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Let them eat bogeys! Ratings systems, difficult courses ignore average golfers

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Neil Finch ran one of the best golf courses in the world, the top golf course in Hawaii. Every Golf Digest rating told him so. Countless magazine cover stories screamed it to him.

Places like SilverRock boast about designing their courses for tour pros, not you.

As director of golf at the Princeville Resort, Finch watched over the crème de la crème in the Robert Trent Jones Jr. Prince course. And he had the plaques on the wall to prove it.

Only the regulars golfers who played the course told Finch a different story. He noticed the dejected, frustrated looks on the faces at cart return. He couldn't help but pick up on the tee-sheet truth. Almost none of the resort guests who played the vaunted, sterling reputation Prince course booked it for a second play.

"It was just too hard for the average golfer," Finch said. "Who wants to pay $200 to get beat up? They'd play it once, to say they played it. But they wouldn't go back.

"They'd play the easier Makai course the rest of their trip. It wasn't as spectacular, but they could make their shots, have some fun. Really, if you think about it, that's what most golfers are looking for."

The longer Finch stayed at Princeville, the more the Prince course struck him as a ridiculous business approach.

"We had this great, beautiful golf course and it'd be almost empty a lot of days," Finch said. "Because it was just too darn hard.

"It makes you wonder, who are they designing these courses for?"

The answer of course is not you, me or anyone else with a 60-hour-a-week-job, four-kids and demanding-project-assigning-spouse handicap. The average golfer is mere road kill in the ever-building advance of super-sized courses. In military terms, they'd be termed acceptable casualties.

Of course, categorizing them at all would require that someone in the golf industry actually recognize this left-behind majority. And anyone who's been around golf understands there are very few Neil Finches wondering about them at all.

Instead, it's all about making courses longer and longer and longer, where it ends only Tom Fazio knows. Instead, it's all about toughening things up, making sure your course carries plenty of muscle. Because most people who play this game find it just too easy.

Well, at least most people course owners and celebrity golf architects seem to be interested in these days. That often turns out to be one guy who wears red on the Sundays he's not cuddled up with his gorgeous Swedish wife.

"(This course) was definitely designed with the tour player in mind," Brian Hamilton, the assistant professional at the new 7,600-yard Arnold Palmer SilverRock course in greater Palm Springs, told me. Hamilton said this proudly, like it was the most impressive thing in the world you could say about a golf course.

This isn't a one course philosophy. It's an industry mentality.

Forget the other days of the year and the pitiful resort golfer trying to punch out of bunkers bigger than Iwo Jima. For the one week the PGA Tour is here (assuming the PGA Tour gets here), it's going to be great.

Never-ending distance race

Even courses with no illusions of holding a pro event, courses with no intention of trying to position themselves as the next cutting edge thing, get dragged into the unquenchable distance drive. A course is considered puny if it's less than 6,600 yards these days, not even worth playing if it dips down closer to 6,200.

Are you kidding me? That's pathetic!

Just try getting the magazine raters to come out for a 6,000-yard course. No self-respecting average golfer's paying good money for that either. Not when they're so distance "educated" these days.

So you have a course like Pheasant Glen on Vancouver Island. The owners decided to pump some money into the operation, to expand it from 5,000 yards into what everyone would consider a full course.

General Manager Barrie McWha thought 6,000 yards would be a perfect length, just right to challenge all the recreational golfers, even the good ones, while maintaining much of the course's character.

Only 6,000 yards was never an option. Not in today's golf world.

"Our research showed that golfers won't take a course seriously if it's not 6,600 yards," McWha said. "Too many golfers just won't play it otherwise. Sixty-six hundred yards is the cutoff."

So now Pheasant Glen's 6,600 yards and it's getting decent play. Only sometimes McWha wonders if we couldn't have better golf experiences in general by going shorter.

"I think most golfers could get all they wanted in a 5,700- to 6,000-yard course and have more fun playing that kind of course," McWha said. "They'd have more reasonable shots for their games, the rounds would move faster and they'd really enjoy it more.

"It's a shame, but I don't think we'll ever see those kind of courses again."

Now's the time that some golf pro or six-figure celebrity architect will break into, "If average golfers would only play the correct tees." It's also about the time they'd deserve a King Kong butt whipping.

