Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A Different Look at Course Rankings

Delemere Forest's 15th
Boxing has the World Boxing Council, The World Boxing Association, the International Boxing Federation and the World Boxing Organization and because of this we pay no attention to them. Golf has lists from Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, Golfweek, Links Magazine, Scoregolf (for Canada), Golf Monthly, etc. etc.

To be frank I only follow just a single list, Golf Magazine’s Top 100 in the World. It provides me with a rough idea of what I need to see. I have played or walked 70 courses on their list. I figured it out a few years back that I will never play them all because around a dozen courses don’t match my taste in architecture and I would rather go see an obscure Raynor.
Woodland's 3rd

The original golf course ratings were done by Golf Digest in 1966 and it was put out as a list of the 200 toughest courses. It quickly morphed into a list of the 100 Greatest Courses and eventually became an important issue for the magazine. As the popularity grew, so did the controversy, which in turn drove additional sales and subscriptions. Other magazines saw the popularity and attention Golf Digest was receiving and set out to have their own ratings issue.

Golf Digest eventually set out criteria that asked panelists (now over 1000) to rate courses on the following criteria: Shot Values, Resistance to Scoring, Design Variety, Memorability, Aesthetics, Conditioning and Ambience (added later than the other criteria). My criticism of their list has always stemmed from the fact that all players have to be single digit making resistance to scoring and conditioning too large a focus in their rankings. I’ve played with enough panelists to know this is the case.
Enniscrone's 4th

Golf Magazine started a Top 100 Course in the World list in 1983. They pulled together a group of well-travelled and respected industry members to rank the world’s best courses using their own criteria. The list became as popular as Golf Digest because it opened up more new interesting courses and difficulty seemed to have less impact on the ratings. I particularly liked this one because it took me to places like Crystal Downs.

The two initial rankings complimented each other. This meant there were approximately four to five hundred people rating courses for these publications in the world. But with the birth of dozens of these new lists and each publication branching out into more, we now see thousands of individuals with some sort of rater’s card.

My issue with rankings is the magazines look to control the rankings by dealing with what they refer to as outliers. They want their ranking numbers to be consistent and focused on their view of how the rankings should work.

In my opinion a useful ranking is a smaller well educated group. It contains as many outliers as it does middle of the road personalities. I trust a group like this to wade through and find the special and unusual gems that are worthy of consideration. A list that plays it safe and down the middle is useless to me. The consensus teaches us nothing new.

Like Boxing, there are far too many lists, panels and people rating courses that everything has become noise and I no longer pay attention to any of the lists. I now look for people who can provide me with an outlier’s point of view. On a recent trip I played Delemere Forest simply on a friend’s recommendation and it was one of the greatest golfing experiences I have ever had. Perhaps were now too reliant on lists and I need to travel as others originally did. Pick a spot of interest and play everything and wait for the surprises that do come if you make the effort. We did that in Wales and I had the time of my life and none of those courses were on a list!

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Why a Master Plan?


You don’t run a business without a business plan. So why would you renovate your golf course without a comprehensive look at what you are trying to achieve.

I believe this is the one opportunity to talk about the big picture and philosophy of what you are trying to accomplish before you start to look at projects. You need to talk about expectations. You need to address issues like attracting future members. You must talk about how you want the course to play on a day to day basis. Often many of these philosophical questions influence the direction of the Master Plan. Understanding growing environments may be the single most important aspect of this process.

The most important part of Master Planning is having a broad based committee that represents the entire club’s playing membership. If the committee is well struck, the Master Plan process is usually fun and educational since many members of the committee learn a great deal more about the play of other players and the issues a superintendent faces in meeting expectations. Once well educated about both, the process becomes a sorting through all the possibilities to find a solution that fits the culture of the club which must including the financial aspects.

The Master Plan focuses the club on what needs to be addressed or what needs improvement. It helps the membership decide on capitol allocation, which often competes with the clubhouse and other areas with “plans.” It identifies connected projects for efficiencies, provides a breakdown of costs and even includes a recommended phasing plan on how to get the work done within the typical yearly capital allocations available for improvements.

Most clubs have a culture of consistent in house work such as tree removal, grassing changes and tee work. Many superintendents use the plan to find small projects that fit manpower or left over capital in their own budgets. It allows us to take on some smaller projects in short notice if wither the circumstance demand action or the capital surprise opens up a late season opportunity.

