The golf architecture landscape has changed dramatically since I started writing for Golfweek in October 1988. Back then, the players were the stars and the venues were only beginning to emerge from the confines of a neutral background.
That was the year “restoration” first became a buzzword thanks to the U.S. Golf Association bringing the U.S. Open to The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., for the first time in 25 years. Architect Rees Jones was the darling of that year’s media tent for having undone some of the clumsy mounding and counter mowing to which the famed old layout had been subjected over the previous two decades.
Championship setups those days were still under the sway of former USGA executive director P.J. Boatwright. The emphasis was on long rough and narrow fairways, even if that meant mowing lines led to fairway bunkers that were way out into the roughs rather than strategically placed across or inside the ideal line of play. Major championship venues such as Winged Foot, Southern Hills, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills and Augusta National Golf Club were all less than 7,000 yards long. That 1988 season, Curtis Strange averaged 258 yards on his drives – compared to a PGA Tour median of 264 yards – in becoming the first Tour player to top $1 million in earnings for the year.
By contrast, the 2017 PGA Tour season saw 101 players earn $1 million. The average drive was just under 293 yards. The scorecard yardage of the four majors averaged 7,483 yards. While that added yardage seems like a lot over three decades, it doesn’t make up for the 11-percent increase in average driving length. In other words, despite considerable lengthening of golf courses the past 30 years, they are playing shorter than they used to at the elite level.
Golf, media landscape has changed
They certainly garner more media attention than they used to – in large part because the media landscape has changed. I started in a print world. The pacing of news was, in retrospect, more leisurely, with weekly retrospective coverage of tournament results. Course news and reviews came only after opening day. There was a steady pace of new courses, to the point where by the late 1990s we were dealing with an opening every day of the year. The pace of openings has since trickled down. For the past decade, a golf course closes down every other day in the U.S. And until the late 1990s, the architecture world was dominated by big-name, signature architects: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Pete Dye, Tom Fazio, Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf, and the Joneses (Trent, Bobby and Rees).
Today, all of those big design shops have shrunk dramatically. While they have work, their names do not automatically open doors to prospective owners (and golfers) the way they used to. There’s been a revolution from below, as former design associates and former shapers have branched out on their own. New, more mobile digital technologies of design, drawing, budgeting and producing plans have made it easier for solo practitioners to set up their own design shop – or not to have a shop at all. They can farm out the detailing to a cadre of young, independent graphics people. Instead of an impressive show-and-tell model for winning jobs, based upon their charisma or their having won majors, now they rely more upon their passion for the craft and their ability to translate ideas directly in the field. To cover architecture these days, you have to be conversant with this while new talented names – such as Ian Andrew, Jay Blasi, Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw, Mike DeVries, Tom Doak, Matt Dusenberry, Keith Foster, Kyle Franz, Andrew Green, Gil Hanse, David McLay-Kidd, Kyle Phillips, Kris Spence and Andy Staples – gain acclaim.
Web coverage has changed the scene, with advance word of projects regularly filling up space on a handful of insider architecture sites such as Golf Club Atlas and Max’s Lounge. You almost need a helmet and gloves to weigh in on some of the ensuing debates. Architects opine along with their design associates and shapers during the process of course construction. Course owner/developer Mike Keiser (of Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley fame) is not alone in cultivating the advance word through preview play of six- or 10-hole loops of his uncompleted golf courses. The point is to get ahead of a formal review process by cultivating a sense of privileged, insider status among (future) patrons and getting a sense of potential problem areas that need to be tweaked along the way.
Finally, superintendents are getting more recognition than ever. After all, the design is in their hands after opening day. The mowing and grooming equipment allows for more refined lines – whether ‘dialing it in” to achieve championship green speeds or creating a more relaxed setup with less expense to sustain. And the need to rely upon more naturalistic, low-fertility inputs into turfgrass and roughs means golf courses such as Pinehurst No. 2 can be kept more on the edge of scruffy near-dormancy rather than primped up to be lush green all the time.
In 30 years of coverage, (ital)Golfweek(unital) has been witness to a transformation of the golf landscape. Golfers are for the better as a result, since we have more diversity and complexity to our golf courses. That means a greater range of options for players. The architecture scene has never been more compelling. Gwk