Is golf course architecture an art form?
Journalist Steve Sailer makes this case in a smart, provocative recent essay. The designs of Donald Ross, Alastair MacKenzie, and A.W. Tillinghast evince remarkable aesthetics, creativity, and, yes, beauty in their very own different ways. According to Sailer, however, golf’s marriage to the complacent capitalist establishment has led it to be dismissed by the left-leaning, capuccino-sipping, Prada glasses-wearing gatekeepers of the art world establishment. He thinks that golf course architecture should be recognized as one of the great modern mass art forms.
There’s brilliance indeed to the work of one contemporary designer, Mike Strantz. This maverick architect died at fifty not long ago of throat cancer. Two Strantz masterpieces – Tobacco Road and Tot Hill Farm – lie within an hour of one another here in
I can’t say I’m a fan of some of today’s most acclaimed rock star architects. There's something especially vanilla conservative about Tom Fazio’s work, and his corporatized heritage gestures to Ross and the so-called Golden Age of golf architecture in the 1920s. His Pinehurst #4 and University of North Carolinea Finley Golf are competent, but soulless and ultimately uninteresting. This hasn’t kept several billionaires from forking up Fazio’s multimillion dollar fee for designing their trophy courses like
Strantz never commanded the top-tier fees of a Dye or Fazio much less designed anywhere so many courses in his abbreviated career. None of his courses have been venues for major tournaments; some critics find them contrived. His is still more a cult following with golf cognoscenti.
Count me a very big fan. To me, Strantz’s genius lies in understanding the compromised, hard-to-categorize essence of that strange invention we call a golf course. A golf course is part nature – grass, trees, rock, sand, and water under the big blue sky. And yet, needless to say, a course is also artificial, an invention of human hands. Building a track takes bulldozing, moving rocks, cutting down trees, turf grass bioengineered to the latest specifications, and computerized drainage systems as intricate as a missile defense system. No course is ever anything like untouched wilderness no matter how many bird sanctuary and wetland preservations stakes the management plants to endow itself with the chic aura of green correctness. But neither should a good golf course be oblivious to the local landscape and ecology in the cookie-cutter gated community style.
The trick, in other words, is acknowledging and working within the preexisting landscape and yet without trying simply to mimic it. I’m reminded of the famous superscale public art of the Bulgarian artist Christo. When I was a kid in the 1970s in the Bay Area, Christo set up his “Running Fence” in Marin just north of
Mike Strantz may be the Christo of golf course architecture. His Tobacco Road course lies in the site of an old quarry with a broken landscape of sand and red clay, eroded hillocks and gullies, and stunted pines and oaks. It’s a hard-working, semi-rural heart of the
One thinks of hardscrabble central
There’s also a whimsical, almost Alice in Wonderland feel to the project. Hugely elongated, double and triple-tiered greens are a Strantz trademark. Here I’m reminded of an earlier surrealist master, Salvador Dali, and, in particular, of the odd, extended shapes of the clocks in his pop culture iconic “The Persistance of Memory.” There’s a bit of the miniature golf course to some Tobacco Road greens with balls funneling down slopes towards the hole. And, in fact, the course itself sometimes has a hit-the-ball-through-the-clown’s mouth feel with its blind shots, crazy bounces, and whirlygig turns. It’s part of the track's postmodern novelty to be unafraid of being at once brilliant, visionary, serious, and playful all at the same time.
The marketing of Tobacco Road trumpets the layout’s difficulty. “
The Tot Hill Farm lies west of the Sand Hills angling up to the
Strantz also highlights water's centrality in these wet, green Appalachian foothills. The irregular, meandering mountain creeks figure centrally in his design as they zig and zag along fairways and curl snake-like around many greens. The setting of other greens back into the forest draw our attention as well to the woods and the surrounding forest with their deer, bear, and black snakes. The effect once more is to heighten our awareness of the land’s varied dimensions, in this case the triad of brook, forest, and gray rock.
Once again, too, Strantz has fun along the way. There are the trademark vast, funhouse greens. Other quirky elements include a tiny tee box on the par-3 12th hole calling attention to itself – and the boring homogeneity of the usual tee box – by the fact that four players can barely fit on it as it hangs above the creek. Several greens perch precariously on hilltops just as at Tobacco Road; they remind me of those fantastical prints of an imaginary golf course played across waterfalls and gorges to tiny, cliff-hanging greens. Strantz even disrupts the staid formula of four par-3s and four par-5s on an eighteen hole, par 72 course. Instead Tot Hill has five par-3s and five par 5-s, all part of the fun. Don’t we all like par-3s and par-5s more than the middlingness of yet another par-4?
I also liked the democratic pricing and feel of Tot Hill Farm. The green fee is just $40 with cart on a weekday, and the clubhouse a trailer in the best tradition of populist
Go play Tobacco Road and Tot Hill Farm if you get the chance.
You won’t be disappointed.
(An expanded version of this post can be found in the Los Angeles Times: http://travel.latimes.com/articles/la-tr-ncgolf9mar09)