Even since Old Tom Morris won the first Open Championship in 1861, the game of golf has evolved tremendously, and so have the venues on which the game is played. Back then, Morris shot 163 over three 12-hole rounds at the Prestwick Golf Club, which to this day still holds up to the modern game.
Golf courses have not always had 18 holes. The St. Andrews Golf Links occupy a narrow strip of land along the sea, and as early as the 15th century, golfers at St. Andrews established a trench through the undulating terrain, playing to holes whose locations were dictated by topography. The course that emerged featured 11 holes, laid out end to end from the clubhouse to the far end of the property. A golfer would play the holes “out,” turned around, and then played the holes “in,” for a total of 22 holes.In 1764, several of the holes were deemed too short, and were therefore combined. The number was thereby reduced from 11 to nine, so that a complete round of the links comprised 18 holes. Due to the status of St. Andrews as the golfing capital of the time, all other courses followed suit and the 18-hole course remains the standard to the present day.
It is generally considered that classic courses were built before 1960 and modern courses after that time. Earlier-built courses used the natural topography given for their routing, while more recently-built courses utilized the use of heavy equipment to move the landscape, creating a more contrived design. However, several classic championship-level courses have been rearchitected to improve their design.
The "architects" of this day spent only one or two days on site to stake out the tees and greens. They made fewer decisions because they didn’t have the ability to move much land. However, the lesson learned from studying the works of these early designs is timeless: nature, as opposed to money, provides the most enduring challenges. Examples:
- The Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland
- Royal Liverpool Golf Club, England
- The Country Club, Mass., U.S.
Architects began to move and shape land to create hazards and add strategic interest. Such work originated with the heathland courses outside of London and then was brought to America, where the term ‘golf architect’ was coined around 1910. The Roaring Twenties became considered as the "Golden Age" of course design. Examples:
- Hacienda Golf Club, Calif., U.S.
- Oakmont Country Club, Penn., U.S.
- Bethpage (Black), N.Y., U.S.
The so-called "Dark Ages" of course design, when courses were based on length, lacked variety and offered few options. In the mid-1980s, architects manufactured courses with immense visual impact but that often lacked charm or enjoyment. In addition, these penal courses proved to be expensive to maintain. Only a handful of courses from this period are widely respected. Examples:
- Whistling Straits, Wisc., U.S.
- The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., U.S.
- Desert Forest Golf Club, Ariz., U.S.
With every imaginable tool available, modern architects have unprecedented options to shape the land. As the new century began, architects again appreciated the subtleties of the existing land and tempered their impact upon it, returning to presenting classic challenges and enjoyment of the game. Examples:
- Wolf Run Golf Club, Ind., U.S.
- Trump International Golf Links, Scotland
- Chambers Bay, Wash., U.S.
While golf course architecture is a subjective art form, key tenets that have stood the test of time are artistic bunkering, routing topography and green contouring. Courses that are strong on these attributes are more fascinating than others, which is why such courses continually beckon for a return game. Other elements that attract golfers again and again are courses with rich history and/or tournament credentials.
What era of championship golf courses interests you the most?