Monday, April 30, 2012

(Absolutely) ridiculous.

Muirfield, East Lothian, Scotland (click to enlarge).
Photo courtesy of George Waters.
Last week's report that the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, under the direction of chief executive Peter Dawson, established a fund to deliberately invest $16 million in 'toughening and tighening' courses on the Open rota (kinda) blew my mind. That's approximately $800,000 per course on the rota, according to Dawson.  

What's so shocking about this? First, the R&A (in conjunction with its counterpart on this side of the Atlantic - the United States Golf Association) is an organization with responsibility to 'govern' the game. Technically, part of that 'governance' responsibility involves regulating playing equipment. But instead of acting with significance on the never-ending distance issue, here we have the R&A (and USGA) 'toughening and tighening' many of the world's best courses for a single week of competition, in direct response to their own inabilities to keep the performance of clubs and (especially) balls under control. 

Frankly, the R&A and USGA have done a horrendous, almost non-existent job over the past two decades at regulating playing equipment - reportedly in fear of potential lawsuits from equipment manufacturers, who also have done the game no favours with their (seeming) unwillingness to work with the game's governing bodies on a solution to this problem.

The necessity of renovating courses to keep up with an unregulated golf ball that continues to travel out of control is an absolutely ridiculous path for golf to be on. Why? The threat posed by allowing the ball to travel further still, along with the example set by the R&A's 'toughening and tightening' campaign is quite easy to comprehend: Longer (and longer) courses require more land (remember, the longer the ball is permitted to fly the further it'll also travel sideways); bigger courses are more expensive to build and maintain (these are costs that inevitably translate into higher green fees and club dues); and, bigger courses take longer to play too (there's already a very discouraging slow play problem in golf).

None of this is good for the game, and amazingly relates directly to the R&A's and USGA's non-response to ever-improving playing equipment technology.

Forget the potential lawsuits that may be filed by equipment manufacturers if stricter regulations on playing equipment are imposed - it's been suggested that, perhaps, a class action lawsuit should be filed against the game's governing bodies by all of those clubs and course owners literally forced to add back tees, move greens and bunkers down range, etc., as a means to recoup their 'investments' in response to the R&A's and USGA's apparent complacency.

Now, there's an interesting concept to consider.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Designing in the field.

An 'epiphany' at Oakville's 9th hole earlier this week -
we need another bunker!
"The designer should not be tied down too closely to his original plan." - Alister Mackenzie (1920).

Flexibility to deviate from drawn plans as a golf course takes shape is so important. I was most recently reminded of this a few days ago during a site visit at The Oakville Golf Club, where we're in the midst of a comprehensive bunker project.

Oakville's 9th is one of four holes there featuring alternate tees. A tee immediately adjacent to the 8th green, at right, presents a markedly different (and superior) view down the fairway than you get from the alternate tee way left of the previous green. These alternate tee views present a bit of a design challenge relative to locating fairway bunkers that visually 'make sense' from both tees.

The right tee is the original from George Cumming's 1921 design. The left tee, on the opposite side of the club's entrance drive - cutting between holes 1 and 2/8 and 9 - was installed some time later. Again, I prefer the original tee. From there golfers are presented an uninterupted view of the entire hole. Three bunkers cut into an upslope along the left side of the fairway are clearly visible; and, another bunker features at right, on the direct line from tee to green. You can't see the putting surface from this (right) tee, but the flagstick is visible over a crest in the fairway - a good-looking hole with an old-fashion sensibility fitting of the course's heritage. Perfect.

From the left tee though, you can't see the flagstick (because of overhanging tree limbs in the left rough and a rise in the ground along that side of the hole) and only a bit of sand is seen. Looking at this situation earlier this week, it occurred to me that another bunker short of the existing one down the right side would not only improve the picture presented to golfers from the left tee but also emphasize the (cool) right-to-left angle of the fairway as viewed from this spot. Frankly, this isn't something that I could have 'seen' while drafting plans for this project a few years ago. It was actually a patch of bare dirt in this area that suggested an additional bunker. Such opportunities - often triggered by something like a patch or pile of dirt - always present themselves as a golf course plan evolves from concept to reality. Again, this is why a golf architect should 'not be tied down too closely to his original plan'; that is, if the intent is to create the very best golf course possible.