For everyone really knows that not all tees are created equal. If you move too far forward on any course, you're not getting close to the design experience. That I'll make the course 8,000 yards, but you can play it at 6,200 argument rings about as lame and convincing as an Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt dating denial.

Media's tough love

I have a confession to make. I love difficult, chew-you-up and spit-you-out golf courses. If you followed my course reviews at TravelGolf.com, you realize some of my highest praise has gone to some of the toughest courses.

Does this make me a hypocrite?

No, just a writer. Most golf writers coo for the monsters. It's natural when you think about it. The tougher the course, the more drama. Drama makes for interesting, and in many ways, easier stories.

It doesn't matter if you're a writer who's convinced he could make the Tour with just a few breaks or the worst golf playing golf writer in the world, like myself. In the end, I believe we're almost all slaves to the pen first, most concerned about having something interesting to write about.

Give a writer a unique story, he tends to like it.

This is why you see so many courses with frighteningly high USGA slope ratings so highly ranked. That, and the fact it makes some golf writers feel sophisticated (no profession's without its blowhards).

It's important for those who cover the golf world to start actively listen to the everyday golfers playing these golf courses. They'll tell you what's working and what's just too extreme.

Playing White Clay Creek Country Club, a new Arthur Hills design in Delaware, I found all the forced carries over swamps to be a little needlessly out there. Still, the history and little quirks of having a golf course right off an operating horse racetrack made for an interesting day regardless.

Almost all the paying golfers on the course I talked to disagreed. Strongly. The comments of frustration over a design perceived as cruel just to be cruel piled up and the review had to change to reflect that.

A golfer playing Indian Canyons Golf Resort, a fairly gentle test in a land of Palm Springs giants, may have put the new average golfer creed best.

"I don't play any courses with a par 5, I'd have to drive my pickup truck to reach in two," Jon Barry said.

His money, his philosophy. It's time for golf course owners, architects, head pros and golf writers to stop believing they know better.

Otherwise, you'll get a lot of courses with a ton of plaques on the wall and nobody in the fairways.

Come to think of it, we're already almost there.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Designer Defense

    Tim wrote on: Jan 13, 2006

    It sure is easy to blame the architect. Would Hills have "all those forced wetland carries" f environmentalists didn't dictate it? And sure, it's definately the architects fault that given 5 choices of tees, some boneheads are drawn to the back tees as f they were magnitized. I remeber going to The Ocean Course and barely making it over the marshes from the Blues, looking back at the Gold's only see the "Pro" tees a mile beyond those. Sure if I were an idiot and played from the nose bleed tees I would have walked off bitchen and moaning.
    Let's not forget that the architect get's his/hers marching orders from the guy with the checkbook. If he says "make it hard" you make it hard. If he says "maximize the number of golf course frontage lots" you make it long. Unfortunately too many confuse long with hard. Pine Valley and Cypress Point aren't that long. In fact, if there aren't forced carries to contend with, an average chop playing from the tips will have an easier (but longer) course - because the hazards are set beyond his drive zone. Why do you see so many big scores on "drivable" par 4's? Because they tempt golfers to attempt something they're not capable off pulling off. Easy par if you play 5-iron/wedge but, Driver-ball retriever?


  • Long Courses

    Larry Duer wrote on: Jan 12, 2006

    I totally agree with you on how courses are becoming too difficult for the average golfer. While much of the blame lies with the designer some of it lays at the feet of the golfer. It's an ego thing. I see golfers who have no business playing from the tips continually doing just that. Most golfers would have a much better time if they would just swallow their pride and move up a tee box or two.


  • Tough Course

    Doug Blomfield wrote on: Jan 12, 2006

    I think most serious golfers want to be challenged when they step on to the tee. It is not just the pretty views that create a great course, but the enjoyment different golfers can take away with them.
    A good course will be able to challenge golfers of ALL levels.
    Personally I prefer challenging golf courses, holes that make you think, holes where you only get par if you play the hole well.
    Unfortunately, too many designers have mixed up challenging and tough


  • I don't

    Bob wrote on: Jan 9, 2006

    "I have a confession to make. I love difficult, chew-you-up and spit-you-out golf courses. If you followed my course reviews at TravelGolf.com, you realize some of my highest praise has gone to some of the toughest courses."
    I don't follow your reports. You are just too boring.


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