A Legacy

by Bob Cupp President, American Society of Golf Course Architects

Golf's Grand Design, both the Public Broadcasting television special and the companion book, is a unique endeavor, chronicling the stories of the surprisingly small cadre who have contributed to American sport and recreation.

It seems that every person who has ever swung a club at a ball, even those who experience marginal success in doing so, believe they, given the opportunity, could create a golf course. Were that the case, why are there not more of us? body_learnmore-legacy_1.jpg

The reality is that the requirements are very diverse; a curious mixture of aesthetics, tactics and agronomics, subjects with little if anything in common. To be in a golf architect's mind is to follow a basically agrarian procedure using numerous yardsticks of art, strategy and grass, all eventually wielded by those who will play and revere or criticize it upon its completion. Those who do this well are not so much the beneficiaries of exceptional intelligence, but perhaps more accurately a refined form of schizophrenia.

Knowing the requirements of a simple form such as a golf tee requires the ability to locate it such that the shot played from it is pleasing and appropriately demanding, that its physical form fits aesthetically into the setting, that the grass will grow voraciously, that the slopes and top are manageable by machines, correctly irrigated and shaped, constructed of tilted such that water will not collect and will indeed flow away, but imperceptibly away from the area where players will enter that tee. Multiply that times seventy to ninety tees on the course, the thirty to a hundred or more bunkers, all with their own (and more) design demands, the proper shape and size of eighteen fairways and a myriad of details for every green, not to mention the devastating effects of shade, soils and the orientation of sunlight such that golf shots of prime strategic value result over a landscape of mystical beauty and sustainable quality. Anybody can do it—eventually.

It is actually simple stuff--just a lot of it over a very large area in very diverse situations.

If the beginner is spending his or her own money, the task is one of trial and error and no pressure. However, if the funding comes from elsewhere and the demands are high, not to mention the subsequent commissions that may follow this success and indeed the continuance of one's career, it might be a good idea to know what one is about.

"So how did anyone learn?" You may ask. How did the craft emerge and survive in America? The easy answer is that Scots and English taught us. Alex Findlay, Horace Hutchinson, William F. Davis, Willie Dunn and others were hired and they produced. They had local assistants who gained experience and eventually struck out on their own. One was an American actually, Charles Blair Macdonald, reared in Chicago but who attended St. Andrews University and fell under the tutelage of none other than Old Tom Morris, recognized as the world's first true designer. Macdonald learned and was consumed. After some rather ordinary starts on his own, eventually he created the Chicago Golf Club in 1893, and from there to the seminal cornerstone of American architecture at The National Golf Links on Long Island, where he professionally sired Seth Raynor and Charles Banks, who went on to succeed on their own. Other stories like this created a form of family tree, which is traceable today.

The American Society of Golf Course Architects was founded in 1947 by twelve competitors, most of whom were products of the family tree, and has grown to over a hundred and sixty members. With very few exceptions, the icons of the trade have been and are presently on the membership roster.
We are eclectic. The background and education of today's group, though primarily landscape architecture, come from many other disciplines, from fine arts to engineering, agronomics, business, law, players and so on, and likely the reason for our diverse design style.

This is why Golf's Grand Design is so interesting.

We are not 'better than.' We are only different and decided at whatever age and for whatever reasons to follow at the heels of a mentor. If anything, we harbor fair quotients of curiosity, creativity, and excitability with hints of insecurity, compulsivity and a touch of radical and sadistic. Mental cases? No, but most would agree what we do is more art than science, and the artist has, throughout history, been somewhat suspect and given a wide berth. Perhaps that is why we are so few.

It was my honor to be involved with the Grand Design project and I sincerely hope that the book and video will be on shelves a century from now, just as the design books of yesteryear are now treasures.


© 2012 Bob Cupp, Ron Whitten and Michael Trimboli

Providing support for PBS.org

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Image - rr_program_GolfsGrandDesign-3.jpg

(Courtesy George Bahto) 
Charles Blair Macdonald


(Courtesy George Bahto)
Charles Blair Macdonald


(Courtesy Scotty Sayers)
Ben Crenshaw, Bill Coore and Dick Youngscap at Sand Hills during construction in winter 1990