Course Architects Who Thrived in the Mid-Century Design Malaise
A cadre of design critics claims that golf course architecture slipped into a dark place from 1945 to 1975, emerging only when Pete Dye began to hit his stride. Others extend the time period another 20 years, to 1995, when Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s Sand Hills burst into course rankings and the national consciousness.
I am not one of those critics.
Hundreds of quality courses emerged between 1945 and 1965. Perhaps the predominant design style of that era doesn’t trend well today. Fine. That’s the nature of art — and trends. But there is always a “best of” breed, even if you don’t care for that particular breed. Because I prefer Monet’s impressionism to Picasso’s Cubism doesn’t mean I thought Picasso was a lousy painter. He simply expressed his artistic philosophy in a different way.
The same holds true for the influential post-war course architects. Robert Trent Jones was the leading light, with his “hard par, easy bogey” design credo. To blunt the modern power game, he built long, “airport runway” tee boxes for maximum flexibility, fairways squeezed by flanking bunkers and large, elevated greens often fronted by water and/or sand. His leading competitor, Dick Wilson, emulated many of Jones’ characteristics, while differing in the angular presentation of his slightly elevated putting surfaces.
The RTJ style was perfect for the post-WWII aerial game then in vogue, and unquestionably proved extremely testing for tour professionals. This, in turn, impressed early course rankings judges, who in the day, often emphasized difficulty over character. Eventually, those courses faded in the rankings, not because they were deemed poor but rather, tastes changed.
Yet, for every modern critic who chirped about how long and repetitive Firestone Country Club’s South was, they failed to look more closely at what Jones accomplished there, which was to transform a mediocre 1920s, 6,400-yard corporate course into a 7,000-yard championship test on the same grounds.
Moreover, even a cursory examination of his course ledger reveals that not all Trent Jones courses were alike. For all of his massive courses that demanded prodigious power-hitting, three of the five courses he labeled as personal favorites — Spyglass Hill (1966), Ballybunion’s Cashen (1985) and Valderrama (1964/1975) — were pure finesse courses with smallish greens. So, too, many of his quintessential efforts hold up today as timeless classics, including Peachtree (1948), the Dunes Golf and Beach Club (1949) and Mauna Kea (1964).
Wilson’s best works may have also vanished from current course rankings rosters, but two generations of PGA Tour pros appreciated the straightforward challenges proffered by Doral Blue (1962), Bay Hill Club and Lodge (1961), Royal Montreal Golf Club’s Red Course (1959), Cog Hill No. 4 (1964) and La Costa (1964), as well as at his chef d’oeuvre, Pine Tree (1962), of which Ben Hogan once called “the best course I have ever played.”
Understandably, mid-century architects mostly hewed to the formula unspooled by Jones and Wilson, as that’s what clients and customers wanted. Only occasionally were there genuine departures from these norms. Partly for that reason, and partly because widespread air travel didn’t occur until the late 1950s, few of these individuals outside of Jones and Wilson achieved national acclaim; they mostly practiced in one region. Several of them deserve to be better known. For the Torrey Pines U.S. Open preview in 2021, Morning Read profiled William F. Bell, who crafted more than 200 courses throughout the west from 1946-1984.
Here are four additional architects who created at least one Top 100 golf course. Each left massive marks on mid-century design.
He was born in Pinehurst, N.C. in 1909 and died there in 1984, so it was inevitable that golf course architecture would be in Ellis Maples’ blood. In fact, it was. His father, Frank Maples, served as construction superintendent for Donald Ross and also greenkeeper at Pinehurst Country Club. In 1937, Ellis departed for Plymouth, N.C., where he helped William Flynn and Dick Wilson build a nine-hole course, gaining additional education from two superior design minds. In 1948, he followed in his father’s footsteps by serving as construction superintendent for Donald Ross’s final design, Raleigh Country Club. For the next three decades, Ellis Maples was one of the most prolific architects in the Southeast.
Architect Richard Mandell, who got his start in the design business with Ellis’ son Dan, points out that Maples followed many Ross principles, including lay-of-the-land routing that emphasized the high points of the property, using natural features to determine strategy and creating visibility in bunkers. Unlike Ross, however, Maples primarily utilized high-flashed sand bunkers to achieve this. Soft-spoken and much admired, Ellis Maples left behind a legacy of strong, beautiful tracks, including the Country Club of North Carolina’s Dogwood course in Pinehurst (1963), a former Golf Digest Top 100 entry where Hal Sutton captured the 1980 U.S. Amateur; Grandfather Golf and Country Club in Linville, N.C. (1968), another former Top 100 course currently ranked 144th in the U.S.; and Pinehurst Country Club, No. 5 (1961).
