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An interview with Keith Cutten, author of “The Evolution of Golf Course Design”

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This interview is with Keith Cutten, author of “The Evolution of Golf Course Design,” which is a new book he is releasing to the public. This is an unbelievably well-researched and all-encompassing look at golf course architecture, how it has changed throughout history, and all of the variables in play that have shaped it over the course of time.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. What’s your personal background? How did you get into all of this?

Well, my passion for golf architecture started back in high school. I took a drafting and design curriculum all through high school, which was hugely beneficial. I was getting into golf around 15-16 years old and I lost my grandfather, who was the primary golf influence in my life. When he died, he left me his golf clubs, and I missed him so much I just dove completely head first into golf.

When I finished high school, I sat down with my dad to try to hash out a game plan to get into the golf industry. My dad was an environmental scientist for 40 years with the Ministry of Environment in Ontario, so he helped me a great deal in understanding the policy system here in Canada. I started by getting my bachelor’s degree from the University of Waterloo in Planning and Environmental Design. In my last coop term, I went for broke and I reached out to Rod Whitman in Canada, who invited me to do a 5-month coop with him during the construction of Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club in British Columbia. The pay was paltry and I ran a shovel and a rake for most of the summer, but I fell in love with it instantly.

I later went back for my master’s in Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph, which I finished in 2016. The culmination of that was my thesis, which has now become this book. Nowadays, I have my own company, Cutten Golf, Inc., which allows me to partner with people like Rod and Dave Axland, who has been Coore and Crenshaw’s chief project manager for 30 years. I couldn’t have walked into a better situation as a young, aspiring architect. To have the opportunity to work with these guys is incredible.

Having had the opportunity to peek at an advanced copy, I can say the book is completely fascinating. Talk a little bit about what compelled you to devote so much of yourself to this pursuit in the first place.

I’m the type of person that needs to answer my own questions to be satisfied. I’m not comfortable with just accepting things as fact without knowing the story behind them. I was sitting in one of my first master’s classes, which was basically a history of the landscape architecture profession. I’m learning how everything is influenced by society and wars and economy and I thought, “This has to be true for golf, but no one’s ever talked about it.”

At the time, I was also batting around ideas for my thesis. I was thinking a lot about the renovations that had recently been done to Pinehurst No. 2 and I was particularly curious about how Donald Ross’s original design was so much more environmentally sound than what it had been allowed to become over the course of time.

One of the key quotes that I got from Bill [Coore] about that project was that they were not trying to be “environmental crusaders” so much as they were just trying to put the course back to the way Donald Ross had originally intended it. So the question I kept asking in my head was, “How did this happen?” I sort of went on a fact finding mission to uncover how golf course architecture changed and it kept snowballing. I just kept following leads in different directions that began to connect all the dots for me. I went a little deeper down the rabbit hole every day, and ended up with a 600+ page thesis to turn in.

Just to paint a quick picture for the readers as to what’s going on in the book, there’s two main sections to it. The first section is going through history decade by decade starting with the early origins of golf, then 1830s, 1840s, and so on. I don’t want you to give too much of your book away, but give people a taste for what’s going on there.

Essentially, there’s a lot of short little blurbs about historical context that I try to quickly tie into golf. I suppose you’d have to start with the Victorian era, which was the first attempt at going away from the “links” style of architecture. When people from urban areas (say London) found golf and wanted to play it, they wanted to create their own courses so they wouldn’t have to travel over to St Andrews. So, the professional golfers of the time built what they could. The only people that were doing construction of the landscape at that time were the crews that were building state homes for the ultra-wealthy in the Victorian style. So they wound up with golf courses that were built much the same way with features that were geometric and square. They looked nothing like the links courses of Scotland.

After that, there was then a shift into what’s called the Arts and Crafts movement that takes you into the 1910’s. WWI had a huge impact at that time. Britain was basically devastated after WWI, so a lot of architects fled to the US, the land of opportunity, which led to what we now call the Golden Age of golf course architecture.

Shortly after that period, you have the Great Depression and WWII, where all of this knowledge that had been built really just comes to a halt. After going through the Great Depression and WWII, society really didn’t want to think about the past. There was no fondness for what had been done, so modernism became the way of life for basically everyone at that point, including golf course architecture.

Most of the big name architects (Ross, Mackenzie, etc) started their careers back in England before WWI, so when you get to WWII, those guys are all either dead or retired. It was a perfect storm which basically took golf in a completely different direction.

The second part of the book is profiles on golf course architects, authors, and visionaries. So you go from Old Tom Morris to Geoff Shackelford and everywhere in between. Given how much time you’ve invested in this, I’m curious to know who you would put on the Mount Rushmore of architects and why?

