Thursday, June 21, 2007

Architect #12 – Charles Alison

Best Course: Hirono

Other notable work: Hirono, Kasumigaseki, Kawana, Knollwood, Milwaukee, Fresh Meadow, and Sea Island

Notable Renovation Work: assisting Colt at: Sunningdale, Wentworth, Royal St. George’s, Royal Lytham and St. Annes

Overview: Charles Alison is better know as H.S. Colt’s partner than as a great golf course architect, but the body of his work clearly indicates that he was an outstanding designer in his own right. He met Colt while he was building Stokes and Pages and later joined as a construction superintendent. Later on he was made a full partner in the firm with Colt handling most of the work in the British Isles and Europe while Alison became a globe trotter building from North America to Japan. It is the work in Japan that clearly indicates how good Alison was as a designer to the point where he set the standards for all future Japanese architects.

Charles Alison likely had seen more examples of great work than just about every other architect before or after him. He was able to watch Park, Colt and Fowler first hand transform the Heathlands into excellent golf. He was also able to watch contemporaries such as Ross, Tillinghast and Thompson produce some of their best and most influential works. Think about this - he was familiar with all the great links of the British Isles and all the landmark courses in the United States from the National Golf Links through to Pine Valley.

7th at Hirono (all photos courtesy of Tom MacWood)

Praise for the work: All these influences contributed to create the Alison style. This style begins with his distinctive bunkering that was not only grand in scale but deep and intimidating at times. Bunkers were occasionally as large as the greens that they were guarding. They usually featured high flashes of sand and irregular lines in both the bunkers and the surrounding mounds, providing a very unique a beautiful line to his courses. He preferred his bunkers to encroach upon play and loved to create very distinct carry angles for players to consider. He believed that risky lines should be justly rewarded with exceptional position.
He loved to reinforce that idea by tilting the green to one side or the other to emphasize a preferred line. His greens were exceptional the way he used the surrounding mounds as the basis of contour that flows into and through the greens.

He certainly found great routings and made wonderful use of natural undulations but he was one of the earliest architects who was not afraid to push a little dirt around to change a fairway or create a better green site. Often his skill to blend grades into the surrounds hid the work that he did so well, leaving most people to admire a seemingly natural plateau.

Sea Island's use of marshlands

Most criticisms come from the features that make him unique. Some have questioned the depth and amount of bunkering at some projects, but the more common criticism is his occasional use of cross-hazards and forced carries. Many feel that even on a diagonal that Alison relied too much on water to be a critical hazard in his work. From the ponds at Hirono to the use of marshes at Sea Island, it seems an odd choice for a man who had spent quite a great deal of time denouncing the water hazard as to severe a penalty.

Great Quotes: “Water is a bad feature in that the ball cannot be played from it, and in consequence it does not test the golfer’s skill. Its hideous charm lies in the fact that it is inexorable, and its landscape effect is often very valuable.” In regards to Japan he observed, “The Japanese love of ponds and lakes, and their exquisite skill in making them, is known throughout the world. Their love of water-hazards, were it not for their self-control, might develop dangerously.”

Favourite Course: Hirono While I have not seen the course personally, I do have multiple images of all eighteen holes just after completion providing me with a stunning window into what he built. The course makes tremendous use of the natural undulation particularly on the par threes. The bunkering is stunningly beautiful featuring high flashes that work beautifully in the landscape of Japan. The water features created by damning the valley and to the tranquility of the setting making this feel somewhat like a Japanese Garden as well as a golf course.

The famous Timber Point, one of the three or four best in its day

What I take from him:
Alison reminds me of the great landscape designers of England, where you are left guessing where nature ends and the architects hand begins. Very few architects can match his ability to provide so rich and beautiful a composition, and yet underneath find a course so rich with playing options and compelling lines. He inspires me towards perfection.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Architect #13 Willie Park Jr.

Best Course: Sunningdale (Old)

Other notable work: Olympia Fields North), Maidstone, Huntercombe, Notts, La Boulie, Formby, Montrose, Weston, Laval-Sur-Le-Lac, Mount Bruno

Overview: Willie Park was one of the famous Parks of Musselburgh. He was an outstanding player and club maker by trade who gradually lost interest in the business choosing to concentrate on his design business full time in 1910. He is generally thought to be the first “golf course architect” through his work at Huntercombe where he made a series of modifications to the land in order to improve the holes. The influence of what he did at Huntercombe changed the face of golf design immediately with the other great architects of that era embracing his approach and designing their own great courses using modifications to achieve greater holes. Their collective work would have far reaching implications to the future courses in Canada and the United States since they and other architects influenced by them would design the new landmark courses through the same approach of manipulating the land to achieve more strategic and interesting holes.

