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Who are designers appeasing when they lengthen golf courses?

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

So it's happening. The era of monster golf courses has finally, officially, arrived.

There's no doubt the landscape of golf is literally changing. Par-4's over 500 yards (see: (Whistling Straits)), premium tournament courses measuring 7,600 yards (see Torrey Pines), 8,000-yard public courses, 350+-yard drives - the cats are all out of the bag.

Due to equipment technology and the athletic prowess of the modern player, the former limits of distance - yardages that were once more science fiction that real - have now been surpassed. The response to these broken barriers has been for architects and owners to build longer golf courses while the choir bemoans the voyage that technology has taken us.

We hear and read about this size problem all the time. The matter has turned into somewhat of a debate with key players showing concern, particularly golf course architects who believe it befalls them to keep up with the lumberjack-swinging pros, while others - manufacturers and a handful of owners - realize the intrigue and potential marketability that loooong golf courses create.

The mistake in all of this is that both architects and owners assume a foregone yet faulty conclusion, and that's that longer golf courses are somehow necessary. They aren't.

I for one am not convinced we need to build golf courses longer than we have been over the last decade, and with a few key tournament exceptions, we don't need to lengthen most of our older courses, either.

Who are we trying to placate?

For the modern professional and scratch player, a sub-7,000-yard course may no longer present an adequate challenge, especially at a par of 72. For nearly everybody else, the bread and butter of the golf industry, 6,500 to 6,700 yards is more than enough challenge.

The length issue comes down to this: whom are we trying to please - a spare handful of elite players or the overwhelming majority of ordinary golfers? Are we really so beholden that we're willing to alter entire courses and design strategies for 1- or 2-percent of the golfing populace?

Golf courses are fine as they are. For whom other than about 1,000 people on the planet is golf in danger of becoming too easy? The top player in the world still experiences highs, lows, slumps and bitter frustration.

Most discussions regarding golf equipment, long drives, 7,500-yard courses, and basically any other issue of length overlooks one fundamental factor: short golf holes and golf courses are only a "problem" for a miniscule percentage of players.

The professional-caliber game has little to do with the way the rest of us play. It's human nature to admire and even emulate famous figures, but these guys aren't going to be coming to your course any time soon, and if they do, they'll be gone in four hours.

Technology: There's nothing we can actually do about it

Equipment technology is like the weather: everybody complains about it, but nobody ever does anything about it.

That's because the only organization that can effectively control the technology is the USGA (in this country), and they don't seem to be in any hurry to legislate limits. Though architects lobby and grouse about technology making golf courses obsolete, they ultimately don't have much of a say. Their complaints seem to fall on deaf ears.

I happen to believe we need to cap or rein in technology (if for no other reason than to quell this distance obsession), but that isn't likely to happen anytime soon. The best path to effective change may be to remain silent and allow the equipment manufacturers and USGA to shoot themselves in the foot.

When enough audiences turn off the television because they're tired of watching the pros play pitch-and-putt on our heralded courses, when millions refuse to tune in to view another middle-of-the-road pro win a major because the equipment masks his relatively marginal skills, and when sponsors and advertisers then begin to get itchy and pull their support, then maybe the USGA will rethink its policy.

A few years ago Tiger Woods' influence over television ratings and sponsorship money was revolutionary. Now that the trajectory of his game and winning percentage has taken a dive (while he's playing around with new equipment in order to, ironically, keep up with a field he used to lap), how long before those ratings and sponsor money follow his decline?

We're missing the point

A consequence of all this unnecessary attention on length and distance is that architects and owners may begin to impose long, muscular golf courses onto properties.

Approaching a project with preconceived numbers and yardage checklists is programmatic rather than intuitive design. This mindset jeopardizes the integrity of the creation - how can holes arise naturally from the landscape if they must bend foremost to par and distance? Many properties may not naturally accommodate 7,500 yards, and they shouldn't be forced to.

By not bending to distance demands, architects are free to concentrate on creating the best possible course given the nuances of the site. Full attention can be given to discovering the best possible routing of holes of varying length, locating ideal green sites, maximizing angles and shot choices, and creating unique putting surface contour and punishing hazards instead of getting caught up in pure numbers and trying to find those 500 extra championship yards.

The risk of chasing distance is that it threatens to alienate both the site from the course and those that will play ultimately on it. It's a misguided trend that mirrors election year politics, in which candidates often ignore the constituents they have in favor or catering to the constituents they want.

