Studying the roots of golf: My journey through the Links of Scotland

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By Colton Craig

The World 100 Architectural Fellowship, sponsored by the World 100 Club, provided me with an extraordinary opportunity to study the ancient art of links golf in Scotland for a full month.

This fellowship was not just a professional milestone but, as my sir name is Scottish, a deeply personal journey into the heart of golf’s and my family’s heritage. As an up-and-coming golf course architect, this experience transformed my understanding of the game and its creative expression.

If someone is an aspiring golf course architect, they will sometimes hear there are five requirements:

· Previously worked in golf course construction

· Become a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects

· Secure a degree in landscape architecture from an accredited university

· Be an accomplished player or scratch golfer

· Visit Scotland and study links golf

Colton Craig

Although I have gone more of the traditional route and achieved many of these requirements, I have always pushed back strongly against these five prerequisites to be considered a true golf course architect. I have never liked gatekeeping or creating barriers to entry into an industry, especially a creative and artistic craft like golf architecture. That was until I visited Scotland.

After experiencing Scottish culture and its unbreakable connection to the origins of golf, I am willing to write that all golf architects must visit Scotland if they want to have a full understanding of their art.

Inherently, the cultures of artisans and sportsmen conflict. However, golf perfectly harmonizes art and sport because the game’s playing fields are undefined, thus the need for a golf architect.

“Nothing is worse than mediocrity,” an art dealer and member at Muirfield said to me, encapsulating the spirit of excellence that drives both art and golf courses. The art dealer was making a point of staying life is too short to “play it safe.”

When studying links golf, it is important to first define “links” golf. Although there are many opinions and definitions, for me it is quite simple. It must be on sandy soil and must be near the sea. What is particularly great about sandy soils is that it is the best soil to create golf, yet is also the most affordable material to build in. I am not aware of any other design field where the best materials are also the most affordable.

The Courses and Their Stories

Studying over 50 links golf courses in Scotland was a completely consuming experience. Even though I ate and drank whatever I wanted in the evenings, I was able to return to the States a few pounds lighter because I walked 14 miles a day on average. Below is a description of a few of the courses that made a major impact on me as a designer.

Old Course: Often hailed as the “Home of Golf,” the Old Course at St. Andrews has influenced every subsequent course design either in direct inspiration or in deliberate contrast. Its layout, which seems organic and unplanned, teaches that the land should dictate the design, not the other way around. The shared green complexes and short walks from green to tee make for a perfectly efficient golf course.

Old Course at St. Andrews

Muirfield: Known for its strategic design, Muirfield emphasizes the importance of thoughtful planning and the value of patience. The tradition of alternate shot play, and a swift pace of play make for a day of teamwork and competition. History oozes from this place. The clubhouse displays the original rules of golf and one of sports’ oldest trophies. Jack Nicklaus once said the best course in Scotland is the second 18 at Muirfield that has not been built yet. The land in which he was discussing would make any golf architect salivate. The club formed a committee to determine what the best use of this land would be. After five years and countless meetings, their decision was to do nothing. I believe this is the correct decision as nothing more needs to be done when you already have it all.

Muirfield Golf Club

Prestwick: Home to the first Open Championship, the “loop” as the members call it has dunes that sweep across the opening and closing holes, making for some of the most interesting and unique golf holes ever conceived. Our host, who was a great player, made the comment about the Himalayas hole, “I still don’t know how to play this hole after 40 years.”

Prestwick Golf Club

Cruden Bay: My personal favorite, with its dramatic scenery and challenging holes, exemplifies the romanticism and beauty of true links golf. Its charm lies in its raw, natural landscape, offering a pure golfing experience that is both exhilarating and humbling. Cruden Bay is a nearly perfect golf course.

Cruden Bay Golf Club

North Berwick: Often considered the favorite of many architects. Perhaps the most charming golf course in the world. The course plays a traditional in-and-out routing from a beautiful resort town. The closing stretch of holes is a crash course on amazing golf architecture.

North Berwick Golf Club

Covesea: A course that was not on my list, but saw a sign between courses and decided to swing by. Covesea was the surprise of the trip. Hidden gem is an abused term in the world of golf, but there is no better way to describe this place than just that, a hidden gem. The owner and designer, Andy, lives on property in a single-wide trailer. He is golf’s version of the “wise surfer dude.” He gave me a tour of his wonderful nine-hole course and by the end of our walk, he was discussing far eastern philosophy with me. He is undoubtedly the most interesting person I have ever met.

Covesea Links Golf Course

The Culture of Golf in Scotland

Living in Scotland immersed me in a culture where golf is more than a sport—it’s a way of life.

Athoel Reid, who resides by the iconic Road Hole at St. Andrews, served as the ultimate tour guide for me, providing insights that only a local could. I learned that golf in Scotland is about camaraderie, respect for history, and a deep connection to the land.

The Future of Golf Course Design

The lessons from Scotland will shape my approach to future projects. In an age of limitless possibility through construction methods, sensationalism and hyper-realistic designs have become the new in vogue style of the day. Since my visit to Scotland, I have a growing appreciation for the simplicity and efficacy found in traditional links courses. The balance of creativity and restraint, the respect for natural landscapes, and the integration of cultural elements are all critical to creating courses. Sensationalism in design might attract attention, but minimalism ensures longevity and harmony.

A century ago, Perry Maxwell shared this viewpoint when writing about his trip to Scotland in the American Golfer. Maxwell said, “Don’t blame all of this on the architects; the guilt lies primarily with the influential misguided club members who take sadistic joy in torturing the good earth. As a result, the majority of American golf clubs are in the red, gore of the steam shovel, blood drawn by the mound-builders. We have learned nothing from Scotland or England where the ancient and honorable game can be enjoyed on marvelous links at one-tenth the admission fees, dues, green fees, etc., that prevail in the land of the free.”

The job of a golf course architect is 70% creative, 15% administrative and 15% managing egos, often including one’s own. This trip reinforced my belief that great design is about letting the land speak for itself. My favorite courses, like my favorite people, are true to themselves and don’t try to be something they are not.

The World 100 Architectural Fellowship was more than just an academic exercise; it was a journey into the soul of golf. From the timeless allure of the Old Course to the rugged beauty of Cruden Bay, each course taught me invaluable lessons about design, culture, and the enduring appeal of the game.

As I move forward in my career, these experiences will guide my efforts to create golf courses that honor tradition, embrace simplicity, and inspire future generations.

In the words of a Muirfield member, “Nothing is worse than mediocrity.” This trip has instilled in me a commitment to excellence, a passion for authenticity, and a deep respect for the art and sport of golf. With these lessons in mind, I look forward to contributing to the rich history of golf course architecture, one inspired design at a time.

Travel Favorites

Favorite Meal – Muirfield Lunch

Favorite Clubhouse Experience – Prestwick

Favorite Clubhouse View – Cruden Bay

Favorite Entry Drive/Sense of Arrival – Kilspendie

Favorite Hotel/Accommodations – Old Course Hotel

Humor From Scotland

“Work is a bit overrated yea?” – Retired member at Western Gails

“Slow the Fox Down” – Street sign on an entry drive to a golf club.

“It was not met with overwhelming support.” – In regards to cutting a “V” into the Himalayas hole at Prestwick in order to see the flag stick from the tee.

“I will get out with a limp.” – Elderly gentlemen parking in handicap without a pass

“Trump should stick to golf architecture.” – in regard to his two golf properties in Scotland.

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