Lately I’ve begun to think of 1900-1910 as the most fascinating decade in the history of golf course design. This will sound odd to many who are familiar with the topic.
After all, the “Golden Age” of golf architecture is usually measured from the 1910s to the 1930s. That’s when classic courses like Pine Valley, Cypress Point, and Augusta National were built, and books like Alister MacKenzie’s Golf Architecture, Robert Hunter’s The Links, and George Thomas’s Golf Architecture in America were published. How could 1900-1910 measure up?
But as I’ve discovered in my winter-break plunge into the archives, the first decade of the 20th century saw a transformation in the way people thought about golf course design. While the architects of the Golden Age may have refined those theories and applied them more effectively, it was an earlier group of British golfers, led by John Laing Low, that first articulated them.
Recently, golf historians have started to give John Low and his contemporaries their due. In this year’s Evolution of Golf Course Design, Keith Cutten describes “the heathland era”* of 1900-1910 as “quite possibly the most under-appreciated [decade] in the evolution of golf course architecture.”
(*The term “heathland era” refers to the free-draining landscapes around London in which most of the best inland courses of the time were built.)
In particular, Cutten and other writers, including Desi Isaacson for The Fried Egg, have touted the changes made by John Low and Stuart Paton to Woking Golf Club in 1901 as a historical turning point. With the addition of just a few bunkers, Low and Paton introduced strategic design (though they wouldn’t have called it that) to inland golf.
What interests me, however, is not so much Low and Paton’s alterations to Woking but rather the theories of golf course design behind their work. These theories presented a compelling new vision of the game, a vision we still have to fight for in the 21st century. At the same time, Low’s philosophy was rooted in tradition, based on a certain interpretation—or reading—of the Old Course at St Andrews.
In this installment of “Reading St Andrews,” I will highlight the originality of John Low’s thinking by contrasting it with earlier ways of understanding the Old Course. I hope this exercise will reveal not only that 1900-1910 was critical in the evolution of golf architecture but also that the debates of that time are eerily similar to the ones we are still having today.
Quick notes on process…
I am not an experienced golf historian, just a writer who is exploring history as a way of learning more about golf architecture. So this series of blog posts should be taken as an essayistic reflection rather than a scholarly piece. Also, I must once again credit Robert Crosby’s two articles on John Low for guiding my general understanding of golf course design at the turn of the 20th century.
The 1890s, Horace Hutchinson, and the “Normal View” of St Andrews
A decorated amateur golfer and a prolific writer, Horace Hutchinson was perhaps the game’s first public intellectual. Starting in the late 1880s, he published an array of articles and books on golf technique, etiquette, equipment, history, and architecture. He was also probably the first writer to offer full-fledged evaluations—reviews, to use the modern term—of the classic Scottish links.
In the 1890s, Hutchinson devoted plenty of words to the Old Course at St Andrews. For the sake of clarity, though, I will focus on what I consider the most nuanced of these writings: his six-page commentary on the Old Course in his 1890 book of essays simply titled Golf.
Hutchinson starts by conveying the importance of St Andrews through a hypothetical anecdote that many modern golfers will relate to:
When two stranger golfers meet upon some neutral ground, one of the first questions that will pass from one to the other will most certainly be, “Have you been to St. Andrews?”—and should the answer be in the negative, the questioner will immediately deem himself justified in assuming a tone of patronage which the other will feel he has no right to resent.
To those who view the Old Course through the lens of the “strategic school,” however, Hutchinson’s discussion of the features of the links will be less familiar.
Generally he praises the aspects of the course that reward good strikes and penalize misses. He commends its substantial length, which he says ensures that “a weak or foozly drive means… a full shot lost.” He also extols the bunkers—not because they pose strategic questions but because, he claims, they punish foozles: “Just around each hole [the bunkers] lie in wait for the unwary and unskilful; and, along the course, just in such ambushes as to catch the ball that is not driven both far and sure.”
Hutchinson’s criticisms of the Old Course are even more illuminating. First, he laments “the prevalence of banks and braes,” arguing that such undulations produce unfair outcomes: “It is very trying to the temper to see your adversary lying beautifully, a few yards back, while your own somewhat better drive has finished hard under a brae, hopeless for any other club than an iron.” Hutchinson quickly notes, however, that by the end of the round, “luck has probably equalized itself.”
A further “weak point” of St Andrews, to Hutchinson’s mind, is the very feature that proponents of strategic design most admire: the width of the playing corridors. In a fascinating passage, Hutchinson argues that the disappearance of vegetation from the side of the fairways has made the links a less effective “school for young players”:
All these facts (the broadness of the course, the chance of a good lie off the course, and the many chances of a bad lie on it) tend to encourage a slogging style, a style the great aim of which is distance with comparative indifference to direction. There is not a sufficient premium on keeping straight.
