by Forrest Richardson, Golf Course Architect
Originally appeared in The Golf, the Journal of the Golf Heritage Society and the Society of Hickory Golfers (2021)
One of my fondest memories visiting Disneyland as a kid was the “Great Carousel of Progress” — a revolving stage originally created by General Electric and Disney for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Each audience remained in one of six theatres as the show rotated to scenes with animatronic characters showcasing a family enjoying their homelife. The scenes began from the beginning of the industrial revolution to a futuristic rendition of what life might be like down the road. During each transition from one scene to the other, the song There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow plays. That part was courtesy of the Sherman Brothers, the talented song writers known for Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, from Mary Poppins, as well as many other beloved motion picture scores.
But it wasn’t the show alone that captivated me — it was also what followed. The exit from the revolving theatre took the audience across a massive scale model that had been built to showcase Walt Disney’s vision for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, commonly known as E.P.C.O.T. The vision was to build a city on 35,000 acres in central Florida. Each detail of that model — some 160-feet across — was painstakingly real. Miniature cars, monorails, homes and parks surrounded a futuristic downtown. I was the annoying kid who didn’t want to move along across the catwalk above the model. From a final viewing platform along a long span of glass I was able to study every detail. I was getting to see the future. My eyes were wide open.
Today, my work is to bring golf courses to life. My lens to the world is hopefully not just one size fits all, but rather a set of lenses that can be quickly changed to “see” not only where we’ve been, but what’s coming next. To a large degree, that’s the topic here — the past versus the future. In golf architecture, these are often at odds.
For a moment let’s return to E.P.C.O.T. Here, Walt had envisioned a city that embodied every imaginable technology, design and architecture of the future. But he passed away before the dream turned to reality, and what won out is an interesting combination. One I have long wondered if perhaps Mr. Disney would have considered a compromise.
Today, the primary experience known as E.P.C.O.T. is only one area of the full Walt Disney World destination, a mix of four theme parks, hotels, shopping, entertainment venues and a residential community called Celebration. E.P.C.O.T., as it turns out, became just one theme park, and in that park are two distinct presentations: The past and the future.
The “past” part is a journey around a concentric manmade lake where visitors are entertained by various cultures. You pass through the experiences of the United Kingdom, France, Morocco, Japan, Italy, America, Germany and Mexico. The buildings and landscaping are all from the past. This part of E.P.C.O.T., known as “World Showcase” is an immersion into what was — not what will be. For many visitors this will be their closest encounter with these amazing places. To Disney’s credit, the ambiance, food and offerings — and even the hosts and employees — are all authentic. As has been the custom since E.P.C.O.T.’s opening in 1982, employees of each host country of the World Showcase are citizens of those countries. What we have here is a “re-creation,” and it has been done on a tremendous scale with great detail and care.
The other half of an E.P.C.O.T. visit is “Future World.” Here, more to Walt’s vision, is what’s next and what’s in the works. It’s all about the future.
So, what can we learn about the game of golf by studying a theme park in Florida? To me it is the contrast between the past and the future. When I hear the elite “in the know” golf connoisseur speaking of “classic” design it is my impression that we are being taken down a road to the past. This road leads to a notion where the layout and creation of golf courses was perhaps better in the past because the designs held common traits and details. Just as the architectural details of great buildings had common forms, this notion of “classic” will typically involve hallmarks such as whispy grasses, ragged edges and hazards as if they may have magically appeared. Certainly the discussion of “classic” golf design will always center around less effort to build. Holes are often described as being “found” rather than “created.”
The passion of this golfer is that of the car enthusiast lamenting the design of the 300SL Gullwing, one of Mercedes’ iconic models of the late 1950s. Without question this was a great model. So, too, are the re-creation of buildings along E.P.C.O.T.’s journey around the World Showcase. These are great reminders of the historical architecture of various cultures. Admittedly, all designers draw from the past whether from Italian facades or any of the great influences.
On the other hand — and metaphorically on the opposite side of that manmade lake — we have the future part of our E.P.C.O.T. journey. This part has us opening the mind and has us pausing to think about the future. Here we are experiencing what’s next, new ways of living, recreation and transportation. The architecture here is 180-degrees from classic. It is all about embracing new technology, new environments and new experiences.
Maybe my “either/or” comparison is too stark for golf? Yet, when I hear descriptions of classic golf architecture it does seem there is little room for anything — at least above the ground — to be new or modern. While we tolerate the sophisticated irrigation systems, state-of-the art drainage and latest in turfgrass science, we are quite content with the “same old” style, feel and ambiance. Think for a moment of those re-created buildings at E.P.C.O.T, the ones on the side of the manmade lake where we are approximating the classic architecture of the various countries and cultures. They may be great recreations, but only the plumbing and structures are new and modern. They are like great movie sets, although these are engineered to allow you to eat, shop and partake in what daily life must be like in Morocco — although you are 4,300 miles from an authentic Marrakesh street.
Some of us consider the Swilcan Burn at St. Andrews to be “classic,” but was it considered so when the idea had first been hatched to integrate it to the Old Course? Of course not. All of our taken-for-granted designs in golf were once breakthroughs. They were modern ideas, all made possible by the ideals and innovation that took place on the other side of that manmade lake. From the walls at North Berwick to Oakmont’s Church Pews, and from George Thomas’s bunker in the green at Riviera to Alice and Pete’s tiny island, innovation in golf design is what strikes a particularly special chord within the golfer.
The next time you find yourself applauding “classic” design in golf, take just a moment to consider what really matters. Have we exhausted all of the hazards, features, formats and games golfers experience? Should golf course architects practicing today be encouraged to emulate the past with a pre-packaged palette of motifs, styles and treatments? Does it amount to restraint when we continually hear that the greatest new design “draws its inspiration from the “Golden Age” … or from some particular era in which conditions were “ideal” … or that it embodies a certain set of template designs?
That answer is, of course, complex. For me, I enjoy both sides of that manmade lake when it comes to playing the game. Some of the most celebrated work of the last 20 years has been emulated work to look like it was classic — just like the architecture of E.P.C.O.T.’s emersion into yesteryear. But, to be clear, it is the pursuit of what’s next that keeps me motivated in the design of golf. I am not nearly as interested in recreating golf holes and a certain “look and feel” from the past as I am pursuing innovation.
I guess I’m still on that Great Carousel of Progress.