May 24, 2023

11th hole, Bandon Dunes, Oregon

11th hole, Bandon Dunes, Oregon

Source: Steve Sailer

The 2020s have been a lousy decade in many ways. For example, tomorrow is the third anniversary of the “racial reckoning”: How’s that working out anyway? But at least the Covid years have been good for the game of golf, a sociable outdoor sport that had been in a recession since the turn of the millennium. Last year, 26 million Americans played a little over half a billion rounds of golf, with the number of rounds up 13 percent from the average during 2015–2019.

Golf courses are getting more crowded as the number of links in the U.S. has declined 12 percent since the peak in 2005.

Golf courses are extravagantly large compared with, say, pickleball courts. So they mostly get built during optimistic boom eras, with private country clubs proliferating during the roaring twenties, public courses multiplying during the more egalitarian Arnold Palmer ’60s, and daily-fee courses open to paying customers mushrooming during the 1990s.

“It is at least arguable that golf course design was the great WASP art form of the 20th century.”

In contrast, very few golf courses were built in America from the Depression through the late 1940s. For example, near me, right after the Great War, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin’s brother Sydney founded the Hollywood Country Club. That must have sounded like a propitious name, but the severe terrain left it an also-ran besides Los Angeles Country Club (host of the US Open next month), Riviera, and Bel-Air. Thus, during the Depression it was plowed under and subdivided into houses and the fine Harvard-Westlake School.

So it goes.

And in this century, most golf course architects who are lucky enough to stay in business are building rich men’s follies or doing restorations of old-money country clubs. The latter has led to a curious revival of extremely aged styles. Only a few entrepreneurs, most notably Mike Keiser, appear to have hit upon a profitable formula justifying new course construction.

The sizable expansion in the late 20th century in the quantity and quality of golf courses was made under the assumption that in the 21st century baby boomers would retire to the golf course.

But those investments had been based on the misapprehension that golf is an old man’s game. In truth, golf is a younger man’s game, one that appeals most to those just outside their peak testosterone years when team contact sports are preferred. For example, I played a lot of golf from age 12 to 17, then focused on more physically intense sports from 18 to 23, but returned to golf at 24, but with my fanaticism slowly fading from my 40s onward. Similarly, when the baby boom generation as a whole eased into later middle age, the demand for golf faded and the construction boom that had peaked around 2000 turned sour.

Golf tends to be the favorite recreational sport of team sport superstars, even though it can be frustrating for them. For instance, Mike Trout, the best baseball player of the 2010s, averages 350–360 yards off the tee, but his seven handicap suggests he breaks 80 only about half the time. But that doesn’t diminish his love of the game. Trout has hired Tiger Woods to design a golf course for him in the New Jersey countryside where he grew up and lives in the offseason.

Wanting to enjoy your favorite pastime in your favorite landscape that you imprinted upon at puberty by endowing it with a golf course is the kind of conservative gesture natural to golfers.

Pro golfers are likely the most Republican set of celebrities in America. For example, in the 1972 election, the only PGA tour pro to vote for George McGovern was recent Stanford grad Tom Watson (who soon became a staunch Republican). In the 1990s, the only known Democrat on the tour was liberal Christian Scott Simpson. In 2020, sportswriter John Feinstein counted three pros who appeared to vote Democratic: Billy Andrade, David Duval, and Paul Goydos.

Feinstein recounted a conversation with Phil Mickelson:

Phil: “I’m really pretty liberal on most issues.”

Feinstein: “But your No. 1 issue is how much you pay in taxes.”

Phil: “Oh no, that isn’t my No. 1 issue—it’s No. 1, 2, 3, 4, and maybe 5.”

Two of the greatest golfers of all time were born in California in the 1970s: Phil and Tiger. Woods officially moved to income-tax-free Florida on the day he turned pro in 1996. Mickelson, in contrast, stayed home and has paid a vast amount to Sacramento over the years for the privilege of living in his native state. As a Californian, I appreciate that.

