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The Evolution of Golf Course Design

03 January, 2019

The Evolution of Golf Course Design

It’s been a while since we last reviewed a golf book – John Sabino’s How to play the world’s most exclusive golf clubs was the last one in August 2016 – so it’s high time we put that to rights. Our US Consultant Fergal O’Leary recently gave us a heads-up on a new book written by Canadian architect Keith Cutten and the author was kind enough to send us a copy for this review.

The book is divided into two main components.

The first section considers golf course design in twenty-one concise chapters, starting with the origins of the game, progressing decade by decade from the 1830s through to the 2010s, before ending with a look at the small, but important number of “Ladies of the Links” who have made their mark in a male-dominated profession down the years.

The second section of the book is split into three parts, with comprehensive profiles of forty-six architects, twelve authors and five “visionaries”.

The designer portraits range from old timers such as Old Tom Morris and Tom Bendelow to more recent architects like Gil Hanse and Mike Stranz. In the Author category, old-fashioned golf writers Horace Hutchinson and Robert Hunter are featured alongside Ron Whitten and Bradley Klein from the modern era.

All the “Visionaries” are American – perhaps lending weight to the thoughts of some who might say only extremely wealthy people like Mike Keiser have the financial wherewithal to be able to turn golfing dreams into reality.

Part One: The Evolution of Golf Course Design

This section begins by reviewing the move away from the Scottish coastline during the Industrial Revolution and the coming of the railway into the heathland areas around London then on to the wonderful Golden Age of Golf Course Design in the United States that came after the Great War in Europe.

The end of the Great Depression and World War II led to a Modern Era of earthmoving and, as many see it, the imposition of golf course design onto the landscape. Thankfully, a new millennium minimalist movement might just have sparked what some are now calling a second Golden Age of Design in the golf industry.

Cutten takes us on a 190-year journey that starts in St Andrews, Musselburgh and North Berwick; “three golf centres (which were at that time) the focus of the golfing world” and ends at Bandon Dunes, Streamsong and Sand Valley, where the destination model with two or more upscale courses at a single (often remote) location “continues to direct the golf design industry.”

Part One narrative continues at the end of this article.

Part Two: Profiles

Golf Architects

The forty-five architect sketches can be sub divided into two groups. The first twenty-five belong to the era from the 1830s to the 1940s – with the split between those operating in North America or Britain almost 50/50 – as the author delves into the family background, education and architectural career of all the greats; from Donald Ross and AW Tillinghast on one side of the Atlantic to Harry Colt and Alister MacKenzie on the other.

Only five of the twenty-one architects portrayed since World War II are from Great Britain & Ireland – Fred and Martin Hawtree, Eddie Hackett, Frank Pennink and Donald Steel – so that imbalance perhaps tells its own story regarding the direction that golf course architecture has gone since the start of the 1950s.

From Cutten’s list of modern era architects, Robbie Robinson and Rod Whitman might not be that well known beyond their native Canada, but they should be. The former worked under the great Stanley Thompson before setting out on his own, subsequently mentoring young designers like Doug Carrick and Tom McBroom, while the latter completed projects with Pete Dye during the 1980s and with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw on several occasions since then.


The dozen authors scrutinized includes, of course, Bernard Darwin – “the doyen of golf writers” – who wrote golf articles for The Times and Country Life for more than half a century. Of more recent vintage, the Australian authors Paul Daley and Darius Oliver also come under the spotlight for their excellent literary contributions to course architecture.

Daley’s six-volume essay series Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective was first published in 2002 and Oliver’s Planet Golf trilogy of books appeared between 2007 and 2016. All nine of these publications, like just about every single one that’s mentioned throughout Cutten’s book, are well worth reading.

Interestingly, all but four of the authors – Bernard Darwin, Pat Ward-Thomas, Herbert Warren Wind and Paul Daley – have also been involved at some time in their career with the design of at least one golf course, either on their own or in tandem with an established architect, so presumably it’s seen by some as nothing other than a natural progression to transition from the writing bureau to the drawing board.


Four of the entries in this sub-section appear somewhat inadequate as each of them is associated with only one revolutionary golf project: Henry Fownes and William Fownes with Oakmont; Hugh Wilson with Merion ; George Crump with Pine Valley; and Dick Youngscap with Sand Hills. In comparison to the golfing portfolio of Mike Keiser (the fifth person in this category) the entrepreneurial skills of the others pale into relative insignificance.

Starting with Bandon, then Barnbougle, Cabot and now Sand Valley, Keiser’s resort destination model has gone from strength to strength, with seven of the nine 18-hole courses at these facilities currently ranked in the World Top 100. It’s taken less than twenty years to get to where he is now, emerging relatively unscathed from the worst period of economic decline since the Great Depression years of the 1930s, and his coterie of preferred architects may well propel him to further success in the years to come.

Bibliographic Essay

The author provides a detailed list of books that readers might find useful if they want more background information. Beginning with Golf by Horace Hutchison in 1890 then progressing through works by Willie Park Jr., Alister MacKenzie, Stanley Thompson and Robert Hunter right up to Tom Simpson’s The Architectural Side of Golf , in 1929, there’s a rich vein of knowledge to be explored over a 40-year period.

Then a rather lengthy 50-year hiatus follows until the next publication of any note appears; The Golf Course by Geoff Cornish and Ron Whitten in 1981. This book was updated and published twelve years later under a new title: The Architects of Golf , mentioning in chapter 11 a new trend towards ‘low-profile architecture’ – effectively notifying readers of the arrival of the ‘Minimalist Movement’.

