There are two kinds of people in this world: those whose tastes in golf courses hew to The St. Andrews Ideal, and those whose preferences gravitate toward The Augusta National Ideal.
Courses built and maintained according to the St. Andrews paragon we identify generically as “links”: natural and treeless, firm and fast, lightly kempt and several shades of brown. The Augusta model has come to represent an opposing pole, and these so-called “parkland” designs do exude a different vibe altogether: lush and soft, multiple shade of green, landscaped and manicured to a fare thee well.
History, culture and geography have traditionally funneled Asian golfers into the parkland camp, a classification that may strike one as trivial, or arbitrary. But Asian predispositions in this regard are robust and stand to shape global golf trends for decades to come — even as contemporary tastemakers exalt the links model (and sneer at the parkland genre) as never before.
For centuries, even this binary choice did not exist. Links courses — named for the sandy terrain that connects beach to more arable land — were the only game in town, and that town was St. Andrews. The Home of Golf will never change, but after several hundred years as a purely Scottish pursuit, golf began to migrate. First the game moved south, to England. During the mid-19th century it moved inland, where the parkland style was devised.
Late in the 19th century, golf and its attendant tastes traveled West, across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, where the parkland style took firm hold and thrived as never before — fueled by American cultural influence, its economic sway, the opening of Augusta National Golf Club in 1934, and the advent of course irrigation. This shift toward the parkland ideal and away from the British links ideal happened far more quickly and comprehensively than anyone could have imagined. In 1880, for example, it would have seemed laughable to Brits that their game would, in just 50 years, be so dominated by America, Americans and their tastes in course design. But that’s exactly what happened. What’s more, during the ensuing century, the game arrived in Asia where the parkland style also came to predominate.
In the mid-1990s, the stylistic pendulum swung back. The American course zeitgeist underwent a major shift, whereby The St. Andrews Ideal gained extraordinary new steam, while The Augusta National Model declined. Why? Resorts like Bandon, developed on a remote stretch of Oregon coast, proved links golf was popular enough with Americans to be profitable. Projects like Sand Hills — located in even more remote western Nebraska — showed that oceans and shorelines were incidental to the genre’s appeal. Anywhere there was sand, developers learned, compelling links golf could be devised. The more isolated the links course, the more golfers seemed determined to travel there.
Today, where sand does not dominate the existing soil profile, developers import it and “cap” the entire 18-hole footprint, ensuring both efficacious drainage and links-enabling bounce & roll. At venerable Pinehurst No. 2, turf once dominated the landscape wall to wall. In 2011, prior to a U.S. Open held there, architects peeled back all but the fairway turf to reveal a sea of native, sandy scrub. Acolytes of the St. Andrews model swooned.
Golf in the 21st century remains markedly U.S.-centric, but the game’s momentum continues to move West. Today, Asia-Pacific is the region where course development, player development, tournament interest and prize money/corporate support are growing most rapidly. True to golf’s migration patterns, the resurgent St. Andrews Model has been newly deployed all over Asia — along the coast of Vietnam, on islands in the Yangtze River, atop dead-flat properties in Greater Bangkok.
There’s just one problem: Asians don’t much like links golf.
“Asians do seem to be less inclined towards link-style courses,” explains A.S. Hon., a Singapore-based course rater for Golf Digest. “A few years ago I played with a group of Taiwanese friends at Bandon Dunes. After 4 days, all of them said that they would never play links again. That’s probably some momentary emotion, but it said so much about the Asian appetite for playing links courses, especially in wind and rain.”
Many individual Asian golfers do appreciate The St. Andrews Ideal, of course… There are registered Democrats living in Alabama, too. There just aren’t very many of them.
Asian golfers are champion belt-notchers and, in pre-COVID times, intrepid travelers. Like their golfing brethren around the world, they feel a genuine obligation to make pilgrimages to links Meccas like the Kingdom of Fife, the Australian Sand Belt, the coast of Oregon. They go. They just don’t as often go back.