My Master Plans happen to include a Master Plan Booklet, which allows new members on the board or committee to read through all the documentation and immediately come up to speed on how the plan was developed. This avoids starting the process again a few years later. I find it helps maintain the focus and avoid personal agendas. It also helps the process continue on through the decade without re-starting as boards change.
After Image from Laval Master Plan

I even recommend all documentation be shared on line with the membership. I provide the plan, images and booklets and suggest they be available at the clubhouse at all times. I also run multiple meetings with the membership at large to help engage the membership by explaining why we need to make the changes we recommend.

I see all of this as a written and illustrated step by step instruction about the club, what problems need addressing, what recommendations have been made, they have images that show what they will all look like, they have breakdowns of what it will cost and finally how will it impact you the member.

That’s why I do them, because the members of the committee and club can read through the entire process and answer all those questions by the time they finish the document and make an informed decision on whether they want to spend money on projects or not.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Tom Peters on Highlands Links

Stan the Man at the 1st Tee
From Tom Peters review on Highlands Links:

"The course is in amazing condition thanks to Hudson and his great crew. They have put the time and effort into putting this little piece of Heaven into such fabulous condition. Kudos to Parks Canada as well for financing the work which has taken the last three or four years. It hasn’t been an overnight wave of the wand type project."

It's been a mixed bag of comments on the conditioning. Some understand the complications and see the improvement. Others compare it to courses in better climates with new turf and larger maintenance budgets.

"In addition to the great restoration work of Mr. Andrew, there have been a couple of other neat touches added to the course. As you approach the first tee you are greeted by Mr. Thompson, or to be more correct, a bronzed statue of the famous architect donated by the Stanley Thompson Historical Society. The other neat touch is a number of 1941 photos of the course showing what it looked like back then. The photos are mounted and being placed in their appropriate locations around the course. It’s the little things that add to the feel of the place."

I wish what had been started four years ago would simply be allowed to progress.

The link to the full article is here: link

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Rubenstein on Defending Par and Laval

Great picture of Lorne from Sympatico Sports

Lorne wrote a wonderful article on defending par. We had an interesting discussion just prior and much of it comes up in the piece. I like the gist of what he said, which is it really can only be defended at the green in a modern context of excessive length.

Here is the full article:  Click Here

"We don't try defend par. I personally believe this is no longer possible if you still want the other 99% of players to enjoy the course. The game is a mess because the ball is out of control and the disparity between players means the games have no relevance to each other even with multiple tees.

At Laval we did shift some of the bunkers further down the holes to deal with longer players. But Mike and I refused to go long and lose the short threes, fours (3 of them) and fives that make the game fun.

What we set out to do is penalize the player who overplays their hand. And our primary defence is in our greens. They are smaller than normal. We also borrowed internal rolls from Augusta National and the edges from Shinnecock Hills to create a tough and varied set of greens.

Mike and I have designed Laval so that it can become much more difficult simply by changing the maintenance practices. You add difficulty by firming up and speeding up the greens, but because they are generally raised surfaces this emphasizes the impact.

Since there is no rough around any of the greens, by firming them up and shaving them shorter they have a far greater impact on the miss. The ball will be running to places where a recovery will become very complicated since there is nothing that contains a miss in most instances.

What we see at Laval is the pins being pushed to the edges where they pass from pin area to fall-offs and this will create a much tougher test. The margin for error can be made quite small with a clever set up.

For the members we simply raise the heights and keep the pins away from the fall offs and the course becomes fun again."

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Rick Young on Highlands Links

15th Hole from unusual angle
"Andrew has been instrumental in that process. The Brantford, Ont., course designer's focus (and passion for the project) since giving Parks Canada a master plan in 2008 was to return the golf course to Stanley Thompson's original design."

"If that's where the green was and that was the shape of the bunker that's what it is today," Hudson added. "Now all 18 holes are done. I've only been here five years but the difference between even three years ago to the shape and where the bunkers are today makes sense with the holes. The bunkering Ian's done is amazing. He's been so hands-on. He had a crew of five here and their work has been inspirational."

The crew of five includes me.... the boys were awesone, I think we did wonderes together with what little we had.

