Two schools of golf course architecture are playing smash-up derby this weekend at Atlanta Athletic Club, as Penal versus Playable butt heads as scores soar over the final four at the PGA Championship. Some one wrote once about the High hole (#11) at St. Andrews Old, also known as “Eden” among golf course aficionados, that it could be played from tee to green with a putter, the very definition of fair golf. The Hill and Strath bunkers feature navigable impediments along the way, so the putter is not always the best option (although a viable one if all else is lost.)
Charles Blair Macdonald, an architect of golf courses in the USA in the early 1900s, was not a fan of purely strategic/playable golf and began to endorse a bit of the punitive. In the 1950s, Robert Trent Jones, Sr. took punitive golf to a new level and put everything but the kitchen sink between tee and green (probably the reason people stopped playing golf!)
If one takes a look at the scores turned in over the final four holes at Atlanta Athletic Club, the most poignant revelation is that scores take upward flight over that stretch, with bogies and doubles the norm. Lee Westwood got started a hole early on Saturday, with a double on the relatively-easy 14th. The penal school of architecture is in pure form on #15, a newly-extended par 3.5 of 260 yards from the tips, with an enormous pond extending 2/3 across the green front from the right. Anyone who matches David Toms’ 2001 ace will make up 2-3 strokes on the field.
Let’s drop back a moment to #14. One of the hallmarks of the penal school of architecture is forced carries over hazards. If the penals had their druthers, they’d put water most places and collect a percentage of recovered lost golf balls. Since they cannot, they replace water with acres of sand, as one sees on this hole. A 75-yard bunker on the right fairway edge and three pits covering about 130 square yards near the front-left portion of the green mark the hole.
Another feature that the Penal school of architecture relishes is the play from a downhill fairway lie to a well-bunkered green, sited above its surrounds. Shots must float in to hold the putting surface. Approaches that come in at too shallow a trajectory will shoot across and beyond, while those that attempt the traditional run-up will deflect upward off the fronting slope or find a sandy demise. #16 matches #14 in this regard and, at 476 yards, plays more like a 4.5 than a 4.
When a course points to a “signature hole,” you can bet two things: A) some/many other holes have weak features, so attention is drawn to this particular hectare of property; and B) it’s penal. The 17th at AAC is as penal as they come, a 210-yard par three to an angled green, with water covering the entire front and a portion of the side, of the putting surface.
Nowhere is the Penal school of architecture more apparent at AAC than on #18. As the professionals have said this week, you can only drive the ball so far, thus no advantage is to be gained:
Luke Donald–Well, they have moved the tee up but it still doesn’t really change the hole. I still feel like I’m hitting it to a certain area, so I’m just clubbing down. I hit rescue today off the tee on — obviously it’s not 500 yards when they moved the tee up. It’s probably 460. But that would have left me about a 4-iron. So it’s certainly playable. But it’s just tough. It’s demanding. There’s no let-up. There’s no bail out on that hole. You just have to hit good shots.
Phil Mickelson-You know the thing about 18 is it’s a great par 5 in the back. But the landing area has to be the same area, even though the tee is moved up 60 yards, you still have to hit it to the same area because of the way the water has cut in, and the fairway that turns left banks into the bunkers. So it’s a great par 5, and it’s just, you know, it’s a great par 5.
Bunkers right/long and water left essentially strangle the landing area, limiting it to a certain distance from the green. Although Dustin Johnson claimed to have only 9-iron in during a practice round, it was a practice round! Not going to happen when the pressure is on. The 2nd shot must carry lake Demise to reach the green and have a run at birdie or par. Here’s the tell-tale sign: when a hole is more renowned for a lay-up (David Tomes in 2001) than a heroic shot (Jerry Pate in 1976), and is then lengthened some more, you know that someone has gone too far. A flat, 528-yard par four? Please.
And what of the Playable/Strategic school of architecture? Let it be sufficient to say that the other 99.64% of golfers, the non-touring professionals, would prefer it 8 days out of 7. Fewer golf balls lost, fewer penalty strokes written on cards, fewer clubs helicoptered in anger, fewer gaskets blown.