When does a course become too difficult to be fun?

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    Golf course architect Jeff Brauer, whose work includes the Quarry course at Giant’s Ridge in Minnesota, says that the way golf courses are marketed has caused untold problems for golf

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    Golf developer Mike Keiser references the Old course at St Andrews as the model that best melds the championship and retail ethos...

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    ...and the greens at his courses, like Pacific Dunes’ fourteenth pictured here, reflect his philosophy on difficulty

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    Mark Parsinen says the playable setup of the Hazeltine National course contributed to the spectacle of the recent Ryder Cup

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

In general, I think golf courses are too difficult,” says veteran American architect Jeff Brauer. “It’s easy to understand why. The emphasis is on ‘what if the tour showed up here?’, even though it won’t. Or ‘let’s make it spectacular to sell houses/win awards/get a high ranking’, which does sometimes work. Some think advertising as the hardest course in town will boost rounds and memberships. But it doesn’t. None of those typical design objectives mentions average golfers having fun. If form follows function, and the long-term function is to create a space fit for its intended human purpose – typically a course playable and enjoyed by average golfers every day – logically, the form would be much different.”

What’s abundantly clear from talking to architects across the world is that the way that golf is marketed has caused untold problems for both the art of golf course design, and for the game as a whole. The phrase ‘championship course’ is perhaps the biggest single issue. What is a championship course? Well, logically, it is a course on which championships are held (I shall steer clear of an extended debate on what constitutes a championship). But hundreds, perhaps even thousands of courses described in their marketing literature as ‘championship’ have been built across the world and have never hosted a significant professional or top amateur event, nor ever will. So perhaps we have to come to a looser definition: a championship course is one which could host a championship, if the need arose.

Ask any golf architect, and you’ll hear the same refrain. Clients demand ‘championship’ courses, no matter where in the world they are, whatever the average standard of players who will frequent them day in day out, or how unlikely it is that AN Other pro tour will ever drive into town and seek to host an event there. “The biggest group of golfers is that with handicap 26 or higher. They pay the bills!” says Dutch designer Michiel Vandervaart. “The gap between the novice and the professional tour player will only get bigger.” And in emerging markets, where most local golfers are just learning the game, this issue is even more important. Across the developing golf world, we see championship course after championship course; fine for the pros, but pros play for free. If golf is ever to embed itself in the sporting culture of these new countries, it needs more courses that are designed from the bottom up to appeal to average and below average players.

This makes those developers that consciously shun the super-tough championship course especially interesting, and even more so when they have been consistently successful. Mike Keiser, the creator of Bandon Dunes, and since then the brains and money behind any number of golf projects around the world, has become well-known for his laserlike focus on what he calls the ‘retail golfer’. “95 per cent of golfers are retail, which I see as handicaps from five to 36,” he says. “In truth, most golfers are pretty lousy. Even five handicappers typically hit a bunch of bad shots, and don’t like being punished. But they are the ones who make a course successful.”

Keiser says that the deepest irony of all is that we all know the model that best melds the championship and retail ethos, but we have forgotten it. “The model is very easy, it’s the Old course at St Andrews,” he says. “It has big greens with lots of pins of varying difficulty, and you can basically play it with just a putter. Most ‘championship’ courses you can’t begin to play with a putter. The Old course is fun golf and championship golf all rolled into one. It has features like the Road hole and the Principal’s Nose that are wickedly enticing – for players of all standards. In America, we have tended to go for small greens, because they are inexpensive to maintain. That’s a mistake in my view. The ampler the greens are, the better. Courses have been designed so that the retail golfer is playing 6,300-6,600 yards. That’s too long! They should be playing 5,800. They don’t want it to be slam dunk easy – no bunkers, every green flat – but they don’t like being penalised for missing a shot by six inches.”

Mark Parsinen, the developer and co-designer of Castle Stuart in Scotland – as well as previously developing the much-admired Kingsbarns – takes a similar view. But he goes further, and says that even for elite players, golf is more interesting when the course is more playable. “Golf is inherently a game of errors and recovery, not of perfection,” he says. “The best 150 players in the world typically only hit nine of 14 fairways and only hit 12 of 18 greens in regulation. The fascination of the game is the intermittent great shot coupled with recoveries; and the heart of engaging design is to make the recoveries interesting and varied and to make them less about difficulty at your feet – about issues that have to do with lie, stance, elevation differentials, and a target that offers choice – take on the difficulty now and get an easier next shot, or take the easier shot now and defer the difficulty to the next shot.

