2004: Feature - The clubhouse connection

Some clubhouses are a lot better than others. Some are a lot worse. Anyone serious about golf course design also should be thinking about clubhouse architecture and what makes buildings comfortable or awkward.

I know there are self-appointed golf purists out there who say it’s enough to change your shoes in the parking lot and to limit any clubhouse amenities to a tiny pro shop and lemonade stand. But I also know plenty of people who find virtue and comfort in a well-designed clubhouse and who think it deserves a central place in the overall golf day. The key is to sequence the spatial experience, inside and outside.

Part of what makes such grand Northeast charmers as Winged Foot, Baltusrol and Ridgewood so solid and enduring is that they share rich architectural heritages. Yes, the courses all are A.W. Tillinghast designs. But those clubs also sport imposing German Tudor clubhouses designed by Charles Wendehack, far and away the greatest clubhouse architect of the Interwar period.

It was clubhouse architect Stanford White, not golf course architects Willie Davis and Willie Dunn, whose creativity first put Shinnecock Hills on the map in the mid-1890s. The clubhouse – an extended cottage with columned verandah, gabled roof and shingled exterior – virtually codified an emerging East End Shingle style that still is deployed today as a sign of classicism.

Versions of the Shinnecock style clearly are in evidence at two 1990s clubs that drew their inspiration from traditional golf: Atlantic Golf Club in Bridgehampton, N.Y., and The River Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., both sport the white columns, low dormer line, shingling and telltale eyebrow windows.

It’s easy to dismiss the golf course clubhouse as superfluous or indulgent. In an era (actually, in the wake of an era) when developers have been known to spend $10 million for wildly luxurious club palaces, it’s important to be wary, lest one get waylaid by “an edifice complex.” Sprawling, 110,000-square-foot compounds such as that at Olympia Fields Golf Club, with its grand ballrooms, hotel-like accommodations and a 10,000-square-foot men’s locker room, evoke the near-delusional opulence of a bygone era.

Of course, the 1980s and 1990s saw their share of architectural excess – in course design and in clubhouses. More than a few clubs were put into near-bankruptcy by clubhouses outfitted with spas, business conference rooms, fine dining rooms and bar mitzvah halls that couldn’t meet their business plans.

One trend is certain, however. Clubhouses are getting smaller. Whereas 50,000-square-foot extravaganzas were commonplace in the mid-1990s, many clubs are now opening with clubhouses in the 15,000-square-foot range.

A clubhouse easily can run $200 per square foot to design and build, plus an additional 30 percent per square foot for equipment and furnishings. So it’s not surprising in today’s more parsimonious golf economy that an owner would rather spend $3 million than $10 million for the building, or that municipalities spend $1 million for a functional, 5,000-square-foot structure that offers a modest pro shop, limited breakfast and lunch menu, and a simple but comfortable bar.

Building architect Michael Cunningham, a principal in the design firm of Hart/Howerton, talks about golf clubhouses as “extensions of a residence” that convey “studied informality.”

His firm, whose 50 clubhouse designs include Atlantic Golf Club, and Gainey Ranch in Scottsdale, Ariz., makes a point of locating and designing clubhouses in ways that relate to the landscape and to the unique culture of the surrounds. At the Santa Lucia Preserve, that entails a low-profile, hacienda style. At Red Sky Ranch, that means incorporating Douglas firs to make two clubhouses look like rugged national park lodges. At Bayonne (N.J.) Golf Club overlooking New York Bay’s Upper Harbor, that calls for a modified Shingle design with a lighthouse.

Design style is not merely aesthetic; it also is about utilization and the feeling that a building conveys. Big, blocky porte cocheres and massive facades provide an awkward entry sequence that is alienating. Hallways with closed-off doors are equally uninviting, leaving guests or members wondering whether they are even welcome. Locker rooms with floor-to-ceiling lockers can be confining, compared to a more open arrangement with a vaulted ceiling, lockers you can see over (Garden City Golf Club) or lockers arrayed around the outside of a common room (Seminole Golf Club).

Finally, the clubhouse has to integrate well with the golf course. That requires exquisitely detailed considerations of traffic flow, parking, hiding the service entries and locating it in such a way that it complements the course routing rather than forcing the course onto unsuitable ground. One notorious consequence of perching a clubhouse at the highest point and maximizing views is that it turns the incoming holes into uphill slogs, thereby ruining the integrity of the round.

A clubhouse needn’t be massive, elegant or ornate. Nor should it be reduced to its simplest functional elements. It ought to have an internal design coherence that fits well with – rather than works against – the golf course and the relaxed nature of the game.

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