The Shape Of Courses To Come
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.
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.)
Recycling Big Mac is nothing new. Pete Dye did it 40 years ago, the team of Coore and Crenshaw 20 years ago. What is new are the new angles given the old saws. Texas architect Jeff Brauer designed a "sideways Biarritz" green at Sand Creek Station Golf Club in Newton, Kan., as well as a par 3 that's "sort of a Redan" and a 16th green patterned after the Road Hole of St. Andrews, another Macdonald favorite. (Brauer has a Macdonald tribute 18 sitting on his drafting board, although it's uncertain whether it will ever get built.)
Virginia designer Tom Clark has a modern-day National Golf Links planned for Cutalong overlooking Lake Anna in his home state, with ideas appropriated from the National, Pine Valley, Wentworth and Harbour Town. It, too, has a Biarritz green perpendicular to the line of play. (A disclosure: This writer has been collaborating with Clark on that design. The project is on indefinite hold.)
In his latest work, Brian Silva has embraced Big Mac down to the crisp edges, stark angles and geometric shapes of platform greens and strip bunkers that characterized the old man's architecture. Silva insists his inspiration for his "kind of Redans" at Black Creek in Chattanooga and Black Rock near Boston were the designs of Seth Raynor and Charles Banks, but that just makes it Macdonald once-removed. Raynor and Banks were Macdonald associates at the outset and were merely the first and second designers to copy Macdonald's ideas.
The most ambitious ode to C.B. is the fourth 18 being built at Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon. Dubbed Old Macdonald, it's the brainchild of owner Mike Keiser (who once seriously considered reproducing, bump for bump, Macdonald's famed Lido Golf Club, a Long Island masterpiece abandoned at the start of World War II and then converted to housing). Tom Doak and his senior associate, Jim Urbina, are handling the design, the first for which Urbina is being given co-design credit. (They're being assisted by a cadre of consultants, including Karl Olson, former superintendent at National Golf Links, and George Bahto, a New Jersey dry cleaner who wrote a definitive biography on Macdonald and dabbles in Macdonald-esque designs with the aid of golf architect Gil Hanse.)
Urbina promises Old Macdonald won't be a cookie-cutter version of C.B.'s Greatest Hits.
"You're gonna say, 'Well, that kind of looks like a Redan, but I'm not sure.' Or, 'That kind of looks like the Sahara.' And I'm sure some will say, 'That's not what Macdonald would have done. It's too long,' and they'll be absolutely right. It's an original. It's different."
A hundred years ago, C.B. used steam shovels to pile up dirt to build greens and bunkers. The near-vertical slopes that resulted weren't routinely watered and were simply steep hillsides of dry, patchy fescue, perfectly acceptable as hazards in those days. Today, architects struggle, even with modern equipment, to achieve similar dramatic, abrupt changes that can still be maintainable.
We're thinking that sometime in the future small, robotic bulldozers directed by GPS systems will be able to create steeper and deeper features than even the best human shaper is willing to attempt. Likewise, small robotic mowers directed by GPS coordinates will mow slopes too steep for equipment operated by man. Who knows? Maybe nanotechnology will infiltrate golf maintenance, and someday steep bunker slopes will contain subterranean meshes of nano-growth regulators. Or workers can walk along the top edge of bunkers and mow the banks with the pass of a laser beam, which won't just cut the grass but disintegrate it so no clippings slide onto the sand.
However they'll be maintained, courses of the future are going to look like Macdonald's of the distant past, but with flashier bunkers in unusual spots.
"American golf isn't exciting for people these days," says Jim Engh, whose art-deco style has resulted in four Best New course awards from Golf Digest since 1997. "That's why we're losing golfers. It doesn't touch people's creative spirits. Figuring out how to play a golf hole is one way to generate compelling interest.
