Thursday, January 17, 2008

Building a “Good” Low cost course

In one of the series I got asked the following question by Yannick, “How does that fit in with making golf affordable, when you consider the extra maintenance of the steep faces and the extra irrigation heads this requires?” This was followed up by Henry with, “YP brings up a good point, except that bunker maintenance can be limited by the # of bunkers employed on a course. As for the cost of maintaining short grass vs. rough - is there a substantial difference."

I’ll answer this by telling you how I would build a good low cost public facility. First off I would not move any earth except for greens, tees and bunkers to keep the costs to a minimum – regardless of site. I would also simplify the bunkering down to deeper pot style bunkers done with steep sod banks (no sand faces). I would use collecting slopes of short grass to feed the ball into these bunkers to make them play bigger. I would limit myself to around 30 bunkers using impact of the Road Hole bunker as inspiration. My feeling has always been less bunkering better placed makes a better golf course.

I would look for undulation in the landing areas to add difficulty and reduce the need for bunkering. I will still keep the width in the fairways and likely consider dwarf bluegrass to keep maintenance costs down. I would still surround much of the greens with short grass for playability, interest and difficulty but consider using bent grass to get the playing conditions needed. The greens would be slightly smaller and elevated like Pinehurst #2 - although less rolling of course. They would mostly slope sharply forward but occasionally they will slope moderately away in the other three directions when appropriate.

The course would max out under 7,000 yards – excessive distance is a budget killer for construction, through to maintenance and finally to the speed of play. We build far too many tees and would limit myself to only three sets of tees - like what was done at Ballantrae. In the right situation I would drop cart paths entirely, or at least limit them to green to tee. Areas that are not in play would be seeded to fescue and I would limit the watering system down to double row and allow external areas to brown out during the drier years. Essentially pull away some of the bells and whistles that can be done without on a mid-tier public course.

I would also limit the amount of water as much as possible and not build any artificial features to the course. The model becomes Donald Ross from green sites through to simple solid strategies.

Not every idea in the series is appropriate for every situation – although I think most will find some place within my work.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What Might an Ian Andrew Course Have? – Lots of Short Grass around Greens

Nothing beats the value of short grass, often more dangerous than a bunker.

Short grass around greens is undoubtedly the greatest equalizer in golf.

Bluegrass surrounding a green offers only one type of recovery — the flop shot — a favorite of good players. For the good players a ring of bluegrass is also helpful since it contains a narrowly missed approach from getting too far from the green. However, if the green surrounds are closely mown, that same near miss often gets propelled away from the green leaving a difficult recovery. Players know with short grass that should they get too aggressive, they may par dearly if they miss their approach.

The average player struggle with green side bunkers because of their limited skills and will even play extra shots to avoid them. Strong players will often play to a green side bunker knowing that the lie will be excellent and they have the skill to get up and down – which has reduced the strategic value of many bunkers. So how do we challenge the better players more and not affect the average guy who already struggles with the game

The answer is more short grass around the greens. The average player will always play the shot that suits their strengths. A good putter will putt from off the green and a good chipper will play a bump and run. The fun begins when a player has the ability to hit multiple types of recovery shots well - now they will have to make a decision.

The good 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. The flop will result in more hole outs, but conversely brings a greater risk of hitting fat or thin due to the tightness of the lie. That is why even the greatest players find themselves still in off the green occasionally after a poorly executed chip.

One of the joys of using grass slopes around greens is that water from the green can spill out onto the chipping areas allowing for much more intricate contouring of the green surface. With bunkering you must keep the water away and it does tend to limit the green contour – particularly when a green is heavily bunkered. When you throw in the cost to make and maintain a bunker versus a nice slope of short grass – it makes you wonder why so many greens are so heavily bunkered.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What Might an Ian Andrew Course Have? – Fairway Width with Bunkering inside the fairway lines

The bunkering is brought into the fairway to develop the strategy - the fairways remain wide for playability

This is a natural progression from yesterday’s blog. As I mentioned in yesterdays my goal is to make players think. A second goal I have stated quite a few times is to ensure enjoyment and playability for the average player. Most would suggest that there is an obvious contradiction, but in fact that is not the case. You can have your cake and eat it to with a couple of very carefully selected methods. One is the extensive use of short grass around greens and the other is wide fairways with interior bunkering.

