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: http://thecaddyshack.blogspot.com/2006/08/technology-part-3-defending-without.html