I’m going to flavor this with my own personal bias, but for me number one has to be Harry Colt. He’s so brushed over in North America it’s crazy. He pioneered what golf course architecture is, which is combining strategy and naturalness. Colt’s influence can be seen in work of Dr. Alister MacKenzie (Australia and America), Hugh Alison (Japan), Stanley Thompson (Canada) and Donald Ross (America). His influence just can’t be overstated in my opinion.

Stanley Thompson would have to be my next choice. Especially since I’m Canadian. His projects have defined great golf here, and his influence on me was immense.

Third would be Bill Coore. Without Sand Hills, I don’t think we are where we are today when it comes to golf course architecture. I don’t think anyone is reading my book and I doubt I’m even writing if it wasn’t for Bill. I think he’s the Alister Mackenzie of our time.

Last would be Rod Whitman. He just doesn’t get the notoriety or the acclaim that he deserves in my opinion. Bill Coore sings Rod’s praises all the time. He even gives Rod credit for figuring out how to make his routing work at Friar’s Head. I’ve learned so much from Rod and a lot of my passion for architecture comes from him.

If you had the opportunity to sit down with one of these people (dead or alive) you profiled over dinner, who would it be and what questions would you ask them?

I think it’d have to be Stanley Thompson. He was the type of guy that was notoriously larger than life. It’s rumored that he made and spent multiple fortunes in his lifetime according to his biography. He’s the type of guy that could sell the Canadian rail lines on the idea that they should build a golf course up here in the middle of nowhere because it’d be good for their business. I just think if he’s anything at all like what those stories would lead you to believe, that’d be a hell of a dinner.

I do want to ask about one specific aspect if you don’t mind because I personally find it super interesting and I think our readership would as well. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between golf course equipment and architecture? Let’s kind of go down that rabbit hole for a minute.

I think the biggest misconception is that Golden Age architects never saw these kinds of advances in equipment coming. They did. They experienced their own advancements with equipment. The Golden Age didn’t start in the US in the 20s and 30s. Those same guys were designing courses in England in 1910 and prior to that, so they had already seen advancements of their own. They did react to them very differently than what has been done up until the last 10 years, however. They used the contour of the ground and width and angles in such a way that if you didn’t play to the right area of the fairway, you didn’t have a shot. The way they combated length is to put an emphasis on placing your shot in the right location instead of just pounding it down there as far as you can.

Even back then, there were some instances where people could hit 300-yard drives because you have to remember this was before irrigation. This brought the ground game into play. It wasn’t lawn darts where you hit every shot a certain distance and stopped it on a dime. Even though a long hitter might be able to get a drive out there 300 yards, that shot likely wound up in a pot bunker if you weren’t super precise with it. Back then, it was so much more a three dimensional game where you had to think about all the little humps and bumps and what they might do to the golf ball after it landed. The Golden Age architects were already thinking about this stuff when they designed their courses.

For a long time, we basically forgot our own history. Everyone after WWII just tried to reinvent the wheel by pinching landing areas and growing the rough taller, which was terrible for golf. We’re relearning, though, that combating length isn’t done by making courses longer and narrower; it’s done by making them shorter and wider. I think we need to start showing a bigger variety of golf courses on television. I think the tour is doing that with places like Trinity Forest, but they need to stop listening to the whining of players. That cannot be our measuring stick for whether or not a course is good.

Right or wrong, what gets shown on TV is what gets exported everywhere. One of the messages with my book is that that has to stop. Every course should not aim to be Augusta. They should aim to be what they are, and that requires completely understanding and committing to what that is.

Lastly, give us a call to action. Tell us how to get in touch with you and learn more.

Sure! To learn more about me, my business, or my book, the best way to do that is to visit my website www.cuttengolf.com. @cuttengolf is my handle for both twitter and Instagram.

Keith Cutten, author of The Evolution of Golf Course Design

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Peter Schmitt is an avid golfer trying to get better every day, the definition of which changes relatively frequently. He believes that first and foremost, golf should be an enjoyable experience. Always. Peter is a former Marine and a full-time mechanical engineer (outside of the golf industry). He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife and two young kids. "What other people may find in poetry or art museums, I find in the flight of a good drive." -Arnold Palmer

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Chuck

    Dec 27, 2018 at 4:00 pm

    Well those are sure some interesting comments about advances in equipment technology and architecture.