From initial conceptual planning through to 'opening day', there are always opportunities to improve upon initial design ideas if a golf course architect spends enough time on-site during construction and is provided the necessary flexibility to deviate from concept plans. Of course, there are always budget- and time-related concerns relative to making adjustments in the field - which is why 'contingency' is the most important line item in any budget and/or construction schedule!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sustainability ~

Ron Prichard's plan for restoration
of Donald Ross' 1927 design at Northland
Country Club. (Click image to enlarge.)
Sustainability in golf architecture and course maintenance is a 'hot topic' these days - as it should be.

My post here yesterday, on Pete Dye's old 'waste bunkers' at Harbour Town and TPC Sawgrass, instigated an interesting conversation with Chris Tritabaugh on this very subject. Chris is golf course superintendent at Northland Country Club in Duluth, Minnesota. He also publishes one of the most interesting and informative blogs on his course maintenance operation there. Visit Chris' blog by clicking here.

Sustainability means different things to different people. Here's the short exchange Chris and I had earlier today, covering a few of the basics:

Chris Tritabaugh: As a superintendent who embraces the idea of rough around the edges I think the way these two courses (Harbour Town and TPC Sawgrass) have changed is one of the many reasons golf is where it is today. For many years maintenance perfection as the norm was just fine, but this is no longer the case and now courses who maintained to perfection are unwilling to go back to rough around the edges for fear they will lose their patrons. It is a very unfortunate situation we are in as an industry.

Jeff Mingay: Very well said, Chris. I should have mentioned, too, that (I'm pretty sure) one of the reasons Pete Dye originally left the outside edges at Sawgrass scruffy was to reduce required maintenance, along with associated cost and output - that was over 30 years ago! Golf course maintenance does indeed need to be reduced. Golf has been enjoyed for hundreds and hundreds of years with golf course conditioning nowhere near where too many courses are today. If we cut back on fertilzing and watering rough areas and rake bunkers less frequently (etc), golfers are still going to show up. It's all about more and more education, right. Golfers simply need to better understand why this needs to happen. And that it's not a big deal.

CT: So here is what I don't understand about the management of roughs. What golfer enjoys thick rough? I can answer that; none of them do. It makes for an awful experience. We have no irrigation in our roughs and we make no attempt to water them. We fertilized the roughs my second year here but have not done so since and have no plans to do so in the future. The rough is a bit rough. There are fine fescues, colonial bents, creeping bents, moss, wild strawberries and many more cool plants in our rough. Usually you get a good lie, sometimes you don't and we spend the minimum to maintain it so that our concentration can be on the fine playing surfaces. One comment we often here from golfers is "we love the rough because it isn't hard to find a ball or play from." Trust me the demand for highly manicured rough is not coming from the golfers.

JM: Your rough management (or non-management?) sounds ideal, Chris. Great stuff. In my experience, I find more golfers complain about the condition of the rough areas when the fairway mow patterns are out of whack. I think establishing the correct fairway patterns (which is different in every situation) and adequate/appropriate width - which many courses lack - provides a lot of latitude to let the roughs go, the way you do at Northland. In some cases, too, certain golfers like thick rough (and an over-abundance of bunkers) where the course's greens feature little, to no architectural character. I'm dealing with a club where this is the case right now. We're doing a major bunker renovation project, which involves removal of nearly half of the bunkers on the course - partly to reduce maintenance cost and output. I don't think this is having any affect on the challenges out there. However, I've been accused of 'making the course too easy'. My response is that we should be redoing the greens instead of the bunkers. If they allowed us to make the green's a little more interesting we could then remove all of the bunkers, mow the entire course at the same length and, at the same time, make it more challenging! That usually draws the 'deer in headlights' stare.

