Golf design’s biggest challenge

Golf design’s biggest challenge
By DS

There are two top clichés of golf course PR work. The first is the inevitable quote from the course architect: “This place was made by God/nature to be a golf course.” We can blame Old Tom Morris for that one, although maybe in his day it wasn’t quite so tired. The source of the second, though, is more elusive. But it is just as pervasive. In press release after press release, new courses are declared to be ‘A challenge for professionals, but still playable to the average golfer.’

Now, this is a worthy goal. One of the joys of golf is that, in spirit if not face to face, it is possible for us ordinary hackers to measure ourselves against the legends of the links. We can claim to play the same game as Tiger Woods, even if replicating any of his shots is beyond conception. We can walk the same fairways, putt the same greens. But can we have any fun doing so?

Championship golf courses have always existed, and some of them have long been regarded as, if not off limits, unadvisable venues for players of lesser ability. Pine Valley was built to test Philadelphia’s elite players, and prepare them better for top level competition: it is still regarded as arguably the best course in the world, and it is still (see our Holing Out column in this issue) very, very difficult in the unrelenting nature of its demands. The Black course at Bethpage State Park in New York still has a sign near the first tee proclaiming ‘The Black Course Is an Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only for Highly Skilled Golfers.’ When the course made its US Open debut in 2002, only champion Tiger Woods was under par after 72 holes around the Black – and it has been further lengthened and made tougher still in the run-up to the 2009 championship.

On the other hand, the alternative brand of championship golf takes a different tack. Courses such as Royal Melbourne in Australia and the Old Course at St Andrews are renowned for being legitimate championship challenges, but not presenting an impossible prospect for an ordinary golfer. They do this by way of clever design, tricky greens and – crucially – firm turf, all of which make attacking tucked flags a tough exercise.

There is, as organisers of major golf tournaments have found over the years, one surefire way of making a golf course difficult, even for today’s best players. Lengthen it so they can’t just hit wedges into every hole, narrow the fairways so drives must be absolutely straight, grow the rough that surrounds them deeper and deeper, so that a ball hit off the short grass can only be chopped back into play and cut the greens still lower to increase the difficulty of putting, especially from above the hole. But this approach is disastrous for golf in general. Longer courses cost more to build and maintain, and take more time to play. Architecturally significant courses are despoiled so that championships can be taken there. And ordinary golfers who play the game at ordinary courses are led to believe that long, narrow and deep are the characteristics of a top track, so they start agitating for their clubs to go that way too.

Yet the goal of a course suitable for all is harder to achieve now than at any point in golf ’s history. Advances in club and ball technology have had only a limited impact on average golfers (if you don’t believe this, then why are handicaps are not coming down?), but for the top players, they have transformed the way the game is played. So-called ‘bomb and gouge’ golf – the theory that you are better off approaching a green with a wedge from the rough than a six iron from the fairway – is coming to dominate professional tours, and holes that were brutally long only a few years ago are now a drive and a flick to the big boys. Perhaps the most grotesque example of this came when the R&A felt compelled to grow long grass most of the way across the fairway on St Andrews’ seventeenth hole before the 2005 Open. Why? Because there is no room to make the hole longer, and 455 yards is no longer a long two shotter to big-hitting professionals. Imagine it: the most famous hole in golf, legendary for its difficulty and for making the best players in the world shake in their Footjoys, reduced to a drive and a nine iron? It couldn’t be allowed. Yet without the collar of rough, that’s what would have happened.

The real answer to this dilemma, of course, is to roll back club or ball technology, or both, and indeed this is starting to happen with the forthcoming rule changes regarding club grooves, which are designed to reduce top players’ ability to impart spin on the ball even out of marginal lies, thus making bomb and gouge a riskier approach. Whether or not this change will work remains to be seen. In the meantime, though, the best golfers continue to hit the ball distances undreamed of by the designers of classic era courses, and the gap between stud and hack is wider than it has ever been.

New courses, consequently, are being built with more ‘horizontal elasticity’ than ever before. There are more sets of tees, costing more to build, and more to maintain. I recently played a (very good) recently opened golf course that had seven sets of tees and almost 2,800 metres (3,000 yards) difference in length between the very back and very front sets. Is this not ridiculous? Yet architect Alice Dye has taught the industry that women, especially senior women, need much shorter tees than has traditionally been the norm, if they are to enjoy their round – and the flatbellies constantly trumpet their need to go further and further back. It is a recipe for disaster.

What do today’s golf architects think is the best way to maintain playability for all? Canadian born, but longtime German resident David Krause, who got his start working for Robert Trent Jones, says that his old boss’s mantra still has much merit. “I spent some years working at Valderrama in Spain, and I always felt – in its old form – that it was the best example of Jones’s theory that holes should be a hard par but an easy bogey,” he says. “It has been extended over the last few years, but at that time it played less than 6,300 metres (6,900 yards). You can’t realistically challenge top players with length anyway nowadays.”

