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Courses should adapt, but forget the pros when it comes to design

By Staff

ATLANTA - In 2003, nine players on the PGA TOUR averaged over 300 yards per drive (15 players were at 299 yards or better), and 143 averaged more than 280 yards. In 1997, just seven seasons earlier, only 12 players total averaged over 280 yards off the tee and only one was driving over 300 yards.

This year on the Nationwide Tour, 37 players averaged over 300 yards per drive, and if you think that's frightening, go observe how far the collegiate players are hitting it.

Most of us don't need statistics to see that the game's best players are driving the ball outlandish distances. Television offers up weekly rations of pros making short work of helpless Tour stops and transforming once stout and respected courses into pitch and putt playgrounds.

The PGA Tour views the onslaught as problematic, at least if you judge by how often they seek to lengthen tournament venues. Competitions are either tedious putting contests because of the driver-wedge game or, if the course is long enough, events that only the power players can win.

Throughout the rest of the golfing community the distance issue has become even more pandemic, one that views nearly every important golf course as a potential victim of obsolescence.

The Tour will address the long ball situation in whatever way it feels is best, but what should golf course owners, club committees, and architects - presumably also key figures in the equation - do about it?

The answer is nothing. Carry on.

The professional game has virtually no relevance to how the game is played by the overwhelming majority of golfers. The percentage of players that consistently can overpower a golf course or ever have reason to complain that courses aren't long or challenging enough is miniscule, certainly not enough to hold reasonable sway. Yet owners, architects, and club committees seem infatuated by the length issue and the games of these players, so much so that length is now the prime mover in golf course design and redesign consideration.

If an owner wants to build a golf course that caters specifically to the professional game, good luck. However limited that objective might be, especially considering that 6,500 yards is more than enough course for probably 95 percent of the golfing public and how, frankly, there are too few architects capable of designing natural, intelligent, and challenging golf courses, it's still relatively harmless (aside from the proliferation of predictable and dimensionless courses).

More worrisome is when clubs with classical layouts attempt to stay abreast of the rapidly evolving modern game by altering their courses. Among many private clubs there exists a keeping-up-with-the-Jones' mentality that provokes a fear of becoming irrelevant in a tournament sense. Fixation with how the long, accomplished player might systematically dismantle their hallowed course can influence a club to push for wholesale green redesigns and bunker renovations in a desperate act of defense, a process that risks obliterating the charm, nuance, and strategies that made the course great in the first place.

If it were only a matter of adding length to certain holes to maintain their historical strategies the prospect wouldn't seem so ominous. There are a handful of historical courses that still have the bones to challenge the world's elite players by just installing a few new tees and adjusting the set up - Shinnecock Hills and Winged Foot come to mind; we'll find out this summer and again in 2006 when those clubs host the U.S. Open respectively (we'll also see to what extent the architecture has been played with).

The problem is when clubs suffer from a sort of Norma Desmond syndrome: they 've lost, or have never had, the mettle to handle the professional game but are still deluded into chasing it. If too much stock is placed in the professional game vis-à-vis their course (if and when a pro might happen to drop by) then undoubtedly the club will be tempted to do some "fixing."

And for what? To save themselves from the ignominy of having a course that's too "easy" for a handful of elite players?

It would be one thing if the entire membership were assaulting the course, but who really cares if a hot shot college player, with every modern advantage from equipment to swing coach to personal trainer, blows its doors off, or if some of the younger members are carrying the bunker at the corner of the 13th? Does it really jeopardize the quality of the course or the character of the membership? The value of a Model-T lies in its rarity and historical significance, not in its speed. And you certainly wouldn't drop a 340 cubic inch, 750 horsepower V-8 engine in it just because it can't run with the NASCAR crowd.

In the name of history and sanity some clubs must force themselves to "retire" from the arms race and gracefully remove themselves from the professional perspective. If courses cannot stay contemporary by building new tees then it's best they preserve their historical integrity and simply bow out, tipping their hat to the few whose game has passed them by.

Obviously clubs and owners have a right to do what they wish with their clubs. Classicists hope the game's great venues are entrusted to enlightened memberships that will resist reactive responses to a highly specialized professional game.

Pine Valley, viewed by many as the world's greatest golf course, recently announced that it would embark on some modifications, news that undoubtedly stiffened the spines of historians and purists. By all accounts the Pine Valley membership is a switched on lot with a keen understanding of the club's place in the golf world, and reports indicate that the work will consist mainly of the lengthening of a handful of holes, an understandable and predictable acquiescence to the modern game given that the course's reputation was virtually founded upon its difficulty.

I've never played Pine Valley, but my understanding is that the course's legendary invincibility is the result of intricate greens and their hazardous surrounds, as well as a psychological paralysis that builds with each round played. In other words, it's not purely about length. Since no other aspects of the course will be meaningfully altered it seems that Pine Valley is an example of a club that understands the boundaries of historical integrity and the limits to which it can judiciously respond to the professional game.

It's a message that other historical tournament courses - courses that have basically been teched out like Merion, Cherry Hills, and Inverness, and for that matter every course that no longer has room to expand - would do well to follow: do your best to adapt, then be satisfied with what you have. And forget the pros.

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