The Art of Restraint in Golf Course Architecture

It’s a word that has become increasingly familiar to fans of great golf course architecture. The dictionary says “restraint” involves moderate behavior and self-control, and it’s an important trait for a designer to be able to call upon.

Tom Doak says it is “deciding not to do something which is just as active a decision as electing to add a feature.” David McLay Kidd has learned to always ask himself if adding something is entirely necessary. And, as he often does, Bill Coore cites the great Perry Maxwell, who said a golf course/hole “should always be there not brought there.”

The greatest living champion of lay-of-the-land courses, Coore adds that what nature gives him/her should be the architect’s most influential guide. “If you’re given a naturally gifted or interesting site,” Coore says, “allow it to be the lead designer. Let its natural features create the overall character and steer the detail and strategy of the holes. Inject only what is necessary to enhance the less-interesting portions of the course.”

Doak adds, “Restraint is being confident enough in your routing and green construction (the two essential pieces) to think you don’t need much more,” while also recognizing Maxwell as a leading exponent. “His courses had hardly any fairway bunkers because he thought his greens and routing were enough to define the strategy.”

All three architects agree that restraint is a hard thing for a young designer to master. “It can be very difficult for talented, but inexperienced, designers to rein themselves in,” says Coore. “Given an opportunity to showcase their talents, they can be prone to overworking sites to create an impression and gain attention. I know I was guilty of this at the beginning of my career.”

The danger, of course, is doing so much to manipulate or alter the land that you lose entirely what you had to start with. “Too many architects think their role is to keep adding things to make each hole better,” says Doak. “But you’ve obviously got to stop at some point. In the past, I’ve always given my associates a lot of leeway to suggest features or build something, but I’m the editor and quite a bit of my work has been to take things out or tell them to stop tinkering and get on to the next hole.”

bandon 13th
13th hole, Bandon Dunes

Coore, Doak, and Kidd have all created exceptional golf courses for Mike Keiser, of course. And they all identify the Chicago-based developer, who has given us the Dream Golf collection of Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley, and the under-construction Rodeo Dunes in Colorado (as well as playing an important role in creating Cabot’s courses and Australia’s Barnbougle Dunes), as one of the rare course-owners who will happily let the ground do the talking.

“Most people who visit a construction site suggest adding things,” says Doak, “but Mike Keiser is one of very few who ever suggested removing a bunker.” Kidd says Keiser was instrumental in helping to make Bandon Dunes’s superb par-five 13th hole free of artifice and such a delightful walk. “I was initially thinking of putting in a few bunkers on the downhill approach to the green, but he doubted it needed any,” says the Scot. “The ground is so bumpy, we decided there was plenty of interest there already, so left it as it is.”

While restraint is often desirable, there are, of course, many notable exceptions to the rule. Nine-time U.S. Open venue (with four more to come before 2050) Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania once had over 300 bunkers and still has close to 200 today. Royal Lytham & St. Annes in England has over 170, and though it’s unclear exactly how many there are at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y., we do know there are an awful lot. And what of The Lido, another of C.B. Macdonald’s Long Island masterpieces? The original course might have disappeared long ago, but aerial images of Doak’s faithful reproduction at Sand Valley in Wisconsin show just how many abrupt and seemingly nonessential manmade features the course has. Macdonald certainly showed little to no restraint when building it in 1917. And it’s a good job he did because, as he described it, the land was a “horrible 115 acres of sea swamp and quagmire.”

Coore says that where golf course architecture is concerned, “less is more.” He quickly qualifies the statement, however, adding “…at least, it can be.”

The modifier is important because, of course, the very last thing a dull site needs is for the architect to show any restraint. “If you’re given a site with very limited natural potential,” Coore continues, “you can forget about restraint and go all in with theoretical, dramatic design elements. Restraint applies to working with naturally gifted sites for golf, not those with little to no potential.”

Other architects may have been tempted to decorate the 8th at Augusta National Golf Club with numerous bunkers, but the contours do the job. (photo by Getty Images)

Though public courses typically have a few more bells and whistles in an effort to create attention-grabbing images and attract business, suppressing a desire to transform or mutate a landscape is, more often than not, the way to go. Alister MacKenzie’s original layout at Augusta National on the grand slopes of Louis and Prosper Berckmans’s former flower nursery had just 29 bunkers. And Coore says any course built before the 1940s, be it in the UK or America, probably required the designer to show restraint because… well, they didn’t have much choice (Lido, NGLA, and Oakmont notwithstanding).

A modern-day course, Coore believes, that demonstrates the beauty of restraint is his own and Ben Crenshaw’s Austin Golf Club, 30 miles northwest of the Texas capital which opened in 2001. “In my prejudiced opinion,” says Coore, “it is a highly interesting yet almost totally natural course, unembellished with superfluous elements.”

“Restraint” is a good word, in the context of course design at least. But “unembellished” might be better.

What golf courses do you know of that demonstrate restraint in their design?