Muirfield-A Scottish Treasure

“A certain breed of golfer collects golf courses as he might butterflies, traveling the world in pursuit of the rarer species and cataloging his conquests for the bedazzlement of fellow collectors. Some collectors specialize in the rare and the inaccessible—golf courses that straddle the equator or cling to glaciers, that sort of thing. But for most golfers, collecting is a search for roots, the roots of the game and the roots of obsession. This sort of collecting leads to Scotland and, once there, inevitably to Muirfield.”

Being one of those collectors and having not had the pleasure to have experienced the golf club of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, more familiarly known as Muirfield, I find this SI article from 1987 by Sarah Ballard invaluable in bridging that gap for me and describing in fascinating detail one of the oldest and most storied venues in our sport.

Like so many pieces about a classic place this one has lost none of it’s relevance over 25 years. BTW, the Open Championship returns to Muirfield in 2013.

Sarah does not limit herself to the course but covers the enticing gestalt of the place, down to the members, the accommodations, and the food. Pour yourself a large Arnold Palmer and enjoy this archived article. You get the full bouquet of the Muirfield experience and it is intoxicating.

(Click to read Sarah Ballard’s SI Article about the golf club at Muirfield)


Sarah Ballard

July, 1987

Grounds For Golf

This book is subtitled “The History and Fundamentals of Golf Course Design” and that is an accurate description of what it is about.  Fundamentals, not the wonky details, of course design is what Shackelford successfully relates to the arm chair course architects out there.

You know who you are.  Guys who regularly are moving bunkers or rerouting the front and back nine on their home courses over clam chowder after an above handicap performance and a loss of two out of three on the morning Nassaus.  Or guys who come back from that man trip with a litany of “suggestions” on how those name brand architects could have made the courses just a tinch more playable.

This is an informative and very readable primer on golf course design and the history that has brought us to where we are today.  Shackelford is a bright guy with an easy going writing style who is well briefed in the subject and opinionated enough to make it thought provoking.  He is a guy who has played all the holes he discusses and has done the necessary background research as well.  The book is full of thoughtful quotes from C.B. Macdonald, Alister MacKenzie, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Doak, Pete and Alice Dye, among other design authorities that lend credibility to his opinions on the history of the development of course design.

For example:

“We want our golf courses to make us think.  However much we may enjoy whaling the life out of the little white ball, we soon grow tired of play a golf course that does not give us problems in strategy as well as skill.”
Bobby Jones

Add to this the etchings of Gil Hanse, a fine course designer in his own right, and it is a well presented and balanced presentation on a subject that too often is discussed vociferously without adequate background knowledge.

The book is compartmentalized by subject to cover what is architecture, schools of design, evolution of the craft, principles of design, great holes and classic designs, and even the nomenclature of the industry.  His two chapters on Comic Relief in quality design and the role of Temptation as a key element in challenging players to make quality decisions that will affect their scorecards are particularly interesting.

Shackelford has the distinction of having dabbled in design as a consultant on a track not far from Los Angeles called Rustic Canyon that he did under the tutelage of Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner.  This is a natural looking daily fee course they created in the rugged foothills of Southern California and it avails him the opportunity to explain many of his theories of design as expressed through their own experience in creating this course.

The print version is accessible for a steep price in the used market but you can get the Nook electronic version for about $7.99 through the internet.

This book is not for everyone, you need a bias of interest in the topic to wade through the detail he presents.  If you are an armchair architecture wonk like me this is something you need to have read if for no other reason than to have some basis for your personal authority when criticizing the Pete Dye design that just ate your lunch.

Grounds For Golf

Geoff Shackelford (2003)

Dream Golf-The Making of Bandon Dunes

Dream Golf is required reading if you are going to play this new west coast mecca of American golf.  Stephen Goodwin writes a detailed account of the conception, planning, construction, and operation of Mike Keiser idyllic contribution to the inventory of American golf destinations.  Goodwin’s access to Keiser, David Kidd, Tom Doak, Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw and so many other protaganists who were instrumental in this exercise make this an informative read.

