Oakmont's 14th, clearly penal in nature
Three of the most important courses in golf architectural history all can trace key moments to this decade. Each one of them went through a slow transition toward what it would eventually become.
While Oakmont originated in 1904, it was the transition from Henry Frownes to William Frownes in 1911 that began a long campaign to continually improve the golf course. It was William who made Oakmont what we know today. Oakmont is likely the ultimate and almost perfect expression of the penal school of design. William Frownes believed that a shot played poorly should be a shot irrevocably lost and set out to insure that with all his changes. Frownes continually added bunkers to any location where players missed their shots and seemed to have an opportunity to recover without penalty. He also revised par and added length to make sure that the course would always be deemed to be the toughest in the world – and likely still is. The lesson for designers here is to go with the flow of the land. The course fits the site perfectly, yet the use of the terrain has created many of the biggest complications of the course particularly with the greens that fall naturally with the grade.
Merion's short and interesting 7th
The next course was Merion which opened in 1912. It was planned by Hugh Wilson who like CB MacDonald also made a pilgrimage to Scotland and England to study the great courses of that era and came back to lay out the course for the club. Unlike Oakmont, Wilson created a course that was full of strategic options and opportunities to try and score. The course went through years of transition where holes had to be altered as the road got progressively busier, the bunkering was improved by Wilson and then later by William Flynn and finally the course went through an evolutionary process under the guidance of superintendent Joe Valentine. Despite the evolutionary improvement, what really set the course apart was the remarkable skill at which the course fits perfectly into such a small site. I personally feel there is no finer routing in golf. The course has 18 great holes and the most interesting flow of any course I know. It begins fairly strong, which forces the player to work hard at the beginning. The course then becomes short and full of decisions through the middle where the player is under pressure to score. Finally the last 5 holes are as hard a run of golf as you can find anywhere and the player is literally trying to hold on. The flow is as important as the holes themselves in creating greatness.
Pine Valley in 1924, clearly more open, and lost more sand
The last course is Pine Valley, which is clearly based in the penal design, but unlike Oakmont strays into the strategic school where opportunities are given to challenge the course – but often at your own peril . It’s the mixture of the insurmountable holes like the 5th with strategic holes like the 6th which makes this a fascinating course to study. Designer George Crump found himself dissatisfied with the quality of courses around Philadelphia and set out to build a great course to test the greatest players in golf. While this is largely his work, he did collaborate with Harry Colt on the routing. He also sought the advice of George Thomas, AW Tillinghast and others while under construction. The course represents Crump’s slow and meticulous process of continually walking the property until he had a routing that not only made best use of the land, but also fit his carefully considered ideas about length and types of holes he felt were necessary to make a perfect course. It was his obsession and patience that lead to Pine Valley’s sublime set of 18 holes, but unfortunately the same pressure likely lead to his untimely death too. Pine Valley remains one of the most impressive courses in golf, full of great opportunities, a tremendous price for a missed shot, fantastic green contours, tremendous pressure placed on a player, the use of intimidation as an architectural weapon, the completely unique aesthetic appeal of the sand barrens surrounded by trees.