Only a short par three "Het Girdle" shows length and difficulty have no direct connection
Sorry about the delay on Part 3, we decided to work on a different article instead. The first two threads are from a couple weeks ago if you need a reminder:
I spent Tuesday trying to convince a potential new client to build a course that was less than 6,800 yards. Not only would it make a better business model for him by keeping costs lower, it would fit better into the limited land he had to work with. I explained to him that length was only required to challenge 1% of all golfers, and that for the good of the course and business model we should simply ignore them. What we needed to do was meet the actual demand and make sure the course is interesting rather than trying to force a long course out of a small property.
He asked me the question that I knew was coming, if we remove the length, won’t it be too easy? Therein lays the biggest problem in architecture today; owners, players and architects have somehow come to believe that length is a key component in difficulty and greatness. The irony is that it length has been responsible for removing options, variety and interest – all key elements of a great course - while driving the cost of building a course continuously higher.
So if we remove length from our design palette, then we’re left with short courses that aren’t very good and can’t defend themselves right? Well until very recently Pine Valley, Merion, Myopia Hunt Crystal Downs, Fishers Island, and Cypress Point all were less than 6,600 yards. Merion and Pine Valley in particular are two of the hardest courses I have ever played, and length is not a key factor to the difficulty of either.
So how can an architect add difficulty without resorting to length, fescue, excessive water or heavy rough that all create 6 hour rounds?
Here are my suggestions:
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.” Providing the players with options and tempting situations keeps them off balance, even with the equipment they enjoy 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. Players are drawn into hitting the driver despite the fact they know a lay-up produces more birdies.
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. The 15th at Garden City has both the fairway and green sloping hard to the right. No trees, no bunkers, but you still have to draw the tee shot to hold the slope and draw the approach from a fade lie to hold the green.
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 on the short middle stretch the better player feels great pressure to score. Most become overly aggressive trying to make birdies through this stretch, but often drop shots through bad mismanagement. Many professionals have commented that the round is often lost on this stretch, rather than the difficult closing stretch, because they have thrown away the opportunity the holes offered them.
Intimidation is one of the most efficient ways for an architect to add difficulty. Intimidation is created by reducing the dimension of the target they see, by making the penalty for missing seem even greater than it is, and by making a task seem impossible when it is actually much easier than it appears. Pine Valley and Tobacco Road offer generous fairways and large greens, but the visual aspect of the hole overwhelms the player into thinking they can’t make the shot. While the targets are no different than their own local course, the player swings with the dread of where the ball may end up, instead of thinking only of the target. As Pete Dye said, “When you get those dudes thinking, there in trouble”
The approach to th 3rd at Deal shows contour is the greatest assest of a golf course
5. Bold undulations on the greens.
An extra two or three inches of fall on a green can be more diabolical than a huge roll in a fairway or a frighteningly deep bunker. Greens are the heart of the golf course and have the greatest impact on the game. If the contours of the green are bold and pin positions can only be accessed from one side of the fairway, positional play becomes very crucial. A great green like this will dictate the strategy of the hole all the way back to the tee. At St. Andrew’s the greens are mistakenly thought to be easy because they are so easy to hit, but if you find yourself on the wrong side of a prominent ridge or roll you will have trouble making par. Great greens, like St. Andrews, must be studied and learned in order to score.
6. Closely mown grass around greens.
When you surround a green with bluegrass the player ends up always playing a traditional flop shot recovery. The bluegrass usually contains the missed approach allowing a good player to play aggressively. However, if the green surrounds are closely mown, the near miss often gets propelled well away from the green. Now the 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, players had to manage their approach shots to avoid getting into areas where they would have trouble getting up and down. Rather than help with playability, like it does for the average player, the short grass increases the difficulty for the good player and makes them play more defensively. This has long been a staple of links courses throughout the world.
7. Return the penalty of being in a bunker.
When the player aims at the perfectly groomed bunker because it offers an advantage, the hazard ceases to be relevant. The bunker has devolved into the source of artistry rather than a source of strategy. Bunkers need to cost you a stroke, not reward you, for knocking it in them. Walter Travis sums it up best, "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."
8. Blindness or partial blindness.
There is nothing more loathed or hated in North America than a blind shot (except may be for liability lawyers). When a player is confronted with a target that they can not see, they become immediately uncomfortable. Tour pros declare these holes as mistakes or unfair, because they lack the focus that they require to mentally visualize the shot. Even a blind green, where the flag is still visible, is often enough to bother a player since they lack the visual confirmation of distance and the clarity of their target. The average player simply chooses the rock, tree, spire or flag and swings away since they worry less about visualization. The blind shot is very controversial in this day and age of earth moving equipment, but used infrequently and in the right setting it can offers the architect a way to break the rhythm of a player and add variety.
The 10th at Rivera proves to us that at barely over 300 yards, there is more to difficulty than just length, I just hope my future clients understand you do not need a course over 6,800 yards to make them difficult.