Friday, June 16, 2006

18 Holes – Day #11 - 13th at Gleneagles (Kings)

From the tee

Gleneagles is one of the most underrated courses in the world. It is full of great holes, on great land in a spectacular setting. It is largely ignored because it is not on the sea coast and because the resort is very expensive. The fun part about picking this hole is that James Braid already selected it for me when he called it ‘Braid’s Brawest’ which means Braid’s best.

The tee shot is up a natural valley with a nice wide rolling fairway stretching up a large roll on the left. One horrendous cavern of a bunker sits in the left centre of the ridge guarding the safest line. The right side of the fairway offers the advantage of a flat lie and a great angle; but you must avoid the heather covered ridge up the right, and more importantly the hidden bunker cut into the next small rise (where most balls run to if you don’t flirt with the first bunker). You face the choice, either threading the needle up the right, or bail out left and accept the awkward stance with a tough carry to the green.

The green is what makes the hole really fascinating and challenging to play. It sits up above on a natural plateau with two extremely deep bunkers cut into the fronting slopes. Braid has left plenty of room short of the green to bounce the approach in, because that is actually the only way to find the surface. The green falls away to the back left making the play to hit it short right and feed it into the green along the ground. Players must judge their approach shots to just clear the deep bunker in order to stay on the green; amazingly this hole is still played the way it always was despite the changes in technology.

What did I learn from this hole? Here is a hole type that has not bowed to technology. The fall away green remains one of the greatest defenses in golf. The judged or measured approach is rewarded, whereas a player who only looks at the green and the distance in is repelled out the back. There is lots of room from tee to green on this hole, but the precise placement of hazards right into the ideal line and target areas has made the hole extremely challenging for a good player. This is further proof that narrow fairways have nothing to do with toughness.

Next Hole:

Thursday, June 15, 2006

18 Holes – Day #10 - 14th at St. Andrew’s (Long)

How do you pick from all the delightful holes at St. Andrew’s. The back nine alone has the Road hole, the Eden and the 16th is pure inspiration for me. But the 14th hole holds some of the best ideas in golf all in one hole. It is certainly one of the best par fives in golf.

The tee shot is over whins and gorse, your invited to cut the corner and shorten the hole, but the out of bounds is tight to the right of the fairway. The prudent play is out to the left but you must skirt the Beardies and avoid the wickedly deep little Crescent bunker to find safety in the Elysian Fields. Once safely upon the Elysian Fields you face a fascinating dilemma. Do you play over the incredibly deep and menacing Hell Bunker to shorten the approach, or do you play wide and out to the left of the bunker for safety. It is not very often when one bunker can create the level of fear the Hell Bunker does. Right from the tee you are aware of it’s location and penal nature. Your goal is to stay out at all costs.

The most interesting feature to me is the green and the final shot. There is a large wicked roll that begins just off the front of the green and continues through into the front of the green. Nothing is more complicated than trying to get near a front pin. I watched group after group try fly it in and ending up in the back of the green. Finally an old gentlemen played a long bump and run from well out to within 5 feet. I asked him how he knew to do that. He smiled and told me it took him years to figure out there is no other approach to that green and he had to learn to hit the shot.

So what can be learned? First, that a mound can be much trickier and more sinister defense than a bunker. It is a very subtle form of hazard that is very hard to slove because it requires imagination. It befuddles a strong player, yet allows a weaker player an easier approach compared to a bunker – another great equalizer in the game. The Hell Bunker teaches us that a menacing hazard weighs on a golfers mind the entire hole. One bunker can be intimidating enough on it’s own to alter the psyche of the player. The thirds is that interior bunkering can adequately challenge the good player while the wide fairways give the weaker player the opportunity to enjoy the game. Finally even the out of bounds creates a classic diagonal carry providing risk and reward. What an outstanding hole to study.

Next Hole:

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

18 Holes – Day 9# - 8th at Royal Troon (the postage stamp)

This beautiful photo is by David Scaletti, a great golf course photographer.

One of the most delightful shots in all of golf is the tee shot on the short par three 8th hole at Royal Troon. Only 126 yards away, with a beautiful backdrop of the sea and Ailsa Crag, the green seems inviting. The least enjoyable shot is the next one because most people have found they have missed the tiny green and now are scrambling to recover at best a par.

Willie Park gave the hole it’s famous name in Golf Illustrated when he described it as “a pitching surface skimmed down to the size of a postage stamp”. Much has been written about the hole mainly because of the many famous holes in ones, and just as many mid Open disasters too.

