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Architects vs. Technology: Action or Reaction?

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

"A question nobody has answered is why it has always been the courses and clubs, at great expense, that have had to adjust to cater to new equipment when a far easier solution has been at hand. Control the ball." - British architect Donald Steel.

ORLANDO, FL - One of the raging debates in golf right now is equipment technology, in particular the extreme distances the golf ball is flying and what to do about it. Almost no one, not the USGA, The Royal & Ancient Golf Club, PGA and Senior PGA Tour players and administrators, recreational players, or golf course architects, is sitting this one out.

The two governing bodies that matter most, the USGA and The Royal & Ancient, seem content to let the issue ferment slowly but everywhere else the philosophical discussion escalates as to whether technological advances should be capped, whether they should be rolled back, or if a "tournament ball" should be used for professional events.

If the heart of this matter is what I think it is -protecting not only the integrity of the game but also the victimized golf course -one group that can have an immediate impact without waiting for an outside ruling are the golf course architects. While the rest of us can do nothing while all this plays out, hundreds of golf courses will be built. Are architects continuing to design courses that will soon to be obsolete, or are they taking proactive measures?

Unfortunately it doesn't appear there is widespread foresight throughout the industry. The world's largest assemblage of professional architects, the American Society of Golf Course Architects, has taken the stance of vilifying technology. Instead of using their influence to advocate creative change in modern design, they chose to blame the modern golf ball.

As an organization, the ASCGA might believe that they've taken the lead in the discussion, but for all their fact-finding and paper issuing, they've only succeeded in putting another signature on the existing problem. Their position is that golf balls are not only flying farther, but more crooked too, thus requiring as much as 20% more land to accommodate them. They say, because of the ball, we need bigger golf courses that in turn will be more expensive to build and maintain.

"The consensus at our [annual] meeting was that most architects are now designing fairway corridors 50 yards wider than they did just a decade ago to provide the space necessary to contain today's off-line balls," says ASGCA President Jay Morrish.

Whether this is true or not -and there are ASCGA members who strongly disagree with their organization's position -is topic for discussion. The real problem, however, is that their focus is misguided.

Rather than crunching numbers and politicking the USGA for help, a more practical approach would be to work within the existing situation the way that ASGCA member Steve Smyers is. Smyers isn't waiting to hear the results of the technology issue shakedown, partly because he doesn't see it as quite the threat that some of his colleagues do.

Among other things, Smyers believes the golf ball has basically reached its limit, and if anything, the lawnmower has changed the game more than equipment has. "I don't think we battle it," he says of technology, "I just think we have to understand what it is and we deal with it."

The premise of his design approach isn't to curtail length or hinder the best players who benefit most from the technology, but to identify them.

"I think great golf courses identify great players," he says. "What you should do is ask that the great players be able to identify the shot they need to hit for the occasion. What I like to elaborate on is getting the slopes of the fairways and the contours of the greens and the wind conditions in sync, so if the golfer hits the ideal shot off the tee, he'll have a good lie and have the wind working in unison with him. If he miscues a little, he might have an awkward stance and we may ask him to hit a hook lie into a hole location that requires a fade. We want them to manage their game and identify the proper shot for the occasion."

His concepts are not only intelligent but also plausible. The emphasis is in testing the player's skills rather than strength no matter how far the ball flies. It's based in the subtlety and nuance of shotmaking rather than bottlenecking fairways or increasing hazards. He's also not afraid to add length to the course, something that frightens many in the ASGCA.

"I still believe to identify a good player, you have to put driver in their hands," he says. "You have to make them work the driver right and left and up and down, and you have to put the long and the mid-iron in the players hand." Part of that is done with length and course pars of 70 and 71.

What I appreciate most about Smyers is his willingness to play the hand he's been dealt. His solutions are specific and realistic. Unlike many architects he references, the golf course's playability is in the ground, not in theory. He's considering angles, contour, wind, and how they can all be used to challenge the low handicap player mentally and physically.

To understand where Smyers is coming from, it's important to note that he's an "A" player, an accomplished amateur who was a member of a National Championship golf team at the University of Florida. When he speaks of skilled players needing to read the shot and execute, he knows what he's talking about.

Is Smyers placing too much emphasis on the professional caliber game, a common criticism levied by some who believe that technology is healthy for the game (including many dissenting voices in the ASGCA)?

"You can still test the best players and (yet) provide a very nice golf course for your average, daily fee player," Smyers insists. "I think Pinehurst #2 is a great example of that. I mean, who says that Pinehurst #2 is too hard except the pros when they go play there?"

"I think the big discrepancy here is, where you test the pros, you don't necessarily test the higher handicappers. And where the higher handicappers get a test, the pros don't. An example is an island green. For most pros that's not a big deal. But a higher handicapper, that just gives them fits."

And just as a professional will struggle with a downhill or sidehill lie as it relates to accuracy and working the ball, he says, the average player, with lower expectations, has no such problem. Water, he adds, "is a killer to the high handicapper, but to the touring pro, they never hit it in the water." Thus water hazard are rarely found on Smyers' courses.

Smyers is ahead of the game in both his thinking and his designs. Anyone who has played Southern Dunes, Old Memorial, Blue Heron Pines East, or LochenHeath, to name a few, will recognize the intellectual and psychological nature of his courses. Beyond all the wild bunkering, there is room for the high handicap player to maneuver, and to the scratch player, the options can be as dynamic as the defenses are subtle.

Of course Smyers' approach isn't the only option; certainly there are other design philosophies that can effectively thrive under technological advances. He's also not the only practicing architect that has articulated ideas of how to best accommodate technology through design. But many more, the silent majority under the guidance of the ASGCA, either ignore the problem or resort to indignation and head shaking. It's unlikely these architects will build golf courses that can be effective beyond their lifetime.

So while the leaders of the ASGCA chose to riff on a common theme -blame the golf ball -and place the onus of correction on the governing bodies, architects such as Smyers deal in the reality of the situation and focus on answers. The ASGCA would do well to take a cue from one of their own members and turn their collective attention on their design concepts rather than waiting for someone else to solve their problems.

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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