A Rant Against Golden Age Golf Architects

It’s time we stop deifying dead architects…

Curmudgeon alert: I’m about to go on a major rant about something that likely will be of only marginal interest to you and may actually cause you some annoyance. So this might be a good time to click on something else. We did have some very fine pieces in our Fall 2021 issue, one of which happened to be the very impetus for my currently elevated hackles: “Who Redoes Whom?” by Joe Passov.

It’s not Joe’s fault. He did a terrific job of research and writing, as always. No, what has me riled is the fact that this piece needed to be written, the fact that in recent years an entire mini-industry has sprouted around the business of resuscitating and deifying dead designers.

I’m talking about the architects of the so-called Golden Age, roughly the first third of the 20th century—Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie, H.S. Colt, A.W. Tillinghast, Seth Raynor, et al—whose names are linked to dozens of the world’s most highly regarded courses.

My question is, why have we become so obsessed with those guys? Were they really that surpassingly brilliant? Were they any better than—or even as good as—the top golf architects today? I doubt it. Certainly, they were neither as well educated nor as comprehensively trained as our modern designers. Basically, these guys were neophytes, dabbling in a brand-new profession after having chosen other careers. (In the case of the quintet above, Ross was a golf pro, MacKenzie a doctor, Colt a lawyer, Tillinghast a magazine editor, Raynor an engineer.)

golden age
Illustration by Michael Witte

What’s more, they were winging it, feeling their way through what was literally new terrain. Prior to the 20th century, golf had been played mostly along the coast of the British Isles on flat, barren, windblown, fast-running links. The Golden Agers were helping to bring the game inland and adapt it to playgrounds that were hilly, tree-clad, and spongy.

Some of their efforts were more successful than others, but their best courses, fitting neatly and naturally into their parkland settings, have been extolled in some quarters as the inspiration for the current minimalist movement in golf architecture. That’s another misconception. Those guys weren’t minimalists. Their focus was not on preserving the land, protecting the environment, or creating a sustainable course. They just didn’t have bulldozers!

If, as one of today’s leading designers Tom Doak has astutely observed, “the best architects are the ones who get the best clients,” then maybe the individuals we should be venerating are not the Golden Age designers but the Golden Age owner/developers, the gentlemen golfers with deep pockets and a simple, steadfast vision that began and ended with the creation of an outstanding golf course: Dick Tufts (Pinehurst No. 2) rather than Ross; Clifford Roberts (Augusta National) rather than MacKenzie; George Crump (Pine Valley) rather than Colt; Robert Moses (Bethpage Black) rather than Tillinghast.

The truth is, the early golf architects were not particularly revered or famous during their own lifetimes or for decades thereafter. Indeed, as recently as 50 years ago, if you had asked a member of just about any club in the world who the designer of his golf course was, he would have been hard pressed to tell you.

So what happened? How did dead architects become rock stars? Blame it on Frank Hannigan.

In 1974, Hannigan, who would later become the Executive Director of the USGA, penned a 10,000-word article for the USGA’s Golf Journal. His subject was Tillinghast, a mercurial, mustachioed man for all seasons whose courses happened to be hosting four of that year’s national championships, including the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Hannigan dubbed Tillinghast “Golf’s Forgotten Genius.”

Hannigan happened to be one of the game’s finest writers, and so compelling was his piece that it singlehandedly ignited interest in golf course genealogy. In short time, similar articles—and books—began to appear, TV commentators started making on-air reference to course architects, and, most importantly, golf clubs across the nation began digging into their architectural archives hoping they’d unearth someone as cool as “Tillie the Terror.”

Suddenly, belonging to a club with a course designed by an A-list Golden Ager became a badge of honor. More than one layout of 6,500 theretofore nondescript yards rebranded itself overnight as “a great old Donald Ross course” and a coterie of insufferable poseurs arose, boasting of their familiarity with MacKenzie bunkers, Macdonald templates, and Raynor greens. I know this because I did some of that boasting. Let this be my mea culpa: “I’m George and I’m an archaholic.”

When Hannigan’s piece appeared, the USGA library of more than 6,000 volumes contained just two books on golf course architecture. Today there are over 100. Entire societies have been formed around the worship of Tillinghast, Ross, MacKenzie, Macdonald, Colt, and Raynor, not to mention lesser lights Devereux Emmet, Perry Maxwell, Tom Simpson, Stanley Thompson, and Walter Travis. Hundreds of archinerds converge daily on the website GolfClubAtlas.com for the latest news, gossip, and debate focused solely on golf courses. And yes, as Passov’s piece details, scores of clubs have spent millions of dollars on the meticulous restoration of their Golden Age treasures.

LINKS Magazine has, admittedly, bolstered this bandwagon of breathless beatification. In fact, no publication has fanned the flames of architect idolatry more feverishly than we have. A few years back, as part of the celebration of our silver anniversary, we actually compiled a ranking of the top 25 golf architects of all time: 15 of them, including the top four, were Golden Agers.

Listen, before you start throwing brickbats my way, know that I realize these guys from a century ago did some remarkable work. They deserve much of the delayed recognition they’re getting. And surely no harm has been done. Many clubs have found new life, their members’ breasts have swelled with pride, and it’s all been good for the golf industry.

I also realize that the golf industry is not the most critically important one in the world. As an old mentor of mine Herb Graffis used to say, “We work in the toy department.” Maybe that’s why I now feel myself calming down a bit. I guess what got me riled about this Golden Age regurgitation is the pretentiousness it’s fostered in some circles. But honestly, that doesn’t deserve much more than a chuckle. I think Tillie and his cohorts might be chuckling too.