Monday, 27 December 2010

#11 William Flynn

(image courtesy of Geoff Shackelford)
Best Course: Shinnecock Hills

Other notable work: Cherry Hills, Huntingdon Valley, Philadelphia, Rolling Green, The Country Club (Squirrel 9), Lancaster, Cascades, Lehigh

Notable Renovation: Merion

Overview: He began his career as the construction supervisor at Merion and remained on as superintendent for a short time helping establish the course. He would continue to be involved with Merion assisting Wilson in 1924 with a major renovation and eventually would make his own modifications to series of holes leaving the general layout we know today. There are many who feel Flynn should get a co-design credit at Merion.

Flynn partnered up with Howard Toomey just after WW1 with Flynn the designer and Toomey handling the engineering side of the work. They remained partners through to 1933. Flynn hired and trained a series of great assistants and future architects including Red Lawrence, William Gordon and Dick Wilson. Flynn was particularly active around Philadelphia producing a series of solid golf courses which compete with each other for attention. The culmination of an excellent career had to be Shinnecock Hills where he had his finest site and certainly produced his greatest work.

Shinnecock Hills 5th hole

Flynn was more than a designer, he wrote extensively on the issues that effected design and the game including the problems with the ball (in 1927!). He also produced a series of articles on turfgrass and design for the USGA Green’s Section.

Praise for the work: William Flynn was one of golf architectures greatest strategist. His routing skill was certainly one strength of his work and varied to working with the land or running intentionally hard against the contour when he wanted to increase the challenge. He is one of the few architects to really embrace the intentional use of hard cross-slopes and reverse cants to really ratchet up the pressure and difficulty on his courses. While some would dismiss this as a poor choice in the routing, this is far cleverer than most would give him credit for.

Philadelphia CC 3rd hole, notice the use of carry angles

He meticulously planned out his courses from the routing through to detailed design on paper. Flynn’s drawings were certainly the most detailed of any architect of the time and it’s still quite amazing to go out to one of his courses and see how well his plans translated to the field. Flynn also was made site changes or came back to make improvements to his courses often providing more detailed drawings which make following his intent easier than just about any architect from that era.

Criticisms: Flynn certainly knew how to make a course tough. His use of reverse cants to make the player have to work the ball just to stay on the fairway adds a great deal of difficulty to many tee shots. When he follows this up like the 16th at Huntingdon Valley with a green that requires a draw approach from a fade lie, you have one of the toughest holes in golf. Flynn understood the strategic possibilities of the land, the tendencies of side hill lies and often would use this against the player to challenge their ability to hit shots. Many don’t like this, but others like me see this as a brilliant technique – and the way to build for the PGA Tour players without resorting to length.

My personal criticism of Flynn comes from the presentation of the holes themselves. Flynn’s architecture, while extremely well thought out, tends to look very similar. The courses can be hard to distinguish when you see a lot of them – the fact that so many are located around Philadelphia hurts rather than helps his legacy. There is no question in my mind that he should be called the father of modern architecture for how much he controlled the way the player must play his courses. His work is so carefully planned and thought out that it lacks the touch of whimsy or unusual that in my mind creates a more memorable experience.

Great Quotes: “The principle consideration of the architect is to design his course in such a way as to hold interest of the player from the first tee to the last green and to present the problem of the various holes in such a way that they register in the player’s mind as he stands on the tee or on the fairway from tee to green”

Favorite Course: Huntingdon Valley
While I can’t deny Shinnecock is better, Huntingdon Valley is still my favorite for how he chose to route his way through the site. I happen to love the high banked holes on the front nine that either force you to work the ball into the slope to stay on fairways or give you opportunities to occasional “use the grade” to make a shot. I love the contrast on the back nine where he takes you through a variety of holes featuring some great carry angles, clever use of the creek and a dynamite reverse cant hole, all ending on the spectacular uphill 18th. The variety and unique nature of the course make this a must study for architects.

What I take from him: Flynn is a great example of how to use land to influence play. This begins with the value of a cross-slope and the infinite ways it can be used to influence play. His heavily sloped greens teach us how they can be used to add options like the redan style greens or force an approach angle through a stiff green slope. Flynn used carry angles about as good as anyone ever has and is a great study for how to set up a risk and reward shot with hazard placement.

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