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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

Is Golf Architecture Art?

Architecture, engineering, art, design: All words and concepts that are part of our everyday vernacular. These words are used interchangeably when discussing any task that entails some sort of creativity or problem-solving. Architecture is usually associated with buildings and engineering is typically a catch-all that describes a more scientific approach to many problem-solving tasks. The terms art and design are associated less with the professional realm and are more in tune with the free-spirited extents of the human mind.

One definition of art is ‘the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.’ We all took art classes in our formative years and our tasks were typically efforts to explore inner selves (as exploratory as we could be in pre-school) while learning new ways to apply color to paper, create shapes with scissors, or create objects with clay. Regardless of the learning procedure, one directive always held sway: To be creative. “Let yourself go”, “draw whatever your hands tell you” were typical instructions in later classes.

Based on the above definition, when applying art to golf course architecture, the focus is on aesthetics more so than strategy or playability. Art in golf course design is mostly found in the sculpting of golf course features. The product can be viewed as pleasing to the eye, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, riveting sculpture. Many artists will do whatever it takes to create that special look. The ‘artist’ who designs a golf course may typically not pay too close attention to the golf course routing element of the process, instead following the take that the land is the blank canvas on which the artist shall paint.

The artist’s paintbrush will mostly come in the shaping phase of the project. Shaping is the element of the earth moving process where the golf course features take their final shape (are sculpted) after the bulk of the material has been hauled to its intended location. A golf course architect or designer may direct the shaper to enhance existing natural features, replicate nature in the creation of new features, or create absolute artificial features to make a statement. The artist usually leans toward the artificial realm to create a premium on aesthetics, which may be costly in terms of the amount of dirt one may want to move. When the art supersedes the practicalities of the site, drainage can also become an expensive line item.

The basic principles of design (balance, proportion, rhythm, emphasis, and unity among others) usually come into play no matter what may be the intended look of a golf course feature. The artist and the architect who may not consider him/herself an artist will both follow these principles. An artist, though, may follow additional principles such as randomness (a good principle when one tries to replicate nature), contrast, symmetry, or texture in a more deliberate attempt to portray their definition of art.

Over the past few decades, a push away from enhancing nature and more toward a focus on aesthetics has dominated the golf course architecture field and put a premium on an ‘artistic flair’ among designers. As a result, more dramatic features crop up in golf landscapes. The beauty of nature is not the same as art and as such, takes a back seat. The fact is strategy derived from the ground just doesn’t photograph well and rarely makes an intriguing magazine cover.

Contrast and texture can only be developed in golf course design through the use of a variety of grasses, water, and sand. While too much of these elements will turn a strategic golf course into a penalizing bear, they will also sell magazines. It is no surprise why the aesthetic slant has overcome the strategic element in design today and it has zero to do with the game itself (we’ll discuss the effects of rankings on the business in another blog). That said, I look at everything I build with an artistic eye and believe the aesthetic is a very important aspect of golf course architecture. For me, replicating nature is of utmost importance, so the little details concerning the principles of art are critical to my efforts.

There are two ways one can replicate nature. The theory I follow is along the lines of a golf architect like Alister MacKenzie. His philosophy is to create features that resemble waves of an ocean. Creating slopes (whether they are mounds, hollows, or parts of other golf course features) where the troughs (spaces between features) are broader than the ‘wave tops’ more accurately portray nature than when one creates features where the tops are broader than the troughs. MacKenzie’s attitude is that nature’s forms are soft and broad due to erosive activities over long periods of time.

The opposite approach comes from someone like Pete Dye, who feels that nature is defined by abrupt change. Abrupt change is translated to golf course features that have sharp edges, steep sides, and troughs which are broader than wave tops (think chocolate kisses). Some of the best artwork I have seen is the way Dye utilized the principles of symmetry and balance at Colleton River Plantation in Hilton Head.

Either approach toward nature works effectively and helps to ensure the variety of the art of golf architecture. But when the aesthetic overrules all other aspects of the design to focus purely on developing lots of visual ‘action’ or ‘eye candy’, golf course design loses its integrity.

I do believe that an artist (who knows the game of golf) can design a great golf course provided he/she has all the technical aspects covered. In fact, there are many golf course designers out there who have a great artistic eye. Two modern-day designers that come to mind are the late Mike Strantz and Jim Engh, a golf architect based in Castle Rock, Colorado.

Art in golf course design is a crucial element of the methodology, but can also become a very expensive one in terms of construction, maintenance, and playability. While Strantz and Engh courses are typically very striking landscapes they also tend to be more on the expensive and difficult side. There is definitely a place for this approach in golf course design and both designers have made quite a reputation. As long as a balance is reached between the aesthetic and strategic as well as art and practicality, the result is great golf courses.

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