Why is American golf course architecture so different from its counterpart in the United Kingdom?

The answer might amuse you.
Few hazards on American golf courses can make a golfer look and feel as silly as the Road bunker at the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Stephen Fry is one of Great Britain’s greatest comic figures. He was once asked to explain what differentiates British from American comedy, and the crux of his response was this:

The American comic hero is a wise-cracker who is above his material and who is above the idiots around him...Ours is bathed in failure but we make a glory of our failure. We celebrate it.
Stephen Fry

Could this also partly explain the difference between American golf courses and those of the United Kingdom? Does it particularly explain the so-called “dark ages” of course design that followed World War II?

Let’s assume Fry is correct in his distinction between comedy in our two countries. To Fry, American comic heroes are “brilliant repositories of fantastic, killer one-liners,” who may be fools but to whom good things eventually happen. But a different sort of comic character tends to appeal to Brits. From watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the associated movies and a smattering of other British comedy shows, there is a clear taste for the absurd. Killer rabbits and 16-ton weights don’t often befall American comic heroes.

To oversimplify things, we often laugh at British comedy because of what happens to characters. We often laugh at American comedy because of what its characters say and do.

Let’s extend this to golf, where there is a parallel dynamic. What are the golf courses of the United Kingdom that appeal to us? What makes these courses exotic?

In Scotland and England (Ireland as well), features like hellish pot bunkers, firm and uneven turf, blind shots and the potential for extreme weather conditions excite curious visitors and regulars alike. This is true not just at the links along the coasts but also the great classic inland courses. Quirk and occasional absurdity are clear themes.

By seeking out these courses, we seem to be willing to turn ourselves into those more British sorts of comic figures, at least for a few rounds. Anyone who has watched his or her golf ball disappear into the Road bunker at St. Andrews can relate to the sudden and hilarious appearance of that 16-ton weight.

But American golf courses – especially those built since World War II, when a generation of American-born architects came to dominate – tend to be very different than their counterparts overseas. Look at the work of Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and sons Rees and Robert Trent Jones II. One would almost never define their courses as “quirky.” "Difficult," certainly. But when the best golfers in the world show up, they often go out of their way to call them “fair” and “right there in front of you.”

Medinah exhibits a prescriptive and particularly American approach to golf course architecture: well-defined targets and little in the way of quirk or uncertainty.

At famous courses of this style, like Medinah and Firestone, there are no surprise 16-ton weights. All the trouble is laid out for the golfer to see: narrow fairways, thick rough, flanking bunkers and slick greens. A golfer who executes prescribed sets of shots well will score well. The sharpest skills of a wily tactician are less useful around these types of courses because tactics and strategy cannot compete with 300-yard bombs down the fairway and soaring aerial assaults on the greens.

Instead, most American golf courses tend to identify the most talented players who are also able to overcome the frustration caused by their own bad shots. Is it any wonder Seve Ballesteros never won a U.S. Open or PGA Championship?

Golf course architecture exchange and the future

The 6th hole at Streamsong Black sees architect Gil Hanse, like many classic architects before him, adapting forms from the great courses of the United Kingdom. In this case, it's a callback to the Road Hole at St. Andrews, converted into a short par 4.

How have the golf course styles of America and the U.K. influenced each other? If you’ve watched any of the recent Ryder Cups held in Europe, you have seen decidedly American-style courses, especially at Celtic Manor in Wales and Gleneagles in Scotland. Other modern layouts seem to exhibit more American traits of both design and maintenance than their predecessors.

In the U.S., it’s clear that the architecture styles overseas are creeping back into our courses after a relative absence of several decades. The most prominent American architects today – Tom Doak, Coore & Crenshaw, Gil Hanse – are keen students of the ancient links and inland courses of the U.K., and so many of the greatest American courses of the last quarter-century have brought those less straightforward features and philosophies back across the Atlantic.

The 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills marked a departure from the traditional "American" style of home-grown championship golf courses.

Recent major championships at modern-rustic courses like Erin Hills in Wisconsin have hinted at this evolution in taste. The PGA of America's two new courses in Texas are being designed by Hanse and up-and-coming American architect Beau Welling, respectively. Given the backgrounds of both architects, we can expect these new courses, which will host future major championships, to exhibit a hybrid American/U.K. approach to design.

This phenomenon is not limited to a few architects or brand-new courses. Take for example the renewed interest in figures like C.B. Macdonald and his protégé Seth Raynor, who took direct inspiration from great courses overseas when they brought high-quality golf course architecture to America in the early 20th century.

Many contemporary architects who renovate and redesign existing golf courses have adopted the "MacRaynor" style and taken cues from early architects of American courses like Devereux Emmet and Walter Travis, who leaned more heavily on the U.K. for inspiration than many who came later in the 20th century. As a result, the everyday American golfer has more opportunities than ever to navigate courses that are less straightforward than they have been used to.

If this trend continues, the line between American and overseas architecture will become gradually blurrier, continuing the American tradition of borrowing great ideas from other cultures and making them our own. For those of us who love golf courses, it means a bright future.

Davis Love III's redesign of Sea Island's Plantation Course nimbly blends several classic approaches to golf course design, all of which have roots in the United Kingdom.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
4 Comments
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Commented on

An interesting article, this difference is what makes playing golf in different places: the location, those who design, the environment they are in, the culture. Yes certain designers have their characteristics but many draw on history or just good design this is what makes our game so great.
If you are lucky to travel the world ever again freely and play golf make sure you embrace the work of the designer and do not forget the green keepers and how they present it.
It is what makes our game so fantastic ‘have clubs will travel’!

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Commented on

In both countries those that came after the legendary masters continue to take the if it ain't broke, don't fix it approach so that we can appreciate first hand the classic holes of the classic courses. After all it's a lot cheaper than journeying to another continent

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How wonderful it would be if even a sizable portion of all the golf courses built in the U.S.A. during the second half of the twentieth century would have followed the current strategic and natural design philosophies that Coore/Crenshaw, Hanse, Doak, and a few other new old-school architects are using to create gorgeous golf courses with a deep appreciation for true links and other “golden age of golf design” creations that still dominate any list of the top golf experiences in the world one hundred years later.

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Commented on

David, I think that's starting to happen in many places via renovations projects. In a lot of cases, only a fairly light touch is required to make significant improvements to a functional but overall milquetoast course. Simply adjusting fairway mowing lines and removing unnecessary trees is making a lot of courses substantially more strategically interesting, and therefore more fun. Adjusting the positions of bunkers is a. more involved next step that also goes a long way. I'm pleased that there's momentum for these kinds of subtle but important improvements to existing courses.

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Why is American golf course architecture so different from its counterpart in the United Kingdom?