Never mind championship golf – how about enjoyable golf?

The Scoop

Guest columnist George Oldham has no desire to spend his valuable time on the course searching for balls

Our esteemed editor and I have a continuing but amicable difference of opinion over some aspects of what constitutes good course design, which he was kind enough to acknowledge in the splendid recent England’s Top 100 Courses 2018 supplement.

It isn’t a fundamental disagreement (we are at one, for example, in recognising Birkdale as our premier links), but when it comes to the detail of the design of the challenges appropriate to second, or third shots, we tend to differ.

This is not too surprising; at a little more than half my age, his tee shots often leave me trailing by some 80 yards. To all intents and purposes then, we are playing different courses. Which brings me to Tom Irwin’s excellent article advocating shorter and more enjoyable courses, a cause worthy of wide promotion.

Some years ago, I wrote an article in Golf Course Architecture called “expanding the game”, which addressed a range of issues, from stuffy, unwelcoming clubhouses to slow play, which were inhibiting the growth of golf and, at the heart of which, was the mantra that too many courses were too difficult and simply not enjoyable enough to attract people to play on them. I began:

“OK, I admit it; I’m seriously addicted to golf course porn published in the golf mags; it is the seductive photographs of the stunning creations by the likes of Doak, Fazio and Nicklaus that really turn me on.

However, do I, for one moment, feel that these stunning “arts for art’s sake” designs have anything to do with meeting the needs of the elusive “average punter” whose stubborn refusal to engage in the world’s best game is constantly bemoaned by the golf industry? 

Of course not; while multi-millionaire clients are very welcome to add to the sum of human happiness by commissioning monster vanity projects, these products have little relevance to the modest needs of the average man, woman or junior.

I’m a better than average golfer, enjoying a higher than average income but there is no way that I would expect to be able to play to my handicap on one of these courses, or enjoy paying the equivalent of a month’s mortgage for the privilege of my inevitable humiliation. I’m happy to splash out occasionally for a Turnberry or Royal Birkdale – but for day-to-day golf I want a course that suits my ability and pocket, and in this I am no different to the vast majority of golfers and potential golfers.

“If the industry wants to stimulate majority use, it must meet majority needs.  Most of us want to be round a course in a little over three hours. We want to be tested but, in the words of the great Dr MacKenzie, we should also reasonably expect “a complete absence of the irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls.”

My article then listed positive moves that could be made to turn clubhouses from formidable fortresses to welcome oases and transform the customer experience but I returned to golf’s principle requirement; a well-designed course. With pleasure, speed of play and easy maintenance in mind to make golf affordable, as well as fun, I set out a few recommendations:

  • To begin at the beginning; operators should consider the advantages of providing artificial turf for tees. The playability nowadays is comparable, the divot-less aesthetic is superior and the initial capital cost is soon repaid in easier maintenance.

  • A wide choice of optional lengths should be provided and, as there is virtually no wear on the tees, visitors and members, (apart from on official competition days), should be able to choose their preferred length of course.
  • Forward of the tee, the vista that welcomes the golfer should excite anticipation; well-defined and sinuous fairways, generous in width but designed to reward the well- placed tee shot for the approach, manicured rough which will affect the subsequent shot but short enough, (not more than 40mm), to wholly avoid the “irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls”, (MacKenzie’s 10th rule, and in terms of avoiding slow play, his most important).
  • Beyond, if space permits, consideration should be given to the establishment of wilderness areas, encouraging diversity of flora and fauna.  However, to ensure that play is not slowed by pointless searching for errant balls, these natural areas should be marked with blue posts, designated SSSIs with “entry forbidden” signs and a requirement to drop at point of entry with a one shot penalty, (i.e. as for a water hazard).
  • As for other types of hazard; water and sand need only be used sparingly, partly so that capital and maintenance costs are constrained and partly because over-use of these features devalues their impact. Golf is not a water sport, nor are courses a venue for beach volleyball.  Strategically-placed trees on doglegs and challenging mounds and swales around greens can place all the premium needed on course management.
  • Nor need lack of length be critical to the degree of challenge. I speak here from personal experience; I belong to two clubs, both highly-regarded links courses, one of which is over 6,800 yards in length, the other short even of 6,000. As I drive a reasonable length, (if shorter than of yore), the former holds no terrors, the tricky approaches of the latter, however, contrive to make the shorter course the more difficult to play to handicap. I need hardly add that the longer, also takes considerably more time to play.

  • Which brings me to what is perhaps, the most radical suggestion for popularising the game. Few would dispute the disproportionate role that putting has in golf.  In the 2011 Open Lee Westwood, in his opening two rounds, hit more greens in regulation than anyone yet he missed the cut. The loss was not only his; it was every spectator’s loss, deprived of watching one of the world’s best strikers make a challenge. For most  players putting is the least interesting and most frustrating part of the game; it also takes a disproportionate amount of time. Jonathan Gaunt, in his excellent article “Why slow play is the scourge of golf”, (Golf Course Architecture, October 2008), suggested that increasing the size of the hole to six inches would result in “fewer putts, lower scores, more exciting and enjoyable rounds of golf and more holes-in-one – and quicker rounds of golf, which are more fun to play”.  So, here’s the challenge; why not experiment with two pin placings, giving golfers the choice of playing a round using either a small hole or large hole format and then monitoring the response.

So there you have it; just a few pointers to how design and maintenance policies can transform the possibilities for more pleasurable golf.  I leave you with two personal experiences, one wholly successful, one more salutary.

At one of my former clubs, as Chairman of Green, I instructed that all the rough on this parkland course should be established at a manicured uniform height of 40mm on the basis that this adequately defined the fairways, affected the shot sufficiently to provide a hazard, but without the time-wasting irritation of having to search for the wayward shot. I did so principally because medal rounds were taking above four and a half hours to general member dissatisfaction.

There was a howl of protest, particularly from the Category One members who predicted that the course would be too easy, which I countered by saying that these players would be unaffected as they generally kept to the fairways but that the situation would be monitored. One year later, handicaps had been largely unaffected, but to general satisfaction, members found the course more pleasant to play and medal rounds were averaging half an hour less.

Less successfully, at my last club, the seniors persuaded the greens committee to establish a shorter “executive course” within the course. This was not a success and hardly surprisingly so as the solution was seen as the greenkeeper mowing small areas of rough some 40 yards forward of the established tees, and that was all. Two minutes’ thought would establish that a course within a course requires a proper design response. All over the UK there are opportunities to make the game more attractive to more putative golfers; all it requires is, as Tom pointed out, the present macho manifesto to be ripped up and courses to be set up for pleasure rather than pain.

  • George Oldham, FRIAS, was a panellist on England’s Top 100 Courses 2018 by NCG, is a regular contributor to NCG and author of the Today’s Golfer Guide to New Golf Courses. He is a former director of the Know Leisure consultancy.

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