The Evolution of Golf Course Architecture

Photo by Larry Lambrecht


Quite literally, the landscape of golf course architecture has evolved since LINKS began publishing 20 years ago. Since 1988, more than 3,500 courses have been built in the United States. Some, like Sand Hills, are among the greatest ever built. Others, like Shadow Creek, were unlike anything that golf had seen before.

While overall quality of courses built during the past 20 years doesn’t match those of the Golden Age, the roughly two-decade period between the wars that produced many of the greatest courses in the country, this current era represents a renaissance of sorts.

And some of the most significant work has occurred in three areas: natural designs on spectacular sites, renovation and restoration of courses, and the proliferation of private golf communities. But as during the Renaissance itself, the artists responsible for these masterpieces couldn’t have done it without the patrons providing the opportunities.

We look at how three artist-patron relationships—Tom Doak and Mike Keiser, Rees Jones and David Fay, Tom Fazio and Jim Anthony—have shaped golf course architecture during the LINKS era.

When Tom Doak and Mike Keiser created Pacific Dunes, a new must-play golf destination was born in an unlikely location.

In 1995 Mike Keiser invited Tom Doak along on a trip to Northern Ireland so Doak could teach him about links golf. After playing Royal County Down and Royal Portrush, they were of the mutual agreement that they were two of the best courses in the world, but Keiser wasn’t sure why he liked Portrush more.

“I think it’s got a lot to do with the rhythm of the course,” Doak said. “At County Down, you start off with spectacular holes and the front nine is pretty wild, but then it loses its steam at the end because you get farther and farther away from the water and you finish on some of the duller holes.

“Portrush has some plainer holes but they’re sprinkled through the round,” he added. “You’re always wondering when you’re getting back to the waterfront because the routing is not predictable.”

Several years later, Keiser hired Doak to design Pacific Dunes, the second course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. “Some of the things we’ve done in Bandon are based on the Ireland trip and things we both liked about those courses,” says Doak.

Now, Doak is leading a team that is building a tribute to C.B. Macdonald that will be the fourth course at the resort, which in 10 years has emerged as one of the top destinations in golf. The three courses average 40,000 rounds a year each—a phenomenal figure for its location on the Oregon coast.

“There is a desire to add a real sense of adventure to their golf experience, to enjoy the game in a different setting,” says Ben Crenshaw, who co-designed Bandon’s third course, Bandon Trails, with Bill Coore. “It’s a trek. It’s why people mountain climb. Surfers go to different parts of the globe in search of the perfect wave. The rugged beauty is an attraction.”

Crenshaw and Coore were the pioneers of the pure golf experience with Sand Hills Golf Club, the private club in Nebraska that opened in 1995. Sand Hills begat the awareness of minimalist golf in a completely natural setting and redirected the course of golf architecture.

“Golf courses have existed for 600 years and for 570 of those the courses were natural,” says David McLay Kidd, who designed Bandon Dunes’ first course. “But since the Second World War that slowly became lost as the game became more and more defined and more and more rigid. Bandon was a huge turning point. It started a sea change on golfers’ opinions that has allowed golf courses to be more rustic and more sustainable, which is a byproduct of all this.”

Doak was a bit disappointed that Keiser didn’t tap him for the first course at Bandon, but it turns out that the second course, Pacific Dunes, which opened in 2000, made the resort a mecca and elevated Doak’s status.

“I don’t think we all got a lot better and a lot smarter in the year 2000,” Doak says. “We were doing good work before but it wasn’t in the spotlight.”

Today, thanks to courses like Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, Ballyneal in Colorado and Long Island’s Sebonack, a co-design with Jack Nicklaus, Doak is the leading light of the current renaissance.

“It’s a nice niche to be in,” says Doak. “I guess I’m in the position I’m in because my name has never really been attractive to selling real estate, so the people who call me are the ones who want a great golf experience. It’s supposed to be a relatively simple game played on beautiful land.”

Rees Jones’ close relationship with USGA Executive Director David Fay has made him the “Open Doctor” for course renovations.

Rees Jones, son of Robert Trent Jones Sr., has been going to U.S. Opens since he was 8, helping his father prepare courses for the national championship. So he had a bit of experience in tackling his first restoration of an Open course, The Country Club for the 1988 championship. The success of his work—“The greatest compliment I got was, ‘What did you do?’”—finally helped Jones step out of his father’s considerable shadow.

