In the first two parts of this series, I described how, at the turn of the 20th century, a group of British golfers led by John Low discovered the principles of strategic course design by analyzing—or “reading”—the Old Course at St Andrews.
Before I began researching this holiday project a few weeks ago, I had known only generalities about the pre-World War I period of golf architecture. The more I learned, the more I realized how profound an influence Low and his contemporaries had on the ensuing “Golden Age” of golf course design.
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?
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.
In the wake of the 2018 Ryder Cup, commentators pointed to the design and setup of host venue Le Golf National as a crucial factor in the European victory. Le Golf National has long been considered a ball-striker’s paradise, a course where accuracy off the tee and into the greens tends to be more important than raw power. Astutely, in preparing the venue for competition, Ryder Cup Europe grew out the rough and kept the fairways narrow. Team USA found its distance advantage largely neutralized, and Team Europe thrived on the ball-striking prowess of Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari.
Seeing this as a rare triumph of old-school precision over new-school power, some suggested that Le Golf National should be a model for future tour venues. This argument, which I will spend much of this post refuting, stems from a premise that actually I agree with: because of advances in ball, driver, and instructional technology, power off the tee has become a disproportionate advantage in the professional game.
The Gist: Overshadowed by more famous holes on more dramatic sections of the property, the subtle 2nd at Pasatiempo Golf Club may actually be one of the best examples anywhere of Alister MacKenzie’s design philosophy.
Pasatiempo Golf Club (Santa Cruz, CA)
- 437/420/376 yards
- Par 4
- 8/8/6 handicap
Oh, I can just hear the Twitterati clicking the reply bubble: “Well, sir, the 2nd is not even one of the top five holes at Pasa! What of the 3rd or the 11th? Or the 16th, which was Dr. MacKenzie’s personal favorite par 4?”
This past weekend, as Brooks Koepka overwhelmed Erin Hills on his way to a three-stroke victory in the U.S. Open, golf obsessives on Twitter debated whether the venue was any good and, more interestingly, whether the tournament could use a new identity. Beneath all of the bellyaching and inexplicable rage, there was actually an engaging discussion.
- Aetna Springs Golf Course
- Pope Valley, CA
- Par 35, 3057 Yards
- Opened in 1891, redesigned by Tom Doak with Jim Urbina in 2006
UPDATE: On January 14, 2018, just seven months after I posted this review, Aetna Springs Golf Course ceased operations.
I first heard about Aetna Springs Golf Course, a nine-holer in the northern reaches of Napa County, in volume two of Tom Doak’s Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. He rated it a 6 on the Doak Scale (by comparison, he gave TPC Harding Park, future host of the PGA Championship, a 5) and wrote, “there are a lot of good holes for such a little piece of property; it’s a lovely place to go and play.” Doak’s firm also happens to have redesigned the course, so my first thought was, What shameless self-promotion. My second thought: Hey, that’s pretty close to where my in-laws live.
I don’t get to play Tom Doak courses very often, much less for $23 per nine.