The swings and roundabouts of golf's fortunes saw Tiger Woods win the Target Challenge, an event which he hosts in California, while Vijay Singh, the world's number one, merely made up the numbers. Meanwhile, Ernie Els was failing to win the Dunhill Championship in South Africa against a field seriously depleted by Tiger's indulgence. It has to be said, however, that Tiger did his friends a favour by taking them to the Sherwood Course, as the South African venue of Leopard Creek appeared as dull as ditch-water and the worst example of the enduring fashion for global golf architecture seen to date.
Form is as fickle as fashion but while something can be done about form, fashion is something that can endure and become defining. Many of us who came to our prime in the '60s and '70s look at family photo albums and experience feelings of deep regret. In the same way that we have come to regret the tight trousers and pink sweaters of yesteryear, we have also come to regret the uniformity of the times. We blindly took our inspiration from the leading figures of the day who in turn took whatever was given them by the clothing manufacturers. It happens yet today, but one hopes, not forlornly, with a little more input of taste.
The accessories of the game are of little consequence in the disposable culture of our society. Where we play the game, the courses and their location, however, is not disposable and their design and setting is something that we will have to live with - and it is something of much greater consequence than our embarrassment of old photo albums.
It is difficult to decide when exactly golf courses succumbed to fashion but it was clearly about the time when Henry Longhurst brought it entertainingly to our TV screens and the glossy golf magazines started to eulogise golf course architects in exchange for a free round of golf. The construction of buildings in general, and civic buildings in particular, had already suffered from global uniformity. Architects eschewed the vernacular, parochiality was piss, airports were the same the world over and the high streets of Europe were indiscernible from those in America. The global village was with us and so too was global golf.
With the huge popularisation of golf throughout the '60s and '70s, Wall Street and the City of London experienced little restraint. Money poured into golf course construction and the lands innate unsuitability for golf was rendered irrelevant as heavy plant machinery moulded it to the architect's will. You could play on virtually the same course in the shires of England as you could in Japan and Jakarta, Alaska and Achtermuchty. Grass seed strains might have to be juggled, like the amount of irrigation and the chemicals required to maintain the balance of enforced nature but, nevertheless, uniformity was guaranteed. Money was no object, the desert was given lakes and swamplands sandy swaths. Where once financial prudence had dictated that a course was insinuated upon a landform, fashion imposed a course design upon it, fittingly or otherwise.
If the land suffered abuse, the language suffered even more. A golf course became a 'links', despite the fact that a links means something else altogether. A bunker became a 'sand trap' and a service centre became a clubhouse, although it never housed a golf club. A global language permeated the game that was as insidious as the architecture that pervaded it.
The essential ingredient of golf is character. The game requires character and it attracts exponents that are characters. The game was played on courses that were characteristic of the places in which they were set. The golf of the Scottish Highlands was very different from the coastal links land golf, which again was very different from the golf of the lush English home counties. Golf at Shinnecock was altogether different from golf at Pine Valley or Pebble Beach (pictured above). Each had a unique character that was determined by the place and a handful of local devotees, not by some corporate enterprise that appointed a design team.
It is hardly surprising that golf is experiencing negative growth and that golf tourism in Scotland and Ireland is in decline. The compliance with uniformity has become such that even the long established golfing venues no longer express the idiosyncrasy that they once did. Hotels and clubhouses are decorated and appointed in the same way and the food and services are equally homogeneous. Rough and semi-rough are carefully designated and even bunker sand strives for uniformity in grain size.
One hesitates before lauding the rutted tracks of 40 years ago but you have to ask yourself if you got more or less pleasure from playing a rutted track for a few bob than you get from playing a pristine play park for upwards of a hundred quid?
|| 13 - DECEMBER 2004