Sunday, 2 January 2011

Defending against Technology without using Length

The problem


This is nothing new Harry Colt was one of the first architects who had to deal with the huge changes brought about by the Haskell Ball. Colt altered and expanded many great courses to compensate for the greater distances golfers achieved with the rubber-cored golf ball.

The Golden Age architects saw the problems coming. As they saw the distances of equipment increase, they realized their strategies that were so carefully laid out were in jeopardy. The also recognized that the variety that they so carefully laid out within the round would be lost on lengthening. It is interesting to read the comments of AW Tillinghast, when Tom Fazio was recently praising him for building “intentional elasticity” into his layout at Winged Foot.

“…the fetish of distance is worshipped entirely too often and there should be a quick end to it.” – AW Tillinghast"
Alister Mackenzie was never a strong player and recognized that golf was a game dominated by the dub (that phrase has been used by many of the Golden Age architects to represent a high handicapper). He felt that he was more than capable of testing the good player, while providing an enjoyable test for the average player, as long as the distance between both players’ games stayed reasonable. What he recognized very early was that the gulf between skill levels and distance requirements for both was growing too vast for architects to deal with.

“Something very drastic ought to have been done years and years ago. Golf courses are becoming too long.” – Alister Mackenzie
It was the father of modern architecture who was smart enough to see where we were going long before we got there. William Flynn is one of the greatest tacticians golf architecture has ever seen. He understood the strategies and shot making required to test the best players, and wrote about this extensively. Some of his brilliant ideas will come up in tomorrow’s blog. He realized with the change in technology of clubs and balls that to getting players to “hit every club” (theoretically) would require the back tees to be pushed back to enormous lengths to accomplish this.

“All architects will be a lot more comfortable with the powers that be in golf solve the ball problem. A great deal of experimentation is now going on and it is hoped that before long a solution will be found to control the distance of the elusive pill. If, as in the past, the distance to be gotten with the ball continues to increase, it will be necessary to go to 7,500 and 8,000 yard courses and more yards mean more acres to buy, more course to construct, more fairways to maintain and more money for golfers to fork out.” – William Flynn
He was also smart enough to see that the economic fall too. I was talking with Rick Phelps about distance a few year back when he was teaching me about the gains made on the ball by elevation. I asked a simple question of how do you plan the course for the back tees (8,500 yards) and still provide a similar challenge or game for the shorter tees (5400 yards). He was frank (which I like about Rick) and said you can’t. So how do you design to a widening gulf between skills levels. Tim Morghan from the USGA might have been right when he said “Don’t, ignore the best 1% and the game will be better for it”

The biggest problem architects have is designing around a moving target. Most of golf architecture is based upon distances. Whether is it the use of carry bunkers at the crucial decision distance that create risk and reward or the measured placement of landing areas to set up a hole or bring the natural contour into the design. Distances are important to great architecture, particularly on average or flat sites where the land can’t assist us in dealing with change.

Here’s a great example. Look at Pine Needles where the tee shots once landed into the upslope of the crowned fairways leaving a long iron; they became pushovers when tee shots carried the plateau and got a boost from the down slope on the other side. That’s what architects are facing. Carefully laid out strategies and placement of features are overrun by technology. I’ll give Jay Morrish the last word.

“I’m just trying to figure out where to put the bunkers on today’s courses. I don’t think lengthening existing courses is the key and it just plays into the hands of long hitters like Tiger Woods. I think the only way to challenge them is with angles and placing the bunkers out there long where they hit those drives.
The problem is technology. It’s hard to think fast enough to stay ahead of how far the golf ball goes today. It’s a guessing game and very difficult to uphold the old standards of making golf courses that will make you hit all 14 golf clubs. We are going the wrong direction as far as the long golf ball and it’s a sad situation.” – Jay Morrish




Technology overwhelming architecture

126 yards and tough as nails!


Technology killed tennis – will golf be next? Tennis is nowhere near as popular a game as it used to be. Why, because technology changed the game to a point where watching the sport became dull. The change in (racket) technology replaced shot making with the power game. Professional golf has gone through a similar transition. When people stopped watching professional tennis, the participation dropped and has never recovered. Interestingly, participation in golf began to decline the same year the power game began to dominate men’s golf.


Technology is impacting the way we play, but the problems of technology run much deeper than that. While it does matter that we no longer can relate to the play of the professionals, it matters much more to us that technology is changing the economics of the game. Technology in golf is pushing the cost of the game up dramatically, and creating a situation where people can’t afford to play.

Does this affect architecture? Whenever the issue of challenging the impact of technology comes up, the solution always seems to be adding length to retain difficulty. Look at the professional tour – each new course is longer than the last, and much of our great architecture is being dismantled just for length. The problem with building longer and longer courses is that it increases the acreage required, increases the costs of acquiring the land, increases the cost of the build, increases the cost to maintain, and ultimately increases the cost to player. The longer the courses get, the more expensive the game becomes, the less people can afford to play it.

