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The Elusive Solution to Crowded Courses

By John M. Ross,
Westchester Golf Club
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Westchester Golf Club in Los Angeles was one of the earliest courses to convert to night golf, John M. Ross writes. (Courtesy of Westchester Golf Course)

When the golf boom was reaching its zenith, and everyone was groaning about crowded courses and slow play, a few bright beams of hope appeared on the horizon. Some of the light, quite understandably, was a result of a push by the lighting companies to provide night golf and virtually multiply the nation's golf facilities in the process. The other was the introduction of the artificial grass surface to golf to reduce the construction and maintenance for the vitally needed additional public courses.

It's been more than two decades since these ideas excited the golf world, but the courses are still crowded and play still moves at a maddening crawl. Indeed, at the recent PGA Championship, play on the second round took more than six hours. And these were the best players in the world!

The night golf proposal struck many as an idea whose time had come. Baseball, football and tennis, among other sports, had successfully moved to night play. But these have comparatively compact areas to be lighted. The full-size golf course spreads out over 160 or more acres - and that presents a challenge to any kind of lighting system. But the proponents of the scheme had an answer to this. They pointed out that the relatively new Halide lights were about four times more powerful than the mercury lights they were replacing, and could make any golf layout look like daylight. Everyone wanted to believe them.

Of course the transition wasn't as simple as flipping a switch. Some golfers had the opportunity to sample night golf in a limited way. The lights had been put in on some nine-hole compact courses - mostly in Florida, and, of course, miniature golf under the lights had been around for years. But the full-length course was something else, and the chief concern had to be the economics of the transition.

The cost of putting banks of lights every 150 feet or so down each fairway, and two banks of lights behind every tee area and every green, was about $200,000 in the early 1980s. And it rose rapidly as interest grew and the national economy headed upward. Almost immediately this ruled out courses in the upper tier of the country where the season is shorter, and where substantial increases in fees, dues or assessments would be necessary to balance the expansion investments.

One of the earliest courses to convert to night golf was the Westchester Golf Club in Los Angeles, next to the LA International Airport. It is a par-63, 4,300-yard layout with eight par-3 and eight par-4s. The longest hole is 335 yards. And it has been doing a brisk business for more than 26 years.

The reports from golfers sampling the after-dark layouts were lukewarm at best. Even those who had to queue-up at 5 a.m. to get a weekend game on a public course didn't find the easier access in the evening that attractive. For many it was a radical change that cut into the enjoyment of play.

My own sampling of after-dark play on a full-size layout came at a course near Philadelphia. Hoping to get meaningful reviews on their glittering new project from the New York press, the owners kicked off the program with a cocktail party at one of the Big Apple's plush watering holes. As twilight approached, two buses pulled up to the front door of the saloon and we toted our golf bags to the bus and boarded.

A bus ride from New York to Philadelphia on an early spring evening is not likely to make a young fellow jump for joy. But our hosts were savvy enough to outfit the extra-cozy buses with a bartender, waiter and an ample supply of beverages, and the "going to Philadelphia" gags died out before we were halfway through New Jersey.

The golf writers, in general, don't play the game as well as they write about it. A golf course, with its challenges plainly visible in daylight, is even more defiant under the artificial light. I thought the lighting did a better job than I anticipated, but it presented some problems, too. I found it hard to club myself properly. I was a club or more off on my shots to the green, and then the real trick was to find the ball. This was a challenge throughout the round; anything off the fairway was gone. I went through at least six balls, and the caddies smiled all the way, thinking of how much fun it would be picking up after us.

The pace of play, as a result, was ridiculous, and any round started shortly after sunset would still be underway as midnight struck. And then there was the evening dew, which made the greens wet and slow, and hard to read. And even harder to read when you had to constantly swat the bugs and gnats attracted from miles around by the lights.

The verdict handed down by the writers on the long bus ride back was clear, there'd be no rush to night golf on full-length courses. And there hasn't been. The improved lighting has helped bring along more par-3s and nine-hole executive courses, but it has had little impact on the core of the country's golf facilities.

To be sure, there were other factors that placed blocks in the path of night golf. With many courses in or bordering residential areas, complaints and, possibly, zoning law action had to be anticipated. And insurance costs, too, because of accidents due to reduced visibility. But the loudest cry came from the golf purists who bristled at the thought of destroying the golf course landscape with unsightly light towers. Some said it was like penciling a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

The artificial grass surface, which also loomed as a possible solution to the game's traffic problems, has not fared much better than night golf. It has been useful in many ways, and has allowed many to sample and enjoy the game for the first time - and in some cases, improves their lives. But there's been no mass effort to re-cover the nation's courses with artificial turf.

Improved over the years since it first showed up mostly as green carpeting for miniature golf, it is being used extensively in pitch-and-putt courses, 18-hole putting layouts, and on the greens of some 9-hole executive courses. A surface, marketed as SofTrak, has the appearance of Kentucky bluegrass and also comes in a slightly, thicker material than is used for chipping in fringe areas around the green.

A rehabilitation hospital in Ohio installed the surface on a putting and chipping course on its grounds and used it with great results for recovering patients whose physical challenges range from arthritis to amputation. The hospital could not have afforded the cost and maintenance of a real grass installation.

Coming in at about $10-15 per square foot, depending on size and location, it is getting more and more attention from those reaching for a backyard practice area for putting and chipping. Of course, what makes it more attractive is that you don't have to mow the grass or rake it.

The bottom line on all this seems to be quite simple. As long as the golfer clings to his basic ties with nature, there won't be any substantial changes in the game. And in this day of constant change, perhaps that isn't such a bad thing.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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