What’s more, golfers in Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City and Kobe don’t sit around in clubhouses talking about their distaste for links golf. Their attitude is more subtle than that — like a slightly embarrassing, dirty little secret that is liable to slip out during careless conversation.
“I’m very wary of the fact that when I’m in China, I might be chatting about golf courses with someone. They learn that I’ve been to Carnoustie and they ask me, You actually liked it?” says Darius Oliver, a Melbourne, Australia-based course design maven and author, who administers the Planet Golf website and course rankings. “It’s interesting to me that the course held up as the garden ideal in Asia is Augusta National. But they seem to value what I see as the wrong things: the manicured playing conditions, the flowering bushes and landscaping, the blinding-white sand in the bunkers.
What Asians prefer in the parkland style (and eschew in the links style) is key to understanding what’s going on here — especially today, when 1) the sand-based, modified-St. Andrews stylings of architects like Tom Doak, Gil Hanse and Coore-Crenshaw so dominate the design zeitgeist in the U.S.; and 2) those stylings are so enthusiastically welcomed across Europe, Australia/New Zealand, even the Middle East, where money, sand and development initiatives abound. Everywhere but Asia, it seems, the parkland model is in retreat.
Oliver deploys a key word at the center of this dynamic: garden. Golf is widely seen across Asia as something one should do in a garden-like setting, what we in the “west” might call a park. This cultural expectation for golf has persisted, across East Asia especially, for nearly a century. For quite a long time, it dovetailed nicely with the parkland ideal that held particular sway, stylistically, in America from 1945-1995 — a period during which the vast majority of Asian courses were conceived and built.
“The great majority of these golfers, in Asia, are coming out of urban environments to play their golf and they want green grass, lakes and trees,” says American architect Kevin Ramsey, a partner in Santa Rosa, California-based Golfplan, a firm that has designed more courses in more countries across Asia than any other. “My partner David Dale and I love to work in the links context. But many of these newer markets are catering to this urban client — and they are selling real estate. They want green grass views in front of these houses, not sandy scrub. And let’s not forget these can be very hot climates. Shade is critical in Asia, which is another argument for trees and the parkland environment.”
Ever notice the full-length arm sheaths worn so routinely by Asian golfers, especially those on the LPGA Tour? Asian folks don’t really go in for tanning. They go to great lengths to avoid it, in fact. In most cultures across their native region, light complexions are prized; they are indicative of wealth and high social status. Billboards and magazines advertise skin-lightening products everywhere. This industry, fueled almost entirely by Asian consumers, will be worth US$24 billion by 2027, Vogue reported last year.
The idea of golf without trees — the idea of spending leisure time in a space that does not aspire to the garden ideal — strikes most Asians as a bit absurd.
Still, the creation of Sand Hills in 1995, and Bandon Dunes shortly thereafter signaled, a monumental shift in the course design zeitgeist worldwide. Some argue this movement had merely been a return — to the rightful, timeless norms established hundreds of years ago, in Scotland, on links courses. Until the 1920s, this had in fact been the unchallenged ideal across the golfing world. But never in Asia. The enduring popularity of “garden golf” in Japan and eventually South Korea, Thailand and China was not affected much at by this late-century shift — because the parkland preference had not been an imported phenomenon. It’s more foundational than that, to the golf culture and the larger culture.
In spite of these longstanding cultural obstacles, an increasing number of high-profile developments in Asia have recently gone the St. Andrews route. The Vietnamese coastline today, for example, is rife with new links, designed by the likes of Greg Norman and Robert Trent Jones Jr. In Shanghai, Melbourne-based Ogilvy, Cocking & Mead were retained in 2018 to create a links-style course at Lanhai International CC, located north of the city on Chongming Island. The finished product, reopened in 2018, is a stunning amalgam of Australian Sandbelt, links and dune features set hard by the Yangtze River. In Bangkok, Gil Hanse will unveil in August his first original design in Asia — a treeless, sand-strewn homage to C.B. MacDonald’s mythic Lido Club, a man-made links that opened in 1917, to extraordinary acclaim, only to disappear during World War II.