To dream of bringing true links golf to America was an audacious ambition on it’s own.  But Keiser, a wealthy entrepreneur from his success building Recycled Paper Greetings, took this a whole step further.  He saw himself as the George Crump of our time-the man who in 1913 conceived and funded the building of the most famous golf course in America Pine Valley on obscure sandy scrub hills outside of Camden, New Jersey.

To this end Keiser not only conceived of the idea he went through the painstaking process of becoming an expert in links golf by assiduously playing all the greatest links venues in the world and tirelessly networked with architects and experts on the subject.  Using his own money and connections he searched for just the right raw venue that could be a home to his dream until he landed on this remote site in southern Oregon.

The book documents Keiser’s immersion in the process and his entrepreneurial risk taking it took to bring it to fruition.  He landed the best young architects of our time before they were famous and full of themselves.  As a result he pushed them on to create something very unique-real links golf courses on American soil.

David Kidd-a young Scotsman-did the first course Bandon Dunes in the late 1990s.  Tom Doak, one of the truly knowledgeable people when it comes to traditional links course design, did Pacific Dunes next in 2001.  Bandon Trails was the work in 2005 of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw who had to negotiate the blending of more rugged inland terrain with the desired seaside features.  Tom Doak came back in 2010 to create Old Macdonald a testimonial course to the pioneering influence of C.B. Macdonald considered by many to be the grandfather of American golf course architecture.

This book provides marvelous insight into the planning of golf courses and the special challenge of bringing authentic links design features to an American seaside venue.  The detail of conversations and the evolved thinking that brought these courses-all of which are in the top 100 in America by the magazine rating listings-to reality makes this a rich and engaging read.

The bonus is that for each course the author played a round with the designer and Goodwin gives a hole-by-hole account of the experience.  This is like getting a course guide written by the architect as a primer before playing the course.  Very cool indeed.

I highly recommend this read whether you are going to Bandon Dunes or not.  If you are going to Bandon it will provide unique insight to the facility and the guys who created and still run the place.  If not you will just become much more knowledgeable about the Herculean effort it takes to create a storied venue.

Dream Golf

Stephen Goodwin (2010)

Minimalist Design

In the Coore-Crenshaw theology, the cardinal sin of golf course architecture is anything that appears to be forced or contrived or “thought out”.  The hand of the architect should be invisible-and this takes much labor and patience and discipline. “We don’t want our holes to look like golf holes,” Bill says, “They should look like landscapes which just happen to include a golf hole”.

Dream Golf

Stephen Goodwin


Defending The Links

The courses… the United States have architectural and maintenance tools unavailable at links courses: trees; man-made water hazards; irrigation and overseeding for uniformly thick rough; amped green speeds……

Rota courses have the basics: distance; direction of play, primarily off the tee; ground shaping, such as ridges and hollows; cutting heights, particularly around greens; bunkers; and the occasional prayer for rain to make the fescue pop and wind to fortify the challenge.

Brett Avery

Hollowed Ground
Golf World
July, 2012

Virginia Artistry-A Talk With Lester George

In the attached interview with Golf Atlas, Lester George discusses his approach and philosophy to course design.  It is an insightful conversation with an accomplished course architect who you ought to get to know.

Lester George is not one of the names that generally comes to people’s lips when they talk about the architects of this era, at least not yet.  Given the quality of work that he has done since 1991 on the eastern seaboard and beyond in renovation, restoration, and new course design, the recognition he deserves as one of the best course designers in the region is not that far away.

As this extensive interview reveals, he is a bit of an old school type architect, knowledgeable and respectful of the approach to strategic design and classic style holes of the greats of the Golden Era of course design.  His recent restoration of C.B. MacDonald and Seth Raynor’s Old White Course at the Greenbrier (circa 1914) is a good example of this.  He labored studiously over old renderings and aerial photos of the course, rolled back changes made by others over the years, removed tree growth that had compromised the original design, and brought back to life the living and breathing intention of these two classic designers.  The PGA Tour has embraced this classic course as the host of the Greenbrier Classic.

