Dr. Laidlaw Purves and his Principles of (Victorian) Golf Course Design.

Strategic design principles as laid down by John Low, Alister MacKenzie, Harry Colt, Tom Simpson et al. are well known to all and still, for the most part dictate good practice in golf course design, and I think it correct to state that whilst strategy has it roots firmly at St Andrews, the catalyst for strategic era thinking can be traced back to Messrs. Paton and Low of Woking. This evolution in strategic thinking does however beg the question – who set the standard for design before THAT bunker on the 4th hole at Woking changed everything?

Apocryphal folklore tells us Victorian professional golfers turned architects simply turned up with a few stakes with which to mark out any given course as they attempted to lay out something that bore at least some resemblance to existing and ancient links, but given the often poor quality of the terrain on offer they were prone to lay out point-to-point steeplechase holes, with all manner of trial and tribulations installed by way of penalty for the foozler.

There was also and early on a breed of ‘gentlemen’ architects emerging and trying their hand at design. W. Herbert Fowler being one such at Walton Heath, but he not until 1903. Even earlier and from 1875 Dr. Laidlaw Purves was taking an interest in design and in 1886 was scouring the south coast of England to provide a great links for London, which he hoped would be comparable with Westward Ho! Hoylake, and further afield, with the ancient links of Scotland.

The Maiden – a blind par 3 played over the highest sand dune on the golf course.

Once opened, Purves course at Sandwich was clearly formidable and quickly gained a reputation as such, but what were the principles behind the laying out of his new links, was it merely the same sticks in the ground process as described above?

In an 1890 article from ‘GOLF, A Weekly Record of Ye Royal And Ancient Game’ Purves views on handicapping and his disquiet at R&A rules supremacy are related, Purves goes on to offer us his design principles. I warn you these are not for the feint-hearted or “killjoys. Equipped with new science and fine theories” there are at least the modest vestiges of the early strategic thinking which would emerge in full once the century turned, but the thoughts of Laidlaw Purves were resolutely penal.

Sandwich as laid out by Purves 1888

The Design Principles of Dr. Laidlaw Purves.

1. Having obtained a large plan showing the boundaries of the ground on which the proposed course is to be made, all the places suitable for natural putting-greens are marked with flags of one colour, and the less suitable with flags of another colour.

2. All courses should, if possible, have 36 holes, or 18 capable of making good golfing holes played in both ways. The 18 hole course should be of such a length that the average scratch score will be about 90 strokes.

3. Avoid crossing, rather meet than cross.

4. There should be two tees for each medal hole, one for calm days and the wind with the player, the other when the wind is adverse.

5. Holes should be one or more drives in length, so that any badly driven ball prevents the player reaching the green in the same number of strokes as the player who had driven well. Where the length cannot be obtained, any badly played tee shot should meet a hazard, which will have the same effect.

6. Safe lies should be obtainable by all classes of drivers, but all should have hazards to negotiate to obtain these lies.

7. Avoid the drive and iron hole, and where this cannot be avoided, the hole should be placed so that, unless the tee-shot bunker is carried, the approach shot is more difficult than if the bunker be carried from the tee.

8. There should be a hazard from every tee, the carrying of which gives an advantage. A flag showing the line and distance to be carried is useful.

9. The bunkers should be visible, as far as possible, from the lie of the shots intended to carry them.

10. When any hazard is carried a good lie should be obtained.

11. The course proper ought to be bounded by hazards of some sort- long grass and bad lies -to prevent a player avoiding the recognised hazards, which should all be accurately laid down on the plan.

12. There should be a bunker in front of every green, which cannot be avoided without loss of distance and risk.

13. The putting-green should be undulating and large enough to allow of a ball properly pitched across the bunker staying on the green. Where the size cannot be obtained, the putting-green should slope toward the player in approaching.

14. A typical hole is one having a hazard from the tee requiring a fair shot to carry it, a hazard for the shot through the green, the carrying of which hazard makes the player, and a drive into the putting green carrying the hazard in front of it. Where each of these shots is properly played, a good lie should be obtained.

The above is the antithesis of what came just 10 years later at Woking and whilst I dislike the term ‘Dark Age’ it was certainly thinking of a first generation nature. Purves died in 1918 so never witnessed the best of post WW1 golf design, would he have liked or appreciated it? One can only muse.

Purves acolytes did not welcome the changes made by the burgeoning ‘cranks’ of the strategic era.

We do know that Royal St. George’s although much changed, still bears the DNA of its maker, Jack Nicklaus is reported as ranking RSG as his least favourite Open venue, my Cockaigne allegiances dictate I rank RSG as second only to St. Andrews. That Royal St. George’s offers a magnificent test of golf, there is no doubt .

4 thoughts on “Dr. Laidlaw Purves and his Principles of (Victorian) Golf Course Design.”

  1. Well done Lee. A needed look at early principles of golf architecture. The Victorian era was not just a primitive moment in gca. It had its own very sophisticated design ideas.
    When did the “Killjoy…” piece appear? Who was the author?

  2. Lee,I’m sorry for the slow response. I have a couple of health conditions and have been laid up in bed for a few days. The Purves post is great, nice job. His 14 principles are a bit scary, but No. 8 shows some hope at least. I wonder if Low and Paton latched on to this one and modified it slightly. It also shows Purves was probably the first ‘Heroic’ designer – long before RTJ. The overwhelming feeling on reading this, though, is ‘Thank God for John Low’.  Cheers, Tony 

    Sent from my T-Mobile 4G LTE Device

  3. This is pretty cool. I wouldn’t mind a little more Victorian thinking in modern design. I wouldn’t advocate going full Purves (actually it would be refreshing to see a Victorian-inspired new design), but there’s nothing wrong with requiring players to occasionally pull off a shot and get the ball air born.

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