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Golf Course Architecture: The Golden Age is Now

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - I love minimalist, traditional golf course architecture. I adore 6,600-yard layouts I can walk with my hoofer bag on my back and my golf pencil behind my ear. If Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore started a church, I might attend. Only if Tom Doak was the pastor, of course, and the Gods being worshiped were named MacKenzie, Tillinghast, Ross and Raynor.

I can also tell you this: we are living in the Golden Age of golf course architecture.

This statement will be read with contempt by students of the game who agree with legendary course designer Tim Simpson that the roaring 20's were the Golden Age of the profession. Sure, the 1920's had Alister MacKenzie, George Thomas, Stanley Thompson and William Flynn. It was a decade when earth moving became both possible and popular. It was a time when the great designers of Scotland made their way to America, bringing with them pot bunkers, knee-high rough, and the Redan hole.

Indeed, those were good times. But the 2000's, golf course architecture fans, have it all.

The cast of designers includes the seemingly untouchable Picasso (Tom Fazio), the aging rebel with a cause (Pete Dye), legacy members (Robert Trent Jr. and Rees Jones), students of the classics (Brian Silva, Todd Eckenrode, and Crenshaw), player/architects (Davis Love III, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo), architect/players (Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer), regional stalwarts (Clyde Johnston and Tom Jackson), protégés (Rick Robbins and Roger Rulewich), and oh so many more.

But it is not so much about the "whom" as it is about the "what" and the "where."

The "what" that we have now is unprecedented. It's awesome. It's fun. It's democracy at its best.

Because of the 1980's - a time period in which you can count the truly great golf courses that were built (and rock bands that were formed) on one hand - a revolution occurred in the late 1990's. And because of the revolution, a healthy faction of golf course architects, golfers, and golf writers jumped on a minimalist design bandwagon that continues to make its way around the world.

We have courses that appear to have hatched from the earth, such as Sand Hills in the plains of Nebraska and Pacific and Bandon Dunes along the Oregon coast. We have courses that were imposed on the earth, such as Shadow Creek in Las Vegas and Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.

And not to be outdone, we have courses that are not of this earth, most of which are situated in Las Vegas. There are courses that are slaves to real estate (most of them), and courses that defy the residential market, mainly those located on Indian reservations in the Great American Southwest.

The "where" is even tastier, and an even greater reason to celebrate the Golden Age.

For traditionalists who eschew the cart path, despise over-irrigated fairways, and dread the five-hour round, there are destinations like Scotland and Pinehurst. For modernists who'd rather get a root canal that hoof 18 holes and prefer made-in-America style layouts to those with a "linksy" feel, there are destinations like Myrtle Beach, Orlando and Hilton Head. For the ridiculously wealthy who prefer to be slathered in Cadillac golf with a silver spoon, there are destinations like Scottsdale, Vegas and Palm Springs.

One ongoing battle appears to be the only ripple in the tranquil pond that is the Golden Age of golf course design: golf course architects vs. high tech equipment. The 8000 yard golf course is upon us, and 7000 yards has become the benchmark for a championship golf course at altitudes under 1000 feet. Balls fly further and clubs swing faster.

Recreational golfers hit the ball further, but they also spray more shots than Orkin does termites. Because the blood of the average golfer begins to boil like a Low Country shrimp when his tee shots doesn't hit the fairway, architects have been forced to use more land to create wider fairways. In a recent golf course design seminar at Harvard University, a panel of esteemed golf course architects recommended that no less than 300 acres be procured for the construction of today's modern golf course. In comparison, Ross' famed resort course at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C. consumed less than 80 acres while still playing to a respectable championship yardage of 6520 yards.

Can the Golden Age of golf course design truly exist in this era of voracious land consumption? The great American novelist and irrepressible imbiber F. Scott Fitzgerald, a frequent patron of the Grove Park Inn during the 1920's, would be the first to tell you that it's not truly a Golden Age until there's some serious consumption going on.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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