Well, that depends on your personal point of view and how good the lighting is…but I digress and this is about golf, so when it comes to ‘measuring up’ on the weekends, there seems to be a general consensus that longer is better.  Is this true?

The average weekend golfer, who regularly plays their local public or private layout believes this to be the case, but how do they arrive at this conclusion and why?  In spite of all their practice and local knowledge, they continue to nurse an 18 handicap as they battle the demons on their modest 6,400-6,600 yard home course.  However, when they travel to play a ‘new’ course, they immediately size up its quality and challenge based on the overall length.  With nothing more than a glimpse at the score card to check the length from the tips, even if they would NEVER play from there, the average player has suddenly become an architecture aficionado.  Most people who decry courses that are less than 7,000 yards couldn’t break 90 from the back–but they are driving architecture and the golf development market with their uneducated dollars.

So who, or what is responsible for this outlook.  Frankly, egos and television are the prime culprits with technology running a close third.  Ego is a product of human nature and a beast that few can truly understand let alone rationalize with any respectable measure of defense, and with men comprising the majority of golfers, egos commonly restrict most levels of sensible thought, no matter what the topic.  The fuel for the ego is the deadly combination of television and golf equipment.  Watching the tour players use the most advanced equipment has resulted in a completely warped sense of reality in every aspect of the game.  Just because the tour players can hit their tee shots 300 yards and putt on greens that stimp at 13 doesn’t mean that we should expect the same results and playing conditions.  Over the past 12 years, studies have shown that in order to obtain any significant length benefit from equipment improvements, players must generate a club head speed in the range of 110-125.  Ironically, the average weekend player rarely surpasses 100 and therefore gains almost no benefit in length.

Despite the evidence, golfers still ask the inevitable question, if we remove the length, won’t the course be too easy?  This is where the biggest problem lies in architecture, and in the ability of the game to grow, remain affordable and to attract new golfers.  Players, owners and yes even many architects have somehow come to believe that length is a key component to assess difficulty and to use as a measure of greatness.  It is hard to blame the players for they are simply following the lead offered by owners who build the excessive layouts and the technological advances created by equipment manufacturers.  The uneducated owners basically follow the same lead from manufacturers–blind leading the blind, as well as the data they are constantly fed from ‘golf guys’ or surveys that tell them they must build their course longer to ensure a positive bottom line.  As far as the architects are concerned–remember them, they are the experienced professionals making actual design decisions, well, in the past fifteen years I have yet to meet an architect who turned down a job just because the owner demanded the course length to be at least 7,000 yards.  Perhaps though, the architects should take a firm stand and refuse the work to break this senseless cycle.  Unfortunately, golf course architects get thrown together with the tour player/designers and their appeal is weakened by practicality.  Moreover, few golfers have any idea what architect designed their home course, but when planning a vacation, you can rest assured they know which tour player has put their latest ‘signature’ on the 7,000 yard resort course as opposed to the real architect who did the work.

Ironically, while length only pacifies a miniscule portion of golf market, excessive length actually harms the key factor of the game, enjoyment.  The two components that so often are responsible for a golfers opinion of enjoyment (scoring and speed of play) are the ones most negatively affected by more length.  If the average player consistently struggles to reach the green in regulation, even with their best shots, they must play additional shots, which also increases the time to play their round by 15 to 25 minutes.  It is no surprise that extra time and strokes diminish a course’s popularity, profitability and the potential that golfers will ever return.  Furthermore, the additional length has removed options, variety and interest, in turn creating one-dimensional play of bomb-and-gouge.  So here we are back to the same question.  If the architect removes length from their design palette, are they left with short courses that aren’t very good and with little defense against technology?

If this was the case, timeless classics like Merion, Pine Valley, Fishers Island, Cypress Point, Crystal Downs, Oyster Harbors, Eastward Ho, Myopia Hunt, all of which are less than 6,600 yards, would have fallen out of favor long ago.  To the contrary, these clubs, along with countless others, and many of their contemporaries such as Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails, Ballyneal, Boston Golf Club, Inniscrone, Kingsley Club, etc., are some of the most sought after facilities in the country, providing more than sufficient challenge and interest to humble the best of players.  Merion, Pine Valley and Pacific Dunes in particular are some of the hardest courses that have ever been played, and length is not a factor to the difficulty or enjoyment experienced on any.

Presently, there is no ‘good’ answer, not as long as economic factors such as housing and equipment sales remain the driving force behind development.  There are however, several criteria, or design parameters available to the architect and the willing owner to create more interest, to add challenge and to make the game more affordable and fun without adding more time to round of golf.

Consider the following:

1.       Make the player think.  Providing golfers with tempting choices and options keeps them thinking and often off balance, even with the advanced equipment.  If the design of a hole entails multiple options, players will always fall prey to their egos when given the choice to take great risk.  One of the greatest creative minds in golf course design, Pete Dye, may have said it best, “When you get those dudes thinking, they are in trouble.

