Friday, October 29, 2010

Architects Golf Club NJ

In the far western part of NJ, the Architects Golf Club authored by Steven Kay (with a consultant’s credit given to Golf Digest’s Ron Whitten) is a tribute course to a host of mostly ODG’s or “Old Dead Guys” as they are affectionately known to golf architecture aficionados. The holes are routed in a more or less chronological sequence starting with a tribute to Old Tom Morris at Hole #1 to Robert Trent Jones, Sr. at the 18th. The routing of the course is in two distinct returning nines and only really suffers from a tight spot at the 7th where the so-called Tillinghast hole is located. Hole by hole here’s my take on each hole as to authenticity and interest. Giving due to the original intent of the course being public access, the overall architecture was toned down, I have nick-named the course since its inception Architects’ Lite – reflecting that a certain restraint was necessary to get daily fee players around.
I must say that in its current iteration recently at visit, it was the best conditioned course within at least 30 miles and far more in some directions. Daily fee golfers according to the NGF are most concerned with good putting surfaces and “The Architect” comes in somewhere in the mid 20’s in importance behind such important factors a GPS, beverage cart, quality of carts and paths, restaurant quality and the like.
I’ll state my three biggest negatives at the start to get them out of the way and stick to highlights. After all, that’s what one expects from a critic, honest opinions.
1 – The architecture wasn’t intense enough in reflecting the individual Architects’ style
2 – The trio of C.B. Macdonald, Seth Raynor and Charles Banks were all given par 3’s and those holes in particular did very little to evoke the architects in question.
3- Harry Colt (with Charles Alison) was also given a par 3 which failed miserably to represent the style and character of perhaps the greatest ODG of them all.
Now here goes, no malice intended. I fist played AGC with a Colt expert and have played multiple times over the years. It architecturally has changed little since opening.
1 – Old Tom Morris (Par 5) A very nice revetted bunker fronts the green although not very menacingly and stone walls suggesting an ancient character are off to the side to give an old-timey feel. The hole is a straight-away affair with little to no strategic character. Old Tom is responsible for some of the most famous courses in early design including the sublime Muirfield (HCEG) but his inclusion (and assignment of two holes to Donald Ross) to the exclusion of James Braid and some of the other points noted below are compromises I wish had been avoided. Unfortunately including the customary low-stress Par 5 starter so commonly seen in America adds to glossing over this important man and era of architectural history.
2- C.B. Macdonald (Par 3) An elevated green with more contour than average for the course and a narrow-opening provide a mid iron to hybrid sort of shot early in the round. Again, a common component of an American golf course design encouraging a slow start following the par 5.
3-Hugh Wilson (Par 5)The hole evokes the second at Merion quite a bit but without the key O.B. right and with the green offset to the right rather than the left. Critically speaking, given that Hugh Wilson really uniquely designed little of what exists at Merion, I am not sure that I would have included him in this sequence. More William Flynn exists at Merion East than anyone else, but that’s a saga that has no end.
4-5 Devereux Emmet and Walter Travis (par 4’s) I pair these two holes together because of the distinct differences of the holes and the lack of good examples of said architects’ holes that anyone outside of a very well-connected golfer is likely to ever encounter. Four - A straightforward affair without much of the steeplechase character the course guide suggests, but a moderately stern par 4 nonetheless is not particularly distinctive while Five is really separated from virtually all of the other holes by its very distinct “CopBunker” style seen very commonly in the restoration of Devereaux Emmet’s courses but also some Donald Ross and Herbert Strong. While evoking Garden City Garden City Golf Club is likely to be seen by very few retail golfers (Mike Keiser’s term) and is an amalgam of at least three architects most distinctive style elements. Easily confused with Walter Travis and Jerome Travers by even those familiar with the architects Hole Five is a very interesting architectural reproduction and is visually perhaps the most distinct and memorable on the entire course. It is among my two most favorite holes architecturally and stylistically on the course. Yet, here is a point of significant confusion even for the knowledgeable.
6 – Harry Colt (Par 3) A hole with a comma-shaped green - a short hole of little distinction. I vividly remember the Colt expert on this tee cementing my early opinion of Architects Lite. I suggest that a wild & crazy Macdonald-Raynor “Short” might have done better at this point in the routing. .
7 – Albert Warren Tillinghast (Par 4) America’s “architect without a signature“ has three distinct bunkering styles on the hole. It is a relatively straightforward hole with a short elbow, formed of a valley to an elevated rather than built-up green. Here is a stern, but fairly uni-dimensional hole to represent an architect known for superior strategies.
8 – Seth Raynor(Par 3) A stepped green with several bunkers on the short left, not particularly representative, especially given just the spectacular template holes built on varied sited. A rather large missed opportunity for this bold and dynamic architect to have been better represented.