"Toss a rock into a mud puddle," Engh says. "The patterns that result, that's Dadaism, the art of randomness. That's what we should be doing, creating interesting landforms, have wide corridors, and let people figure out how to play the hole. That's how the game began. This whole idea of diagramming shots, dictating how a hole should be played, that's a bunch of hooey. Just do an interesting hole; let golfers figure it out. That's the most fun. Golfers will be back 30 times, until they find a way to successfully play the hole. Or another way to play the hole. Or a different way than the way they played it last week.
"Width is good," Engh adds. "You can do all kinds of things with width—more angles you can play. If you go narrow, you have one element, and that's it. Width keeps people in play, makes the game a little more enjoyable."
Engh carried the philosophy of randomness to an extreme at The Creek Club on Lake Oconee in Georgia, where his zigzag, par-5 18th concludes with a trio of separate greens tucked into hillside settings, each with a hole location and flag, leaving it to each foursome to debate what the target should be that day.
Tom Doak, who pioneered the random-bunkering style in America that designers like Engh cherish, thinks that maybe we'll see fewer bunkers on new courses in coming years.
"It wouldn't hurt to have a lot fewer bunkers," Doak says. "Not that they cost that much to build. Bunkers cost so much mainly because golfers want them perfectly maintained. A lot of what is being done now is because they look pretty and photograph well for magazines."
He's right. We know of several courses with misting systems on bunker banks to keep them lush and green, and at least one course where the misting system is directed at the sand, to keep it from becoming crusty. Such excesses will come to a halt. As water gets increasingly precious, even mist will be marshaled.
"Everybody talks about bunkers as an isolated element, but they go hand in hand with everything else," Doak adds. "If you're going to do fewer bunkers, then that means you're going to have to do something different with fairways and greens—moguls, chipping areas or something else—to make up for it. You don't just want to make the course less exciting."
Though fairways might get wider, greens will probably get smaller. Genetically engineered turfgrasses for putting greens have blades so tightly packed that it's hard to make ball marks in them. (The grass might bruise and turn off-color, but it's too dense for dents.) If the grass won't pit up as much, then greens can become smaller. Big greens were simply a means of spreading out wear and tear.
Though greens might shrink, their surrounds will expand. Greg Norman is a strong proponent of providing plenty of width around putting surfaces. "If you miss a green," Norman says, "I believe in having the ball go away from the green. Compound the problem. The golf ball is round for a reason. Let it roll. The farther the ball gets from the surface, the more imagination you've got to have with your recovery."
"Expanded surrounds are a key component of good golf design," says Gil Hanse. "That's come from a study of links courses at places like National Golf Links. Short grass around a green is a great hazard. The average golfer, given the opportunity to use a putter from off the green, enjoys that shot and will be more successful with it. Meanwhile, the better player is now given a multitude of options—'Do I take a lob wedge? Do I bump it? Do I use a putter?'—and faces a level of complexity that makes that golf shot a little more difficult."
Steve Smyers, a veteran architect and member of the Executive Committee of the USGA, believes new restrictions on square grooves in golf clubs, set to go into effect at pro tour events in 2010 and apply to all by 2024, will affect course architecture in positive ways, particularly for those designing courses intended to host championships. (And because most owners dream of owning a contender, that means most new courses.)
"The restrictions on square grooves will bring back the old days," Smyers says. "Elite players will be gearing back on their swings, and going back to golf balls that spin a little more, which will reduce their distance. I've always been an advocate of big, wide fairways, but I think fairways will get narrower. Light rough will again become an integral part of the game. Hitting the fairway will again become absolutely critical. It'll be position golf as opposed to power golf."
But the biggest change, Smyers says, will be to areas just short of greens.
"If golfers won't be able to spin the ball efficiently out of rough, if the ball is going to react differently when it hits the ground, then we're going to see a lot more emphasis on approach areas," he says. "The contouring of the approaches are going to be more detailed. The sculpturing of the ground is going to excite the golfer more."
That will only work, Kidd says, if the fairway approach and the putting surface are the same type of grass, like at Bandon Dunes, which is fescue.
