Was the Golden Age great because of Match Play?

I’ve become a golf nerd. So for Christmas this year I asked for a book called “Methods of Early Golf Architecture” featuring a compilation of writings from Alister MacKenzie, H.S. Colt and A.W. Tillinghast. MacKenzie is most prominently featured with some good nuggets from Colt and Tillinghast sprinkled in.

old-course_14
“Long” – 14th at the Old Course (St. Andrews)

As I was reading the “Ideal Holes” chapter, it struck me as interesting that MacKenzie evaluated design based on Match Play. It was hammered home early in the chapter with this quote:

“Should a course or hole be ideal from a medal (stroke) or from a match playing point of view? …Nine out of ten games on most good courses are played in matches and not for medals. The true test of a hole is, then, its value in match play.”

Dr. Mackenzie then uses a few different holes from St. Andrews as being as close to “ideal” as any hole could be. One example he used of the par-5 14th hole (Long) by describing four players and the paths in which they could play the hole.

So the thought struck me: Were the Golden Age architects so good because they designed for Match Play?  I’m new to the golf architecture scene, so this may already be a thing. But I’ve read a bit and listened to podcasts and don’t recall ever hearing this perspective. There were many other factors that made that era great, but as I thought about it, Match Play had to be a huge factor. As such, I’ll propose three reasons why Match Play is the secret sauce to the Golden Age and then briefly trace why I think golf course design lost and then regained its way.

Reason 1: The Game they Played

Many of the Golden Age architects were accomplished golfers. For example:

  • Hugh Wilson (Merion) played at Princeton and won the first club championship at Aronimink.
  • C.B. MacDonald (National Golf Links of America) won the inaugural 1895 US Amateur (match-play).
  • Donald Ross (Aronimink) finished in the top-10 at the US Open four times and once at The Open Championship.
  • William Flynn (Shinnecock Hills) grew up in Massachusetts competing against US Open and two-time US Amateur champion Francis Ouimet.
  • Bobby Jones, five-time US Amateur winner, founded Augusta National (which was designed by MacKenzie).

As Dr. MacKenzie states above, when people of the early 20th century played golf, they played matches most of the time. Though difficult to pinpoint an exact cut-over time period, the advent of professional golf seems to have shifted focus from Match Play to Stroke Play. As a result, in modern times we hardly consider Match Play. There is the bi-annual Ryder Cup, an annual WGC event and a few other national tournaments, but the majority of what we see on TV and what we play is Stroke Play. In fact, in my 20+ years of playing (public) golf I’ve never played in a Match Play format, aside from a charity scramble.

Reason 2: The Challenge of Match Play

The early architects understood the challenge and joy of golf is overcoming obstacles. Shortly after the quote above, MacKenzie writes:  “It is the successful negotiation of difficulties, or apparent ones, which give rise to pleasurable excitement and makes a hole interesting.” In order for a great player to compete in a match with an average player, a course needed to allow many levels of players to have a route to win a hole while also providing a challenge for each.

Dr. MacKenzie burst onto the golf architecture scene after winning a golf hole design competition held in 1914 by Country Life magazine. In his prize winner, he outlines five different approaches to a fictional hole (pictured below). Like the 14th at the Old Course, in Match-Play an ideal hole needs to challenge all different kinds of players.

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Alister MacKenzie’s winning design from Country Life Magazine in 1914 (Wikipedia)

Reason 3: The Game of Match Play

First, for those not familiar with Match Play, the typical format is player vs. player (or in teams of players) in which the lowest score a hole wins a point. If there is a tie, no point is awarded. To win the match, you must win one more point than your opponent. Stroke Play counts the total number of strokes to complete the course. In matches, an individual score on a hole isn’t particularly important, nor is the accumulation of the scores. You only need to be better than your opponent.

The concept of par is to give a sense of the required number of strokes and help handicap different skill levels of players. In a match, if you double bogie a hole while your opponent triple bogies, you still win the point. In stroke play, that double or triple puts a big dent in your round. With the focus of competition being interpersonal rather than a total score, the architect is freed to inject challenges and variety. One hole may favor a long hitter but the next force that player to lay up. In MacKenzie’s prize winner, he gives ample reward to the amount of risk taken, while still providing a “safe” route to the green (see route V above).

The Dark Ages

I’m not a golf historian but it seems the growth of professional golf ended the Golden Age of golf course design. The US and British Amateur Championships, both match play format, were once considered Majors along with the US Open and Open Championship (British Open). The PGA Tour was formed in 1916 and started to grow in popularity in the 30s. Eventually the Major events became the Stroke Play events (US Open, Open Championship, The Masters, the PGA Championship). The PGA was originally a Match Play event but changed to stroke play in 1958.

With the shift, the new golfing “heroes” emerged from the professional ranks. Bobby Jones was the last great amateur golfer, winning the Grand Slam of the US Amateur, US Open, Open Championship and British Amateur in 1930. He gave way to Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson in the 1930s-1950s. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus propelled the sport into the limelight in the 60s and 70s and Tiger Woods took the sport into the current era of big money purses.

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Firestone CC – South Course (Flikr – rbglasson)

Form follows function. With the pursuit of the golfer now to defeat par rather than playing partner, in golf course architecture “penal” design overtook “strategic” design. Courses had to be “hard” to be good. The quirk and artistry of the Golden Age was replaced by long holes with thick rough,  lined with trees and ponds. Dr. MacKenzie would not have been happy. He wrote, “What kind of difficulties make golf interesting? We can… eliminate difficulties consisting of long grass, narrow fairways and small greens…”

Welcome to the New Age

Fortunately, as many have pointed out, we’re currently in a second golden age of golf course architecture. Ushered out of the dark ages initially by Pete Dye, the fun in golf course design has been reinvigorated by the likes of Coore & Crenshaw, Gil Hanse & Jim Wagner, Tom Doak & Renaissance, Mike DeVries, and many others. In listening to the current architect crop, the common reason for this change is that they’re designing for all types of people with a goal of golf being fun, not hard. Tom Doak has frequently mentioned his consideration for how his mother would play a hole. Hanse even designed a course specifically for Match Play.

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The Dormie Club – 1st Hole (July 2018)

While there aren’t many new courses these days (and the ones that are built tend to be resort or private), attention has shifted to restoration. Most private Golden Age courses have been restored recently or have it on the future agenda. The next frontier is the public course inventory. As I mentioned in my review of Cobbs Creek, Philadelphia will soon see our Golden Age gem restored to its former glory and the public golf scene will be the better for it. Hopefully that also leads to the city to look at Juniata, Walnut Lane and John F. Byrne, all designed by another Golden Age architect – Alex Findlay.

In mid-February I’m escaping the Philadelphia winter to play a few rounds in the warmth of North Carolina, in the area of the adopted home of Donald Ross. I’m sure you can guess what golf game I’ll be playing for the first time.

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