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An Auteur Theory of Golf Architecture, Or, How Old Macdonald is Like the iPad

BDNews2A couple of concepts that I’ve been thinking about for a while recently converged (temporally, if not literally), and I wanted to use this space to at least provisionally make an effort at connection.

The first bell-ringing moment occurred in watching this conversation between GolfClubAtlas founder Ran Morrissett and financial adviser and golf business consultant Jeff Dawson. Much of the clip is thought-provoking, but for the purpose of this post I’m interested in the exchange that occurs slightly after the 19-minute mark:

JD: The good news is, with the bad in the market today, there’s going to be great stories this year about new golf coming online, and that’s not going to change.

RM: The focus is going to shift from who are the architects to who are the owners…

JD: I think the owner is the most important thing. The guy with the vision, the ability to buy something, the ability to take it from zero to full speed and get it where it needs to be….Maybe the next Mike Keiser is out of China….Somebody with the ability and the passion and the desire will find a great spot, hire the guy we haven’t heard of yet or don’t know well, and give him his Bandon.

The second strand is this NYT analysis by Steve Lohr on the launch of the iPad, “Steve Jobs and the Economics of Elitism”. Upon closer inspection, this Week in Review piece is woefully underdeveloped, but it does two things—it hints at a particular way of thinking about innovation, and situates the role of the CEO within that process. This quote is the Pandora’s Box, spring-loaded for further exploration:

“Apple represents the “auteur model of innovation,” observes John Kao, a consultant to corporations and governments on innovation. In the auteur model, he said, there is a tight connection between the personality of the project leader and what is created. Movies created by powerful directors, he says, are clear examples, from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” to James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

So is Steve Jobs, as the CEO of a technology company, a businessman? Or is he an artist? Or both? Does the distinction even matter?

John Kao is drawing a connection with auteur theory in film. This dates to the early 1950s, with François Truffaut and the flame-warring artists and critics writing in the Paris journal Cahiers du Cinema. While Truffaut’s polemic “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema” isn’t an easy read for a 21st century American, packed as it is with cultural referents that are both foreign and a half-century old, the essay argues for a deeply-felt, personal style of filmmaking—something that is never entirely guaranteed in the commercial/industrial process. In saying, “There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors”, Truffaut demanded that audiences view a finished product not only for the way it tells a story, but through the contextual background of its authorship. If the distinction is unclear, consider the way contemporary audiences react to a new release from Tarantino, Wes Anderson or, indeed, even the aforementioned James Cameron, as opposed to that of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich.

for-the-love-of-moviesTruffaut claimed that he never intended for an entire critical apparatus to flower from his essay, but it did, along with, of course, the light and heat of the films of the French New Wave. In the U.S., it took off with Andrew Sarris’s (pictured left) 1962 essay, “Notes on the Auteur Theory”, which at its core advanced three critical premises:

1.) The first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence of a director as a criterion of value. A badly directed or an undirected film has no importance in a critical scale of values, but one can make interesting conversation about the subject, the script, the acting, the color, the photography…. That is the nature of the medium. You always get more for your money than mere art. Now, by the auteur theory, if a director has no technical competence, no elementary flair for the cinema, he is automatically cast out from the pantheon of directors. A great director has to be at least a good director. This is true in any art.

A debatable premise. But at least Emmerich and Bay, nothing if not technically accomplished, are still in the game.

2.) The second premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value. Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature. The way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels.

The italics are mine. Gold star if you have been reading “architect” for “director” and “golf course” for “film” in parallel all along.

3.) The third and ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.

I have omitted Sarris’s expansion on these premises, of course. From these basic points, though, he continues:

“The three premises of the auteur theory may be visualized as three concentric circles: the outer circle as technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, interior meaning…There is no prescribed course by which a director passes through the three circles.”

Technician, stylist, auteur. Three separate talents that link or overlap to varying degrees. Where does this leave us in relation to Morrissett and Dawson’s conversation mentioned at the top?

Clearly, when it comes to golf the tendency is to think of architects as artists. This is only natural and, indeed, something very like auteur theory is often applied in the discussion of the work of the great architects, whether it be parsing the microclimatic differences between two Raynor Redans, pondering the validity in theory or practice of Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s (the first modern “signature” architect, as per the above) “hard par, easy bogey” philosophy, or cheering Tom Doak’s facility for referencing plum design concepts from relatively obscure layouts like Woking in his own work. Earlier in the conversation, Morrissett is doing just this when he laments the addition of pot bunkers to Pinehurst #4 as an homage to Donald Ross, who never built that type of hazard. While a handful of architects—W.H. Fowler comes to mind—are known for their lack of an immediately obvious style from course to course, such stylistic departures to the informed observer are as dissonant as it would be to watch “Citizen Kane”  as edited by McG.

Why do Morrissett and Dawson indicate this change of emphasis from architect to owner?