CT: In November I had the pleasure of going to Bandon for the second time. We played 6 rounds in 4 days with 3 rounds being Old Mac. To me the fairway lines combined with the rough maintenance there is perfect. My brother and I each lost one ball out there; (both hooked it into the same patch of gorse on 11 in different rounds) its the ultimate hit it and go find it experience. Our fairways could be wider and we are working to achieve that in places. The difficultly here lies in the greens. Being in the rough means you are in a poor position to attack the greens at the correct angle. Plus, while not thick the rough does remove just enough spin to make you have to think about where to land your ball. To me this is the ultimate way to make a player think their way around the course.

JM: Great example to emphasize my point, Chris. The greens at Old Macdonald are so interesting that you really don't need rough and bunkers to make golf adequately/appropriately challenging (and fun). Again, it's at courses where the greens feature uninteresting putting surfaces and surrounds that some golfers are consumed with the requirements of (too many) bunkers, narrow fairways and thick rough. This perception is totally misguided. Along with a course like Old Macdonald, St. Andrews-Old and Augusta National present the best example of the ideal in golf course architecture. When holes are laid-out to make the most of the best natural features of a property then eighteen varied and interesting greens are created, rough and bunkers don't even need to be part of the equation - which would help with reducing maintenance requirements, I think. The issue with this is, how would golfers perceive a course designed along these lines - where it's all about slope and contour, a minimal number of bunkers, real 'rough' (as you describe at Northland) and, of course, minimizing water, fertilzer and chemical applications as a means to keep the ground firm even if the course is every colour but green?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

'Waste bunkers' no more.

This massive 'waste bunker', running the length of the 16th fairway
at Harbour Town, wasn't always this well-manicured.
The term 'waste bunker' came about in the late 1960s during construction of Harbour Town Golf Links, where the PGA Tour's RBC Heritage tournament is being contested this week. "I'm not certain whether I or a member of the construction crew coined the phrase," course architect Pete Dye writes in his book Bury Me in a Pot Bunker.

"During construction, I was checking the course one day and spotted the local sewer patrol fighting a losing battle with a broken pipe near Harbour Town's border," Dye continues. "With raw sewage about to pour over the area, I suggested the workers pump it into a long, narrow depression that was to be used for a bunker. As the waste water filled the bunker, somehow the term waste bunker was born, and it has been used to designate such areas ever since."

This is an interesting piece of golf history. But, like other Pete Dye stories, I wonder if it's altogether true. Dye originally designed his 'waste bunkers' - at Harbour Town first then later TPC Sawgrass, and elsewhere - to be rough, rugged, unkempt, sandy areas that weren't raked, sometimes filled with gnarly clumps of grasses, and played through the green. When Harbour Town and Sawgrass originally opened for play (in 1969 and '83-ish, respectively), you could ground your club in Dye's 'waste bunkers'. So, the raw sewage story aside, 'waste bunker' still seems very appropriate to describe these sandy, unkempt areas that were literally designed be wastelands of sorts.

Regardless, Dye's original vision for those so-called 'waste bunkers' has disappeared at Harbour Town and Sawgrass - where The Players will tee off in a few weeks. Basically, the PGA Tour decided it would be more appropriate for tournament play to clean-up those 'waste bunkers', rake 'em and simply play 'em as bunkers according to the Rules of Golf.

You'd be amazed to see photos of Harbour Town and Sawgrass in their early days. Both courses were much more rough-hewn before the Tour mandated comparatively meticulous maintenance. I was fortunate to get a look at some very early photos of Sawgrass during a visit to  Bobby Weed's office a few years ago. Based in Ponte Vedra, Florida (where Sawgrass is located), Weed's now a successful golf course architect in his own right. Back in the early 1980s he was working for Dye. Weed worked on the construction of Sawgrass and, for a stint, was the course's superintendent. In these old photos, Sawgrass is almost unrecognizable. The course's aesthetic transformation is basically the equivilant of turning Pine Valley into Augusta National; ironically, Dye originally designed Sawgrass to the the anti-thesis of Augusta.

Harbour Town's look has changed over the years as well, but thankfully these aesthetic transformations have not altered the fundamental brilliance of two of the game's most revolutionary golf course designs.

Monday, April 9, 2012

It's all about the greens.

