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Bringing it back - Losing the race to build long courses

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Robert Trent Jones Golf TrailATLANTA, Ga.- In case you haven't noticed golf courses are getting longer, and it's gotten tiresome.

Talk of increased length and adding yardage to existing courses never ceases. The already notoriously difficult Bethpage Black was muscled up to 7,300 yards by Rees Jones, the "Open Doctor," for the 2002 U.S. Open.

Jones similarly stretched Torrey Pines South, site of the 2008 U.S. Open, to more than 7,600 yards. Augusta National, once played over a shotmaker's 6,800 yards, now tallies a very un-MacKenzie-like 7,300 yards after years of fiddling and tee building by Tom Fazio.

Public examples begin with any of the latest 7,200-yard upscale daily-fee courses and climax with the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail of Alabama where courses routinely sport championship yardages in excess of 7,500 yards, the longest of which demolishes the scales at 7,779 yards.

If you're looking for someone to blame in all of this you might start with the Alabama Trail's namesake. From the late 1940s to the early 1980s Robert Trent Jones almost single-handedly elevated the practice of golf course architecture from part-time hobby to a university degree and indispensable profession.

Torrey Pines South CourseIn the process of carving out his occupational niche, Jones redefined how the golf world viewed a challenge. His brand of long and difficult courses ultimately became the standard, ushering in the era of the "heroic" school of design. The effect, still felt decades later, was that every owner wanted a "championship" caliber golf course, a man-sized test of 7,000 yards, par-72.

Not much has changed except that today 7,000 yards isn't enough.

What's the point? Marketing? The glimmer of hope that someday the Tour will come knocking on the door? Or would it just be too embarrassing if a Tour player stopped by and had to play the course at 6,800 yards - what would he say?

Follow the trend to its tedious conclusion: if we've learned anything through the years is it not that length begets length? The longer the course become the longer the players hit it, so the courses respond with more length, and around it goes.

A case can be made that the tour pros and a select handful of other players need longer courses for their tournaments if they don't want to continue playing drive-and-pitch. They can have them. But where does that leave the other 99 percent?

As the average player continues to chase after the increased distance promised by each new cycle of technology, the courses keep getting longer. What about you, or the players in your foursome - are you moving back to those longer sets of tees? How often do you play the tips, and how many players do you know that need to play 7,200 yards to be challenged?

The problems isn't that the idle tees back there are taking up valuable space, it's that having them contributes to an infatuation with distance that too often overwhelms thoughtful, intricate design. The culture of length is obsessive about numbers, and it's as if architects have nothing more important than distance to say to owners.

Rustic CanyonAn opportunity exists to counter the culture of length with smaller courses of sub-72 pars and short, tempting holes. The most compelling moments during the final round of last week's Las Vegas Invitational occurred at the TPC at Summerlin's 297-yard par-4 15th. Player after player hit driver to the elevated green and nearly all were confronted with awkward second-shot chips and pitches from various odd angles. The hole yielded birdies, but just as many players walked away disgusted for not being able to conquer such a seemingly easy hole.

The former design team of Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf were noted for including at least one short, drivable par-4 in their designs. Why stop at one? Why not one, or two, per nine? If suitable green complexes can be located or created that pose interesting short chip and pitch second shots, then why the reluctance to use them?

Bobby Weed, architect the TPC at Summerlin, has designed numerous compelling short par-4s and doesn't shy away from including more than one in his designs. One of the country's great new courses, Rustic Canyon near Los Angeles, has three par-4s under 350-yards.

Augusta NationalThe downhill par-4 10th at Riviera, the 314-yard 12th at St. Andrews, the 300-yard second at National Golf Links, the 305-yard 10th at Royal Melbourne West, and the 510-yard (currently) 13th at Augusta National are all immortal because of, not in spite of, their yardage. St. Andrews' Road Hole, at 470 yards, might also fall into this category if one considers it as a par-5 (as it's realistically configured) rather than a par-4. One of the greatest shots in U.S. Open history was made possible because Arnold Palmer was tempted to drive - and make - the first green at Cherry Hills in 1960.

The point is not to de-emphasize the driver but to make players choose to use it. On all of the above listed holes driver is a legitimate option; the question is it the best option. That's rarely a concern at 7,200 yards.

To get those 7,200 yards - not to mention 7,500 or even 8,000 - the architect is typically forced to forego any type of ticklish short hole. One weakness of the otherwise outstanding Robert Trent Jones Trial is the lack of a truly good drivable par-4. It's ironic that within those big championship yardages, there's no room for small holes.

Rebuffing the culture of length requires architects, owners, and developers to think unconventionally. What could be more radical - and thus potentially marketable - than actually building shorter golf courses?

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.


 
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