Flattery by Imitation


Knowing your history is no substitute for inspiration -- many studied architects have created many a studied golf course -- but when knowledge of the great golf courses of the past inspires a great architect, a Ross, a Tillinghast, or a Dye, great things can happen.
Architects Golf Club in Lopatcong grew out of the shared passion of designer Stephen Kay and writer Ron Whitten for the old boys, the wise old men of golf. Starting with Old Tom Morris on hole #1, and proceeding chronologically to the mid-20th century, Architects honors 18 or so designers (Donald Ross gets two holes, Alison & Colt count as one, and C.B. MacDonald, naturally, bullies a footnote out of Seth Raynor). You can just imagine Whitten and Kay comparing notes, debating, one-upping each other during the design phase.
The problem with tribute courses is you mostly notice how inferior the copy is -- as Whitten says, "every replica of the 13th at Augusta is dead flat, and you go there and you realize it's a big banked turn, and it's really totally different." It's kind of like going to a tribute band show -- you'd like to find a way to appreciate the effort without actually having to be there. The genius of Architects is that, by creating new conceptions of par just as the masters would have, it pays tribute to their vision and style, not just the same hallowed holes.
View of #3 from the fairway
Kay got the idea in the early 1980s. "My mother worked for I.M. Pei as an executive secretary, and I remember her telling me about a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art about twentieth-century architecture, featuring Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, all the big names. And I remember thinking, 'If you were going to have an exhibit of golf architects, showing pictures isn't going to be enough, because a picture isn't going to give you the idea of how a golf course plays and feels.
"And I thought what would be neat would be to build a golf course where you do the style of all these architects, and you did it in chronological order and the golf course was the museum. Because in golf, you really need to play it."
Kay contacted dean of the dirt Ron Whitten, and together they worked out a deal with developer Ron Turco. Kay was onsite once or twice a week, while Whitten made monthly visits.
The Walter Travis hole
Whitten clearly enjoyed the challenge of getting inside the head of his heroes. "The easier bunkers are the Raynor/MacDonald ones, the more geometric ones.
"Tillinghast was tough, because every course is different. And so we said, 'Let's throw it all in" -- and so [the 7th hole is] a hodgepodge -- we've got what we call a Bethpage bunker, a Winged Foot bunker, some Shawnee bunkers, and some Dolomite mounds whatever those are.
He takes pride in Architects. "Stephen and I wanted to do something different -- it's hard in golf, to come up with something that's truly original. And we were proud of the idea, and I think the finished product worked out pretty good."
There is something altogether spooky and vain about the profession of golf architect: you come and change the landscape, leaving it to posterity as a sort of living testament to your godditude, "by the hand of Muirhead." By successfully mimicking Travis, Tillinghast, Ross and company, Kay and Whitten have created a little metaphysical miracle which manages to conjure the spirits of these extraordinary characters. The Mackenzie 12th isn't just a wry little parody of an Augusta National hole, it almost seems to convey a sensibility that could only be described as boozy obsessiveness.
For Whitten, Architects fulfilled a dream. "I wanted to be an architect in the worst way, back when I was a kid. And to the extent that now that I'm in my fifties, I get to live out my dream, it's very exciting. But I'm not going to quit my day job, this isn't the kind of economy where you want to go out and hang up a shingle." To avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, no course he works on is eligible for consideration for Golf Digest honors, which he says has cost him projects. Not that it bothers him. "I'm not interested in building a hundred courses. I'm interested in building ten courses in my life that are very distinctive, that maybe broke some ground."