Since then, the author feels there are only three books: The Anatomy of a Golf Course (1992) by Tom Doak; Golf Course Architecture: Design, Construction and Restoration (1996) by Michael Hurdzan; and Grounds for Golf (2003) by Geoff Shackelford (along with another Shackelford book The Golden Age of Golf Course Design, published in 1999) that have moved the profession forward.

In Summary

The book took more than five years of research and writing to complete and that’s quite apparent from the level of detail delved into by Keith Cutten. His intention to find out the “how and why” of golf course architecture within an ever-changing world required a very close examination of the social and economic factors at play in the development of golf design up to the present day.

What’s also fascinating though, is to learn about the interaction that takes place between the leading architects; creating contacts, forging alliances and developing ideas with other like-minded individuals who would then form mutually beneficial partnerships (sometimes across different continents) to further their aims.

A design network exists that might not always be apparent on the surface but, by digging a little deeper, the author highlights many of the symbiotic relationships that have been fostered over more than a hundred and fifty years of golf course architecture. Seeing how all the different strands come together makes for an absolutely riveting read.

Canadian-written and Australian-published, Keith Cutten’s book is composed, as he says, in a “British English” style which is in keeping with all the classic golf architecture books, of which this is certainly one. The narrative flows effortlessly and it’s beautifully embellished with over three hundred historical pictures, routing plans, before and after images, aerial shots and pen portraits – not to mention stunning course photographs.

This is a book that sits comfortably alongside any of the scholarly tomes mentioned above – you will definitely want to add it to your collection.

Keith Cutten

Keith Cutten gained a degree in Planning and Design from the University of Waterloo and a Masters degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Guelph. Research for his Masters thesis on the history of golf course architecture was put to very good use when compiling his book.

He’s worked on a few new build and renovation projects with respected architect Rod Whitman: Sagebrush in British Columbia, Algonquin in New Brunswick, and both courses at the Cabot resort in Nova Scotia.

Keith is a member of the Board of Directors for the Stanley Thompson Society and he lives in Cambridge, Ontario with his wife, daughter and twin boys.

Jim McCann
Top 100 Golf Courses

To order your copy of The Evolution of Golf Course Design, click the link

Part 1 continued

Cutten takes us on a journey that starts in St Andrews, Musselburgh and North Berwick – “three golf centres (which were at that time) the focus of the golfing world” – then spreads out “as Scottish professionals sought to capitalise on the rapidly expanding golf markets.”

Unfortunately, men like Tom Dunn, the most prolific designer of his era, had a design style that was simplistic, basic and functional. As the author states: “Golf courses were simply viewed as playing fields from which the golfing professionals could, through the sale of golfing equipment, make their ‘real’ income.”

Another Scotsman, Tom Bendelow, became known by his nickname as “The Johnny Appleseed of Golf,” as he laid out hundreds of courses in America at the start of the 20th century. Most of them were very elementary but they helped to quickly spread the game around the country before others came along to build courses that eschewed a penal Victorian-style of design in favour of a more strategic approach.

Renowned architects Donald Ross, Harry Colt, A.W. Tillinghast and Alister MacKenzie all visited and often contributed towards the creation of the Pine Valley course and this project became something of a landmark design. As stated by the author, “collaboration, and the sharing of ideas, became the industry norm, permitting an early form of peer review, which would help push the boundaries of the developing discipline.”

There may have been great unrest in Great Britain and Europe after World War I but the Roaring Twenties was a period of great prosperity in the United States and Canada, leading to four significant ‘schools of design’ which helped shape the golfing landscape in North America and beyond (as far as Australia and South America, in fact) during that time.

The dramatic intervention of the Second World War was followed by a period during the 1950s and 1960s when the heroic style of Robert Trent Jones Sr. (merging penal and strategic schools of design) held sway. His repeatable formula enabled his company to churn out a new course every month on average for over twenty years.

In the 1970s, economic uncertainty with an OPEC oil embargo against the US and conflicts between the unions and the government in the UK were juxtaposed against something of an oil boom in Canada but the general disquiet led to a severe downturn in new course development, from an average of 380 per annum in the US during the 1960s to around 150 by the end of the following decade.

Pete Dye, whose work never found favour with many (according to Geoff Shackelford) because it “seemed too ‘quirky,’ too busy-looking or just too difficult,” introduced time-honoured links elements into his designs but, more importantly, he was a strong advocate of the ‘design-build’ method, personally shaping features himself when required, and this ‘design in the dirt’ would be an example for other architects to follow.

The Cornish and Whitten book The Architects of Golf in 1993 made mention of a low-profile trend that might be emerging and this minimalist style – where the “visual ‘trappings’ which cluttered the highly manicured courses of the 1980s were stripped away” – allowed more natural, rugged aspects to prevail, with courses reflecting the characteristics of the property onto which they’d been set.

Golf club committees became more aware of the need to renovate or restore their existing courses. Some wanted to reinstate the original design intent of their layouts, others wanted to modernize tired tracks that had lost their lustre. There were also clubs which felt the course had to be toughened up for a forthcoming major tournament or some that just wanted to ‘keep up with the Joneses’… by hiring one of the Jones family to do the work!

The credit crunch and real estate crash of 2008 had a major impact on new golf construction, with the resulting economic recession lasting more than five years. Despite the closure of a large number of courses, the destination model (which has two or more upscale courses at a single, often remote location) flourished, with Bandon Dunes, Streamsong, Cabot Links and Sand Valley leading the way in North America.

The restoration of Donald Ross’s Pinehurst #2 course in preparation for the 2014 US Open is cited as a landmark project, where Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw replaced large swathes of rough with natural sandy waste areas and widened fairways, reducing the 150-acre maintained area by more than 20% and using 15 million gallons of water a year for irrigation instead of 55 million gallons. Even hardened environmentalists must have been thrilled with the layout’s new eco credentials.


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