"I see courses today with bluegrass on the approach and then A-4 bent grass on the putting surface," Kidd says. "Try and throw a shot into that. If it bounces a yard short, it stops dead. If it bounces on the green, it goes on through the back. If I can use the same grass everywhere, and get the grass type right, I can create a playability that stays consistent from tee to green. Plus, I create easier long-term maintenance."
Kidd likes paspalum, which can survive on briny water, as an all-purpose grass for warm-season courses.
"I was the first one to go wall-to-wall paspalum in North America, at Nanea [in Hawaii]," he says. "Fescue is the paspalum of the cool season. It survives in very poor conditions, uses less water, low fertility, doesn't thatch up and provides hard surfaces. Its one disadvantage is that it won't accept heavy cart traffic. But we're hoping that maybe people will get off their carts and walk more."
What Kidd doesn't mention is that fescue greens can't be mowed as tightly as bent, which means they're more grainy, and thus swift downhill and downgrain but much slower uphill and into the grain. Because flat fescue greens would be like shag carpets, most architects using fescue accentuate contours on their greens.
Doak also loves fescue and used it everywhere on his first design, High Pointe in northern Michigan, as well as on his magnificent Pacific Dunes layout at Bandon and at Ballyneal, his inland links in the sand hills of northeastern Colorado.
"If the greens are a little bit slower and the approaches are a little bit faster, which they are with fescue, you can really play a running shot into the green, or a putt from 50 yards off the green, which I really like to do," Doak says.
But, unlike Kidd, Doak doesn't think fescue greens will overtake America.
"I think I've learned where you can use fescue greens and where you cannot," Doak says. "It has to be the right climate, the right soils, the right client and the right neighborhood."
The right neighborhood?
"Fescue greens work overseas because everybody has them. They work in Bandon because all the courses have fescue greens. They failed at Spanish Bay because everybody came off Pebble Beach and Spyglass and went over to Spanish Bay the next day and left their putts five feet short and complained. They failed at High Pointe because people came off The Bear the previous day and complained. They didn't use them at Whistling Straits because Blackwolf Run has great bent-grass greens. They work at Ballyneal because there are no neighbors."
Doak has never been shy about doing extreme contours on his fescue greens.
‘ in 1983, there was a magazine article about letting areas of rough go wild. I was quoted as saying that everybody would be doing this stuff within five years. I was off by about 25 years.'—Brian Silva
"The hard thing about doing green contours," he says, "is that we as designers have absolutely no control over green speeds or where they put the holes each day. I do know that if we just make them flat, we've taken a lot of interest out of the game. I'm not willing to do that. So I just have to cross my fingers, that if I put in contour, they won't go crazy on me."
THE TREND: TREES ARE OUT, TREELESS IS IN
Architects have long insisted that tree removal is needed for the long-term health of the game. Their position was reinforced at the 2007 U.S. Open, when Oakmont went Bruce Willis, its forests clear-cutted, its stark, treeless panorama vividly, dramatically, stunningly displayed. It announced to golfers around the world that wide-open spaces are in and tree-lined holes are out (particularly at Augusta National, where newly planted pines crowd out options and patrons).
But what was most important about Oakmont is what replaced all its trees: not lush, juicy, manicured turf, but amber waves of low-maintenance native grasses.
"Back in 1983, there was a magazine article about letting areas of rough go wild," says Silva. "I was quoted as saying that everybody would be doing this stuff within five years. I was off by about 25 years. But lots of people are finally doing it today, and I think it's awesome. At least around the edges, golf courses will be less green. I think that's for the better. Every course does not need to look like a cemetery."
"The problem is, in America the standards for maintenance have gotten so high, it doesn't make sense economically anymore," says Doak. "That's why golf is stagnant in America."
"You still need the greens to be really good," Doak adds. "That's the one thing you can't ratchet back. The key is not to spend so much on fairways, because that's where the acreage is. In the 1970s financial crisis, [architect] Geoff Cornish was going around narrowing all the fairways with all these squiggles to get them down to around 20 acres. That's one way of approaching it."
