Friday, April 28, 2006

Patrick’s Questions Part 1

I had a wonderful email from Patrick, that I though would be best answered on line. Patrick was game for this too. I will have to do this in two parts.

If the Old Course is amongst the very best courses in the world, why aren't there more like it? I don't mean re-creating it, but incorporating the same ideas. Everyone who has seen it (I haven't) talks about how different it is from any other course. I have played Rustic Canyon in southern California, and my impression of it is that it's as close to the Old Course as I've seen in my limited experience. I loved every moment of that course. Is there something about this style that prevents it from being built more frequently? Are appropriate soil conditions for such courses uncommon?

The Old Course is all about playing shots. There are very few places on the course where you talk about the unparalleled beauty or the dramatic shaping of feature. The Old Course is on a plain piece of land where the best dunes are actually on the New Course (these are small by UK standards). The greatness of the course is found in smallest and subtlest of contours, the kind that the camera can not catch and most players don’t find “in one round”. This is a course that grows on you as you learn it, and you need to play it more than once to appreciate the courses different strategies depending on which pin you get that day. There is not one way to play any hole at the Old Course – you must figure out the best route yourself, because the architecture doesn’t visually tell you what to do. I think learning a golf course doesn’t suit our short attention span (blame MTV for the next generation being worse). Many golfers want everything clear from the first tee to the last putt. Well that isn’t the Old Course.

When you go around the Old Course you are blown away by how playable it is, how the green contours are far more important to scoring than any other course you have played, how often you have to hit blind or semi blind shots, how you seemingly can hit it anywhere, but you can’t score if you do, that sometimes results seem to be unfair (the “F” word), that a few of the holes are too easy (the Old Course has breather holes).

Yet you can not wait to play the course again, and each time you play the course your respect for the architecture goes up. That defines greatness.

So why isn’t anything built like the Old Course?

It’s partially it’s a fear of criticism, but mainly it’s because of the modern desire for holes that make great postcards over holes that play well. I think it was Sam Snead who called it a cow pasture on his first visit, and I must admit when I first saw the course I was not initially blown away. Most modern architect's could not weather this criticism. Modern architecture strives to give fair, well-defined courses with exceptional playing conditions. Blind shots, severe penalties, unclear strategies, and dull looking architecture can and will bring criticism. Architects are like most people, they have a need to be liked, and that is the failing of many. They play it too safe, and building a course based upon the Old Course would not be playing it safe.

On that note, if Pinehurst #2 is such a great strategic course because of its greens, why aren't similar greens built more often? Your website advocates shaved fringes (which are ubiquitous at Rustic Canyon and lots of fun), but it seems that this is a fairly rare feature.

You could talk about Pinehurst, Muirfield (in Scotland) and the Old Course all at the same time because they are all perfect pieces of architecture that look very plain. Pinehurst is knocked primarily because it is a tough course to photograph, it looks kind of plain and the property is not very exciting. It still remains the most compelling course to try score on where you can’t lose a ball. I built Ballantrae north of Toronto as a tribute to the concepts on “the deuce” and the course is very well liked for it’s green complexes. People do try to emulate parts of the duece, but very few carry the idea through the whole course.

I do think lots of architects have embraced the run offs and roll offs, I just think these areas need to be larger to have more impact on the short game, like Rustic Canyon. The ground game makes for the best and most creative golf, and once you play in Ireland and Scotland you wonder why people like parkland golf in the United States since it’s so one dimensional. I think the short grass around the greens has been embraced by architects and is being used a lot by the younger ones in particular.

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