A Casual 9, Episode 13: Keith Cutten

I am thrilled to introduce yet another budding Canadian golf course architect, Keith Cutten, on our Q&A series A Casual 9.  Keith has been working with his mentor, Rod Whitman, since 2007, and has also worked on an array of projects with architects such as Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw, and Jeff Mingay.  Keith established Cutten Golf Inc. in 2010 with a goal of creating fun, exciting, and strategic golf. His recently published book, The Evolution of Golf Course Design, takes a deep dive into the history of golf course architecture, and has quickly become a must-read for anyone with an interest in the craft. Please enjoy.


1. Tell us about how you were introduced to the game of golf and what got you interested in the golf course architecture business.

KC:  While Tiger-mania and Canadian Mike Weir’s win at the Masters did much to feed my passion, my exposure to the game came much earlier. My grandfather, who was English, was fascinated with golf.  He made several trips over to England and Scotland when I was young and always returned with stories of grandeur. Stories which easily captivated a young boy interested in golf.  He would boast about the quality of the courses in his home country and would communicate his passion to me through pictures and scorecards.

A few years later, and now fully obsessed with the game, I sat down with my parents and plotted out a plan to become a golf course architect. My father, an environmental scientist, and mother convinced me that an undergraduate degree in environmental planning and design would best prepare me for my chosen career.  Almost two decades later, I have now completed that journey. With my stamp as a Registered Professional Planner, coupled to a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Guelph, I have the necessary skills to take any project from concept to contour.

Keith Cutten golf architect

2. What sorts of projects are you working on right now?

KC:  Still partnered with my mentor Rod Whitman, I am happy to say we are the busiest we have been since I started with him back in 2007.  Currently, we are working to rebuild four greens at the Fredericton Golf Club in New Brunswick.  Further, we have just started construction on a 10-hole shortcourse (par 3) at Cabot Resort in Inverness, Nova Scotia.  We’ve got the band back together, so to speak, as the course will be a co-design effort by Rod Whitman and Dave Axland (who was our project manager during the construction of Cabot Links).

Further, we have Master Plans in the works at the Glencoe Golf and Country Club in Alberta and at the Brantford Golf and Country Club in Ontario.

BRANTFORD Master Plan_Revised April 2019
Master Plan for Brantford Golf and Country Club (image courtesy of Keith Cutten)

Finally, in addition to returning to the Algonquin Golf and Country Club this fall to continue with additional renovation work, Rod and I are excited by two potential new build projects which seem likely to go forward in the next year or so.  It is exciting times!

3. How competitive is it to get work as a golf course architect right now?

KC:  Achieving success in the world of golf course architecture has always been a tough undertaking. Perhaps now more than ever, social and economic factors have exacerbated circumstances.  

Since 2008, the primary focus of the industry has been renovations and restorations.  The Great Recession caused massive changes in social perceptions.  The developer-driven model was failing; however, the minimalist movement, which was founded on the design-build method, continued to persevere.  Primarily, this was due to its inherent economic benefits.  This movement was only strengthened by the global economic instabilities, as the surfacing craft-styled approach (design-build method) is capable of surviving on an annual output of just one or two projects.  The reason is simple enough: a deeper involvement of the designer.  This approach is in stark contrast to the architect-contractor model, which had permeated the profession during the modern era of design.

Recently, experts have acknowledged that we are likely experiencing some form of Renaissance, or a Second Golden Age of Golf Course Design (also dubbed Neo-Classical).  However, the limited commissions available seem to go to the same four big name firms – Coore & Crenshaw, Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf, Gil Hanse and David McLay Kidd.

Personally, I was fortunate to start my career under the mentorship of Rod Whitman, and have had the great opportunity of honing my skills in the design-build method under the watchful eye of Rod, and his friends Dave Axland and Bill Coore.  My advice to young up-and-comers would be to find a mentor.   

4. Your recently published book, The Evolution of Golf Course Design, is an extensive dive into the history of golf course architecture. Where did the motivation come from to tackle this project and why do you think the history of golf and architecture are important?

KC:  Understanding the history of golf course architecture is very important as I believe it is our duty, as stewards of this game we love, to safeguard its future.  Further, we can only effectively achieve this goal through a clear understanding of the game’s past.

Bill Coore once told me that he learns more from seeing a bad golf course than a good one.  I think the same can be said for those who study history.  Understanding what not to do, and more importantly why, can bring about greater understanding when compared to simple success stories.  The study of golf course architecture should be considered in the same way.

Like great architecture which “challenges the elite player, but encourages the beginner”, I took this same line when crafting The Evolution of Golf Course Design.  Though there is deep and rich historical information presented in the book to expand the mind of even the most well-read historian, the book is also presented in a manner which allows the novice to access this very important information.  Accessibility was a major goal.

