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The "S" Word: Can strategy be defined?

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

(This is the first installment of a multi-part series on the notion of "strategy")

Some of us who write about golf - especially those proclaiming a love for Golden Age design,naturalism, minimalism, and any of the other fringe or slightly iconoclastic strains of golf coursearchitecture - love to bandy about the word strategic.

Strategic seems positively oiled with meaning. We use it as a description, verification, a gold standard. When we choose to be discerning about course design, critical even,strategy becomes a weapon, a club, a secret handshake. If we don't approve of a golfcourse it's a good bet it's because it isn't strategic enough for our oh-so sophisticatedtastes.

In short, strategic is often a code word for "good."

There's a problem with this, and it isn't that the concept of strategy is a faulty one by whichto judge golf courses. It's that strategy, as a means of judging a golf course, almost defiesdefinition.

Defining Strategy

What is strategy? Ask yourself the question, then let is marinate for a little while, resistingfirst impressions. As with religion, ethics, relativity vs. quantum mechanics, etc. - the BigQuestions - the more the strategy issue is explored to more it begins to resemble Socraticdialogue, begetting pop-up questions without getting any closer to a definitive answer. Simple andcompact conclusions soon spin into elaborate, even solipsistic lines of inquiry.

Pondering the variations and applications of strategy and how it pertains to different aspectsof design can keep you awake at night (or put you to sleep, depending on your disposition). All itseems to do is branch and splinter and double back on itself. Frankly, you're better off notthinking about it too deeply. Unfortunately, it's too late for me.

For example, what's a strategic hole? Is it one with a centerline hazard that forces the playerto play either left or right of it? Is it a par 5 that's short enough to be reached in two, if theplayer wants to take a chance? Can a hole with a fairway 100 yards wide be strategic? Can a holewith a fairway 100 yards wide not be strategic? If there is an optimum position in the fairway fromwhich to attack the green, is that a strategic, or prescriptive design? And for that matter, whatis a strategic course?

If the answer is that a strategic hole/course is one that makes the golfer "think" about how toplay the shot, my response is, what hole or golf course doesn't? Have you ever played a shot thatdidn't require thought? Merely selecting a target to aim for - whether it's a tree, the middle ofthe green, or somewhere in a big fairway - requires some degree of calculation. So is strategydependent upon the degree of thought involved? Or is it dependent upon options? If there areoptions, does that mean it's strategic?

As a follow-up, if the baseline definition for strategy is something along the lines of, aplan of action on how to play a particular golf hole or course, what does it have to do withthe golf course itself since every hole requires thought, even if it's simple thought? Is strategysomething that's embedded in the course, or is it dependent upon the mindset of the player? It getsconfusing, doesn't it, because strategic courses, rich with options and variability, can be playednon-strategically, ploddingly and senselessly; strategy, as such, can be ignored, orover-ridden.

Strategy vs. Anti-Strategy

Let's look at it another way. Are golf courses with diminished options - conventionally labeled "penal"(or even boring) golf courses - necessarily anti-strategic? The penal/boring course hashistorically been considered anathema to the strategic course, but exploration of this furthermuddles the concept of strategy.

Think of a long straight par-4 hole with a narrow fairway, high rough, bunkers (or water, ortrees) tightly flanking the landing area, and bunkers protecting the green's front left and frontright. On this hole most amateur players have one goal: put the ball in the fairway. The success ofthe tee shot is judged solely on that one criterion. The goal on the following shot is to get theball on the green, or safely close to it. In this case neither the golf hole nor the plan of attack- avoid trouble! - seems very strategic.

But advanced players will look at the green, see where the pin is cut, and plot backwards.Because she has the ability to place her shots more precisely than the average golfer, her criteriafor success becomes more specific: the pin is cut over the left side bunker, so I want to placemy drive as close to the right side fairway hazard as possible for the best angle of approach.Same hole, but suddenly there's strategy to it.

This introduces another factor in considering in the concept of strategy: the ability of the golfer. Generally the more accomplished the player, the more strategy is necessarily going be involved, especially if systematically plotting your way around a golf course is any measure of strategic veracity. Even on conventionally non-strategic holes such as the one above, accomplished players will be reading and reacting.

Ironically, the more strategy-apparent the hole is, the less strategic it usually plays for the top-flight golfer. A hole with dual fairways, or one with a center line hazard with fairway to both sides of it, will usually be an incredibly "strategic" hole to the average player who deliberate suncertainly over her choices. The advanced player, however, will typically decipher immediately which route is more advantageous given the pin and the conditions of the day, dismissing the alternative shot altogether. Then it simply becomes a matter of execution.

Even at the mother of all "strategic" courses, St. Andrews, there is a correct and incorrect wayto play the course given particular conditions and pins. Once good players discover the road map,they rarely deviate from it.

So the more obvious the strategic conundrum on a strategic hole is, the less strategic the hole often plays for the accomplished player. Conversely, subtle features and set-ups that emphasize angles of play and shot-selection often go unnoticed to the high handicap player, setting up a sort of inverse Subjective vs. Utilitarian strategy dichotomy.

None of this is to say that golf courses cannot play strategically - of course they can and theydo. But are they, themselves, strategic? It is to say that perhaps that our lexicon is too lax when utilizing the concept, that there's no pure model for Strategy, or The Strategic Course. Some golf courses reward strategic play more than others, but that doesn't make them strategic in a Platonicsense. I want to start thinking of strategy as an approach to a shot or a golf course design, rather than an innate quality or a characteristic.

In the next column we will examine different types of courses that theoretically (or realistically) reward to various degrees a strategic approach, including courses that oppose the golfer through decision-making conflicts, risk-reward opportunities, recovery/penal set-ups, and blends of all three.

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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