I’d been wanting to pen this article for some months, perhaps longer. However, other subjects, other annoyances, and other, more pressing concerns had diverted my attention. What caused me to return to the topic of templates was two-fold. First, a newsletter from Andy Staples entitled “My Take on Templates”, and second, a response to my article last week from Bradley Klein in which he directed me towards a chapter he’d written for SportCult, entitled “Cultural Links: An International Economy of Golf Course Landscapes” (University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
Hegemony rules the day, the blob gobbles all
In truth, although I’d read Wide Open Fairways and some of his columns for Golfweek, I wasn’t overly familiar with Dr. Klein’s work, especially his more academic-bent material which can be troublesome to access. Luckily, though, my alma mater had a copy of Sportcult available. Thus, on a rainy evening I made my way downtown, parked on what was a hundred and some years ago a fairway of the Royal Ottawa Golf Club in Sandy Hill, got high off of the narcotic nostalgia of my university years as I strode through the largely brutalist buildinged campus, took a deep and strangely satisfying whiff of the unchanged pissy and musty odor of the library, ascended to the sixth floor, blew the dust from the shelves, and retreated to a corner with the 300 and some page volume in hand, prejudices and gripes in mind.
Dr. Klein’s chapter takes a broad look at the evolution of golf architecture, examining it not as a series of mounds and fairways and greens, an approach that is all-too-common and in my view limits much of what passes for writing about golf architecture, but rather as “aesthetic and cultural landscapes, with all that entails about their status as negotiated spaces mediating realms of territorial space, human cultural activity, and complex market relations transcending immediate regional boundaries” (Klein 211). In simpler words, golf courses are “carefully scripted as products of their culture, technology, and economy” (214).
“In this essay,” Dr. Klein states, “I explore golf design as one moment in the unfolding of modernity” (211). He then proceeds to categorize the three “basic styles of design”, or its various permutations, as “classical”, “modern”, and “postmodern”.
“Simulacrum”, “post-modernity”, “in this essay” – I was on familiar ground, suddenly transported back to graduate school. In truth, I’d assumed, naively, that I was the first “golf writer” to deploy such academic-jargony terms in his/her works, but, alas, Dr. Klein, a former professor of poli-sci at a number of renowned institutions in the United States, had done so decades prior to me.
Despite having been beaten and debated and deconstructed essentially to the point of exhaustion in academia, as well as in film and book and music criticism, the postmodern condition as it pertains to golf, more specifically how its cultural effects have influenced and shaped the trajectory of golf course architecture over the last forty years or so, has been severely under analyzed, if analyzed at all.
There have been countless authors and journalists and historians who have written at length – and sometimes very eloquently – about how and by whom and because of whom such fields of sand and grass and turf have been shaped and plowed and molded, but, conversely, there have been very few who have truly looked beyond the tight confines of golf literature’s dreadfully insular history to explore indepthly “why” they have been shaped and plowed and molded in such fashions.
In effect, then, Dr. Klein studies golf architecture, and its evolution, from a similar lens, or angle, that Keith Cutten does in The Evolution of Golf Course Design, my favorite work of the genre, wherein he claims “that the game did not evolve in isolation, having been profoundly influenced by social and economic factors over time,” yet “precious little (if anything) has been published about the evolution of golf course architecture and the reasons why these changes occurred. Understanding the relationship between the various design movements and trends, both positive and negative, is crucial to the advancement of both professional and public knowledge of golf course architecture.”
Interestingly, having published this article in 1999, seventeen years before Mr. Cutten defended his M.A. thesis which formed the basis of his book, Dr. Klein suggests that “curiously, not a single serious work has been devoted to the place that these landscapes occupy in our culture and aesthetic sensibilities. There are some suggestive works on the art of golf course architecture, most of them dating back to the mid 1920s, and all of them dealing with elements of sound design and how these might be practically implemented into an ideal golf course. As both literature and practical guides, such books are invaluable to students of the field seeking to understand what makes a good golf hole. But none makes any pretense of connecting to a wider world.”
In this sense, then, Mr. Cutten seems to have heeded Dr. Klein’s call to arms. As has Dr. Elizabeth Jewett, whose thesis, “Behind the Greens: Understanding Golf Course Landscapes in Canada, 1873-1945”, also does a first-rate job of expanding its scope of study beyond the dirt and turf and is thus well-worth a peruse for this very reason. Perhaps there are more works that have done so, too, although I am not yet familiar with them. This is something I’ve attempted to do, albeit in a different, less academic manner, here (still my best piece), here, and most recently, here.
So by this point, and with valid reason, you may be asking exactly what does all this have to do with Redans, Alps, Capes, Bottles, Shorts, and Edens, with Old Macdonald, the two reconstructed Lidos, The Match at PGA National, Meadowbrook, Charleston Muni, etc, etc. How are you going to tie this together, son?
In the opening paragraph of his newsletter, Mr. Staples reveals that “I tend to listen to a variety of music – U2, Talking Heads, 21 Pilots, and a new one for me, Lord Huron. I’ll often have a new song or artist pop into this mix that makes me think, “wait… why does this sound so familiar”? Turns out, many of the most popular hits from the past century all utilize the same base chord progression… I’m no musician, but you can read more about that here.