The research for the book actually started as a thesis, a requirement in my pursuit of a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the University of Guelph.  After the major years of construction at Cabot Links in Inverness, and having worked with Rod Whitman since 2007 at Sagebrush, I decided to return to school as a mature student in 2012.  The recession had made me realize that the golf industry, specifically the profession of golf course design, was getting smaller and more competitive.  I wanted to do something to set myself apart.

However, I did not start the thesis process with the intent of turning the results into a book.  Instead, my research was simply the product of trying to answer my own questions as they pertained to the history of golf course architecture.  In fact, and also commencing in 2012, it was the renovation of Pinehurst No. 2 which started the ball rolling.

After hearing Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw declare that they were ‘not environmental crusaders’ but simply wished to ‘restore the classic course to its intended design’, I began to ask myself how these changes could have been allowed to occur to such a masterpiece.  Further, while sitting in a first-year history course, I began to process the many events and external influences which would shape the top practitioners and history of landscape architecture.  To me, having also taken similar courses in my undergrad in Planning and Environmental Design, the connections were both fascinating and revealing.  Moreover, I was quick to realize that this method of study would be essential to our later success as landscape architects.  As such, I began to ask myself why the study of golf course architecture had not been undertaken in such a manner.

Following a detailed review of the literature of golf course architecture, a journey which really started for me at the age of fourteen, I set to work to fill in the blanks.  I decided to look at each designer with fresh eyes.  Instead of fixating on their ultimate design philosophies and portfolio of work, I aimed to distill their influences and development as an artist.  The effects of world history, economics, prevailing artistic trends, social movements, and the inter-personal relationships were illuminated and contrasted to reveal a more complete history.  The resulting chronology and profiles revealed a deeper understanding of the profession.  An understanding which I believe has made me a better architect in this age of renovations.

Because I needed to submit my research to a committee comprised of landscape architects, my thesis had been written in a manner which was accessible to even the golf architecture novice.  So, when my degree was complete, I began to wonder if the golf industry would enjoy my findings.  After contacting my friend Paul Daley, the Australian writer, editor, and publisher, we soon decided it was a worthy project.  We would spend the better part of the next two years polishing my research into The Evolution of Golf Course Design. 

The Evolution of Golf Course Design_Book Cover
The Evolution of Golf Course Design cover
Pages from Evolution of Golf Course design
Two page spread from The Evolution of Golf Course Design (Left: hand drawn plans of Old Sandwich by Bill Coore Right: aerial image of Old Sandwich by Jon Cavalier)

5. Who are some golf course architects whose contributions to the game may be under-appreciated?

KC:  The importance of the work done by those operating between 1900 and 1914 (the onset of WWI) has frequently been undervalued when compared to the inter-war period (the Golden Age of Golf Course Design).  After all, golf architecture as a profession was established in Britain.  The decimation of the British economy and population following WWI prompted the movement of many to North America.  Golf architecture’s pre-war practitioners made the move in an effort to exploit the budding markets across the Atlantic.  However, the accomplishments achieved prior to the great wars set standards which last to this day.  Further, it was the relationships between those challenging the conventions of the day which would change the industry.

In 1898, Horace G Hutchinson was instrumental in establishing The Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society, commonly referred to as The Society.  Interestingly, Hutchinson served as its first president, while John Low, his good friend, filled the role of captain.  Arthur Croome was secretary, with Harry Colt a committee member. Bernard Darwin played in the first match, following The Society’s establishment.  These relationships, formed between Hutchinson and the other members of The Society, have been largely taken for granted in the history of golf course architecture.  In fact, these men took their relationships to the R&A, serving on multiple committees.

The impact that Low, Colt and Darwin made on golf course architecture in the 1900s cannot be understated.  Low’s efforts at Woking, Colt at Sunningdale, and Darwin with his pen, all worked to further the profession and deepen our understanding of golf course architecture.

If I am ever crazy enough to write another book, I would love to devote more time into exploring this important era.

PHOTO CREDIT - Dale Concannon and Old Golf Images - Sunningdale Golf Club_Surrey_England_10th hole_construction_Harry Colt
The 10th green at Sunningdale on the New Course, 1924 (Photo credit: Dale Concannon via oldgolfimages.com)

6. What do you think makes a golf course fun?

KC:  At its core, golf is a game and games are meant to be fun. With magazine ratings and professional standards constantly looming over course designers, this simple fact has been frequently forgotten.

The world’s best golf courses present low-handicap players with the type of playing interest and challenge they covet and simultaneously allow everyone else to enjoy the game.  This is the ideal in golf architecture.  A golf course doesn’t need to be cluttered with an abundance of bunkers, trees and other hazards to present an adequate challenge.  In fact, such courses tend to be pretty straightforward for the best and frustrating for the rest.  Contour, adequate width and strategic shot values/angles of play are time honored tools to achieve this goal.

