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Golf & Design

The Shape Of Courses To Come

Big Mac, little greens and wide-open spaces

No. 12 / Stonebrae

Meet the Future
No. 12 / Stonebrae: David McLay Kidd's kinetic par 5 offers options off the tee, from the fairways and even around and on the green. See more futuristic courses that are ahead of their time.

November 2008

The future of golf-course design can be summed up in a single hole, the 12th at Stonebrae, overlooking San Francisco. It's a 606-yard par 5 plunging 100 feet down a dry, parched East Bay hillside, with a canyon hard left. Hang time off the tee is tremendous, but the fun really begins when the ball hits the ground. The fairway, at least 80 yards wide in spots, looks like a ski slope after an earthquake, with radical humps and dips and a big crevice slashed across the bottom of the hill. Hazards seem thrown about haphazardly, and the green looks like a saucer tilted precariously at the low corner of a three-legged table.

There are at least a dozen ways to play the 12th. You can take the machismo route down the left side of the dogleg left, or inch along the right perimeter, or play it down the middle like a series of kid's games, hopscotch and Double Dare, with whoops and hollers. The 12th is a spiral staircase of turfgrass meant to be a welcome escape from ordinary golf holes lined with trees and punctuated with monotony.

Stonebrae was conjured by David McLay Kidd, a Scot who sashayed in kilts to the front line of American architecture about 10 years ago with his design of the original Bandon Dunes course in Oregon. At 40, Kidd is no whiz kid anymore, but he has retained his enthusiasm and supplemented it with commercial savvy.

So the 12th at Stonebrae is New Wave and Old School at the same time. In truth, it's simply a souped-up version of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw's nearly 20-year-old, downhill, par-5 18th at Hawaii's Kapalua Plantation Course. As such, it's also a graphic representation of Tom Fazio's long-held belief that owners now want 18 finishing holes, and are willing to pay the necessary surcharges.

As a bellwether of the future, the 12th at Stonebrae isn't startlingly different. Because golf design isn't revolutionary, it's evolutionary.

The hole sits on a residential-development course, but there's not a home within a half mile of it. Stonebrae incorporates the village concept, with opening holes within the community before the course branches into wide-open spaces. That's a footprint for courses of tomorrow that many will follow.

The 12th is also mainstream, establishment architecture, now that Stonebrae has been licensed as an official TPC layout (TPC San Francisco Bay at Stonebrae is its new, cluttered logo) and awarded a Nationwide event by the PGA Tour, an organization that clearly wants to portray a cutting-edge image, even if it has stumbled onto it after the fact. But mostly, it's giddy fun, a wagging tail that the game of golf must never lose in the name of progress.

So what will constitute progress in future golf design? Good land is either remote or prohibitively expensive. Water is scarce, manpower scarcer and money nonexistent. High fuel prices affect the cost of everything from irrigation pipe to grass seed to bunker sand to commercial air travel. The housing market has collapsed into a rubble of defaulted loans and overextended banks. American Indian casino owners, the latest sugar daddies to be seduced by the glamour of golf-course ownership, seem to be pulling some chips off the table. If the undeclared recession rages on a few more years, many design companies will downsize or disappear.

But allow us to play the psychic. We see the economy, and participation in golf, bouncing back. We think some of the greatest courses of all time are yet to come. After all, the first Golden Age of Golf Design continued during the Great Depression.

THE NEW C.B. CRAZE

Kyle Phillips, who served as a senior design associate to Robert Trent Jones Jr. until 1997, when he went on his own to create the sublime Kingsbarns Golf Links just down the shoreline from St. Andrews, laments how American course architecture has become homogenized and pre-packaged.

"The courses we really love today are the style of architecture that began in Great Britain and was then used on old American courses a hundred years ago by Scottish and English architects," he says. "But in the 1960s and '70s, we got into a sterile golf environment in America. All the character, all the irregular wrinkles of classic architecture, were gone. Courses became flat to make them easy to maintain; they were uninteresting, unremarkable and all alike. We had McDonaldized golf design in America—I'm talking about Ronald McDonald, not C.B. Macdonald. Gosh, I wish it had been C.B."

Phillips' wish might be coming true. Architects have rediscovered C.B. Macdonald, the man who coined the phrase "golf architect," the man who created Chicago Golf Club (the first 18-hole course in America), the man who redirected the game from steeplechase to strategic, whose National Golf Links, designed on Long Island in 1911 with tremendous width and alternate routes of play, is considered the classic template of design.

Today's designers still ogle the flashy bunker styles of Alister Mackenzie and George C. Thomas Jr. and flirt with the perched greens and shaved run-offs attributed to Donald Ross, but they're wedded to the philosophy espoused by Macdonald nearly a century ago: Take ideas from great old golf holes—a bunker from one course, a green complex from another, a tee-shot configuration from a third—and put your spin on them. So today's designers install all sorts of versions of holes that Macdonald invented or popularized: the Redan, with its diagonal green canted right to left and front to back; the Biarritz, a 60-yard-long green intersected by a six-foot trench; the Alps, where the green is obscured by high mounds or even hills; the Eden, whose deep frontal bunkers and steeply pitched green are far from paradise; and the Cape, with its risk-what-you-dare tee shot over a diagonal water hazard. (Curiously, the original Cape was named for its peninsula green, not its tee shot, but nobody builds one with a peninsula green anymore.)

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