“One player’s success is not directly at the expense of his playing companion with whom he may be competing – golf is not a zero sum game,” Parsinen continues. “Professionals conditioned to the narrow fairways, long penal rough and heavily bunkered greens may not be able to understand and appreciate this. Difficulty alone in course design or setup does not identify the best players and simultaneously fails to deliver an engagingly pleasing form of entertainment. Think of how Hazeltine was set up for the recent Ryder Cup course: it reflected some of what I believe in and it produced great theatre and pleasing, exciting, and entertaining competition for the players. No one said the course was too easy and that it produced boring golf. It’s also true that ‘difficulty’ in many respects fails to identify the best athlete and rather makes the number of events, by which excellence can prevail, too small a number for the law of large numbers to prevail and it thereby introduces a fundamental randomness.”

Jeff Brauer echoes much of what Parsinen says. “You can count me in as one architect who is consciously designing easier and shorter courses,” he stresses. “We have designed for the top 0.025 per cent of low handicappers for some reason. Studies show golfers have to hit at least ten good shots a round to stay in the game, though we forget what a ‘good shot’ is for an average golfer – airborne, sort of towards the green, and sort of long enough. I presume just hitting a good shot isn’t quite enough – there should be some reward. Good shots that end up in hazards get counted as bad shots, or at least really bad experiences. Fronting bunkers are particularly frustrating to average golfers, punishing shots well within their personal definition of a ‘great shot.’ And those hazards cause all sorts of unfun things, like taking three to five attempts to get out of bunkers. Other typical scenarios are hitting the green, but not holding it, with a ‘good shot’ either rolling off the back due to too little ‘but average for them’ backspin, or trickling off into a greenside bunker due to sidespin. Tee shots aren’t any better, with approximately one in four tee shots on any hole played by an average foursome being topped or lost in the woods or native areas, despite 70+ yards width of open turf. Statistically, golfers are much worse than we can imagine and certainly much less capable than architects – even those trying to ease up – consider.”

Fellow American architect Andy Staples says that the fixation with difficulty leads to some odd results. “A really interesting example of difficulty for players of different abilities is the current condition of many championship courses – Oakland Hills comes to mind – where it is actually best for the average player not to ‘play it forward’, but to play a longer set of tees. By playing a longer yardage, poorer players can simply avoid the difficult bunkers by not reaching them from the tee. The course is set up in such a linear fashion, with difficult hazards and little room to avoid them, that playing short of all the bunkers is often the best option. This is a great example of how a design can affect the levels of difficulty for players of different standards. 

“We’ve finally learned that golfers don’t like golf very much when they get beat up and lose balls, especially when they’re not on the ocean or in the sand dunes. This is the one area where I feel the characteristics of a site really is impactful on creating a course where golfers ‘play well’. I also love designing ‘quirk’ into a course, and in most cases, it takes multiple rounds to appreciate these specific details. When done properly, a player is left with the idea that there is more to this course, and they feel the need to play it again. The courses at Bandon do a very good job of this. 

Tripp Davis, himself an elite, plus handicap golfer as well as a successful architect, has unsurprisingly thought pretty hard about how to challenge players of different standards. “Better players are challenged by stricter margins of error and tougher conditions, but I also firmly believe that multiple meaningful options will challenge the better player,” he says. “Require them to choose an option and commit to that option with the precision required to score well at their level. I regularly try to create a dilemma between being aggressive and ‘smart’ for this player. If you only give a good player one reasonable or meaningful option, they will tend to pull that shot off if it fits their eye or are generally playing with confidence. Options can introduce doubt. Whereas options can subtly challenge the better player, a lack of options will challenge the average player. They need optional ways to play to their handicap on average. We do need to be mindful that this player does want to be challenged, so we cannot eliminate it completely, but we have to give them options to choose routes that are playable for them.

“It can all fit in one course, but flexibility in the design and how it can be set up, relative to conditioning and the location of tees and pins, is critical to making a course capable of being a challenge and being enjoyable. Part of making the design work is strategising the play of the game from each tee for a variety of player types, making sure there are options to avoid stricter margins for error. In doing so, the golf course architect needs to recognise that a 10 handicap is theoretically going to make 10 bogeys in a round, so while there may be stricter angles for getting an approach shot close to the hole, we have to design options for this player to strategically play for bogey from tee to green, noting that a bogey for a 10 handicap is their ‘sense of par’ on 10 holes.

“I don’t think there is anything wrong in a course that allows golfers to play well, but I would tend more towards allowing a visiting golfer to be able to look back and see how they could have played better. That will more often get them to come back. Perhaps there does need to be a minimum level of skill one needs to be considered a ‘golfer’, but I do think the best test is more inclusive than discriminatory.”

This article first appeared in issue 47 of Golf Course Architecture

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