The only common characteristic shared by the best courses is distinctiveness.  Golf architecture is not about creating ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ holes.  It’s about creating a varied and attractive golf course.  If a golf course presents a variety of interesting looks and challenges to golfers of all abilities in a uniquely attractive environment, the golf usually takes care of itself.  The aesthetics of the golf course should enhance the characteristics unique to each individual property. 

7. What sort of impact do you think the professional game (PGA Tour level) has on how people view the game and golf course architecture?

KC:  There is no question that professional golfers have the power to influence the masses when it comes to the game of golf.  Starting as far back as Old Tom Morris at the home of golf, Bobby Jones during the inter-war period (Golden Age), Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus growing the game with television, the impact of Seve Ballesteros on golf in Europe, and the overwhelming impact of Tiger Woods, golf has become a business and the game’s big names have always moved the needle.  As such, it is no surprise that these names are synonymous with the discipline of golf course architecture as well.

However, whereas the professional golfer has spent more than 10,000 hours (the widely touted theory pertaining to the time needed to master a craft) perfecting their swing, great golf course architects have spent this time understanding the world’s best layouts and the construction methods needed to implement time honored design strategies into the varied landscapes of golf.  Sadly, name recognition, branding, money and marketing often vault top-level professionals into the design world spotlight.

8. What are your thoughts on golf course rankings and how important are they to architects? (Golf Digest Top 100’s, etc)

KC:  Magazines have been hugely important to the evolution of golf course architecture.  However, golf course rankings are largely a modern conception.  Before the onset of WWII, many of golf’s publications were overseen by an editor who was not just a writer, but who was also prolific in design practice and/or theory.

In the case of Horace Hutchinson, the first editor of a regular publication on golf, his experience in design practice pre-dated his role at Country Life magazine. Similarly, Walter J. Travis was the founder and editor of the American Golfer magazine in 1908. Though, like Hutchinson, Travis had already been active in golf design starting with Ekwanok Country Club in 1899. Lastly, when Golf Illustrated & Outdoor America was founded in 1914, Max H. Behr was made editor. Unlike Hutchinson and Travis, Behr would use his writing experience to later transition from writing to design. Regardless, those at the helm of the major golf publications were informed practitioners in the field of golf course architecture. Unfortunately, these publications, like the industry of golf itself, would lose momentum during WWII, causing some of these publications to fold.

Golf Illustrated

Following WWII, this trend changed. While prolific golf writers emerged, such as Bernard Darwin and Herbert Warren Wind, their focus shifted to the playing of the game and its golfing stars, while golf architecture became secondary. This trend increased as golf equipment began to advance more rapidly, and more and more space was devoted to the tools of the game. Hence, those practicing golf course architecture were left to their own devices and little critique was made of their works.

In 1950, the magazine Golf Digest was founded in the United States. In 1966, the magazine released the first ever golf course rankings. What would later become “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses”, and would later spurn other lists such as the “World’s 100 Greatest Courses”, “America’s 100 Greatest Public Golf Courses”, and the “100 Best Golf Courses Outside the United States,” in fact started under a different name. Until 1985, this list was titled, at different times, both “America’s 100 Most Testing Courses” and “America’s 100 Greatest Tests of Golf.” As such, public opinion and perceived success were focused on course toughness.

Golf Digest rankings are created based on the feedback of selected panelists who submit scores for courses on seven different criteria, using a ten-point system. These seven criteria are: 1) shot values; 2) resistance to scoring; 3) design variety; 4) memorability; 5) aesthetics; 6) conditioning; and, 7) ambience. A golf course needs a minimum of 45 evaluations to be eligible for ranking.  However, it is not prohibited for courses to invite and coddle panelists.  The criteria is more focused on course toughness, setting and maintenance than overall design quality. Nearly all other course rankings have followed this method.  The result has been an industry where success is dependent on catering to these criteria. 

9. How do you envision the game being played 50 years from now?

KC:  Currently, our world is very much in turmoil.  Tensions in the United States, Britain and Europe threaten to destabilize both political and economic balances.  The growing influence of Russia and China can no longer be ignored.  After all, golf is a leisure activity, one which has typically thrived during periods of stability.  In essence, investment in the game becomes much easier when prospects are high, so we best hope for a more stable future!

That said, there are many young, talented and passionate shapers/architects waiting eagerly in the wings.  I believe the recent ‘thinning of the heard’ caused by the Great Recession has put the golf industry in a prime position moving forward.  When the market inevitably turns, I believe we will see those emerge who will continue to push the boundaries of strategy and aesthetic execution.  Most importantly, I think there will be a strong push for local and urban golf, where accessibility to great golf will help to foster the game.

A big thanks to Keith for taking part and sharing his thoughtful insights! For more about Keith, his work, or to order a copy of his book, The Evolution of Golf Course Design, make sure to visit his website: https://cuttengolf.com/

You can also connect with Keith on social media:

Twitter: @CuttenGolf

Instagram: @cuttengolf 

Facebook: Cutten Golf Course Design

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