Wednesday, November 14, 2007

10 Things I Don't Like - #7 Island Greens

Golf Digest once had a worst golfer tournament where they took the four worst “avid” golfers and had them play 18 holes against each other at the TPC at Sawgrass. Three of them ran out of balls except one brilliant guy who putt “around” the 17th hole and “across” the causeway to preserve his last ball and so that he could finish – and win.

The 17th at the TPC at Sawgrass may be one of the greatest holes in golf due to the tournament and the influence it has on the outcome, but it is also one of the worst concepts ever to be copied by architects. Admittedly this idea actually goes back to Herbert Strong at Ponte Vedra Golf Club and Pete’s version was not the first – but the 17th at Sawgrass is the ultimate version of the idea. As a one off, the 17th is an exceptional hole and ideal for the tournament format it serves. It teaches us a lot about nerves, psychology and finally shows us a way into the players head; and not just for that hole, but the entire round. Think about how much the impact would be reduced if the hole were the 3rd or 4th.

Now let’s look at the island green as a concept. The concept has no recovery unless the island is expanded beyond the green perimeter – although even that is still semantics to me. I’ve played a couple of these and when the wind howls it becomes ridiculous. Every shot is either hit or miss the island – not long on options is it? Think about this, the approach shot is a forced carry. The approach shot has no safe play or alternative route to reach the green surface by skirting around trouble. A player could easily find themselves in a position where they can not finish the hole and potentially the round! All the great holes that I have shown you over this year have at least the opportunity to recover – this is one of the few exceptions in architecture (architorture?). My personal belief is that recovery is a key component of the game. There is a fine line between extremely difficult and unfair – and this crosses “my” line.

I can feel for those guys at the TPC. I played in an event last spring that involved an island green on a private course in North Carolina. It was best two scores of four players – after the round we found out every group had two players that did not complete the hole. How could that possibly be fun on a daily basis for the average player? As much as I enjoyed the 17th at TPC, and I did find the green, the thought of playing it daily is dreadful. I watched my playing partner hit 6 shots before giving up. It works well as a resort experience, given the circumstance of the annual TPC Championship – but not as a hole concept.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

10 Things I Don't Like - #6 Trees Directly in Play

A good example of willows blocking the ideal line at Taconic

We can all think of memorable holes where a majestic Oak or Maple sets the corner of a dogleg. As a golf course architect I have spent a great deal of time looking for these specimens to design a hole around them. Muskoka Bay was cleared to establish nearly 100 specimen trees just inside the tree line of the holes. Yes, the rumour that I hate trees is in fact untrue.

We are awed by the scale of those trees and the importance that they have for those holes. It’s exciting to play a tee that flirts with the trees in order to gain an advantage on the hole. The basis of Parkland Golf is as much the setting of golf in tress as it is the need to work the ball around a well placed one during the round. As Tillinghast stated the trees can have strategic value “as long as it does not interfere with the sound play of the game.”

The problem I run into time and time again in my work with existing courses is that too many trees are playing too large a role in the way holes are played. The majority of these trees are not encroaching at the edges but instead acting as sentinels blocking the path. For a large tree to be used architecturally it should be isolated. This means that no other trees are inside the drip line which allows alternative shots to get around the tree or recovery from underneath. The hole must have enough width between trees so that a player can play to the other side to avoid the specimen tree altogether.

This tree will only get bigger and bigger

When you think about the tree as a golf courses hazard, it represents the only vertical hazard in the game. Even a perfectly struck shot can be knocked down by the branching and redirected into deeper trouble. Only a hazard that can be flown should be used in the direct line of the hole. Where committees make the most mistakes is when they place a tree that in the short term can be flown or avoided. They forget with growth that their small tee will eventually block all play and remove all the options on the hole.

The most offensive of all trees is the one in the fairway. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a situation where a player can hit their very best into the centre of the fairway only to be either knocked down by the tree or stymied on their next shot. Often it’s both. There is not one great central tree in golf – each is as ridiculous and inexcusable as the least one. Their only value is the firewood that they will be eventually cut into.

While a strong player can often get by - the average player is punished on a regular basis

Trees should be used only to frame the hole and reinforce the strategy. They tend to remove all the options on a hole when they are too close to the line of play. When options are they key to creating interest – trees should be the last choice for creating the strategy of the hole.

Monday, November 12, 2007

10 Things I Don’t Like - #5 The Overuse of Ponds as a Hazard

I had the chance to look at someone else’s Master Plan for a new golf course the other day. It was typical of most modern courses that I have seen built in recent years, where every time the architect was faced with limited natural features he simply added ponds to create interest. I counted water “directly” in play at eight green sites. The architect had four holes with water in play from tee to green and two of those were par fives that doglegged around a large pond.

The reliance on water as a primary hazard began with the Trent Jones era – and became a staple of modern design. That was the era where “Championship” courses became the vogue and the use of the water hazard became the key intimidating defense that golf architects turned to protect par. Since most sites did not offer natural bodies of water, the architects simply added ponds to place it where it was most effective.

Well this was all and good when the player had enough skill and control to avoid most of the water and this created a lot of excitement for people watching tournament golf. The problem came when the “average” player was faced with the same challenge. You see they are afraid of water and don’t have the control to avoid the hazard on a regular basis. The intimidation is much greater than a bunker or rough since there is absolutely no recovery from a pond. A ball in the water represents two lost shots. In contrast a bunker may represent no lost shots if a perfect recovery is made. Water’s judgment of the shot is absolute and final and to add insult to injury, in many cases the player is forced to repeat the shot often ending up repeating the performance until they have to pick up.

I’m not total against the inclusion of water or even a pond – and I do like streams, burns, rivers and and lakes - but I don’t like the continuous use of ponds to bring water in play throughout the round. I also question the need to constantly bring water hard up against water the green when the hazard can be varied like the placement of bunkers. Water certainly has its place – but if the architect continually places water in play, he frustrates the average player by the relentless nature of the challenge. If the course is too challenging – golfers will stray away and support another area facility.

I looked at the proposal again and thought I’ve seen enough of those holes already. They all tend to look and play exactly alike. I kept thinking why so much water – and wondered who would want to play it on a regular basis.