Golf Architecture’s New Paradigm

Imagine that you are a lover of art in France at the turn of the 20th century.  Following upon several hundred years of Renaissance religious scenes with puffy clouds and buff bible characters acting out passionate historical moments, and a few decades of Impressionists working on your emotions with evocative landscapes and delicious looking fruit,  you encounter something the likes of which you’ve never laid eyes upon before nor could even have imagined in your strangest moments of sleep and dreaming.  Suddenly you visit your favorite gallery and see upon the wall a painting which looks as if it was cut up in pieces and reassembled entirely at random.  The cubist style, pioneered by Pablo Picasso and George Braques revolutionized modern art but also required lovers of painting to suddenly envision the world in an entirely different way.

Let’s say for just a moment that golf course architecture is a kind of living art in which landforms are created and manipulated to deliver an aesthetic effect at the same time that they also serve the practical purpose of providing people with a place to play golf.  Interview almost any golf course architect alive today and ask questions that go deeper than most of the articles you read in golf magazines, and you’ll suddenly see their craft in a new way.  Listen to them talk about perspective, or the way that shapes in the near background were created to mirror and harmonize with more distant visual cues, such as ridge lines and mountains.  Penetrate deep enough to see how  some of what they do has been created to trick– and often please– the eye: the way a bunker set 60 yards short of the green appears to cozy up right next to it, or how a dogleg bends with the curve of a river.

Let me preface what follows here by saying that David Maclay Kidd’s original Bandon Dunes golf course is one of my favorites anywhere on the planet.  I understand and don’t even disagree with people who say that Tom Doak’s work on the same property, at Pacific Dunes, is a “better” golf course, but given the chance I always prefer to play Bandon Dunes.  Kidd accomplished a purity of spirit on his first design ever– evocative yet simple, understated, with moments of great emotion designed into the layout and expressing themselves with tremendous subtlety rather than with the wow factor of Doak’s massive sand blowouts.  The holes themselves are clearly the work of a young master flexing his design muscles, and they are also self-assured.  They make no apologies.  Which is a hallmark of all of David Kidd’s work.

Having walked two of Kidd’s later designs in Scotland before they were completed– the Castle Course at St. Andrews and Macrihanish Dunes– I began to wonder if Bandon Dunes had been an aberration.  Although I did not get to see these courses in finished condition (though I’m heading to Scotland to play at least one of them shortly, and will report back),  they both struck me as trying desperately hard to over-achieve.  The humps and bumps at the Castle Course seemed so wholly manufactured as to jar my sense that I was in a natural outdoor location (in fact, there’s nothing natural about that design, but neither is there about Kingsbarns just down the road, one of the most sublimely beautifully shaped golf courses on the planet, and also in my all-time top ten).  The greens were massive exaggerations.  According to many knowledgeable people I know who went there later to test The Castle Course after it opened, the playability was marginal at best.

And so, finally, to my point here.  I recently played Kidd’s Tetherow Golf Club, in Central Oregon.  The course has been open for two years and I can honestly say that in that time I have never really heard anyone ever say a nice thing about it– other than how beautiful it is, which is really only one minor factor that people should consider in judging a golf course.  Many of the folks I spoke to said they were glad to have played it but would never go back.  An exercise in frustration.  Totally out of control.  Others were angrier and less kind.

Given my own tendency to hate a fair amount of modern design work that costs thousands of times what turn-of-the-century architects spent to build much better courses, I was prepared to hate Tetherow, and almost looked forward to writing a scathing review– in part because I’d loved Kidd’s original course so much and was so disappointed by what I saw in Scotland.

When you arrive at Tetherow your fore-caddie greets you shortly after you check in at the pro shop desk.  Ours, Aaron– who was among the best young caddies I’ve had anywhere in the world– warned us that the speed of the practice green where we were banging a few putts around was entirely different from that of the actual greens, which did nothing to improve my mood.  What possible sense could that make when the entire purpose of a practice green was to give a decent putter a chance to gauge how putts might roll all day?  It was an overcast morning, too cool for August, and I’d burnt my tongue on hot coffee on the way to the course.  I was hunkering down for a tough day.

The first two holes did not improve my outlook.  The opening tee shot requires a carry over waste areas and rough to a fairway canted in such a way that you can only see the green from the right side of it (or with a huge drive, something I don’t have)– and the last thing you want to do is hit your approach at the pin from any angle other than dead on because the green is deep but exceedingly narrow and framed by bunkers.  This is a theme that repeats itself at Tetherow– don’t aim at the pins, or even the centers of the greens–until you either get it, or begin cursing the architect in frustration (but that is your problem, not his).  For despite it’s location amid snow-capped mountains in central Oregon, Tetherow is a links course in spirit and pedigree, and should be played using the territory to your advantage.  Why it took me so long to figure this out I cannot say.