Last year, the pro golf world split into two, with what pro wrestling fans would call the good guy “faces,” such as Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm, staying with the old-time PGA Tour, while the bad guy “heels,” such as Mickelson, PGA champ Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, and Bryson DeChambeau, left for a new LIV tour lavishly funded by the Saudis.

Because golfers tend to be so conservative politically, it is widely assumed that they are incapable of taking an interest in aesthetic matters.

But some golfers do care very much about golf architecture. It is at least arguable that golf course design was the great WASP art form of the 20th century. And like all art forms, it continually undergoes changes in fashion, some in connection with trends in the general culture, and, more recently, counter to the general direction.

But if golf design is an art, why are its vast history and great names so unknown in the wider world of art?

One problem is that while you can appreciate, say, Raphael’s School of Athens without being a painter or philosopher yourself, golf course design simply doesn’t register in the minds of many non-golfers. If you are a golfer who doesn’t understand why, say, the 12th and 13th holes at Augusta National don’t make their golf architect Alister MacKenzie as famous as building architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, well, try to remember the name of the guy who designed the last set of runs you skied upon. (It may well be Pete Williams.)

Another reason golf designers aren’t broadly celebrated might be that we associate art and fashion with attractive women, who flock to galleries. But golf courses aren’t sexy because they don’t much appeal to attractive young women, except as vaguely pleasant backgrounds for their wedding receptions. Likewise, very few male homosexuals (who are highly influential in most other arts) play golf (although lesbians are often golf enthusiasts).

Over time, fashions change, even in a field as insular as golf design. At their peak in the 1920s, golf course designers tended to build courses reflective of the superb spare-no-expense art deco aesthetics of the age (e.g., the Chrysler Building).

Then golf fashion evolved along with the rest of society toward modernism. For example, the Augusta National golf course, home to the Masters tournament each April, developed from the early 1930s through the postwar period to become the great exemplar of streamlined modernism in golf aesthetics. As Fortune 500 CEOs joined the club en masse after WWII, they demanded a golf course as sleek-looking as the steel and glass office towers they were commissioning for their headquarters.

Over the course of the later 20th century, golf course design became ever more postmodern and expensive. For example, the famous picture of Bill Clinton posing on his home course, Trump Westchester, with Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, Joe Torre, and Billy Crystal is on the green of the short hole that Trump spiced up by constructing a colossal waterfall.

In contrast, American golf design in the 21st century has been moving in a more eccentric direction, reconnecting with its thrifty Scottish roots and the rather strange layouts of pre–Great War courses paid for by robber barons, early tracks that were long seen as hopelessly outmoded. This is partly because few new golf courses are presently being built, so architects fortunate enough to be employed are getting much of their work from convincing old-money country clubs to let them restore their ancient courses to their lost pre-WWI glories.

For instance, perhaps the most galvanizing photos in golf course aficionado circles in recent years have been Jon Cavalier’s shots of the par 3 16th hole at Sleepy Hollow, a club launched by Rockefellers, Astors, and Vanderbilts 110 years ago overlooking the Hudson River that has lately been restored by Gil Hanse.

You have to admit, Sleepy Hollow’s 16th is one strange-looking golf hole. For generations, golf designers had preached the doctrine that golf courses should appear “natural.” Nature comes in many forms, so that allows a lot of variety. But this hole, originally laid out in 1911 by Charles Blair Macdonald, looks about as natural as an iPhone. At present, golfers with advanced tastes consider it cool.

At a time when whites in general are demonized, golf elites have doubled down on WASPness. This first became vivid in 2014 when the United States Golf Association decided to put on the U.S. Open at the classic Pinehurst No. 2 course in North Carolina without fully watering its fairways. The voice of the people (golf-playing Republican version), Donald Trump, complained on Twitter that brown grass is not what Americans like in their golf courses:

I’d bet the horrible look of Pinehurst translates into poor television ratings. This is not what golf is about!

Earlier this month, I took a week to visit the most successful and influential American golf resort of this century: Bandon Dunes on the ocean cliffs of southern Oregon. While Bandon makes sure to keep its fairways watered, it tends to the new cheapness rather than the old Trumpness.

