A friend asked recently: “What’s your favourite type of golf course?”
Hmm. I love heathland, but I also like seaside links, and parkland golf has some elements I enjoy. But there is a singular theme that I'm attracted to across all terrains…
"I like simple things", I replied.
My friend's reaction indicated this seemed insufficient. Disappointing even.
I expanded - “I like simple, unpretentious courses that aren’t trying to dress themselves up too much.”
I’d lost him, and he proceeded to present me with his personal favourites of the world’s greatest golf courses. The usual sort of chat.
I should be better prepared to explain my concept of "simple".
I like simple greens that fit in the ground like an extension of the surrounding terrain. But also sometimes with ridiculous features that make no sense.
A few bunkers are good - sparingly distributed and strategically placed. But sometimes also big and in your face.
Mostly gently moving land is good, but with occasional illogical and random features.
My favourite ground for golf is simple without being boring or austere. It’s an engaging baseline that serves to heighten the drama when a course reveals its most extreme features.
Such features are sometimes best kept in reserve to surprise and delight when the time is right. Simple ground is usually good enough on its own to make for satisfying golf.
We’re easily drawn to unrelentingly spectacular courses that strive for some wildly unique look and provide shot after shot of constant excitement. There’s certainly a place for that, every type of design has its role in showing us what’s possible on the extremes of the design spectrum.
On the other hand - good, simple design works across disciplines. I often look for parallels between golf course design and the design of everything else. In his book Super Normal, Jasper Morrison describes the futile efforts to dress things up:
There are better ways to design than putting a lot of effort into making something look special. Special is generally less useful than normal, and less rewarding in the long term. Special things demand attention for the wrong reasons, interrupting potentially good atmosphere with their awkward presence. - Jasper Morrison, Super Normal
I prefer the measured tempo of a round of golf that is consistently simple, with close attention to detail but punctuated by some distinct expressions of individuality that are all the more impactful for being sparingly deployed.
There’s a difference between “plain” and “simple”. Simple elevates plain by being more refined and sophisticated. There's an intentional theme and consistency to a simple design that is missing from a merely plain design. Plain is boring, simple is elegant and timeless.
Naoto Fukasawa, coauthor of Super Normal explains it thus:
Designers generally do not think to design the “ordinary.” If anything, they live in fear of people saying their designs are “nothing special” ... the tendency for designers is to try to create “statement” or “stimulation.” So “normal” has come to mean “unstimulating” or “boring” design. - Naoto Fukasawa, Super Normal
Golf is fortunate to have more varied playing fields than any other sport, some great courses are overtly and intentionally stimulating. The golf world would be worse off without the artistry of Mike Strantz or the experimentation of Desmond Muirhead or the bombastic creations of Robert Von Hagge.
Similarly we'd be worse off if their genius wasn't balanced by the natural simplicity of Harry Colt's designs, the simple geometry and tilt of a CB Macdonald green or the neo-minimalism of much of Tom Doak's work.
Perhaps no course better embodies simple design than The Old Course. A round at The Old Course is played over mostly simple ground, but it's deeply nuanced and endlessly intriguing.
The Old Course has a great tempo - there's a balance of exciting shots with stretches of "simple" holes offering periods of respite with successively more unique and even absurd challenges along the way. All the while the golfer is reminded that golf is a simple pastime played over mostly modest ground. Golf doesn't need too much adornment or dressing up to be a great experience. Simple design is usually enough.