Opinion: Quirk is Golf’s Biggest Difference Maker
Those who get the chance to see all 32 NHL stadiums are a very lucky bunch. First off, you see 32 of North America’s great cities in some fantastic markets. Boston, Montreal, Las Vegas, Nashville, Calgary, Carolina, and more are all very passionate fan bases with notably exciting crowds, further enhancing the experience of seeing a game in the respective cities. Even so, at the end of the day, they are all stadiums that hold somewhere between 15,294 (Canada Life Centre, Winnipeg) and 21,105 people (Bell Centre, Montreal). Without much structural difference in the actual stadiums, there is a bit of uniformity to all 32. How much identity can you actually build into a stadium? Save for the Saddledome, which provides a variety of issues for Calgary and will be replaced soon, they all are very similar in what they achieve, and how they do that.
Such is my takeaway after visiting Penn State’s famed Beaver Stadium, a notable outdoor football stadium that holds a whopping 106,572 people. Penn State football played Michigan State on my first trip to campus, likely having 65,000+ watching in the stadium during the game.
It was a great game to be at. Michigan State held on for long enough to keep it interesting, and Penn State still won and covered the spread with late-game dominance. What more do you want? Without any affiliation to either school, seeing the home team win allows the college town to be much more lively for the rest of the night, and everyone is in a much better spirit. But even in such an exciting sporting event in one of the world’s biggest stadiums (the 4th biggest by capacity), I left feeling like I had been there before. Why is that? I had never been to State College, Pennsylvania (though I have played the fantastic Bedford Springs nearby-ish). Arizona State’s stadium, a university I have visited a few times, only holds about 53,599, yet the difference in either stadium is not that dramatic. At the end of the day, the similarities are far more than the differences; I think that was it.
On the opposite side of the coin, golf has never felt like this to me. Sure, at the end of the day, each golf course shares similar characteristics. For one, they all provide a journey from start to finish, even if the journey is not always awe-inspiring (we try to focus on the golf that does inspire us at Beyond The Contour, but there is far more golf that doesn’t). Even still, I could not quite put my finger on why golf courses do not make me feel the same way as the numerous stadiums I have been to. I have played over 400 golf courses; I have seen far fewer stadiums.
Then it hit me: golf’s biggest difference maker is quirk.
On an emotional level, I think a stadium like Penn State and a golf course can have similar impact on a person. After all, the grandeur nature of such a stadium can inflict emotions on everyone, and especially if you have any relationship to the school. In some respect, college football is a religion in the United States, and stadiums like Beaver Stadium are the temples. In the same vein, golf courses also evoke numerous emotions, and especially true at fantastic venues. Places like Cabot Links or Capilano are two of the best examples in Canada, but there are many others coast-to-coast. Our recent review of Waskesiu is a great example of a golf course that provides an emotional response from a golf course. Specifically, golf courses that are heavily influenced by the natural environment they are in are the ones that feel much more significant, or the ones that host events. There is a reason Glen Abbey keeps holding on to SCOREGolf‘s Top 100, even if it is rather vanilla.
When you get into the nitty-gritty, golf is able to provide such variety in how we view holes, golf courses, experiences and more through quirkiness, or perhaps, just memorability and variety. What is the stadium example of Tobacco Road? There likely isn’t, and for that, it helps Tobacco Road’s ability to separate themselves from other golf courses (especially in such a golf-rich area). How do I put Waskesiu and TPC Toronto on the same playing field? One is a rollicking golf course over some very hilly and undulating terrain in northern Saskatchewan, the other is a golf course built for the masses, almost seemingly built to host events. To me, it is a good thing I am not able to really compare them; their styles are so different that it provides such a start contrast. How about St. George’s versus Kelowna? These are odd comparisons, but that is the point: you struggle to find similarities between them.
The reason? Quirk from site-to-site, and how each golf course feeds off the land to provide an exciting and fresh experience. At St. George’s, the choice to route holes in the bottom of the valleys seems to inspire an almost dunes-like feeling (at least in the early days when the golf course was labelled as ‘A wee bit of Scotland in Canada’ by The Canadian Golfer). Kelowna, on the other hand, plays around Dilworth Mountain before journeying down to the bottom for Eagle Pond’s stretch, aptly nicknamed Kelowna’s ‘Amen Corner.’ Waskesiu is a great example, using the natural terrain to the absolute max to provide funky stances on every shot but the tee boxes, where TPC Toronto achieves the exact opposite in search of being a better tournament venue. The differences are notable and extreme, yet perfect in this situation.
Even when we compare Banff Springs and Jasper Park Lodge, two geographically similar courses from the same architect a couple of years apart, the differences begin to stick out. Even better, they are of similar quality (both inside Canada’s Top 10), but scale-wise Banff is much bigger, although flatter, while Jasper is a bit more ‘Boutique’ in presentation, playing over better land. When we look at the two signature holes, the differences become apparent: the Hail Mary Devil’s Cauldron directly juxtaposes the strategic par 3 Cleopatra at Jasper. Both holes are the main draws for their golf courses, yet they play so different.
If golf was like stadiums, there would be some variety still; stadiums are not carbon copies, even if they do feature similar elements. Golf courses would be of similar length, though there would be some variance on either side; they would be of similar width, although again, some leeway in how wide they present themselves. Some might have some more interesting greens, while others could have interesting bunkers. At the end of the day, though, the bunkering style and green complex designs would all follow a similar playbook.
During the so-called “dark ages” of architecture, following World War Two and predating Sand Hills (1994), golf began to chase the stadium aspect in search of providing a “championship golf course” to host events. The ideal golf course became 7000+ yards, with bunkers on the left and right of the fairway, and short-left & short-right bunkers near the green. To some extent, that is what the TPC network is; but even still, for every TPC, there is a Waskesiu, or a Tarandowah, or a Memphremagog that has a clear identity and breaks some of the rules of the dark age to achieve an individual identity.
I am in no way suggesting that every stadium is the same. Penn State’s stadium is much more impressive than Arizona State’s, even if I did feel that they were very similar. Objectively, holding 100,000+ people is an insane feat. Stadiums depend heavily on the fan experience and history, rather than the actual building. The Big House’s reputation comes from the atmosphere the fans create, not the actual building.
Golf needs to embrace the difference in golf courses, allowing for those interesting and unique features to take centre stage. Think your club has a weird hole that the club down the road would never have? Good! If every golf course played by the same rules, nature would not be the main driving factor in architecture; as a result, every golf course would suffer from a homogenous identity, and any individualism would be lost. Those holes that you think the club up the road would not have, or an architect would not build today, are the fundamental crutch of a course’s identity. To chase a more “normal” product is to kill any sense of individualism, and if one does that, golf gets closer to becoming a typical stadium a sport is played on, rather than so much more like it is now.