Here’s the twist, as I see it. While the architect is, in fact, the artist, this does not by necessity make him the auteur—literally, the author. That distinction falls to the producer of the project. For an enduring and meaningful contribution to the game of golf, this individual must have qualities of a visionary. Though there are exceptions to the rule, the word “individual” has not been chosen without care. Many of the layouts produced in the “course a day” construction boom of the past two decades were planned by real estate development companies who viewed golf as an “amenity”, not an end in itself. After the developer moved on, the course would frequently be passed off to a third-party management company. Whatever level of competence that company might offer in day-to-day operations would not be enough to make up for the deficit of personal investment, as practices and financial targets established to cover a nationwide matrix of properties would quickly come to hold sway.

One could not reasonably expect many great courses to arise when the true goal all along was to sell home sites. Not every course need be capital-G Great—there is a continuing need for modest layouts that bring new people to the game and offer towns and cities an affordable outlet for recreation—but insipid, expensive, resource-intensive architecture paired with the “exclusive lifestyle” for sale within the latest gated community are problematic. Such courses flatter the developer’s (and the golfer’s) ego but do little for the art form and less for the perception of the game outside the walls.

crumpThis is not meant as a swipe at private club golf—some of the most visionary auteurs in the history of the game have chosen this path, from George Crump (pictured left) at Pine Valley and Clifford Roberts at Augusta National to contemporary figures like Dick Youngscap at Sand Hills, Ken Bakst at Friar’s Head, or the late John Mineck at Boston Golf Club. Public or private, what matters is the clarity of the vision and the sense of what makes a place unique. And the common thread among successful auteurs is that they take a personal interest in the details of the design as it unfolds in the field, in many cases partnering closely with the architect himself. Mark Parsinen, an American working in Scotland, is a good example of this kind of auteur.

Channel flick back to Steve Jobs in the Times for a moment:

“Great products, according to Mr. Jobs, are triumphs of “taste.” And taste, he explains, is a byproduct of study, observation and being steeped in the culture of the past and present, of “trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then bring those things into what you are doing.”

This sounds a lot like what is being attempted with the latest project at Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, Old Macdonald. Of the four courses at the resort that owner Mike Keiser has overseen, only the third, Coore and Crenshaw’s Bandon Trails, would have been conventionally regarded as a safe play at the time. As Jeff Dawson mentions and is well-chronicled, Keiser found an unknown rookie architect in David Kidd and “gave him his Bandon”, then followed up by entrusting the all-universe piece of land that would become Pacific Dunes to Tom Doak, a rising talent with a strong portfolio of courses but by no means a brand-name designer. A couple of years later, Doak returned to Bandon as a famous architect—and found himself being asked to design as someone else. Namely, the father of American golf architecture.

“In retaining Tom,” Keiser explained to Golf Vacation Insider, “I told him that I didn’t want Tom Doak. I wanted C.B. Macdonald. Tom just had to act as his interpreter, or his heir.”

Doak elaborated in Golf Digest: “We were asked not to build a replica course and so, my thought is, Macdonald is our starting point. Instead of trying to build stuff that looks like holes at Chicago Golf Club, or looks like a hole at the National Golf Links of America, I’m trying to be the Macdonald who came back from the U.K. having seen all of those holes, because I’ve seen them, too. And, you know, use that background and his love of those holes, but with the piece of land that we’ve got.”

This is a high-wire act, to be sure, given that the great strategic holes of England and Scotland from which Macdonald drew inspiration are catnip for architecture buffs. But one can be confident that the decision-making process on the part of both auteur and architect will be sound, and will reflect an editorial mindset. One must remember that the ultra-remote Bandon Dunes becoming one of the top golf resorts in America was far from a fait accompli. Stephen Goodwin’s book Dream Golf is valuable in no small part for its documenting of some of the decisions that Mike Keiser didn’t make. A Myrtle Beach-style business model? It was considered. A Gleneaglesesque clubhouse, complete with kilted bagpipers projecting their trills and groans across the links? That, too, could have happened. But it didn’t.

“Mr. Jobs, of course, is one member of a large team at Apple, even if he is the leader. Indeed, he has often described his role as a team leader. In choosing key members of his team, he looks for the multiplier factor of excellence. Truly outstanding designers, engineers and managers, he says, are not just 10 percent, 20 percent or 30 percent better than merely very good ones, but 10 times better.”

Consider the above in light of the team known as the “Bandon Charrette” assembled for Old Macdonald. For all that auteur theory does to push critics toward analysis of a creative project as the product of a singular vision, great architects and developers are often marked by the haste with which they apportion credit to others.

Golf architecture as an art form shares much more in common with the cinema than, say, the novel, in that the artist is situated within an industrial process and is heavily dependent on others to execute his vision. Along with Doak and his longtime associate Jim Urbina, the principals drew on the collective wisdom of Macdonald’s biographer, George Bahto; Karl Olson, the longtime superintendent of the National Golf Links of America, indisputably Macdonald’s greatest design; and the architecture editor of Golfweek, Bradley Klein, who wrote about the charrette in the magazine:

“Keiser, always curious about how a course will play, and especially mindful of what he calls ‘the retail golfer,’ couldn’t ask enough questions to make sure we were all on the right track.