Other Open course renovations followed, the most successful of which was Bethpage State Park’s Black course prior to the 2002 Open. U.S. Golf Association Executive Director David B. Fay hired Jones to restore the muni, and Jones uncovered a gem that has become an important part of the Open rota. Thanks to Fay, Jones cemented his reputation as the “Open Doctor,” inextricably linked with the USGA as the man who best could prepare courses for the U.S. Open.

Including Torrey Pines, of the 50 facilities that have hosted the U.S. Open, Jones has worked on 12 of them. Although Fay only hired Jones once, the pair are good friends and the latter clearly owes much of his reputation and success to their relationship. Technically, courses interested in hosting the Open make their changes before making a presentation to the USGA, and the man they most often call on is Jones, who is well aware of his friend’s likes and dislikes.

“I don’t like the idea of taking old courses and changing them,” Fay says. “I understand in some cases you have to, particularly if you want a major event.”

Renovation, which represents about a third of Jones’ work, always has been a part of architecture’s evolution, but the rate has increased greatly in recent years. There are several reasons, but the biggest is equipment, especially at the game’s highest levels.

About six years ago, Jones and Jack Nicklaus were on a panel together, and Nicklaus starting talking about the need to throttle the ball back. “Of course, Rees wouldn’t want to do that because he’d lose a lot of his work,” Nicklaus said with a smile. Jones took the teasing good-naturedly.

“There’s a positive to the ball going far,” says Jones. “It’s like baseball. People like to see home runs. It gets you more interested in the game. If a young guy can hit that ball a ton, that’s his joy for a while.”

A lot of his remodels, however, have little to do with distance. He says that his renovation of Big Spring Country Club in Louisville, Kentucky, caused a domino effect: Four nearby courses underwent renovations to compete for members.

“The biggest difference between now and 20 years ago is that then it was more of a game,“ he says. “Now, it’s more of a business. If a new course comes into town that’s well regarded, the competitor that’s been there a while has to think about upgrading and adding a little more length.”

Often, the renovation occurs at courses Jones himself has built. Such is the case at Haig Point, which appeared on the first cover of LINKS. Only open for two years at the time, the club brought Jones back two decades later for a renovation, giving him a chance to refine his evolving style and philosophy.

In addition to restoring all the green contours, Jones removed a lot of the mounding and oval bunkers that were in vogue in the ’80s, replacing the latter with a sculpted Tillinghast style.

“I made it more classic, like the way courses were built pre-Depression,” says Jones. “Golf courses go through styles. We’re more neo-classic and I think that’s good for the game.”

When private community developers like Jim Anthony want to create a first-class experience, they turn to Tom Fazio.

Back in 1988, the Cliffs Communities were little more than an idea in Jim Anthony’s head. Five years later, the Cliffs at Glassy, with a Tom Jackson course, opened. Now, the Cliffs consists of eight communities in the mountains of North and South Carolina, with courses by some of the biggest names in architecture, including one by Tiger Woods in development.

But when it comes to selling real estate, no name is bigger than Tom Fazio, who will open his second Cliffs course, Keowee Springs, in September. “Tom’s strength is that he builds very beautiful but playable courses,” says Anthony. “Man can do nothing to compete with the view of Mother Nature. And if you’re out there with three buddies on a Friday afternoon and the sun’s going down, you’re laughing and say, ‘You S.O.B’ for making that putt, you want it to be a private experience.”

This combination of beauty and playability is what attracts property buyers, and no architect has been able to meld the two as well, no matter the site, from the lakes of central Florida at Lake Nona to the deserts of Arizona at Mirabel to the sandhills of North Carolina at Forest Creek. Anthony is hardly the only developer to realize Fazio’s value. In fact, Discovery Land Company has used Fazio for 11 of its developments, even going so far as to hire him to rip up an existing course and start again.

“It is about creating a great environment for golf and a total golf course environment setting not just a golf course woven throughout a real estate development,” Fazio says. “My goal is to produce something unique, something that will get the editors at LINKS interested in it and comparing it to some of the best golf and environments that people have ever gone to.”

The task is more difficult than ever due to increased restrictions on land use, which creates more hazards for players. “We have some wonderful environmental laws that protect wetlands and other types of things,” says Fazio. “I’m for them because they add to the quality of the environment and make the course look better. But they create more hazard features. And the most important part of the design element for me is playability relative to the medium and high-handicap player.”

Despite the challenges, Fazio and his talented staff of eight senior designers rarely find themselves without a solution. “You are not going to give up on it, you are going to find a way because there are no excuses,” he says. “The bottom line, whether it is Discovery Land or the Cliffs or whoever our client is, they’re coming to us because they want to create something that’s as good or better as anything that anybody had ever seen. So that’s today’s charge and that is what we do.”