Roy Lee, a Hong Kong-based course photographer and another Golf Digest rater, welcomes this sort of development, even if the regional market would not appear to demand it.
“Actually we do love links, but first let me clarify that we love true links, not these so-called ‘links-style’ parkland courses in Asia,” Lee remonstrates. “In Asia we don’t have much seaside sand dunes for the building of golf courses. Where we do have the land, investors build hotels or real estate units instead — to generate more profit.
“Not many golfers in Asia have experience playing true links. But I am sure that when they have more opportunity, they will enjoy this style, which can provide more diversity and challenge. Your question is like asking: It seems the majority of people in China are drinking beer — do they not like whisky? My answer is, Because most of the stores are selling fake whisky, they prefer beer. But I am sure they will enjoy whisky if they can get the real stuff.”
Lee also argues, persuasively, that many Asians don’t go back to Scotland, Ireland or Bandon for reasons more related to proximity and budget, as opposed to taste. But I would quibble with the notion that linksland is scarce in Asia — and with the idea that developers are all of a sudden building new, authentic links designs because they want to better educate Asian golfers in the form.
No, links courses are proliferating in Asia for other reasons.
The first salient factor is geographic. Asian developers have surely built scads of seaside resort developments, gobbling up coastal dunes and suitable links land for villas, hotel/casinos or whatnot. But the Asian mainland is a big place — big enough that a land war there still makes no sense at all. Sandy, seaside property remains perfectly abundant and attractive to St. Andrews-beguiled developers in a dozen different nations across the region.
Second, turfgrass strains that have traditionally performed well in these largely steamy, equatorial climes — strains of bermuda grass and, more recently, paspalum — have traditionally not delivered the firm & fast qualities that links design requires. Sand is one requisite, but properly maintained turf is also integral to the functional links environment. As Lee rightly notes, the region is littered with courses purportedly conceived and designed in the “links style” that, on account of spongy turf, are better suited to lawn darts.
However, a new turfgrass strain called Zeon Zoysia is changing the game in Asia. It delivers something never before achievable in the tropics: bounce and roll, even during the rainy season. Zeon has been deployed to magnificent effect, for example, at Hoiana Shores GC, the new Robert Trent Jones II design near the Central Vietnam city of Danang. Hanse’s project in Thailand will deploy a slightly different strain, one native to Southeast Asia but similarly bred to deliver the play characteristics that make The St. Andrews Ideal viable in Southeast Asia, arguably for the first time.
Last and most important, in the near term: A clear majority of today’s tastemakers — course raters and media types, major tournament organizers like the USGA and R&A — remain firmly in the St. Andrews camp. Together, through top 100 rankings, media coverage and championship site selection, these influencers have made it abundantly clear that, going forward, the sand-based St. Andrews model is the key to fame, fortune, lofty rankings and competitive relevance.
This brand of advocacy is the primary reason the neo-links movement has made such recent inroads in Asia. Course and club owners want media attention. They want to differentiate themselves in an Asian marketplace rife with garden golf. They want to host big tournaments. They want to be highly rated and ranked by these largely North America- and UK-based tastemakers.
In the 21st century, links design and The St. Andrews Ideal deliver all this far better than parkland design does. Even in Asia.
But if history is any judge, even this status quo will prove fleeting.
The money and tastes that fuel golf’s ongoing evolution continue to move West, from North America to Asia. In 50 or 100 years time, it’s entirely possible, even plausible, that the game’s center of gravity will shift accordingly, as it once shifted from the U.K. to the U.S. The women’s game, it could be argued, is already centered in East Asia — home to most of the game’s finest competitors, the most lucrative corporate sponsorships and tournament purses.