    15th Club

  2. Fuggedabooitit

    Dec 24, 2018 at 8:25 pm

    Would you call the Extreme 19th Hole in South Africa an evolution? How about some of the Dye-abolical Pete type courses? Are they evolution or just mickey-mousing the silliness and taking it to stupid places that the terrain and the game itself can provide?

  3. Dolla

    Dec 23, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    The last bit about the whining of players has nothing to do with it.
    It’s to do with how many grandstands and concession stands and TV camera towers and positions can they fit on a course, along with the spectators they need to bring in to pay for a lot of things.
    Space for all that stuff and a system to generate moneys is why you see a lot of the courses that you do.
    Don’t just blame it on the course designs, don’t just blame it on what the players say.
    Yes the Tour does set up courses for better scoring, and even the USGA has caved into that with all the rules changes to make it easier to do so.
    But course designs you see on TV is mostly due to the amount of room the equipment needs to live and make room for the fans to be there, so they can support with their money

  4. ogo

    Dec 23, 2018 at 2:54 pm

    Did the 19th and early 20th golf course architects deliberately create many water hazards into their designs?
    I can see a water pond reservoir being part of a golf course, but to fill the course with water hazards seems psychologically masochistic and too punishing on the golfer losing expensive golf balls.
    This also include dense undergrowth that is impossible to find errant golf balls. Why is punishing water and weeds included in golf course design?

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The DailyWRX: What’s buzzing on social media (5/25/2020)

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Gotta say, The Match: Champions for Charity, was a fun escape from reality and further fueled the “we need golf back” fire. I dedicate this DailyWRX to The Match, thanks for thrills boys.

No matter how hard you try to make this a meme…

It’s Tom Brady. He wins….always, no matter what. He’s a Mount Rushmore guy.

This gave me goosebumps…

Its an exhibition match for charity, and I’m over here jacked up like its Balboa vs. Drago. SMH. I love TW.

View this post on Instagram

Sunday red is back. ????

A post shared by PGA TOUR (@pgatour) on

Yes…

To all of it.

Phil…

Please just run for President and get it over with, you got my vote…..in perpetuity. I mean hellacious seeds? Yes I want hellacious seeds. Please.

DM @johnny_wunder

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Justin Rose, Honma officially part ways

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Justin Rose and Honma Golf have officially severed ties, per a joint statement released Friday evening.

Former World No. 1 and current World No. 14, Rose (previously a TaylorMade staffer) made waves in the equipment industry when he signed on as a full-bag Honma staffer at the beginning of 2019. He made waves again in late February when he arrived at PGA National with a TaylorMade SIM driver in his bag.

The next week, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rose swapped out his remaining Honma wares for a TaylorMade SIM Max fairway wood, a Cobra Speedzone Pro 5-wood, TaylorMade P730 irons, and TaylorMade and Titleist wedges.

Full text of the statement from Honma/Rose below

“Honma Golf Limited (“Honma”) announces that, following a successful partnership with the former No. 1 player in the world, Honma and Justin Rose have agreed that Justin will no longer be one of Honma’s brand ambassadors. We are proud to have been a key part of Justin’s journey to regain his position as World Number 1 in early 2019, including a win at the Farmers Insurance Open in his second event with Honma equipment in play.”

“For over a year, Justin worked closely with our team to help develop innovative and top­ performing lines of Honma woods and irons. His pursuit of perfection, approach to product testing and feedback has produced great value to Honma. Justin’s expert input and desire for maximum ball speed inspired our team to make the Honma TR20 460 and 440 drivers among the fastest drivers in the game. Consistently, and excitingly, our nationwide team of fitters are seeing the new TR20 460 and TR20 440 drivers produce some of the fastest speeds on the market. We wish him the very best in his pursuit of more majors and career success,” said John Kawaja, President Honma Golf North America.”

“I have enjoyed working with the Honma team and collaborating closely with them to design and develop excellent golf equipment. I was able to see firsthand the innovations that the craftsmen at Honma bring to their clubs. I am hopeful that during our time of partnership, we have laid the groundwork for Honma to continue to expand their brand. We both feel it is the right time to pursue our own paths,” said Justin Rose.”

