In many countries around the world, golf is a game under pressure. The untold fortunes being sunk into golf development in emerging markets might not show it, but in traditional golf locales such as the UK and the United States, there is a deep concern about the short-term future. In America, National Golf Foundation (NGF) figures showed that more courses closed than opened in 2006, the first time in sixty years the country’s stock declined. In Britain, many fine traditional clubs find their membership rolls shorter than in living memory, and across the country, joining fees are being slashed or even eliminated.
The problem is not a lack of golfers. Survey after survey shows millions of people enjoy golf but play only rarely. The cost of the game is an issue – club membership is poor value if you only manage five rounds a year – but research tells us that the biggest single obstacle preventing people who identify as golfers but play infrequently getting out more often is time.
Attend any gathering of golf industry folk, and you’ll hear much talk of time. How, people say, can we reduce the amount of time it takes to play golf? How can we create golf experiences apart from the classic 18 hole round, that allow players to participate without committing most of a day? There are many ideas flying around the business, but the two that seem most prominent are the sub-18 hole round, and improved practice facilities.
Which is why the new Repton Short Course at Rudding Park in the north of England is so clever. Rudding, a hotel, conference and golf course complex built in a grade one listed park designed in the late eighteenth century by Humphry Repton, has established itself as one of the region’s leading destinations. Its golf course, designed by Martin Hawtree in the 1990s, weaves its way through Repton’s historic park, cleverly routed to provide golfing challenge without disturbing the master’s landscape.
From the outside, the golf part of the Rudding business would appear to be doing pretty well. On a pleasant but hardly spectacular day in October, the golf course was busy, and, in an area not exactly short of good courses – Alwoodley and Moortown are less than ten miles away in north Leeds, for example – it seems to have picked up plenty of members and does good corporate business. The owners are not complacent, though, and have recently invested £750,000 in the new short course.
Built on a seven acre plot of land near the entrance to the golf facility, the Short Course comprises six holes, varying in length between 71-139 yards and loosely inspired by famous golf holes and courses from around the world. Hawtree’s practice has, once again, done the work, and project architect Russell Talley has done a fine job. Alongside the six hole course is a new short game practice area, and general manager Peter Banks explained to me that he expects the new facility to attract play for a variety of reasons. “If you want to practice your short irons and your short game generally, it’ll be a more interesting way to do so than just hitting shots on a practice green,” he said. “Because it won’t take a long time to play six holes, we hope our members will use the course, perhaps before or after work. And it’s a perfect facility for corporate guests – it will make a great way to wind down after a conference for example, with prizes or maybe even betting!”
So what of the holes themselves? With the proviso that I saw the course some six months before its official opening, scheduled for next April, I was mostly impressed with the work that the Hawtree group has done. This doesn’t feel like mini-golf. The first hole, called ‘Wentworth’ is the longest at 139 yards, and perhaps also the plainest, despite a green tucked between two large oak trees. The second, ‘Augusta’, has a fine green, with a wicked fall-off at the back. Banks reckoned he and his team would have fun putting the flag at the rear of the green and watching golfers trying to run the ball up the incline in the green without going too far, and I’m sure he’s right.
At 71 yards the shortest on the course, the third hole is also the most fun. Named ‘Sunningdale’ it features a long narrow green set at an angle to the tee, with a severe diagonal ridge running through the middle. I can foresee many golfers who feel they ought to make a two failing even to score a par three, and coming away irritated. The fourth, ‘St Andrews’, has a stream in front of the green and will again demand a precise pitch.
But the two holes destined for most attention lie at the end of the shortened round. The fifth, ‘Sawgrass’, has an island green, although the shape, size and angle of that green don’t really recall its famous forebear. The green is also significantly more contoured than golfers might expect; should an artful greenkeeper set the flag close to the edge, chase it at your peril!
One closes the round at ‘Carnoustie’. On this 122 yard hole, a stream, supported by railway sleepers, runs up the left side of the green. The far bank is sloping grass, so if you must miss left, best do so by more than a couple of yards. The problem with the hole, though, is that the grass is mown as green right to the edge. Golfers: do not step back to line up your putts!
What Rudding Park has done with the Repton Course will be an interesting case study for the golf industry in general. Shortened courses that still represent a ‘real’ golf experience may have a fair amount of profile in the US, but in Britain they hardly exist. Logically, courses of this kind should prove a good way of increasing footfall on a property, and hopefully bridging the gap between range and course that deters many new players from fully embracing the game. Will it work? We can only wait and see.
This article first appeared in issue 11 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2008.