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Garl: Don't be afraid of advancing technology when designing courses - embrace it

Ron GarlBy Ron Garl,
Special Contributer

Editor's note: Golf course architect Ron Garl is known throughout the U.S., and especially in Florida, where he has been hailed for his innovative routing and his commitment to environmentally sensitive designs. TravelGolf.com said he "may be the best golf course architect you've never heard of," though his peers have certainly recognized his achievements..

Based in Lakeland, Fla., Ron Garl has won national and international awards, from Golf Digest, the Audubon Society, Golf Magazine, Links Magazine,and Southern Living, among others. He was named "Golf Designer of the Year" by the International Network of Golf in 1996..

This column, which originally appeared in a book called Golf Architecture - a Worldwide Perspective, compiled and edited by Paul Daley, kicks off the start of a monthly series of columns on golf course design Garl will write exclusively for TravelGolf.com.

(Jan. 1, 2004) - In recent years, it has been popular to pit the golf course architect against the technocrats of the golf industry. The architect has been looked upon as protectors of our great game, which in a sense they are. However, more so, they comprise one of the principal players in the evolution of the game.

It is to this end that golf course architects are empowered with one of the more delicate duties of their station. In order to accomplish this charge, they must first define the task before them. Are technological advances in equipment seen as a threat to the traditions of the game? If so, is this all bad? Can we turn these technological advances around to be an asset to the game?

The first thing we have to accept is that in spite of all the hype and flourish surrounding Tiger Woods, the simple fact is, he hasn't brought the influx of players to our game that was anticipated. A balance sheet plotting golfer intake and departure would reveal that the game is still flat-lined in regards to player uptake, particularly in the US. It is up to the course architects to design and build more enjoyable and demanding courses that will bring the promised recruits. As many people who continue to stay with the game, have, after three years of playing, left it. It is our duty to make a positive impact on these numbers.

The architect's challenge

First of all, we have to realize that as architects, we are facing challenges that are coming faster and faster. Technological growth is part and parcel of our job. While advances may be accompanied by media hype, I would suggest that changes don't quite rival the single biggest advance of going from hickory shafted clubs to steel. That was the quantum leap. From that point on, the advances have been more evolutionary than revolutionary.

We also have to realize that there have been technological advances that are well beyond our control. Let's face it: today's instructors are light years ahead of their predecessors, with the use of video cameras, computers and overlays. In years gone by, all a golf teacher needed was a good eye to locate the obvious flaw. In this day and age, technology is the key to instruction. This of course, has lead to the superior conditioning of professional golfers. And the movement towards increased strength and fitness of the professional player has caused a trickle-down effect to the rank and file golfers, leading to an improvement in their skill level.

Then there are the advances on the turf grass side of the game. Henry Picard, the winner of the second Masters in 1937 was asked what he thought was the single greatest improvement in golf equipment. He answered quickly and decisively: "the mower." He had a valid point. The ability to closely mow grass has fostered club technology that abets flying the ball higher and farther. It has changed putters. They now have reduced loft, as the need to get the ball up and rolling on the shaggy greens of days gone by has become a distant memory. The impact not only in mower technology, but better grass and sand has made the playing surface conducive to better play.

My initial thought is to embrace these advances rather than combat them. Yet I do recognize my duty to protect the integrity of the game and I hold this duty sacred.

Is longer always better?

Much has been made about Tiger-proofing golf courses. The popular trend has been to make the courses longer. The truth is, that for all really good players, making the courses longer only plays into the hands of the leading professionals. Clearly, the longer the course, the more difficult it becomes for the rank and file.

The duty of the golf course architect in preparing the playing surface for the player armed with the titanium-headed over-sized, long, graphite-shafted driver and "can't miss" irons, isn't to give them a longer course. Indeed, how many existing courses can be stretched more than five percent of their existing length? When you consider that equipment advances combining club head, shaft and ball could exceed 10 percent in overall improvement, you're fighting a battle you can't win. The answer isn't length.

The first thing a modern golf course architect has to devise is a goal for every project. What is it that you want to accomplish? How can you wed this goal with that of the developer? There is always a common ground that allows both parties to attain their goals.

My goal is to protect the sanctity of the second shot. Granted, in days gone by, Ben Hogan might have floated a high cutting two-iron to the green from 205 yards and today's four handicapper might be drawing a four iron on the same shot. However, the fact is they'd both be hitting from the same yardage. We can't control what club they use, but we can control the spot they're aiming for.

Enticing yet accessible

How can this be accomplished? The first thing an architect has to do is make the spot from which the second shot struck enticing and accessible. The design and challenge is making it as appealing and accessible for the scratch player as it is for the double-digit handicapper. Therefore, the architect's target has to have ample fairway width to accommodate the occasionally ill-shaped shot of the higher handicapper and be able to accept the better struck shot of the better player. This is the first part of the goal.

The second part of the goal is to establish a risk element for those who wish to exceed the target the architect has established. When these areas are designed, they should be done in a fashion where the risk and the reward are balanced. This gives the player options on the same hole. The architect shouldn't be afraid of placing a penal bunker in a place where the golfer shouldn't be. By the same token, however, the extremely well struck shot should be amply rewarded with a simple shot to the green.

Remember, there's no magic or kudos attached to designing a difficult golf course. The challenge for the architect is in designing a golf course that's challenging and fair for the player. Our goal is to have people enjoy and be stretched by our courses, understanding that the day a player can't reach a par-4 green with his two best shots is the day he loses interest in the game and starts to find other pursuits.

No course ever outdated

Personally, I'm an advocate of traditional designs, and I cringe when I hear people say a course is outdated. No golf course is ever outdated. Golf courses do suffer from a lack of thought and vision, but the really well-designed course is a treasure for eternity. If Henry Picard is right, and I believe he may be, the mower should be used more effectively. Fairways don't have to be thirty yards wide on a 350-yard hole. What is wrong with a 22-yard-wide fairway where the first inclination on the tee is to grab the driver from the bag?

I have long believed the theory that you can design all of the golf course anyone would find a manageable challenge and have it no longer than 6,300 yards. If designed properly, with correct placement of teeing areas, this course would challenge Tiger and his mates and provide the everyday golfer with not only a pleasurable challenge, but also a feeling of being tested rather than just having been mugged.

How can all this be fairly accomplished? It takes the foresight to have dogleg holes turn at the proper space. It requires aesthetic and effective bunkering. Moreover, it necessitates the imagination to lead the best and the worst players of our great game through a tour of every challenge conceivable. We have to give our best players the opportunity to display their astonishing skills and be justly rewarded, but we also have to give fair warning if they choose this option and fail, then a hefty price is levied.

The secret to this type of design is to make the less-daring option for the less able player the optimum goal for the best players. Knowing that the less-talented golfers have enough problems already, the toll for poor execution should result in a penalty more in keeping with the severity of the crime.

Keep challenge alive

When designing a golf course along these lines, you've held up the integrity of the second shot. You've made it the optimum in strategy, and have given a range of golfers the opportunity to share the same experience.

What can we do to combat the new technology? I say, embrace it! If the new technology keeps people playing the game, as golf course architects, we should keep the challenge alive. All we have to do is keep our focus current, establish our design goals and never forget the duty of providing challenge, as well as enjoyment for the long haul.

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