Saturday, April 08, 2006

Green Committee's - Part 1 of 3 - Will they Listen?

The 10th at Toronto Golf

As my wife said, “What it all boils down to is the club belongs to the members”

I have had a few situations in my career where a green’s committee or chairman only wants me to do their bidding for them. They have decided on the changes that they want to make and how they want it done – all they need is an architect to do it. What they want from their architect is to act as salesman, construction supervisor and mostly a figurehead. They want the rest of the club to assume that all work is approved and directed by the architect while they secretly go about their business behind the scenes. This is unfortunately more common than you would think. After all ask any golfer and they will tell you they know lots about golf architect. For some architects this is an arrangement is acceptable as long as they are well paid, for me it is pure frustration.

In the past I was guilty of trying to please too many people and have certainly learned from this experience. To be truthful, the quality of the work is always comprised – as I stated before what is a horse designed by a committee? A mule. I face an interesting decision along these lines once again with a course I love run by people who want to direct rather than listen. What an interesting dilemma - get involved and hope for committee change - or pass on the work and never work with the club again.

Why have I returned to this topic?

Well I just read through the Report to Members from the Course Committee regarding Toronto Golf Club. They are working with Dr. Martin Hawtree, a man they have hired due to his expertise with H.S. Colt. I was really looking forward to the direction that he offered them. Toronto Golf Club happens to be one of my favourite 5 courses in Canada. The one thing that struck me about the report was there was a great deal of backslapping about how great Toronto Golf is and how lucky to have a Harry Colt design, but very little deals with correcting the lost history and restoration they should be taking on.

Colt bunkers built in 1914

I have a copy of the Colt Plan and have all Colt and Alison’s field notes, so that I’m well versed in what in the history and legacy of the course. I would bet that he gave them a very clear vision and directive of what he wants to do and I would love to see that report. I sure got the impression that the committee has chosen to simplify his thoughts to avoid making drastic moves that could upset membership. I want to make it clear this is MY speculation, but I’ve seen this style of report before. If you can’t make the right decision for fear of upsetting someone – stay off the board and for god’s sakes don’t chair a committee – your doing harm.

I’m only going to give one example that stood out – since I have some historic photos to make a point “Our bunkers are not good examples of Colt’s work”. The committee report talks about repairing the leading lip instead of restoring the bunkers. They have Colt’s instructions on how to build them and how they should look. There are lots more examples in the report, but I just wish clubs would listen to their architects. The results at St. Georges should have been a lesson for all clubs (including Toronto). There was lots of committee involvement ( I like that involvement), but they also trusted (me) the architect to do what is best for the course, and now everyone is pleased with the results including historians.

The role of a green's committee and the green's chairman:

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Best Hole I know –the 10th at Riviera

the smart line in red, the usual line in yellow

My favorite “designed” hole is undoubtedly the short par four 10th at Riviera. I love most short par fours since 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 10th hole at Riviera may be the most deceiving hole in all of golf, after all a 311 yard par four should be a push-over right? The hole is easily reachable from the tee which naturally entices a bold player to play for the green. One of the joys of the Nissan is watching how many players try to hit the green, and make five. Even though they know missing right is certain peril and most strokes are lost from missing right, they continue to look directly at the green. The true genius of the design lies in the green itself, it slopes sharply away unless you come in from well left. This is a very special hole, after all how many holes do you know where the longest way to the hole is the most efficient to make a score?

the green falls away to the right

But is doesn’t stop with just the green. When you see the hole, you are surprised to find out it is built over a huge flat wide-open expanse. Thomas and Bell have added a series of bunkers that further add to the feeling of width. The other thing the bunkers do is perfectly frame the line directly to the green. The funny part is the left edge of the fairway, where the smart lay-up is played, looks like the worst option from the tee. How many holes do you know where the smart play is the least obvious and the riskiest play is the most understandable?

notice how the bunkers tell you to go at the green, and look at all the width

The player is left on the tee just brimming with confidence that they can knock it on, and the architect has gone well out of his way to encourage this. You may get lucky with your silly choice and make a birdie or a par through an excellent tee shot (as I did). But as my host, a regular member said, you won’t pull that off two days in a row. Once you make six from the right, you take the route to the left all but a few times a year – if you want to score.
The hole has many options, needs a great deal of learning to play it well, and allows all level of players a good chance at a score. This is a perfect hole at only 311 yards. So please explain to me why we need 7500 yard courses?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Template Architecture – Borrowing from the Past

the original redan

Before beginning the National Golf Links of America, Charles Blair MacDonald toured the great courses of the United Kingdom and Europe. He set out to find the finest holes and to dissect them to use their strategies. He didn’t try to replicate any of the great holes, he was far too smart for that, instead he choose to take the holes and adapt them to suit the site conditions. His decision to adapt meant that he could use multiple ideas on a single hole, and it also meant that a hole could become more through better ground than the original.

