“Resurrecting Donald Ross”
By: Nathan Crace Date: August 28, 2007/August 28, 2013
The following is a re-print of my original column with the same title that was published exactly six years ago today, with some revised content for today’s reader:
It’s no secret to those who read this column on a regular basis that I am of that group of individuals who believe the unbridled advances in golf technology in the past 15+ years (specifically the ball, the driver, and the newer wedges) have damaged the game of golf and endangered the classic courses of the past by rendering them defenseless against the long ball and the “bomb and gouge” approach. But recently, I have also been watching more and more of the classic courses working to “restore” themselves to their former glory. And as with any other niche industry, there are a number of smart golf course architects making a name for themselves by channeling the deceased architects of the glory days while they restore these courses.
I’m the last person to second-guess another architect because (by the very nature of what we do) there is no one right way to renovate or design a golf course. It’s their project, let them do as they wish and leave the second-guessing to the pundits. But I do wonder why there is such a rabid fervor by some club members and owners to put courses exactly back to the way they originally were. While in my opinion, a properly designed/built/managed golf course is a work of art, is it not Michelangelo’s Statue of David or a Van Gogh painting. Those can be restored. Golf courses are organic living things that change and adapt over the years. One of the reasons the game itself is so unique is that each course is unique and that creates diversity. So why do we want to keep courses the way they were or spend millions in a futile attempt to turn back time? Is it for the nostalgia? For the history? For the assumed wishes of the original architect?
Enter the “ghost whisperers.” Most will use old sketches or photos of the course in question or maybe even the original construction drawings that were found in the footlocker of the original club president when his great grandson was cleaning out the old family stable. They spend a lot of time to painstakingly recreate what used to be there and resurrect the designs of Donald Ross, Tillinghast, MacDonald, MacKenzie, Colt….the list goes on and on. To their credit, most do an excellent job of re-creating the features to the way they used to be and should be commended for their ability to do so. But my question is this: Is that really the best thing to do in every situation for every old course? Would is really be what they want? And by “they,” I mean the original architects. One of my favorite lines I keep hearing repeated is: “I’ve renovated so many [insert dead architect’s name here] courses, I know what he was thinking.” Really?
I must profess that I am a student of the history of the game and love the rich history of the architects of the past 100 years and I am awed by what they achieved with limited resources. That being said, my job is to respect the past while looking toward the future—not looking over my shoulder to appease the dead. Not to sound aloof, but the client hires me to renovate a golf course and make it aesthetically pleasing, easier to maintain, and fun to play again. Things have changed in the past 30, 50, 100 years since the course was originally built and for many courses, there can be room for debate regarding whether or not the dead architect credited with a certain design did more than make a site visit once—if at all. One architect in particular, whose pinnacle was after the Great Depression, is credited with nearly 300 designs! In an age without jet travel, staffs of design associates, or bulldozers—and considering he passed away in his 60’s (early by today’s standards)—that would be an incredibly grueling work load. But I digress. Not only have changes in golf equipment changed the game, but improvements in agronomics have also made drastic changes to the older courses by improving the quality of turf.
Which brings us to the core point of my theory: The men who designed the courses so famous from the past “glory days” of golf course architecture were obviously intelligent men who understood the game and how to fit a course to the land they had at their disposal. They were not stupid people. Therefore, I have to believe that if we could magically resurrect these great architects and show them the way the game and the industry has evolved, they would not want to “restore” their courses to the way they were. They would want to help them evolve and adapt. Enlarge the greens, perhaps soften some contours and change bunker styling, add and expand tees, etc. Pinehurst’s greens were originally sand, not grass. And the courses with turf for putting surfaces most certainly were not running 9 to 12 feet on a Stimpmeter—which was invented in 1935 because Edward Stimpson thought the greens at the US Open that year at Oakmont were unfairly fast! Most greens in those days (the US Open notwithstanding) were more akin to the fairways of some of the better courses of today. Who do you know that would settle for putting on the fairway at your course? Greens in their day had to be humpbacked to assist in drainage and subsequently were not receptive to approach shots. If you were to reconstruct a green from the 1930’s and mow it to stimp at 13, it would be so small and fast that you would never be able to keep a ball on the green.
So the next time you see where an architect has been hired to return an old Donald Ross course to “exactly the way it was in the original photos,” ask yourself what Mr. Ross would think given today’s game of golf. There’s a difference between respecting some of the original design elements in the context of today’s game and trying to create an exact replica of what once was, but restoring the course of yesterday may actually do a disservice to the game and is shortsighted given the advances in technology. History is to be appreciated and I hate more than anyone when a classic course is forced to change by adding hundreds of yards or dozens of bunkers simply to defend against technology. Evolution of a golf course is a natural progression that should be embraced and properly planned—not retroactively regenerated. That is unless we will all be playing these “new” old courses with hickory-shafted niblicks and gutta-percha golf balls. There are, of course, exceptions to my theory as there are with other theories, and the recent Coore-Crenshaw renovation of Pinehurst #2 is an example of restoring certain facets of the original course while respecting both the original design and the needs of the future—including the removal of acres of grown-over turf, replacing it instead with the native sandy soil and wiregrass for rough. But notice they still have turf on the greens instead of a sand surface, internal drainage in the greens, and an automated irrigation system. Yet something tells me Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore understood what the course needed for the future without dismissing the past. And they didn’t walk the course consulting a Ouija board to make it happen…
Copyright 2007/Revised 2013 Nathan Crace. Nathan Crace (on Twitter @lipouts) is an award-winning golf course architect, published author, and member of the Golf Writers Association of America. You can purchase his book “Lipouts, The Best I Could Do From the First Two Years” from Moonbay Media on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and in the iTunes Bookstore.