This got me thinking about how similar this is to the use of Template holes in golf.”
This opening salvo, specifically its connection between golf and music, in combination with Dr. Klein’s suggestions of simulacrums and post-modernity in golf architecture lurking at the forefront of my mind, directed me to the writings of Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds, of course, two of my touchstones and, in my view, the two most interesting cultural theorists over the course of the last however many years. Two academics who also regularly contribute (or contributed, in Fisher’s case) pieces for popular press in the U.K., neither Fisher nor Reynolds ever mention golf in their works; however, much of their output (all of it, really, in Reynolds’ case) pertains to music, specifically how wider social and economic factors (those of modernity, post-fordism, late-capitalism, late-late-late capitalism now) influenced, shaped, thwarted, and ultimately stalled popular music and culture, from the psychedelic 1960s, to post-punk, to the birth of rave, to Britpop, to the garage rock revival, to hauntology, and, finally, to whatever it is we are going through now.
“Golf follows wherever there is economic growth,” Dr. Klein reminds us (Klein 219). The most fervent growth in golf construction during the postmodern period, which roughly began in the 1970s, occurred in Asia, where “the private sector dominates the game” (219) and where, highly exclusionary as it still is, it thus remains “a symbol of western culture that designates the participant having made the transition into a “modern world capitalist system”. That is why access to golf courses is still so valued among those seeking international validation” (220). Meanwhile, in North America and in Europe, particularly as the former Eastern-Bloc emerged from communism, the majority of new builds were tied to real-estate developments, high-end resorts, or expensive daily-fee clubs.
As I concluded in my recent piece about the evolution, or devolution, of golf in Quebec, these highly manicured, heavy handedly shaped, ever plush-green golf courses, in one way or another, were designed and maintained in a manner meant to invoke, to be simulacrums of, the supposed ideal of a “country club”, namely Augusta National, and all that it represented, culturally and economically.
These courses were thus constitutive of the first strand that Dr. Klein diagnoses as being prevalent within the postmodern period of golf architecture: “hyperreal evocations that draw upon classical imagery to suggest, and sometimes to simulate, a pseudospace of tradition” (Klein 213).
The second strand, however, is where Dr. Klein (at least in this piece) and I differ in our respective judgements or outlooks; it is also where, I will proceed to suggest, such template-laden golf has become its cultural end point, its final hurrah, if you will.
Dr. Klein defines minimalism, the second strand of “postmodern” golf architecture which back in 1999, only four years after the opening of Sand Hills, was still really in its infancy, as “golf’s version of a low-budget return to nature – that seeks from an area that, though affected and influenced by human practices, is not directly structured according to plan” (212).
For Klein, such works of minimalism, at least to a certain extent, provide an antidote to the placelessness and sameness that was, and remains, prevalent in much of the work produced by the practitioners of the first strand of postmodernism (that of Nicklaus, Rees Jones, Trent Jones Jr., Fazio, among others). Minimalism’s return to nature, the soft hand with which its practitioners built and shaped their golf courses, and how they incorporated the already existing elements of the land and landscape into their golf courses, at least the early ones, instilled in them “a distinct sense of place” (224).
Yet, as Dr. Klein proceeds to warn, “questions remain as to the point of such an inflated evocation and use of signs. To some extent, the signs are part of the given terrain, and yet there is also the possibility that they become marketing tools that help promote attention. The difference here from some of the more egregious flaunting of postmodern kitsch and commodification is that at least the materials were there before the golf course, and so they have not been entirely manufactured but in fact highlighted. There remains a strong element of museum tableau here” (224).
However, minimalism, if it ever did exist (just like the entire notion of “postmodernism” in fact) is now dead and gone and buried. When its death knell rang, exactly, is up for debate: I would cite Streamsong as its last stand; some might cite Sebonack; and others perhaps Chambers Bay.
For the sake of this essay, Streamsong provides a useful point of study, for it not only features golf courses built by the three main practitioners of “minimalism”, but also highlights their primary shortcomings in explicit fashion, more so than at any other resort I have yet visited. Namely, they are highlighted from the perched vantage of the 1st tee of Streamsong Blue, where a hundred feet below the rest of Doak’s Blue course and Coore and Crenshaw’s interwomen Red course are almost entirely visible in a jumbled, indistinct, essentially homogeneous pomace of rumpled brown turf, jagged-edged bunkering, and humped and hollowed green complexes sprawled from one edge of the eyesight to the other across the Floridian plain.
In short, as I wrote in my piece about the renovation of Baltusrol, this vista, breathtaking as it is, emphasizes that “my biggest gripe with Doak and Coore and Crenshaw and Hanse (among a few others) is that their work is far too similar to eachothers’. There’s a far greater variety and sense of individualism in the catalogs of, say, Donald Ross and Stanley Thompson and Dr. Mackenzie than between those of these three modern firms – with Streamsong being perhaps the prime example of this.”