Immediately you will question how I can employ fairway width and maintain the challenge and this is where the interior bunkering is crucial to my design strategy. Modern architecture tends to keep everything out to the sides whether to flank a target or create carry angles. As players got better, fairways have been narrowed and the bunkering has continued to pinch the landing areas. The improvement in the skills of the elite has not been matched by the average player, yet we’ve toughened up the courses with the evolution of modern design. This is a well and good if you are a skilled player, but where is the playability for the average guy – the majority of players I might add – when they can’t hit these narrow targets.

Throw in the situation of bad weather or high winds and the course can become close to impossible for the average player. Yet the answer is so obvious – give the average player back their width and draw the bunkering into the fairways. The target areas for a strong player remain between the bunkering. The playing area for the average player remains the width of the landing with them either playing away from the interior bunker or playing intentionally short. Although the reality is often they just swing away because they have no true idea of direction but they know intuitively that the odds of actually finding one of the bunkers is slim.

The interior bunker tightens the landing area without taking away the total playing width. It provides all the essential strategies and decisions for a good player, all while leaving the average player lots of room and confidence that they can get around and likely never lose a ball on that hole – which matters a great deal to their psychology and enjoyment of the game.

Since I believe in width, particularly when public play is involved, the use of interior bunkering will ensure that I can have both challenge and playability.

Monday, January 14, 2008

What Might an Ian Andrew Course Have? – The Central Bunker

Do you attack the bunker or play short and safe?

A bunker placed in the centre of a landing area may be considered controversial by modern golf architecture despite the fact that is one of the greatest ways to develop a clear and concise choice for a good player to make. If the hazard sits somewhere between 250 and 290 yards from the tee and is near the centre of the hole, it sits exactly where a good player wants to play to.

Modern players try not to work the ball but to hit to general areas. They have so much confidence in their ability to execute shots that they play a positional game. They often simply hit different club to remove risk, in fact removing risk and execution has become the trademark of recent professional play. You can easily see why and elite player will be fully frustrated by a central bunker since it will sit exactly where they want to be. They like to hit a driver like to take advantage of their length. Smart play leaves a tougher approach, whereas a driver will have to flirt with this hazard – which they already think is “ridiculous.” Just look at the comments on the central bunker at TPC of Boston from last year.

They will have to make a choice to flirt or lay-up – both choices bother them – and that is the sign of good architecture since they are forced to choose (and to think!). Too many golf courses don’t make the players make a choice, they simply say this is where to hit the ball, here is the punishment for missing, now hit the shot. This central hazard has none of that simplicity – which good players like - it says here are all your options, here is a hazard exactly where you want to go, now make the best decision before hitting the shot. The wonderful extra bit of psychology involved in this hazard is that a good player is annoyed by an element that is “not fair” in their mindset which is a poor mindset to hit a good shot. Throw in a stubborn players insistence in hitting a driver regardless and you have all the elements for making bad decisions and posting a poor score through.

I believe it is my role to make the player think as much as it is my role to challenge their skills. Remember as Pete Dye said, “Once you get those dudes thinking, their in trouble.”
The funny part is they can do what they want to avoid the bunker entirely – like the average player will - but they are easily sucked in by ego involved in this situation. The fun part on the other side of the equation is the weaker player most often can’t get there so they use it as a target. If they can get there, they still take dead aim counting on the fact that the ball almost never flies straight so they will finish either left or right anyway.

The ideal central hazards are actually slightly off centre with a tighter and tougher side leading to an ideal angle of approach. The other wider side is an easier play but leads to a tougher approach angle. The Principle’s Nose at St. Andrew’s remains the best example in golf and the inspiration for this lies squarely on that feature. What is also important is to have something – trees, out of bounds, or other severe hazards on the narrow side to emphasize the risk of playing to the best place. The other side should have lots of extra space out wide to allow an easier play and thereby reinforce the strategic decision to be made.