Sunday, November 6, 2011

Classic Golf Architecture-- Does Form=Function?

Touring golf courses in the Northeast has been a great pleasure for me this Fall.  There are literally dozens of seriously great golf courses all within 1-3 hours drive (depending on traffic) of NYC alone.  A truly unmatched stock of golden age golf.  Since starting work on Paramount's (A.W. Tillinghast) restoration I have been able to see Sleepy Hollow (C.B. Macdonald), St. George's (Devereux Emmet), and Whippoorwill CC (Charles Banks), all built in the early 20th century.  Touring these courses in addition to an intensive study of Paramount has allowed me to think critically about how the architecture of this period was influenced not only by the technological limitations of the time but also the way that golf was played.

During my recent visit to St. George's in Stony Brook, Long Island I was struck in particular by the green complex of the short par four, 4th hole.  Guarding the front of the green and hidden from view is a massive pit filled on the bottom with sand.  I could not tell the bunker was there until I very nearly walked into it upon approaching the green.  After playing my ball out of that sandy cavern (and taking bogey) I began to think how this feature fit into the overall scheme of the design.  Upon observing the surrounding landscape and playing the next few holes I came to the conclusion that the bunker was not necessarily apart of any grand scheme in the design but merely a function of the need to see the target.  The property is quite abrupt and hilly, in particular where the end of the 4th hole came to be.  By digging a massive 10 foot pit, Emmet and Co. were able to use that material to prop up the surface of the green so that it could be viewed from the fairway.  In this case it seemed apparent that the form of the green was vastly a necessity of its function, to see the target. 

By creating a bunker feature, Emmet was able to get the most out of his green site, which would be otherwise out of view, fitting it into the rest of the routing.  Also to consider, in the absence of ideal ground conditions (ie. sandy soils) and heavy machinery the "push-up" style of green construction was the easiest and most effective method.  By flopping the soil behind the pit and forming a raised platform, the putting green could easily shed water and the ensuing bunkers could be used to add strategic and visual interest around the green, both a positive consequence of function influencing form.

I believe that many of the golf courses built before the advent of the steam shovel, aka bull dozer,(with the exception of a few modern design) are as close to equating form and function than at any other time in golf construction.  Some today would call Emmet's building style at St.George's minimalism, I say this is the logical practice of golf course construction.

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