Willie would end up coming to North America where he would build a series of great courses before having to return home due to his poor health. He was forced to leave commissions like Scarboro behind for Tillinghast and Weston for Charles Alison to complete. He was far more prolific in Canada than the United States.
One fascinating side not about Huntercombe was it was planned as a residential golf community, with Willie having a financial involvement, the lack of rail access made it fail with Willie losing much of his wealth.

Laval's 10th

Praise for the work:
Sir Guy Campbell wrote that Park had laid 'the foundation stone of golf architecture' and 'set the standard by which the famous architects who followed.”
While I talked about his important decision to manipulate the land to make improvements, in reality most of his courses were built out of the natural ground. He agreed with Hutcheson assertion that ‘Nature can always beat the handiwork of man.’ He spent far more time modifying green sites than he ever did changing fairway contours. The feature that makes me think of Willie Park is the table top greens, whether natural or built up, he certainly looked for them in routings – even choosing to make them more pronounced with a little extra work at the green site. His greens varied from simpler pitch greens through to some really wild rollercoaster greens at other courses.

Willie’s architecture was influenced by his appreciation of the great links courses, using many of the strategic concepts and features found on links courses, but he also allowed the nature of the Heathland properties to create its own unique bunker style that seemed to fit wonderfully into the site. The bunker style he and others developed have had a huge impact on the foundation of what we think of as a modern bunker in a parkland setting.

Criticisms: There are some courses like Calgary G&CC where holes simply don't work in difficult terrain. Some of his greens are excessively large and limit strategy. Through his Canadian work there are quite a few courses that look remarkably similar in aesthetics and routing techniques.

Maidstone's 9th

Great Quotes:
“If a bunker is visible to the player, and there is sufficient room to avoid it, it is the player’s responsibility to steer clear of it.”

Favourite Course: Maidstone
Park's routing masterfully incorporates a series of marshes, tidal pools, ponds and some really fantastic dunes to create a wonderfully diverse and interesting layout. The use of the ponds to create carry angles is particularly compelling at times. The dunesland stretch is one of the greatest stretches of holes in North America with the ninth being one of the greatest holes in golf – the fun part is that is not as natural as you might first think – kudos to Willie for fooling all of us.

Calagary's 2nd

What I take from him:
The value of a green site. I’ve always looked at his green complexes with admiration – particularly the plateau style greens he often created. I love the back bunkers set tight and below the back of the green, the use of sharp slopes and even the occasional false front to place a premium on getting to the green (without taking out the average players ability to run the ball in. I particularly like the way he manages to place the natural role right in key landing areas – so that the land more than the bunkers becomes they key determinant of the hole.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Architect #14 Tom Simpson

Baltray's 5th from behind

Best Course: Morfontaine

Other notable work: County Louth, Chantilly, Royal Antwerp, Cruden Bay (w/Fowler)

Notable Renovation: Ballybunion

Overview: Tom Simpson, the eccentric, was never short of opinion or style. When he showed up to visit a new commission he would often arrive in a Rolls Royce to show the members that he did not need them and thereby was one up in an argument. He was very fond of the saying - being critical is far easier than being correct – of course he was always correct in his own mind. He certainly cut quite a presence showing up to a site wearing a beret and occasionally a cape. It makes you immediately think of Frank Lloyd Wright – only working with golf holes rather than buildings. The personalities and talent are very comparable.
Tom Simpson was particularly prolific in the mainland of Europe designing and renovating a number of very high profile courses. Simpson also had a hand in many major changes to famous links courses including some important changes to Ballybunion. His partnership with Fowler provided him with a great mentor and a string of terrific courses to illustrate his skills.

Praise for the work: Simpson has often been pointed at as a key figure in the development of strategic golf course design. In his book, The Architectural Side of Golf (written with Wethered) he talked about the ideal course and the strategies of golf hole design. He was highly critical of the penal school, calling it the dark ages. His courses were full of options from the tee often with the opportunity to try and take shorter routes or play for ideal position. While many of his hazards required strategic decisions, often it was his green sites that really dictated play. His love of sharp slopes, often combined with some really wild undulations, made the position of the approach paramount. The addition of many short grass slopes around green sites often made the need for accuracy even greater and also added wonderful recovery options around greens.

His routings were magnificent and seemed to flow through the site with ease. He always managed to place a hole or two in a magnificent natural setting that left the player breathless from tee to green. Often these were the holes full of intrigue that required a little more thought - coming at a time when you wanted to soak in the surroundings.

Criticisms: Tom Simpson was not shy and he certainly was not subtle. He often pushed his architecture right to the limits often eliciting complaint from the players that his designs were unfair or two difficult. He often left in natural features or added quirky little knobs or rolls around greens that would infuriate the player who seemingly had hit a perfect shot and then watched it bound into trouble. There are many who have dismissed his architecture as too quirky.

