You might think that professional golfers would be hostile to the impact of weather on golf courses. After all, weather is a random factor, and pros are notorious for seeking to eliminate as many extraneous influences on the game as is possible. But Mark O'Meara is an exception.
When asked to name his favourite courses, O'Meara cites conditions as a prime source of inspiration. "I would say Pebble Beach and Augusta in the US, and I really like Portmarnock in Ireland and Royal Birkdale in the UK," he says. "All of these courses offer great visuals in addition to their strong playing characteristics. I like the fact that Portmarnock and Birkdale don't have too many blind shots, unlike a lot of links courses. I also like the fact that all of these courses are affected by weather. That's pretty obvious at Pebble and the links courses, but even at Augusta, with the need to approach the greens with higher shots, the wind can really swirl around and affect the ball. I love the role that weather plays in golf."
O'Meara's taste in architects is diverse. "From the golden age I have to say my favourites are AW Tillinghast, Alister MacKenzie, and Donald Ross. Tom Fazio is my favourite modern architect," he says. "Again, these architects all feature great visibility on their courses, and they all achieve good strategic design with plenty of playing options for golfers of all abilities. Did anyone ever present better visuals than MacKenzie at Cypress Point, Pasatiempo, and Augusta? It's all there waiting for you to tee off. Tom Fazio, among modern designers, seems to pay particularly close attention to keeping things visible on the golf course."
The modern, tournament-inspired vogue for narrow fairways and high rough isn't to O'Meara's taste, whether playing or in his signature design business. "Most golfers don't want to spend all day searching for their errant shots in the tall grass. Certainly one would expect tournament setup to include taller rough than usual, but Augusta protects par well with pretty wide fairways and very little rough, by having firm undulating greens that demand great precision in tournament conditions," he says. "Pebble's small, tightly bunkered greens offer much of that course's defence, especially when the wind blows. Of course, I don't really have a problem with the best players in the world, on courses in great condition, shooting low numbers. Tournament conditions should be firm and fast, so the ball chases around, and then hope the wind blows."
To make tournament golfers think, O'Meara advocates tough green complexes. Holes, he says, should generally be designed from the green back. "I think right from the beginning, St Andrews teaches us that strategy starts at the green and works backward to the approach and the tee shot," he argues. "Augusta was certainly inspired by that philosophy – to approach a particular pin or part of the green, your approach shot needs to come from a certain angle, so your tee shot needs to be in position to make that approach shot. Certainly the length that some golfers are now getting off the tee minimises that sort of strategic thinking, but a well-designed green complex, with closely guarded pin positions, should reward a strategic approach to the game. Look also at a course like Hilton Head; it's not long but it is tight and tree-lined with small greens, and it consistently holds up pretty well against the best players in the world."
And variations of distance are also key, says O'Meara, citing a Canadian course with which he was involved. "Something we did at Grandview in Ontario was to create par fours that are at the extremes of the normal yardage range. There we created four pretty short par fours and four very long par fours, with only two in the 380-420 yard, range. Certainly we did that in part because that is what the natural site suggested, but it is also a great way to get players to think about their approach to the hole rather than just bust a drive and hit a wedge. On the short holes, with plenty of danger lurking, the top golfers are thinking birdie and will often make a mistake by being too aggressive. They are disappointed in par, and devastated by a bogey on those holes, while the short hitter has a good opportunity to hit a short iron approach and make par. On the very long par fours, the top golfers know they need to make par, but will sometimes risk too much and make bogey or worse, while the short hitter, if he is being smart and realistic, knows a bogey is just fine for him and takes a more conservative route."
As a player that is involved with course design, O'Meara says the site must come first. "What do the site's natural features – topography, vegetation, rock, wetlands, wind, and views tell us? We are pretty adamant about getting the routing of the course to fit the natural site as closely as possible," he says. "We want to find as many great natural holes out there on a given piece of land as we can. After we have a best-fit routing, then we start to develop the details of each hole, adding challenge, interest, strategy, variety, and beauty. If the property is good and we have done the routing correctly, those details present themselves pretty easily. I want to make sure each hole is playable for all golfers, so we may have to make a few refinements to make sure that happens. It is a process that always starts by being reactive to the site.
"I think we have to remind ourselves who is paying the bills for all the golf courses we build and maintain. Extremely fast conditions are okay for tournament week, but they are not really sustainable, and the average golfer wants to have fun, not suffer on the golf course. I think it was Donald Ross who said, 'Golf should be a pleasure, not a penance.' If we want this difficult game of ours to grow, we need to provide courses that are cost effective to build and maintain, environmentally sustainable, and fun to play."
This article first appeared in issue 4 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2006.