The Myth Of The Eternal Golf Course

C-Arts Magazine, July 2018.

On March 6th, 1457, James II King of Scots decreed that "ye gowfe be utterly cried down and not used," because too many of his subjects were neglecting their archery practice in favor of a game started by sailors strolling from port to town, smacking stones with sticks as they went over the grassy sheep-shorn dunes that the Scots refer to as linksland. Over time, preferred pathways emerged, and the low spots where rocks tended to fall got smacked by repeated swings, exposing the underlying sand and giving birth to bunkers.

By the time of the king's proclamation, golfers at St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, had developed a customary route along a narrow strip of land by the sea with eleven holes laid end to end, to be played in both directions for a total of 22 holes. Several of the holes were combined in 1764, for a total of nine in each direction. Thus, a complete round became 18 holes.

And by the late 1800s, groundskeepers like Old Tom Morris were building artificial courses, leaving behind the natural models of St. Andrews, North Berwick and Prestwick in favor of the Classicism of the time, with its Victorian rules, order and brutal symmetry. In these efficiently monotonous designs every bunker consisted of a rampart precisely 112cm in height placed at an exact right angle to the line of play, all fairways were rectangular, all greens square and flat, and a player could ascertain the bogey of a hole by counting the number of bunkers and adding two to the total.

This period, now referred to as the "Dark Ages of Golf," ended in 1901, when Willie Park Jr. built Huntercombe and Sunningdale on heathland outside London. The "Golden Age of Golf" (1901 to the late 1930s) was ushered in by the confluence of a number of factors: concentrated wealth in the bourgeoisie in Europe and the robber-barons in America; architectural innovation with the Arts and Crafts movement; and technological innovation in mowers, golf balls, club designs, clubhouses and bright clothing, to say nothing of the invention of the golf tee.

Golf architects rose to the occasion, building courses based largely on theories from pre-Arts and Crafts dissenters against the rulemongering Victorian aesthetic that were then absorbed into the A&C movement. Pugin's notions of "fidelity to place" and of the connection between beauty and necessity became central to golf course design, as did William Morris' view that everything made by man is "beautiful if it is in accord with nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with nature, and thwarts her.

"Similarly, Ruskin's rejection of classicality in favor of the Gothic architectural qualities of asymmetry, irregularity and roughness gave birth to that "sauce of golf," variety. As Horatio Hutchinson, who authored over 50 books on golf, put it, "When you hear this wiseacre and that saying that there ought to be no cross bunkers, another that there ought to be no running-up shots, and so on, you may know at once they must all be wrong. Such worlds as 'none' and 'all' should not appear in the laws laid down for these matters. We want a little of each-'two pen'orth of all sorts,' like the cabman's morning drink-some lofting approaches, some run-up and so on with the rest of the puzzles."

Phillip Webb, the architect who designed William Morris' home, considered land to be the "root of architecture," filled with possibilities and particular suggestions. For Webb and other A&C architects reacting against the dehumanizing ugliness of the Industrial Revolution, architecture was "the human spirit made visible...recreat[ing] the past as a world of pre-industrial simplicity."

And although architecture generally has moved on to other things-including new periods of ugliness justified by theories that would not long be tolerated on fields where form has to follow fun-golf courses found such a perfect fit with A&C that they, by and large, stayed within its architectural framework. Perhaps, in part, because they had stumbled onto the then-nonexistent field of evolutionary aesthetics.

A peregrine falcon transplanted into New York City will choose to nest on a Fifth Avenue apartment building overlooking Central Park rather than in a tree within the park, because it evolved nesting on cliff faces. A sparrow that has never been in the wild will always prefer coniferous branches over deciduous, because that's what its ancestors knew. And so, writes Richard Conniff in Discover Magazine, citing surveys by Roger Ulrich, Gordon Orians and others, "people respond strongly to landscapes with open, grassy vegetation, scattered stands of branchy trees, water, changes in elevation, winding trails, and brightly lit clearings."

So strongly, according to Ulrich, that exposure to a golf landscape not only lowers stress as measured by "muscle tension, pulse, and skin conductance activity after less than five minutes," but significantly lowered the amount of painkillers requested by post-operative patients in controlled studies. (I imagine if A&C could talk to Bauhaus, it would say, "How's that for function?")

