Rein in the ball or prepare for bludgeon

  • Clayton
    Jon Cavalier @LinksGems
Mike Clayton
By Mike Clayton

In one simple paragraph, George Thomas, one of the great early twentieth century American architects, encapsulated the essence of strategic golf.

“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 fears or declines the issue of the carry has a longer or harder shot for his second; yet the player who avoids the unwise effort gains advantage over one who tries for more than in him lies, or who fails under the test.”

The most fascinating courses don’t necessarily need to be the most difficult, spectacular, expensive or famous – just thought-provoking and enduringly interesting. Ideally, they should be charming too.

Thomas’s principle and Tom Simpson’s classic take on the same subject – namely, that “the middle of the fairway – except for perhaps once a round for the sake of variety – should never be the true line to the hole” – is at the heart of the genius of the Old course at St Andrews. Alister MacKenzie, their contemporary, called it the only first-class course in the world, saying that “there is no second and Cypress Point comes in a very bad third”.

When Cypress Point is your own work, I guess you can knock it down a peg or two.

The great designers of generations past gave less consideration to rewarding a straight drive. Rather, they were trying to reward an accurate drive to a particular part of a fairway.

Not always though – you’d better hit it where they tell you at Oakmont, a great piece of architecture which shows that a penal golf course can be counted amongst the best in the world. “A shot misplayed should be a shot irrevocably lost” was the unrelenting philosophy of the founder, W.C. Fownes.

Courses designated to be ‘strategic’ reward those who find their own varied solutions to the questions posed by the holes, the weather and the conditions. Thoughtful players understand that at Royal Melbourne’s seventeenth hole on the West Course (Ernie Els’s lone bogey in his opening round of 60 in the 2004 Heineken Classic), the ideal line to a flag placed in the right half of the green is from as close as you dare to the edge of the left-hand fairway bunker. MacKenzie’s fairway spreads out far to the right, giving everyone plenty of space to drive. Those playing safely to the right are afforded a perfect lie but a noticeably different and more challenging shot. It’s one still playable for the skilled golfer but, given the wide angle of attack, the hard and fast green feeds anything but the ideal high, soft fade far to the left.

MacKenzie took the foundation of what he had gleaned from St Andrews and recreated its principles at Royal Melbourne and later at Cypress Point, Crystal Downs and Augusta National.

Modern-day data gurus advise players that it’s simply not worth chasing angles or trying to hit down the edges of fairways. Maybe it isn’t, but the beauty and romance of a hole as wide as Royal Melbourne’s seventeenth or the ultimate seventeenth – the Road hole at St Andrews – is that the shot from one side of the fairway is noticeably different from a shot from the other.

Finding the correct side doesn’t always guarantee a good result. In the 1984 Open Championship, Tom Watson drove perfectly down the right, mis-clubbed, and from the perfect angle made a bogey. Ballesteros, playing ahead, drove far to the left in the rough, and from a terrible angle played the championship winning stroke on to the green with a six iron. As hard as the shot is from the right edge of Royal Melbourne’s seventeenth, the shot from the left of the Road Hole is immeasurably more nerve-racking and difficult, the penalties for missing noticeably more severe.

Is anyone ever expected to fully understand the Old course? Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, Nick Faldo, Peter Thomson, Tiger Woods and Lorena Ochoa have all played extraordinary golf there, but it’s a reasonable assumption that each time they went out, they discovered something new or had to hit a particularly inventive or unusual shot. Nor is much dictated by either the greenkeeper or the few, including Old Tom Morris, who oversaw the architectural evolution of the course from the days when it was 22 holes.

You must be a competent bunker player to escape Strath or the Road Bunker and having to pitch over the burn on the opening hole is a given, but it remains golf’s most democratic course.

A typical US Open course is set up using an entirely different philosophy. Players hit (or at least aim) where they are told to by the arrangers of the course. The fairways at Winged Foot (pictured) for the 2020 edition were as narrow as 25 paces, meaning no player driving a competitive distance is good enough to aim at a particular side and hit it with any regularity. Indeed, they were so narrow that fewer than fifteen players hit more than half the fairways for the week.

Put anyone in that field 250 yards from the tee in the middle of every fairway and he will have no chance of beating players up to 80 yards ahead, no matter that they are missing six of every ten fairways. Surely, this is the ultimate manifestation of a game wildly out of balance.

Bryson DeChambeau’s strategic analysis of Winged Foot told him that missing fairways wasn’t an impediment to winning as long as he missed on the correct side of the hole and he was far enough down to rip the ball onto the green from the rough with his short irons. It was a strategy brilliant in both concept and execution.

In trying to identify the straightest and most precise hitters, the USGA now risks finding something quite different. The days of trying to find another Ben Hogan are long gone. Driving the ball 320 yards with the accuracy of Hogan, the quintessential US Open golfer, is an impossibility if the fairways are less than thirty yards wide.

The administrators have the power to regulate the ball. Thus far, they have failed to do anything meaningful despite it being obvious for at least fifteen years that the present situation was where the game was headed. A generation from now, DeChambeau won’t be the outlier, he will be the norm. It doesn’t take much to imagine what Thomas, MacKenzie and Simpson might have made of it.

And let us not please assume these men were luddites. Far from it. They were bold visionaries who radically reshaped the game with forward-looking and progressive ideas and courses. They brought both people and joy to a game that earlier generations of architects had predicated on the simple principle of punishing poor shots. The new concept they introduced sought to punish not the poor shot but rather the “almost good shot”.

A key question for professional golf (a version of the game increasingly separated from the version played by the masses) is, “is brilliant, interesting design and the age-old concept of what constitutes strategy compatible with, and capable of, testing the best players in the game?”

“Increasingly not” is my not unreasonable conclusion.

“What is really distressing”, says Mike DeVries, my partner at CDP, “is that tour players are so good that technology could destroy what is really good about golf – the variety of the game’s unique venues and open environment that requires players to adapt to the current conditions to play their best.”

Gil Hanse, Winged Foot’s consulting architect, charged with restoring AW Tillinghast’s famed and treacherous greens, might agree. Hanse watched DeChambeau’s opening 36 holes to witness whether he could pull off his unique strategy. It’s fair to say that he came away surprised, somewhat dismayed and impressed.

“It’s not a beautiful way to play golf. It’s not even shot making. It’s just kind of bludgeoning. I feel sad about the way golf is going. There are some arrows in the quiver if this style of golf renders architecture and strategy obsolete. But”, said Hanse, “it was impressive”.

What do we think Tillinghast would have made of DeChambeau and Wolff, the final pairing on Sunday at Winged Foot, hitting drives and wedges into his 550-yard par-five ninth hole? No matter the favourable conditions, it’s a wild distortion of his idea of what shots the hole should test.

Presumably he’d have taken a pretty dim view of the eye-popping brutalisation of his long hole, headed to the clubhouse and ordered a stiff drink.

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

Read more:

The irresistible variety of British courses - September 2020

Brown is just fine – June 2020

Tree-free golf – July 2020

Rough justice – July 2020

Design rankings or beauty contents? – August 2020