Tuesday, 30 July 2013

No More Glen Abbey

courtesy of Canadian Golfer
Yesterday evening I listened to Bill Paul talk on the Fan 590 and mention that Glen Abbey was a great host and remains part of their long term plans. I threw up in my mouth at the thought. I watched the event and found it extremely dull to watch. The architecture plays no real role in the outcome since the players are essentially blasting away all day. It felt just like a typical tour event.
When the RCGA sold Glen Abbey to Clublink it agreed to host the Canadian Open there five more times over 20 years. That commitment is now finished and it’s time that Golf Canada says good bye to that venue. I get that all the infrastructure is in place and the planning is already 90% done. But just because it’s easy to set up and works well for Golf Canada is not the reason to have the event there.
Many years ago a few key people in the golf industry were canvased about how to bring up the stature of the Canadian Open. The overriding belief was the event needed to get away from the Angus Glens and Glen Abbeys and be played on our very best courses. At that time the suggestion was a regular rotation of five courses with an occasional outlier for excitement.
The rotation would be: St. George’s and Hamilton in Toronto, Royal Montreal and an alternative course in Montreal and Shaughnessy in Vancouver. The suggested outlier was originally going to be Banff Springs (done to address the lack of an event in Calgary), but that died during negotiations. Everyone was on board until the limits on visitors to the town that week would not be adjusted for the event. It no longer worked and the idea was shelved.
The recent issue that has cropped up is Royal Montreal, Hamilton and St. George’s are willing hosts, but would prefer a seven year cycle to reduce the inconvenience to the members. Shaughnessy on the other hand seems willing and may pick up some of the slack. Let them. Don’t find another high end public track or a new private course in the middle of nowhere, stick to the plan of the best historical courses in the major cities where that legacy can be used to attract the players and sponsors.
The Canadian Open has a great history before Glen Abbey. In 1969 the event was considered for a World Cup with the other four majors. But creating a permanent home at Glen Abbey slowly eroded the event from a National Championship down to a typical tour event. Everyone overlooked that great venues in great cities attract great players. It’s time to move on past the “conveniences” of Glen Abbey and play at only the best venues. Our national championship deserves it.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Pete Dye - Golf's Most Influential Architect?

Trent Jones - Founder of the Modern School of Architecture

A great question was posted on Golf Club Atlas in the discussion group a few weeks back. It asked the question, “Is Pete Dye the most influential architect since World War Two?

When in 1951 Ben Hogan said, "I'm glad I was finally able to bring this course—this monster—to its knees." A star was born – Robert Trent Jones.

Herbert Warren Wind’s timely profile in The New Yorker that focused on Trent Jones and his changes to Oakland Hills made the architect a household name. His career took off and since there were no influential holdovers left from the Golden Age, the new generation of architects embraced the architectural philosophy of Robert Trent Jones and in mass began practicing the Modern School of Design.

Modernism has absolutely dominated golf design world wide from the end of World War Two to the present day.

Pete Dye was one of those architects who followed in the style of Jones, but a trip to Scotland and the desire to set himself apart from Trent Jones took him in the opposite direction. He intentionally built shorter courses based around the links of Scotland trying to differentiate himself from Trent. He also drew upon the courses of Raynor, Langford and Ross for additional influence. The work may have initially stood out because of the contrast, but have survived the test of time because the underlying ideas were outstanding.
Pete Dye-courtesy of Links Magazine
Course like The Golf Club and the original Crooked Stick were effectively the first Minimalist courses built. While Minimalism would not become a significant movement for at least 25 years, the origins lie with Pete. Many future Minimalists, like myself, point to this work as an influence on our design philosophies.

Interestingly the person who seems least interested in that work is Pete, who when given the chance renovates to his current philosophy and style.

People began to pay attention to Pete right away. Harbourtown was full of imaginative holes, looked and played unlike anything else built in that era. Short holes, timber walls, wild greens and long grasses all captured our imagination. The golf course look amazing on television and its success would lead to the commission to build the TPC at Sawgrass.

TPC Sawgrass - The Course that Changed Golf
At TPC Sawgrass, Pete was being asked to build a course from essentially a swamp. This meant the entire project would have to be created from scratch. He delivered a brilliant test of angles, courage and patience built largely on the same principals that he had used before, but ratcheted up the difficulty to test the mettle of the players. They didn’t talk about the risk and rewards scenarios, the aggressive use of diagonal bunkering, the marvelous greens or grand theater that Pete and Alice had created. They bitched about the intentional blindness on the shot four, the difficulty playing from Pete’s severe chocolate drops, the narrow margin for error because of the timber walls and the fact that the 17th was completely unfair. They hated the place. We loved the fact they hated the place and turned this into a significant television event. Pete was featured in the television coverage, discussed in magazines, players complained about his work during the event and eventually he was tossed in the lake by Jerry Pate. Like Trent Jones at Oakland Hills, only decades later - a star was born. Soon Pete Dye was on American Express commercials saying “Do you know who I am?” And most golfers answered, of course, your Pete Dye!
Whistling Straights - Courtesy of Golf Digest

The commissions came fast and furious with many of them being intended for golf tournaments. Pete’s view on architecture had changed at TPC and now he was going bigger, bolder, harder and more shaped. Each project spiraled up the results culminating in Whistling Straights where nobody knew how many bunkers there were. I have to admit along the way, he completely lost me. I’ve spent the better part of a decade trying to reconcile with the fact that I like his early work, but detest most of his work after TPC Sawgrass. I recognize that he’s brilliant, but don’t care for the combination of over-shaping, difficulty and length that I find define the latter half of his work. The restraint in his early work is impressive; the lack of it later in his career is oppressive.