2.       Place pressure on their expectations.  Short holes, par threes and exciting short par fours give the average player a solid chance to make par, whereas the best players feel the pressure to make birdie.  If the architect can create a selection of interesting holes in the middle of the round that appear to be push-overs, the better golfers can become overly aggressive while trying to make birdies.  This approach can often see the opposite results through poor course management and excessive risk taking.

3.       Make them manufacture shots.  Create unpredictability and keep the better layers off guard.  In order to score well, require the best players to hit a fade from a draw lie, or a draw from a fade lie to a green with a brisk left to right slope.  Establish situations where the better golfer must get creative and manufacture a shot to score well or to recover from to save par.

4.       Intimidation & Deception.  Intimidation, whether real, or perceived is one of the most effective ways for an architect to add a colorful dimension of difficulty.  Deception can be created by reducing the dimension and ‘appearance’ of the target the golfer ‘sees’.  Intimidation can be enhanced by making the penalty for misjudgment seem even greater than it is, and by making the initial shot seem impossible when it is actually much easier than it appears.  This can be effective with a short bunker precisely placed to mask the view of a green site, thereby creating a depth deception.  Taking the influence of the surrounding landscape such as Cypress Point, or the powerful internal aspects of a course such as Pine Valley can easily overwhelm the player leading them to think they can’t make the shot.  While the intended target is essentially no different than their own home course, the player allows their mind to wander with the dread of where the ball may end up, instead of concentrating only on the target.

5.       Surround the greens with short grass.  Surrounding a green with tightly mown grass, similar to the conditions found at Pinehurst No. 2, creates endless options to execute recovery shots and use the ground as an essential element of the game.  With short grass slopes, the near miss will get propelled away from the putting surface.  Now the player must decide which option presents the best opportunity for scoring based on their personal skills.  If the putting surface is surrounded with bluegrass rough, the options are restricted, predictable and for the most part one-dimensional.  Options present opportunities, but they also can lead to mistakes.  The creative options around the green translate back in the fairway to where the golfer contemplates their approach and assesses their risks.  Rather than help with playability, as it does for the average player, short grass increases the challenge for the better player and makes them play more defensively.

6.    Make hazards a penalty.  When players aim directly at a perfectly groomed bunker because it offers an advantage, then the bunker is no longer a hazard and is irrelevant.  Most bunkers found on modern courses today have devolved into nothing more than visual cues and a form of pure artistry rather than a essential element of strategy and something to be avoided.  Bunkers are meant to penalize the player, to cost them a stroke and create a source of fear, not reward them.    Walter Travis, an astute and highly regarded architect sums it up this way, “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.

7.       Build interesting greens with bold contours.  You would be amazed at how diabolical an extra few inches of fall can be on a green when putting and how much this can play in the minds of golfers when standing in the fairway as they size up their approach shot.  If the routing is the soul of the course, then great greens are the heart.  Creative and interesting greens can have the greatest impact on the game and the overall setting of its character.   When the contours on a green are bold, and pin positions only accessible from the right location in the fairway, positional strategic play becomes crucial and it will dictate play all the way back to the tee.  Most of the older classic courses and many of the newer designs that are talked about possess greens of this type.  All of the Golden Age designers and the current modern day architects who ‘get it’ understand where the real defense of a course lies and why these layouts are held in such high esteem for their rich character and why they demand so much respect.

I wonder what will happen when the baby boomers start retiring in large numbers and quickly realize that they simply can’t play all these courses they have waited so long to enjoy.  What will happen to the business model for these ‘prestige championship’ courses?  Will they fold and become housing developments?  Not only do we need shorter courses for beginners, but for the rest of us as well.  Most golfers have very poor short games largely because they are rarely asked to do any but boom it from the tee.  A shorter course that involves many more options and choices builds in the practice golfers need and want.  Ultimately, it makes them better golfers who have more fun.

Golf courses need to get shorter, quainter and quirkier with more character and charm, not longer, larger and more dull.  The industry needs to find ways to offer faster rounds with more fun involved.  The old virtuoso architects warned of the dangers of excessive technology forcing courses to become longer.  In 1927, the late Bobby Jones advocated a regulated ball to keep most courses around the 6,300-yard mark.  The game already takes too many hours to play and scares countless golfers away because the challenges are too difficult to overcome.  No matter how many equipment advances may come along, long courses fail to bring much joy or improvement to the average golfer’s game.

As you dream about the upcoming 2008 golf season, I leave you with the following quote from Robert Hunter, master golf architect and prolific golf writer, “Do not let certain standards become an obsession.  Quality, not length; interest, not the number of holes; distinction, not the size of greens—these things are worth striving for.  A well designed course kept up to a high standard will often be more popular than many long, tiresome, unkempt courses which boast of championship length.” 

Scott A. Witter, Golf Course Architect
January-February, 2008