Detail of the 14th green at Augusta National.
Putting greens to a golf course are what the face is to a portrait. The clothes the subjects wears, the background, whether scenery or whether draperies - are simply accessories; the face tells the story and determines the character and quality of the portrait - whether it is good or bad. So it is in golf; you can always build a putting green. Teeing grounds, hazards, the fairway, rough, etc., are accessories.

- Charles Blair Macdonald.

We admire many remarkable golf holes at Augusta National these days, but the old Fruitland Nursery wasn't exactly an ideal site for golf when Alister Mackenzie and Bobby Jones surveyed the property back in the early 1930s. Mackenzie's routing makes remarkably intelligent use of a property that's incredibly steep in spots, for one; and, his discovery of those sites that are now the 12th and 13th holes is considered genius.

Whereas the layout of holes is the foundation of Augusta National's brilliance, it's the greens that really make the course. Not only do greens chock full of this kind of character present challenge and provide playing interest, they often make for more dramatic shots than otherwise. Take Louis Oosthuizen's albatross, yesterday, for example. The slope and contour of the 2nd green took Oosthuizen's ball from the centre of the green all the way over the far right side of the putting surface, and into the hole: brilliant drama that you don't see at a 'typical' course where green after green is simply pitched back to front.

What I like best about the greens at Augusta National though is, they reward well-played strokes but, at the same time, severely penalize golfers who miss in the wrong spots relative to the day's hole locations without necessity of using other hazards (an overabundance of bunkers and water for example) to present challenge and playing interest. Golfers must study and learn the intricacies of the greens at Augusta National to have success there. I guarantee it wasn't a fluke that Oosthuizen pitched his ball where it landed at the 2nd hole yesterday. With the right spin on it, Oosthuizen definitely knew how his ball was going to react to the ground there, having made a study of that particular green throughout last week.

When a course requires study - rather than just an effective swing, shot after shot - golf rises to another, far more fascinating and enjoyable level of recreation and competition.

Augusta National's greens didn't happen by accident, either. A lot of intelligence, thought, planning and artistry was required to create them. Almost a century on since Augusta National was originally designed, we're lucky those greens have provided important lessons to golf course architects and unparalleled excitement each year during the Masters Tournament.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A few 'game changers'.

The 2nd hole at Huntercombe (from
Earlier this week, a golf writer asked: What do you think has been the biggest 'game changer' in golf course design through the years? 

There are a number of 'watershed' moments in the history of golf course design that I think qualify as 'game changers'.

First is the work of two-time Open champion Willie Park Jr. at Sunningdale and Huntercombe, on the outskirts of London (UK), at the turn of the 20th century; 1901, to be precise. Park's work at these two courses proved, for the first time, that courses comparable to the classic links could be constructed on inland sites. His work there, more or less, instigated a period of remarkable work lead by Englishman Harry Colt.

A few years later, beginning in 1910, Charles Blair Macdonald began creating the National Golf Links of America, out on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. NGLA was the first truly great course on this side of the Atlantic to compare favourably with the best courses throughout the British Isles. Macdonald had traveled to the UK to study the best courses there, then implemented many of those time-tested design concepts (through his own interpretations) at NGLA. It was NGLA that set a new standard for golf course architecture in the United States, instigating the so-called Golden Age of golf course design, between the wars, in North America.

I also think Augusta National was a 'game changer'. The concept behind its original design, devised by Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie, was revolutionary. Loosely modeled after the Old Course at St. Andrews (Jones' and Mackenzie's favourite course), ANGC was designed to achieve what remains the 'ideal in golf architecture' - that is to present a course that challenges the world's best golfers but, at the same time, provides an enjoyable round for all caliber of players. When Augusta National opened for play, during the early 1930s, there was essentially no rough and only 22 bunkers (today there are 44). ANGC was geniusly designed around inherent slope and manufactured contour (greens) without reliance on artifical hazards. Legendary Canadian golf architect Vernon Macan once said (I'm paraphrasing, here): If you want to learn about golf course architecture, all you have to do is read the chapter in Bobby Jones' autobiography on the making of Augusta National.

Essentially, the same principles and concepts established and employed by the likes of Willie Park Jr., C.B. Macdonald, Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie remain the foundation of what we understand to be sound golf architecture.