After serving in the Navy during World War I, William Gordon began work as a seed salesman. In that capacity, he eventually served as superintendent of his company’s golf course construction division, where he built courses for prominent architects Donald Ross, Devereux Emmet and Willie Park Jr.
In 1923, Gordon joined the Toomey and Flynn design firm, one of the finest of the era. During his 18 years there, the firm created Shinnecock Hills, Cherry Hills and Lancaster and revised Merion, The Country Club and Philadelphia Country Club. In 1941, he hung his design shop shingle, but World War II intervened. After the war, he built courses for Donald Ross and J.B. McGovern, before finally embarking on a solo practice in 1950. His son, David, joined the William F. Gordon Co. in 1953 and they created courses together until the elder’s death in 1973.
Of William Gordon, architecture scholar Ron Whitten pointed out that “Probably no other architect in history received such broad practical experience before setting up his own practice, nor was any more imbued with the history of the art.”
The Gordons greatest works reflected the muscular challenge and flowing lines of the times, yet were simple in their execution, natural and not overly adorned with “look-at-me” design features. Among their top courses were Saucon Valley Country Club’s Grace (1953/1958) in Bethlehem, Pa., a longtime member of Golf Digest’s Top 100, its vastly different sibling, the Weyhill course (1968) and the Stanwich Club in Greenwich, Conn. (1963), currently ranked 94th among the Top 100 Modern (post-1960) courses in the U.S. by Golfweek.
One of the new breed of landscape architects to enter the profession, Edward Lawrence “Larry” Packard worked in that capacity with the National Park Service in Maine, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Chicago Park District, before joining the staff of architect Robert Bruce Harris in 1946. In 1954, he established his own firm, partnering with Brent Wadsworth. Within three years, the two decided there wasn’t enough work to go around, so Wadsworth departed, and focused almost exclusively on the construction side of the business. Packard prospered in the Midwest, designing or remodeling well over 100 courses, in the 1950s,’60s and ‘70s, including Eagle Ridge Resort North (1977) in Galena, Ill.
Yet, his finest efforts came about near Tampa, Florida, at the Innisbrook Resort. Two of the four courses he created there, Island (1970) and Copperhead (1974) reached Top 100 status with Golf Digest. Phil Mickelson captured the NCAA Men’s Individual title at Island in 1990, while Copperhead has been among the most respected courses on the PGA Tour since 2000 as host of the Valspar Championship.
In 2006, Ernie Els gushed, “I personally think the Copperhead layout is the best golf course that the PGA Tour visits in Florida.” In 2010, I asked Packard to comment on Els’ flattering portrayal. With the candor that only a 98-year-old could muster, Packard responded, “I think he’s right.”
Packard’s son, Roger, joined the firm in the early 1970s. Together, they continued to craft well-respected layouts, but they expanded their horizons to include courses in Egypt, Venezuela and Guatemala, among other exotic locales.
Whitten and the American Society of Golf Course Architects credit Packard for his contributions in advancing environmental issues, being an early advocate of using treated effluent for golf course irrigation. His design influence permeated the profession as well, especially in terms of softer sculpting of the land and the use of free-form shaping of golf course features, notably on tee complexes.
Robert F. “Red” Lawrence
As golf landscapes go, Westchester County, N.Y., and Maricopa County, Ariz., couldn’t be more different. Yet, Red Lawrence thrived in both. Nicknamed for the color of his hair, Lawrence started in the business at age 26, working for Walter Travis on the construction of Westchester Country Club’s two courses in 1919. From 1921 to 1932, he served as construction superintendent for Toomey and Flynn, playing a major role on many of the firm’s best designs, including the Cascades at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., the Seaview (Pines) in Absecon, N.J. and The Country Club, in the Cleveland suburb of Pepper Pike.
While toiling on another Toomey and Flynn project in Florida for the Boca Raton Hotel, the Depression hit, scaling back all design projects and producing layoffs. Moored in Florida, Lawrence took the job as superintendent at the Boca Raton. As the story goes, he convinced Tommy Armour, the resort’s professional and a three-time major winner, to conduct a lesson with a wealthy member while sitting under an umbrella, cocktail in hand. While intended as a joke, Armour made it his teaching trademark.
