Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

Our Historic Courses – Designed or Evolved

By Mary Armstrong/For the Sun-News
Published 7/30/10

The Fathers of Golf Course Architecture (apparently there were few or no Mothers) were men like Donald Ross, Tom Bendelow, A.W. Tillinghast, Alister Mackenzie, Willie Park, Jr., H.S. Colt, and Charles Blair MacDonald. They produced many memorable layouts such as Pebble Beach, Cog Hill, Arominink, East Lake, Augusta National, and the Old White Course at Greenbrier.

We often hear television commentators hyping the original designers with comments like “Ross’ domed greens (Arominink) are just incredible” or something like “Jack Neville placed an unbelievably challenging (Pebble) golf course on this little piece of heaven.” Usually I cringe at these remarks. The game is so different from even 50 years ago. Do these “talking heads” actually believe that Donald Ross or Jack Neville knew that these courses were going to play as they do today?

For instance, let’s look at Arominink. It was designed by Donald Ross, one of my favorite architects. Arominink’s first incorporated Board of Governors in 1900 had six women and only four men! After the Board previously needed to move the Club twice, Ross was hired to design and construct a new course on a 300-acre piece of land in Drexel Hill, Penn. The new course opened to raves in 1928.

So would Ross recognize Arominink today? Maybe. Would he be satisfied with its current configuration? That’s very hard to say. Arominink arrived on the scene of the PGA Tour circuit this year thanks to a multi-million dollar “restoration”.

So let’s look at how Arominink has changed since 1928. I have no pictures or descriptions of how the course looked before the “restoration” other than what the Club provides at its Web site. However, I have seen hundreds of Ross’ original plans for greens. Never have I seen him design a green with a “squared-off” front as was seen on at least one green on TV at Arominink. When Ross designed this course in the late 20’s, putts looked like chip shots, as greens rolled at an estimated 4-6 on our current mode of measurement of green speed — the stimpmeter. This compared to the near 12 “stimp” readings at Arominink for the recent AT&T. So, you have to ask yourself, did Donald Ross intend that these greens play the way they did? The change in green speeds alone means that the green slopes will create larger breaks and a greater difference in the strike required to putt uphill versus downhill. Ross had no idea that those greens would ever roll so quickly. I’m sure he would be thrilled at their smoothness and speed, but I seriously doubt he would create those same greens for today’s game.The course currently has 101 bunkers. Ross wasn’t a particularly prolific bunker man in the realm of say, Charles Blair MacDonald. I doubt if the original course had more than 70 bunkers. Arominink’s own Web site indicates that “the course is still basically the same as laid out by Ross. Most of the relatively minor (sic) changes involved modernizing the bunkering (of which there are now 101). More significant has been the growth of the trees, which has completely altered the appearance of the course.”Ross barely tolerated trees. He didn’t acknowledge them as even a desirable hazard. In his book, “Golf Has Never Failed Me” he states, “As beautiful as trees are, and as fond as you and I are of them, we still must not lose sight of the fact that there is limited place for them in golf.” This is where Arominink and perhaps every other Ross design has been changed the most. Ross demanded a minimum of 60 yards and often as much as 90 yards for a fairway corridor. Today — and at the current Arominink Course — we rarely see more than a 120-foot corridor. Ross’ fairway bunkers were sometimes upwards of a hundred feet away from the hole centerline, but eminently in-play on a given day depending upon the flagstick position on the green. The biggest detriment to Ross’ original design philosophy was the advent of fairway irrigation. Irrigation head spacing led to a narrowing of the maintained corridor to fit the typical irrigation coverage. In the early years of irrigation that translated into a fairway corridor of about half what Ross intended. I have done consultations where I have found old bunkers or supporting landforms of old bunkers 30 yards into the woods on some of Ross’ courses. After the fairway was narrowed for irrigation, many Green Committees took it upon themselves to “fill in” the gap between the historical tree line and the new fairway edge with planted trees.Donald Ross’ green complexes (the green itself and its surrounding bunkers and contouring) were challenging and thoughtful, but he demanded wide fairway corridors to allow (perhaps even require) players to select their approach to those problematical greens. If you saw the AT&T Championship, you heard the commentators say time and again that it was critical that the players know which side of the fairway would give them the best approach to the current pin location on each green. In nearly every case, Ross originally designed these holes with even wider fairways to reward not just a well struck shot, but also a well thought-out shot. Donald Ross was a wonderful architect, but I think even he would scoff at the idea that he knew his courses would play today as they do.A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces last January. She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects. 

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