Aspiring Architects Dream

An Inspirational Journey To Scotland
by Brett Hitchins

Burgeoning golf course architect and graduate of the University of Guelph Landscape Architecture Program was presented with opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to study golf architecture in the home of golf, Scotland, for a semester.  In this special feature, he shares his journey with the readers of Flagstick Golf Magazine.

‘Golf Has Never Failed Me’ was the title of the book in my hand as I boarded the plane at Pearson International Airport in late December of 2005.  Written by Donald Ross, the book is a collection of thoughts about golf course architecture by one of the most celebrated architects the game has known.  The title of the book became seemingly perfect for the trip upon which I was about to embark.

Raised in Kingston, Ontario, as a kid I was a 5km bike ride from a local golf course where I spent the better part of my summers.  Around the age of five, with a cut-off 5-iron and a bag of old water balls, my parents introduced me to the game in our backyard.  I played with friends because it was a fun, social pastime.  I was not aware, nor did I understand the strategy behind the game; and certainly did not suspect that architects were responsible for hazard placement, green contours, and angles of attack.

The Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland
The Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland

In preparation for my post secondary education I came across Landscape Architecture.  Never before hearing of the discipline, I was intrigued by what opportunities it presented.  One look at the University of Guelph’s website had me excited; listed under career opportunities was golf course architecture and under travel was Scotland.  Three years later as a Landscape Architecture student I was planning a Scottish adventure to remember.  With obvious anticipation, the months before my trip involved researching golf courses, contacting club managers, planning trip routes, reading books, and dreaming of St. Andrews.

Many of the game’s greatest architects have made similar trips traveling to Scotland where they studied, documented, and detailed the strategies, hazards and layouts of the original courses.  This design process, known as precedent studies is the reason why Alistair MacKenzie, Tom Doak and Pete Dye have since crafted such epic courses as Cypress Point, Augusta National, Pacific Dunes, the TPC at Sawgrass, and Whistling Straits.

The responsibility of a golf course architect is to find the best course from what a given a piece of land has to offer.  The pioneer architects, like Allan Robertson and Old Tom Morris, had no precedents to study, no unifying rules of the game and no machinery to change the land.  They had nothing but a passion for the game, possibly a shovel in hand, and keen imagination.  Throughout my trip I was witness to how the greats were responsible for golf courses’ intimate connections to the land.  Most notably seen through North Berwick and St. Andrews and Carnoustie.

My first golfing experience in Scotland came in early January shortly after I arrived in the country.  It was a true awakening to how golf in the UK differs from North America.  Unlike North America’s courses, which strongly discourage pedestrians, Braid Hills No. 1 was an open public park system.  A casual jogger making his way down the fairway with his three unleashed dogs interrupted my approach shot on the 15th.  This opened my eyes to a new golfing dynamic where non-golfer interactions are not only accepted but also encouraged.

Soon after, I was on route to St. Andrews for the first time with a friend.  We planned to walk the old course in the morning and slowly make our way down the eastern coast making stops at Kingsbarns, Crail and Eilee.  At the end of a small alley, stopped and looking both ways, I was astonished that we were in fact about to drive across the 18th and 1st fairways of the Old Course.  I had seen the road on TV before but did not know it was actually used!

As we walked the historic links, my first reaction was honestly one of utter disappointment.  The detailed and emphatic descriptions I had read in so many architects’ journals seemed rather exaggerated.  With its narrow fairways and seemingly random hazards the playability did not appear artfully crafted or to exemplify any sort of superior strategy, and the aesthetics were rather under whelming.  It’s interesting to note that many great architects before had struggled with St. Andrews in their first visit, however over time many grew accustomed to it understand it’s subtle intricacies.

We came to the highly regarded 14th, debated to be the games best three shot hole.  The villainous Hell Bunker did not even appear to be in play and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would choose to hit left of the Beardies. Then the infamous 17th Road Hole, which seemed rather unfair to ask a golfer to hit directly over the maintenance shed with no line provided to the fairway if one choose to go around

How was this thought to be the most well regarded course in the World?

I had been slightly shaken by the whole experience; I had felt that day golf let me down.  As the weeks passed I set out on adventures to play and study other golf courses.  Each time I reflected back on my initial visit to St. Andrews, I began to realize my thoughts had been biased; I had set out aiming to learn about a certain aspect of golf architecture that I enjoyed reading so much about.  I realized instead of golf courses, I should have been studying golf.  This may sound somewhat inconsequential but trust me this was an enormous revelation that has since changed my perspective on golf architecture.  Golf is a vehicle for personal growth, it is a test to our strength of courage, and anyone who has played the game has taken away a lesson applying to other aspects of life.