Silva, who was partnered with Cornish in those days, remembers it well.
"Geoff got fairways down to 18 acres. But what happened? They got greener and lusher. They began mowing their fairways with glorified greensmowers. It got more expensive, not less. And pretty soon, fairways crept back to 30 acres. I pray that someday golf-course fairways will have a percentage of turf that isn't absolutely, perfectly lush green. It would happen if we'd get down to a level of 'adequate' irrigation and 'adequate' fertility rates. Forget minimal amounts. Just get down to 'adequate.' "
"Fairways don't have to be as perfect as they presently are. Change that, and the amount of money you spend watering, spraying and fertilizing them will go down and people will find out that it still works. Go overseas. Everywhere else in the world, the standard is lower, and golf is still fun. And it's growing. So I'm not worried that golf might become less popular just because fairway-maintenance standards get lower."
The move "has nothing to do with water being limited, or the higher cost of labor and fuel," says Silva. "It's happening because it looks cool. Unquestionably, clubs are also saving money. There aren't many things in life where you save money and at the same time get a better product. This is one of them."
But Silva cautions that going native is not always simple.
"Most clubs can't just quit mowing and let the roughs grow," he says. "Because of years of overmaintenance, they actually have to kill the rough, plant the right grasses, get them established and then shut off the sprinklers. I don't want to make it sound too easy. But eventually you're spending less money and getting results."
What about the playability of courses with knee-high native rough?
"I'm not advocating 25-yard-wide fairways with a five-yard swath of rough and then hay up to your butt," Silva says. "I'm talking about adequate landing areas and native areas that are correctly located. But I'll believe until I die that if you give the average golfer a reason to be more accurate, he'll actually concentrate and be more accurate. The reason most golfers suck today is because they mostly play emasculated golf courses, glorified practice ranges. They've got no reason to hit it straight."
RE-IMAGINING THE GAME
For all the talent, money and opportunity in golf architecture over the past quarter-century, there has been surprisingly little innovation in design. The only new idea to emerge is the concept of the ribbon tee at Chambers Bay, the municipal course near Tacoma, Wash., that has been awarded the 2015 U.S. Open. Instead of big, flat tee boxes, Chambers Bay has free-form tees with humps and bumps and a few flat spots scattered about. The idea, conceived by Bruce Charlton, the design partner of Robert Trent Jones Jr. (and president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects), fits seamlessly into the ragged, rugged motif of Chambers Bay. But Charlton's brethren are reluctant to anoint him an innovator.
‘ don't have to be as perfect as they presently are. . . . Go overseas. Everywhere else in the world, the standard is lower, and golf is still fun. And it's growing. So I'm not worried that golf might become less popular just because fairway-maintenance standards get lower.'—Tom Doak
"You know, we'd already done ribbon tees at Castle Stuart in Scotland," says Hanse. "It's too bad the course hadn't opened earlier. Not that we're arguing for credit for it. But [associate] Jim Wagner came up with the same idea, these meandering areas that are mowed down, with flat areas as well as broken ground. He first built one tee like that on the 12th at Boston Golf Club, just to make it look old. We've always hated rectangular tee boxes where the perimeter matches the surrounding slopes."
"We were doing those things at Bandon, Ballyneal and Sebonack," says Doak. "I think Bruce got the idea from looking at the courses at Bandon. Are they new? No. Is there really anything new in golf-course architecture? I don't think so. Urbina was bummed out because he had the idea for free-form tees before Chambers Bay got all the press, so I told him, 'Jim, I did that 20 years ago at High Pointe, behind the third green, just a slope flowing into the fourth hole. And I stole that idea from the Old Course at St. Andrews.' "
With respect to Hanse, Doak and even Kidd, whose new Castle Course at St. Andrews likewise features free-form tees, none of their creations is as radical as Charlton's at Chambers Bay. His tees aren't conventional wide pads linked by undulations. His are narrow paths, where golfers have to search for a level lie. His intent is to aid average players in executing decent tee shots. Choose a slight uphill lie to get the ball airborne, a little downhill spot to keep it under the wind, or a sidehill slope to impart more hook or slice. It's a remarkably clever concept, but we suspect by the time the U.S. Open rolls around, the USGA will insist on lots of big, flat tee boxes for the pros.