Is that you, Brandel?
What Hutchinson does not consider, and what John Low and his acolytes would emphasize, is that the Old Course may discourage wild driving not so much through the immediate punishment of an unplayable lie in the gorse as through the delayed penalty of a poor or blind angle on the next shot.
On the whole, Hutchinson’s take on St Andrews bears the markings of what historian Robert Crosby terms the “Normal View” of golf architecture prior to the Golden Age. The Normal View holds that the main function of a course is to mete out justice to strong and weak strikes of the ball. In pursuit of such equity, hazards should, to borrow Crosby’s words, “inflict pain proportionally.” That is, “the severity of a hazard should always correspond with the degree of error in the missed shot it is intended to punish.”
It is on this philosophy that the penal golf architecture of the Victorian period was founded. Cross bunkers were dug a short distance from tees and backed by built-up “cops” to catch what was seen as the most inglorious foozle—the topped drive. Along the sides of fairways, shallower bunkers were placed where hooks and slices might end up. So proceeded the logic of crime and punishment, all the way to the green.
The problem with such courses is not just that they discourage the inexperienced but also that they provide little intrigue or challenge to the skilled. Take J. H. Taylor’s illustration of the ideally “fair” hole above. Round after round, a good player would be long enough to carry the cross hazards and accurate enough to stay out of the ones along the sides. What’s the fun in that?
Eventually the best golf architects would leave behind this way of designing holes. In doing so, they had to revisit St Andrews, reread the old links, and perceive that its chief virtues were not those of penalty, and that its supposed weaknesses—width and undulation—were actually its greatest strengths.
First, though, a word in defense of Horace Hutchinson…
Although his early writings on St Andrews exemplify aspects of the “Normal View,” Hutchinson himself is no avatar of that philosophy. In fact, he railed against the artificiality of Victorian courses from the beginning, and he also allowed his opinions on strategic design—and presumably on the Old Course itself—to evolve during the first decade of the 1900s. As the golf editor at Country Life magazine, a co-founder of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society, and an architect in his own right, Hutchinson was on the cutting edge of the heathland era.
The 1900s, John Low, and Reading the Strategy of the Old Course
Two years after helping install the famous bunkers on the 4th and 17th holes at Woking Golf Club, John Low published a book titled Concerning Golf (1903). The ninth chapter, “Concerning the Links,” came to be acknowledged as a major influence by nearly every great architect of the heathland era and the Golden Age.
Low’s basic argument is that hazards should not be “laid out to catch only the really bad shots,” as they were on many Victorian courses. Rather, hazards should be placed near where a well-struck shot might end up, or on what Low describes as the “bee-line” of the hole—sometimes in the middle of the fairway or right up against the green.
Why? Because such hazards tempt the skilled golfer to play near them in order to gain an advantage, and rather than punishing foozles, they ensnare the slightly mis-struck or overly ambitious shots of low handicappers. In this way, bee-line hazards offer good players the kind of interest and challenge that cross and side hazards cannot. As Low puts it,
The true hazard should draw play towards it, should invite the golfer to come as near as he dare to the fire without burning his fingers. The man who can afford to take the risks is the man who should gain the advantage.
Such assertions can be read as a defense of Low’s 1901 changes at Woking Golf Club. He and Stuart Paton placed their new bunkers on the bee-line, digging a pair in the middle of the 4th fairway and creating another that, from the perspective of unhappy members, seemed to “eat into” the 17th green. These hazards were right next to desired targets, and that was the point.
Shrewdly, though, in Concerning Golf, Low doesn’t mention his work at Woking. Instead, he refers again and again to the authority of St Andrews, and he gives a fresh and persuasive reading of the Old Course as the archetype of what we would now call strategic design.
As examples of his doctrine that “there is hardly such a thing as an unfair bunker,” Low cites the bee-line pots on the 9th and 14th holes at the Old Course. Yes, those hazards often punish “good shots”—which is to say, solidly struck ones. However, as Low says in a passage that to this day should be printed out and handed to every club member or tour pro who complains about a bunker in the center of a fairway,
Golf need not be played in bee-lines. It is a mistake to suppose that because you hit a shot straight down the middle of the course and find it bunkered you are to fill up the offending hazard. Next time you will play on the true line, not on the bee-line, and all will be well.
