Sunday, 26 December 2010

What is Strategy?

Pacific Dunes 3rd hole - the pin position that started the conversation.

At the last dinner of the ASGCA meeting one of the members spent a great deal of time explaining why they thought Pacific Dunes wasn’t a good design. He thought the greens in particular were ridiculous there was no way to get close on some of the approach shots. This was the second time I had heard an ASGCA member question the course. The other time came from one of my playing companions on the side trip to Bandon Dunes Resort. He felt the course had no strategies.

Pacific Dunes is one of my favourite courses to play because it is the closest example I can find to the principle of “discovery” in modern golf architecture. Too many courses tell you what to do on every shot and simply become a test of execution. Pacific Dunes is all about the freedom to make choices and have fun. To me, Pacific Dunes is a throw back to a past era where bounce and chance rule over execution and reward. To put it as simply as I can it is an adventure.

As the discussion at dinner continued I wished we would move on to something else.  The architect complained that there were places where he could not get to a pin positions in a tournament and that the greens removed most of the strategy since the undulations often created pins that were pretty much inaccessible. He felt that they unfairly removed the potential to make a birdie on some holes since there was also no way to make a putt. I mentioned that there is always a line to the hole and it took me 20-30 putts to figure out a couple of the most complicated pin positions at Barnbougle Dunes (which I mentioned are far wilder).

He shared his opinion (a commonly held belief) that if one executes a shot, they should always get their reward. Here was a North America ideal that likely emerged with the belief of always keeping a score. I explained that you should not always get the reward, that part of golf is about perseverance and overcoming what occasional seems unfair. That golf was not all about birdies and scoring, but occasionally was about overcoming the seemingly impossible in the least amount of strokes possible. I offered that since he was in competition, the field shared the same problem.

He said, “Ian, if you played at a higher level, you would understand the strategies a little better.” Ouch! There it was again. Well it’s not the first time that a skilled player has uttered that remark. Actually it’s quite a common refrain. As always I pointed out that Mackenzie, who was the best architect in history never played well, and just because I can’t repeat a shot doesn’t mean that I can’t occasionally make one or understand the game of those who can. Hitting the ball has nothing to do with understand shots or the potential of a hole, just look at the work of Raynor, who never played the game.

Here’s the problem with any conversation about strategy. It’s defined by your own personal belief on what that should mean. He views it as a competition between the player and the course. The other architect I mentioned before believed that you must always be presented with a challenge. I disagree, I see the game more as a journey where you can choose your own path and make it as complicated or as simple as “you” like. Some believe every shot should be contested, I see that as dull and overbearing. Others like max Behr believe the game began with more freedom and even see the value of not contesting a shot on purpose. Bobby Jones created Augusta with wide fairways and almost no bunkers.

Why is Augusta fine and Pacific Dunes not?  The answer is age.

You may be surprised to find out that we actually continued our conversation through the evening. I like him and find the conversation interesting even if we completely disagree. I think it’s very important that architects don’t see things the same and that helps the player enjoy more variety in the courses they play.

When we returned to the difficulty of the greens one more time, I reminded him that the course was very short, very wide and for a competition relatively easy without wind. I wondered if he had seen the course away from competition, would he have seen it in a different light, since each pin he faced was likely set to push the abilities of the players where in reality the course was designed to do the opposite. The greens remind me of Pinehurst #2 and Augusta National where the speed of greens and pin positions can take it from fun to frustrating in an instant.

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