Big Golf and Small Golf

Less design can be more


Today’s golf course architects tend to be big, bold, and certain in their designs. They feel that they have to be; not many jobs are available, and most clients have spent fortunes on land. Big investments put pressure on architects to make big efforts.

This is why dunes are created to hold golf holes, or found dunes are adjusted, pushed, and sharpened in order to maximize strategy. Bunkers are dug precisely the correct size and shape, in the correct position, and their faces are correctly seeded, yearly, by hand. Fairways are graded and raised a few feet, as the correct shot into the exact green should be experienced equally by all who find themselves in the correct portion of fairway. Mounds are placed here, and there, and there, explicitly for your golfing pleasure. Greens are like bomb-testing sites, unrecognizable from the previous landscape… or perhaps indiscernible from the previous landscape. Can you even remember the previous landscape?

The state of the art is a state of obsessive detail. Every feature of every hole is exact and utterly intentional. And green fees are often equal to a month’s worth of groceries.

It’s not just moving dirt, though—it’s the careful thought, the carefully detailed notebooks of thought, each hole diagrammed, each possibility of golfing achievement and mistake accounted for in the form and function of each hole. If not enumerated in notebooks, the detail is expressed in the field: a bunker dug and re-dug, a green massaged over and over. I get tired just thinking about the service, the effort, the work that has been put into the design, for my benefit.

Modern architects, trained and talented as they are, make good golf holes—great golf holes, even. But, especially, they make big golf holes. I’m not referring, exactly, to the size of the holes, but to the intellectual depth of them. Even the shortest par 3s feel like larger-than-life sculptures, ornately carved and cared for. Museum pieces.

Big golf, as I’ll refer to it, is golf designed by the hyper-professional architect. It is 18 (or 9, or 19, or 13, or 22) carefully conceived holes. Nothing is left to chance—if a golfer strays from the line of charm, there are options, and the golfer’s varying success in responding to those options begets varying options once more. The design of each hole is considered through many permutations.

Why wouldn’t it be? Again, there are few jobs out there. Clients want maximum value, and architects want to provide it.

With big golf holes come broad strokes of intention—the artist’s hand. Which shots are to be played when, and in what combination. Which options exist, and when. Holes, even those without trees, have “corridors,” and in these corridors, the golfer experiences the architecture. As much as the architect may try to hide this intention, it is still there, dictating the flow of golf shots and the round itself.

Big golf holes often feel scripted, as though the architect is playing a game of hide-and-seek. The game of hide-and-seek, if you think back to the last time you played it, wears quickly on the imagination of the seeker. There is one hiding place, decided on by the hider, and finding it ends the game. This is true even of the most elaborate hiding places. So, too, with big golf: there is a solution, an ideal route from each tee to each hole, a line of charm, that the architect has created. To find it ends the imaginative game.

When I say “big golf,” the Chambers Bays and Hudson Nationals of the world may come most readily to mind—courses that are big in terms of earthmoving and scale. But the label can also apply to the “minimalist” architecture of the modern era. Tom Doak, Coore & Crenshaw, Gil Hanse, David McLay Kidd, and Dan Hixson may not move much dirt, but their courses have to be considered big golf. Their fingerprints and philosophies can be found in every detail of every hole. Each contour is there for your golfing pleasure or penalty. Each hazard has an influence on the strategy of the hole. Why not, after all? The architects of big golf are brilliant minds. Let the brilliant minds work.

Big golf can be strategic, fun, artful, accessible, and beautiful. And it can take different forms. On one hand, there are the dunescapes and natural-looking contours—the “minimalist” features—produced by today’s leading architects. On the other, there are courses that swerve away from the imitation of nature, boldly showing their hand, their intention, to the golfer.

This puts me in mind of a favorite poem, by Linda Gregg:

The Secrets of Poetry

Very long ago when the exquisite celadon bowl

that was the mikado’s favorite cup got broken,

no one in Japan had the skill and courage

to mend it. So the pieces were taken back

to China with a plea to the emperor

that it be repaired. When the bowl returned,

it was held together with heavy iron staples.

The letter with it said they could not make it

more perfect. Which turned out to be true.

These “secrets of poetry” can be considered secrets of art more generally: imitation has no part of truth. For the bowl-repairers, perfection meant moving away from the original bowl, not approximating it. For the Robert von Hagges and Mike Strantzes and Jim Enghs of golf architecture, perfection means leaving behind the idea of natural, original landscape and pursuing beauty through pure invention.

These architects belong to big golf in an obvious way, but so do the architects who try to approximate, in both form and function, the natural landscape. Today’s “minimalists” are comparable to the artists who expected the repaired bowl to approximate the original. But approximation, no matter how precise, is still an act of creation. In creating golf holes that approximate nature, there will always be an impulse, often a subconscious one, to smooth out randomness. Such is the way of hyper-professionalized golf architecture: the strategy is announced by the architect, the golf holes adhere to or break a certain philosophy, and the golfer has a smooth, comprehensible experience. Our imitations of nature are never as purely random as nature itself, by virtue of being imitations.

If big golf asks, How can this landscape be made perfect for golf?, small golf—as I’ll call it—asks, How can golf be played on this landscape?

The term “small golf” has nothing to do with length or width, though many of the courses are small in size. Still, I know very long, very wide golf courses that I would put in the category.

