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In Defense of the "Short" Course

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

GAINESVILLE, FL - In the ongoing discussion of golf equipment technology as it relates to architecture, it seems that most parties involved agree that more land must be added to the golf course. For the American Society of Golf Course Architects, that means not only length, but width as well, as much as 20% more, to accommodate the wildness of shots attributed to newer, longer clubs.

The trend toward adding copious length to courses can be evidenced in places like Noblesville, Indiana where Ron Kern's Purgatory Golf Club tips out at a monstrous 7,754 yards, and near Colorado Springs at the soon-to-be opened 8,000+ yard Meridian Ranch. In fact, it seems like just about everyone who has something to say about the issue admits that the days of 7,500 and 8,000-yard courses are upon us. I find it disheartening.

Have we really done all we can do to reconcile golf courses and technology within the current paradigm? Isn't adding length the least creative solution, the path of least resistance? If we've learned anything in the last five years it's that the longer we make the courses the longer they make the clubs and balls. Is this healthy for golf, for you, or for me?

While I have yet to be convinced that the millennial drivers hit the ball farther right and left than they did previously (isn't the new technology designed to make the ball fly straighter too?), it does seem logical that adding acreage, either as width or length, will increase the cost of construction and maintenance. Guess who's going to pay those bills?

Last month in this space I wrote how architect Steve Smyers accommodates length by emphasizing slope, contour, wind patterns, and shotmaking, features that effect the scratch player more than the recreational player. He also, however, insisted that golf courses must be made longer. I'm still not convinced.

I asked him if a 6,500-yard course could challenge the world's best players. He said, tongue-in-cheek, "Sure, if it was par 62." Then I asked him what would happen if the U.S. Open were held once more at Merion (East), a historic course deemed too short by today's current standards. He said:

"I think Merion is alright. Merion has tremendous variety in their golf holes and that's why I'm saying that (it's) okay. Their short holes are short and tight and tricky and their long holes are mean and long and difficult. They've added substantial length to that golf course on the long holes. And those long holes are just that - they're 490, 480, 470 yards and they're pretty demanding golf holes. You're basically putting a long iron from an awkward stance in the majority of the great players' hands."

Another example of a "shortish" course that can hold its own against top-caliber players is Pine Valley. At a recently played 36-hole Philadelphia Open at Pine Valley, the winning score was +4 in a field of 60 of the region's top professionals and amateurs, and the high scores were not influenced by terrible weather.

Obviously Merion and Pine Valley can't be recreated, but aren't these the models architects should attempt to emulate first? If it's true, there are sub-7,000 yard courses that are capable of challenging the game's greatest players and the superior technology they wield (and presumably the rest of us as well). Shouldn't they be the inspiration before the prodigious, acreage-eating beasts that lurk on the horizon?

If we agree on the value of shorter golf courses (as opposed to 8,000-yard courses) as they save land, keep the cost of golf to a minimum, and potentially prompt architects to think more strategically, one thing we must overcome for them to become a viable alternative is our collective infatuation with a par of 72. Many of the great golf courses of the world are par 70 and 71, and some absolutely fascinating layouts in England and Scotland exist at par 68 and 69.

Admittedly, it's difficult to imagine pars of less than 72 becoming fashionable in such a real estate driven industry, but isn't the standard of the diminutive and interesting par 68 preferable to the long modern courses that 95% of the golfers can't and don't play from the tips anyway?

The second key to the short course renaissance is the drivable par four and reachable par five, two types of holes that increase strategy and interest without being long.

The drivable par four, in particular, has become a rather popular hole and most architects are finding ways to fit one or sometimes two into each new course they build. Why stop at one or two? The merits of the drivable par four go far beyond space saving or novelty.

In his book "Anatomy of a Golf Course" architect Tom Doak says that the short par four, while relatively easy from the standpoint of par, has the potential to be the ultimate psychological hole:

"[It] gives the average player a realistic chance at a par or a birdie, and may boost his confidence for the more difficult holes ahead. But the Tour professional expects to make birdies on easy holes, and puts pressure on himself in the process. If he misses his birdie on a short par-4, he may lose his concentration; if a series of tougher holes follows, his frustration may lead to bogeys."

Interestingly enough, Smyers cites as one of his better holes the short 320-yard 13th at Old Memorial in Tampa. During this year's U.S. Open qualifier there, Greg Norman went for the green both days and had to make superlative up-and-downs to save par. And the 296-yard 15th at the TPC at River Highlands (Greater Hartford Open) and the 310-yard 13th at the TPC of Sugarloaf (BellSouth Classic - remember Mickelson's four-putt?) are routinely two of the more frustrating holes on the PGA Tour.