What was more amazing was how many other architects rushed to design like Pete. The amount of work with railroad ties and other typical Dye features skyrocketed as everyone tried to catch his star by copying his work. It's too bad that most didn't understand all the best aspects like the diagonals and instead embraced his worst ideas like the Island Green.
Doak, Crenshaw and Coore - Tomorrow's Influence
One of the more interesting aspects of Pete is who worked for him and their impact. As Pete became successful he began to attract some of the brightest young minds in architecture. When you look at the people who worked for Pete you see the names of Bill Coore, Tom Doak, along a whole host of others. When you extend that out to others who worked for them and you include names like Gil Hanse. That’s pretty much the leaders of the Minimalist Movement in Architecture. When you speak with anyone who worked with Pete, they quote many of his architectural ideas and you can hear the influence he was on each of their careers. The extension of his architectural tree is quite enormous among the leading active architects of today.

The leadership on tomorrow may actually be rooted in Coore, Doak and to a slightly lesser degree Gil Hanse. They are the leaders today. They are Minimalists and so are most of the young architects of tomorrow. They may eventually be the most influential people in the future, but that’s making a massive assumption that Minimalism will have as long and dominant run as modernism, but in a shorter attention span generation I’m not fully convinced that Movements can last near as long.
Golf's Most Influential Architect after WWII
Therefore this comes down to Dye or Trent Jones. Pete’s a better architect and has a better architectural tree. I give Jones the first two decades, but I give Pete the next three. Jones has little or no influence on new architects coming into the business and Pete clearly still attracts their attention. So there is no contest, Pete is indeed the most influential architect since World War Two. 

Monday, 8 July 2013

Oakmont … How Good is it?

18th green, 15th tee, 14th green, 12th tee
Last week I played Oakmont. This is one of the last great courses I had not seen yet.

Oakmont is one of that few select courses that receives consideration when the discussion comes up on what is “the” very best course in the world. After an hour of deliberation over that question, I can say it’s certainly worthy of being considered, but for me personally it’s not in that elite company of three courses. What I can say is it sits comfortably with the next set of five courses which includes The National Golf Links, Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne Royal County Down and The Old Course.

It’s that good!

One aspect that came up in deliberation over how good was Oakmont was a discussion about the elements of my Top 3. According to my travelling companion, one common link between them was a mean streak.

The three that I feel are worthy of being selected as the best course in the world are Shinnecock Hills, Pine Valley and Merion. While I agree that Shinnecock Hills is tough as nails, there is also abundant room, you can find and play a ball out of the tall fescue and there are lots of ground options. While Pine Valley penalizes the miss like no other, there is tremendous width off the tee and lots of easier alternatives to play around some of the trouble if you want to try make a lot of bogies. I would argue that Merion is only “mean” when set up like it was for the Open. When I first played the course over a decade ago, it was actually fun with a lot more width and low rough. It is the version that placed it in my personal Top 10 and there is this is what they plan to re-establish after the Open. So while I can understand the argument about difficulty, I don’t necessarily agree.

Famous Church Pews on 3rd and 4th holes

This brings me back to Oakmont.

I found the course wider than I expected, the rough shorter than I anticipated, but the greens are still very tough to negotiate even at a lesser speed. While very exacting, I found Oakmont … possible. And that is why I liked it a lot.

Interestingly, I found a close miss to be the worst result since it always found the heart of the deep and extensive bunkering. Often a bigger miss was OK since it avoided the bunkering. The rough was short enough to make recovery pretty simple and the long grass was well set back from play to not become a problem. Only the ditches confound play with their long grasses and close proximity to play. I drove it very well, which meant I saw lots of fairway bunkers on the slight pull or push.

So coming back to the original question, what came up short?
Par 3 13th - with 12th on the left of the picture 

For me it was the threes. The 13th is a gem with a great green and awesome setting. The 16th was almost as good adding length and a running option. My issue was with the front nine threes. I loved the setting of the 6th, but don’t see “possible” in that green with such a massive cross-fall and no room for anything but a cut into the slope hit sky high. The 8th is just a big monstrous par three over flat land. Both are fine holes but compare this to Pine Valleys 3rd (cool redan green), 5th (ultimate long three / insurmountable hole), 10th (Devil’s Asshole and very short three) and the 14th (the island green site on a drop shot three) and they fall slightly short.

What came up strong?

Oakmont may have the best combination of short fours and par four and halves in the world. The constant change of pace is so impressive and offers a remarkable lesson in pacing a round of golf to vary the rhythm of the game. I felt equal measures of opportunity followed by lessons in perseverance. Every single one is an outstanding architectural lesson with the downhill fours being particularly noteworthy. Oakmont may have the best set of fours in the game. That is an argument that I’m willing to make!

I also thought the fives were very strong. The combination of interesting architectural elements and risk made for three very interesting holes to play. They do a great job of eating up some areas of less undulation while delivering really excellent golf.

I went to Oakmont with high expectations and even higher anxiety. The architecture exceeded my expectations, there was far more than “just” a tough golf course sitting on that property. More importantly there was an awesome collection of interesting holes that met the landscape at wildly varied angles providing a myriad of stances and complications to overcome. While the bunkering and greens receive the credit for difficulty, it is the land and routing choices that actually deliver the blow.

I respect the course for the tough test that it is. I admire the course far more for the brilliant use of land. It is simply an outstanding piece of architecture.