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Dermot on Course Design

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on golf course design and the excellent East Lake greens

Posted Sep 30, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

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Watching the US Tour Championship at East Lake last weekend, provoked two dominant thoughts.  One was the enduring quality of a layout which was designed by Donald Ross back in 1904 and upgraded by Rees Jones in 1994.  And the other was the wonderful test it offered, due largely to its firm, fast greens which we changed relatively recently to Bermuda grass.

I was reminded of a trip I made there in a private aircraft from Augusta some years ago at the behest of Tom Cousins, one of East Lake's most influential members.  The objective was to look over the upgrading work on course and clubhouse, while also taking in the efforts of the East Lake Foundation in transforming what had been one of America's most dire public housing projects into a thriving, mixed-income community.

This was East Lake's inspired way of protecting themselves from serious, local vandalism.  The philosophy of Cousins and his colleagues was that by investing in the lot of the local community, only good could come for all concerned.  And they have been proved right.

As for the course itself: I am reminded on the words of Harry Colt, arguably the finest golf-course architect these islands has produced.  "An architect's earnest hope," he wrote, "is without doubt that his courses will have the necessary vitality to resist possibly adverse criticism and will endure as a lasting record of his craft and of his love for his work." One could imagine Donald Ross empathising with that view as he looked down from on high, last weekend.

With the staging of the Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns this coming weekend, it is also appropriate to note some golf-course architecture closer to home.  
It has been written that had the Old Course at St Andrews been laid out in the accepted sense, the name of the genius who did it would be revered in the annals of the game. But nature was the first golf architect, shaping the links terrain on the eastern Scottish shoreline, out of undulating dunes.

In fact that is the way things remained for about the first two centuries of the game's existence. Golfers adapted to shapes and contours as they found them.  Then, in the latter part of the 19th century, man decided to give nature a hand.

The transition was not as seamless, however, as we would like to think.  For instance, Tom Simpson, whose work in Ireland includes such celebrated layouts at the Co Louth links at Baltray and the Old Course at Ballybunion, was moved to remark that the early architects "failed to reproduce any of the features of the courses on which they had been bred and born."

This had to do with the fact that they were largely greenkeepers and professionals who, rather than working from properly drafted plans, relied largely on their own instincts, incorporating often unsuitable features as they found them.  So it was that the distinguished golf writer, Bernard Darwin, described Old Tom Morris, who crafted Royal Co Down, as "a good and much loved man and a good golfer, but he was not a man of acute intellect and probably laid out his courses by a very simple rule of thumb."

Darwin went on:  "No doubt it is fair to add that had he been possessed of true architectural talent, he would have had little opportunity of exercising it to the full.  He probably came down on such missions for one day or at most two, surveyed the grounds, chose a few hills to drive over and hollows to pitch into and then departed having declared, according to the local newspaper, that the proposed course should be second only to St Andrews."                   

The lack of aesthetic appeal in those early layouts, led to golf-course architecture being elevated to something of an art form, attracting such gifted enthusiasts as Colt, who was a qualified solicitor, and Alister MacKenzie, who was a medical doctor. Apart from having what was termed an eye for land, they realised that successful course building incorporated such key elements as botany, soil chemistry, drainage, civil engineering, agronomy and surveying.     

Though the seaside continued to be regarded as the traditional setting for a course, the game was taken to the outskirts of provincial towns and cities throughout these islands, during the early decades of the last century.  And from relying on sheep and rabbits to keep fairways and greens closely-cropped, the introduction of the mower before the First World War marked a milestone in golf-course development.

Meanwhile, Simpson rivaled Colt in capturing the essence of the architect's craft when he wrote: "The object of design is to create difficulties (and in a modified sense illusions), not to explain them; to outwit the expert or at least to set his brains to work to find the best solution... It is very much as if one were attempting to reach a difficult harbour, where it is common knowledge that shoals of sandbanks lie in the neighbourhood of the entrance."

Serious obstacles were encountered by competitors at East Lake, where Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, and to a lesser extent, fourth-placed Padraig Harrington, successfully reached the safety of short grass, only to be challenged once more by wonderfully testing greens.

- Dermot Gilleece


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