Our bodies remember: these are the happy hunting grounds of myth and of our primordial past, promising safety and forage in the refuge of the trees, hunting in the clearings (more on wild pigs later), mystery in the winding land, and possibility in the vistas of seas or mountains. These are the savanna in which we evolved.

Similarly, Russian artists Komar and Melamid are now famous for creating the "Most and Least Wanted Paintings" for 14 different nationalities by taking extensive surveys of each nation's preferences. Though the resulting paintings were satirical-from their Disney-meets-Kincaid view of American taste to China's oddly polluted-looking hazy blue landscape with a dead tree and a portrait of Mao-still, the surveys were real and they were open to all types of art. What's interesting from the perspective of the golf course is that 13 of the 14 nationalities preferred outdoor scenes (the Dutch liked an abstract, but the Dutch have always been odd) and 11 of these looked like the savannas described by Conniff. For that matter, even the Mona Lisa is standing in front of a background that could pass for a golf course: winding path over a bridge through scattered trees leading to a bright clearing.

If our appreciation of landscape (and perhaps, by extension, landscape art) stems from some sort of unconscious exercise in habitat selection, then I consider myself biologically primed to live on the ninth hole at Ria Bintan. The whole Gary Player-designed, 27-hole course of Ria Bintan, on Bintan Island, Indonesia, feels pulled straight out of some Platonic heaven. Or in the words of Canadian pro golfer Rick Gibson, "Like something out of Jurassic Park.

"Landscape painting has some tried and true formulaic compositions that are both harmonious and exciting, joining things like color and color contrast, value and its contrast, variety of texture, perspective, even a compositional diagonal. Though in general better painters break the rules, get more daring and dangerous, what distinguishes good composition from bad is intention. Great composition fits the agenda of the artist. If your aesthetic agenda is meditative, then you follow the golden mean of composition-think Rudolf Steiner, or Buddhist Thangka paintings-with calmly symmetric imagery where there's a point of gaze. If you use jagged edges, stark lines, certain colors, the feeling is going to be anxiety, anger, something passionate.

Looking at Ria Bintan as a whole, the agenda is one of a sublime experience of the human condition, a state that enhances inner peace, reminiscent of some of the great heroic landscape paintings of Romanticism or some of the ancient Chinese and Japanese landscape artists who believed that the acts of making and viewing the painting could lead someone to a sense of enlightenment.

With multiple holes, the designer has clearly respected Hutchison's demand for saucy variety, not just in terms of the game, of bunker change-ups and so on, but also in the larger aesthetic experience. He wants you to experience passion in one, solitude in another, pastoral utopia, and so on, without ever going too far from the overall aesthetic of sublime transcendence. Ocean Hole #9, for example, has a touch of fear to add spice. Rufous rocks, drop off, water, and the promise of writerly withdrawal from the world on the little island just off the coast. There's no recovering a ball that falls there.

By hole ten, the beach is so welcoming, the whole setting so comfortable, that the GM of Ria Bintan, Jefferey Low, told me he once saw a golfer put his clubs down and go for a swim. At other golf courses, according to their own managers, golfers notice the beauty at the first hole. By the third, the environment is a topomap of greens and traps and strategy. But at Ria Bintan, according to Low, as golfers get deeper into the holes, "Most of them will stop, take out their cameras and sometimes forget that they're playing. They just sit there. Only then they realize they have another nine holes to go.

"A good golf designer blends the elements of nature into the structure of the game. He looks at what the land provides, then blends hills with ravines and dales, glades, and ponds that are beautiful while simultaneously providing obstacles for the golfers and drainage for the engineers. They work with multiple senses, a visual landscape that includes the touch of the sea breeze and of the ground, the sounds of birds and insects, and even the scent of Odorate trees sprinkled into the old growth for their smell, sweet without being sickly.

Instead of cutting away trees to get the canvas of the land and then replanting, Gary Player-who calls Ria Bintan "one of the best sites I have had to work with anywhere in the world-carved the gurgling oceans of green out of primeval old growth jungle. As this is unusual (and much more expensive than land clearing), the difference jumps out instantly at anyone looking at the course from an aesthetic perspective. There is a Ruskinian roughness and depth to the original jungle that can never be replicated by replanted trees, and a sense of respect for the values of Pugin and Morris.

