Why the lack of innovation?

By Ron Whitten Illustrations by Kagan McLeod
September 13, 2010

In the 43 years I've studied golf architecture, I've seen plenty of artistry, but almost no innovation. There is a difference. The former sells green fees, houses and portfolios. But only innovation can advance the craft. In the New Economy, the profession of golf design is in danger of going the way of slide-film developers, TV repairmen and travel agents.

The problem is, every architect worships the past -- the 1920s or teens or even earlier -- and molds designs to those ancient templates. Nobody has an original thought. As Pete Dye says, every hole's a copy of some other hole. There is no hip-hop, rap or even jazz in golf architecture; it's all Stephen Foster and John Philip Sousa. Which means modern-day courses are gussied-up reproductions, with strategies conjured up by Old Tom Morris or Old Macdonald, bunkers styled after Alister Mackenzie or George Thomas, and greens patterned on relics like the Redan, Biarritz and Eden. In 150 years, nobody has been able to come up with a new concept for a green? If phone engineers thought like golf architects, our cell phones would still be attached to the wall.

Don't bother arguing that classic courses are ideal because the game hasn't changed. Nonsense. Nothing in golf is the same as it was in the 1920s -- not the clubs, the balls, the mowers, the turfgrass, the clubhouses or the fabric on our skin. Not the grip, the stance, the swing, the way we get yardages or transport our clubs. Nothing is the same, except our golf courses.

Architects embrace the past because it has been safe, marketable and easy to produce. (Mea culpa: I've done it myself.) Original ideas get men ridiculed, like Desmond Muirhead, who showed chutzpah in drawing inspiration from art, literature and Mother Nature but went off the deep end with fish bunkers and mermaid holes.

Instead of developing original golf holes to address 21st-century technology, time constraints and resource limitations, architects are preoccupied with decrying technology and clamoring for a rollback in ball distance. Sorry, folks, that's called progress. The same complaints were made in the Golden Age, when steel replaced hickory shafts. It didn't ruin the game back then, either. Concerned about pros making a mockery of your most beloved designs? Then lobby for a championship cup of smaller diameter; codification of a 4¼-inch cup was a mere happenstance.

With fewer than a dozen courses under construction in the United States, architects need to reinvent their product. They talk of designing risk and reward, but they're unwilling to risk new ideas because they don't see any reward. Would finding work in America be reward enough? If the past is the only thing you bring to the drawing table, sooner or later clients will decide to eliminate the middleman. In Omaha, a prominent golf contractor built a money-making public course without any help from an architect. In California, Cypress Point,

armed with a pile of old photos, restored its Mackenzie bunkers with no involvement by an architect.

Need an upside to dreaming of a new world for golf courses? Restoring the relevance of the profession of golf architecture should be motivation enough.