4th hole

Opinion: Have Drones Hurt Golf Architecture?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

(and yes, I understand the irony of this piece)

Picture this: you’re standing on 5th Avenue in New York City at lunchtime. A sidewalk merchant is screaming at passersby, hoping to attract them to his latest bootlegged DVDs or knock-off Gucci sunglasses. A musician at the intersection of 5th and 34th is filling the air with the sound of his drums or his guitar. A beggar thirty feet away from him is asking, impolitely, for change. A street-preacher is relating the word of the lord over a loudspeaker. A thirty yard long queue is lined in front of a hot-dog stand. Many in it are talking to their friends or on the phone. A man in a suit at the back wonders if they should go to the Halal Meat Stand instead, but his co-worker replies that the line for it is even longer than this one. The four lanes of the avenue are clogged with yellow cabs, gypsy cabs, dollar cabs, honking seemingly every five seconds at other cabs or at incautious buses or at tourists who have ventured too far into the belly of the beast of Manhattan Island, deer in the headlights. In the building-scape, visible is the ever-subsuming force of gentrification, where concrete and brick walls are making way for glass and synthetic materials.  

It’s the kind of somewhat controlled yet somewhat uncontrolled chaos that soundtracks the big apple. 

However, if you leave the street, enter the Empire State Building, and take the elevator up to the observation deck, suddenly, apart from the buzz that perhaps still rises this high, albeit just so that it faintly tickles your ear- drums, the scene below seems serene, its inhabitants shrunk into invisibility, its cars and trucks rendered into barely visible dots. The dirt and grime are removed from the perspective. Now look up, towards Greenwich Village and Tribecca to the south, and the city becomes entirely lifeless, merely layer upon layer of concrete and glass. 

(Photo Courtesy: Kitano Hotel)

This example, which serves to illuminate the vast difference that moving merely a few feet horizontally but some thousand vertically makes, is highly relevant to what has transpired over the last few years in golf photography, which, in turn, has influenced golf architecture. Namely, that nearly every Dick, Larry, and Jane now owns their own drone; that on any given evening the airspace above Bandon, or Streamsong, or Cabot, or Sand Valley, or Pinehurst is as busy as that above J.F.K. or Charles De Gaules on the day after Christmas. 

I think that drone photography, in and of itself, is great to look at, drives advertisement, and isn’t going to diminish in popularity anytime soon. However, such a shift of perspective, moving primarily from imagery taken at the golfer’s vantage or near it, to that taken from three-hundred feet above, in particular, has negatively affected the way earth is being moved, touched, and shaped.

In effect, I would suggest that done photography has become one of, if not the primary driving force behind, what I’ve long diagnosed as, the return of over-shaping, the return of the vogue of over-working the land. Rather than relying upon broader, gentler shaping, the popularity of drone photography has re-emphasized a desire for more unnatural rumpling of the land, aggressive humps and hollows, large collection areas surrounding viciously contoured and segmented greens, an aesthetic that, when illuminated by the morning or evening sunlight, especially pops in drone photography. 

If ever there was a golf course whose rise was captured by the drones (and social media) and whose popularity (and cult-like following) was cemented by it, it is Sweetens Cove, a course built on a featureless flood-plain where its architects were forced to create its contours from scratch, by bulldozer, backhoe, and dump-truck. 

If Sand Hills instigated the minimalist movement and Pinehurst #2 the restoration movement, then Sweetens undoubtedly instigated the “pragmatic maximalist” movement, to use Will Bardwell’s term, a group into which Streamsong Black, Landmand, Gamble Sands, Mammoth Dunes can be easily included, among others. Its tenants and general aesthetics have also seeped into the more recent work of Tom Doak, Coore and Crenshaw, and Gil Hanse, in which they’ve largely eschewed most traces of the minimalist ethos with which they began their careers. 

In his book The Supermarket of the Visible: Toward a General Economy of Images, Peter Szendy claims that the “sensible supermarket of our sensations, in short, would be a market of senses or sensorial perceptions erected on top of the market tout court. And would be determined, conditioned by it, as Marx indicates when he writes that “the mode of production of material life conditions the general social, political and intellectual life process.” Simply put, images are money, and money drives images.

Right now, drone footage is in vogue, and it is what golfers are overwhelmed with every time that they log onto instagram, or onto Golf Digest’s website, or even on TV. 

The market economy of golf architecture, fueled by the desire for drone footage, is thus for work that is tailor-made to look good from 150 feet in the air – for sharp overshaping, rather than subtle, lay of the land earth-work whose intricacies and charms are far more fully revealed at ground level. If the 1980s were punctuated by golf courses built to sell houses, then now it is for golf built to attract likes. 

The layering and intricacies of Grand Mere that are only apparent once you step onto the golf course

In particular, my complain about these blatant “pragmatic maximalist” golf courses is that, in the majority of cases, they are essentially devoid of strategy, despite all of the shaping and width: that their width is merely there for width’s sake, as Andrew claimed, and that the contouring doesn’t serve a strategic purpose, either because it’s peripheral or because it’s so aggressively overwrought that no golfer, not even the very best PGA Tour Players, can use it.

In effect, that the sins of the 1980s and 1990s (their peripheral over-shaping and manicuring) have just been squeezed slightly closer, but no more importantly or functionally, to the lines of play.


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