During his residence in the Sunshine State, Lawrence began a modest side business designing courses, but was sufficiently serious enough about the profession to join the American Society of Golf Course Architects as a founding member in 1947. In 1958, his wife’s health compelled a relocation to a drier climate — Tucson, Arizona. By 1962, he had become a 69-year-old overnight sensation, with his revolutionary design of Desert Forest Golf Club in Carefree, north of Phoenix. As architecture scholar Brad Klein wrote, “There’s a strong case to be made that (Desert Forest’s) layout is not only unique but also a landmark in golf architecture.”
Lawrence’s remarkable achievement was in draping a minimalist design atop a most inhospitable desert tableau, with remarkable sophistication as to the detail work in contouring fairways and greens. He also pioneered a design concept at Desert Forest’s seventh hole, a true split fairway, with equal risk and reward for taking either route. True, his bunkering was simple ovals, but at least it didn’t compete with the rolling setting, lush desert and mountain backdrops.
Desert Forest was a member of the Golf Digest and Golf Magazine Top 100s for three decades. Another Lawrence design that achieved Top 100 status was the University of New Mexico’s South course (1966) in Albuquerque. Now known as the Championship course, the layout lacked Desert Forest’s brilliant shaping of fairways and greens, and his usual broad oval bunkers weren’t terribly artistic, but the stern challenge and lay-of-the-land routing proved effective. Phil Mickelson captured the 1992 NCAA Men’s Individual title here.
Tubac Golf Resort, Camelback Inn’s Padre course, the Wigwam’s West course and the original Boulders Club course were other Arizona gems that featured Lawrence’s craftsmanship. Longtime ASGCA secretary Paul Fullmer described Lawrence as “a popular, fun-loving guy who was always in the middle of the parties.” Echoes Robert Trent Jones Jr., “Lawrence was a character, and a funny, fun man. I liked his work in the desert.”
News and Reviews
New Tune at Streamsong
Central Florida’s Streamsong Resort celebrated its 10th anniversary with a big announcement at January’s PGA Show: A new sibling was on the way. Alongside the top-ranked Blue, Red and Black championship courses, a yet-to-be-named short course has started to take shape. Designed by Coore and Crenshaw, who authored the Red course at Streamsong, the new layout will feature 18 holes expected to measure between 70 to nearly 300 yards. Designed to be walkable and played with less than a full complement of clubs, the short course is being constructed on rippled, sandy terrain to the east of the resort’s main lodge, within walking distance. Coore is exceptionally inspired by the prospects.
“Comprised of moss-draped oaks, lakes and sand-based landforms, the site for the short course is dramatically gifted for golf,” Coore said. “And although smaller in scale and different in character from the Blue, Black and Red courses, we believe the site has the potential to complement the amazing golf experiences that have made Streamsong one of our nation’s most highly acclaimed golf destinations.”
This surely will be a superb addition to Streamsong. Coore and Crenshaw have an exemplary track record when it comes to constructing compelling par-3s courses, from Bandon Preserve to Sand Valley to Colorado Golf Club. Plus, Streamsong needed this. The problem with the additional daylight required to squeeze in a 36-hole day is that this is Florida, so that generally occurs in months where the heat and humidity can thwart many players. So, on those perfect winter days when you want more golf, but don’t have the daylight, the new short course should satisfy. Same for those hot days, when you have the daylight, but not the energy. No opening date has been announced, but anticipation and expectations are sky-high.
Faldo in Pakistan
If you’re the kind of golfer who craves the occasional dose of adventure travel—and who doesn’t — Sir Nick Faldo’s design firm has created a new bucket list experience. Pakistan’s Rumanza Golf and Country Club debuted in February 2022, and immediately stamps itself as the top course in the country. Situated in the city of Multan, where Alexander the Great fought a historic battle in 326 B.C., Rumanza was developed by the nation’s Defense Housing Authority as part of an ambitious mixed-use development that will include real estate, lodging and retail space.
On flat farmland, Faldo, lead designer Andy Haggar and their team created an oasis-style desert layout with large lakes and lush Paspalum grass throughout. Yet, they also incorporated local elements, from native mango and orange trees and holes that feature Dera walls, remnants of the farmers’ mud brick-and-straw dwellings that long occupied the site.
Pakistan boasts a surprisingly long golf tradition dating to British proliferation in the 19th century, but this course differs in every way from others in the country. Unsurprisingly for Faldo, it is a rigorous test, 7,533 yards, par 72 and laced with hazards. The development team expressed that it was important for future generations of Pakistani golfers to become acclimated to championship-style layouts so that they wouldn’t be surprised on difficult international tournament stages. For the traveling golfer looking to check another box, the surprise is that this facility exists at all.