Golf is better served when individual, unique courses are built that reflect their region and playing clientele. Golf needs more smallish, accessible courses that serve their communities rather than monstrous, ambitious courses that try to please only a few. Courses that architect Mike Dasher is building around Orlando like Highlands Reserve and Eagle Dunes, courses like Twin Bridges in Gadsden, Ala., or Saddleback north of Denver.

Naturally there will be owners that want and are willing to pay an architect to design an 8,000-yard course (the newest course on the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Florence, Ala., will measure this distance). That's fine. But architects are not required to cooperate in the process of making courses longer if they don't want to. They need not get caught up in the inflation. They can say no.

And for that matter so can everyone else. Let's just see what happens if we don't panic. Let's see what happens if we maintain championship distances where they've been.

Let's all just calm down and don't believe the hype.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • who are designers appeasing when they lengthen golf courses ?

    Alfie Ward wrote on: Nov 14, 2004

    Derek Duncan makes some highly relevant comments about the state of 21st century golf and the farcical nature in which the sport purports to be progressing. But he appears to be stuck in that familiar golfers vacuum where solutions to little problems either don't exist, or they're just too much trouble to institute ?
    Yes, golf courses have been forced to expand like unbreakable elastic bands for the past century to counter the ingenuity of science and technology. A hundred year war has waged that's seen golf win a few skirmishes along the way, only to see the very essence of the sport being ripped from it's soul in lost battles over technology !
    But no ! We, as golfers, should not just lie down in sad apathy to await the possibility of golfing Armageddon. If there is a problem within golf, and I firmly believe there is, then the solution should be enforced without any further ado - namely the institution of a standardised golf ball for one and all. (aka, the rollback !)
    A good compromise would be the introduction of the "Competition" ball for the pro's, which might lead the way to a universal rollback once Joe golfer realises that it aint goin to hurt as much as it has been intimated ?
    So why have none of these possible solutions been tried or tested ? Why indeed ! Because now you must enter the murky waters developed in the name of progression that equates to the politics of golf. Litigation threats from the powerhouse of golf (the manufacturers) hangs over the heads of our apparently powerless governing bodies. They, (the R & A / USGA) will hardly even talk about the present issue's even though this is the greatest controversy the sport has faced in it's entire history !
    To say that nothing can be done in regard to restricting new technology is like lying down in an open field to die, simply because you've contracted a heavy cold ! Rubbish ! All we need is the 'will' to do something and in that, we need the R&A / USGA to cut the strings above their heads and get on with governing the sport once more to the benefit of all golfers around the globe. I can already hear the cries of - "you can't stop technology !" Well tell that to Formula 1 who have already acted by saying to themselves that, enough is enough, as they take the unprecedented backward step towards common sense.
    Derek asks - "who are we trying to placate ?" and sites the old argument that it's only the pro's at around 1% of the golfing population who are affected most by the distance issue's. Not so. Improving and ever permissible technology will grow this estimated percentage point to far greater levels as ageing amateurs and women become more athletic (spare me, please) and hence begin to outdrive their home courses. What once 'was' regarded as a gift and talent bestowed upon a given few, is now a privilege to thousands the world over. And that's no bad thing in that technology HAS made the game easier and more pleasurable to play for everybody and has therefore encouraged the growth in the sport that everyone seeks - including those manufacturers keen to extract every cent from your pocket.
    But surely the time has come (and gone) where we should all be saying that enough IS enough in regard to the distance issue. Would it really matter if Mr or Mrs or Jnr of 2004AD who presently averaged 300 yards off the tee were to find that in 2005 they were only averaging about 280 yards ? And scaled down accordingly depending upon the athleticism of each individual ? What harm would befall the average golfer and what good would become of the sport ?
    The finest courses on the planet would be granted instant restoration to their former glories while all others could then upgrade to finer qualities should they wish to do so. Regardless, every single golf course on planet earth would each receive a level of protection that they have never known. Investments towards course improvements will cease to be a waste of time and money, and millions of golfers will witness the real benefits of the rollback. Course architects can then create more golfing gems in the knowledge that they should enjoy 'play' longevity ! And life will go on as golfers continue to find the BIG sweetspot on their newest high tech driver supplied through the scientific thoughtfulness of Mr Manufacturer !
    Alfie Ward (Golf historian)


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