History Lessons

Jun 01 / 2018

Old courses need to get modern – new ones should look to the past.

When it comes to golf courses, we Brits are certainly entitled to shout about what we’ve got. From rugged, natural, beautiful links courses such as Royal Dornoch, Turnberry and Royal County Down, to classic heathland layouts like Sunningdale, St George’s Hill and Walton Heath. And yet, as so often seems the case in Britain, our achievements are more historic than contemporary. In the early part of the last century we were undoubtedly the world’s best at designing courses. Harry Colt, Herbert Fowler, Willie Park and Alister Mackenzie were out on their own. True, they were occasionally presented with great pieces of land, but what they produced was usually a terrific test of golf, which was also very sympathetic to the surrounding countryside.

Skilfully balancing subtlety and drama, we built courses admired the world over for their clever placement of hazards and encouragement of strategic play. Sadly, I think most modern designers have lost (or are discouraged from employing) these talents and too many churn out courses as if they were manufacturing shoes on a production line.

And the proof really is in the pudding. Take a look at Golf World’s Top 100 list and you will see that a large proportion of them were built over 70 years ago. Very few modern designs have made much of an impression on this list in recent years. Why is this? Why can we no longer create masterpieces like we used to?

Part of the problem is that too often we attempt to ape the American way, we try to create ‘American style’ courses – but without American conditions or budgets. For example, sprawling, shallow bunkers not only look incongruous in a British landscape but they are also inappropriate. Colt and Fowler typically built deep pot-styled bunkers, largely because that was the only way of keeping the sand in the hazards in windy conditions.

The vast majority of courses being created today can loosely be described as parkland, and unfortunately this type of course has never been our forte. Even in the ‘Golden Age of Golf Architecture’ we never produced a Bethpage Black or a Winged Foot. In fact, I can only think of one or two really strong parkland layouts: Mount Juliet in Ireland and Loch Lomond in Scotland. And yet, there is no shortage of beautiful parks in our country – look at all our country estates – but very rarely do such sites fall into the hands of developers, and even when they do, securing planning approval is an extremely difficult process.

As much as I enjoy playing our traditional layouts, I fear that many of our older courses no longer provide the challenge they once did. Of course this is a result of the huge advances in technology in recent years – and British golf’s reluctance to address the situation. And it is the reason why British courses are slipping down the rankings whenever a ‘Best Courses of the World’ list is compiled.

I recently played the East Course at Wentworth: it is a charming golf course, but even an old man like me was driving it 50 yards past all the bunkers. That’s no good, you’ve got to bring them back into play. The Americans are always refining their courses, adding a bunker here, putting a tee in there. We tend to be very bad at that in Britain: “It’s got 18 tees and 18 greens, blimey, what more do you want?” Our approach is to build a golf course, leave it for half a century and expect it to produce the same challenge as it always did.

So many courses in Britain no have hazards which are miles away from the green; so a player who hooks a shot wildly ends up in the deepest bunker on the golf course. That’s the last thing you want. Let’s make our courses tough for the guy who hits it straight; and let’s make it easier for the poor chaps who don’t know if it’s going 30 yards left or 30 yards right.

My other concern for British courses relates to conditioning. Increasingly, I see a trend towards over-watering. A couple of summers ago I played a very famous heathland course in Surrey. It hadn’t rained for six weeks and yet it was so soft that I hit a 3-iron onto a green and it backed up. I’ll never forget that. I thought “No. Why do they do that? If it’s dry, let it play firm and fast. Let it be natural.” Target golf encourages one-dimensional golf. What has most distinguished British golf courses in the past is their emphasis on shot-making – encouraging, and rewarding, the skilful execution of a wide variety of strokes. This is something we should never forget.

Sir Nick Faldo

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