The following is a question and answer interview I did with John Tenpenny, editor of Fairways magazine. The magazine is out now if you want to get a copy from your local course. You will see a lot of the ideas in my blog coming together in one place.
What elements are missing in golf courses designed today?
The game of golf is supposed to be fun. Natural rolls, rumples, ridges and slopes, left completely untouched, add a huge amount of interest to a course. The joy of the game is trying to figure out how to play over, along or around these natural features. The game originated with chance as one of the elements of the game and that has been sadly replaced by fairness.
Almost all the great courses have awe-inspiring green contours. Take St. Andrew’s for example, it has some of the boldest undulations on any golf course, and positional play is important to accessing many of the pins. It shows how great greens can dictate strategy right back to the tee. The wonderful knolls, knuckles, rolls, humps, and hollows found around the greens require additional creativity to deal with. They take a player’s full imagination to overcome and there is nothing more fun than that.
Almost all the current bunkering lacks the character and charm of the bunkers created in the Golden Age (1900-1930). I have spent a lot of time restoring courses from this period, and I needed to learn all the old construction techniques in order to recreate the original features. I came to realize these hand-made bunkers are always a lot better than anything built by a machine. Think of brush strokes on a canvas versus using a roller, "hand-made" features add the detail and character that a machine can never match.
What kind of golf courses should we be building?
As crazy as this may sound, we need to build shorter courses, to return the variation in lengths of holes. Courses should have two or three short par fours, most now have none to keep the yardage as long as possible, yet these are the holes that golfers love the most. There is also an abundance of unnecessary bunkering dotting the landscape; the road hole proves that one well placed bunker can be enough to dictate how a hole is played. We still need lots of width for playability, but all the natural rumples and rolls should be left intact for charm. The final key is the return of the undulating greens. A great green will influence strategy right from the tee. This will all return the fun to the game, and bring people out to play the course.
And Why aren’t these kinds of courses being built?
I don’t know why, because it’s certainly cheaper to build this style of course. I assume it has more to do with the architect’s style. This is the era where golfers no longer play against nature, but instead they play against the architect. The architect usually sets up a very specific set of shots, and shapes the land to fit their strategic intent. The architects are also very conscious of fairness, so they shape every last foot, to avoid a player getting a bad bounce or unfair result. Nothing is left to chance in the round – too bad.
It will change - initially through simple economics. There are a lot of high end clubs all competing for the same group of players, many of those courses can only survive if they maintain that high green fee. That green fee structure is currently under a great deal of pressure. Owners will see that my method not only delivers a great course, it does it for a lot less money.
Why are courses built before WWII so much better and more highly acclaimed than so-called modern courses?
There is good architecture and bad architecture in every era.
Courses from the Golden Age have the advantage of maturity, evolution and natural selection to help them become the classics we recognize. I also think they are founded on a great set of design principles. These provide a template for all architects to follow, the ones that do, produce the best courses in this era.
Describe you favourite kinds of golf hole.
My favorite hole is undoubtedly the short par four. Everybody has a chance on a short par four. For the average player, here lies the opportunity to make a par; and for the better player, a chance to make birdie.
The short par four offers more options than any other type of hole. On a well designed short four, an aggressive player will be enticed to try the driver to set up an easy pitch or approach to the green. Another player may choose an iron for position, so that they can have a full shot into that same target for control. If the hole is very well designed, the risk and reward will increase the closer to the green, and the player will be faced with a myriad of routes to the green.
The greatest “designed” hole in the world is the 10th hole at Riviera. Easily reachable from the tee it entices a bold player to play for the green. Missing right is certain peril and few pars are made from missing right. The genius is in the green itself, it slopes away strongly unless you come in from well left. The smart play is the least obvious and the riskiest play is the most understandable; truly a moment of inspired genius.
For a player, options equal interest. The measure of a great golf course is not how tough it is but how interesting it is to play. Short fours make the game interesting for everyone..