Much has been said and written about the humble origins of the game of ‘goff’ on the sand dunes of the linksland of Britain. It is by no accident that the best golf courses and indeed collection of courses around the world tend to have been built on parcels of sandy land. All astutely chosen by their creators due to the sandy land’s inherent characteristics most suitable for golf – British linksland, New York’s Sandbelt, Melbourne’s Sandbelt, Monterey Peninsula, Oregon Coast and the dune land of Holland comprise some of the world’s best courses.– Harley Kruse
My visit to Cypress left me with the strong concept that if designing on sand and the wind is not too strong then expose the sand – keep it free of lush plants and contrast it with the turf.
Much can be gained from looking at the early black-and-white photos and aerial photos of classic courses such Cypress Point Club, Royal Melbourne, and Pine Valley. These photos show the courses in their new but raw state, often with few trees about and the joy and contrast of new turf of green, tee and fairway amongst an often wild and unkempt sandy surround. Humble construction techniques – much by hand or horse and scoop – meant these courses tended to celebrate the very sand they were situated on with exceptional bunkering and lightly vegetated sandy areas.
Of course, with the distinct lack of machinery and fully automated irrigation systems such courses, aided by with astute greenkeepers, retained their wild sandy look for years to come. But that look would forever be under threat, for both older courses on sand and newly developed ones, too. An astute observer of golf and a man passionate about Melbourne’s Sandbelt, golfer Peter Thomson expressed an observation to me once that Royal Melbourne was always at its best before it got an irrigation system. His words have resonated with me to this day. He recalled how he played brown fairways in summer and green fairways in winter. The fairways might have been straw colour but there was always great surface. The hot summer dryness would see lush weeds disappear and the roughs would thin out, leaving the wispy grasses, heath, and joy of exposed sand.
Most astute observer of Melbourne’s courses Darius Oliver wrote a piece ‘Is Melbourne’s Sandbelt Over-rated’. This commentary was inspired by discussions he had whilst taking American Geoff Shackelford, another astute commentator on courses, on a tour of selected Melbourne Sandbelt and Peninsula courses in November 2011. The height of spring and good seasonal rain presented courses with thick, lush green roughs – the majority of Sandbelt courses were by no means visually sandy at all (see main photo of Royal Melbourne 6th hole previous pages). Shackelford observed “he was expecting a ‘sand belt’ rather than a ‘green belt’ when golfing in the city.”
For the spring of 2011 the Composite Course itself had a thick lush rough, dare I say deliberately promoted as a defender of par for The Presidents Cup. A few months later in the heat of summer a lot of these roughs would have become straw-colour and indeed thinned out somewhat – but what about the sandy roughs and wispy grasses Peter Thomson had lamented?
Have our Sandbelt courses succumbed to too many trees, broad irrigation and the promotion of mown-grass areas? Have they forgotten to celebrate they are on sand?
Here in Australia, Mike Clayton and his team are noted for their restoration work and he has had a great collection of sand-based existing courses to work on – in Peninsula CGC, Victoria GC, Bonnie Doon GC, and The Lakes. Again, going back to historical drawings and photos in many cases, the Clayton team has found and expressed sound reason to thin out trees and expose vast areas of sandy waste; plus, plant heath and dune species and keep the irrigation water and fertilisers to the turf only.
The Lakes GC in Sydney is a fine example of this approach. The remodelled holes are superbly contrasted with vast areas of sandy rough. As Mike put it to me, the local water authority wanted to see the club remove tree weed species from the course. The felling of pines opened up the course, got the wind back in – but it also meant Clayton’s team were able to strip back the ground plane of weeds and expose vast areas of sand. Into this have been promoted many of the local sandy heathland type species. The Lakes is a fine Australian example of the concept of a reversal of a heavily treed and relatively green landscape back to a more open and sandy original.
Today’s generation of Australian golfers seem to appreciate that we no longer need to try to make our supposed inferior golfing landscapes look European or American, as our forebears once did with the planting of pines, Cypress and a misguided ‘dog’s breakfast of trees’ from all over the place. Similarly as many of our cites are affected by drought, there is now a driving need and understanding that sound water conservation means that if you can get the water onto preparing brilliant turf, and as a result keep the roughs lean and dry, then this can be the best outcome. Perhaps the best example of this on recent television coverage was Victoria Golf Club. Its brown, light, sandy roughs were a highlight amongst the lushness of the other Sandbelt clubs in the Melbourne summer of 2011-12.