9 – Donald Ross (early) (Par 4) A stout hole loved by many golfers visiting Architects. One of the real winners. The water hazard’s blind nature is a bit unlike most of Ross’ use of water, but the character of the land and site of green lends a Ross feel better than many selected architects.
10 – George Thomas (Par 4) a version inspired by Riviera #10 with less penalty and reward. The added length for the homage prevents the possible thrill of a driven green for most players. A downwind shot for a bigger hitter is required and the unique feature of the original, a diagonal green is not reproduced. Fun nonetheless, this hole is likely Thomas’s most recognizable hole to most and a better choice than perhaps the sixth at Riviera with a mid-green bunker. Thomas along with Herbert Strong are the two architects towards whom America has been least kind.
11 – William Flynn (Par 5) Highly evocative from tee to green of Shinnecock Hills, Flynn’s most recognizable course to most – but unfortunately lacking a Flynn green. Flynn built a number of greens best described as being shaped similar to a potato chip - very easy to reproduce, even in a toned-down iteration. Eleven is indeed a very fun hole to play, but given that green contours so define Flynn’s work along with routing - impossible to convey in this format – makes a green complex so important.
12 – Charles Banks (Par 3 –“Redan”) Basically, all the parts are there – bunkering location, slope on green (mild) but angulation of green to line of play is absent. Banks was known as Steamshovel - his favorite construction device, he was a little less an architect a constructor. He finished several of Banks courses after Raynor's death. Very sharp, angular severe features normally characterize his work, often very fun to play, dramatic to see, but given the scope of this course three holes for this triumvirate mandatorily leaves out others.
13 – Alister Mackenzie (Par 5). Features culled from multiple holes at Augusta National and Pasatiempo are assembled here to create a rather odd hole. Here the fairway on the far side of the stream is rarely usable due to angle resulting in a three shot play for the norm. I’m not a particular fan of this hole as representative of Dr. Mac – rated the #1 Architect in Ian Andrew’s comprehensive and exquisite series on his older blog - The Caddie Shack. Mac is seemingly always mentioned on a short list of 3-5 great all-time architects.
14 – Perry Maxwell (Par 4) I think this is a great representation of many Maxwell principles and a reproduction of one of the two major green characters that one finds attributable to Maxwell – The “Maxwell Rolls”. The second, the pillows or “poofs” as Bill Coore calls them being would probably not transfer as well to the target audience as do the rolls. I also think Maxwellian style translates well to a very wide range of golfers. This is almost universally recognized as a favorite hole among Architects’ players.
15 – Donald Ross Redux (Par 4) Ross late in his life designed much later into the 20th century than most realize with several courses built in the mid-forties all laying claim to being “Donald Ross’s last course design”. Another long and difficult par 4, little makes this hole Ross specific. A long Par 3 for Ross was much more of a trademark, but not necessarily late in career as he always seemed to include one and often two right from his earliest designs.
16 – Dick Wilson (Par 4) Long considered the architect of Shinnecock Hills and even listed erroneously as the designer in the club history was a great force with his partner Joe Lee. Wilson and RTJ, Sr. being contemporaries shared a number of similarities and one will notice this at AOG with 16 & 18. Wilson doesn’t get enough credit likely because RTJ, Sr. was the first promoter of the Signature Architect. A strongly defended par here completes a 3-hole stretch of stern par 4’s.
17 – Stanley Thompson (Par 3) THE great Canadian architect also had some similarities to Wilson and Jones and probably can be called the best of the lot for strategy, balance and artistry – perhaps one reason this hole stands out so with its bunkering flair. Thompson was also a great router, something very important to an architect’s oeuvre, but impossible to convey in a tribute course.

18 – Robert Trent Jones, Sr. (Par 4) He was added late, chronologically dying after conception and before completion of this course. Some of the hole designs might have changed as a result, but such a giant of modern architecture one must honor here. Thought of universally with cloverleaf bunkering , it is of great interest to view some of the Golf Channel Big Three shows from the Mauna Kea course just after opening. The bunkering there was more akin George Thomas than what we normally attribute to RTJ, Sr. I for one would like to know why he changed. Undeniably, RTJ brought golf course architecture as a profession to attention in the 1960’s .
Overall, I normally don’t like the blow-by-hole description as I have done here, but this sort of amalgam truly deserves it. My own personal preference in the design would have been for more attention to green complexes, appropriateness of hole type to designer and more overall depth of character per hole. The experience of playing the Architects of Golf is a heady one nonetheless and I wholeheartedly endorse it. Certainly more than a collection of famous holes from disparate private courses, Tour Courses or self-tribute for any one architect’s own oeuvre it is a rewarding experience. I reiterate that very few if any will be as critical as I have been but I really want players to be more aware of their architects similar as we are aware of our painters. I would like to help advance thought about design. My sole reason to be so critical is to hopefully encourage one to continue thinking about the role of the architect after the round is done.