“Off the tee it isn’t so difficult,” Krause continues. “You can place hazards so that they will impact on better players, but create a landing area for the bogey golfer that gives him more breadth and thus opportunity to stray from the line of play. You can mow the semi-rough a little lower, so a missed tee shot is easier to recover.” From then on, though, it becomes much harder. Separate tee shot landing areas are all very well, but every golfer must play to the same green, and the hazards that make life tough for a top player will really make the hacker quake.

Krause says he dislikes unnecessary use of hazards around greens. “The approach shot is more difficult,” he acknowledges. “I think it’s important that hazards are relatively tight to the putting surface. I really criticise hazards – whether it’s sand or water – that are set ten or 15 metres back from a green. That’s no threat to a top player, who isn’t going to leave the ball that far short or miss it that wide, but it’s terrifying to the hacker, whose most likely error is to hit the ball fat and come up short.”

One answer to this is the increasing use of short grass as a ‘hazard’ around greens. Given clever contouring, fairway-length turf around green complexes can make it much harder for good players to recover close to the hole when they miss their approach. Although this seems counterintuitive, evidence shows it to be true – when there is long grass right up to the green edge, balls don’t roll away, but with a closely mowed slope, a narrow miss could easily run 20 metres from the green, creating a shot that is far harder to cosy right up to the holeside. For the bogey player, though, short grass is much less intimidating – he can putt, chip or pitch (or even use that clever five-wood or hybrid chip that has become popular of late) and, although he may not get down in two, the likelihood of a cardwrecking disaster is much reduced.

A favoured tactic of tournament organisers wanting their courses to appear harder is to reduce par figures on some holes. Usually, this means taking a hole that had previously been a shortish par five (around 500 yards) and designating it a par four for the week. As Bruce Charlton pointed out in these pages earlier in the year, though whether you make a ‘par’ or a ‘bogey’ on a hole is, in essence, irrelevant – what matters is your score, whether it be three, four, five or more.

But there is some reality in this. Longer holes, whether they be called par fours or fives, are much more difficult for weaker golfers, for whom every full shot is an opportunity for something to go badly wrong. The scoring gap between rabbit and tiger is far wider on a typical 550 yard hole than on a 150 yard one. This is because, assuming two putts, the rabbit only has to make one good shot to have a chance at par on a short hole, while he has to make three of them (much less likely!) on a very long one. This is why pros make their scores on par fives, and amateurs typically enjoy par threes best.

“Why not have no, or at least very few, par fives?” asks architect Tom Mackenzie, citing many of the older links courses of his native Scotland as venues that may be short by modern standards, but which can still stand up well to today’s better players. At courses such as Lundin, Elie and Crail – none of which is more than 6,400 yards, but all of which can offer a good challenge to strong players – a scarcity of three shot holes leads to a course that is more difficult to tear up. “West Sussex has only one par five, and a good spread of par threes,” Mackenzie says of his home club. “Good players still have good rounds, but it’s not so easy to break par.”

“We know those holes are the easiest for the good players, and much less so for hackers. Then build more par threes, which are the hardest holes for the good players to birdie. We can make those holes so it’s quite simple to make a four at worst, yet still offer a good challenge to the strong player.”

Classic strategic golf design was about angles. Place your tee shot to one side of the fairway, or close to a threatening bunker, and you would be rewarded with an improved line to the green. But bomb and gouge negates angles: the ability to spin the ball from anywhere means that approaching over a bunker is no longer the risk it was. But angles do still matter, according to architects: they just have to be a little more severe. “If greens are set at a diagonal to the line of play, you create opportunities for Sunday pins while still offering easy access to the green. You can tighten up the entrance of a green on a par three, but flare the short grass out thirty or forty metres in front to provide a lay-up opportunity,” says Krause.

Mackenzie agrees. “You can use diagonal hazards off the tee to make players choose which line to take, and make them worry about the penalty if they go through the fairway,” he says, although it’s true that the diagonal hazard that must be carried from the tee is a scary prospect to lots of high handicappers, for whom the idea of distance control is little more than a chimera. “Shaping of green surfaces and surrounds is a key part of making par more demanding to match,” Mackenzie continues. “We often divide greens into distinct sections to force players to hit the right part of the green if they want to get close. But the hard part is building greens like that without making them goofy. Most of us have been on both sides of that line!”

Canadian Jeff Mingay, currently working as associate to his compatriot Rod Whitman, puts it best. “It’s all about distinct angles, interesting contour, a plethora of short grass, and most important, providing effective drainage and irrigation controls so the superintendent can maintain consistently firm conditions,” he says. “Voila! The ideal in golf architecture. A course which challenges the best and, at the same time, provides an enjoyable round for the rest.”

This article first appeared in issue 14 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2008.

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