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Beware of the marketing chiches: As the number of U.S. courses mounts, so does the rhetoric

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - As we approach our 20,000th course, the variety and style of golf in the United States has become staggering. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for how these courses are marketed. Clubs and public relations firms in charge of pitching all this golf to the public have been unable to move beyond oft-recited catch phrases and marketing mumbo-jumbo.

Glance at any magazine or club advertisement and the same words continue to pop up. Perhaps the redundant continues to be utilized because it's effective. If so, then it's we, the consuming target audience, that are to blame. We should be able to recognize it is rhetoric rather than swallowing the standard sales pitches.

The purpose here isn't to criticize any lack of originality in advertising but to make the buyer a little savvier by debunking some of the marketing vernacular. These are a few examples of industry code words - and by industry I mean those of us in the media as well as sales - that are either patronizing or flat out misleading.

"An environmentally sensitive course" - Almost every new course built today is labeled as "environmentally sensitive." The truth is that there's hardly any way a modern golf course can't be environmentally sensitive.

It takes about four years to build a golf course, with the actual construction taking about a year. The majority of the time is spent getting the proper permits.

Developers, architects, and builders have to jump through so many zoning and environmental hoops that they're often limited in what and where they can create. The days of simply razing a piece of land and jamming a golf course on it are long gone. Yet architects have spun the situation to make their cooperation with the environment seem a virtuous acquiescence. In reality they don't have a choice.

Minimalism - In a recent issue of Golf Magazine, senior editor Brian McCallen labeled architect Arthur Hills a "minimalist." Nothing against Hills, but saying he's a minimalist is like saying James Cameron makes small, art house movies.

Minimalism is not a broad, loosely defined concept and its meaning is neither pliable nor subjective. The truth is that very few architects apply minimalist techniques when building their courses, but you'd never know it by the popularity of the term.

USGA greens - Golf courses love to boast about their "USGA greens," a method of constructing putting surfaces that adheres to USGA-approved standards. While there are advantages to having USGA greens, namely enhanced drainage, they're not intrinsically better than traditional greens.

The downside of USGA greens is that contours must be limited due to the process of building layers of gravel, sand, pipes, and soil. Traditional push-up and sand-based greens allow for more shaping creativity both on and off the putting surface itself and often appear more natural. Quality grasses can be grown on either, so USGA greens have no superiority regarding how the ball rolls.

"A (insert PGA or Senior PGA Tour pro) course" - Active tour players are paid to have their name affixed to golf course projects for the same reason professional athletes and actors are paid to endorse a product. Owners know celebrity affiliation helps increase recognition and sales. The difference is that most golfers believe the professional actually built the golf course, whereas nobody really thinks that Michael Jordan makes shoes for Nike.

How often have you heard someone ask about that new Fuzzy Zoeller, or Fred Couples, course? The truth is that a real architectural firm routs, plans, grades, builds, and grasses the course, while the player shows up two or three times during the process and once at the grand opening. The player might make general suggestions or suggest a bunker be moved, but the actual involvement in the outcome of the course is minimal.

"Tough but fair" - If I had a nickel for every time a golf professional or marketing agent explained that their course was "tough but fair," well, you know the rest.

There's no doubt it's important for public and semi-private clubs to portray the notion of overall appeal. However, "tough but fair" is too simplistic and too general a concept. As much as they might like to be, golf courses cannot be all things to all people. When a course is billed as tough but fair, I begin to think it has no real character of its own.

A four-star course - Each year Golf Digest issues a "places to play" list, which rates regional golf courses on the star system. The guide is helpful in distinguishing the top courses, but it's important to remember that these ratings are based on player feedback.

"The Pebble Beach of the East" or "The Augusta National of the Midwest" - Why do fine golf courses feel the need to gravy train off more popular clubs? Such comparisons raise expectations that never will be met.

Framing - In the 1990s, "framing" became a buzzword to describe a predominant style of architecture that emphasized visual appeal and balance. When top-dollar architects like Tom Fazio re-arrange landscapes to "frame" holes - building soft mounds around fairways and greens and placing bunkers for balance - they can become more concerned with how a hole appears than how it plays. Such holes photograph well but are often hollow if too much emphasis is placed on creating the frame.

The opposite of framing would be randomness and imbalance. The Old Course at St. Andrews and other British links courses, for example, aren't artificially imposed on the land. The result is a rough, natural appearance and highly interesting play. Framing is pretty, but it might be skin deep.

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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