Had someone advanced this eventual state of affairs to American golf observers, in 1980, they would have considered it beyond fanciful.
But this is how power moves in the golf context. American hegemony — in the 20th century golf context — was fueled first by the champion golfers it produced, then by the sheer number of casual golfers who played the game, who bought equipment, who read golf magazines. Eventually corporate decision-makers, most of them U.S.-based, recognized televised golf as a means to reach wealthy consumers.
It says here that this same process is already underway in East and Southeast Asia. Should the men’s game also come to be dominated by Asian players, it’s entirely possible the Augusta Model — fueled by golfing tastes held by Asians, not North Americans — will return to a place of prominence, perhaps even pre-eminence.
While such speculation is pretty delicious in its subversion of today’s convention wisdom, several factors do stand in the way of such an evolution. For starters, it’s not clear that Asian golf, generally, and its attendant parkland predilection, specifically, will continue to grow to such a place of influence without support from China. After a period of quite remarkable growth — the PRC built more than 600 new courses from 1995 to 2012 — President Xi Jinping has declared golf to be a symbol of western bourgeois decadence. Starting in 2014, more than 100 courses were subsequently closed or repurposed. New course development has ground to a halt.
The Chinese who still play the game — a difficult figure to confirm but conservative estimates point to 3-5 million golfers there — still love the game. They clearly prefer their golf in a garden. Xi may change his mind. His successor may take a different stance on golf. But without the world’s no. 2 economy on board, the ascent of Asian golf and its attendant course tastes is greatly hampered.
Further, golf the world over is only beginning to reckon an even more crucial relationship — with water. The parkland setting requires an extraordinary amount of irrigation. While most of that moisture is returned to the water table (after passing through turf systems and soil profiles that serve has highly effective chemical filters), the politics of water consumption will only become more contentious in the coming century. This dynamic works against The Augusta National Ideal and favors The St. Andrews Ideal, which contends that brown has always been beautiful.
Still, golf history also demonstrates that tastes can and do change. When I got into the golf business in 1992, the U.S. top 100 ranking was utterly dominated by parkland designs. Today, the genre’s in full retreat. Dozens of parkland stalwarts have been demoted or supplanted by new designs of sand and scrub. Indeed, much of the neo-traditionalist links camp regards the entire parkland period (1945-95) not as a pendulum swing from one ideal to another, but as something of an interregnum. They view the rise of sand and scrub since 1995 as a Restoration.
There is no manifesto driving the attitudes of North American course developers and designers — but neither are they preparing for the pendulum to swing back. They see nothing attractive or interesting in the soft and lush. Golf, in their view, has merely returned to its longstanding roots — and considering the politics of water conservation going forward, none too soon.
“Understanding true links as the ideal playing surface, for pros and amateurs, is relatively new to Asia, slowly established for the last two decades,” says Sang Jun Oh, my Seoul-based colleague on the GOLF Magazine World Top 100 course-rating panel. “So, in Asia, we may need some time for general public and golf industry to understand the value of this. It took us several years for Korean superintendents and members to understand firm and fast is a good thing for golf. At other golf clubs in Korea, people have not had enough exposure to this truth, since they always feel comfortable with what they are used to.”
Neo-traditionalists would argue that sand is both the way and word — something that, eventually, all of humanity will come to understand. Some Asians will surely warm to the links model in time. But actual culture tends to trump golf culture. It says here that larger forces will always lead Asians back to the garden, as Joni Mitchell might have predicted. The question is whether their increasingly vital place in the world golf community will eventually swing global course tastes their way. American tastes, and British tastes before them, didn’t prevail on account of any lasting, inherent truths — not in 1845, not in 1945. The zeitgeist is driven by the whims of crowds, the size of those crowds, the wealth and influence of those crowds — in the moment. And Asia’s golfing moment is coming.