Golf originated on windswept grass-covered sand dunes in Scotland known as linksland that weren’t useful for anything besides grazing sheep and knocking a ball around. The randomness inherent in rolling a golf ball across the humps and hillocks of seaside dunes was seen by the Scots as injecting a sporting element of chance into their game.

Most of America is inland, however, so American tastes evolved toward less arbitrary courses that prized rigor, fairness, and rationality. Over the past ninety years, Augusta National’s back nine’s five famous water holes set the standard for American golf courses.

But Mike Keiser, a retired entrepreneur who, like so many rich men, dreamed of building his own golf course, found the Scottish way of golf more fun. So he picked out an extremely remote spot (250 miles south of Portland, 470 miles north of San Francisco) to buy several miles of sand dunes overlooking the Pacific just north of Bandon, Oregon. I wound up driving 850 miles each way from Los Angeles because that sounded about as easy as trying to fly in.

One of Keiser’s theories was that while a single spectacular golf course could attract the private-jet crowd, like the epochal Sand Hills golf club on the dunes of Western Nebraska that opened in 1995, multiple courses could make even a very hard-to-get-to resort like Bandon a destination for the masses of upscale frequent fliers. So over the last quarter of a century, Keiser has hired top current golf architects such as Tom Doak and the team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore to build him five full-size golf courses at Bandon Dunes, four along the sea cliffs and one inland forested course, Bandon Trails, that resembles the famous old heathland courses on sandy soil near Heathrow airport such as Sunningdale.

The Bandon Dunes courses tend to be gnarly (especially Doak’s Pacific Dunes), with ocean cliffs, blown-out deep dune bunkers, and impenetrable gorse bushes (in spectacular gingko yellow bloom when I played):

No motorized riding carts are allowed on the five courses. You either have to carry your own clubs, hire a caddy, or take a pull cart (as you can see, I went with the latter).

The walking-only rule changes the culture. For instance, the utter lack of cart paths means that Bandon does not have cart girls driving around selling beers and cigars. I haven’t seen a survey, but I suspect about 90 percent of the customers at Bandon Dunes are Republicans, but more George H.W. Bush Republicans than Donald Trump Republicans.

At Bandon Dunes, Doak’s Old Macdonald is a tribute course modeled after the once-outdated style of C.B. Macdonald, the dominant American architect of the first decade of the 20th century. The newest course, Crenshaw and Coore’s Sheep Ranch, is the easiest and windiest with the most ocean frontage: Half the holes have greens perched on the high cliffs.

Across all five 18s, there are no cart paths, much less waterfalls. Besides the Pacific Ocean, there is only one water hazard on the ninety holes (into which, of course, I managed to dunk my approach shot). Fairways can be immensely wide to allow the winds to blow tee shots around, but bunkers tend to be punishingly deep: While lining up a putt, I almost backed up off the green into a scary 18-foot-deep sand trap on Bandon Trails.

Are the golf courses fair? No.

But are they fun? Yes.

I noticed that trees are out of fashion with 21st-century golf course designers in reaction to club chairmen’s mania in the second half of the 20th century to plant trees so thickly on golf courses that they wound up, when mature, cutting the wind and blocking all recoveries other than chipping out sideways.

The contemporary anti-tree prejudice is taken to comic extremes on the gale-blasted 2020 design Sheep Ranch where Crenshaw and Coore decided they needed at least a few trees as directional indicators. Rather than plant living saplings, they instead purchased dead “ghost trees” to install. (Whatever criticisms you might have of capitalism, keep in mind that it provides a market for dead trees.)

On the other hand, I hope a compromise comes back in style: the parkland course with the occasional tree that if you find yourself behind you have to decide whether to soar over, slash under, slice around to the left, or hook around to the right.

I managed to survive walking eight rounds in four days (according to Fitbit, that’s fourteen miles per day), but the real maniacs try to squeeze in 54 holes daily. Hence, Bandon tends to attract serious golfers: e.g., one guy in a foursome with me drove a 299-yard par 4 to nine feet and sank the putt for an eagle 2. Yet he was probably only the third best golfer I was grouped with.


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