Uninspiring venues do golf no favours

  • Clayton
    Jon Cavalier | @LinksGems
Mike Clayton
By Mike Clayton

From my experience, most professional golfers have little interest in or knowledge of the principles of good course design.

How many have read George Thomas, Alister MacKenzie or Robert Hunter, or the fine modern writers including Tom Doak or Geoff Shackelford? Zac Blair (the second shortest driver under 50 on the PGA Tour, but as long as Greg Norman in his prime), Richie Ramsay, Edoardo Molinari and Geoff Ogilvy have for sure, and no doubt a few more have dabbled.

At the 2007 Los Angeles Open at Thomas’s Riviera Country Club (pictured), I caught up with a famous pro, one I had played with a little over the years. At the time, he was one of the best players in the world and had his name on a design business. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked, “Pretty good course this, who designed it?” I had assumed anybody playing at Riviera had heard of Captain Thomas, even if they hadn’t read his book.

Of course, for professional golfers, course design is not their job. In many ways, they are better off not studying it because many tour venues would drive a lover of great architecture to distraction. A distracted brain focused on bad mowing lines or an architect’s pointless ‘target bunkers’, ugly ‘containment mounds’, poorly designed and shaped ‘catch basins’ or artificial ponds is the last thing a pro needs to contend with.

Globally, professional golf is about commercial reality, which rules out inspiring venues including Sand Hills, Pacific Dunes, The National Golf Links of America, Merion, Sunningdale (other than for the occasional Senior Open), Hirono in Japan or Simpson’s Parisian treasures, Chantilly, Fontainbleau and Morfontaine. Each has a common denominator. Rarely, as Tom Simpson used to espouse, is the middle of the fairway the ideal line to the hole.

Unsurprisingly, professional golf places great store on the equity of reward and punishment, consistency, predictability, difficulty and perfect conditioning. It’s understandable but – heaven forbid an unlucky break, a bad lie or a putt bumped off-line might cost someone a big prize – it’s somewhat contrary to the original spirit of the game.

Simpson’s view on the will to make golf a ‘fair’ game was predictable for the irascible genius: “Make the game, if you can, fool-proof against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the game will certainly court suicide.”

It was never supposed to be absolutely fair. Indeed, dealing with the inherent unfairness of the game is one of its primary mental challenges. Why should every lie in the rough be exactly the same? Why do the greens have to be 12.5 on the Stimpmeter every week? Why must every bunker be consistent? Inconsistency better uncovers who can play the greatest variety of shots from the widest variety of lies. Seve Ballesteros didn’t need consistency to show off his genius. In fact, he required quite the opposite.

At a time when the game is accused of being boring and one dimensional, why would it be a good thing to set up every course the same and encourage players to develop one-dimensional games no matter how well they play? By definition, there can be no strategy in the sense defined by Thomas and Simpson if the fairways are narrow, when the finest design masterpieces in the world are based around golf needing some space and width to be strategic.

At twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine or thirty yards wide, there is only a requirement to ‘hit it where you are told’. Worse, players recognise they can’t consistently hit strips so narrow, so determine to simply bomb it as far as they can. Of course, it takes talent and hard work – a lot of both – to hit the ball 350 yards. But does it take a previously untapped or unimagined talent? Do we really think Bryson, Rory, Dustin and Brooks are more talented or would drive further with the same equipment than Jack, Sam, Greg or Seve? Maybe so, but the only way to really know is to have them play with relatable equipment.

This fad of narrowness is a simplistic response to managing the distance the ball is flying and the faulty logic that golf is primarily a straight hitting contest.

Is good design compatible with tour golf? As I did my best to explain in this column last month, right now, I truly believe that the empirical evidence is that it is not.

For golf to grow, it needs to be interesting and relatable; it should also encourage a game based on something other than awesome power. One of its most alluring facets has always been that Ben Hogan could compete with Sam Snead, Gary Player could go toe-to-toe with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, Corey Pavin could beat Greg Norman in a US Open, and that Calvin Peete’s relentless accuracy, which saw him at the top of fairways and greens hit category for years, could make up for his relative lack of power and make him one of the best players on tour in the 1980s.

The game also needs holes that are fascinating to watch and holes that ask a variety of questions. Who could tire of watching the best players tackle the ninth at Pebble Beach, the Road hole with the Home hole to follow at St Andrews or MacKenzie’s thirteenth hole at Augusta National? The tenth hole at Riviera is arguably the greatest short par four in America and that fascinating hole matches the quality of great driveable two-shotters such as the tenth on the West at Royal Melbourne, the eleventh on the Old at Sunningdale or the twelfth on the Old course. All are quirky and confusing. They aren’t predicated on ‘fairness’ and, arguably, are even more fun now that the modern ball has bought their greens temptingly more within reach.

When will the world finally tire of the endless succession of par four finishing holes with water down the left and greens on the edge of lakes, and the overuse of 200-yard-plus short holes? As Ben Hogan once famously said, Winged Foot’s famed tenth was “a three iron into some guy’s bedroom”. Off the same tee at the 2020 US Open, Bryson DeChambeau was on the green with an eight iron. One of his three irons really would have been in some guy’s bedroom.

Given that our great old courses are currently obsolete, tournament golf – especially on the European Tour because of its hugely varied geographic footprint – ought to elevate its design standards and variety of courses. Perhaps only in Australia are courses of the class of Royal Melbourne, Victoria, Metropolitan, Kingston Heath, The Lakes and Royal Adelaide willing to host big championships. Of course, the best courses in America and Britain host major championships, but perhaps only Riviera and Pebble Beach currently act as regular PGA Tour venues whilst being among the best two dozen courses in America.

On the European Tour, one would be hard pressed to find a tournament venue truly worthy of being amongst the top couple of dozen courses in Britain or the Continent. Since 1980, wonderful courses – including Portmarnock, Moortown, the Kings at Gleneagles, Bremen, Chantilly, St Germain, De Pan, Royal Hague, Puerta de Hierro and El Saler as well as the aforementioned heathland masterpieces of Sunningdale and (save for a recent British Masters) Walton Heath – have fallen off the schedule.

Falling in behind marketers for whom golf is little more than a product to be sold and who can happily find a good commercial reason to go to a poor course, plus a mass of players who think the game should be fair, who judge a course by its condition and have never heard of George Thomas, is akin to putting the inmates in charge of the asylum.

In the long run, it won’t do the game any favours.

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

Read more:

Rein in the ball or prepare for bludgeon – October 2020

The irresistible variety of British courses – September 2020

Design rankings or beauty contents? – August 2020

Rough justice – July 2020

Tree-free golf – July 2020

Brown is just fine – June 2020