made: the fine new strains of grass; the advances in irrigation; the wonderful way earth is moved now; the basic skill of our golf course architects. But we need more authentically great golf courses. Even in this time of inflation and depression when there aren’t as many jobs for golf course architects as there used to be, I think that whenever you folks are lucky enough to get a choice piece of land, you should really put every bit of energy you have, every bit of thought, into building the finest course you can. Only by working hard does an architect develop his own style, and it would be an important step forward if we saw more architects develop singular styles so we could say that this looks like a course designed by A or by B or by C. An architect doesn’t have to stay with that one style, but he should strive for individuality and high standards.

Another thing. It’s very hard to build good golf courses today because the top players now hit the ball so long. You have to build a course for the slugger who gets the ball out around 280 yards as well as for the average golfer. You want to come up with a golf course that puts a little fear into the championship golfer, and that’s a difficult thing to do. You don’t achieve it with sheer length. The long hitter will gobble it up and play it easily. You have to achieve it by superior design. I would think that we all might agree that the course that probably comes closest to doing this is Merion. There it is, at 6,500 yards, still standing its ground pretty well. Though I am not an authority on this, I would say the two reasons why Merion has endured as a championship course down through the years is that it has so many wonderful dogleg par 4s. The big hitter has to know on the tee how much he wants to bite off. If he tries to bite off too much, he is in the rough. If he plays the hole too conservatively, he’s through the fairway. And if it’s something like the 15th hole at Merion, he’s not only through the fairway, he’s out of bounds.

I believe that holes that force the long-hitter to think out what sort of shot he wants to play – that make him then execute that shot with control and touch – those are the holes that make for true championship play. Merion is very fortunate in one other way. It has beautifully built, extremely firm green areas. If you hit a good approach shot – just an ordinary approach shot – there’s no assurance that it will hold that green. The ball will continue on over the green unless you strike the ball very truly and get the right rotation so that the ball checks when it hits.

Thinking about our recently built courses, I should also like to suggest that our architects go in for more handwork around the greens. I don’t care if it’s done by an expert bulldozer operator on your team, or if it’s actually done by hand, but it would help. The design of the greens on many of our courses is repetitious and synthetic. I went down to see Ben Hogan’s course at the Trophy Club two years ago, and I loved the greens there. It was no coincidence that Ben himself had gone out with one of the architect’s key men and that both worked on molding the greens with rakes. Hogan would explain specifically how he wanted them, and then they sculptured them by hand. Well, you know Ben. He decided that some greens weren’t up to the quality he desired, so he went back and remolded them. There’s a plus in that.

It makes one think of Pinehurst No. 2 and how in the middle 1930s Donald Ross converted the old sand greens into beautiful grass greens. Donald went out there, and he had mules and he had drag pans to work with. He moved the dirt in the green areas into the general position he wanted with the drag pans, and then moved the dirt into the exact position he wanted and shaped those greens carefully, deliberately. As a result, they are among the best greens in America, and Pinehurst No. 2 may well be the best chipping course in the world. If you miss a green, you can’t get close to the pin unless you play a very good shot. It’s not an automatic “down in two.” You have to play a very good chip and a good putt.

The final thing I would say to you people is that when you are lucky enough to have a choice piece of land – and I know that doesn’t happen all of the time – but when you do, be original and be daring. The tendency in all of our professions nowadays is to take it easy. If you build a par 4 that everyone says is a very nice hole, don’t duplicate it on other courses. Or if you build a par 3 that people rave about, don’t repeat it. Great golf courses are not built that way. You have to be brave. When you study a piece of land, it gives you a certain message. It tells you to do something even though it may be a little out of the ordinary. Follow that instinct. You might build a great golf hole, and, anyway, you can always change what you do.

The first time I saw Cypress Point I was shocked and delighted to find out that MacKenzie had built two par 3s back to back – 15 and 16. Of course, he was absolutely right. This is what the land suggested to him. Both holes are very, very fine holes. The third at Pine Valley is the first par 3 I ever saw which had a real island green, but it’s a memorable hole not because of that gimmick but because it has the right proportions. It demands a well-played shot. Or take the eighth at Pebble Beach – that sort of blindish drive up the hill, and that chilling second over the elbow of Carmel Bay to the small green. Oh, they stick in your mind! I was thinking of St. Andrews the other day – it has so many great holes. I wonder who had the flair to build the short 11th, which is 172 yards long and has that radically pitched green. Trent Jones once said if you built that green in America, they would make you change it – it is simply too severe. But they got away with it on the Old Course. The hole is made by one feature, the Strath Bunker, which is a very deep bunker that noses into the green. In every competition the pin is planted behind the bunker, and the Strath puts such fear into you that when you try to play to the left of it, you generally play too far to the left and end up in Hill Bunker. Sarazen did in the 1934 British Open, and it took him three shots to get out. It cost him the championship.

Many great holes are made great by some magnificent natural feature, but I can think of a relatively non-famous hole at St. Andrews that fills this definition and which possesses an unforgettable quality. This is the 16th. It is only 382 yards long, a straightish hole, with a railroad along the right – which is out of bounds – a lot of room on the left, and a very touchy green. But it’s a superlative hole because someone devised or properly utilized a huge uprush of sand in the middle of the fairway. This plays as a triple bunker that is called the Principal’s Nose after one of the local educational heroes. It’s out about 225 yards. If the wind is behind you, no trouble at all. The long hitter can fly the bunker very easily. But on other days, how you play the 16th depends on how the wind is blowing. Let’s say it’s coming from off the sea, to your left. Well, that sets up a lot of problems. If you play your tee shot to the right of the Principal’s Nose, you run the risk of having your ball blown into the rough and maybe out of bounds. However, to play safely far to the left of Principal’s Nose may also cause you problems. As you stand on the tee and the wind is coming over your left shoulder, it is not easy to resist hooking the ball. You can hit your drive so far to the left that, when you play your second, you have an exceedingly tough approach. Right behind the green: out-of-bounds territory.

May I repeat one suggestion, gentlemen. When you have the opportunity and you hear a voice telling you to do something different and definite, do it! This is the way great golf courses are made. I think it must be a wonderful thing to be an architect and design holes that are not only going to be enjoyed today and tomorrow, but to be an architect who designs a course that may live as long as St. Andrews has lived.

Donald Ross, who has been called “the Stanford White of American golf course architecture” by one writer, immigrated to the United States from Scotland in 1900. Prior to his trans-Atlantic move, Ross served as an apprentice under Old Tom Morris at St. Andrews, and later was the professional and greenkeeper at Royal Dornoch. He settled in Pinehurst, N.C., and started work on Pinehurst No. 2 in 1901. The course was completed in 1907, but Ross revised his original layout many times through the years. The original greens at Pinehurst were made of sand. In the mid-1930s, Ross supervised their conversion to grass, and did such an artful job that, according to Wind, the greens “are among the best in America, and Pinehurst No. 2 may well be the best chipping course in the world.” Other Ross-designed courses in the U.S. include: Inverness Club, in Toledo, Ohio; Oakland Hills Country Club, in Birmingham, Mich.; Scioto Country Club, in Columbus, Ohio; and Seminole Golf Club, in North Palm Beach, Fla. Ross died in 1948. (USGA Museum)

Herbert Warren Wind (center), Ed Seay, ASGCA immediate past president (right), and Bill Amick, ASGCA president, at the Donald Ross Award Banquet. (USGA Museum)