Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Technology overwhelming architecture, Part 1 – The problem.

This is nothing new Harry Colt was one of the first architects who had to deal with the huge changes brought about by the Haskell Ball. Colt altered and expanded many great courses to compensate for the greater distances golfers achieved with the rubber-cored golf ball.

The Golden Age architects saw the problems coming. As they saw the distances of equipment increase, they realized their strategies that were so carefully laid out were in jeopardy. The also recognized that the variety that they so carefully laid out within the round would be lost on lengthening. It is interesting to read the comments of AW Tillinghast, when Tom Fazio was recently praising him for building “intentional elasticity” into his layout at Winged Foot.

“…the fetish of distance is worshipped entirely too often and there should be a quick end to it.” – AW Tillinghast"

Alister Mackenzie was never a strong player and recognized that golf was a game dominated by the dub (that phrase has been used by many of the Golden Age architects to represent a high handicapper). He felt that he was more than capable of testing the good player, while providing an enjoyable test for the average player, as long as the distance between both players’ games stayed reasonable. What he recognized very early was that the gulf between skill levels and distance requirements for both was growing too vast for architects to deal with.

“Something very drastic ought to have been done years and years ago. Golf courses are becoming too long.” – Alister Mackenzie

It was the father of modern architecture who was smart enough to see where we were going long before we got there. William Flynn is one of the greatest tacticians golf architecture has ever seen. He understood the strategies and shot making required to test the best players, and wrote about this extensively. Some of his brilliant ideas will come up in tomorrow’s blog. He realized with the change in technology of clubs and balls that to getting players to “hit every club” (theoretically) would require the back tees to be pushed back to enormous lengths to accomplish this.

“All architects will be a lot more comfortable with the powers that be in golf solve the ball problem. A great deal of experimentation is now going on and it is hoped that before long a solution will be found to control the distance of the elusive pill. If, as in the past, the distance to be gotten with the ball continues to increase, it will be necessary to go to 7,500 and 8,000 yard courses and more yards mean more acres to buy, more course to construct, more fairways to maintain and more money for golfers to fork out.” – William Flynn

He was also smart enough to see that the economic fall too. I was talking with Rick Phelps about distance a few year back when he was teaching me about the gains made on the ball by elevation. I asked a simple question of how do you plan the course for the back tees (8,500 yards) and still provide a similar challenge or game for the shorter tees (5400 yards). He was frank (which I like about Rick) and said you can’t. So how do you design to a widening gulf between skills levels. Tim Morghan from the USGA might have been right when he said “Don’t, ignore the best 1% and the game will be better for it”

The biggest problem architects have is designing around a moving target. Most of golf architecture is based upon distances. Whether is it the use of carry bunkers at the crucial decision distance that create risk and reward or the measured placement of landing areas to set up a hole or bring the natural contour into the design. Distances are important to great architecture, particularly on average or flat sites where the land can’t assist us in dealing with change.

Here’s a great example. Look at Pine Needles where the tee shots once landed into the upslope of the crowned fairways leaving a long iron; they became pushovers when tee shots carried the plateau and got a boost from the down slope on the other side. That’s what architects are facing. Carefully laid out strategies and placement of features are overrun by technology. I’ll give Jay Morrish the last word.

“I’m just trying to figure out where to put the bunkers on today’s courses. I don’t think lengthening existing courses is the key and it just plays into the hands of long hitters like Tiger Woods. I think the only way to challenge them is with angles and placing the bunkers out there long where they hit those drives.
The problem is technology. It’s hard to think fast enough to stay ahead of how far the golf ball goes today. It’s a guessing game and very difficult to uphold the old standards of making golf courses that will make you hit all 14 golf clubs. We are going the wrong direction as far as the long golf ball and it’s a sad situation.” – Jay Morrish

Part 2:


dave k said...

Insighful as always Ian. I like Mr. Morghan's approach. Look forward to Part 2.


Anonymous said...

"The biggest problem architects have is designing around a moving target."

i'm not sure i agree. i think the biggest problem is the inflated egos of golf course owners who insist on having the longest, toughest courses with the fastest greens around. when i was a clublink member in ontario, and playing to a handicap of 4, i always chose the tees in the 6300-6500 range. i want enjoyment when i play golf.

peter woodcox
olympia, wa.

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