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Branding Golden Age Treasures: Restoration of Classic Golf Courses

The first full week of April signals one thing for golfers: the Masters Tournament.

And each spring Jim Nantz will offer his signature reminder that this is “a tradition unlike any other.”

He has a point. And why is it unlike any other? To use business-speak, what is the unique selling proposition? Why are people buying this brand? (You can hear from Nantz himself why the tournament is so special in the spring issue of NCA’s Club Director.)

Creating a Brand

The Masters is a brand that stands for something. First, there is the distinctive logo and green jacket. There is the setting (Augusta National Golf Club); the founder (Bobby Jones); and a pantheon of golfing legends (e.g., Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods).

The course is the distinctive “packaging” for this brand.  Augusta National is a visual buffet: intensely green playfields dotted with meandering ovals of white sand …  narrow, precise fairways yielding to greener but equally precise rough … azaleas in bloom …  the stone bridge at Rae’s Creek.

This is what Augusta National looks like. Packaging and product meld into a unitary story.

The Iconic Golf Course

The “Golden Age” of golf course architecture refers to a time stretching from the end of WWI to the Great Depression during which many of the most iconic courses in America were designed and constructed.

Architects of this era—Charles Blair Macdonald, Donald Ross and Alister MacKenzie to name a few—designed courses characterized by their expert staging of strategic choice opportunities for the average and pro golfer alike. Navigating a course like this, one would have to play to their strengths and balance risk and reward with each shot.

As importantly, many these courses were also remarkable for the harmony they achieved with the natural landscape, often seamlessly blending existing contours and features of the land with the challenges presented by the course.

“The chief object of every golf architect or green keeper worth his salt, ” said Alister MacKenzie, “is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from Nature herself.”

An iconic brand and Golden Age course in this vein that continues to inspire and transfix is Pinehurst No. 2.

Pinehurst No. 2

Donald Ross designed Pinehurst No. 2 in 1907, and it intuitively flowed though the sandhills of its central North Carolina location, utilizing indigenous plants and native soil in sculpting surrounding hazards. The course was fine-tuned relentlessly in its first few decades by Ross himself, who owned a home on the 3rd hole, but always in a manner that stayed true to the landscape.

However, following Ross’s death in 1948, the No. 2 course underwent a period of change that drifted from Ross’s vision. The No. 2 course was neither neglected nor experienced a decline in reputation. To the contrary, it was as popular and expertly manicured as ever, hosting the US Open in 1999 and 2005.

But gradually, Pinehurst began to look a whole lot like other courses: awash in green, dotted with orderly, white sand bunkers and non-native vegetation and requiring some 1,100 sprinkler heads.

Pinehurst executives and maintenance staff, ever mindful of Ross’ legacy, decided in 2010 to restore the course to its old glory.

Using Ross’s documents at Pinehurst’s village library and WWII-era aerial photographs, a restoration crew led by course designer Bill Coore and partner Ben Crenshaw were able to piece together a richly detailed image of the course as Ross had left it. It had wider, firmer fairways (affording amateurs and pros strategic options for approach), whose borders gave way to unraked, sandy waste areas rife with wiregrass and pine straw.

Equipped with knowledge of Ross’s original intentions, Coore and Crenshaw and their team went to work removing turf, exposing long-buried expanses of sand, and reintroducing nearly 100 native species of plants to the landscape. And, a more practical effect of the restoration: the removal of some 700 sprinklers from the course and subsequent 50 percent reduction in water usage.

For a game whose biggest threat to its survival is water says the USGA, Pinehurst’s example shows the way forward. It’s back to the future.


Brand Basics

Here are a few lessons about the classic brand and its principles:

1.    Brands—whether consumer packaged goods or famous golf courses—can be incredibly valuable assets. They garner widespread attention and admiration. Loyalty follows, as do patronage, membership and money.

2.    One of the primary drivers of brand value is the story telling that gives the brand its history and significance.

3.    All brands need to be refreshed and updated. Those charged with brand stewardship must strike a balance between safeguarding tradition and maintaining relevance.


Club Trends Spring 2017