Course architects' early experiences shape philosophies

The ninth hole at Shadow Creek

The ninth hole at Shadow Creek

Golf architecture is unique in the artistic realm, a subtle mixture of skill and imagination, intuition and science.

Whether the architect is a minimalist who shuns major earth-moving projects or a true modernist who prefers aggressive shaping of the land, you’ll typically find he shares a reverence for the classic verities of the masters who preceded him.

“We all study the courses left by such talented individuals as Donald Ross, C.B. Macdonald and Alister MacKenzie, just to name a few,” Ben Crenshaw said.

Crenshaw and his counterparts borrow liberally from the past while adding their own signatures. Some of those signatures carry more of a flourish than others, as architects avail themselves of modern technology to reshape landscapes that might otherwise be seen as nondescript. Perhaps the most famous in that genre is Tom Fazio, whose works are prevalent on various Golfweek’s Best lists.

Fazio grew up carrying his father’s bag at Jeffersonville Golf Club, a Ross design near Philadelphia. In 1963, he began working with his uncle, George Fazio, who lost a playoff with Ben Hogan at the 1950 U.S. Open. Despite that brush with history, George Fazio was better known for his architectural work.

“Every day of my life I think of my Uncle George,” Fazio said. “That’s the impact he had on me.” 

In the 1980s, Fazio developed a rare ability to style natural-looking holes in unusual places. Abandoned quarries, mined-out coalfields – he has been there, done that. Take his design at Shadow Creek, where he plopped a patch of North Carolina forest in the middle of the Nevada desert. In doing so, he transformed flat, desolate terrain near the Las Vegas Strip into lush, rolling meadowland. It is the world’s most artificial course, yet it looks perfectly natural.

By contrast, Crenshaw and design partner Bill Coore are at the forefront of the minimalist movement currently en vogue. Crenshaw was born in Texas and educated at some of golf’s finest cathedrals. He learned the game at Austin Country Club, a Perry Maxwell design. His design philosophy was shaped at The Country Club, one of America’s purest parkland courses, in Brookline, Mass., where he competed in the 1968 U.S. Junior Amateur. Then, in 1972, he experienced Augusta National’s wide fairways, sparing use of bunkers, subtle mounding and massive greens.

“Those golf courses were a revelation,” Crenshaw said. “It seemed to me they made the holes based upon the land. It changed my perspective.”

One of Coore-Crenshaw’s first major design breakthroughs was Kapalua’s Plantation course in Hawaii, where they found the par-5 18th, then built the rest of the course around it. Here the influence of Augusta National – its size, scope and dramatic topography – is ever-present. At the Plantation Course, the greens are mammoth and the problems set forth by the wind can be ever-changing.

“The challenge at Kapalua is the wind blows so hard, how do we make it playable?” Crenshaw said. “I’ve always said the easiest thing in the world to do is build a hard golf course.” 

There is, perhaps because of their minimalist approach, a seamless, timeless quality to Coore-Crenshaw courses. Such is the case with their recent renovation of Pinehurst No. 2.

“The golf course is the same but it appears vastly different because we returned it to its more natural setting,” Crenshaw said.

Sand, pine straw and wire grass have replaced rough and restored the emphasis on the planning and precision of the golf shot. It’s a welcome return to simplicity and naturalness.

Colorado-based architect Jim Engh represents a different school of architecture. Engh received an early taste of architecture when his father, a John Deere dealer, built a nine-hole course with friends in his native North Dakota. 

Later, Engh trained under architects Dick Nugent, Ken Dye and Joe Finger. But it was during a stint working overseas for British design firm Cotton Pennick (which later was acquired by IMG) that Engh made a pilgrimage to see many of Europe’s classic designs. Many years before, Pete Dye toured the great links of Scotland and was struck by their unspoiled, ageless aura. Engh found similar inspiration in classic Irish links. 

“A lot of times, the American golfer can shut his brain off and just fire at the flag,” Engh said. “I finally figured out the reason I liked it so much in Ireland was my brain was turned on 100 percent of the time.”

In particular, he was struck by Carne Golf Links, a hidden gem in northwest Ireland and a relative newcomer to the Irish golf scene.

“Carne is so crazy, it’s bad, and it’s so bad, it’s perfect,” he said. “You have this wild terrain with one hole designed on an edge and then, right beside it, they flattened the land out like a runway. That type of diversity made me go ‘wow.’ ”

Engh opened his own design firm in 1991, and began transferring what he learned from those Irish gambits to American soil. That willingness to take risks is evident in his design of Black Rock in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

“On No. 11, we were digging out this pond and found this mass of boulders we called the ‘Goonies,’ ” Engh said. “We carved the green site around this rock canyon. It’s pretty powerful stuff.”

Indeed, it is. Amid the endless possibilities for a golf hole, sometimes a designer builds a hole even he has to admit is crazy, yet perfect in every way.

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