Yesterday, before he seized control of the 2019 Open Championship, Shane Lowry had a run-in with Harry Colt. Lowry’s second shot on the par-5 2nd hole at Royal Portrush drew slightly off line and landed just short, near the left edge of the green. For the next 14 seconds, the ball did something it rarely does in televised golf events: it rolled.
It rolled over a hump, through a swale, and took a sudden turn to the left, away from the green, over and down a knob, and into some patchy rough. Never at a loss for a sardonic quip, on-course commentator David Feherty said, “Thank you, Mr. Colt.”
Rejective contours. "Thank you, Mr. Colt." pic.twitter.com/tSvcWHfZuz
— Garrett Morrison (@gfordgolf) July 20, 2019
Henry (“Harry”) Shapland Colt, the great English golf course architect, created—or allowed nature to create—the 18 greens at Portrush’s Dunluce Links in 1929. Ninety years later, most of those greens remain intact. They provide more than enough interest and challenge for 21st-century golfers.
Incidentally, the green that spurned Lowry’s approach is not among Colt’s originals. Two years ago, in preparation for the Open, architect Martin Ebert moved the 2nd green back and to the left, stretching the hole to 574 yards. (The pros still reach it in two without much trouble.) But Ebert stayed true to the old green’s concept, and his contouring appears to fit with Colt’s style.
Throughout the Dunluce Links, the green sites conform with the property’s heaving terrain, which itself seems to mimic the chop of the Atlantic Ocean to the north. These greens and their short-grass surrounds are charismatic, even through a TV screen. There are ridges and channels, shelves and basins that sometimes collect, sometimes repel an approaching ball. When a player must recover from around the green, he faces a variety of exciting shots.
Is this fun? pic.twitter.com/1Vu0rJcf8A
— Garrett Morrison (@gfordgolf) July 18, 2019
None of this is unique to Portrush. Lots of well-regarded courses have undulating greens and surrounds. But we should remember that Harry Colt was one of the first golf architects to build such features intentionally, and that he had to work hard to justify the practice.
In 1920, as part of that endeavor, he published a book titled Some Essays on Golf-Course Architecture (available online for free here). The first chapter, written by his chief associate Charles H. Alison, explains the misguided norms of inland golf architecture in the 1890s, the decade before Colt began building courses.
The construction of these courses was simple in the extreme. There was only one form of bunker. This consisted of a rampart built of sods with a trench in front of it, filled with a sticky substance, usually dark red in color….
There were no side-hazards except for long grass and trees. The fairway was invariably rectangular, and the putting-greens were square and flat. Some clubs could not afford to make all their putting-greens quite flat, but in such cases the host would apologise to his guest when an undulating green was reached.
Alison may be using some strategic exaggeration here. By denouncing the Victorian “dark ages,” he is able to present his and Colt’s ideas as more advanced. Other Golden Age golf architects, notably Alister MacKenzie, used the same ploy. (And admittedly, today’s advocates of strategic, minimalist design do something similar when they refer to the “dark ages” of the 1950s-90s.)
Yet historical photos show that Alison’s characterization was not far off. Many inland golf courses built in the 1890s sought an ideal “fairness,” which often translated into flatness along the center lines of holes. For Colt and Alison, this tendency was especially galling in the approaches to greens: “Very seldom was a green placed in such a position as to render the approach play naturally interesting, while to create grass slopes or hollows artificially was an unknown art.”
Alison goes on to describe a contrasting—and more appealing—style of design:
Any golfer who has played the eleventh and twelfth holes on the old course at St Andrews, the seventeenth hole on the old course at Walton Heath, or the third hole at Stoke Poges, will realise what a vast amount of interest is added to the approach play by the lie of the land in front of these greens. If the player has gauged his shot correctly and struck the ball truly he enjoys the intense pleasure of seeing it run firmly up to the hole; while if his stroke is untruly struck he experiences the almost painful thrill of seeing it shouldered away from the green and perhaps sucked into an adjacent bunker. If these approaches lay over flat ground they would be robbed of almost all their interest, and it is therefore evident that the suburban golfer who did not encounter difficulties of this type missed a very striking feature of the game.
On Saturday at Royal Portrush, on Shane Lowry’s behalf, we all felt the “painful thrill” of a barely misplayed ball being “shouldered away” by the contouring left of the 2nd green. Now how about this for “intense pleasure”?
— Golf Channel (@GolfChannel) July 20, 2019
Genuinely this time: “Thank you, Mr. Colt.”