The Player: Tom Lehman


Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

It's often said that the old have licence to be cranky and difficult. This might be the case with your grandmother, but it's also true of golf courses, according to Tom Lehman.

"Unfortunately, things that are quirky are accepted when designed 90 years ago and vilified when designed yesterday," he says. "A case in point is the sixth green at Riviera Country Club, the green with the bunker in the middle. By everybody's estimation it's a great hole. It's been tried since then and people cringe. It's just the way it is. If someone designed the Road Hole today it would be met with laughter. But because it's been sitting where it's been sitting for hundreds of years everyone is willing to let its history and tradition override the fact that if it was built today it would be ridiculed. History and tradition have a huge influence in the way everything in golf is perceived including architecture. Old can be quirky. If it's new we call it Mickey Mouse."

Lehman's taste in golf is resolutely classic."My favourite golf courses are Shinnecock Hills, Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and the Old Course at St Andrews," he says. "The thing they all have in common is incredibly strategic design. It makes you think about how to play the hole starting on the tee in order to attack the pin, you need to be in the right part of the fairway. In order to get in the right part of the fairway you need to challenge some form of hazard. On top of all that each course has a whole variety of completely memorable holes. Each hole when you sit and think about the round afterwards is a hole that you remember for a whole number of reasons. And I would consider each course extremely fair because they reward you when you do what the strategy asks you to do and punish you when you hit it in places that you shouldn't."

Some commentators, architects and authorities seem to believe that the power and sheer ability of top professionals has rendered strategic golf obsolete, reckoning that the only way really to challenge the best players is through length, tight fairways and high rough. Lehman takes a different view. "The way to make golf courses difficult for the best players is to make it possible for a course to play very fast and have greens that are very firm," he says. "If you've built a golf course in which it is not possible to achieve these conditions then the only defence the course will have is the length and the severity of the hazards. If a course can be firm and fast then it puts a great amount of importance on the tee shot and putting the ball in the fairway. It also goes even further than that on the best courses; it forces you to be in the proper side of the fairway. Long and straight should always be rewarded. Crooked should always pay a penalty. Firm and fast conditions provide the best conditions to make this so.

"Without question the greatest championship courses are the most fun and that is because they stimulate all of the senses – visually they are pleasing (even the Old Course); strategically they are challenging, and the topography in every case is amazing. The worst possible golf course, in my opinion, is a course where you say 'that was really hard and it was absolutely no fun.' There is more of that today than there used to be because of the modern obsession of length. The courses that are tough but fun are the ones that create angles of approach, the opportunity for heroic carries and are visually so pleasing to the eye. I personally believe you can't overstate the power of the visual."

As the captain for the US team in this autumn's Ryder Cup matches at the K Club in Dublin, Lehman has given some thought to the differences between strokeplay – at which American golfers have traditionally excelled – and matchplay, at which recent history suggests they are less successful. "A great match play course is one that entices aggressive play," he says. "It is one where you see great heroics and incredible train wrecks. It's a course that forces you to have to hit the shot when everything is on the line and it's also a course that allows for a comeback. The K Club fits the bill for all these." So expect an aggressive, attacking approach from the US team this September.

This article first appeared in issue 5 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2006.