Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Traps versus bunkers.

Bunker short of the green at Essex' 388-yard 16th hole.
Robert Trent Jones' affect on (too) many golfers' understanding of course architecture endures.

It was Jones, beginning with his infamous redesign of Donald Ross' South course at Oakland Hills Country Club, in preparation for the 1951 US Open, who introduced the concept of purely penal bunker schemes. That is, placing bunkers specifically to penalize marginal misses by low-handicap golfers.

Significant advances in playing equipment technologies were occurring at the time. The world's best golfers were driving the ball longer and straighter than ever before. So, Jones - a progressive thinker - felt that golf architecture had to change with the times.

At Oakland Hills-South, he strictly used stats rather than artistry to re-bunker Ross' original 1917 design, which featured a seemingly (but not really) random bunker scheme. On Ross' South course, there might be a bunker right of the fairway some 200 yards off the tee at one hole then, at the next, a sand hazard 270 yards out on the left. Ross tightly bunker some greens while others feature bunkers 20-30 yards short of the putting surface. Jones changed this. Hole after hole at Oakland Hills-South, he placed bunkers at calculated distances off the tees, left and right of the fairways, in the perceived "landing zone" where the best golfers were presumed to drive the ball and made the greens "targets" surrounded by "traps".

The problem with this design philosophy, which Jones continued to employ worldwide for more than four decades following his redesign of Oakland Hills-South, is that no golfer - not even Tiger Woods in his prime - plays the game like a robot. Using Oakland Hills-South as an example, there's a sameness about the tee shots when every hole features bunkers left and right of the fairway at calculated distance off the tees. Less skilled golfers are never presented with a driving challenge, either, because they usually can't hit it far enough to have to worry about those bunkers. And, playing the ball along the ground onto tightly bunkered greens isn't an option, which makes golf very difficult for high-handicap players, women, juniors, seniors and beginners.

But, because of the extensive coverage Jones' "modern philosophy" received as he developed into, arguably, the most famous golf course designer of all-time between the 1950s and '80s, too many golfers these days still think that bunkers should be placed simply to penalize marginal misses by the best golfers. This is not a direct criticsm of Jones' architecture, but more so recognition of the remarkable psychological affect his design philosophy has had on so many golfers understanding of course architecture. It's amazing how often, when recommending restoration of a bunker 200 yards off the back tee or 20-30 yards short of a green, I hear: "what for... that bunker's not in play?". Listen, I've played a lot of golf, with many different players of varying abilities and I'm yet to see a golf course feature that's "not in play".

Take the beautiful cross bunker some 30 yards short of the green at my home club, Essex Golf and Country Club's 16th hole for example. (Mr. Ross designed Essex too.) Sure, when good players drive long and straight at this 388-yard par-four, this bunker might "not be in play". But if, the next day, the same golfer skies his tee shot or drives left or right into the rough or trees, suddenly this bunker becomes a major factor on the next shot. Moreover, it beautifully decorates the scene there, at Essex' sixteenth. Take a look at the accompanying photo (click to enlarge) and imagine this hole without this bunker. The look toward the green, from the tee and the fairway, would be much less attractive.

Golf course architecture is very subjective. As long as the course drains water effectively, everything else is a matter of conjucture. But, from my perspective, when bunkers are placed in calculated fashion, as at Oakland Hills-South, monotony develops for all classes of players and golf holes are comparatively less attractive.

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