Restore (verb): the action of returning something to a former owner, place, or condition.
Redesign(verb): to design something again or in a different way.
A pilgrimage to the links of Scotland and England to examine restoration and redesign projects with a focus on the golden age architects – this was one focus area of my George Alexander Fellowship, which I was fortunate to receive from the International Specialised Skills Institute (ISS Institute) in 2016. The ISS Institute was established to encourage investment in Australia’s specialised skills by providing funding for young industry leaders to undertake applied international research. Given Alister MacKenzie’s influence on golf architecture in Australia, particular emphasis was placed on the restorations of his early work at Alwoodley and Moortown, along with arguably MacKenzie’s most ‘intact’ design, at Cavendish. – Scott Champion
The following discusses the merit of restorations versus redesigns, what they may endeavor to achieve, and the factors to consider prior to establishing an improvement program.
Since the game began, the ground on which golf is played has constantly evolved; initially through natural processes across the linksland, to reacting to technological advancements in equipment. With the introduction of the Gutta-percha ball the game increased in popularity and more courses were established – many further inland, in areas less suitable for golf. Often fairly basic to start, improvements were made as funds became available and as architects began focusing on replicating the conditions of the links. While not all changes were positive, many of the courses considered classics today benefitted from ongoing improvements – either by a single architect, as was the case at Alwoodley where MacKenzie made improvements for more than 20 years from 1907 to around 1930, or in Royal Dornoch’s case with a number of influences from Old Tom Morris, to John Sutherland, and George Duncan within a period of 60 years. MacKenzie further supports the notion that many of the finest courses have benefitted from ongoing improvements, when in 1933, along with highlighting the brilliance of the Old Course, he wrote: “In discussing the question of finality it is well to enquire if there are any really first class courses in existence which have been unaltered for a considerable number of years and still remain not only a good test of golf but a source of pleasure to all classes of players… The only one I know is the Old Course at St Andrews, Scotland… Today, with the exception of the lengthening of some of the tees, St Andrews remains substantially the same as it was 70 years ago.”
However, not even the Old Course was immune to changes, and its evolution has been documented perhaps more than any other. Should it continue to evolve to reflect today’s technological ‘advancements’? Most would agree there are some places that should just be left alone. However, if you were undertaking a restoration, do you only reverse the 2012-13 changes, or do you restore it in accordance with MacKenzie’s 1924 survey? Or to an era before that? Despite man’s best intentions, maintenance practices and natural processes will inevitably cause some degree of change. While the Old Course example is a high-profile one, these are questions that face many of our classic courses – as well as, whether to restore at all?
A Case for Restoration
Restorations, in the context of golf, are a relatively new occurrence. There is an increasing mainstream appreciation of the classic courses and their original architects – particularly those from the golden age. The idea of restoring courses to their former glory is a romantic one that is appealing to many clubs. Some restore faithfully, while others are closer to redesigns under the guise of the restoration trend. However, not all old courses are great, nor worth restoring. Then there are others that are worth restoring, but cannot be, due to modern constraints such as safety.
Generally, approaches to restorations can be classified into three categories – historical, philosophical, and style. Often restoration projects are a mix of all three.
The most authentic approach – “historical restorations” – aims to restore the course as close as possible to its original form. Changes to the original routing or strategic intent are avoided. This approach is not always practical or possible to achieve.
Then there are “philosophical restorations”, where the intent of the original architect is restored but this may require some variation to ensure the principles apply in today’s context. For example, at MacKenzie’s first design, Alwoodley in Leeds, Ken Moodie of Creative Golf Design oversaw the restoration and decided that “… we do not… feel there is much need to add fairway bunkers where they did not originally exist except in two cases, the 3rd and 13th holes, we have proposed to introduce drive bunkers in order to reinstate the spirit of the original design.” The 3rd is a straight par-5 measuring 514 yards that has an original drive bunker on the left approximately 215 yards off the tee. This hazard that once needed to be navigated is now redundant for many players. An additional new drive bunker was added approximately 260 yards off the tee and while it was not part of MacKenzie’s original design, it helps to restore the strategic intent of MacKenzie’s original hole. Arguably, restoring the design intent of MacKenzie was more significant than his original bunkering layout.
Understanding when, why and under whose direction the changes took place will assist in determining if it is desirable (or feasible) to return certain holes to their original routing.
Last, “style restorations”, where a particular look is restored without the strategic intent or routing. This approach may be required where fundamental changes to the routing cannot be restored, or where new holes are required – for example, to address safety issues. Any new or non-original work is therefore created in a style sympathetic with the original architect and other original holes. Understanding an architect’s style can be assisted by studying their work elsewhere, however not all approaches were the same everywhere, so specific research into their intent for the individual course is required.
Ultimately, the aim should be to find the best approach to preserve and enhance the original architect’s vision and some projects will combine a range of the above approaches. All restoration projects require considerable research and enough historical documents to guide the process. Old aerial photographs are ideal in showing exact positions of course features, as well as the degree of vegetation and extent of short grass. When combined with the architect’s own site investigations, historic photographs of the course, minutes from board meetings, plans and letters from the original architect, as well as recollections from club historians or long serving members – the puzzle can slowly be put together. Broadly speaking, restorations will focus on five key elements – the routing, greens, bunkers, vegetation, and maintenance practices.
