How the information age is influencing golf-course architecture.
The earliest links courses evolved naturally from the land and were played mostly by locals. In the following decades, new tools and technologies allowed designers to build vastly different types of courses in almost any setting, bringing the game to millions. Technology continues to influence design, but in the digital age, the effects are felt primarily in the way we understand and communicate ideas about golf courses, rather than in how they are built.
Not long ago, the backstories of most old golf clubs were largely the domain of the clubs, predicated on the tenuous preservation of original archival documents. If gaps in the factual timeline existed – and they usually did – romanticised events often filled in. For the past 20-plus years, however, the internet has offered clubs as well as outsiders a means to more fully analyse and vet their pasts, leading to troves of discoveries and revisions. These avenues of information continue to broaden as more and more newspapers, aerials and source material are digitised, to the point that almost anyone with a computer and a proclivity for research can become a serious golf historian.
As the rapid expansion of online resources prompts a deeper understanding of early golf architecture, it also animates the renovation sector. Exposure to new findings allows professionals who specialise in restorations to analyse and cross-reference early 20th-century designs, using the expertise to educate Golden Age clubs about their original layouts and more accurately re-create lost architectural features.
Social media’s impact on architecture has been dramatic, too. In a short period, Twitter and Instagram have wrested the kind of visual power-brokering previously wielded by television and magazines and exploded it into millions of tweets and posts.
Photography has long been the primary medium for creating narratives about golf courses, and it remains so. But whereas courses used to fight for traditional mass-market exposure (and still do), there’s no competition for space on social media, where images turn over endlessly, hour after hour. As the photos cycle – of single holes, of entire courses, from impossible aerial perspectives – users become editors and audience, taking in and projecting the entire world of architecture.
The positive implications are evident: golfers everywhere can see courses and landscapes that they couldn’t years before. When the gates of the game’s most exclusive clubs have been crashed virtually, and when landscapes from Royal Dornoch to Royal Melbourne can be studied by everyone with a phone, the collective knowledge of architecture broadens exponentially. Feelings of deep connection even develop.
Golfers everywhere can see courses and landscapes that they couldn’t years before.
This democratisation fosters impassioned advocacy. Fan groups in digital spheres routinely coalesce in support of small, overlooked courses that would have never earned a close-up in the commercial environment of the past. Digital networks stoke excitement for new builds and remodel projects by providing real-time updates to followers. And the joke in some circles is that the hottest current architect is Seth Raynor, who died in 1926. His work has achieved pop-culture status among aspiring architecture aficionados (and many designers), largely because the template holes he and mentor C.B. Macdonald popularised – once the narrow purview of researchers and select private-club members – are so compelling, but also because they’re now knowable and embraceable via simple Instagram searches.
What’s most interesting is how these image-dependent platforms might influence future architectural trends, especially among the generation of designers and builders who came into the business using them. Certain memes and design styles have already benefited from social media’s tendency to proliferate the “cool” (see: Raynor). Considering how modern technologies can instantly quantify consumer tastes, will architects think it smart to play to the crowd? Or will they choose to use social media’s vast visual potential to promote more radical, independent viewpoints, pulling golfers along with them?
Knowing that creations are being appraised with each scroll and tap of the finger, there’s some concern that architects and shapers might attempt to outdo themselves – and each other – by going increasingly bold for the sake of branding and attention. Such showmanship is very much at home in the digital arena. Perhaps that’s what golf design needs at this moment. I know what would get my “like”.