The grass isn’t always greener…and it shouldn’t be
In 1966 in Augusta, Georgia, The Masters became the first-ever golf tournament broadcast in color and it changed the golf industry forever.
For centuries, the standards set for golfers were rigid and clear; they worked to create a set of guidelines for the player that determined what to wear, where to stand, when to hit, and so on. The standards have transcended people, season, and geographical location in order to maintain the tradition of the game and set golf apart from the rest of the sporting world. Yet, these standards are beginning to shift as the industry recognizes the need to remain relevant in an ever-more inclusive world. Similarly, standards have been created for the course you play on; it should be manicured, with lush, green grass, flowers in bloom, thick rough, and so on. But why? Isn’t it a bit peculiar to think that a course on the cliffs of Oregon and a course in the middle of Scottsdale, both in exceptionally different soils with exceptionally different vegetation and water supply, should meet the same course standards? And yet, regardless of where you are in the world, playing on a “high-end” course often paints that same homogonous picture: manicured, with lush, green grass, flowers in bloom, thick rough… you get it. The answer to why points in one direction: Augusta National. However, the question worth asking isn’t necessarily “why?” (although read on to find out a bit about that). The question worth asking is: shouldn’t these course standards be changing, too?
In 1966, golfers saw The Masters broadcast on TV in full color for the first time and were “green with envy” (Oosthoek, 2012; see Millington and Wilson, 2014). Players looked on at one of the world’s most exclusive clubs with a layout designed by, arguably, the world’s best golfer and the world’s greatest architect. As a result, the same players began to ask why their course didn’t look like what they were seeing on TV. Members began to pressurize management, architects, and superintendents alike to strive for standards portrayed on the screen. Anything less was often deemed unkempt and therefore, undesirable. Augusta syndrome remains the term describing the affliction of consumers demanding the perfect golfing conditions they see on TV (Millington and Wilson, 2014: 77).
Long story short, Augusta was and is idyllic, and players all wanted to play courses of the same calibre. Little did the masses know, what they were seeing on TV was not only likely unattainable, it was also, very simply, unreal. CBS was said to have added fake birdsongs to their broadcast one year, presumably to reinforce Augusta National’s perfect alliance with nature (Shmavonian, 2011; see Millington and Wilson, 2014: 76). It is rumored that producers filtered the camera lens to make grasses look greener. Stakeholders used food dye to make the water look bluer. If an early spring was forecast, the grounds crew were said to put ice under the famed azaleas and magnolias to ensure they were in full bloom exactly in time for the telecast. Most notably, to this day it is reported that Augusta National closes for much of the year from late spring and into the fall, minimizing wear through the peak season to appear ‘perfect’ for a short stretch in April when the Masters take place, fortifying its image as a wonderous plot of land (Millington and Wilson, 2014: 77). With all this said, if your local course could look like Augusta, but the cost was that you couldn’t play golf from April to October, would you still want to maintain the aesthetic standard?
“Television, golf magazines and the PGA Tour have all had a hand in furthering this perception, particularly in setting expectations that are often mistaken for standards” (Griffiths, 1997: 38). This change in aesthetic expectations caused maintenance intervention at local courses to skyrocket and the cost of extra labor, fuel, materials, and machinery was passed onto the consumer. Golfs inaccessibility grew, and courses began to look one-dimensional. Writing in 1993 in the USGA’s Green Section, golfer, commentator, and designer Jerry Pate lamented the homogenizing force of Augusta National syndrome. Features like water hazards and island greens were ‘everywhere’, he wrote.
Misguided attempts to emulate the famous course demanded absurdly low-cut fairways, pristine pure white sand, thick deep rough, fountain-lain water features, and on-course flower beds no matter the expense. Local greens were pushed to the brink of death pursuing 14 on the stimp meter. Unsustainable playing conditions were in high demand all year round, despite geography and weather, even resulting in the dying green of fairways in the height of summer to conceal the natural brownness. Excessive gardens were planted throughout the golf course to emulate the 12th hole at Augusta National. And of course, architects were meant to design golf courses like Augusta; too penal and too unforgiving for anyone less than professional.
Under immense consumer pressure to chase these unrealistic and unsustainable playability expectations, many in the industry lost their jobs. In a 1969 guest editorial in Golf Course Management, golf superintendent Bill Brickell expressed concern that members of his profession were being asked to resign due to golfers’ unrealized expectations. “Club members compare courses, condition-wise only. They do not compare budgets or location” (Brickell, 1969: 103; see Millington and Wilson, 2014: 78)
Beyond the impact to those working the courses, the obsession with perfect playing conditions triggered devastating environmental implications, contributing to the perception those outside the game hold of golf as “bad for the environment”. Certainly, Augusta National, with its longstanding policies barring women and people of colour from membership, was presenting an image of exclusivity through Masters telecasts. From an environmental perspective, however, what was important was Augusta National’s powerful image of how a golf course should appear (Millington and Wilson, 2014: 75). Ensuring grass stays green all year round requires extensive overwatering, excess occupation of land, overuse of chemical applicants, and loss of seasonal habitat. It reduces the health of turf, depletes energy reserves, stunts growth, and makes the playing surfaces vulnerable to disease and weed infiltration.
The good news – a change seems to be underway. We are experiencing a shift in golf culture, aesthetic, and design that pushes back against Augusta National as the model golf course. A movement away from encouraging brute force and perfect ball striking and toward an emphasis on strategy and creativity in shot making. As consumers become more aware and concerned with their consumption of natural resources, we are beginning to accept that the golf course is a living, breathing thing that changes with the seasons. It may be dry and firm in the summer peak; a fact that can and should be embraced.
As an architect I’m an advocate for firm, fast conditions when the environment allows. Firmer fairways allow us to relax our water consumption, conserving a resource that only becomes more sparce as time goes on. From a playability standpoint, despite the perception of their intention, soft fairways often make golf harder for the shorter hitter and less interesting for the more-skilled player. Firmness allows more roll for those who need the distance and offers more challenge to better players who rely on angle into the green to score well.
As the anti-Augusta syndrome movement continues to gain momentum, I would like to emphasize why consumers should support standards that stray from the historic convention of the last nearly 50 years. The pursuit of perfect aesthetic playing conditions is not always possible, certainly not sustainable, and frankly, shouldn’t be mistaken for desirable. If we want golf to be around in fifty years, we cannot put aesthetics before playing conditions or environmental sustainability. So I beg the question again, this time with a twist: if your course could look like Augusta, but the cost was that in the next 50 years you and your children could not play golf at all, would you still want to maintain the aesthetic standard?
Instead of pushing for something that serves only a few, let us challenge ourselves and our game; change our playing technique and design methods to adapt to the golf course, rather than manipulating the golf course to suit our eye and skill. Let us rule lush green grass all year long an outdated and undesirable aesthetic expectation. Let us embrace the natural life cycle of turf, enjoy its textured brownness, and relax our water consumption practices.
No shade to Augusta. It consistently ranks amongst the best golf courses in the world because it deserves to be there. However, their maintenance practices and course conditioning is not possible or practical for every climate, course, and golfer. Pursuing similar aesthetics outside of Magnolia Lane will be at the detriment of playability, accessibility, inclusivity, and sustainability. I ask you here to re-evaluate your expectations of what a golf course should look like, not because you need to lower them, but because there is value in what you may be overlooking. The grass isn’t always greener…and it shouldn’t be.
Golf Course Architect
Millington and Wilson, 2014. The greening of golf: Sport, globalization and the environment. Manchester University Press