Hanse has adapted the basic pick-your-lie concept on a new 10-hole par-3 course he's designing for The Prairie Club, a multiple-course project near Valentine, Neb. His layout will feature no tees, just expanded fairways with lots of dips and rolls in them. His idea is, each round will be based on the basketball game Horse, where the guy who wins the previous hole gets to chose the stance, lie and shot that must be attempted on the next hole. (To really integrate the idea into golf, Hanse ought to call his game Gorse.)
That's a concept that gets California architect Damian Pascuzzo fired up. Long an advocate of alternative golf, he just opened the new Challenge Course at Monarch Dunes near Lompoc, Calif., a 12-hole course whose total par equals 36, a conventional golf score achieved in less time with fewer clubs. But golfers still love to hit the long ball, and Pascuzzo agrees it's doubtful a 12-hole par-3 course could succeed as a stand-alone facility. The club also has a regulation 18, where on the greens Pascuzzo and partner Steve Pate used old-fashioned Velvet bent, a dry turf with a texture, look and playability that meshes quite well with the fescue fairways leading into them. Monarch Dunes is intended to play as a bump-and-run links, even with towering eucalyptus trees lining many holes. (And, yes, the platform green on the par-5 12th is an ode to C.B. Macdonald.)
‘ golf needs is a revolution, what snowboarding did for skiing. . . . But it's got to be easy and inexpensive and get kids involved.'—Damian Pascuzzo
The new sandlots of golf, Pascuzzo thinks, might well be in living rooms and bedrooms.
"Kids are crazy for the new [Nintendo] Wii system," he says. "They'll play the [EA Sports] Tiger Woods game and take real swings. Maybe next they'll graduate to full-blown golf simulators and eventually get out into the fresh air at a real course."
Because kids are wired these days, Pascuzzo says, their idea of relaxation is different. He thinks clubs should let them play golf while plugged into iPods tuned to rock music. He envisions GPS yardages downloaded directly to their iPhones, maybe even with celebrities onscreen explaining how to play each hole.
"What golf needs is a revolution, what snowboarding did for skiing," he says. "I don't know if that's a course that must be played with just four clubs, or a course with a time limit, where they have to play speed golf, or what. But it's got to be easy and inexpensive and get kids involved. And since we all live our lives in two-hour time blocks these days, I think older golfers would accept these things, too.
"But developers aren't going to pursue it, and municipalities certainly won't," Pascuzzo says. "It needs to be a manufacturer of clubs, balls or golf clothing. Somebody like Nike or TaylorMade needs to fund a radical new approach to the game, and in the process create 10 million new customers."
So where is golf architecture headed? Our prediction is that in the next 20 years, new courses will be wider, drier and probably scruffy around the edges. They'll feature a lot of steep, deep hazards and dramatic slopes, will be more eclectic in their bunkering and green complexes and be positively dizzying in their strategies of play.
They'll still be mostly 18 holes, but the standard of par will drop from 72 to 69. With ball technology still unpoliced, one certain victim will be the par 5. Par 4s now play as long as par 5s used to. Even the glorious 12th at Stonebrae will probably be rendered into a drive and pitch shot by some Nationwide players next March.
To be genuine three-shot holes, new par 5s would have to be 700 yards or more. It'll be impossible to have four of those on any new course, because they'd take up too much precious land and drag each round into a sixth hour. A single par 5 will suffice. The others will be called what they now really are, long par 4s.
Quite often, C.B. Macdonald would complete a course design with a closing par 5. It would invariably be the worst hole on the course, with a boring second shot. If the master couldn't make them memorable, what hope is there?
Par 5s are a concept being made obsolete by the relentless reach of progress. Once they've departed from the scene, nobody will miss them.