Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Defending without Length - Dealing with Technology- Part 3

Only a short par three "Het Girdle" shows length and difficulty have no direct connection

Sorry about the delay on Part 3, we decided to work on a different article instead. The first two threads are from a couple weeks ago if you need a reminder:

I spent Tuesday trying to convince a potential new client to build a course that was less than 6,800 yards. Not only would it make a better business model for him by keeping costs lower, it would fit better into the limited land he had to work with. I explained to him that length was only required to challenge 1% of all golfers, and that for the good of the course and business model we should simply ignore them. What we needed to do was meet the actual demand and make sure the course is interesting rather than trying to force a long course out of a small property.

He asked me the question that I knew was coming, if we remove the length, won’t it be too easy? Therein lays the biggest problem in architecture today; owners, players and architects have somehow come to believe that length is a key component in difficulty and greatness. The irony is that it length has been responsible for removing options, variety and interest – all key elements of a great course - while driving the cost of building a course continuously higher.

So if we remove length from our design palette, then we’re left with short courses that aren’t very good and can’t defend themselves right? Well until very recently Pine Valley, Merion, Myopia Hunt Crystal Downs, Fishers Island, and Cypress Point all were less than 6,600 yards. Merion and Pine Valley in particular are two of the hardest courses I have ever played, and length is not a key factor to the difficulty of either.

So how can an architect add difficulty without resorting to length, fescue, excessive water or heavy rough that all create 6 hour rounds?

Here are my suggestions:

1. Make the player think.
Alister Mackenzie said, “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.” Providing the players with options and tempting situations keeps them off balance, even with the equipment they enjoy today. If the strategy is simple and straight forward they will play to their strengths, but if a hole is full of enticing options they will often entertain the most foolish line trying to gain an advantage on the course. The 10th at Riviera is the perfect example, where the smartest play is the least obvious, and the riskiest play is the most understandable. Players are drawn into hitting the driver despite the fact they know a lay-up produces more birdies.

2. Make them manufacture shots.
The shot that the professionals are most uncomfortable with is being forced to hit a fade from a draw lie, or a draw from a fade lie. They would rather take their natural swing than have to manufacture a shot. Using the natural cross-slope of the land to influence play is the least used and most effective method to add additional difficulty to a hole. The 15th at Garden City has both the fairway and green sloping hard to the right. No trees, no bunkers, but you still have to draw the tee shot to hold the slope and draw the approach from a fade lie to hold the green.

3. Place pressure on their expectations.
Short holes are wonderful things; they give the average player a chance to make a par, whereas the great player feels the pressure to “make” a birdie. At Merion on the short middle stretch the better player feels great pressure to score. Most become overly aggressive trying to make birdies through this stretch, but often drop shots through bad mismanagement. Many professionals have commented that the round is often lost on this stretch, rather than the difficult closing stretch, because they have thrown away the opportunity the holes offered them.

4. Intimidation.
Intimidation is one of the most efficient ways for an architect to add difficulty. Intimidation is created by reducing the dimension of the target they see, by making the penalty for missing seem even greater than it is, and by making a task seem impossible when it is actually much easier than it appears. Pine Valley and Tobacco Road offer generous fairways and large greens, but the visual aspect of the hole overwhelms the player into thinking they can’t make the shot. While the targets are no different than their own local course, the player swings with the dread of where the ball may end up, instead of thinking only of the target. As Pete Dye said, “When you get those dudes thinking, there in trouble”

The approach to th 3rd at Deal shows contour is the greatest assest of a golf course

5. Bold undulations on the greens.
An extra two or three inches of fall on a green can be more diabolical than a huge roll in a fairway or a frighteningly deep bunker. Greens are the heart of the golf course and have the greatest impact on the game. If the contours of the green are bold and pin positions can only be accessed from one side of the fairway, positional play becomes very crucial. A great green like this will dictate the strategy of the hole all the way back to the tee. At St. Andrew’s the greens are mistakenly thought to be easy because they are so easy to hit, but if you find yourself on the wrong side of a prominent ridge or roll you will have trouble making par. Great greens, like St. Andrews, must be studied and learned in order to score.

6. Closely mown grass around greens.
When you surround a green with bluegrass the player ends up always playing a traditional flop shot recovery. The bluegrass usually contains the missed approach allowing a good player to play aggressively. However, if the green surrounds are closely mown, the near miss often gets propelled well away from the green. Now the player must decide whether to putt, bump and run, or to attempt a flop shot. Options present opportunities, but also lead to mistakes. The US Open at Pinehurst showed the difficulty created by short grass around greens, players had to manage their approach shots to avoid getting into areas where they would have trouble getting up and down. Rather than help with playability, like it does for the average player, the short grass increases the difficulty for the good player and makes them play more defensively. This has long been a staple of links courses throughout the world.

7. Return the penalty of being in a bunker.
When the player aims at the perfectly groomed bunker because it offers an advantage, the hazard ceases to be relevant. The bunker has devolved into the source of artistry rather than a source of strategy. Bunkers need to cost you a stroke, not reward you, for knocking it in them. Walter Travis sums it up best, "The primary idea of a hazard is to punish, to the extent of one stroke, a poorly played shot, and to make the recovery exceedingly difficult, and even by the virtue of the following shot being extraordinarily good. If this end is not attained, the existing hazard fails to fill its functions."

