The Golden Age of Golf Course Design

The Golden Age of Golf Design LogoAt the turn of the century golf course design in the United States was in a nascent and mundane state. Building a new course was pretty much about staking holes in straight lines on flat terrain with a few hurdle hazards to make it challenging. Thankfully with the immigration of golf “professionals” from Scotland and England in the early 1900’s the strategic thoughts and concepts of course design from the links courses of the British Isles started to infiltrate the thinking as new courses were built to meet a fast growing interest in golf in the states.

In his book “The Golden Age of Golf Design” journalist and author Geoff Shackelford catalogs the accomplishments of a new age of golf course architects that marked the most prolific and creative period of course design in the past century. Men like Charles Blair Macdonald, Seth Raynor, George Crump,  George Thomas, Donald Ross, Hugh Wilson, William Flynn, A. W. Tillinghast, and Alister MacKenzie completely changed course construction introducing new and bolder routings, hazards, and green complexes to usher in a new strategic approach to course design.

These guys and their associates were downright prolific-the number of courses in the U.S. expanded from around 700 in 1916 to over 5900 by 1930. They went on to produce some of the most memorable courses as well.  As Shackelford points out a Golfweek list of the Top 100 American Courses opened before 1960 indicates that 84 of the top 100 were constructed between 1910 and 1937.

The Golden Age of Golf Design is a beautiful leather bound biographical encyclopedia of information on about 40 of the most influential characters of this period. To make this intelligible Shackelford groups the architects into five-plus “schools of design” of his own making-The National School, The Philadelphia School, The Ross School, The MacKenzie School, The Monterey School, and Other Schools. Each school is made up of a number of architects who studied each other’s works and helped leverage new course production in different regions of the country. What defies his distinctions is that many of these designers cross pollinated schools by expanding their contributions across the country and even around the globe. But there is little doubt that the era spawned mentorship and collaboration which hastened the proliferation of new and better designs
over a very short period of time.

Shackelford provides well researched detail of the interactions of these designers to explain the evolution and dissemination of the new strategic concepts. He has a credential page on each architect which includes their interests, published writings, career influences, golfing ability, methodology, design characteristics, best original designs,
and a personal quote. He support this with a trove of original black and white photos of the holes from some of our classic golf courses to give context to their conceptual elements.

A wonderful accent to the book are the watercolor drawings of Mike Miller on the cover and at the beginning of each chapter of iconic holes from Merion, Los Angeles Country Club, Royal Country Down, Pine Valley, and Pebble Beach among others. The vivid renderings give the reader a surreal feeling for the character and design of these classic courses.

Geoff’s book provides a synthesized understanding of the contributions of these designers and their influences on each other in setting a new standard for quality course design in the Golden Age. For an armchair course architect the book is a go-to reference manual that codifies the genealogy of the influential architects from the most significant age of American golf course design.

The Golden Age of Golf Course Design
Geoff Shackelford (1999)

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