Lothianburn Golf Club
Lothianburn Golf Club

One day I walked 8 miles north from my apartment to a James Braid course, Lothianburn, situated in the Pentland Hills, only to play 7 holes before hail forced me to quit.  I have never played in such testing conditions of wind, rain and cold.  On a 120 yard par three where I would normally play a smooth pitching wedge, it was difficult to grasp that I was pulling a six iron out of the bag to hit with full force only to still come up short.  It is the connection to the land that leaves golfers’ at mercy to the conditions of Mother Nature that humbles us and instils a sense of modesty.

A voyage to Carnoustie, the site of this year’s Open Championship, enlightened me as to how a golf course can be a true testament to even a professional player’s will.  The need for perseverance is an understatement on a course that has been known to bring professional golfers to tears and is rightfully acknowledged as perhaps the world’s toughest course.  Gleneagles taught me how important personality and service is to the whole golfing experience.  The hazards of the PGA Centenary Course, once host to the Ryder Cup, are artful, aesthetics beautifully crafted into postcard panoramas by architect Jack Nicklaus.  The inland King’s and Queen’s courses designed by James Braid provide a sharp contrast to the flat barren landscape of the links courses, with their tree-lined fairways.

When traveling to other courses I began to note how town and golf course reflect one another.  Most memorably on a trip to the west coast I visited Prestwick and Royal Troon.  The two towns are literally 36 holes apart.  Located to the south with an overly friendly atmosphere and interesting layout is Prestwick, now out of the rotation, it was the original course to host the Open Championship, with competitors playing 3 rounds over the 12 hole layout.  Now 18 holes, Prestwick is particularly inviting and friendly, the course is quirky with the Himalayas, a famous blind par three hole, crushed seashell paths and blue stained rail ties which retain several hazards.

To the north is Royal Troon, now in the current Open rotation.  The more strict and traditional feel in the town of Troon is reflected in the championship course’s difficult layout and premium on accuracy, best illustrated in the Par Three 8th hole with its Postage Stamp green, the shortest hole played in championship golf in the modern Open era.  These two towns caused me to view subsequent courses with a more holistic manner.

In my studies I was fortunate to participate in the Master Golf Course Architecture studio at the Edinburgh College of Arts.  Our projects involved various exercises on penal and strategic design, requiring us to find intimate connection with the land, detailing angles of attack, grading contour of greens and reasoning why the hazards we designed aimed to improve and reward good play, not punish a bad shot.  I designed a mock three-hole extension to Gullane Links, which was a chance to put to practice what I had been studying.  I meticulous crafted green complexes and learned how even the slightest detail of fairway contours affects the intended strategy of a hole.  Observing the holes built by Harry Colt, Old Tom Morris, James Braid, and Willie Park during my travels inspired my designs.

While today many golf courses forge identities with their architects for marketing purposes, in Scotland, and to a young golf course architect, the most exciting moment is when the listed architect reads ‘Mother Nature’.  The first tee shot at St Andrews is a phenomenon in itself.  In any other situation it’s a relatively simple shot, no hazards to avoid other than laying up short of the burn located 250 yards or so ahead and keeping it in bounds.  Yet, at that moment, it seems as though the outcome of your shot will define you as a golfer.  After a nervous swing of the club all went well and the round I had dreamed about for so long had begun.  The front nine went quick and 14 proved to be a tougher test than originally anticipated.

As I stepped up to the 17th tee, I planned an aggressive line of attack over the maintenance shed, and that I took, clearing the shed by no more than 2 feet.  As we walked to our drives the caddy remarked, “that may be one of ugliest shots I’ve seen off this tee but that is one of the best results I’ve ever seen”.  Determined to par the hole I was once again taught about the virtues of humility and modesty as I followed my perfectly placed drive with a 9-iron approach that kicked into the road hole bunker, leading to a bogey five.

In all, my round consisted of learning that Hell Bunker was indeed in play, that being there meant you take every opportunity to enjoy it even if it involves taking four shots just to escape – for no better reason than because you want to see if you can make the shot.  And even though it had snowed at one point, the round was filled with warm memories of four golfers sharing a common experience of playing the world’s most historic and well-regarded golf course.

The three months went quickly in Scotland with more golf experiences then I can detail in this article.  The lessons I learned were of invaluable nature and I would suggest any young architect thinking about pursuing design as a career make arrangements as soon as possible.