The shot is from a high plateau, over a small gully to an extremely narrow green set into the side of a large sandhill. The front of the green is protected by a large deep chasm of a bunker that will gobble up anything short. Two bunkers protect the left side along with the large dune. The bail side initially appears to be right, but this is where the disaster looms. The right bunkers are extremely deep and the recovery is up and onto the narrowest part of green with the left side bunker in behind. Back and forth between bunkers is common. Missing the bunker completely on the right finds you down in a deep hollow in with a tight lie with the green well above you and only 6 paces wide!. Simply put this benign looking hole has no where to miss.

What can be learned? A narrow target is the hardest to hit. If you want to make something hard, reduce the width of the green and flank it with bunkers. Front bunkers are less important than side bunkers for creating difficulty. The fact that the green is flat and on a slight angle only adds to the difficulty of the hole. More greens should be either level to demand more skill of the approach shot.

Next Hole:

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

18 Holes – Day 8# - 4th at St. George’s (NLE)

A look from the crown down to the original gren site

I thought it would be fascinating to do one hole that no longer plays the way it was designed.

The 4th at St. George’s Golf & Country Club used to be called one of the greatest holes in Canada. It was a medium length par four that was an interesting option off the tee. You could play safely to the left side down in the valley and face a blind approach over a bunker strewn hill in front of the green; or take a big risk hitting to a crowned upper fairway with deep trouble on the right to gain visibility of the green and the ideal angle for the approach. In my mind it was one of the finest holes Stanley Thompson ever designed. It was a brilliant use of the natural land and its loss represents the disastrous results that come from altering a course to hold a major championship.

The old 4th was all about position. There were no bunkers in play from the tee, just one prominent landform to think about. There was little room on top of the crown but the landing was clear from the tee. There was a lot to risk since a slight miss right put you in a deep ravine with long grass that ran parallel to the fairway, but the reward was an open approach directly into the slope of the green.

So why take the risk off the tee? If you played safely to the left the natural slope took you to the left edge of the fairway. In your way stood a large hill of about 20 feet high with a series of deep bunkers. Getting in one of those bunkers was a disaster considering the length of the next shot. Hitting the ball safely over was not enough, the green was a very tough target surrounded by trouble. The front of the green fell right and into a deep swale in front, the left front had a very deep bunker, and the back of the green also has a bunker and deep rough The green itself (which is still there!) fell sharply from the back to the front right, meaning a long approach was an impossible up and down. Having to be that precise is a lot to ask, couples with being a blind shot, makes it even more intimidating – and that is why the risk was worth it from the tee.

What can we learn? Rather than routing the hole only through the natural valley, Thompson used the crown to best effect. By tucking the green behind the large ridge, instead of on top, he required the careful placement onto the crown as the only way to make the green visible on the approach. Having to flirt with the ravine on the right adds to the challenge of the hole. This unconventional routing approach made for a very strategic hole.

Next Hole:

Monday, June 12, 2006

18 Holes – Day 7– 13 at Tobacco Road

Finally the first par five, but what a par five for ideas.

Tobacco Road is probably the most intimidating and frustrating course you can play for the first time. While it has plenty of width and playability, Mike Strantz uses blind shots and very overwhelming hazards throughout the round to hide that fact. Often the player simply looks at a massive display of sand with no clear idea of where to play, yet the hidden fairway is large and receptive hiding behind the bunkers or trees.

The 13th is a great example, off the tee the player has lots of room to hit the tee shot left (while the hole doglegs sharply right). If the player wants to become more aggressive, he ends up looking at a narrow neck of fairway that looks impossible to hit. What he does not realize first time out, is he can possibly carry the trees on the right and find a blind fairway, leaving a middle iron into the green. All I can say is, you better be down wind to give it a go.

Once off the tee, unless you have found a short cut, the next shot is through a narrow opening between intimidating bunkers out to a wide open fairway. Mike loves to make these shots look impossible and then give you ample room in behind. He believes that a player got more excitement from overcoming a seemingly impossible than making a routine one.

The aggressive line in red, the standard line in yellow.

The final shot is where he really truly took it up a notch, or where he embraced one of the oldest and least used concepts in golf. He used a natural punchbowl set between huge sand piles (looking like dunes) so that the green is blind. You can see the flag through a narrow gap in the front if the pin is not left. Adding to the pressure and intimidation of the shot mike created huge scraggly bunkers right into the dunes in front. The player is left to feel the pressure to execute the shot because Mike has emphasized the hazard rather than the target as he does on most holes.

So what have I learned? Mike loves the short par five where there is a lot of opportunity to take a big risk; he has also made it clear that if you dare gamble, you may pay dearly. He provided optional routes and adequate bailout areas, but used visual trickery to make the hole appear much harder than it is. Mike teaches that visual intimidation is an important tactic, and that blind shots can still be part of that equation. He has taught us to take risks with our architecture and to say to hell with convention and criticism – it’s all about great holes.

Next Hole: