American Society of Golf Course Architects

ASGCA members comment on Old Course modifications

The in-progress modifications to the Old Course at St. Andrews have generated discussion among golfers everywhere, including among ASGCA members. The following opinions are those of individual members, and do not represent the ASGCA membership as a group.

Commenters:


Comments from Bob Cupp, ASGCA Fellow

Please consider this paraphrased definition of the word sacrosanct.

Sac•ro•sanct; an adjective (of a principle, place, or routine): “too important or valuable to be interfered with,” or, “the individual's right to work has been upheld as sacrosanct.”

When an issue is as complex and emotional as this one, it is wise to seek advice from the broad knowledge of mankind and its expression of meaning within our own language (though this word exists in every international voice).

This definition struck me in the face, for it contains both aspects of a vehement disagreement. They are as follows:

  • The Old Course is too important or valuable [historic] to be interfered with [altered] and should remain indefinitely for future generations.
  • Competition must be contended on quality venues and the individual's right to work [to be tested] is necessary to the game at its highest levels.

There is no authority. Only the matrix of conditions (people) within the game at this moment in history, who can decide what will happen. The future will pass judgment.

A part of me says, “No! No! Keep the Old Course.” But until the mid nineteenth century, the Old Course was a single fairway out and back with single greens along the way, approached from both directions. It was changed to it’s present form (a fairway for each hole), to eliminate the congestion and shorten the playing time. It was, by today’s standards, a colossal change. That’s just a hundred and fifty years ago. Scottish Parliament banned the game in 1457, more than five hundred years ago – and how long had they been playing before that?

Another part of me says that Rory should have to play to that section of the eleventh green so The Open Championship of the World would be that much more interesting. Otherwise that hole location no longer exists for the ultimate competitors and is also lost to history. What’s the difference between that and golf pilgrims of the world seeing authenticity? We can make greens faster now and that’s why it has gone away. We have outsmarted ourselves in our quest for perfection, and there are numerous other areas of the course that would be equally disregarded and hence never mentioned in the lasting reports and legends of the championships of the future.

But don’t compare The Old Course to modern venues that have religiously kept up with the times. What were they in 1457 when a giant, gleaming cathedral floated hundreds of feet above the drifting smoke of a medieval town to which pilgrims came from around the world – even then?

What was the Old Course in the 1800’s when Alan Robertson, Old and Young Tom Morris, the Parks of Musselburgh, Willie Dunn and others bewildered the populous with their stunning abilities? Is the Old Course better for them? Indeed it is. They created legend, followed by generations of equally amazing competitors; so many names, Vardon, Jones, Hagen, Sarazen, Cotton, Locke, Thompson, Player, Palmer, Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Watson, Woods – all part of the same continuing epic. The Old Course is more because of them.

But are those names more important than centuries of Pilgrims and would it be right to blast away forms, ancient or otherwise? Well, the last fact is that any links is marching ever so slowly across the landscape, and so is constantly changing anyway without our help.

But what does not change is the history in our collective minds. That story is timeless and indelible. The game was probably born on these lands and the noble aspects of our understanding deem it should not change.

Therein lies the disagreement, the argument with no adjudication. It is the fundamental elements of our game that have come into juxtaposition.

It is important because we love golf. We move on.

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Comments from Rick Phelps, ASGCA

There has been a great deal of discussion over the announcement that the Links Trust is beginning the first phase of a two part renovation at the Old Course, in St. Andrews. There is no doubt that the Old Course is a historical masterpiece that deserves a high degree of preservation. However, one of the biggest reasons that it has remained the venerable “home of golf” is that it has been carefully modified over the years to respond to a game that has significantly changed, as well.

Golf is not the same game that it was thirty years ago, let alone the game it was 230 years ago. The historical fields of play, the masterpieces, have all adapted to the changes that the game has undergone in order to remain masterpieces. If a golf course is no longer relevant to the modern game, it will simply become a relic of the past, if it can even continue to exist.

While the internet is proving to be an extremely valuable invention for communications and commerce, it has a very negative side in terms of allowing semi-anonymous commentary to be thrown about on topics where there is little or no true knowledge. Even the most educated and responsible people can, and do, make comments that are far from truthful when they don’t know all of the facts beforehand.

The changes that are being made at the Old Course are certainly going to be well documented. So, if they prove to be detrimental to the charm, character, playability, strategy, and all of the other elements that make a golf course a masterpiece, they can be removed and restored to the previous condition with a high degree of accuracy.

Therefore, at this time, there is little that should be said in terms of the specific work that is under way at the Old Course, other than a continuing plea to the Links Trust to move forward cautiously with utmost consideration to the entire history of the grounds on which the game is played in St. Andrews. I, personally, am confident that this is already being done.

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Comments from Steve Smyers. ASGCA

Those who recommend the changes have a mission to preserve the integrity of The Open, the oldest and what many consider the most prestigious championship in the game. These individuals advocating for the changes are not only very insightful, but they also have a passion for the Old Course. Most of them were born and raised in Scotland and a few in St. Andrews. This is where they have learned the game and have played and competed their entire life. They have a great amount of sensitivity to the brilliance and historical value of this majestic golf course. These individuals believe that The Open will only retain its status and integrity if it is conducted on the greatest and most relevant golf courses in the British Isles. They also realize that in order to maintain its prestige a stern test must be presented to the competitors.

Those who oppose the changes realize the architectural brilliance of St. Andrews and believe its features should be preserved for the enjoyment of golfers in perpetuity. They are opposed to making any design changes to the Old Course, just for the sake of conducting a championship. They do not support any tinkering to the course and believe that changes to the course are not necessary. They do believe however, that it is a distance issue only, and that it is as simple as rolling back the golf ball. The question is how far to roll back the ball.