On my last day in Scotland, the weather had shifted from the typical dreary, overcast skies to a beautiful sunny day and the opportunity to hit at least one last golf ball before I left was not one to be passed up.  I grabbed my 56-degree wedge and headed to Brunstfield, a 36-hole pitch and putt course adjoining the Golf Tavern, dating back to 1456, and thought to be the first clubhouse.  This may not be a stop listed on the average Scottish golf trip itinerary, however it shouldn’t be dismissed.  Free to the public and conveniently located it provides a chance to practice your short game, with no obligations.

The holes vary from 50 – 100 yards with designated teeing points and quirky roughed out greens averaging 15-foot circles.  There are no defined fairways, just park grass with no obstacles other than the occasional wandering dog.  I had played about five holes before a gentleman waved me down, wanting to join me while awaiting a friend.  The suggestion was welcoming and we played five or six more holes before his friend came along.  As we continued to play and talk, we each shared the stories that had brought us to the city from our respective countries.  We discussed the game, its similarities and its differences, and told stories we had experienced throughout our golf careers.

One gentleman then proposed we make our game a little more interesting by placing a wager of 5 pounds for the next nine holes.  I remembered back to Donald Ross’ comment when asked about gambling and golf; he responded with “why make a horse race out of a gentlemen’s game?”  I considered this more of a competition than a bet, and so began an impromptu international match play between Denmark, the United States, and Canada, staged in heart of Edinburgh, Scotland.

We started out even through the first few holes until I managed to go up one.  After 4 holes I was two up.  As we stood on the tee the friendly man from California humorously suggested I was hustling them.  I hit my tee shot, blind into the sun and slightly uphill.  It appeared to be dead online and near the hole.  The two followed with impressive efforts of their own, and as we began to walk toward our balls two other golfers walking down the next hole shouted and asked us who had hit the first shot.  When they learned it had been me, they began to applaud.  “A hole-in-one,” they said.  Nonetheless it was not the shot that made this experience a remarkable one.  It was coming together of three strangers with nothing in common except an appreciation for the game in an untraditional golf setting.  It could not have been a more comforting and appropriate way to end a three month long, Scottish golf adventure.

By now it may be apparent that I had originally set out with pre-conceived notions of what my experiences in Scotland would teach me.  I had planned to focus my studies on such areas as strategic hazard design, how golf courses utilize natural terrain and how its physical forms affect a golfer’s play.  On the contrary, I was beginning to view golf courses in a more holistic manner.  I started to focus on them as landscapes to be used by communities at large, not purely golfers, and realized they were places where life lessons are taught.

Thinking back to my first foray to St. Andrews, four visits later I was beginning to understand the vast appreciation for the course.  My attention to detail on how the course would play had overshadowed the character it brings to the town as a whole.  The course endorses a temporal strategy as a multi-faceted recreational landscape, transforming into a place for leisure activities in the evenings, and a park in which to picnic on Sundays.  It is these types of facilities that allow the intangible virtues of the game to be realized.

I will finish with this.  Just before I left Canada, as a Christmas present, I had given my Dad a tee time reservation for the New Course at St Andrews.  While my Dad does not play as much as myself I thought it would be a memorable experience for the two of us to play while he was visiting.  March came and my parents arrived for their one-week visit.  I was getting excited for the round, and my dad, for the most part I think, was probably getting nervous.

The day before, we were site seeing around Edinburgh, walking to the castle situated atop the highest point in the city when it began to snow.  In the two and half months prior, it had snowed merely four times, lasting no longer than 15 minutes.  However, this particular day was different.  A complete white out had hit the city, and after checking with St. Andrews it was apparent they had been hit harder than Edinburgh.  Nevertheless, since my experience had told me snow does not last long in Scotland, I still fully prepared for our game the next morning.  Unfortunately, a phone call at 7:00 am proved that our tee time was in fact cancelled due to the course conditions.  Regardless, we decided to make the voyage to by train to Leuchars and subsequently St. Andrews if not just to view the Scottish countryside.

Father and Son walking the Old Course at St. Andrews.  We were the only people around, and it was in that moment I achieved a life-long goal.  With my Dad by my side, my most memorable golf experience did not even include playing a round, hitting a ball, or swinging a club.  It was then that I recalled my memories as a kid and reflected on how Scotland had taught me that golf course architecture is about creating a place for more than just golf.  When you truly understand golf, you realize it teaches you about yourself, instilling values of trust, honesty, sportsmanship, and modesty, all the while creating lasting memories with the company you keep.  Playing golf is not just a game; it is a vehicle for something greater.  From my educational and traveling experiences, I have discovered this principle to be the true essence of the game, and with that, I can truly say that, like Donald Ross, golf has never failed me…

And I don’t imagine it ever will.

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