Slimming golf down

Slimming golf down
Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.

Width, I think we can all agree, is fundamentally a good thing. Without adequate width, as we have noted so many times in these pages, a golf hole can have virtually no strategy. There has to be sufficient room to offer a choice of lines from the tee, otherwise a hole is reduced basically to a test of execution skills; can you hit this narrow fairway and this green?

You don’t even need to get into the theory of strategic golf design to justify width. Width equals fewer lost balls and less time hunting for them, the most pointless activity on a golf course. So hooray for width and boo to tight courses where an eighteen handicapper might easily lose six or seven expensive golf balls in trees or rough. Golf is hard enough and expensive enough; we do not need more of either factor.

So far, so relatively uncontroversial. But if you think about the matter analytically, it must be true that more width stops being a good thing eventually. Even aside from the questions of building and taking care of the golf course, would anyone really want to play holes with mile-wide fairways? They could be intensely strategic – a clever architect, given so much space, could set up any number of puzzles for players to solve. You’d never lose a ball, unless stolen by some passing rodent. But would there be the essential aspect of challenge? Golf is, inherently, a hard game, and people grow to love it because (at least in part) of its challenge. Surely such a course would be lacking in challenge?

Having established then that width is good, but there must be a point at which more width stops being better, we are in a position to analyse the question in more detail, and perhaps come to some conclusions about how much width is needed. This, essentially, is the process which golf architect David McLay Kidd has famously been through in recent years. Having created a number of extremely difficult, though spectacular, courses, Kidd re-emerged a few years ago as golf’s Apostle of Fun. At Guacalito de la Isla in Nicaragua and Gamble Sands in Washington state in America’s Pacific Northwest, Kidd built courses that were super-wide and designed to ensure that as many golfers as possible came off the eighteenth hole with a smile on their faces and the same ball in their pocket as they started the round with. And then, at the Sand Valley resort in Wisconsin, he built Mammoth Dunes.

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s original Sand Valley course was big and wide, to the extent that I have related here before a conversation with Coore in which the architect wondered whether courses were getting too big, and about the message that such courses sent out to the rest of the industry. Gil Hanse’s Streamsong Black, built around the same time, is another simply enormous course, where an architect, given a lot of room, has built on a scale scarcely seen before. But Mammoth Dunes was… well it was bigger. The dunes are pretty mammoth, but so is the scale of the golf course itself. It is also, we should note, a triumph; in holes like the seventh and ninth, Kidd and team built on a vast scale, but created holes that no-one who plays them will ever forget.

The golf development trend, dating back to Sand Hills, has been to look ever further from ‘civilisation’ – or perhaps more fundamentally, markets – to find great sites for golf. Through Sand Valley, Bandon, Prairie Club, Sutton Bay, Cape Wickham and their like we have seen today’s architects able to display their talents on sites that offered natural suitability for golf, and, unsurprisingly, this has resulted in a string of very fine courses. Typically, by historical standards, very fine, very wide courses.

There are two reasons for this. One is that width, as we already established, is good. Two is even more basic. In these remote locations, land is typically cheap, and therefore width is affordable. It would take a deep pocketed developer to ask David McLay Kidd to build a second Gamble Sands in the Hamptons.

But, of course, what is successful and cool inevitably has an influence. It is abundantly true that for most golf architects, on most pieces of ground, something like Mammoth Dunes or Streamsong Black is basically an irrelevance, but it is also true that other designers look at what their peers are doing and being rewarded for and absorb its influence.

The simple truth is, that given a site comprised of pure sand in the middle of nowhere, building an enormous course on it is a sensible response to the challenges of modern golf. We all hit the ball harder with our big drivers than we used to, and that means our mishits go further offline.

Which brings us to Tom Doak and Sedge Valley. We should not be ignorant as to other factors going on here. Doak has, throughout his career, cleverly maintained his image as an outsider, a contrarian who likes to buck trends. To arrive at Sand Valley and build a par 68, 6,000-yard course is a brilliant way of keeping himself just that little bit ahead of the game. But it is also true that Doak has never bought into the Kool Aid of massively long golf. Wide, yes, for sure. He likes to cite his affection for old British courses like Rye and West Sussex – both short but both offering plenty of challenge because of a skinny par featuring only one par five and that at the first hole.

Read more: Britain’s short courses – Rye, Swinley Forest, West Sussex and Woking.

It isn’t as though the rest of the golf business is unaware of the virtues of the small either. We have seen a small flood of short courses, mainly par three courses, being built at top destinations of late, and given the time pressures we know affect golfers, this seems like a sensible response. As does the push for shorter rounds of golf, to convert struggling suburban eighteen holers into dynamic nines that offer a faster game more in tune with today’s priorities. Indeed, Sand Valley already has a hugely compelling seventeen-hole par three course called the Sandbox, which does great business, especially on warm summer evenings, as resort guests wind down after their day.

What is different about the Sedge Valley proposition, though, is that it is not meant to be downsized golf, which is to say a lesser experience. Doak is on record as saying that he hopes the course will make it easier for Sand Valley golfers to manage 36-hole days: I am recalled of Dr Alister MacKenzie’s remark after World War One that courses getting bigger meant that a normal day’s play had gone down from 54 to 36 holes!

Sedge Valley will doubtless be a hit and add another level to the attractions of the Sand Valley resort: it will have great big golf and great little golf. But will it have a wider impact on the game, reminding us that 6,000 yards and a par of 68 is plenty of golf for the vast majority of us? That we shall have to see.