When most people are asked how far to roll the ball back, they really do not have an answer. When questioned, their answer relates back when they first fell in love with the game. For example, Peter Thompson believes the game was at its best in the 1950's. My generation believes it was the best in the 70's, and today's elite college players believe everything is fine the way it is today.

There are others who would be opposed to reducing the distance a ball will travel as they believe it would take away the fun of the game and even chase people away. (Just for the record I am not in this camp and I would like to see the ball rolled back).

There is another camp that would like to see two sets of rules and two golf balls. One for the elite player and one for the regular everyday golfer. The concern is this becomes a slippery slope. Once the rules become bifurcated, where does it end? Different size golf balls, different size holes, anchoring, no anchoring, etc.

Another smaller school says it is a technology issue. These people say that perimeter weighted irons with a lower center of gravity and titanium metal clubs both have bigger sweet spots which are easier to hit than the old clubs. This combined with lighter, longer, and more stable club heads allows the golfer to swing with more confidence and thus with more speed. This group also believes that the biggest change in the game is how golf courses are currently being maintained. It is their idea that because of modern day maintenance practices golf has become much more consistent, predictable and therefore easier for the elite player. Because of evolving maintenance practices club manufacturers have responded and have altered the way golf clubs are designed and built. Golfers have altered their approach to the game and their stroke to conform to current turf conditions.

Innovation is the heart and soul of progress and the evolution of society. Golf has certainly benefited from innovation. As one industry leader once stated, innovation has been integral to the growth and enjoyment of the game since its inception.

It is my firm belief that as designers of the playing fields of the great game of golf, we must design to the modern day players, conditions, and standards if we are to have relevant championships on our courses.

The question to me is; what is more important?

To maintain and even return the Old Course to its historical roots and by doing so no longer be relevant to host the oldest and most prestigious championship.

OR

To thoughtfully and carefully make modifications in order to continue to host this magnificent event.

By losing the championship, The Old Course might lose some of its significance and its stature. The Philadelphia Cricket Club once considered one of the most magnificent courses in the United States hosted several US. Opens until it became outdated some 90 years ago.

By doing careful surgery St. Andrews would continue to be a worthy championship venue and most likely be able to maintain its historical architectural status. Keeping The Open championship at this historical course would allow golfers all around the world the opportunity to learn and to appreciate more about classical Golf Course Architecture.

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Comments from Greg Martin, ASGCA

Every golfer dreams of playing St. Andrews as it is… and as it was. If renovations were proposed to any other golf course, passionate opposition may exist, but as the birthplace of golf, change to St. Andrews is worthy of debate and reflection.

Golf evolved because St. Andrews is both arbitrary and capricious, simultaneously confounding and engaging, favoring no one and challenging everyone. St. Andrews is the result of God and nature, and as architects, we chase its genius. In fact, the golf industry is indebted to its existence.

The proposed changes to St. Andrews are an appropriate lightening rod that exposes the complexity of today’s golf industry. Renovations to this iconic venue evoke passionate value judgments to the very issues we are confronted as architects. Length, maintenance, challenge, construction cost, the environment, history, and tournament capacity are but a few of the issues we must confront everyday, on a variety of projects, both large and small.

If St. Andrews were a building, it would be safeguarded in Historic Trust. But it is not a building: it is a living and breathing entity that provides recreation and enjoyment on a daily basis. This course belongs in historic trust, but not as a relic, but as a temple for participation, to be used and appreciated by average golfers and the professional alike.

As sacred and hallowed ground I personally believe it should be left untouched. St. Andrews golf course wants to change the golf course as a reaction to the ability of the modern golfer and they have every right to do so. Therefore, I hope changes will be accomplished carefully and judiciously.

So the real issue is not if St. Andrews should be renovated, but why. The changes proposed are a direct reaction to the modern game, equipment advances and score relative to par. If technology has mitigated the strategic challenge at the St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf, then shouldn’t we simultaneously examine the capacity and boundaries of modern equipment? If that can be accomplished, then reconstruction is unnecessary. That, I am afraid, will not occur soon.

The beauty of golf is bigger than ‘protecting par’. Golf was invented and prospered because of match play. The uniqueness and charm of St. Andrews was fused in match play, not stroke play and the attraction of match play still thrives at St. Andrews.

Stroke play and equipment technology are the real problem.

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Comments from Ian Andrew, ASCGA Associate

One of the great questions we face is when to take a stand.

Most issues are very personal so it’s very difficult for an organization to take a stance on something that may be important to some and not important to others. Preservation of important historical work has always been a contentious area among ASGCA members because not all of us share the same perspective. Some think evolution is important and others like me would rather see the most important works preserved for future generations to study.

While I may not personally like what some architects choose to do with historical courses, I had never seen a proposal so egregious that I thought we as an organization needed to take a stand. Until now. The latest proposal for renovations to the Old Course in my opinion crosses that line. While I’d prefer they let well alone, it is not the entire proposal that compels me to write this letter. It is the desire to alter the contours of the land. Any change to the undulations or green contours shows a complete disregard for St. Andrew’s hallowed ground.

I’m not foolish enough to believe any course should be locked in time or not allowed to make change, but recommending changes to the ground contours and green contours of The Old Course is a travesty.

The architecture of the Old Course represents the wellspring for all of golf course architecture. Almost every exceptional idea brought by a future generation has a direct link back to the Old Course. In particular the Eden hole with its magnificent green is perhaps the single most copied hole in the history of the game. All the great architects who visited St. Andrews have made mention of the qualities and attributes of the Eden Hole and yet three men propose to toss this legacy aside to accommodate a tournament that comes for one week in every five years.

This is a breach of the Public Trust and something we must ask them to reconsider.

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