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Rankings, Ratings & the Golf Course Architecture Arms Race

Like any architectural profession, we are subject to criticism and actively participate in the odd pressures of rankings and ratings. These pressures are both external and internal shaping our intentions toward the latest trends. Some of these trends are noteworthy while others are more fashion. The business of ranking and ratings is simultaneously fatiguing, baffling and stimulating. Golden Age architects used individual techniques with striking effect. Tillinghast used sprawling layouts and rambling bunkers; Donald Ross was keen to sod faced bunkering using deception and disguise techniques; Raynor used time-tested template holes. Others dotted the landscape with chocolate mounds to increase “delight”. Each was hailed. Some ideas lasted and became ‘classic’, and some did not.

The mid-century established the “signature golf course” by Robert Trent Jones. He used penal, linear design with runway tees and tightly bunkered, narrow fairways. “Give your golf course a signature” was the aesthetic and "protecting par' was the mantra. This was tough, challenging, linear architecture that reflected maintenance capabilities. Better maintenance and irrigation capabilities in the 70’s and 80s’ brought considerable changes to golf architecture including the island greens, stadium golf and a heavy emphasis on target golf sprinkled with heroic design strategies. Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus and a host of others offered highly dramatic landscapes with equally demanding construction budgets. Golf course residential communities and the vast reliance on development sales revenue fostered impressive projects with highly dramatic landscape features. Maintenance, developer demand, golf equipment, wider-ranging golf ability and environmental restrictions have all had an impact on the practice of golf course architecture. The need to follow the most recent trend, by architect and owner alike, is intense. In the mid 80’s that desire was detonated, ignited by golf course rankings and ratings. The result was an architectural arms race. Ratings and rankings are spectacularly good at some things, while fostering unintended consequences.

Rankings and ratings fostered an age of landscape spectacle, drama and intense maintenance demand instead of golf course architecture. Architects conjured sweet tasting eye-popping delight, but did little to inspire golf and its long-term sustainability. To establish quick notice and high ratings, Golf Course architects created more shine and less strategic nuance, slowly eroding the potential for any operational viability. These lists are compiled every couple of years with data compiled from hundreds of various raters with wide ranging tastes, needs, ability, sophistication or understanding of golf course architecture. Some are quite well schooled in the history of golf course architecture, but have little understanding of safety or liability concerns, modern construction techniques, client requirements, budget limitations, drainage expectations, soils, turf, environmental restrictions or community support – not to mention operational success. Each of these has a bearing on most projects developed today, and each has an impact on how the project evolves. Lets be clear….the ratings game is quite muddy. Appreciate ratings for what they are: vehicles to sell ad space, produce clicks or stroke egos. There is very little real architectural criticism in these, mostly architectural preference. Critics are really good at telling us what they like. It seems that there are good arguments for the top 5 or 10 golf courses. Most everyone can agree that Pine Valley, Augusta, Pebble Beach and Cypress Point belong there. Arguments can be made for the next 5, 10, 20 or 30 – Shinnecock, Pinehurst, Bandon Dunes, etc. There may be general consensus on the next 50-100. But in each of these, there is no reaching agreement on any particular order. How do you compare Pine Valley against Cypress Point or Augusta National? It simply can’t be done. Each is unique. Each is distinct with varying landscape characteristics, maintenance demands and climate concerns. Furthermore, how is it possible to distinguish the 57th from the 91st or even the 137th? Is it critical analysis, or simply personal preference or even the golfing proficiency of the rater on any particular day. Each and every course needs to live and breathe on its own, honestly, authentically, within its own landscape and ownership or membership needs. Unfortunately, ratings and lists tend to push design to become either more dramatic or familiar - sometimes both. Architects and Owners equally chasing the latest fashion. This is unfortunate. If golf courses are designed or repurposed to look and feel like any other, or follow a trend, then diversity is lost. Pine Valley and Cypress Point are vastly different because they are authentic experiences that reflect the landscape. Sand Valley is a recent supreme example of this authentic experience.

In the past 20 years, these rankings have been rebuffed, dissected and reviled. Tom Doak started it with his own highly controversial and wonderfully acerbic rankings. This led to a number of other critics and then on-line chat rooms and then podcasts from a variety of experts. While many offer some compelling insights, none of them is entirely correct. None. They are opinions with little understanding of the vast list of challenges architects face when developing a revenue-producing entertainment venue that is cast into the landscape with no expiration date. I am not suggesting they are wrong in their assessments. Nor am I suggesting that these lists are convoluted. These wonderful lists /podcasts/chat-rooms have generated remarkable discussions amongst golf architecture enthusiasts and passionate golfers and within the industry and provide fodder for golfers of all shapes, sizes and opinions. But these lists have a pervasive effect on our craft. Architects trying to please critics or attain ranking is a fool’s errand. While I pay attention to these I give little heed, because these are opinions. Many of these critics and raters attempt to make assessments and assign reasoning to our work, with little understanding of the many relevant factors, underlying goals or how decisions are developed. As a golf course architect my singular goal is to compel the golfer to return for another round. Not once, or twice, but multiple times. This can be done in a variety of methods with a solid routing, with interesting strategies, ample width and honest treatments of the landscape. Each will offer an experience worth returning. If done well, golfers will return ‘hopeful and engaged’. If done really well, then the golf course will stand the test of time. The best golf course architecture comes from the designer’s strategic and aesthetic vision with efficient operations, intersecting with an honest treatment of the landscape resulting in inspiration. Golf holes and great golf courses react to the topographic and landscape features inspiring authentic experiences that cater to a designated market niche. Ratings and Rankings can have merit if constructed from that point of reference.

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