On the other side of the Pacific, a few years back I had a brilliant time walking the hallowed fairways of Cypress Point Club and talking at length with superintendent Jeff Markow. Jeff has been restoring key characteristics of Cypress for many years. Much of this was about exposing sand, and Jeff’s reference points included many of the early black-and-white photos of the course – when a greater number of bunkers and vast areas of sandy waste occurred. Post-war austerity measures had seen the less desirable of the original bunkers grassed in whilst lush green roughs had taken hold on the dunes making them verdant hills, and the result a loss of contrast and definition to parts of the course. In the guiding of this work Jeff has referred to many of the original photos of the course (many are seen in the brilliant book Cypress Point Club by Geoff Shackelford). Markow’s work certainly has to be admired, and Cypress now does celebrate its sand.
My visit to Cypress, and discussions with Jeff, were an inspiration. It left me with the strong concept that if designing on sand and the wind is not too strong, then expose the sand – keep it dry… free of lush plants… and contrast it with the turf. The Cypress experience had a great influence on my last project at Greg Norman’s design office – my design of Vietnam’s Dunes at Danang Golf Club. The soft, broad dunes land at Danang was reminiscent of the shapes at Victoria GC and the main paddock of Royal Melbourne. Danang was only the second sand-based 18-hole project that I had worked on in Asia, as sites like this in Asia are generally rare. The existing natural land was very sandy in appearance, as the long, dry season and occasional grazing would see much of the seasonal grasses disappear. It was important to keep that look and protect it at all costs. Winds here were moderate, or came with rain storms and typhoons in the wet season; sand blow would be limited, so I was keen to expose sand for both strategic and visual reasons, whilst not letting the usual tropical landscape approach enter the course. A second visit to Cypress Point, and again blown away by holes such as 8 and 9, inspired me to expose more sand at Danang – and also change the design a little. I felt I had too many greens elevated atop dunes. By actually cutting greens 5 and 7 down into the side slope, it achieved an easier walk and left an intimate sandy backdrop to set off the green.
Of course, celebrating sand is not just about exposing it but also working with its fluidity, the natural shapes, often moving, as created by the wind and vegetation: both the natural shape and our own shapes, which we lock in for the purpose of playing the game. With great land and a good routing and selection of tee and green sites, sometimes very little shaping need be done at all. The joy of working with sand means, as an architect, you can do some great things.
I recall the sand dune project I worked on in China in a ‘design associate’ type role. The shaper, Larry Smith, would do the main shaping of tees, fairways and greens with an excavator. I would follow, doing most of the final trim of fairways and greens on a bunker rake machine, tweaking things and making little humps and hollows as I went. Then the ultimate shape was left to be done by Mother Nature herself. We would let the wind massage our shapes, leaving a softened result that no machine or hand of man could ever achieve. (I have since found out other instances of shapers also deliberately using the wind. I must acknowledge the work of Brian Slawnik, who has done a great job on the East Course at Royal Melbourne. He would create shapes in the sand in his bunker work in a ‘rough’ sense and then let the wind and rain do a little work for a few days, or week, before coming back to do his final trim.)
As an architect who has had the fortunate opportunity to be involved in two sand dune-based courses – one as a design associate on site, the other as the designer – I have always enjoyed the purity and rawness of newly completed courses on sand. As architects, the chance to design and build a course on sand dune land is an opportunity we are always grateful for. For sand-based courses old and new, the sand is something we should really celebrate.
Author’s selection of a few Australian sand-based courses that could well do with celebrating a little more sand:
Royal Sydney Golf Club: It was famous opera singer and Champion Ladies golfer Dame Joan Hammond who wrote: “My dismay was great when I first saw the ravage of our original links appearance. So much character vanished, not to mention the beautiful bird life that existed in the shrubs, until the native shrubs and grasses were decimated.” To this day the sandy Rose Bay links remains a Parkland course. It hasn’t been restored to the character Dame Joan laments the loss of – but has great potential to do so.
The Australian Golf Club: Despite several millions of dollars being spent on remodelling the golf features with Nicklaus Design, the course environs still fall well short of their true natural potential. Perhaps this is the next task for this historic club?
Kooyonga Golf Club: A fine example of an Australian course that has been a classic victim of years of misguided tree planting and attempts to ‘improve’ its landscape. Truly a classic restoration opportunity.
St Michaels Golf Club: This fun course with spectacular scenery has suffered the myopic encroachment of tea tree and other non-Indigenous species. A few hours with a chainsaw could dramatically improve this course for the better. Recent attempts to expose sand are to be commended, but missed the opportunity of proper and artistic golf course architectural input.
Commonwealth Golf Club: Like Kooyonga a victim of too many trees, and greenness prevails. Could take a leaf out of the results at Victoria GC.
References: The Royal Sydney Golf Club – The First 100 Years by Colin Tatz & Brian Stoddart; A History of Royal Melbourne Courses– Dr John Green; Cypress Point Club– Geoff Shackelford.