Design rankings or beauty contests?

  • Melbourne
    Brendan James / Golf Australia Magazine
Mike Clayton
By Mike Clayton

A few years ago, a reader of one of my columns wrote to me questioning the emphasis, or lack of it, raters of golf courses place on conditioning when calculating the relative merit of those they survey.

His contention was: “Conditioning must take equal footing with course design and, along with the ambience of the course surrounds and the playability of the course, form a four-way rating of the course in question.”

I suppose it comes down to what you are rating.

So many people rate courses by the experience and conditioning, ambience and playability – factors which clearly contribute to the enhancement of their playing experience. Who is not swayed by beautiful surroundings, a course they play well, or one where there is a real emotional connection?

For my part, I strongly believe course rankings should measure design almost to the exclusion of other factors. How good, or perhaps even great, are the holes? Does the course reflect the principles of strategic golf as best expressed by the great American architect George Thomas in the 1920s?

Thomas said: “The strategy of the golf course is the soul of the game. The spirit of golf is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it reap a reward while he who declines the issue of the carry has a harder shot for his second; yet the player who avoids the unwise effort gains the advantage over one who tries for more than in him lies, or who fails under the test.”

It is the strategy that makes a course enduringly interesting to play. Allied with fine construction that fulfils Alister MacKenzie’s dictum of being “indistinguishable from nature” and interesting land over which to play the game, you will have a course sure to be rated amongst the best in the country (if, of course, its architecture is the measure).

Of course, the quality of the architecture is only truly apparent if the greens are sufficiently firm such that an approach from the wrong side of the fairway is disadvantaged. It is no use cutting a bunker across the front corner of a green and then having a green so soft that even the most “vulgar of pitch shots” (quote, Bobby Jones) will hold the green.

In this sense, condition is indeed critical to the architecture. But I suspect most would expand what they see as important elements of conditioning to include the quality of the fairways, tees, bunkers and rough. Few would assess the impact of the trees on the design. A great greenkeeper understands the real condition of a course doesn’t just relate to the playing surfaces but, rather, everything inside the property lines.

It is not particularly important to have consistent bunkers (a criterion most would associate with a ‘well-conditioned’ course) or perfect fairways, where every lie makes you feel that you are playing on a carpet. There is nothing at all wrong with a superintendent achieving such levels of perfection, but should it be the measure of a well-maintained course?

No course should be given extra points for unnecessarily high standards. Nor should a course be marked down for fairways from which playing golf is easily managed but which are not as perfect as those found at Kingston Heath or Augusta.

The three factors – conditioning, ambience and playability – are so subjective that if they are given equal weight in the rankings, we are bound to end up with wildly varying lists because of the subjectivity of the experience.

A couple of years ago, I played a course which has staggeringly beautiful views. Several golfers have since told me that it is one of the best courses in the world. The experience of playing the course was unquestionably first-class, but I thought that the routing failed to make the most of the site; to me, the construction was unimaginative at best and, given the quality of the site, I found the whole thing disappointing if for no other reason than it was such a missed opportunity.

However, thanks to an unlimited budget, it was perfectly conditioned. Should all the unimaginative design decisions be forgiven because the fairways are ‘flawless’ and the ambience ‘extraordinary’?

If you gave 75 per cent of a ranking’s weighting to condition, ambience and playability, it would indeed be a contender to be rated in the world’s top fifty. If you rated it purely on the design, it would not be in the top three hundred and would fall behind many brilliantly designed courses in a less than ‘perfect’ condition.

And what is ‘playability’?

Golf Digest rated Ellerston, the Packer family’s privately-owned course, as one of the ten best courses in Australia. It is by far the most difficult course in the country (perfectly satisfying Kerry Packer’s original brief to Bob Harrison and Greg Norman) and all but impossible for anyone over a single figure handicap to play within ten or fifteen shots of their handicap. Many would suggest that this is not a definition of ‘playable’ and I would agree.

Ellerston is walkable, just as it is possible to walk from London to Brighton. But it is by some way the hardest course to walk in the country. Does walkability sit alongside playability? It should.

Royal Melbourne is clearly better to play now that it has been returned to top condition. But twenty years ago, when it was at its ‘worst’, it was still the best piece of architecture in the country. Until an architect builds a course with a greater collection of world-class holes, it will remain the best.

It is important that the best-conditioned courses do not become the measure of what a ‘well-conditioned’ course is, and those who fall below that elevated standard are not deemed somehow inferior and marked down on the rankings.

My colleagues and I are just beginning the long-term restoration of Abercromby and Colt’s brilliant design at The Addington in south London. The first step is to address the agronomy and the role of the woodlands to ensure better playing surfaces. Allied with striving to improve the conditioning – which has often been spotty – we’ll be aiming to restore the course’s key features, returning the architecture to its former glory. Improving the conditioning is unquestionably important, but restoring the architecture will win the hearts and minds of the lovers of the great traditions of English golf.

The last thing the game needs in these troubling times is an escalation of maintenance budgets in order to satisfy those who think ‘perfect’ is better – or a way to climb a list.

Ultimately, if the primary criterion for ranking a course is not its architecture, lists will descend into little more than beauty contests. And we all know how subjective they are.

This is the fourth article in a series from Mike Clayton, a partner at golf architecture firm Clayton, DeVries & Pont.

Read more:

Brown is just fine – June 2020

Tree-free golf – July 2020

Rough justice – July 2020