Course: When was golf's Golden Age?

IF you had a time machine what period of golf would you like to go back and experience?

WOODY Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris tells the story of a successful (but creatively unfulfilled) writer who, whilst vacationing in Paris with his fiancé, is mysteriously transported back in time during a midnight stroll.

He is soon surrounded by his idols from the 1920s – Jean Cocteau, F Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso – the giants of a time that was, in his mind, the greatest period in literature and the arts.

On one of his many visits back in time he and his 1920s love-interest are transported even further back – to the 1890s and a period that she reveres and considers the true ‘Golden Age’. Gaugin, Manet, Monet, Toulouse Latrec.

Of course, the point is that different people have different ideas of what constitutes a 'Golden Age' and having recently seen the movie again I got to thinking: What was the best time in golf?

Would you, for instance go back to the 1860’s? To the days of Old Tom Morris; club maker, course designer, green keeper, Open Champion, legend.

Visit his shop overlooking the home hole at St. Andrews or watch him in action against his great rival, Allan Robertson.

Play St. Andrews, Musselburgh or perhaps the original Open Course at Prestwick. The game at this time was in the midst of its first great expansion outside of these ancient formative links.

New courses were popping up around the coastlines of England, Scotland and Ireland – mostly designed by Morris and his contemporaries. How wonderful to be able to witness their creation.

Was the game as much fun back then? No doubt, though I’m sure the early hickory clubs, with their curious wooden heads and feathery balls that were anything but round, made for a completely different set of challenges.

Not to mention playing on courses with no irrigation, sparse turf and fairly rudimentary mowing regimes. Oh, and wearing a jacket and tie of course!

sir nick faldo's swing thoughts:


Fast-forward a few years and maybe your choice of era would be the 1940s and 50s, to see the giants of the game in action - Hogan, Nelson and Snead.

Or a few years later to witness Nicklaus’ dominance and his battles with rivals Palmer and Player or, later in his career, Miller, Weiskopf, Watson and Norman.

There were some amazing performances in this period.

Byron Nelson in 1945 with his 18 victories, Hogan in 1953, Palmer in 1960 or Nicklaus’ best year, 1972.

Outside of Tiger in 2000, these were some of the greatest of all time.

Then of course there was the 1980s, when the Europeans dominated and the game truly became global.

The likes of Seve, Langer, Woosnam and Lyle strutted the world stage and challenged the long held dominance of the Americans.

Interestingly through all these periods, the game itself changed very little.

Once steel shafts became the norm after 1930, golf equipment more or less stayed the same until the 1990s and whilst the ball saw some improvements, they were fairly minor in the scheme of things.

I think this was to the benefit of the game and certainly the game's great courses, whose lengths remained pretty static.

A great example is Augusta National which was unchanged in length at 6900 yards (6300 metres) between 1948 and 1993. It’s now over 7500 yards (6800 metres).

Perhaps this wasn’t the most technologically advanced period for equipment but it may have been the best – or at least the purest.

Imagine in this day and age the World Number One – with all the money and sponsors at their disposal – choosing to use clubs with a combined age of 70 years (a driver and 3 wood) for the first major of the year because they looked and felt great?

This is precisely what Nicklaus did at the 1975 Masters.



Sadly though, while the play of this era was at its highest, course architecture was at its lowest ebb.

The great architects of the 1920s had all passed away and many of their masterpieces had been altered; knowingly or not.

The depression had put a stop to major course development and whilst big name architects such as Robert Trent Jones became as famous as any who’d come before him, few new courses would be created that were of any global significance.

Some could argue that today’s golf is the best it’s ever been and there’s certainly an excellent case to be made for that.

Firstly, we’ve never seen so many great golf courses. Since 1995 we’ve gone through a renaissance in architecture, the dark days of the 60s and 70s now long gone and almost every classic course has undergone some form of restoration.

On top of this we have many world-class new designs – Sand Hills, Pacific Dunes, Friars Head and, locally, Barnbougle Dunes and Cape Wickham, to name just a few.

Some argue that advances in technology have spoilt today’s game and the disparity between the best in the world and the average golfer has never been as great as it is right now.

Like Augusta, classic courses are being stretched year to year just to keep up with the phenomenal distances that the world’s leading players are hitting the ball.

But of course, the average golfer doesn’t see any of this and is just thankful for the advantages of big-headed drivers and perimeter weighted irons.

Course conditioning has also never seen anything like the standards set today. Greens are incredibly true and fast – almost twice as quick as they were 40 years ago – and fairways resemble surfaces which Old Tom would have been proud of as greens.

But for me, after considering all of this, my ‘Midnight in Paris’ moment has to be the 1920s.

To see my hero Alister Mackenzie in full force along with the other greats of design - Ross, Tillinghast, Colt, Macdonald.

A time when more than half the world’s top 100 courses were built. The era when Pine Valley, Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links, Merion, Augusta, Pebble Beach and closer to home Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath and the rest of the sandbelt, were all brought to life.

To see and play these great courses, when they were first opened and unchanged by committees and time. that would be my ultimate golf dream.

I wonder what yours would be?


Mike Cocking

Mike Cocking is an architect and partner with one of Australia's leading golf design firms - Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead. Click here for OCCM's website

Mike is currently spending his time at Peninsula – Kingswood CGC on major course improvements – a project especially dear to his heart, having joined the club as a 15 year old and representing the club for almost two decades.

After completing a Bachelors degree in Environmental Engineering in 1998, Mike gained a scholarship with the Victoria Institute of Sport's golf program.

Over the next few years he represented Victoria and Australia in various team events, winning a number of major competitions including the 2000 Victorian Amateur Championship.  Travelling extensively for competition play also allowed Mike the opportunity to seek out and study many of the world’s best courses. 

His passion for the game and his inquisitive nature fuelled his interest in golf course architecture, and in 2000 he launched his career as a designer.  Major projects have included redesigns at Bonnie Doon (Sydney), RACV Healesville, RACV Torquay and Royal Canberra.

Mike is also a keen artist and a selection of artwork can be found on his website. 

Mike can be followed on Twitter: @OCCMGolf and @MikeCocking 


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