The most significant element of an original design, and usually the most difficult to restore. While the original architects may not have always spent as much time overseeing the finer details, the routing is fundamental to the overall layout. Is the routing original? If not, what changes have occurred? An understanding of when, why, and under whose direction the changes took place will assist in determining if it is desirable (and feasible) to return certain holes to their original routing.
The next most important element. Which greens are original? All existing greens on the property should be identified and protected if feasible. Once altered, greens are challenging to restore because of the subtleties involved. It is unlikely there will be accurate records of the slopes of previous greens, and it can be difficult to determine based solely on historic photographs and recollections. Greens might have been subtly altered in response to member backlash, or to account for quicker green speeds. They might have reduced in size and complexity of shape over time – often negating the interesting slopes and angles. Recovering the original area of the green is an easy way to restore the intent and to rediscover interesting pin positions.
More often than not bunkers will have been altered over the years. There may be bunkers filled in that were too controversial (which could be a fine reason to restore them), or they might have been added on holes that were considered “too easy”. An old aerial photograph will quickly determine this and help guide their reinstatement to similar fashion. If they no longer relate to the strategic intent of the hole, consideration might be given to adjusting their location to provide an equivalent challenge and return the intended strategy of the hole. The style of bunker may also have changed, sometimes due to maintenance practices. Intricate shapes may have been lost, or exposed sand faces, particularly in MacKenzie’s case, may have been allowed to be grassed over. Reconstructing bunkers also provides the opportunity to improve them technically with new drainage and bunker liner if appropriate.
Bunkers can have a significant visual impact to the restoration – particularly when restoring MacKenzie courses, as his skillful approach to bunkering was often elaborate and provided a dramatic appearance inspired by the irregularities found in nature. It is therefore not surprising that at Alwoodley, one of Moodie’s main objectives was to “… reinstate the original historic character of the course by reintroducing bunkers where they had been filled in and remodelling the existing bunkers with higher and more visible sand faces where they have been turfed down.” Many of the bunker faces were also naturalised with the use of heather and moorland rough. The bunkers were developed in a manner consistent with MacKenzie’s style at Alwoodley, but not always to their exact original shape, partly because a complete historic record was not available. In cases where historic photographs were available, attempts were made to reconstruct as closely as possible, as was also the case at neighbouring Moortown. For example, on the par-5 12th hole, Moodie recreated MacKenzie’s original bunkering of an artificial hummock built from stones collected from the fairways, mimicking the photograph as closely as possible
How has the property’s landscape changed? Tree canopy is likely to have increased, narrowing corridors and requiring removal to some degree in order to restore shot choices. There’s nothing wrong with trees being on a golf course – they can (and should) coexist, as long as they are in the right places. Old aerial photographs will be able to demonstrate the impact of tree plantings – often the result of well-meaning committee beautification programs. Tree management is often necessary but controversial within the membership and for local authorities – and if it solely addresses tree removal, perhaps understandably so. A more receptive response is likely to be received by developing a Vegetation Management Plan for the entire property that provides a long-term holistic approach. Part of this plan would include assessing the life of existing trees on the property, identifying those that would benefit from being removed, nominating areas where replacements could be planted, and developing an approach to native areas, wetlands, and any significant vegetation communities. When restoring landscape, it should reflect the naturally occurring environment had the golf course not been there – whether that is dunes, forest, heathland, or desert. Any new planting schemes should be dominated by indigenous species that are adapted to the climate and soil conditions of the area.
Restoring width can provide an immediate and relatively cost-effective way to rediscover the intended strategy – as well as improving turf condition and opening vistas across the course. There are now many ‘poster childs’ for successful tree removal programs, including at Moortown where since 2004 they have removed between 2000-3000 trees, mostly internally between holes so the visual buffers to the surrounding residential were retained. Following their removal, the ground was scraped back to expose the soil, and the heather in the seed bank germinated and slowly naturally returned across the course. The club worked closely with Natural England to obtain the necessary approvals and gained funding assistance to help establish the native low-moorland character. It is a continual work in progress but a fine example of the potential when golf club and authority work together.
Course conditioning, along with expectations, have changed significantly since the design of many of the classic courses. Greens are now far quicker than ever intended, which has led to some of the interesting slopes becoming impracticable with the number of pinnable areas of a green reducing. Higher maintenance costs often leads to the shrinking of the intensely maintained areas (greens, tees, and fairways), losing the original intent of a closely mown hillock or dramatic pin position tucked over a bunker. The loss of fairway width eliminates choice, which is a vital part of providing strategy. After recovering the width of corridors through tree management, restoring the extent of short grass to fairways and around greens is possible.
