This article first appeared in the October 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.
When George Crump conceived Pine Valley, still a century on generally accepted as the world’s greatest golf course, he was breaking the mould in more than one way. Crump’s stated reason for creating Pine Valley was that his home city of Philadelphia had no courses which he felt were difficult enough to train champion golfers.
Now Crump, as a rich amateur, could afford to pursue his goal. But, throughout the history of golf course design, the supreme target of the architect has been something else: a course that is playable by and fun for any standard of player – in other words, something merciful enough not to constantly beat up the hacker while having enough teeth to keep the best interested. Call it the Old Course Effect if you like: a key reason why St Andrews is still so venerated by architects is its unmatched capacity to accommodate any standard of game. With few forced carries, from its forward tee a player who can only bunt the ball can get round without leaving several sleeves of Pro V1s as an offering to the golfing gods; but with its enormous and lavishly contoured putting surfaces, get the surfaces firm and tuck the pins and there is plenty of challenge there to keep Open Championship contestants interested.
But there is another side to this. St Andrews, as the most famous course in the world, and one that hosts golfers of all levels every year, is surely the most obvious example; to remain challenging in the world of 460cc drivers, the championship tees have been pushed back so far that, on several holes, they are actually out of bounds in the traditional measuring of the course. And yet, when the Open comes to town, the big hitting pros can drive the greens of several famous old par fours, and have only the shortest flick to many others. The course – despite its unmatched short game challenge – is being overpowered.
We should note here that the point of this article is not to advocate for a rollback of the ball. It’s true that I believe a shorter ball for tournament play to be the simplest and best solution to the problem of distance, but let us not consider that option any further. Nor is it a question of winning scores being too low, least of all in relation to the wholly artificial context of ‘par’. No; the issue with pros overpowering famous old courses is the variety of skills required to play top level golf, especially the ability to hit long approaches to tightly guarded greens. There would not be a plaque in Merion’s eighteenth fairway if Hogan had hit a seven iron to the green in 1950.
South African architect Andrew Goosen, currently at work on a new nine hole layout that is designed specifically to attract beginners as well as expert golfers, says: “I think we have to focus on what the definition of fun and playable is for the weaker golfer, as it is relatively ‘straightforward’ to design for the long hitting pro. The new/weaker golfer, like the seasoned professional, wants to experience the thrill of successfully negotiating a penal hazard – but not too often, and not over too far a distance. They too want to be able to feel free to swing the driver as hard as possible every now and again as well. Some of this can be achieved through multiple teeing areas offering variety in hole length and the angle from which it is played. But the divide between the distances a seasoned pro hits and the average club player is massive – 100 yards with a driver, if not more. Which results in insanely long courses with large areas of ‘dead ground’.
“The bigger challenge is allowing these two types of golfers to play from the same tee box, as a large percentage of the enjoyment of the game is the socialising – much of which takes place on the tee. This is where it becomes incredibly difficult. Play it too far forward, and even with handicaps, the strong golfer will significantly outplay the weaker golfer. Play off the tips and the weaker golfer will likely not enjoy the round at all. The new handicap system has made some positive impact in this regard, but not enough.
“I don’t know what the solution is to be honest, besides regulating tech and/or maximum club usage for varying handicaps from the tee.
“If we architects are truly honest with ourselves, I just don’t think it is possible these days to combine these two design objectives with any great amount of success. The stronger golfer is hitting it further and further, while the weaker golfer is hitting it wider and wider. What is a challenge to a good golfer? Bunkers certainly are not, unless very deep – but then they are too penal for the club golfer. Rough? Not really, unless it is stupidly long. And water only really comes into play if it is very close to the playing areas. So defining what is a hazard to the different levels of golfer too comes into it. Raked vs unraked bunkers – raked bunkers make it easier for the good golfer, but there is not a great difference between how a club golfer plays a raked bunker versus an unraked one.
“There is a par five at Clovelly in Cape Town, the tenth. Most days, I go at the green in two – if I cut the corner well from the tee – with a 5-7 iron. A normal club golfer plays a long iron/wood at best; often they are hitting a short iron third. So the club put a pond short right of the green to make it tougher for ‘me’. But on what planet does that level the playing field? It only widens the gap.”