The 15th (The Redan) at North Berwick, Scotland is more than a hole, it is an architectural concept. The green is set on an angle running away to the left, what makes the green unique is the land from the fairway in front to the back of the green runs away from play too. Add in bunkers tight on the front and back, combined with the narrow nature of the green, and you have one of the most imaginative holes in golf.

the redan at NLGA

MacDonald brought the Redan to NLGA. His Redan is better than the original for one main reason. It offers all the same architecture, but it is clearly visible since it is slightly downhill the whole way. All Raynor’s and MacDonald’s Redans were made visible, because he saw the blindness in the original as a weakness. While following the architecture of the original, he looked for ways to improve the architecture. This is template architecture.

the 3rd at Tobacco Road

At Tobacco Road Mike Stranz’s 3rd hole borrows directly from the 3rd hole at Pine Valley. Pine Valley’s 3rd is a par three surrounded by sand with a green that feeds the ball from right to back left to access the tucked pin positions. Both holes look much alike, but the problem is they do not play alike. The 3rd at Pine Valley the steep grades are used to feed the ball into flatter areas on the green; whereas the severity of Mike’s green make much of the pin position relatively inaccessible due to strong slopes and the lack of good flattish pinning areas. While they look very similar, this is an example where the original works strategicly better than the newer version.

the 3rd at Pine valley

Finally since it is Master’s week I thought I would talk about the 4th at Augusta National. The 4th was MacKenzie and Jones’s tribute to the amazing 11th (called Edan) at St. Andrew’s. The front bunkers at Augusta are placed to mimic the Strath and Shell bunker fronting the green, while a little more formal and a little less intimidating, the position is quite close. The biggest difference now is the green at Augusta is missing the huge shelf that makes the Edan at St. Andrew’s truly unique and a tough test of distance control. Augusta’s green is well sloped but has no major change of elevation. The other new difference is the hole at Augusta is 240 yards, which removes the remaining comparisons by the distance alone. The Edan has been built at Garden City (#18) and lots of other course too. None have matched the cunning of the original green contours.

All great architecture has roots in classic holes, seeing and understanding the great strategies is vital in creating your own great holes. Even the best architects in history paid attention to what others did well before them.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Rise of Inoffensive Architecture

One of the leading architects of my time has chosen an architectural style that is definitely pretty, very comfortable to play and offers instant familiarity right from the first play. The best description I can make of this architecture is inoffensive. There is nothing wrong with the work, and it is popular with players, but there is nothing about it that stirs the soul. You never face a moment of angst or agitation from having to make a decision from incomplete information. You simply know everything about the work from first play. You rarely lay-up, you are not forced to think, or made to fear the ramifications of a miss. It could be describes as “comfort” golf.

The biggest problem I personally find with these courses is the lack of discovery over repeated plays. When you know each strategy from first sight, and the risk reward scenarios are at a minimum, you simply just play golf. I’m not sure how much fun golf is without risky options, alternate routes, overcoming extremely difficult scenarios, or paying the price for too much courage. The game is not meant to be fair, yet this architecture treats the game as if it is supposed to be fair. Options equal Interest. Interest equals fun. This golf offers little in the way of options or interest; it is simple as comfortable as your favorite chair. Somehow, I don’t think that is what Tillinghast, Colt and MacKenzie had in mind.

Walter Travis mentioned that it is the architect’s responsibility to improve the skills of the player by challenging their ability to overcome difficult tasks. I’m sorry, I should find the actual quote. He felt that the more challenge they were asked to overcome, the more their skills would improve. He felt courses should evolve and add trouble as the membership became more familiar “and comfortable” with the layout.

Why has golf headed in this direction? Is it the fear of criticism? Is it the desire or architects to please rather than push the player, which leads to a short-term popularity of the architect? Is it the marketing idiots and their terrible influence on the golf industry dumbing down the game?

Alister MacKenzie has the best quote on the subject:
“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.”

Sunday, April 02, 2006

My Eclectic Top 18 in the World

The 3rd at Royal County Down

On Golfclubatlas somebody once asked for the best 18 holes based upon the original list in the World Atlas of Golf. The task was to come up with 18 in holes in proper order, by 18 different architects, and from18 different courses. When I made my list, I was quite pleased when Tom Doak suggested that my list should have been used in the new printing, and other than the 12th he could find no fault with the list. He was pleased that I didn’t always take the obvious, like 16 at Cypress Point, nor a hole from Augusta National. Well the reality was I had not been to Augusta and I stuck to only holes I have seen. This list also provides a nice window into what I like too.

The toughest selections for me was the opener, the 9th and the 12th. The other more fascinating issue is the lack of a Donald Ross Hole or a hole by Pete Dye. I have a great deal of respect for both architects, but could not find that elusive hole. I look forward to any suggestions somebody has for those two architects or those three holes.

The reverse redan puchbowl green of the rollercoaster 6th at The Creek Club

1st Garden City - Travis
2nd Pine Valley - Crump

3rd Royal County Down – George Coombe
4th Banff Springs - Thompson (Devil's cauldren)
5th Merion (East) - Wilson
6th The Creek Club - Raynor (punchbowl)
7th San Francisco GC - Tillinghaust (The duel hole)
8th Crystal Downs - MacKenzie/Maxwell par 5
9th Friar's Head - Coore and Crenshaw

10th Riviera - George Thomas
11th St. Andrew’s – Nature/Robertson (Eden)
12th Sunningdale - (old) Park/Colt
13th Gleneagles (Kings) - Braid (Braid's Brawest)
14th Royal Dornock - Morris (Foxy)
15th North Berwick - Strath (the Redan)
16th Shinnecock - Flynn
17th The National Golf Links of America – C.B. MacDonald (Peconic)
18th Pebble Beach – Egan