Rough justice

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

The quotes below are two wildly contrasting views on how the game should be arranged. The former comes from one of golf’s greatest architects, the latter from one of its most elegant practitioners.

“Narrow fairways bordered by long grass make bad golfers. They do so by destroying the harmony and continuity of the game and in causing a stilted and cramped style, destroying all freedom of play.”

“Our game is in a good place. Equipment improvements and distance are here to stay. Full stop. We need a ‘serious’ premium on accuracy. Golf courses don’t need to be longer. Make the Tour rough knee high, fairways fast and firm which is fair for all players.”

Is the former, Dr Alister MacKenzie’s view, one from an era long past, irrelevant to the realities of the modern game? Or, as Ernie Els’ tweet from 18 July suggests, are narrow fairways lined on both sides with smothering long grass the way forward?

If we measure their relevance by how MacKenzie and his contemporaries envisaged them being played by tournament professionals, the equipment and “here to stay” distance Els talks about have unquestionably made many of the great old courses obsolete. There is no question that they remain great for the vast majority and relevant to their games, but the best championship courses were designed to test championship play as well as being pleasurable for members.

Harry Colt could surely never have imagined players using a nine iron for their second shot to the par five opener on the Old course at Sunningdale. MacKenzie would be apoplectic at the regulatory inaction which has led to the shortness of the irons players now deploy when approaching his greens at Augusta National and Royal Melbourne.

When was the last time you saw a player using a fairway wood when approaching a green at The Masters? The “momentous decision” MacKenzie and Bobby Jones envisaged players making at Augusta National’s thirteenth is gone. The only way that the club could restore the decision was by spending millions buying land from the neighbouring golf course so as to move the tee back. Augusta can afford it but not many clubs operate with an unlimited budget.

Perhaps the game is not in as good a place as Ernie suggests.

For a whole load of reasons, the best players of this era drive the ball 40 yards further than Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus did in their prime. Sure, players may be more ‘athletic’, but Norman wasn’t a forty-yard inferior athlete to Bryson DeChambeau or Brooks Koepka.

Much of what Ernie describes as “equipment improvements” are related to distance – how far the ball goes. Some equipment improvements have been brilliant for the game. All the big manufacturers now mass-produce beautiful looking irons. Roger Cleveland revolutionised the shaping and playability of wedges. Hybrids have meant poorer players no longer endure the torture of trying to hit a butter-knife three iron.

The modern ball, one which spins but won’t cut, has enabled everyone to use a ball with the same characteristics and playability.

Is all equipment ‘improvement’ really improvement if the result is obsolete courses (for championship play) and Ernie’s architectural philosophy (one shared by many of his fellow players) being utterly at odds with the views of MacKenzie and, if you study the best new courses of the modern era, today’s finest architects?

Did anyone really think the game was in a bad place in the era of Nicklaus? Was anyone arguing the game was too hard and it took too long to play? They weren’t then, but we hear it constantly today.

What we see on the professional tours, both in America and Europe, and increasingly in Asia, where courses seem to mimic the set-up arrangements of the American tour, are courses with narrow fairways lined with rough. ‘Hit straight or else’ is the mantra.

It seems logical enough to arrange courses that reward professionals who hit straight and punish those who don’t. Equality of punishment for those who miss is the preference. It makes sense, surely. You won’t find too many disagreeing with the basic philosophy. The game should be fair, right?

Around the green, rough is also the default position and dominant hazard. The gouged pitch with the lob wedge is the shot du jour. Course arrangers who make chipping areas of shaved grass think they have come up with something of an innovative idea. Hardly. The Old course at St Andrews is full of chipping areas where golfers have pondered the choice of multiple clubs for centuries.

We have become used to the green being the target that must be hit, with any miss needing to be punished severely.

In Australia, golf on the best courses is arranged much differently. Fairways are wider. The rough offers a wide and wild variety of lies, and you are always guessing at how the ball is going to come out of the grass, or alternatively, off the dusty, sandy ground.

Guessing is a very different proposition from gouging out of rough of the same consistency. You know how it’s coming out of lush rough. Perhaps it’s more difficult but it’s also more predictable.

Isn’t golf better when it’s a little more unpredictable and you have to exercise your judgement and show off your imagination?

Severiano Ballesteros was the great European player of my generation. Nick Faldo won one more major championship. Bernhard Langer played better for longer, his game and enthusiasm enduring long after both had deserted his contemporaries. Ian Woosnam drove much straighter. Someone once asked Seve who would win a tournament if all the best Europeans of that time played their best. “Sandy would win, of course,” was his reply. Sandy Lyle was an incredible talent and, at his best, unbeatable.

But Seve was the one all the others would admit was the best. He was certainly the best to watch. Whether on the course or when walking into a restaurant with a navy cashmere jumper slung across his shoulders, observing the great man was never boring. Even if the feats of Tiger Woods have exceeded those of the great man from Pedreña, there has been nothing like him since.

Ballesteros was known as a wild driver. It’s true, he could hit crooked drives. His was not a personality akin to two other wonderful players of his time, Hale Irwin and Graham Marsh. They played logically and sensibly, carefully plotting their way from one point to another with a minimum of drama or fuss. To say they played without flair would be to unfairly denigrate two brilliant players. In 1978, I watched as Irwin hit an incredible stream of shots at Royal Melbourne (pictured above) beginning with a flawless two iron into the long fourteenth on the composite course. He completed his opening round in 64 blows and beat Seve into third place that week, but it was the twenty-one-year-old who attracted the galleries. Compared to Seve, Irwin and Marsh were not in the same race when it came to flair.

The relevance to rough?

Only one man has won tournaments over the Old course, Augusta National and Royal Melbourne – Señor Ballesteros.

Of course, in his prime, had Jack Nicklaus dedicated himself to winning at Royal Melbourne, I have no doubt he could have. Tiger Woods and Sam Snead, two others to win at both St Andrews and Augusta, also had the perfect games for Royal Melbourne. Woods’ golf was masterful at last year’s Presidents Cup, where he was clearly the best player on display. Royal Melbourne’s greatness gave him the perfect canvas to show off his unmatched skills and imagination.

St Andrews is the model for all others to follow. It isn’t just a place of extraordinary historical importance. It doesn’t find itself at the centre of the golf world by accident, historical luck or quirk. It is the model because it has great holes and no course is as enduringly fascinating to play.

That fascination comes from a simple concept, namely, that the golfer must work out where best to play and how best to play every single shot. This concept doesn’t work unless the course is wide enough to make you think and provides lies of a nature which give players a variety of shots from which to choose. There is rough grass on the Old course as well as gorse and any number of places where you might find an unplayable lie, but it isn’t a persistent hazard that envelops you the moment you stray off course.

Royal Melbourne and Augusta National, two of MacKenzie’s greatest layouts, look much different from St Andrews. The fairways of both are lined with trees. Royal Melbourne sits on a deep bed of perfect sand while Augusta is on heavy red clay. None of the three relies on long grass to determine the best players under tournament conditions.

This simple feature was perhaps the most important lesson Alister MacKenzie took from the Old course.

The irony?

The course record at Royal Melbourne is 60, achieved in the opening round of the Heineken Classic in 2004 by none other than Ernie Els, the man who captained the International team at last year’s Presidents Cup. It was a week where we witnessed brilliant, exciting and challenging golf, all of it played on a course with wide fairways and very little rough. And lest you think Royal Melbourne to be easy, bear in mind that Els took just 18 fewer strokes to cover the front nine on the final day back in 2004.

There is a lesson to be learned there.


This is the third 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