Robin Hiseman of European Golf Design makes a key point. “Golf architecture is almost irrelevant when the ball is in the air,” he says. “No bunker, pond, or mound has value, other than aesthetic, when the ball is sailing over it a hundred feet above. When the ball is on the ground and rolling, architecture really comes to the fore, which is why the imaginative design of green surfaces and surrounds will become ever more important. Technology rules the skies, but architecture rules the earth. Intricately contoured putting greens and closely mown chipping areas working in tandem will always provide a fun and invigorating challenge.”
Read more: Mexican architect Agustín Pizá says we are all missing the point.
American designer Jeff Brauer suggets a radical approach: just ignore the pros. “The tools to use? Feigning ignorance and ignoring that one per cent of golfers in favour of designing for the real golfers of the world. There are enough courses out there for those big guys. Give them a map to find them,” he says, at least semi-seriously.
His compatriot Rick Phelps concurs. “Brauer has it right that we can basically ignore the one per cent because there are enough golf courses for them to seek the level of difficulty that suits them,” he says. “Part of the challenge is the difference between high swing speed, long hitters, and low handicap (highly skilled) players. If you include all of the ‘long-hitting’ group, you are probably talking about closer to 10 per cent of the male golfing population. I’ve seen plenty of guys who can hit the ball 300 yards regularly, but they can’t control it, so they are stuck in the 8-15 handicap zone. Still better than average, but far from the one per cent.
“In any case, the other conundrum that has been around since before my time, is the theory that the ‘10 per cent’ group does at least 60 per cent of the word of mouth advertising for a given course. The 10 per centers are avid players who tend to travel a lot (they see a lot of different golf courses), their opinions are valued by their less-skilled friends, so what they say is bad, good or great, makes it so. Golf writers have done a tremendous job of exposing average golfers to courses that have sometimes been panned by the 10 per cent group, by talking about variety, fun and excitement as it presents itself to the average player.
“My dad [architect Dick Phelps] made a career out of designing courses for the average player. His courses were rarely trumpeted by the low handicappers, but they were, and still are, almost always the busiest courses in their given market segment.”
Jay Blasi, one of the world’s leading young architects, takes a different view. “It can be done,” he says. “For me the key is green complex design and ability to recover. I’ve had this same design brief twice on existing courses (SentryWorld and Santa Ana). Both times the course rating went up from back tee (indicating the course was more difficult for scratch players) and the slope went down from middle tees (indicating the course was more playable for normal golfers). This was achieved by widening corridors and removing penal bunkers/trees/rough/water that wasn’t in play for scratch players. The green complexes feature open entrances and lots of short grass around greens. This allows regular players to approach and recover. Scratch players find short grass around greens more challenging on approaches and recoveries. Good design can achieve both goals and there are examples with objective results.”
Australian designer Scott Champion of Harrison Golf says that the best answer can often involve looking back. “The best tools at our disposal need not be new ideas,” he says. “They are ingrained in the make-up of the great courses that continue to be enduring tests of golf. The tool I believe to have the most value in combating distance is the use of angles.
“Place greater importance on where to position your ball, rather than how close to the hole you can hit it. A 150-yard shot from a particular part of the fairway should be easier than a 120-yard shot from another. Provide sufficient width to let scratch golfers figure out where they need to be to access certain pins, while providing the bogey golfer ample space to enjoy their round without continually hacking out of long rough.
“Firm greens are an essential ingredient for this strategy to be effective. If you are served the usual lush, soft greens that we see most weeks in professional golf, it doesn’t matter which angle you approach from – or whether you are even on the short grass – because you will be able to stop the ball with a short iron regardless.
“The greens should emphasis these angles, and in some cases require different angles to different pins. The use of downslopes within greens is a feature that is not utilised enough today – nor are greens that slope away from you. These amplify the importance of angles and ensures that accessing certain pins from out of position is very demanding. Want to see the best example of this? Go to Royal Melbourne. However, with the distance modern professionals hit the ball today, even Royal Melbourne is not immune to being overrun in benign conditions.”