The tension between man and nature is present, inevitably, but in a "perfect" course the tension itself is beautiful, not jarring. And in all the Bintan courses, including not just Ria Bintan, but also Laguna Beach by Greg Norman, and courses by Jack Nicklaus and Ian-Baker finch at Bintan Lagoon, this tension has an avatar: the wild pig. "The wild boar drive me crazy," says Low, laughing. "I'm okay with the monkeys, the deer, the monitor lizards, the turtles, all the beautiful birds, of course. The wild boar are a little crazy. But they were here first. They should be complaining, not me.

"Morris would be proud. Though the course has the legal right to kill the boar, the only weapon Ria Bintan uses is sods of green to fix the holes dug by boar tusks. Turning around and seeing a (well-behaved) family of monkeys lined up along the green evaluating one's putting form adds a different dimension to a golf game, but knowing that 80 kilo hairy pigs might jump out any time made me want to pack a spear along with my clubs. Not so much out of defense-a boar has never actually threatened a golfer-but primal hunger.

The animals are definitely part of the life-rich aesthetic of courses like Ria Bintan or Laguna Bintan. Both Low and Laguna Bintan GM Jan Robin Girsang understand this. In Low's words, "Designers are becoming increasingly demanding on the aesthetic side. Golf is supposed to be as natural as possible. A good golf architect can see what is already available and tries not to disturb it too much. He blends it. It requires very good foresight.

"So if Gary Player stares at jungle or an abandoned mine or a dumpsite the way Michaelangelo stared at marble (as the old yarn goes, after three months of his staring all day at the marble without cutting, his prince asked him what he was doing; he answered "working," and that piece of marble eventually became David), then what is it that keeps Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, or Tom Fazio in very different lists from Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Walter De Maria, Hans Haacke, Alice Aycock, Dennis Oppenheim, Michael Heizer, Alan Sonfist, James Turrell, Chris Drury, Richard Long, or Andy Goldsworthy? Why is Joseph Beuys' Eichen project of planting 7000 oak trees considered Land Art, but not Greg Norman replanting 14 kilometers of course boundary? Having walked through both Christo's Central Park and Gary Player's forest holes, as a human being I prefer the latter (far too many fences in Central Park), and though I haven't been in Turrell's reformed Roden Crater volcano in Arizona, I can't imagine it would feel as pleasant as Ocean Hole #18.

Robert Smithson's 500-meter curved Spiral Jetty in Great Salt Lake is oddly evocative of a golf hole, so much so that in March 2008 a couple of emerging artists from Brooklyn, Will McMillin and Liz Wing, hiked three kilometers with a golf club, balls, and a camera. The photographs of McMillin driving golf balls landed somewhere between Land Art and Dada. On the other end of the spectrum, Isleworth Golf Club in Florida, whose residents include Tiger Woods, Shaquille O'Neal and Ken Griffey Jr., integrates sculptures within its course, a golf course gallery that has included work by artists like Rodin, Dalí, Dubuffet, and Henry Moore, all available for sale.

And yet to call any golf course "art"-as much as I might like to build a log cabin on Ocean Hole #9-feels odd. Why? Is it because golf courses are so associated with business that one forgets the aesthetic until one is actually standing in it? Perhaps, but I suspect the problem is the sods of earth that instantly replace the boar holes. (Headline: "Sods Stop Art.") Andy Goldsworthy, in discussing his work, said, "I find nature as a whole disturbing. The landscape is often perceived as pastoral, pretty, beautiful-something to be enjoyed as a backdrop to your weekend before going back to the nitty-gritty of urban life. But anybody who works the land knows it's not like that. Nature can be harsh-difficult and brutal, as well as beautiful. You couldn't walk five minutes from here without coming across something that is dead or decaying."

There is nothing dead or decaying about the great golf courses. They are heaven, sheer perfection. Good art tends to be about life, which is phenomenological. Good art is about being-in-the-world and being-in-the-world is living-towards-death. This is not a pessimistic thought, it's an enriching one. Perhaps I like #9 best because it has a drop off, sharp rocks, at least the possibility of death.

"Each work grows, stays, decays-" Goldsworthy continues, "integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its heights, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is an intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expressed in the image. Process and decay are implicit.

"Heaven is too permanent to make good art. But for a weekend, I can't deny that it's wonderful. Just don't neglect your archery practice.