Per Honma PR: “This will be the official statement and we are unable to provide any further comments”

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Morning 9: Tour pros will need to be patient in return | Adam Scott skeptical of restart plan | Annoying on-course behaviors

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1. Patience, please
That’s the quality PGA Tour pros will need in a large quantity at the restart, according to Players Advisory Council member Charlie Hoffman, who spoke with Steve DiMeglio…
  • “But the days of jumping into the courtesy vehicle and getting to the course in eight minutes and then start working out 12 minutes later are gone, Hoffman said. Players will have to develop new routines to deal with the new safety measures.”
  • “For instance, upon arrival to the course, players will undergo a thermal test and take part in a questionnaire. A hot breakfast won’t be at the ready as soon as players walk into player dining. The range and practice putting green will have social distancing rules that could lead to a waiting game.”
  • “We’re going to have to figure it out,” Hoffman said. “Time management is going to be important. The first few weeks I’m sure there will be a lot of waiting around. It’s going to be new for everybody.”
  • “We have to be patient. But once the gun goes off, once we get inside the ropes, our instincts will come back and the competition will be amazing.”
  • “Hoffman’s biggest reservations as the restart nears are in travel, living arrangements and eating. The plan includes a charter plane to take players and caddies to the next tournament on the schedule and a designated hotel for all at each site. Room service is highly recommended. The plan is basically a beefed-up version of shelter-at-home guidelines.”
2. Like Tommy Fleetwood, playing the Tour right now isn’t worth it for Lee Westwood
Golf Channel’s Will Gray…“the Englishman is one of what the Tour estimates to be 25 players currently living outside the U.S., and in speaking with Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis he shared that the current quarantine restrictions surrounding international travel will likely preclude him from playing either tournament.”
  • “Right now I won’t be playing them, not with having to leave here two weeks before, quarantine, then play the two tournaments, then come back here and quarantine again,” Westwood said. “It’s six weeks for two tournaments, and to me that’s just not worth it. And it’s not worth taking the risk if everybody thinks that those kind of precautions have got to be in place. I don’t feel like golf’s a priority if it’s that severe.”
3. No caddies?
Golf Channel report…”Caddies will be optional when the LPGA makes its scheduled restart in late July.”
  • “GolfChannel.com has learned that as part of the tour’s new safety protocols for returning amid the coronavirus pandemic, players will be allowed to carry their own bags for the rest of the 2020 season, if they so choose.”
  • “The tour informed its members this is a temporary option designed to protect players who don’t have regular tour caddies, who may feel a heightened risk working with unfamiliar local caddies.”
  • “Still, the news didn’t land well among LPGA caddies eager to return when the tour makes its scheduled restart this summer.”

Full piece. 

4. Merging seasons
Golf Channel’s Randall Mell…”The LPGA will merge its 2020 and ’21 seasons for the purposes of eligibility and priority rankings, but will keep those two seasons separate in its historical and official record.”
  • “That was the news from the LPGA commissioner’s office Wednesday, as was the announcement that the Meijer Classic is being canceled with the tour continuing to adjust to life amid the coronavirus pandemic.
  • “The Symetra Tour will also adopt the same plans with the merger of its 2020 and ’21 seasons for eligibility purposes.”
  • “That means Q-School and Q-Series won’t be staged this year, with no route that way to next year’s LPGA player ranks. However, Symetra Tour players competing this year will continue to have a route to the 2021 LPGA season, with the possibility up to five promotions will be allowed, depending on how many Symetra Tour events are played this year.”
5. Scott skeptical of Tour coronavirus plan? 
Golf Channel’s Rex Hoggard relays Scott’s remarks, which were originally made to the Australian AP…”They are being fairly thorough, but my initial reaction was I was surprised it wasn’t tighter than it is,” Scott said. “What concerns me is dialogue that [the Tour] is hopeful of returning one- or two-hour test [results]. You’d want that in place before competing.”
  • “Scott also said he has concerns with the circuit’s plan to only administer RT PCR Nasal Swab/Saliva tests to players, caddies and certain Tour and tournament officials but would only screen others on site at tournaments with questionnaires and thermal readings.”
  • “An asymptomatic person could operate within a tournament,” he said. “If they’re not showing symptoms, and I somehow picked it up inside the course, and I’m disqualified, I’m now self-isolating [in that city] for two weeks. I’d be annoyed if that happened.”
6. The most annoying things golfers do on the course 
Cracking work by Golf.com’s Luke Kerr-Dineen to compile a list of annoying on-course behaviors…
A few of the 34 he assembled…“Saying “get left” when the ball is clearly slicing…
  • “This is my pet peeve. Understand ball flight, people! If a ball is carving out to the right, there’s no chance of it getting left, so don’t pretend like there is.”
  • “Not picking up on bad holes…Have some awareness. If it’s taking you eight shots to get to the green, don’t slow the whole group down and make them watch all that. Pick up your ball, sit this one out, and move on.”
  • “Taking many practice swings … only to top the ball 10 feet…Don’t be that guy. If you’re going to have a long pre-shot routine, you better hit it good.”
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