Thursday, May 04, 2006

Technology overwhelming architecture - Part 2 - The Result?

At 126 yards, the postage stamp is proof that length and difficulty are not related.

Technology killed tennis – will golf be next? Tennis is nowhere near as popular a game as it used to be. Why, because technology changed the game to a point where watching the sport became dull. The change in (racket) technology replaced shot making with the power game. Professional golf has gone through a similar transition. When people stopped watching professional tennis, the participation dropped and has never recovered. Interestingly, participation in golf began to decline the same year the power game began to dominate men’s golf.

Technology is impacting the way we play, but the problems of technology run much deeper than that. While it does matter that we no longer can relate to the play of the professionals, it matters much more to us that technology is changing the economics of the game. Technology in golf is pushing the cost of the game up dramatically, and creating a situation where people can’t afford to play.

Does this affect architecture? Whenever the issue of challenging the impact of technology comes up, the solution always seems to be adding length to retain difficulty. Look at the professional tour – each new course is longer than the last, and much of our great architecture is being dismantled just for length. The problem with building longer and longer courses is that it increases the acreage required, increases the costs of acquiring the land, increases the cost of the build, increases the cost to maintain, and ultimately increases the cost to player. The longer the courses get, the more expensive the game becomes, the less people can afford to play it.

But the problem is not just with the equipment. It lies also with the reluctance of designers and owners to challenge this direction. Everyone has become scared to build a golf course less than 7,000 yards because it will not be a “Championship” test. As Tim Morghan from the USGA suggested at a meeting I recently attended, why don’t we just ignore the elite 1% of the game and build shorter courses for the people who really play the game. I spent Tuesday trying to convince a potential new client to build less than 6,800 yards to meet the real demand in golf and to keep his costs down for a more economical project.

The argument is if we remove length from our design palette, then we’re left with short courses that can’t defend themselves. Until very recently Pine Valley, Merion, Myopia Hunt and Cypress Point all were less than 6,600 yards and they are considered to be among our very best courses. Merion and Pine Valley are two of the hardest courses I have ever played and length is not a key factor to the difficulty of either.

So what can an architect do to add difficulty without adding length? Remember we also want playability so I’m going to ignore the idea of island greens, more water, forced carries, long rough, fescue and fast greens. That puts me at odds with the current trend, doesn’t it?

Part 3 - Defending Without Length:


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Patrick said...

By all accounts, the best set of golf courses to be built in years is at Bandon Dunes Resort:

Bandon Dunes: 6732 from tips
Pacific Dunes: 6633 from tips
Bandon Trails: 6765 from tips

Yes, keeping the course playable under a range of weather conditions is part of the reason these courses are shorter. But given that these courses are so highly ranked by everyone, that nobody ever complains about the length, and that the courses seem to be very popular, suggests that it's far from suicide to build short courses provided that they are interesting and challenging.

IMO, increasing length should be the last resort after all other design options have been exhausted. Unfortunately, since it requires the least thought, it seems to be the first option of many architects.

Ian Andrew said...

Bandon Dunes is 7,400 yards and Tom Doak said it made it easier to talk Mike into a shorter course.

Patrick said...

I got the Bandon Resort course yardages from their website. The black tee yardages are the longest listed on the scorecards, but I'm guessing there are tournament tees that are much longer.