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In Response to the critics
Having received a number of e-mails concerning my remarks last week about the costs of golf and in particular the costs of golf course construction, I feel obliged to reply. But I have certainly no intention of starting a correspondence with a number of people clearly perplexed about things other than my article.

There appears to be two groups of people who have taken particular offence. On the one hand there are the devotees of the very old courses, some of them actual club members, who take exception to my remarks that no one can really be credited with designing these courses and that they simply evolved with time. The second group take exception to my remarks that have been interpreted as belittling the golf course architect, implying that they are over-hyped and over-paid.

Of the former correspondents, I find it hard to convey my dismay in the face of such ignorance. To the latter, I bow to their perception and acuity for they are absolutely right.

Addressing the first group, I find it hard to accept that Tom Morris and Willie Dunn should be recognised as the fathers of golf course architecture. Allan Robertson was doing much of what they did more than a decade before them at Carnoustie and Cupar. Watty Alexander was similarly occupied at Burntisland. In terms of precedence, Allan Robertson paved the way, although his work is largely unrecorded and has been completely obliterated by the subsequent efforts of Morris and Dunn, whose work in turn would be obliterated by those who followed. To call these men architects is stretching the definition to its elastic limits.

It is surely fatuous to afford the title of architect to someone who walked over a piece of grassland and designated where to put a few holes. He has in fact designed a golf course, for, after a break for lunch, he plays golf over it thus defining it as such.

If this is architecture, I will have to revise my opinion of a friend who has designed and built his own garden shed. Sir Christopher Wren he is not, but he has put together a structure that fulfils his requirements of a bolt-hole, providing a shelter for him and his cigarettes.

Like the golf courses that Tom Morris laid down of a morning, my friend's garden shed has been under continuous development from the onset. As well as painting, insulating and waterproofing, it has been expanded and largely re-structured, as its failings have became apparent. Today, it is a monument to his inventiveness for it not only houses his computer, TV and collection of doubtful magazines, but also his creature comforts that extend to a refrigerator and coffee-making machine.

His garden shed bears no resemblance whatsoever to his original construction which, other than the siting, had no design from the outset. Like many old golf courses it is much admired for its character and originality.

Tom Morris charged £1 a day plus expense for the service that he gave. Willie Dunn came a little more expensive but he often carried a spade. Willie Park Jnr offered a more extensive service by the 1880s and came with some costs. But although Park may have made drawings, he was not into massive movements of land and, like his predecessors, had to insinuate his golf courses upon the land at his disposal rather than shift it to his will.

It was the next generation, those that followed at the start of the 20th century that started moving mountains to make golf courses. They had railway navvies at their disposal as the great railway construction boom petered out. They had horsepower and earth moving machinery, albeit of a primitive sort. But they were still relatively limited in what they could do and had to remain alert to the possibilities of the land's expression. It is probably significant that James Braid's work at Gleneagles and Nairn has required little improvement. He certainly designed these courses and he oversaw their construction to a large extent, even getting his hands dirty. But to the best of my knowledge he never described himself as an architect.

Today, it is not necessary to consider the landscape and it would appear that few modern golf course designers do. With bulldozers and earth movers on such a scale that mountains can literally be moved and frequently are, the designer need not necessarily visit the site for off-the-shelf plans are available and the land can be forced to comply.

Is it surprising that there is much-of-a-muchness about modern golf courses in the same way that airport lounges rarely reflect the locale. An analogy with McDonalds fits, for if you have been in one you have been in them all.

Needless to say, I am now addressing my second group of critics, some of who have gone to pains to explain to me the extensive services offered by a modern golf course architect in some detail. I am glad of this for I find it beyond my comprehension how, or indeed why, golf courses could be created in Dubai or Qatar without the input of extremely imaginative individuals. Actually routing the holes and creating green forms, bunkers and other hazards must have been a trivial exercise compared to the botanics to maintain grass in such arid conditions and the hydraulics for the irrigation to maintain it. It must have been an incredible geological exercise to find the soil to say nothing of the water, and a fantastic political exercise to persuade local conservationists that creating an oasis would not disturb the local ecology.

Golf has come a long way but nowhere more so than in the Arab states. Greens were originally called 'browns' for they were made from a mixture of sand and tar. They cost little or nothing and were lovingly tended by devotees - everyone had access to them. Desert golf has certainly come a long way in terms of capital investment and maintenance costs and one cannot help but wonder about priorities.

©    15 - MARCH 2004

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