My first experience with one of his designs was when I had the opportunity to play the Kinloch Golf Club outside Richmond.    Lester did this course with the advice and assistance of one of the great Virginia amateurs, Vinnie Giles.  Their collaborations revealed in great detail shed light on one of Lester’s strongest attributes, his ability to recognize reasoned advice, process it,  and turn it into design results.

Which way today-Kinloch #2 (

One of the most interesting aspects to the design at Kinloch are the number of holes with alternative playing routes.  Number 2, 4, 9, 11, and 15 all have two distinctly different playing lines you can take on the hole.  As Lester says of playing the second hole  “Many things factor into the way I approach the second, including the tee I am on, the wind, the hole location, and the way I am playing”.   The concentration of this many strategically variant holes on the same course demands full focus on thoughtful course management.

(Click to read the moegolf Kinloch Golf Club review)

A more recent addition to his resume is startlingly bold design of Ballyhack Golf Club in Roanoke, Virginia.  Built in the tradition of Scottish highland courses, it has dramatic flow and some of the fiercest bunkering you can imagine.  Lester’s description of the process of bringing this course to life is testimony to his dedication to bringing out the ground what his mind’s eye perceives.  The Ballyhack Virtual Course Tour from their website will take your breath away.

Ballhack #9-this is no where to end up (

Take the time to read this wonderful interview with a relatively unknown course designer.  Once you are familiar with him,  I am sure you will be seeking out opportunities to see his work first hand.

(Click to read the Golf Atlas interview with Lester George)

Feature Interview

Golf Atlas Website


Darkhorse Wins Olympic Derby

If you care about things four years from now then you might have noticed that the long awaited result of the beauty contest to determine who will design the golf course for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil came down last week and the winner was a big surprise.

This was an eight team race with all of the biggest names in course design-Nicklaus, Norman, Player, Trent Jones, Doak, and others teamed up with the icons of women’s golf vying for the right to build a new course in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate the inclusion of golf in the world’s biggest athletic expo in 2016.  The four-person jury decided on the team of Gil Hanse and Amy Alcott, easily the least heralded of the entrants, who presented a detailed design that met their criterion of building an environmentally respectful course that would not be a financial burden to the community who would inherit it once the Olympic tent was folded up and gone.

As you can read in the attached Golf World article by Geoff Shackelford called “Why the darkhorse won the day” they picked Gil Hanse because he is an established and capable architect with a strong resume of both new course design and renovation who can “construct artistic, low-impact designs with enough strategic twists to test the world’s best….and has a strong site vision and a disposition best suited for what figures to be a heavily scrutinized project.”

Maybe the most significant thing is who the committee did not choose to do this high profile project.  Shackelford says, “it was time for golf to end its bizarre, expensive, and unsatisfying addiction to the ‘player-architect’”.  They did not want a another lavish or gaudy display of what an unlimited budget could buy-rather they were looking for someone to create something with traditional character without a high construction or maintenance tab that could be an asset to the public community who will own and play on it for decades to come.

As one of the celebrated finalists, Robert Trent Jones Jr,  correctly concluded “the jury panel’s shocking decision endorsed the vitality of architecture over celebrity”.  That rarely happens in high profile projects like this.

(Click her to read Shackelford’s “Why the darkhorse won the day)

Geoff Shackelford

Golf World

March, 2012

The “Lost MacKenzie” of El Boqueron

Alistar MacKenzie, one of history’s most respected course architects, has  produced many of the great masterpieces of golf course architecture-Cypress Point, Augusta National, Crystal Downs, Lahinch, Pasatiempo, and Royal Melbourne.  As with so many artists there is the story of a lost treasure from their collection.  In that spirit it turns out that the most creative design he ever came up with may be one that was never built, as related in this article by Thomas Dunne in 2007 of the lost MacKenzie design of El Boqueron in Argentina.