The main distinguishing trait of small golf is that it feels under-designed. It is rooted in municipal courses that did not have the means, whether financial or intellectual or technological, to alter the landscape to suit the architect’s philosophical principles. It is rooted in the casual creative process behind links golf: “Ah yes, this bump, this burn, this burrow… what an odd place to put a hole!”

Small golf is not scripted. If there is strategy in the golf hole, you might miss it on the first trip through. So small is the architect’s influence that they can barely be said to have “made” the course. Therefore, the architect’s philosophy is neither hidden, as in the game of hide-and-seek, or displayed. Philosophy is secondary to landscape.

It’s a widely accepted axiom that good golf architecture provides “options.” But the more big golf I play, the less I care about options, and the more I care about possibilities. In small golf, the possibilities are largely left to nature, the best randomizer. The ball that rolls into a little pit in the fairway. The bump-and-run that has to avoid the old tire ruts. In big golf, the possibilities are designed, and therefore smoothed. Often they are artful, and often they make for good golf, as they are strategic—but they are still designed. I’ve started to prefer randomness.

I play the game partly for a sense of solitary exploration that big golf grinds against. My ideal course is a bumpy field with the holes cut in the most interesting places, and my ideal round is a cheerful fight against bad luck as much as against bad swings. If you need more, add a mound or dig a few pits near the hole. To do much more is to strip away natural possibility and randomness. The elements of shepherd’s game—club, ball, land, hole—have always provided more than enough interest.

I’ve joked with a friend that I love when I get a bad break, or when I go completely sideways on a hole. At those moments, I feel like I’m sneaking behind the architect’s back, unsupervised. I’m finding shots that the architect never imagined, challenges and opportunities and possibilities that are new.

That’s why I love older, forgotten-by-the-art courses. They usually have some sense of intentionality (how can you avoid intentionality entirely when you dig a four-and-a-half inch hole in the ground?), but not as a result of any developed theory of the game.

Fortunately, I live near one such course now: the University of Idaho Golf Course in Moscow, Idaho. In 1936, the architect, Francis L. James, left some instructions for the creation of the 8th green, which at the time was the 3rd:

“No. 3 green is situated on rise in the ground. In building this green, cut down the left side and front using material for the slope walking up to the green. Take rear of [green site] as grade. The contour work on both sides of the green should blend into the green, and the outside contours into the fairway. Make slope up to green an easy natural grade.”

That’s all he wrote. That small paragraph represents the extent of the architect’s involvement in the 8th green. The rest was left to the non-professionalized construction crew, which created a marvelous approach to a two-tiered putting surface. The left side has a wobbly punchbowl effect, and a miss to the right side makes for a difficult pitch to either tier. A miss long results in a challenging bump-and-run from an uneven, rooty lie. Every time I miss that green, I find a new scenario, previously unimagined. It reminds me of the shots I would find while chipping in my childhood backyard—except now I have the pleasure of fine turf to chip on. The small pleasures of small golf.

Eight miles down the road is Palouse Ridge, the well-built modern golf course at Washington State University. It sits on terrain similar to that of the University of Idaho’s course. While not particularly hard or long, Palouse Ridge is certainly big golf. The architect, John Harbottle III, thought through the strategy of every hole for you, and you either adhere to it or struggle against it. Around almost every green, he built slopes that you can use to feed balls toward the hole. You can feel great excitement when you intentionally send a pitch past the target and see it slowly reverse course, roll back down the slope, and lie dead. You feel that you owe this excitement to Mr. Harbottle. You may even silently thank him.

At a “small golf” course, even the most polite among us never feels the need to thank the architect. In small golf, the imagination in the game is the golfer’s own.

Why isn’t more small golf being built today? Well, small golf asks developers to be financially unambitious, willing not just to spend less but to make less. It also asks architects to swallow their egos, accept that not every hole will flawlessly embody their design principles, and perhaps take lower fees. The system is not exactly built to go this direction.

Still, I believe that more small golf would bring great benefit to the world. Construction costs would be lower, so more municipalities could afford to build and maintain courses. More people would have access to interesting golf. Design would become more equitable: architects could work for communities that cannot currently afford their services.

On his Feed the Ball podcast, Derek Duncan has spoken about his wish for a new minimalism—a design approach that ties golf to modern life and land rather than conforming it to modernity (maximalism) or imitating an anti-modernity (“minimalism”). I think a rise in small golf would do the job. With lower maintenance costs, smaller footprints, and lower demands on the operator and owner, small golf suits the emerging ethos of many 21st-century communities.

At the same time, exciting creative possibilities would open up for architects. Small golf lends itself to non-traditional numbers and kinds of holes—not as an intentional quirk, but because small golf is fit to the land. Strange landforms and other features, even ones supposedly unfriendly to the game, would be incorporated rather than smoothed or eliminated. There might be an echo of North Berwick’s “Pit” hole in an old, crumbling house foundation in front of the new green down your street. Small-golf architects would be constantly challenged to find interest rather than create it. Golf—in design as well as play—should be about exactly this: discovery.

Colin Criss has an MFA in Poetry from Washington University in St. Louis. He lives in Moscow, Idaho.

This article is part of The Fried Egg’s Sunday Brunch series, which presents golf stories that don’t fit the usual categories. Find out more about the series here.