Short Grass - The Ultimate equalizer
"The defense of the golf course is around the greens" is a statement that is often made when describing some of the world's best golf courses, including Donald Ross's Pinehurst No. 2.
For years greens framed with lush, thick rough ringing a green complex was synonymous with US Opens and many of golf's toughest tests. The presence of this feature only serves to the widen the gap between the average and good player by creating a mindless situation in which the good player is fully capable of driving the club through the rough and safely find the green's surface. The average player will struggle to move the ball forward or elevate its flight enough to be successful.
However, short grass surrounds, 'chipping areas', 'collars', or 'runoffs' as they are often referred, flip the script on these shots by creating options. Options require thought. Good players do not like to think. They would prefer to rely on a finely tuned, repeatable motion. Now, faced with the opportunity to hit a multitude of shots with varying trajectories, speed, and spin, the variables expand. Additionally, for the favorable approach of a chip shot, the margin of error in the properly struck shot is greatly reduced in a tight lie.
Turn back now to the average player, who's skill wouldn't allow for him to advance the ball out of tall, thick rough. He now has the opportunity to play the highest percentage shot: the putt. This allows the average player to achieve progress by advancing the ball onto the green, and likely two putt.
Pinehurst No. 2 is a golf course that provides ample opportunity to play from tee to green. It is nearly impossible to lose a golf ball, save a topped tee shot on the Par 5 16th. The severity of the greens and surrounds dictate its difficulty. When an average player and good player compete on a course like this the gap that is represented by these players handicaps often shrinks, equalizing some of the physical advantages of a top player. The variety of suitable methods requires thought, and is a learning experience while the playability leads to greater enjoyment.
Width for the sake of width
The Old Course at St Andrews sits on 90 acres of land. In the 1970s it was common to build a 6,800 yard course that would require 130 acres. Today's golf course regularly break the 200-acre mark. Some of this is attributed to safety and the distances the ball travels even when miss hit. Some is due the spread out nature of courses through communities where no corridor is shared with another. While teaching Golf Course Architecture at The University of Georgia, I had the students take a short quiz on the first day. One of the questions on this quiz was what is a Links course? More than once these future land planners described a links course as one that looked like links of sausage, connected only by a narrow path. The inefficiency of land use in this arrangement is attributable to upwards of a 15% increase in the land required.
However, width in the name of nuanced strategy has been misrepresented more than it's been successfully achieved during this period of golf design that identifies itself with a return to designs inspired by golden age architecture. It is often used in environments that are largely void of extreme weather conditions that create the need for elasticity in design, like experienced in the great links course of the British Isles or wind swept dunes of the Pacific Northwest.
It is often done under the premise of providing a favorable angle of approach, only to be negated by typically soft conditions that do not reward the angle, or proportionally penalize the less deliberate player. Many of the greatest holes in golf benefit for additional width, and create strategy that set them apart. However, this requires the appropriate setting and condition to truly be great, and not just represent wasted resources. In a time where great environmental and economic scrutiny is placed on golf, the opportunity to create great golf holes that will continually play great, must be carefully studied as to not attempt greatness only to achieve wasteful mediocrity.
Longer is not the Answer
Recently many golf analysts have called for courses in excess of 8,000 yards in order to test the best players in the world. This is just not the case. It merely allows the world's best golfers to freely 'swing away' with no risk of running out of room, and little opportunity to pinch the landing area without making it too difficult for the 99.9% of golfers playing more forward tees. The best case-in-point of this may be the winning scores during the US Opens of 2017 and that of 2013. Merion, at little more than 7,000 yards and taking up less than 130 acres of land brought a winning score of 2 under par. Contrast this to the 8,000 yard, 250 acre Erin Hills that saw the lowest scoring in US Open history. Many will chalk this up to soft, calm, conditions but keep in mind that torrential rain on Thursday at Merion forced the field to finish the first round on Friday and a generally rainy pattern had existed prior to the start of the tournament as well, very similar to that experienced at this year's US Open.
Golf courses that introduce elements off the tee that make you think and create doubt are those that pose the greatest challenge. A trademark of Pete Dye's courses are visual deception - requiring the player to trust in their chosen line despite the ability to decipher what lies ahead. Dye has also said that the great players of today can not be physically challenged enough by design but must be challenged mentally. Giving great players the opportunity to hit driver with a measurable reward is key to a great design. By designing holes so that the long holes play long and the short holes play short the overall yardage allows for reasonable total lengths while creating variety that challenges every facet of a player’s game.
In the past thirty years it is likely that extreme dogleg holes have had the shortest shelf life of any type of hole due to the addition of 30-40 yards of distance among top players. Based on the design standards of an 800 foot turn point for a tee shot, extreme changes in direction with hazards or out of bounds on the long side of hole have created scenarios that take driver out of play for some, and create challenges that require extreme accuracy and in some cases extreme curving of shots that has become more difficult with technology of new equipment. Environmental factors associated with sensitive environments or water runoff have also created some new challenges in design to make sure these features are used in a manner that is appropriate for all golfers, attempting to avoid lost balls or forced carries. Often, when unavoidable these would be designed in areas not just ‘between the landing areas’, but out of play, attempting to reduce their negative impacts as much as possible. Today, the lines are blurred in what constitutes ‘between the landing areas’ and more care has to be given to the placement of these features that are functional rather than strategic.
Maintaining the shot value of a hole is the key element to lengthening a course, and while attempting to return players to the designed landing area, it is no more possible to restore the historical experience of club selection than it is to restore the outhouse experience of a 19th century home.
Building in an extra 1,000 yards to a course that will be seen only by a select few players, creates a domino effect among others that leads to playing a longer set of tees and devalues the experience for every player and everyone playing behind them.
