Most of the time, the Architect of the Year is the designer who builds the best golf course for that particular calendar year. But sometimes the award goes to the person who had the most beneficial influence on architecture, if you understand the nuance. Two years ago Golf Digest’s Ron Whitten gave the Architect of the Year award to Charles Blair Macdonald – dead almost 75 years – because of his far-reaching influence on an entire generation of modern architects.
This year, we also branch out a bit in honoring our Architect of the Year more for what he did for golf off the course than on. Steve Smyers – world-class amateur player, dedicated member of various USGA committees, and internationally acclaimed architect who has designed courses on every continent in the world – recently finished an 11-year research project into the impact of modern technology on classic golf courses. The results are the most far-reaching and analytical review of the intersection of technology and design ever done; they analyze almost 40 years of data from many of the nation’s most ancient golf strongholds.
Smyers’s research confirms that, yes, technology has had some impact on both distance and making classic golf courses outdated, but agronomic practices and set-up have also had a severe effect as well. His research shows that at both Pine Valley and Augusta National not only did green speeds increase (roughly) from 4 to almost 14 on the Stimpmeter, but mowing heights of the greens went from three-fourths of an inch to one-10th of an inch.
“The dilemma we face is that it will be hard to reverse these trends, even though we should. If we can’t turn back those trends, we need to increase sustainability – water conservation and land conservation – and we need to make the game more economical, both in terms of the cost of a round of golf and the cost required to build and maintain a golf course,” explains Smyers. “We need to use less land and less water and reduce the thumbprint; there needs to be less intensively maintained turf.”
Smyers’s work has earned the admiration of architects, course owners and governing bodies alike. “Smilin’ Smyers,” as he’s known in the golf world, delivers the sobering results of his study in such a positive and enlightening way he not only persuades everyone in golf as to the urgency of the need for reform, but also rallies everyone in golf to the cause, galvanizing them to the task at hand. Hopefully, many new USGA, PGA of America and grass-roots initiatives will blossom from the seeds he has sown and will continue to nurture.