I’m no golf historian. Maybe that’s why, until recently, I hadn’t known that the discovery of strategic golf architecture was likely accidental.
According to Keith Cutten’s new book The Evolution of Golf Course Design, the Old Course at St Andrews was once a narrow affair, a ribbon of grass bordered by shrubland. The line of play was clear and non-negotiable. In the 1840s, golf got more popular, and the Old Course became busy. Probably in an effort to accommodate the increased traffic, Allan Robertson, the keeper of the links, widened the fairways and greens, clearing swaths of gorse and other scrub.
This act, says Cutten, “represents (though likely by accident) the first major example of strategic design in the evolution of golf course architecture.”
By opening up the playing corridors at St Andrews, Robertson made it possible for different golfers to tackle the holes in different ways, depending on their ability and their tolerance for risk. He also gave permanent form to many bunkers, which combined with fairway width, natural undulation, and various out-of-bounds terrors to pose strategic questions:
Will you attempt to place your tee shot between the cluster of pot bunkers and the railroad on the right in order to gain a decent angle for your approach? Or will you bail out to the safe, playable zone on the left and then face a tricky second shot over two nasty bunkers and to a green that slopes away from you?
These are the quandaries at the heart of what we now call strategic golf course design. And in all likelihood, they were introduced to the Old Course as a side effect of Allan Robertson’s effort to squeeze more golfers onto the grounds.
Perhaps this is a well-worn tidbit among real golf historians, but I was surprised and delighted by it: old Allan Robertson—already the greatest golfer and the most successful equipment manufacturer of his time—suddenly becoming the first strategic course architect. By accident.
Like most historical oddities, however, this one asks more than it answers. Were Robertson and his protégé Old Tom Morris truly unconscious of the risk-reward attributes of the Old Course? If not a masterpiece of strategy, what did golfers in the second half of the 19th century perceive St Andrews to be? When did they begin to understand abstractly the strategic principles that the Old Course embodies concretely?
The first question may be unanswerable. Neither Robertson nor Morris were writers, and little is known of their thoughts on golf architecture.
The second two questions can be approached more closely because, fortunately, there is a paper trail.
In the late 1880s, as golf migrated to the inland regions of England and the United States, a cadre of authors began publishing articles about the best practices of building and maintaining courses. They also offered opinions on the old seaside links of the British Isles. Over the next two decades, the volume and sophistication of this genre of writing skyrocketed.
This was the first body of published criticism on golf architecture, and it’s fascinating. As a holiday project, I tracked down the readily available portions of this archive on Google Books, looking for any articles or book chapters about St Andrews written around the turn of the 20th century.
My process wasn’t exhaustive, and it wouldn’t hold up under academic review. It was just a glimpse—but this glimpse led me to a realization: In order to discuss and ultimately practice strategic design, golfers had to learn to read the Old Course.
And that realization brought another: the same is true today.
By “reading” St Andrews, I mean recognizing that its out-and-back routing, splatters of pot bunkers, humps and hollows, and radically large fairways and greens are not random, but rather make up the root language of golf strategy: options, angles, risk, reward. And like any language, it has to be learned.
The first to master it, or at least the first to put their mastery to print, were a group of British folks, most of them linked to Woking Golf Club in Surrey, England. During the first decade of the 20th century, these golfers renounced the artificial, penal style of golf architecture that had taken hold in the late Victorian period. Using the Old Course as their textbook, they discerned a new way not only to discuss but also to build golf courses. In the process, they ignited what came to be known in the United States as the “Golden Age” of golf architecture, an era in which National Golf Links, Pine Valley, Riviera, Cypress Point, and Augusta National were created.
This post is an introduction to a series that will explore how people interpreted St Andrews in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It will document the golf world’s gradual recognition that the Old Course was not just a random collision of sand, grass, and gorse, but rather a model of strategic design that new inland courses could emulate. And as I hope becomes clear, even today we are not done reading St Andrews.
How many golfers have you heard say that they appreciated the Old Course only after multiple rounds? Well, here is a correspondent for Walter Travis’s magazine American Golfer in 1908:
It sometimes happens that, after the first day or two, there is some small sense of disappointment, and at this period this may also be the feeling in regard to the quality of the course. The plain fact of the matter is that both need to be known well to be appreciated properly, and it has been almost the invariable experience that people who have cared little or nothing for St Andrews at the end of their first visit, have liked it better the second time, and that on the third or fourth they have developed a passion for it which has prevented them from keeping away afterwards for more than a few months at a time. They feel that they have found their natural home at last, and life and the game seem stronger things than ever they were before.
Each new golfing generation—indeed, each new golfer—has to learn the language of the Old Course anew. Fortunately, past generations have handed down to us their guides to that language, a body of wisdom that can help teach us what golf design was, should be, and could be.
Next in the series: Horace Hutchinson, John Low, and the first reviews of the links at St Andrews; or, Golf Advisor, fin de siècle edition
Throughout this series, I will cite sources whenever appropriate, but I want to give credit up front to a few works that have shaped my overall understanding of golf design theory at the turn of the 20th century:
- Keith Cutten’s The Evolution of Golf Course Design, which sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place. The “Bibliographic Essay” in the back of the book may be the best of its kind available, and it has been critical to my own amateur research.
- Robert Crosby’s pair of articles on John Low for Through the Green and Thomas MacWood’s “Arts and Crafts Golf” series for Golf Club Atlas, which are brilliant, foundational, and required reading for any golf architecture nut.