Art of Golf

A couple blogs I read regularly linked to an article by Steve Sailer called "From Bauhaus to Golf Course: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of the Art of Golf Architecture," a subject of extreme interest to me. Why the interest? A little background.

The events that led up to me going to architecture school and becoming an architect began with a stroll down one of the halls in my high school during sophomore year. Outside the architecture/drafting classroom I saw in a display case a design of a golf course by a student. I can't recall if it was any good in any way, but it was the first instance that got me actually thinking about designing golf courses. At the time I played a lot of golf, so I was excited by the prospect. In the remaining time before graduation I took as many drafting and architecture classes as I could, though I never got to design a golf course in class (I did so on my own a couple times). Regardless I set off to a landscape architecture program in Kansas with the intention of designing golf courses*.

My interest in playing and keeping up with golf has decreased since those days, but I still have a keen interest in golf course design, even though I'm not familiar with courses that have opened in the last ten years. But getting to Sailer's article, it sounds like golf course design - like architecture - is cyclical: periods of "looking forward" are followed by periods of "looking backward", and vice-versa. For example, early American courses like Shinnecock Hills mimicked the original Scottish links, while the mid-20th-century designs that followed favored rational layouts that paralleled the Modernist aesthetic prevalent at the time. Designs of the 70s and 80s tended towards novelty and a break away from tradition, though recent courses seem to favor both traditional American and Scottish types.

Outside of a decent background on American golf course design with plenty of links** and images, Sailer gripes about the lack of recognition of the field as an artform, because "Golf courses are too bourgeois to be hip, too elegant to be camp...Many of the creators, critics, and collectors who have so enriched the arts are male homosexuals, while golf, for whatever reason, has almost no appeal to gay male sensibilities," and that "At a time when art institutions are fixated on celebrating demographic diversity, the golf architecture business remains white...[and] male...Further, many of the classic courses are owned by exclusive clubs accused of racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism." While I can't say I agree with Sailer's reasoning, basically golf is part of the establishment, not something that is critical of the establishment as a lot of art is. Even with the huge influence of Tiger Woods on the demographics of people now playing the game, golf is still seen as a white man's game. But more than that it's a rich white man's game. Sailer quotes a course in Las Vegas that recently cut it's greens fees in half — to $500!
Pine Valley, considered the greatest golf course in the US.

But is golf course design an art? For somebody who tends to see art as many parts interpretation, I think it can be. Most courses don't aspire to art and the ones that do do deserve some recognition and appreciation. Unfortunately any first-hand appreciation is usually only available to a select few.

*For those curious readers wondering what happened, after the required two years of Environmental Design in college, I realized my interests leaned more towards buildings than landscape, so I enrolled in the Architecture program instead of Landscape Architecture.

**Two excellent resources I discovered on Sailer's page are Golf Club Atlas and Caddy Bytes.


  1. Didn't Mark Twain call golf "a good walk spoiled"? Now, I think we can view a landscaped path as art (for proof see japanese gardens) - so, to do the math that makes the art of a golf course good landscape art spoiled. Or something like that.


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