From The Golf Journal Archives - As Goes Golf, So Go Our Architects

Oct 29, 2010

The rapid expansion of golf throughout the world has created a great demand for the work of American architects in an array of exotic settings.

By George Eberl

(Note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 1988 issue of Golf Journal.)

ANY AMERICAN who has lived abroad for a time is strongly conscious and sometimes painfully aware of products and services sorely missed outside the United States. For all the charms of exotic settings, it is commonplace to long for something as mundane as a dish of American ice cream, or a genuine tender American steak, or a stroll through one of our huge shopping malls, where at one time we may have complained about crowds.

After all the debates about cars and cameras, stereos, and even Culture (note the capital C), the United States enjoys a clear edge in a number of areas. One of them appears to be golf course architecture.

While actual statistics are almost impossible to determine, it is a conspicuous fact of life that the swift spread of golf throughout the world has created a demand for expert designers of golf courses. Most of those chosen seem to be Americans.

The growth itself is awesome. Part of that spread may have been caused by the gifted players who are developing in foreign countries. Players such as Severiano Ballesteros of Spain, Bernhard Langer of West Germany, and Greg Norman of Australia, have assumed heroic proportions in their countries. Helped by television, their exploits have not only fired ardent nationalistic feelings among their countrymen, but have also inspired many of their nations’ young people to take up golf. Ballesteros packed the Madrid soccer stadium for an exhibition of shot-making a few years ago.

Perhaps no country outside Scotland, England, Ireland, and the United States has taken to golf with such ardor as Japan. Again, such professional golfers as Isao Aoki, Ayako Okamoto, and Tommy Nakajima, and the amateur Michiko Hattori, who won the United States Women’s Amateur in 1985, have played profound roles in this enthusiasm for golf. It is unlikely that even the most visionary Scotsman of centuries past foresaw the incredible spread of his country’s favorite pastime.

CERTAINLY a by-product of this increased international interest has been a demand for golf courses. Lands with historic ties to Great Britain – Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand, and South Africa, for example – have had golf as part of their recreational life for decades, brought to their countries by the colonizing British, but golf is expanding to countries in which it is a comparatively new phenomenon.

As an economic offshoot of this phenomenon, American golf course architects have been in demand throughout the world. Indeed, a couple of them have admitted they do more business abroad than within the United States. It may be understandable. The American market is highly competitive, there’s a great deal of land outside the United States without golf courses, and environmental issues are creating many roadblocks in the United States. As the photographs on these pages indicate, golf courses are springing up in areas where it would have seemed improbable a few years ago.

If any one American golf-course architect should be singled out as the progenitor of our overseas designers, it would have to be Robert Trent Jones, of Montclair, N.J. Again, any enthusiastic golfer who has spent much time in continental Europe has probably played a Jones course, most likely in Spain. Now 81, Jones maintains an office in southeastern Spain, and he may be justly credited with beautifying more acres of Spain than any other non-Spaniard.

Indeed, his organization created a second course at Ballybunion, in southwestern Ireland. The old Ballybunion is one of the world’s finest headlands/links courses.

INDIRECTLY, television may have played a large role in the demand for American architects by making the world aware of such players as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and turning them into familiar personalities here and abroad. Both their organizations are heavily involved in golf course architecture, and their names alone have a panache, a salability with an incalculable market value.

For example, Palmer’s group, notably Ed Seay, has designed a course at Tralee, in western Ireland, that has been highly praised, and Nicklaus’s organization designed St. Mellion, in southern England, the site of the British Women’s Open last July. Other players – Bruce Devlin, Tom Weiskopf, Ben Crenshaw, Jerry Pate, and Jan Stephenson, for example – have taken up course design, prompting generally unpublicized discussion within the architectural business about the validity of the professionals’ involvement in the art. The question seems to be, if golf course architecture requires training and special knowledge, can a professional golfer merely hang up his shingle, slap his name on a course, and magically become an architect?

Donald Steel is the golf correspondent for London’s Sunday Telegraph as well as a member of the architectural firm of Cotton, Pennink, and Steel. He wrote in Golf World, a British magazine: “Judging by the number of American professionals who now seem to regard themselves as golf course architects, you might think it is an art or trade that can be learned in five minutes. It is, in fact, a subtle blend of many skills in which experience is the trump card. Besides the obvious need for seeing and playing as many courses in as many countries as possible, and possessing a quick and imaginative eye for assessing land and identifying with the minds of all classes of golfer, it embraces elements of drainage, botany, soil chemistry, agronomy, civil engineering, diplomacy, tact, and the sixth sense of knowing when to stand firm.”

Whatever the outcome of such a debate, well-known professionals are turning to architecture, and reshaping the landscape in the United States and overseas. Indeed, there is a fine historic irony in American architects’ current involvement abroad. Many of the great American courses are the design work of non-Americans, among them Donald Ross, Alister Mackenzie, Willie Dunn, and H. S. Colt, and to an extent, it is the exposure to their work in our country that has excited foreign interests sufficiently to seek American architects to lay out their courses.

