Sunday, June 10, 2007


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 North Carolina. His last design was a makeover of the Monterey Peninsula Golf Club close by Pebble Beach in that great golf mecca of sea spray, cypresses and black rock, and the theatrical drama of northern California’s stunning Pacific Coast.

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 Las Vegas’s ultraelite Shadow Creek.

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 San Francisco. These eighteen foot high panels of white cloth ran some twenty miles before plunging down to the sea. The fence called attention to the lines and texture of the golden rolling hills and yet added something new for the two weeks it stayed up. Christo called his work an “obstructive membrana” changing our view of the land. This exercise in public art was also entertaining, a spectacle and a stunt that rivetted attention by its crazy novelty like Christo’s more recent “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park.

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 Carolinas setting bordered by real tobacco fields and an asphalt-manufacturing plant. Instead of bringing in fill dirt to make yet another pasteurized expanse of manicured green, Strantz takes full advantage of the distinctive setting. His design features enormous, visually captivating waste areas of the red clay and sand interspersed with straggly native grasses and dust-loving flowers like goldenrod and black-eyed susans. The eroded gullies and crumbling sand hills make for spectacular carries and blind shots. And Strantz gives his bunkers irregular shapes, and jagged edges. This departure from the convention of the ellipical, smooth-edged trap accentuates the jagged irregularity of the Sand Hills themselves.

One thinks of hardscrabble central Carolina as flat, the monotony of the horizontal under the deadening summer sun. By perching tees and greens on little hills, outcroppings, and gully edges, Strantz calls attention the odd angles of the old quarry landscape, and its ups, downs, and unexpected views and breaks. I wouldn’t have associated anything like beauty with this worn, deforested, and strip-malled heartland of my adopted home state. It’s possible to see it that way through the prism of Strantz’s design.

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. Pine Valley on Steroids,” advertises the web-site. The truth is that the course is not very hard at all; it's a modest 6,554 yards from the back tees with big landing areas and receptive greens despite rugged appearances. This course will never host a pro tournament. I hate to think how low a top player could go here. I like the course all the more for the fact that it’s meant for the average player.

The Tot Hill Farm lies west of the Sand Hills angling up to the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s a dramatically different setting from the rust red, wispy dry grass, and pale, drought green of Tobacco Road. A palette of deep green forest and grey rock outcrops prevails at Tot Hill Farm in the hilly, Cold Mountain-style terrain bordering the Uwharrie National Forest. Here again Strantz shows his sensitivity to the rivetting specificities of geography and ecology. Another architect might have bulldozed away rock outcroppings to smooth out the the course. Strantz incorporates the stone and its myriad fracture shapes into his design with cliffs and boulder formations extruding everywhere, sometimes in unlikely places like on tee boxes or close upon the greens. He also – and in this case almost literally Christo-like – employs running rock fences especially on the back nine. The structures echo and accentuate stone’s prominence in the landscape and the area's farming history with rock fences having been used as far back as colonial times.

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 North Carolina golf. It’s great golf not just for those with a fat wallets and a corporate expense account.

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:

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