[Ed. — The replica design phase has faded somewhat. This piece ran in the September 2002 print edition of GOLF Magazine — back when the U.S. was still opening hundreds of new courses every year, replica and otherwise. Since 2008, the U.S. course stock has shrunk by some 150 courses each year…]
Television commentators, magazine pundits and denizens of the 19th hole seldom refer to the ’77 British Open. It’s always the ’77 British Open at Turnberry — rarely the ’88 U.S. Open, but rather the ’88 Open at Brookline. This strong sense of place separates golf from sports like tennis; the late Bud Collins might have waxed pedantic about the ’72 Open at Forest Hills, but he never talked about Ken Rosewall’s quarterfinal win on Court 7. Who cares which court it was? Like football fields and hockey rinks, the parameters of play are all pretty much the same.
Golf is different; it’s all about venue. Its tournament layouts — each unique in character, many situated in exotic locales — actively shape the competitive drama and our memories of it. The advent of television has only enhanced this sense of geography, further ingraining these layouts, these holes, in our collective consciousness.
This fascination with “place” begins to explain one of golf’s emerging trends, the replica course, whereby famous holes from various distinguished layouts are re-created and linked together to form distinct, 18-hole loops. A dozen such compilations are now operating across the U.S., with many more on the drawing board. It seems course developers have recognized what Hollywood and Madison Avenue have known for some time — that our culture has long valued familiarity on a par with originality; how else can we explain Back to the Future III?
What’s surprising is that golf has taken so long to recognize the mystical and commercial appeal of replication design which, when done well, is nothing more than trotting out proven quantities.
Replica course design isn’t, in the strict sense, a particularly new idea. Most course architects will admit there are approximately 30 to 40 golf hole templates; everything built after 1900 is basically a variation on one of these themes. Indeed, C.B. Macdonald and partner/protégé Seth Raynor made their considerable marks on American course architecture by routinely mimicking specific British golf holes — The Redan at North Berwick, the Alps at Prestwick and The Road Hole at St. Andrews, among others. “Some of Macdonald’s copies are better than originals, most notably the Redan at National Golf Links on Long Island,” says Gary Galyean, who administers GOLF’s Top 100 rankings, lists replete with replication fodder.
That said, the post-modern knocking-off process began in earnest with Golden Ocala (Fla.) Golf & Country Club, a replica layout which debuted in 1986. Three years later, The Ross Memorial — an unabashed reproduction of great holes designed by The Original Donald — opened for play in Boyne, Mich. The genre’s most recent example: The Royal Links, an aggregation of 18 holes pilfered/copied with loving care (take your pick) from British Open courses and replicated a few miles from the Strip in Las Vegas. A similar project called The Tribute opens this August in Dallas where another replica course, Tour 18, has been doing 70,000 rounds a year since it opened in 1993.
One might imagine golf’s uber traditionalists, who are legion, taking umbrage at these attempts to knock off hallowed ground. But a funny thing happens on the way to conventional wisdom; when one starts fishing around for naysayers on the subject, few take the bait.
“I don’t have a problem with the practice,” says Barry Palm, president of the Donald Ross Society, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Ross layouts. “Design ideas have always been borrowed and most people will never have the opportunity to play some of these great courses.” Adds Galyean, “The replication of notable golf holes is a time-tested and exonerated practice. A product of admitted plagiarism, The National Golf Links is rightly considered a masterpiece.”
Not everyone has been so quick with the olive branch, however. Citing trademark infringements, the resort firms which manage Pinehurst, Harbour Town and Pebble Beach went so far as to sue Tour 18, which had replicated famous holes from all three. The courts ruled in 1995 for Tour 18, whose legal victory has emboldened replicators all the more. Arnold Palmer Golf Management recently purchased Tour 18 and its sister layout in Houston, both of which replicate familiar PGA Tour holes; Palmer plans to develop branded Tour 18 facilities nationwide. Myrtle Beach will soon have an entry, the World Tour Golf Links. And why not? When the product is good, daily-fee players have flocked to these courses, casting votes of approval with their feet.