At one point, the five-person design committee sat along a ridge overlooking the likely site of Macdonald’s famed Short Hole – a modest par 3 to a complicated green. We were simply looking around until Urbina got up and drew a diagram in the dirt and asked if we were sure that the high handicapper could find a safe path to the well-guarded putting surface.

There began a discussion that an architecture junkie lives for, 45 minutes worth, of the 11th hole at St. Andrews, the sixth at National Golf Links and the third at Yeamans Hall. It was detailed talk, about the depth of the little depression and the falloff to the rear, as well as the way in which the green would look big but play like a series of small targets if properly tied together. We sat there, variously drawing with sticks and fingers and boots. Satisfied that we had made some progress, Urbina, with a single sweep of his foot, erased a graduate seminar’s worth of work and simply said, ‘Next hole.’”

Picture 7So auteur theory–perhaps paradoxically?–can in part be understood as the managerial process by which one arrives at a personal vision. Andrew Sarris writes about interior meaning as the tension between a director’s personality and his material, but this is a big enough tent to encapsulate the idea that creative products also succeed and fail based on how they engage the external world in conversation. At Old Macdonald, the course’s opening day will be the first time many golfers have experienced anything like the bold architecture of Charles Blair Macdonald–the vast majority of his designs are old-line private clubs. The scarcity of opportunity for a golf experience as distinctive as this surely factored into Mr. Keiser’s calculations as a positive for helping the new course draw visitors to the Oregon coast.

As for Steve Jobs and Apple’s roll-out of the iPad, critics may carp about the fact that the tablet lacks a camera feature, or that it doesn’t run Flash, but in both form and function it enters a dialogue with the culture-producing industries (books, magazines, newspapers, music, movies) in a way that other devices arguably do not. Everyone is affected. Book publishers now have valuable leverage against an aggressive e-book pricing model established by Amazon, as MacMillan recently demonstrated.  Newspapers like The Guardian wonder if the iPad will save journalism, and magazines like Sports Illustrated have already invested in re-imagining their editorial platform in anticipation of tablet-like devices like the iPad, as this demo shows.

Where Apple stands apart is in its understanding of valuable elements of the print experience that are worth saving—for all the writers and editors who have been laid off in the past couple of years, so have an equal number of photo editors and art directors, whose work delivered a rich and immersive experience to the reader that, for all the clicking about we do today, is rarely seen online. Perhaps one of the forces that militates toward the firehosing of free “content” across our screens has something to do with the fact that it is currently not delivered with any beauty to speak of. One can be fairly certain that rectifying this state of affairs is one of the missions being undertaken by Apple’s engineers and programmers, as part of the personal vision of the company’s leader.

So, yes, Steve Jobs and Mike Keiser are both businessmen and auteurs. And, yes, in light of the parade of short-sighted or boneheaded decisions that continue to be made by golf developers in both the business and creative spheres, the distinction still matters. While I hope I have begun to demonstrate how auteur theory can be applied to the art form of golf architecture, however, it must be said that its counter-argument, advanced by critics like the powerhouse Pauline Kael in her essay “Circles and Squares”, carry equally fascinating implications across the boundary—especially for the practice of criticism itself. How’s that for a last-paragraph spanner in the works? But perhaps this should remain a subject for another day….

Discussion

3 comments for “An Auteur Theory of Golf Architecture, Or, How Old Macdonald is Like the iPad”

  1. A thought-provoking pleasure to read. Nice work, young Tom.

    I’ve been flacking an article proposal that looks at Keiser, Pascucci, Kohler, de Savery, Trump, et. al. as the Medicis of Golf. Just a different canvas those fabulous with wealth are leaving behind.

    Posted by Tom Bedell | February 3, 2010, 08:14
  2. Tom,

    Well done on many levels – this is a wonderful article that really makes the reader think and reflect – something rarely found these days in golf publications, whether print or online.

    I hope other “developer artists” will jump in the ring over the next decade despite the down economy. Vision of the end product and passion for the game, as opposed to a strict focus on profit, really is the only way to create something truly special.

    Posted by Rob Rigg | February 3, 2010, 09:05
  3. Great piece. I think you really hit on something in talking about the owner/developer as the “producer” of a project. In the heydey of the Hollywood studio system, producers like Selznick were certainly seen as the “authors” of their projects. The business of building golf courses probably resembles the studio system more than it does the Hollywood of today. There’s certainly no golf course architect out there with the power of a James Cameron. I’m not sure how much further the producer/director analogy can be taken, but there’s no doubt that auteur theory is a useful way to look critically at golf course design.

    Posted by Steve | February 3, 2010, 09:51

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