Here is Rick Young's entire piece on Highlands Links:

"None of this goes forward without Ian," applauded Hudson. "In our management scheme up the line not a lot of the Parks Canada folks are golf people but Ian has such a great reputation. He has an effective way of presenting things. Once he did they got it. When we sat with him and my boss's boss and Ian did his presentation he said, 'Wow.' He was on board. Ian's passion for this was huge."

None of this work goes ahead without Graham Hudson. He deserves all the credit for the restoration. He got the funding, which was much harder than you could possibly ever imagine. Kudos to the Park for coming through when things were at their worst.

The last work from Rick:

"Highlands Links is a special place. To me it's one of Canada's most significant golf properties, arguably Thompson's best work and a course golfers should have on their bucket list if not crossed off already. And despite the many questions and work that still remain, the golf course is at a point where I think Thompson would be proud of Highlands Links in its current state.
One thing is certain. The 'wow' factor has returned."

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Baltusrol (Lower)

4th and 18th - photo by Larry Lambrect - courtesy of Links Magazine

Baltusrol is a really good course. There is not a single weak hole, the conditioning is second to none and it is easily a championship test even on a daily basis. I don’t think it’s a top 100 course in the world and this is why…

The par three holes are all the same length. I found none of them to be particularly interesting, including the highly overrated and out of context 4th green. I was stunned that Tillinghast used the par threes as connector holes to help you get to better places where the land was more interesting for par fours and fives. This removes the opportunity to create an exclamation point with the threes making them collectively disappointing.

2nd green - Photo by Russel Kirk, courtesy of Planet Golf

The fours are stunningly similar, long, strong and very well bunkered. The sum of the fours is an impressive examination of whether you can hit great drives and accurate solid approach shots all day. They are repetitive in their presentation and strength. While they do turn in different directions and feature some really solid detail work in the bunkers, nothing memorable beyond a few interesting ditches in play on the 10th and 13th. The 5th is the one that stands out and the first few are memorable for difficulty created by the trees not for the quality of holes.  I will have issues remembering any four after the 5th.

The fives are actually the strength. The 1st and 7th are nothing special, but the final two are the two best holes on the course. I happen to think both are exceptional fives and perhaps that is what has makes the course memorable in many eyes. The final hole is brilliant, although I wish the fairway came to the pond on the tee shot.

I admire the course as a test of golf, the exceptional conditioning, the fine bunker work and the fact there is not a single weak or poor hole on the course. That’s rare in golf. But I was disappointed that there was not one exceptional hole that belongs in the discussion of the best of the game. The uniformity of “green colour” only reinforced the sameness that overwhelmed me. I admire the course, but there wasn’t a single element that I will take from it to my own designs and that is one of my critical measures of excellent design.


Tuesday, 2 October 2012

A Return to Bethpage Black

The 4th at Bethpage Black

For context, I played the course about five years ago.  I’ll begin by sharing my impressions from five years back.

I was really love the scale of the golf course. The width of the tree corridors was massive almost completely taking the trees out of play on almost every home creating a wonderful backdrop of mature Oaks. The undulations in the become the focus because your allowed to see so much of the roll in the land.

Tillinghast has always impressed me with his understanding of scale and at Bethpage he backed this up with massive bunkering and some really impressive carry lines from the tee. He also built really wide fairways that fit the scale and allowed you to take on as little or as much as you dared. While the golf course was tough as nails, because of how penal it was around the greens, it was also playable because of all the room away from the aggressive lines. You could simply tack wide, lay short and play for par/bogie all day. It was a great version of penal golf.

Forward to Monday

I unimpressed with the new presentation of the course. The fairways have been narrowed to around 22 yards and while that may be the “appropriate” set-up for the US Open it made the course one-dimensional. There was no longer any room off the tee to play a safer line. Even the carry lines were unattainable because of the lack of width in the fairway, which meant all but the perfect ran through into the rough. Because there is rough between fairway and green, where there aren’t super deep bunkers, you couldn’t run an approach on. The golf course has been reduced to a test of execution, which is the most boring architecture of all. The round was drudgery and very uninspiring.

I was tremendously disappointed in what the course has become. The fairway width was the key ingredient to prevent the course from crossing the line from possible to impossible.