The use of native grasses in carry zones and out-of-play areas should also be promoted. This will assist in reducing the area of intensely maintained turf and subsequent water demand, creating an attractive contrast, as well as providing habitat and other environmental benefits
A Case for Redesign
Not all old courses are great and restoration is not always the answer. They can be restrictive and in some circumstances unnecessarily costly. For many courses, it is not the most suitable approach – even some of the classics. There are several reasons to favour a redesign over a restoration.
Firstly, the course may never have been very good. Or it lacks a clear era that is worth restoring to. Substantial changes over the years may mean the layout is unrecognisable from the original, and it might be too expensive or unnecessary to completely rebuild it. Perhaps there were fundamental issues with the original routing that led to those changes. There might be safety issues needing to be addressed, or parts of the course to be redeveloped for the financial security of the club which requires substantial changes to the routing. Some or all of these factors might prohibit a restoration.
In these instances, a redesign has far more scope to yield improvement. Many of today’s great courses have become that way through the redesign of weaker holes and the persistent pursuit to maximise the potential of their property. Royal Dornoch and Kingston Heath are two of the best examples I have seen, that through ongoing gradual improvements are close to achieving the potential of their sites.
Dornoch Golf Club began in 1877 as a rudimentary nine holes before Old Tom Morris planned an 18-hole layout for the site in 1886. John Sutherland, Secretary of the club for more than 50 years, then made substantial alterations to Morris’ layout, including remodelling the course in reaction to the introduction of the rubber-cored ball. George Duncan then made further changes in the 1940s after four holes were lost through World War II, and with the club purchasing additional land to extend the layout towards Embo. The contributions of all three men remain on the course today and it would not be the high-quality links as we know it without them. Royal Dornoch exemplifies the potential for a course to steadily grow in stature through the pursuit of ongoing improvement – something they continue to strive for today, evidenced by the recent alterations to the 5th, 10th, 11th, and 12th holes carried out by the firm of MacKenzie & Ebert.
Redesigns also allow for greater scope and flexibility to conduct a review of the entire course to determine if the current layout is the best possible routing for that piece of property. There might be opportunities for significant improvements to a routing that may not have been possible in a restoration project. For example, had the focus of the development of the Ailsa Course at Turnberry been on restoration, it would not have provided the substantially better layout that resulted.
Did the previous layout at Turnberry make the best use of the available land? The result of the redesigned course by Martin Ebert of MacKenzie & Ebert suggests it did not. While changes have occurred to all 18 holes, it is the stretch of holes 9-11 that were most significant and rightly receive the attention – starting with the cliff-top par-3 9th played towards the lighthouse, followed by the par-5 10th that wraps around the bay, before the intimate par-3 11th played across the rocky inlet. The success of this redesign hinged on rerouting this stretch of holes to make best use of the land available; something that was possible to do by taking a holistic review of the course and identifying the potential areas where significant improvement could be gained by changes to the routing.
… every man has got an affection for the mud heap on which he plays. –Alister MacKenzie
While at Turnberry every hole was changed, not all redesign projects need to go to that extent – unless there is good reason to do so, and there is the appetite within the club for it. Convincing a membership that elements of their course are far from perfect can be a difficult task. Generally, golfers are nostalgic towards their own course, as Alister MacKenzie surmised: “… every man has got an affection for the mud heap on which he plays.” This sentiment is unlikely to change anytime soon. Therefore, part of any improvement program, is selling the benefits of the proposed outcome.
Benefits of redesign can include: increasing the interest and strategy of current holes; improved conditioning by addressing agronomic issues and incorporating technical advancements; compliance with current safety standards with sufficient setbacks from boundaries and between holes; reducing water consumption through more efficient irrigation schemes; and responding to changes in equipment technology (if deemed necessary), among many others.
Advances in equipment have been one of the greatest drivers of change and many clubs are forced into lengthening their course to remain relevant in today’s game. This is not a new phenomenon; in the 1920s MacKenzie and Bernard Darwin were also calling for the ball to be reined in. It has been happening ever since the Haskell ball replaced the guttie, and the guttie replaced the feathery. Technological improvements to equipment are part of every sport, but perhaps in no other sport has the field of play been impacted to the degree it has in golf. Many of the game’s greatest venues are becoming obsolete, particularly at the highest level. Alarm bells should be ringing when US Open courses are approaching 8,000 yards – yet still play short. When Augusta National acquires land from the neighbouring Augusta Country Club to allow the possibility of extending the 13th. And when some of the tees for the Old Course are not actually within the bounds of the course.
While venues with prospects of hosting tournament golf will inevitably be lengthened to some degree to remain relevant, it is pleasing to see an industry trend away from creating unduly long courses for the main golfing population.
Making a choice
Regardless of whether undertaking a restoration or redesign, excellent courses can be achieved by both scenarios. For many clubs where restoration is not an option to consider, implementing the principles that were discussed as part of a restoration, combined with the flexibility of a redesign, can produce a superior outcome. There is good reason for the demand to restore our classic courses, and one could certainly do worse than being inspired by the golden age architects. The focus of design needs to be on creating interesting and strategic golf – criteria that is critical to ensuring the future of the game is sustainable. Quality golf architecture is enduring and will stand the test of time.