Last week I made a trip out to Yahnundasis GC and to Onondaga G&CC both courses by Walter Travis. Both golf courses have had greens rebuilt by other architects. Yahnundasis had two greens rebuilt by the Gordon’s. At Onondaga there are five rebuilds, three by Skip Wogan and two by Hal Purdy. The interesting thing is these greens match each other quite well, but has no resemblance to the original work by Walter Travis. What we have ended up with is the Modern architectural philosophy placed up against the Golden Age architectural philosophy on the same course. This happened because of the timing of the renovation, more than a conscious decision of the architects to go in a new direction.
If we look at a lot of the work by the greatest architects working during the golden age of architecture, more often than not we find the trouble is set predominantly to the sides and the fronts are left open. There are exceptions with particular holes, but if we dare to generalize the work of Ross, Tillinghast, Thompson, Thomas, MacKenzie and Colt; we find that this pattern is reasonably consistent throughout. Now lets take the modern era where Trent Jones ushered in a new style that was widely embraced by almost all architects. His “new” view of the game was one which requires flying the ball over trouble to access protected pin positions. His greens got bigger to allow for more pin area, but also were protected with more trouble to balance out the change. Possibly his most fascinating change was the green shapes which were shallow and wide, rather than the tendency of the Golden Age architects to favor long and narrow. Imagine continually turning a rectangle 90 degrees and the concept is made simpler to understand.
So at these two courses we have a majority of greens that are smaller, narrow, and deeper than they are wide. The fill pads are very square in appearance (in particular Onondaga) and the trouble is almost always wide and long. The new greens are wider than long, fronted with bunkers and the fill is placed in a near perfect circle on all the greens in stark contrast to the squareness of the other green sites.
So why does this matter beyond appearance?
Let’s look at the basic results of most misses. The high handicapper misses a majority of their shots short. The great player has greater distance control, but may still miss left and right. The high handicapper gets in lots of trouble and often has to play short before playing on to try save par. The strong player will take chances from the rough to try and reach the green in regulation. The high handicapper is quite likely to need to use a long club that can not carry and stop a ball, but will roll into the green given the chance. The strong player wants the ball in the air and will fly everything in for control.
In simple terms, providing a wide open front is a strong benefit to the high handicap, but has much less benefit to a strong player. Since most high handicappers hit the ball short when they miss shots, the bunkers flanking the green are less likely to penalize them than player who will carry the ball back onto the green. The amazing thing about flanking a green with bunkers is that it raises and lowers its challenge to the level of the player playing the hole. On a modern green a player missing wide often had either and easy recovery or even a putt; now they are in trouble for their wayward approach. A weak player worried about missing left or right can simply play short and play for par. A strong player feels the need to find the green in regulation which is very hard from the left or right rough with their approaches to a narrow target. Throw in Walter’s love for hidden back bunkers and the concept goes after the player who is the most aggressive - which is a great philosophy isn't it.
This represents a fine balance of playability and challenge, and that's why this idea needs to make a stronger comeback.