The third hole is a visually arresting par three that ramps up the excitement.  Problems arise, though, if you aim for the center of the green or anything left of there because the slope of the putting surface will trampoline such shots into a water hazard.  And here lies the maddening ingenuity of the golf course: on this hole, hitting at the center of the green just isn’t the right shot.  Hitting to the forgiving right side, with a slight draw, is what Kidd designed this for.  And many golfers who think they’ve hit a brilliant shot to the center will be outraged to see their tee ball end with a trickle and splash.  But the fact is, they haven’t hit a brilliant shot– at least by any measure intended by the architect, who is really the decider here.

Let’s remember that golf, ultimately, is really about adopting your own skills to local conditions and customs, and that is what Kidd demands at Tetherow.  If you’re playing on a windy course, hit the ball low.  If the greens are all front-bunkered and designed with false fronts, hit it high.  If the putting surfaces are flat and shaggy, putt the ball hard, and if they are fast and undulating, take more care.

On that third hole, beginning to pay attention to Aaron, our fore-caddie, I  also began to understand what the architect was up to, though I still asked: is it a bad hole if a shot hit to the middle of a green winds up in a hazard?  And does this change if you KNOW that’s how it’s been designed?  Like a lot of players, I was distracted by the aesthetics of this gorgeously crafted layout from understanding the specific challenge Kidd had laid out– another hallmark of very good design, not bad.  Though I walked away from number three furiously shaking my head.

The fourth hole actually has the opposite strategy of some of the earlier holes in that it is visually intimidating but not that difficult– this l-o-n-g par four of 481 yards from the tips features a lot of room in front of the green that you can’t see on the approach.  As Kidd himself says in a video describing how to play Tetherow, “anything at the pin is a sucker, and I’ve got you.”  Approaches actually need to be hit short and run up, or to the back of the green so they’ll feed back down toward most pin positions.  Still, I felt this particular green had one too many features– and, in fact, Kidd has been back to the course since it opened to soften some of the more penal aspects.  It’s as if, in some cases, too much design cubism renders the figure in the painting unrecognizable.  And in some instances, you can’t even tell it’s a figure.  Which is exactly what art is all about: testing boundaries.  It just doesn’t always make for playable golf holes.

Number six offers a couple of good choices off the tee to right and left fairways– it’s a great par four with a crazy green on which you could be further away from the hole after hitting your first putt. Number seven, the longest par three at Tetherow, provides a few secret backstops that will cooperate in directing the ball toward the desired final resting place once you understand how you’re intended to play the hole.

By number eight my notes in the yardage book say:’ Once you see what he’s doing it’s unbelievably good.”  The hole is framed by giant Ponderosa pines.  Number nine suggests that a fairway wood off the tee may be appropriate– as is giving up on the idea of reaching the green in two, though it’s under 500 yards from most tees.  The green, surrounded by rock outcroppings, is sublime.

Number ten encourages a heroic drive to a green just barely over 300 yards away from the back tees, but gives lesser players a chance to be smart (which they won’t) and hit a mid-iron followed by a wedge, certainly a better formula for birdie that few will decipher given the temptations to try to hit a shot you’re probably not even capable of.  At the eleventh, Tetherow drops into the trees and the terrain grows rockier and even more interesting with tons of swales and collection areas and fescue-whiskered bunkers.

Seventeen is the hole you’ve seen in a hundred golf magazine photos– and it is everything a golf hole can be: pure fun, and also fair and gorgeous.  The hole routes through a pumice quarry to the smallest green Kidd has ever built– about half the size of most of the other greens at Tetherow.  His intention was for players to overclub here and knock it into the backboard behind the cupping areas so that the shot would trickle back toward the pin.  The golf course finishes with a 588-yard downwind par five that’s as daunting as the finish at Kapalua, yet eminently par-able.  And you can see the entire hole unfurling from tee toward clubhouse.

Given its physical and psychological difficulty, Tetherow makes for a great match play course, which is also how it was meant to be played.  Forget your score, bet with your buddies, and even if you don’t understand why, enjoy this terrific modern masterpiece for what it is. Don’t even delve into the realm of what it’s not, because you’ll miss the entire point of Kidd’s iconoclastic and artistic work.  For me, Tetherow was the most fun I ever had while barely breaking 100, and I’d go back tomorrow.

In the meantime, I’m off to see David Kidd’s Castle Course at St. Andrews  shortly, which I hated upon first viewing years ago, but now expect to see in an entirely new– and refractive– light.

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