Great Quotes: The point, however, which we have to consider, is that although golf architecture may be a curious and irregular form of architecture, it is architecture none the less. It has to do with building, planning, constructing in as true sense as the most ambitious works of genius with which the art is usually associated. Cathedrals, bungalows, gardens and golf courses may appear to be conflicting examples of constructive ability, yet the principles governing them follow precisely on the same lines.

Favourite Course: Cruden Bay
Cruden Bay is one of the more odd and interesting layouts in golf. It has everything from blinds shots, hazards in the centre of play, punchbowl greens, spectacular carry angles, natural links holes, back to back par threes, a key burn, transition holes through to plateau greens. The variety from start to finish is stunning, from the settings changes through to the mixture of strategies. There are many average holes but often they are important transitions to the next series of spectacular holes – and some are unbelievably good.

What I take from him: I’m going to buy my cape next week. It is the green sites that stand out to me. I love the incredible amount of contour on the surfaces, the use of short grass as a primary defense particularly on green sites on natural plateaus. I find it fascinating how short grass can be a primary defense and the bunkers being a secondary defense. Finally the knolls and rolls around the green (often in front) that really have an impact on play and recovery.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Conflict Between Architecture and Maintenance

The tee shot on the 8th hole at Jasper Park

I’m still on the road for one last day, so the architect countdown returns on Tuesday. I wrote these thoughts while on the plan today.

I’ve just spent the last couple of days at Jasper Park Lodge playing golf with the Director of Golf Allan Carter and the Golf Superintendent Perry Cooper. The chance to talk with both men about the merits of my favorite Thompson course was a real treat. The moment that stuck with me the most was the two completely different conversations that took place on the 8th hole. To set the stage I will explain the 8th hole. The tee shot is from an elevated tee aimed directly between a 30 high foot ridge on the right and another 30 foot hill on the left both featuring very steep banks where the fairway passes between. The aiming point is made clearer by the narrow band of fairway that flows between these spectacular slopes. The approach shot is then about 30 degrees to the right with the green set on the same angle as the fairway. The green is sloped sharply from back to front with a large treed hillside behind and a sharp drop off on the front left. It is one of the best holes on the course, and one of the best reverse cant holes I have seen – period.

With Allan the first day, we talked about the natural aiming point between the hills, the fact that the land falls sharply left requiring pin point accuracy to try squeeze a ball between the hills, the need for a new back tee to return the correct landing zone, the extra fairway on the left short of the hill that still provides a great line in (just longer), the way the 8th green requires a draw approach from a natural draw lie, the fact that Thompson placed the green so naturally under the massive slope in a natural amphitheater, the deep hollow on the front left that gobbles the short aggressive approach leaving a tough recovery, the fact that he used no bunkers (nor were any needed) and finally the steepness of the green which is hard to see due to the greens proximity to the hill. In short, the hole is flawless.
The approach shot taken from low on the left hill

The next day I played with Perry Cooper and Perry had a completely different view of the hole. The area that Thompson chose for the tee limited tee surface and had the morning sun blocked by the mountain and trees. The natural valley where the fairway is built is directly on top of rock making the turf always wilt in the heat. The carts have to run on the fairway due to the rolls and hills on both sides and are forced through a neck 20 feet wide between the two ridges leaving the turf always stressed out (it was a walking course). The green itself is below a large bowl where water and ice all congregate at the green causing this to be a tough site for winter damage. The trees and mountain beyond are both in a location that limits the early morning sun which makes the spring particularly tough. Add in this is the coldest spot on the course through elevation and location and you can have frost issues up at the 8th green while the rest of the course is easily playable. Perry has his hands full.

The fascinating part of this is the conflict between the two professions. I’m sure Perry would love to move the hole or at least the green site just to give him a fighting chance of dealing with the tough conditions he has to deal with and the expectations that he has to meet. Anyone knowing anything about turf grass in the mountains will know the idea of great turf at Jasper early is a Herculean task for even someone as experienced as Perry. People have the nerve to complain about a bit of winter kill, when the course (in my opinion) was in great shape and will be in magnificent shape in a very short time – the time when they used to traditionally open due to weather. I feel for Perry’s situation at Jasper and this hole in particular. I say this but I could never support any change to the architecture of this hole since it is one of the highlights of the course.

That said I do think they need to: build a new back tee to return the correct landing area for the better players, route a new path left through the trees and around the back of the large hill on the left to take cart traffic out of the middle of the fairway, sand cap the fairway to help the wilting issue, remove trees from above the green, and (without the aid of research) return the feeder slope on the right of the green that should be there to feed the ball into the green. Architects will always find great holes that create tougher situations for superintendents, the trick is to limit the amount they have to deal with and alleviate as much of the potential problems as you can. In restoration and renovation the ideas are the same, you make all the possible improvements to the maintenance issues while keeping the architect’s vision..