Let’s face it, most of America’s 25 million golfers will never trod upon the fairways at Seminole (whose no. 9 is featured at the Ross Memorial), or travel to Royal Cinque Ports (Royal Links). This may explain why, wherever they’ve been devised, replica courses have proved extremely popular — a testament to the idea that playing even a middling knock-off of Augusta National’s 13th (Golden Ocala) or the 17th at TPC Sawgrass (Tour 18) is an experience worth, well, experiencing.
“Our parking lot consumer research into the Tour 18 concept was overwhelming,” says Peter Nanula, CEO of Palmer Golf. “We have built, owned and managed all types of courses, designed by Palmer, Fazio, Nicklaus, Jones and others. But we had never encountered the passion and enthusiasm we heard from golfers playing Tour 18 — I mean, people on cell phones calling their buddies about what club they just hit on a famous hole, or how they just birdied the hole that sunk Greg Norman’s round the week before.”
“There’s nothing really new in golf course design; we’re continually recycling tried and true methods,” says architect Perry Dye, who recreated The Royal Links. “Considering the natural landscape in Vegas, we had to manufacture everything. So one may as well manufacture the best. Hell, you’ve got New York, Monte Carlo and Egypt replicated on the Strip, why not Scottish golf?”
Architect Jay Morrish, who designed golf courses with Jack Nicklaus before launching his own successful architecture firm, has an interesting perspective on the replication phenomenon. His office is located in the Dallas suburb of Flowermound, right next door to Tour 18. “I’ve got no problem with the whole premise behind Tour 18 because how many people will actually get to play a course like Augusta?” Morrish points out. “But it’s a great challenge to pull it off properly. At Tour 18 there’s a hole from Muirfield Village, a [Nicklaus] course I helped design. I went out there, scratched my head and said, ‘This is no. 14 at Muirfield?’ But I really don’t think the developers of these replica courses care what I think; they’re laughing all the way to the bank.”
Even within a single course compilation, some replicas are more convincing than others. The climate, tree cover and terrain of northern Michigan, for example, lend themselves quite well to Ross’ work in the Northeastern U.S. — not so well to the east coast of Florida. If surroundings match the originals, modern earth-moving capabilities and GPS allow replicators the opportunity to flatter with startling sincerity. “If you think about it, most of the topography in Las Vegas is similar to links land,” says Dye. “The toughest thing was building the sod-wall bunkers, and there are 106 of them! We built the first 30 bunkers three times before we got them right. The soil is different; the growth characteristics are different. We tried several techniques before we hit upon the look and safety we thought we could live with.”
Yet we keeping coming back to the central appeal of replication design: Most golfers have never seen the sod wall bunkers at Prestwick; they’ve never seen, much less played, the par-5 8th at Royal Liverpool (the 4th hole at Royal Links). This lack of familiarity 1) makes it difficult for golfers to find fault with the accuracy of various replications; and 2) provides all the more incentive to experience that which might otherwise be too far away or forever hidden inside private enclaves. Furthermore, we live in a culture that thrives on the derivative. Why else would Hollywood invest so consistently in projects like “Lethal Weapon IV”, or a frame-by-frame remake of “Psycho”? When sequels aren’t feasible, out come the prequels. The fashion world is no less practical in this regard; why take a chance on new fashions when consumers are sure to embrace the reintroduction of bell-bottoms and floppy collars?
“You can’t underestimate the power of TV here,” Dye interjects. “You’ve got 40 million people watching 4 to 8 hours of golf every weekend; the great moments are played and replayed and discussed over and over again. It has an effect. When Tom Watson sunk that chip shot on the 17th at Pebble Beach, it had an effect; they can’t keep grass on the back of that green because everyone has to try that shot themselves. That’s the power of TV.”
But it’s clearly more than that, else golfers would play once and never return. That’s not happening, as evidenced by the continued success and popularity of places like The New Course at Grand Cypress, an homage to the Old Course at St. Andrews (as Roger Daltry might croon, “Meet the New Course/It’s the same as the Old Course”).
Here’s the bottom line: Walking off the 18th hole at The Ross Memorial (a credible ode to the 16th at Oakland Hills, by the way), it’s difficult to think back on having played anything approaching a mediocre golf hole. The quality of the 18 individual replicas are undeniable; with the appropriate suspension of belief, they’re quite exhilarating, especially if one has the perspective of having played the original.
The experience is akin to eating Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza: It’s not really pizza, of course. But it’s demonstrably good eating.