8. Blindness or partial blindness.
There is nothing more loathed or hated in North America than a blind shot (except may be for liability lawyers). When a player is confronted with a target that they can not see, they become immediately uncomfortable. Tour pros declare these holes as mistakes or unfair, because they lack the focus that they require to mentally visualize the shot. Even a blind green, where the flag is still visible, is often enough to bother a player since they lack the visual confirmation of distance and the clarity of their target. The average player simply chooses the rock, tree, spire or flag and swings away since they worry less about visualization. The blind shot is very controversial in this day and age of earth moving equipment, but used infrequently and in the right setting it can offers the architect a way to break the rhythm of a player and add variety.

The 10th at Rivera proves to us that at barely over 300 yards, there is more to difficulty than just length, I just hope my future clients understand you do not need a course over 6,800 yards to make them difficult.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Short Article from Ontario Golf

The Dead Architect Societies

In principle I’m a big supporter of the idea of promoting the life and works of great architects. It’s good for the game, it’s very good for historical preservation, and it helps clubs avoid foolish renovation schemes when a course is already quite good. If there were no politics or personal agendas involved Dead Architect Societies would be excellent. The only problem is many of the Societies are run or handled by people who put themselves before the society’s best interest.

Let’s take the Donald Ross Society, the granddaddy of them all. On the good side they have helped with the identification and authentication of many of his courses. They, or people involved, have help develop an accurate listing of his projects which alone is very admirable and important. They have helped to save some of his architecture and have got themselves actively involved with trying to prevent the loss of some of his projects. In general they have provided a great model for other societies to emulate. In general they are very good.

The darker side of this particular society is there heavy handed nature as an organization. The society takes many calls about there courses and about who should work on them. I have no issue with them making recommendations, but they almost always provide same list of favorites for all restoration work and quite often have been known to recommend an individual architect. While most of those architects are excellent, the society should not be promoting individual architects whom they do – it’s simply not fair to the others who have done great work too. Another practice that has recently immerged is their recent insistence in actively participating in the restoration process as an “ongoing” advisor. Why? Shouldn’t an architect with restoration experience, the photos and drawings be capable of doing the work? They do this more so when they did not recommend the architect, but were contacted by the course for some assistance. Regardless, this is all about power and control isn’t it. It gets worse with some of the members taking on work as the actual architect (they always use advisor – but what’s the difference), which is fine except that would also be using their position for personal gain – wouldn’t it? I have no issues with them becoming architects, just resign from the board. Where this gets to its worst is when one of the board members actively sought to be the club’s consultant at one of our projects while we were the consulting architect – something that I thought was very unethical on many different levels. Even the club was quite taken back by the gall of the member. I’m not against collaboration, and I have sought outside help when I’m taking on a new architect to restore. In fact I’m doing that right now, but that was simply an abuse of power. I think the Donald Ross Society is important, they need to clean up the problems or lose credibility.

A Stanley sketch from the collection in Guelph Library

I am not a member of the Stanley Thompson Society which probably comes as a surprise to many. My issue with them has nothing to do with transgression like those above – although I think the architects sitting on the board do have the same conflicts of interest. I like many of them a great deal, but I can’t get by two issues. One is the unwillingness of the society to remove any course that is not actually designed by Stanley Thompson course in order to get a truly accurate list on his life’s work. This above all is my primary interest in the Society. The other issue I have is with one of the founders and the difficulties I have had dealing with him. When someone has buried you publicly, it is hard to have any respect or willingness to work with them. The problem is politics and personalities.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Restoration Takes Research

Augusta national 1941

Restoration takes research. Simply showing up on site and painting lines where you think things might have gone is not restoration. There are very few architects that really do restoration. Restoration is all about accuracy and having the conviction and the belief that returning the architecture is more important that borrowing from the style and putting your own little spin on the work. Relocating original features to “return shot values” is not restoration. While restoration may be a case of semantics, these are very important semantics if we are going to teach future architects accurately about the works of the past masters. Most architects use the word “restoration” as a sales tool to get a renovation program going at a club. Their ego tells them that they can improve on any previous architects work. Well I can tell you that most of these architects can not hold the original architect’s pencils, let alone do work that is comparably, yet they renovate great original works with mediocre architecture (and then someone like me has to come along and correct their blunders).

San Francisco early photos

To do a restoration, you need all the available documents you can get your hands on. Nothing beats photographs from around the opening date of the course. They provide us with a fairly clear vision of what the architecture looked like. Some architects, liked Donald Ross, left detailed working drawings. These are very helpful for recapturing lost greens and lost features. Depending on them as the sole or final decision is dangerous since every architect made field adaptations and field fits to make their ideas work. On everything I have worked on, nothing was built 100% to the drawings, so what are the odds the past masters would have built everything accurately to their drawings.

Aerial photos are available for almost every course in an urban center. For example Toronto was flown in the late 30’s. The aerials are very helpful for layout but limited in feature recreation since you can’t get details on heights or shapes. Everything is a two dimensional overhead form, which is great for tree lines, tee location, bunker location, fairway contours, green shapes, chipping area, etc.. They can be great for recapturing and locating lost holes or features which are often hidden in trees. Writings and sketches offer a terrific insight into the strategic or artistic intent, but usually provide little beyond historical knowledge. You must be careful of the architects or writers prose, often they tell a tale that turns out to be hype – just like some of the articles written today. A good restoration comes from multiple sources, used carefully together like the pieces of a puzzle to create an accurate assessment of what was actually there. To restore, you must know what was there first.

The last step is to go have a look at what is left on the ground. You are left to use all the available historical information to decide what features are still in place, what can be returned with minimal work, and what will need complete recreation to return the architecture. Restoration only happens when everyone involved cares.

Tommorow - Dead Architect Societies