Golf courses have changed tremendously in my lifetime – and while there have been many positive developments, there are also some aspects of modern golf course design and maintenance I am not so keen on.
We have become used to playing longer golf courses with lots of bunkering, and on fairways and greens with perfect turf.
But too often the experience on and around the golf course is the same everywhere we go – and the uniformity of modern golf is leading to a lack of variety, and a lack of challenge on the course itself.
While some aspects of golf course design are dictated by the modern consumer, and are unlikely to change, I believe elements of traditional style courses and play offer a solution to give the modern day amateur and professional the variety and skill challenge that is too often lacking.
One of the biggest changes I have seen in my lifetime is the length of golf courses. Courses are significantly longer now – and are being designed to be longer, still – to accommodate the modern golf ball. This is an issue I am often asked about at the Open Championship and where the length of the modern ball is evident in professional play on older golf courses.
The other big change has been the tremendous improvement in turf grass cultivation, managed and maintained by professionally trained and well-educated course superintendents. Golfers worldwide have become less tolerant of poor turf and now demand perfection, which is why we have seen the introduction of hybrid grasses to give golf courses the pristine look. Of course, it costs a heap of money – but that has become acceptable because the world has become increasingly affluent.
This is one area I am personally not carried away with, because one of the great skills of golf, certainly pre-1950, was the player's ability to handle a variety of lies, good and bad. It was a principle that extended to championship golf in Britain and you just had to use your skill to play whatever shot you faced.
Today, golfers want grassy lies on the fairways. With the exception of the Old Course at St Andrews, there are very few places where you won't systematically find plenty of grass under the ball on the fairway. So the skill of playing from different lies is no longer necessary and is something that golf itself has lost – but there is no going back.
It's the same on the putting greens.
Nobody tolerates grain on greens now, where a putt will be faster in one direction than the other, or where different greens could be different speeds, requiring skill and judgment to tackle.
Golf has sought perfection on the greens to the point where the turf looks – and could be – artificial. Professionals don't stroke the ball, now. They waft at it, because the greens are all so fast. We are making the game easier and easier for top players – and if we really wanted to sort them out, we would give them conditions they were uncomfortable with.
So, what can be done – and should we, could we, revive some of the elements of design and skill challenges that are lacking from the modern game? Well, the reality is that most golfers demand good turf and I think it would very hard to return to the kind of conditions that I was used to playing. The affluent golfer wants a nice day out in the sunshine and a nice lie every time he finds the ball, whether it is on the fairway or in the rough.
However, although I don't think it is an easy thing, I believe there are elements of traditional course design that we could employ more. Gently rippling fairways, like those of the Old Course, and fairways that pinch in inconveniently, as you find at Royal Birkdale, would make a positive difference.
I'd like to see more variety in greens so they are not so flat and there are less greenside bunkers. Bunkers are not the be all and end all – I think there should be more hollows and slopes surrounding greens.
Championship committees are constantly looking for ways to make conditions more difficult for better players, because it is obvious things have become increasingly easy.
Logically, I believe they will look at greens and add an extra dimension to putting by making them different speeds, bringing judgment back into the equation.
So while I am not arguing for a wholesale return to the past, I do believe that we need to design into our courses elements that test the skill of players and ensure they are not all one dimensional in style and play. Some of those features are evident in our classic courses and in the traditional style of design – and I think we should be doing more to bring variety and interest into new courses.