It turns out that in 1930, while in his creative prime, the stock market crash and the beginning of The Great Depression sent MacKenzie global in search of new work.  In spite of economic travails in Argentina the very wealthy elite asked him to design two courses at The Jockey Club in Buenos Aires.  While he was there he met a wealthy land baron, Enrique Anchorena,  who was in the process of putting together the grandest private park in all of South America on his private estate.  He hired the most distinguished architects to do the landscaping and building construction.  So it just made sense to commission MacKenzie, who just happened to be in the neighborhood, to design his private course for this estate.

This was going to be a  a course that was played by Enrique’s family and friends, so it gave MacKenzie a unique opportunity to try things he would never do on a more intensely played course.  What resulted was a mind boggling design on a rolling piece of rural ground which included nine double greens with dramatic contouring, his signature jagged edged intimidating bunkers, plenty of subtle tactical deception, and a good deal of nasty in patches of curros (gorse) adjacent to the playing areas to punish wayward shots.

The effects of the depression prevailed and the course was never built but the plans survived and ended up framed on the wall above the fireplace in the clubhouse that one of Anchorena’s heirs took for his permanent home.  Fast forward about 60 years when  David Edel, a struggling PGA pro, was visiting Argentina one winter and happened to hear about the surviving plans for the MacKenzie course from a golfing friend.  Edel, who grew up playing MacKenzie courses in California, became obsessed with the notion of purchasing the plans from the family and bringing this “Lost MacKenzie” to life in America.

It took another ten years but in 2006 Edel spent a considerable portion of his family savings to procure these plans and start a process of finding an appropriate place to build his dream course in the states.  He found an appropriate piece of ground of similar topography to the original at El Boqueron just outside Austin, Texas-the place seemed perfect, even the prevailing wind was in the same direction.  He then searched for the appropriate architect to do this design and settled on Mike DeVries who was an acknowledged expert in MacKenzie designs.  For DeVries this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to pay homage to the man he most respected in the world of golf course design.

Unfortunately our current economic malaise has delayed the construction of this private golf club in Austin for now, but Edel has taken up residence on the property and fervently believes that someday this dream will be realized to bring the Lost MacKenzie to life in the hills outside Austin.

(Click here to read Dunne’s fantastic tale of “The Lost MacKenzie”)

Greens #11 and #7 By Mike DeVries

Thomas Dunne added another piece to this story in 2009 when he interviewed Mike DeVries the designated architect for the El Boqueron course to be built in Austin.  In this interview he went over DeVries amazing drawings of the double green settings planned for this project.  The detail in DeVries descriptions of the planned complexes reveals the bold creativity that MacKenzie brought to his designs.  This is a rare look into the thought processes of a legendary designer and a well studied disciple of the great artist.

(Click here to see and read about the architect’s plans for El Boqueron)

Thomas Dunne

Art In Golf Architecture

It is evident in reading his philosophy of golf architecture that Max Behr might have been one of the early “Minimalist” proponents in his field.  In this piece he wrote in 1927 you can hear a voice that has reached architects like Tom Doak and Ben Crenshaw who are strong proponents of the minimalist approach to course design.  We may not all agree with Behr’s sentiments but he does express an argument worth considering as we try to evaluate the trend toward bigger and bolder artificial design elements over the last century.

The question he poses in this essay is a simple one,  “What, then, is art in golf architecture? What are the values we should seek, and the method we should adopt to arrive at them?”

For the most part Behr believed that the natural elements of the land should be the guiding force in design and that architects should resist the temptation of imposing their will upon what the topography presents just to make a personal statement.

“We forget that the playing of golf should be a delightful expression of freedom. Indeed, the perfect rhythmic coordination of the muscles to swing the club makes the golf stroke an art. And, being such, it is apt to induce an emotional state, under the stress of which human nature is not rational, and resents outspoken criticism. It follows that when the canvas of Nature over which the club-stroke must pass is filled with holes artificially designed to impede the golfer’s progress, these obvious man-made contraptions cause a violation of that sense of liberty he has every right to expect. This accounts for the checkered history of every artificial appearing golf course.”