But the problem is not just with the equipment. It lies also with the reluctance of designers and owners to challenge this direction. Everyone has become scared to build a golf course less than 7,000 yards because it will not be a “Championship” test. As Tim Morghan from the USGA suggested at a meeting I recently attended, why don’t we just ignore the elite 1% of the game and build shorter courses for the people who really play the game. I spent Tuesday trying to convince a potential new client to build less than 6,800 yards to meet the real demand in golf and to keep his costs down for a more economical project.

The argument is if we remove length from our design palette, then we’re left with short courses that can’t defend themselves. Until very recently Pine Valley, Merion, Myopia Hunt and Cypress Point all were less than 6,600 yards and they are considered to be among our very best courses. Merion and Pine Valley are two of the hardest courses I have ever played and length is not a key factor to the difficulty of either.

So what can an architect do to add difficulty without adding length? Remember we also want playability so I’m going to ignore the idea of island greens, more water, forced carries, long rough, fescue and fast greens. That puts me at odds with the current trend, doesn’t it?


Defending without length


So what can an architect do to add difficulty without adding length and till maintain playability? Island greens, more water, forced carries, long rough, fescue and fast greens all add difficulty and 6 hour rounds, so what are the alternatives?

1. Make the player think. Alister Mackenzie said, “A first class hole must have the subtleties and strategic problems which are difficult to understand, and are therefore extremely likely to be condemned at first sight even by the best of players.” Giving the players options and tempting situations keeps them a bit off balance, even with the equipment they have today. If the strategy is simple and straight forward they will play to their strengths, but if a hole is full of enticing options they will often entertain the most foolish line trying to gain an advantage on the course. The 10th at Riviera is the perfect example, where the smartest play is the least obvious and the riskiest play is the most understandable.













2. Make them manufacture shots. The shot that the professionals are most uncomfortable with is being forced to hit a fade from a draw lie, or a draw from a fade lie. They would rather take their natural swing than have to manufacture a shot. Using the natural cross-slope of the land to influence play is the least used and most effective method to add additional difficulty to a hole. This is a technique perfected by William Flynn at Huntingdon Valley, where he routed many holes against the natural slope of the land to force the players to work the ball against the grade.

3. Place pressure on their expectations. Short holes are wonderful things; they give the average player a chance to make a par, whereas the great player feels the pressure to “make” a birdie. At Merion, the better player feels great pressure to score on the shorter middle holes and almost always become far too aggressive trying to score through this stretch. The results are usually disastrous, particularly when the shorter holes require more management than some of the longer ones.

4. Closely mown grass around greens. This has long been a staple of links courses throughout the world. Bluegrass surrounding a green offers only one type of recovery — the flop — a favorite of good players, and it also contains a missed approach. However, if the green surrounds are closely mown, the near miss often gets propelled away from the green. Now the good player must decide whether to putt, bump and run, or to attempt a flop shot. Options present opportunities, but also lead to mistakes. The US Open at Pinehurst showed the difficulty created by short grass around greens.














5. Bold undulations on the greens. With bold undulations on the putting surface, positional play becomes even more important to gaining access to many of the pin positions. It will even dictate strategy right back to the tee. If you miss the approach, you are left with a delicate putt requiring the player’s full imagination to avoid dropping a stroke. St. Andrew’s is a great example where a player will hit many greens and still make lots of bogies by being on the wrong side of the hole.

6. Bunkers that are a Hazard. Walter Travis had the following quote about bunkers. "The primary idea of a hazard is to punish, to the extent of one stroke, a poorly played shot, and to make the recovery exceedingly difficult, and even by the virtue of the following shot being extraordinarily good. If this end is not attained, the existing hazard fails to fill its functions." When the player aims at the perfectly groomed hazard because it offers an advantage, the hazard ceases to be relevant to the intent of the game.

7. Intimidation. A hazard with little penalty for a miss has no psychological impact on a good player and the player will swing with confidence. When the penalty for missing is severe, a player’s pulse will quicken and they will feel the pressure to make the shot. If the player begins to think about the consequences of missing his shot instead of a good result, the architect has intimidated the player. At Pine Valley, the first time player is so overwhelmed with the possibility of disaster everywhere that they rarely notice the wide fairways and large greens that George Crump has provided.











8. Removing the clear line of site to a target. As architects, we are always looking for a way to add tension throughout the round. The blind shot has the same psychological impact as water, out of bounds or a forced carry (without the penalty strokes). Players have come to expect everything to be visible and clearly defined on each shot, and any break in this modern pattern frustrates them. Even blocking the view of the green, but allowing for the flag to be seen, upsets the player’s ability to visualize the shot. Tobacco Road uses this technique to make the player uncomfortable, but as the Scot’s would tell you the hole is only blind once, and because of this Tobacco Road is much less intimidating on the second play.

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