Sunday, 2 January 2011


The back bunkers were added - not original!

One thing that we all want to know about the historic courses that is how much is original. This sounds really easy and too often we want to make easy simple pronouncements based upon what we see or what we find. We have a tendency to repeat the conclusions found in books or magazines and take them as fact. Occasionally we find ourselves repeating a legend, assuming it to be true, right up until somebody presents information to the contrary. The inaccuracies come from making an educated guess, without compiling all the information necessary to form an accurate conclusion.
Let’s look at all the possible sources of information first. The first is the routing plan; it provides us with a window into the architect’s intent - not what was built - but the intent before they began. Some architects tend to be very close, whereas many architects like Thompson tended to stray from the plan. When you can combine this with an early aerial we often begin to see a reasonably good picture of what was there. But to offer you perspective there were already 8 bunker changes between opening day and the 1939 aerial at St. George’s, so taking an aerial at full value is dangerous, particularly because of the influence of the depression. The plan in the clubhouse also has a series of bunkers that were never built between the 17th and 18th hole too. So be careful with plans and aerials.

Nothing beats a “full” set of opening day photographs like Cataraqui has. It makes it much easier to put everything together, with the only important limit being that it is from a single angle that often hides other details. If you can combine this with a good aerial then you usually have a pretty accurate picture on what was there. For Stanley Thompson courses, I can only think of five that have this much information readily available.

The 13th is not original at Burlington - but great!

Once we move outside of this area everything begins to become an educated guess. The architect’s on site instructions or letters can often provide a wonderful window into intent, but they seem to be very rare. Membership remembrances have provided wonderful clues as well as writings by reporters from that era. The Canadian Golfer and Golf Illustrated occasional even have course profiles that give us an idea of what we are looking for. Note that I said, what we are looking for, not what was there. The problem often comes from either the accuracy of these or what they don’t tell you. For example all St. George’s greens were rebuilt (verified by the bill) , but the author never told us by whom, and how much actually changed at each green. So are they Thompson greens or not? I find this is a good last resort, although ever once in a while you find a member who is both sharp and old enough to provide stunning windows into the all the changes of the course. This is likely the most underutilized resource at clubs, and one that is literally dying as we speak.

Working drawings are rare, but provide excellent detailed direction, but don’t tell you the important on site adjustments that made the really creative architects special. There are architects that believe you should follow the working drawings exclusively when restoring, but that to me is not honoring the built form that the architect created. So that leaves the course itself. I would put my knowledge of Thompson’s architecture up against anyone, but even I know I can’t just look at a bunker or green and say that’s definitely Thompson. I can only make an “educated” guess. Yet many people make a visit to a course, look at the architecture, look at the few items of historic value and then make a pronouncement on what is there. Here’s the problem, there almost always wrong, and this is compounded when that person is from a society that celebrates a particular architect because they will be taken at their word. So if you are going to provide accreditation, you better make sure it’s accurate.

The best way I could describe this process is forensic research, where you try peel back as many layers as you can find looking for the “closest” answer you can get.

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