Minimal Golf Course is What?

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There seems to be some confusion in the golf architecture world with the term minimalism.  Confusion that is casting a possible shadow on the profession.  Since I float back and forth between landscape architecture and the younger sibling/cousin/step sister golf course architecture I thought it was worth exploring.

This week’s PGA Tour event is the AT&T Byron Nelson. It is being played for the first time at Trinity Forest Golf Club designed by Coore & Crenshaw.  I’ve read several times in the last few days how the players are going to get tested on this “minimalist design”.  Disclaimer: this is no critique of Bill and Ben’s most excellent work.  They rule the golf architecture world and produce some amazing courses; at least the ones I’ve seen!

Now when I hear minimalism, I think of the design (not just architecture mind you) movement that swept the world last century.  This article on sitepoint provides an excellent overview.  The phrase or thought that sticks with me is: “Use of the fewest and barest essentials or elements, as in the arts, literature, or design”.  Maybe a few example images will help solidify the characteristics of this design style is proper.

Simplicity vs. Minimalism – Maarten P. Kappert

The house lacks any decoration or embellishment that even a traditional ranch house might include.  There is no emotion expressed or even a hint at prying one from the user.

I love both Mondrian and Picasso and search their work out as much as I do a Seth Raynor or Gil Hanse project.  Mondrian’s bare essential work leaves more to the imagination while using simplified artist character.  Balance, contrast, color, repetition, etc. are easy to identify.  This is one of the key minimalist traits. Picasso can add a multitude of embellishment with extraneous color, ‘marks’ as designers say and even overbearing symbolism.  Both artist (designers?!) creatively play with the user’s emotions, feelings, searching for a reaction.

Mondrian – Boston Museum of Art
Pablo Picasso, Still Life with a Bottle of Rum, 1911, Artsy

No matter what the style, design is meant to enhance/effect the user’s life, bring joy or sorrow; a smile or frown, even inner reflection or social innovation.

So back to golf course architecture.  I really wish Pete Dye would say he is an architect as he is one of the masters at creating courses that prompt discussion and other more dramatic feelings, especially from players!

With this knowledge I propose that Trinity Forest Golf Club or any of the co called minimalist designs are in fact historic designs.  They are a copy and even an improvement of a an earlier design style.  An educated user might easily identify the embellishment, such as tufts of native grass, capes and bays of the sand line and the multitude of bumps and hummocks.  I see these courses as really another version of a Picasso!  Modern designs with a nod to the past.  They are minimalist only in construction; this could be an entire other discussion point too.  Yes, the designs do fit the landscape well, but so do many other course styles.  Construction limitations are more likely the result of a routing that values minimal earthmoving and creative hole design than not.  What these ‘minimalist’ courses really are is a testimony to a particular landscape, a native grass and sand linksland landscape.  And wonderful re-creations they are!

Trinity Forest Golf Club
Trinity Forest Golf Club

I offer a better example of a ‘minimalist’ design course.  Look at many of the CB Macdonald’s school of design courses.  Yale, Shoreacres, Sleepy Hollow and Country Club of Charleston among others, provide generally simple, yet effective bunkering location and style.  Look at the ‘short hole’ at Sleepy Hollow, clear hazard definition with a well-defined, even man-made appearance.  No reason to try to mask or visually enhance (eye candy!) the strategy with mother nature’s help.  Another example is the 17th at Fisher’s Island.  Two spins separate the putting surface into sections with bunker right and left of the green influencing play depending upon pin location. Fairway is flat with no manufactured bumps or swales.  Simple, basic and awesome.  Let the ever-present wind effect play!

17th at Fishers Island GC, NY Photo by LC Lambrecht

The point could be made that if golf course architecture wants to become a respected member of the design family and come sit at the table with the big and generally much older siblings then we must use established terminology and methodology.  Celebrate these courses for what they are and not give them faulty definitions that don’t truly explain their story.

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