“He must first feel before he thinks. He must perceive in the ground what might be, not conceive in his mind what must be.”

His criticism is that architects tend to become formula oriented in enforcing their will instead of letting them become an expression of the natural surroundings.  As a result they become complacent in a sense of their omnipotence and what we see is redundant and gaudy instead of a pleasing reflection of nature itself.

Remember he wrote this in 1927, he must be rolling over in his grave looking at the work of some of the high profile architects of the modern era.

He is not saying that the courses need to be simplistic just to respect the natural appearance of the topography, rather Behr would argue that some elements of design being used to make the game easier or more presentable easier are not appropriate either.

“Sand is now being used, not solely for its legitimate purpose as a hazard, but as a species of beacon to guide the player in estimating distance. Thus a crutch is thrown into the landscape upon which the eye of the golfer may lean, and the hazard of indefinite space, calling for intelligence to solve, is to that extent mitigated. And greens are now being purposely tilted toward play, collars and mounds are being placed around them to keep the ball from straying, and enfeebled skill rejoices. Loose from any responsibility to obey geological law, the architect continues to invent devices to coddle the golfer. It is this disregard for the laws of the medium that explains ‘freak’ architecture.”

The goal should be for the architect to strike a proper balance of ego and humility in creating something pleasing to the eye as well as challenging to play.  He can best achieve this by being respectful of natural elements of the land itself.

“It should now be apparent that true architecture can alone spring from observance of the laws accountable for the character of the earth’s surface. The forces of Nature must expend themselves in the design.”

(Click here to read the full article by Max Behr “Art in Golf Architecture”)

Max H. Behr

The American Golfer

August, 1927

Golf Magazine Top 100 Courses 2011

The lists of 100 best courses are compiled every year by a variety of golf magazines in a very subjective process so what makes the list is in the eye of the beholder. But no matter how you slice it for a course to appear on the list at all means they are in a very exclusive group and it is worth taking notice.

Golf Magazine came out with their top 100 for the year in the U.S. and the World and many of the household names still dominate the top ten. Pine Valley is at the top, Augusta, St. Andrews, Oakmont, and Muirfield and in the top ten. But what is more interesting is what new sites have been added to the list. Enjoy a look at some of the new entries shown below.

Tom Doak and Jim Urbina designed a seaside treat in Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes in Oregon a tribute to the great Charles Blair MacDonald who designed some of the most memorable courses in the Golden Age of American design of the 20’s and 30’s. This one was number 43 on the U.S. List.

Old Macdonald Bandon Dunes, Oregon (John Henebry)

At number 70 in the U.S. Fazio did a stunning course called Grozzer Ranch on the treed rocky bluffs overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene in western Idaho. Here he employed some very imaginative design features that only enhance an already breathtaking visual golf experience.

Grozzer Ranch Coeur D

In Arkansas Tom Fazio did an Augusta National like gem called The Alotian that is number 76 on the U.S. best 100 on a rolling, wooded tract studded with azaleas in spring and an ambiance of relaxed exclusivity.

The Alotian Arkansas (Rob Brown)

Some design tweaking to Caves Valley Golf Course outside of Baltimore, Maryland moved this Fazio design onto the U.S. list at number 82. This was the site of a Walker Cup and a U.S. Senior Open in the last decade but the members have continued to put a concentrated effort into refining the course and made it into something special.

Caves Valley Owings Mills, Maryland (Larry Lambrecht)

Looking at this list makes you understand how much catching up there is to do if you intend to play a significant percentage of the greatest courses in the world. So start making plans!!!

(Click here to see Golf Magazine’ World 100 Best Courses for 2011)

(Click here to see Golf Magazine’s US 100 Best Courses for 2011)

August 2011