By using the elements of land to enhance the length and highlight a variety of shots required you can create an all encompassing test that relies on variety, much like a great pitcher in baseball relies on changing speeds to emphasize the fast from the slow and makes hitters prepare fully for their at bat.
Rather than 8,000 yards, think of Greg Maddox. Not Aroldis Chapman.
Significance of Experience
As an operator, I know primacy and recency effect relates to far more than the opening and closing tee shots. The ability to set yourself apart by the sense of arrival that is created and how each component of the experience fits together can enhance or deject from the opinions of your user.
I have often found there to be an inverse relationship between the size of the entry signage and the quality of experience. A cynic could attribute this to exclusivity, but perhaps it relates more to a relaxed elegance and confident comfort that comes from a humble job well done. From a design perspective, maybe this can be attributed how a well executed plan can create an intuition that doesn’t require significant cues.
The flow of the experience, from entering the property to visuals provided by the clubhouse and surrounds, to the way you move through those spaces and ultimately to the first tee, all work toward creating a memory for the user that will become the framework of the lasting impression of a course.
These experiences can vary greatly and still be positive, depending on what the intended experience entails. Understanding this basic principle of what character you are trying to invoke out of a project must be a guiding principle in every aspect of the design and operation.
Alternative Design Options
More than fifteen years ago I began the framework for what would become my thesis, entitled “The Future of Golf Course Architecture in America”. I researched numerous studies, surveys, and articles trying to ascertain the reason for the waning participation in a sport that had seen exponential growth in the decade prior. While there were many explanations and excuses cited from expense, difficulty, and intimidation all of these paled in comparison, a mere subset, of the dominant reason given: Time.
The over development of golf in the early 2000’s could be seen as the canary in the coal mine for the coming real estate bust of the late 2000’s. Since then, the golf industry has mused on endless ideas aimed at increasing participation & bolstering the struggling surplus of courses in the U.S. many of the courses were victims of the same circumstances that crippled many real estate developments in the downturn: wrong market, wrong time, wrong product, and all byproducts of free flowing capital. By the new millennium industry standard had grown to 7,000 yard, lush, 200 acre courses with 4 and a half hour average round lengths. Supersized versions of what golf had been in the previous generation.
Efforts to make these dying properties successful ranged from reducing the number of holes, to introducing “kick golf”, and make the holes bigger to make the game easier.
As a purist of the game, I’ve had an aversion to those alternatives that changed or compromised the basic principles of how the game was played.
The act of hitting a golf ball, with all the intricacies of the swing, and the objective of making the ball go into the hole, eliminate such absurdities as kick golf. Making the hole bigger compromises the art of putting and reduced a basic principles of golf the same way that executive or par 3 courses eliminate the skills associated with driving or long iron play.
Reducing courses to less than 18 holes can accomplish a complete golf experience, provided that the holes are of such variety that they are inclusive of a wide range of shots. Put in terms of an overplayed quote for glossy magazines, “you hit every club in your bag”.
While less holes can solve the time problem, it does so in a linear fashion, and the efficiency of resources does not increase, while overall functionality also decreases proportionally by the number of holes constructed. I have always been intrigued by the organization of holes in a less conventional manner to increase opportunities for use. Loops of 3 & 6 or 4 & 5 holes can provide multiple starting point, and allow for shorter rounds in the morning and evening without interfering with traditional 18 hole play.
This exploration sent me further to look for ways to enhance the efficiencies of the resources that are so precious and modern golf is so consumptive of; land being the driving force for the vast majority of these factors.
The rise of reversible courses has also piqued my interest as a matter of expounding upon multiple lines of play into a green complex. The lacking principle in this arrangement is the expansion of usability proportional to the land consumed. Players are unable to play both directions at the same time without engaging in a head on collision.
I was asked to design an ‘Estate Golf Course’ to enhance the amenity offerings on a private plantation in Southeastern United States. The exercise started with the same driving principles as described above, to create a variety of golf holes that would test every aspect of the player’s game. It grew to exploring the multiple lines of play into each of the green complexes, in an effort to multiply the benefits of the 6 green complexes that were planned. Then, I began to explore this arrangement of holes, which had grown to 14 unique holes playing to 6 green complexes in the same way I have contemplated the added operational efficiencies of shorter loops of holes. In the end, this design, taking up approximately 20 acres of land included 14 unique holes that could accommodate 24 players every 2 1/2 hours, and as many as 96 players a day during the longer summer months. It includes a variety of holes including par 5s and long par 4s. The angle of approach into the green complexes is at least 90 degrees different for each approach shot that shares the same green, making the look and feel of the holes unique, despite sharing the same green complex. In total, the Par 50 layout measures 4,000 yards long and takes up roughly 1/2 acre per shot to par, versus 2.75 acres per shot to par in a traditional layout.
With the increasingly slim margins in operating the traditional golf facility, these types of opportunities could lead to facilities that provide a complete golf experience on a fraction of the land. For schools that don’t have the physical or financial means to build a traditional facility, this could fill a void for their competitive teams as well as their general population. For years residential developments have been carving out 200 acres for an amenity that only appeals to 30% of their residents. These alternative facilities could provide an alternative way to build golf as an amenity in a form that is more proportional to their residents interest and to the size of their development.
In order for golf to continue to survive, and thrive, addressing the time dilemma is of the utmost importance. Making the game more accessible by reigning in the costs associated with development and operation of courses will continue to make the game appealing. Maintaining all of the basic principles and skills associated with golf will protect the integrity of the experience, even if it is with less repetition than found in the traditional courses of the game.