IF SOME of the problems associated with building golf courses in the United States are absent from work abroad, other unusual elements confuse life. Robert Muir Graves, of Walnut Creek, Calif., was talking about a course he designed in Malaysia.

“You might not think about it, but in something as basic as bunkering, you must consider the monsoon season. If you have steeply sloped walls, sand just won’t remain stable during those heavy rains. You have to consider this when you are designing your bunkers.”

UNDERLYING this observation is a powerful reason why American architects are sought for the design work in foreign countries; this country’s architects are more than just designers – they also oversee the actual construction work.

Asked why these countries did not turn to their own talent to design courses, Rees Jones, for one, said that the total involvement by our architects from design through completion of construction was desirable, especially when linked with the experience factor.

When Bradford L. Benz and J. Michael Poellot, partners in an architectural business based in Saratoga, Calif., completed a course in Beijing, China, last year, they had lived in a nearby Chinese commune during the construction phase. They described the plentiful labor supply as both a benefit and a drawback. The workers would painstakingly mould the terrain by hand, and then stand by while it was undone by heavy machinery.

Considering the diversity of countries to which golf has spread, it isn’t surprising that problems ranging from communications to politics spring up, and there is little doubt that architects spend a great deal of their time traveling to and from airports.

John Watson, a Canadian who is a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, has been retained to build two golf courses in Russia. Robert Trent Jones had designed one near Moscow that was never built. Jones also built a course at Dar Es Salaam, in Morocco, and the Texas-based firm of Robert Von Hagge and Bruce Devlin has finished Golf International Les Bordes, a course in France, for Baron Marcel Bich (of Bic pens and lighters).

Robert Trent Jones, Jr., of Palo Alto, Calif., must rank among the busiest of American architects. His firm is designing or has built courses in more than 20 countries outside the United States, chiefly but not exclusively in the Far East. He designed the Pacific Harbour Golf Course, in Deuba, Fiji, which was the site of the World Amateur Team Championships in 1978, and he has projects lined up for Singapore, Korea, New Caledonia, and Hainan Island.

He has also been active in Europe, principally in France. He generalized that foreign promoters engage American architects because many of those countries “don’t have our golf tradition, our feeling for the game.”

He said that a local architect in Japan would be “subordinate to the contractor,” and there is a tendency to attack the terrain with heavy equipment rather than take advantage of the natural look. In many ways, he said, the French are just the opposite, sometimes taking an approach he described as “18 flags on a Sunday afternoon.”

Japan has been the scene for much of Jones’s design work, but he isn’t alone. Nicklaus, too, has been active in Japan.

Perhaps the wonder of golf’s growth in Japan is the cost of playing the game. A recent issue of Japan Golf Report carried an article entitled, “Memberships for Millionaires,” and the article’s opening statement declared, “In Japan one joins a golf club basically as a financial investment….” Trading golf club membership rights is a sizable business. It is estimated that the yen equivalent of $103.45 million is tied up each month in the buying and selling of memberships.

IN THE EARLY years of the 20th century, most golf course architects were British. They worked extensively in their own lands, throughout the Commonwealth, and in the United States and Spain as well. The profession gradually caught hold in the United States. A. W. Tillinghast, an early genius, was a member of what was informally called the Philadelphia School of Architects. Today, the schools of landscape design in our universities, such as Iowa State and Idaho, are turning out a steady flow of graduates who often go to work for the major architectural firms until they are able to branch out for themselves.

Meanwhile, in Great Britain, the business faces problems ranging from budgetary limitations and restrictive British laws, to the sheer number of courses that already exist in those islands.

Steel is critical, however, of the work of American architects. He wrote: “The employment of American architects to build American-style courses with American methods in Britain and Ireland has, from what I have seen, not been the success it should have been. Introducing artificiality into a natural environment is not at all my idea of what our golf courses should be, and I do not forget that there must be a degree of artificiality in all landscaping.”

Many American architects might agree with his argument. Whatever the case, there is no question that our golf course designers are in popular demand internationally, and the feeling seems to be that the best is yet to come.

Their work seems to be that dish of ice cream or the stroll through the mall – American and marketable.

The Hokkaido Country Club’s Onuma Course, in Hokkaido, Japan, offers a magnificent setting for players and spectators alike. The expansion of golf in Japan, where it seems to have become the national passion, is a phenomenon in the architectural business. (USGA Museum)


The tumbling dunes of southwestern Ireland provided a designer’s dream by land character. This is the 10th hole at Ballybunion’s New Course. (USGA Museum)


The natural beauty of Canada afford architects a wealth of design options. The fourth hole of the Glen Forest Course, at the Glencoe Golf and Country Club, in Calgary, Canada. (USGA Museum)