Square greens on golf courses used to be considered primitive. Why are they now considered awesome?
I think we can learn a lot about the reasons behind the fashion cycle in the arts by considering changes in golf course aesthetics. It’s widely assumed among rightists that there wouldn’t be changes in aesthetic tastes if only there weren’t demographic or political changes. But golf course architecture is its own highly limited little world. Yet, golf course design tastes have changed radically over the half century I’ve been interested in the subject without anybody else caring much about the subject.
Seth Raynor (1874-1926) was a civil engineer hired in 1909 by Charles Blair Macdonald (1855-1939), the Canadian-American-Scottish originator of American golf course architecture, to help him build the National Golf Links of America in the Hamptons on Long Island. NGLA isn’t located on quite as awesome land as Pebble Beach or Ballybunion, but it’s the most fun golf course I’ve ever played.
As Macdonald downshifted his career in old age, Raynor, who never claimed to be much of a golfer, went on to build many dozens of golf courses using the “template” holes that Macdonald had picked out following a tour of the best golf courses in Scotland and England around 1900.
Although golf courses are played from ground level, their design is more comprehensible when viewed from above. Coauthor of The Golf Courses of Seth Raynor, Jon Cavalier, the owner of the Twitter account @LinksGems, has revolutionized golf course architecture photography over the last decade by becoming an expert at mounting his camera on drones. His photo of the early 20th century yet extremely iPhone-like 16th hole at Sleepy Hollow golf club on the Hudson River, with its square green and thumbprint depression, is the most galvanizing golf course photo of recent years:
Sleepy Hollow is a WASP Old Money golf course that didn’t quite achieve greatness until recently. It was founded by a coterie of Astors, Harrimans, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers. They hired Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor to design the course in 1911, A.W. Tillinghast to redo it in 1935, and Gil Hanse to renovate it in 2008.
Cavalier’s tastes in golf course design are in sync with changes in fashion in recent years. He most loves golf courses laid out before America entered World War One in 1917. Whether this is because he’s a dedicated follower of fashion or because his brilliance as a photographer drives current tastes is beyond me.
It’s easy to come up with demographic, political, or commercial explanations for why fashions are always changing. But golf course design is its own little world, yet we see similar cycles. People just get bored with what used to be cool and want to see something new (or very old).
For example, Seth Raynor had the contract to design Cypress Point on an exquisite site on the Monterey Peninsula, but died in 1926. So Alister MacKenzie designed Cypress Point instead, in 1929: it’s the opposite of Raynor’s square greens. (I snuck onto this 15th in 1973.)
Alister MacKenzie (Cypress Point, Augusta National, Royal Melbourne) was too great a golf course architect to have ever gone out of fashion. But designers he had seemed to render forever obsolete, like CB MacDonald, Seth Raynor, and Walter Travis, are now highly chic again.
I really don’t think this is a conspiracy. I suspect it is the natural course of humanity.