Perhaps my favorite bit of St Andrews analysis from Concerning Golf is Low’s rebuttal of the long-held—and still widely held—notion that the width of the Old Course permits wild driving. On the contrary, he says, “it is most important that the first shot be played absolutely in the right direction in order to ‘open up the hole’ as the saying goes.”
By the lovely phrase “open up the hole,” Low means something like finding a spot in the fairway that provides a full view of and an easy angle into the green. To illustrate this concept, he explains the proper tactics for playing the second holes at the Old Course and Hoylake:
The first shot must be played well to the right in both cases, in order to get to the best position from which to conduct further operations. The playing of the hole thus becomes not a series of isolated shots with no bearing the one on the others, but each stroke has to be played in relation to the following one, and the hole mastered by a pre-conceived plan of action.
Today’s best commentary on St Andrews—and on any other wide, strategically defended golf course—still relies on the framework created by these 116-year-old sentences.
Low’s interpretation of the Old Course had further implications for the practice of golf architecture itself. Here I will cede the podium to Robert Crosby, whose words I would not be able to improve on:
[Low] presented [his ideas] as discoveries, the fruits of a close study of the best links holes. However murky the origins of links courses, Low made the unprecedented claim that there were knowable design principles at work in them…. Links courses for Low weren’t just haphazard mash-ups of grass, sand, and wind, but sources of useful architectural knowledge. There was a logic to their bunkering schemes, routings, and green locations that explained why they were so fascinating and “indestructible.” All of which had important implications. If the design principles at work in links courses were knowable, then there was no reason to think that those same principles couldn’t be applied to the design of any golf course anywhere. And with that crucial insight, the high wall once thought to separate links and inland courses suddenly didn’t seem so high.
Both Low’s reading of the Old Course (it’s not just weird and random) and his call to action (inland courses don’t need to stink) resonated powerfully throughout the ensuing decade.
For the 1905 Open, St Andrews itself added several bee-line pot bunkers in order to keep the course strategically relevant for players using the new rubber-core Haskell ball. The ensuing controversy prompted Low to publish a defense of those changes in a 1907 article titled “St Andrews Hazards Old and New.” The old bunkers at St Andrews, he argued, were in places where good shots came to rest, and the new ones were no different: “It is the nearness of hazards to the perfect line of play which seems to me to make St Andrews so fine a test of the game.”
Although controversial, Low’s ideas grew in popularity as the decade went on. In 1907, A. J. Robertson, a contributor to Horace Hutchinson’s Country Life golf column “On the Green,” praised Low’s “modern policy” of bunker placement and claimed (no doubt exaggeratedly) that “all golfers of experience have now come to coincide with this sound view of modern course construction.”
The next year, in the first issue of Walter Travis’s magazine American Golfer, an anonymous “British Correspondent”—likely Henry G. Leach, according to the historians I asked—contributed a sophisticated essay on St Andrews that cited Low as an authority multiple times. My favorite passage of Leach’s:
Above everything, St. Andrews is a course for golfers to think hard when playing it. Every shot has to be considered with the utmost care; and it is especially the case that with tee shots and long seconds the line has to be carefully decided on and then taken almost to a nicety, otherwise, even if a bunker is avoided, the succeeding stroke is rendered enormously difficult. In many respects there seems to be a positively devilish cunning in the course. There is generally an easy and most enticing way of playing the shot in hand, but it happens just as often that if that way is adopted the player has very much extra to do with the next one. Thus, in a general way there is plenty of room on the left when playing from the tee, while the way to the right seems to bristle with hazards and other dangers. The result of this is, as some say, that St. Andrews golfers have come to be a race of pullers; but that is rather a reflection on their capacity. The man who is not sure with his wooden clubs, and cannot command direction as he would like, goes to the left for safety and takes his chance about what he will get for the next shot. But, though the way to the right is so well guarded, there is plenty of room for the accurate player, and if he can get a safe line that way he is well rewarded by an easy passage to the hole afterwards. Thus we have one way for courage and skill and another for fear and lesser ability.
As a reading of strategic design at St Andrews, that’s tough to beat.
In the first decade of the 20th century, therefore, John Low and his allies effected a quiet revolution. They changed the way hazards were viewed. Rather than merely punishing the weak, bunkers could now tantalize and torment the strong. Embedded in this new (yet old) understanding of hazards was an updated vision of golf architecture as a whole. The purpose of course design was no longer to enforce simple justice; it was to make golf as interesting and challenging as it had been for many years at St Andrews.
Next in the series: Alister MacKenzie and the ideal of democratic design; the “fair police,” the distance debate, and the need to continue reading the Old Course in the 21st century