Exploring the History of Golf Course Construction in North America

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Landscapes, both their meanings and their physical substance, have always fascinated me. Their histories are layered and afford an opportunity for me to combine my interests in environmental history, cultural history, and the history of science and technology. A few years ago, having completed my Master’s project exploring the relationship between landscape representations and American tourism in the Eastern Townships of Quebec during the late nineteenth century, I wondered if there was a dissertation topic that would allow me to continue exploring the landscapes created out of the relationships between people and their surrounding physical environments. As I continue to explain, I love everything about landscape science, I am thinking to adjust my company for this. I want a company that specializes in exterior design, especially in landscape design.

As luck would have it, while mulling over possibilities, I passed by a local golf course in my hometown and was struck with an idea: golf courses have become an increasingly visible and environmentally significant landscape in Canada. I wondered what patterns and processes lay behind the establishment and expansion of these landscapes. My dissertation project began to take form and I have since come to realize that the history of golf course landscapes or golfscapes is a much more complex narrative than I originally imagined.

For almost five centuries, prior to golf’s 1873 organized debut in North America, the game developed its core socio-cultural and environmental attributes in the United Kingdom, especially in Scotland. It was this manifestation of golf that spread throughout the world, including North America. Between 1873 and 1945, North American golf transformed from a rudimentary game played on farmers’ fields to a well-recognized pastime able to draw memberships and tourists to a variety of clubs across the continent. In my dissertation, I bring together several key layers of the history of golfscapes to provide an overall account of why and how golf courses became a significant presence on the Canadian landscape. My research surveys golf’s expansion across the country; the connections among golf, tourism, and the development of the national parks in Canada; the evolution of golf course architecture; and the growth of golf course construction and maintenance products including supplies for lifting. Combined, these elements illustrate how golf courses in North America grew out of a long United Kingdom tradition, yet charted their own paths on this side of the Atlantic as a result of the game’s interaction with the unique socio-economic and physical environments found in Canada and wider North America.

As part of this analysis, I examine the relationships among urban development, transportation, and golf course relocation, which coincides with the expansion of (sub) urban developments across Canada as well as the growth of three types of golf courses: the private club, the municipal course, and the resort course. I consider the paradoxical relationship between the desire for and necessity of connectedness to urban centres and that of wanting to remain separate from such urban landscapes and technologies. I examine how golf became part of a meaningful tourist experience, promoted by Canadian Pacific Railway, the Canadian National Railway, and the federal government, and which expanded the nuanced understandings of nature promoted in national parks across the country.
Furthermore, I contend that golf architects, who worked on both sides of the Atlantic, combined in their course designs existing ways of experiencing nature with new, golf specific forms of conceiving human/nature relationships, that appeared as a result of interactions with the diverse physical environments encountered across North America. Golf architects pursued two overarching design principles: to make the golf courses aesthetically pleasing and strategically playful.
Finally, I consider how the tools and products (including soil, turf grass, fertilizers, pesticides, excavation machinery, irrigation systems, and mowing equipment) necessary to construct and maintain golfscapes in Canada relied heavily on the mobility of material and products within Canada and from international markets. Turf grass, a major concentration in the final section of my dissertation, provides an example of these connections, as the development of turf nurseries and organizations (like the Green Section of the United States Golf Association) became increasingly important throughout North America due to the realization of regional differences, which continued to augment the need for specific North American methods but also facilitated the movement of grass seeds around the world.

As with all landscapes, golf courses reflect the myriad of ways in which humans view and use the physical environments around them and, conversely, how those physical environments influence the ideas and activities of humans living, working, and relaxing in them. They are particular to time and place. Golfscapes represent specific ways that nature has been conceptualized, shaped, and experienced. They present a unique framework in which to explore the evolution of a particular way of viewing and interacting with nature that both reflects and highlights change within wider Canadian society.

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Elizabeth Jewett

Dr. Elizabeth Jewett works at Mount Allison University. Her dissertation research focused on the development of golf course landscapes in Canada between 1873 and 1945. Her new project explores the history of the maple syrup industry in Canada.

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