Golf Course Design And The Spirit of the Age

Looking back over a long enough period of time, you can see how golf course architecture in America followed the same general stylistic evolutions as building architecture, enjoying a golden age in the 1920s and then enduring an eat-your-vegetables modernism in the 1950s and 1960s. It`s not at all clear that Mies van den Rohe and Robert Trent Jones saw much connection between each other`s work in 1950, but today it`s obvious that the spirit of the age — streamlining, simplicity, sleekness, and so forth — pervaded the skyscrapers and golf courses of the Postwar Era.

But it`s hard to tell what`s going on in your own time. For example, prestige golf course architecture in the 21st Century is devoted to achieving a look of Old Money WASP Higher Scruffiness that`s hard to equate with much else going on in the arts today, outside of the design of some recent college dormitories. (Golfers pay a lot of college tuition bills, so that may not be coincidental.) Above is the 16th hole designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore at one of the first courses to debut in 2013, Streamsong-Red on an old phosphate strip mine in central Florida. 

Most golf course architects prefer to avoid discussing their style and instead talk about the functionality of their design (how it challenges the golfer, etc.). It could be that golf course architecture is evolving off in its own direction, divorced from the rest of the culture. Or, perhaps in a generation, we`ll look at golf courses from the 2010s and be instantly reminded of, say, video games or hipster fashions or whatever from the 2010s because they all share common characteristics that will be glaringly obvious to people in 2043 even if they are baffling today.

A few months ago, I visited a half dozen of the newer golf courses in Palm Springs. It must be an uncomfortable time for golf course designers in Palm Springs because the current Mid-Atlantic steampunk (or whatever) look is so antithetical to the natural blank slate phoniness of Palm Springs.

The most beautiful was Desert Willow, where Hurzdan and Fry went up into the mountains and brought down shrubs native to about 4,000 foot in elevation, then planted them alongside the fairways and watered the heck out of them to keep them alive in the low desert. (This is supposed to be “environmentalist.”)

But, the most interesting development from an aesthetic standpoint was the newest, Escena, where Nicklaus, post-Crash, embraced the flatness and boringness of the desert in a tribute to Rat Pack-era modernism. (The steel and glass clubhouse appears to be a tribute to Frank Sinatra`s house in Palm Springs.) I would be surprised that Nicklaus was originally intending to push around great piles of dirt but then the developer suffered reverses in 2008, forcing a more modest, more old fashioned design philosophy.