For illustrative purposes, here's a theoretical prospective short course. (For those who build golf courses in the high, old, naturalistic way as Coore & Crenshaw do, let's assume that our site is conducive to the following holes; if you are Fazio, Nicklaus, Jones, Dye, or anyone who manufactures a golf course from the limestone up, constructing this would be no problem.)

Assume also that we are enlightened golfers not fixated on the arbitrary par of 72, and we appreciate diversity, strategy, and randomness. Consider the following course:

• 2 par fives totaling 1,100 yards in length (i.e. 500 yards and 600 yards respectively)
• 6 par threes totaling 1,125 yards (measuring approximately 125 yards, 150 yards, 175 yards, 200 yards, 215-225 yards, and over 225)
• 5 short par fours totaling 1,500 yards (averaging 300 yards, ranging from 275-325 yards)
• 5 long par fours totaling 2,250 yards (averaging 450 yards, ranging from 430-490 yards)

The course is in the vicinity of 5,975 yards with a par of 68, yet it's no pushover with two par threes longer than 215 yards, four or five par fours over 450-yards, and a 600-yard three-shotter. The essence of its defense is in both length and temptation: the 500-yard risk/reward par five and the five risk/reward par fours might be too accessible for low handicappers to resist going for, and to the high handicap player, the long holes are offset by the more than manageable short holes.

There would be birdies for sure, but well-played shots will be rewarded. I suggest there could be plenty of scrambling and chagrin as well. In addition, we've offered variety and thrill for all levels of player. The par and yardages could also be tweaked, such as dropping two par threes and adding two more gambling par fives (there's your par 72), and you've still got a sub-6,700-yard course with plenty of thrills.

Of course the real test is whether or not architects could continually create such quirky courses with short par fours that aren't pushovers. It's doubtlessly a more challenging task than simply stretching the tees to 8,000 yards. Perhaps that's why it hasn't happened yet.

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • New Hybrid Golf Ball

    Pete wrote on: Dec 22, 2010

    We have reduced the size of the golf course and made it play "bigger"?
    Consider the new Hybrid golf ball, designed to a new standard of golfing enjoyment on shorter golf courses.


  • short/long courses

    EDDY BRAND wrote on: Oct 2, 2006

    surely a short golf course can be made tougher by growing deeper rough,narrow fairways,tricky hazard positioning? and making hazards i.e bunkers a real challenge if a pro gets into them? tight pin postions? could be another possibility?


  • shorter courses

    Barry Ward (AGW of UK) wrote on: Dec 29, 2004

    Your piece on the need for shorter courses was a breath of fresh air. I've written on a similar thesis, based on playing some of the UK's old courses, particularly links (I live in Southport, the capital of English golf).
    In pre-war days, before golf balls become loosely guided missiles, James Braid (and later Donald Ross) frequently introduced a short par four into his designs. With slightly off-set, tightly guarded greens even better players had to consider a lay-up, perhaps the first risk/reward holes although he doubtless didn't know that term or even think of it in that fashion.
    Alternatively, he would build such a green sloping away, from front to back, often with his signature fall-away swale/hump on the back edge, leaving a tricky return chip for the over-hit approach shot.
    Most of his greens also have a slight rise in the approach so you can visualise the consequences: lay-up for what you call the knock-down shot (we know it as a pitch and run, often played with a mid-iron) and you'd better be pretty dextrous to leave a holeable putt.
    Flag position plays a part here, too, obviously. The early Braid courses were among the first to have greens offering multiple flag positions, that is small level areas surrounded by rolls and breaks.
    So a 240 yard par 4 with a flag tucked behind a bunker on a green sloping from front to back often required more than a modicum of thought, particularly with a cross wind of anything in excess of two clubs in strength!
    In those days of course a tee shot of 240 yards was big hitting but the point is that the design factor is as valid today. I know examples where such holes follow a difficult stretch and the temptation is to try to reclaim lost strokes by "going for it", frequently with predictable consequences. This wasn't accidental: it was part of a plan, a change in course tempo.
    So small, cleverly contoured run-away greens can make a 240 yarder into a key hole, one of fun and challenge.
    I like the sound of your imaginary par-68. See you on the first tee!
    Best wishes for the New Year.
    Barry Ward


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