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  • Mike Clayton

It's time we learnt to adapt

Golf started off as an adaptable game played over links land close to the sea. Those who get to play St Andrews, Prestwick or North Berwick find a game played over beautiful ground on courses made before machines made it possible to move the land around to make what we would now think of as conventional.

There was no convention as to what was reasonable or ‘fair’. Prestwick, host of the first dozen British Opens was a 12-hole course. At one point St Andrews had 22 holes and in the winter they would play it backwards (1st tee to 17th green, 18th tee to 16th green and on all the way back to the clubhouse) to better distribute the divots after a long summer’s golf. There are only two par-3s and two par-5s.

Elie, 10 miles from St Andrews has no par-5s, 16 par-4s and two par-3s. Peter Thomson himself says, “It’s quirky and it’s the most enjoyable course I know. If I had my way I’d build Elies all over the world.”

The 17th green at Prestwick is completely blind from the middle of the fairway, with large dune and bunker protecting the green in front. PHOTO: Supplied

Shots over massive dunes to unseen targets were the basis of the challenge at the Himalayas (5th) and Alps (17th) holes as Prestwick (pictured above). A wall, creating a strategy by rewarding those playing down the dangerous left side of the hole, separates the fairway and the green at North Berwick’s 13th hole. Those who think Barnbougle’s 13th green is peculiar need to see North Berwick’s 16th green to understand ‘crazy’ greens have always been an occasional part of the game.

If you like your golf predictable and fair, the challenge of the Old Course at St Andrews, with bunkers littering the middle of many fairways, will test your ideas of what a good course is supposed to be.

Elie has no par-5s and just two par-3s, which, again, would not be seen on a new course. PHOTO: Supplied.

Either that or you will think it’s the silliest course in the world.

Maybe, but it’s worth asking yourself if you know more about the game than Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie, who called his masterpiece at Cypress Point ‘third-class’ in comparison.

Golf though moved inland and to the United States where convention became to be defined by greater predictability and reasonableness.

Partly the increase in popularity of stroke play golf altered the game because unconventional and difficult holes like the Himalayas, The Alps and the Road Hole at St Andrews afforded chances to make a really big number if you messed up but in match play you only lost the hole.

“Some leading players,” MacKenzie said, “dislike the dramatic element in golf. They hate anything which is unlikely to interfere with a constant succession of threes and fours. They look at everything in the ‘card and pencil’ spirit.”

Eighteen holes became the norm yet the jamming of 18 holes onto land best suited to 14, 15 or 16 holes has lead an epidemic of bad holes and compromised courses.

Of course not every public course can be made into Cape Wickham or Barnbougle, or even close to it, but they could all better show off improved architecture, making the game more fun, interesting and more viable in the long term.

The relevance to Australia is local councils in Sydney and Melbourne threatening to take away public golf by reducing 18 hole courses down to nine (or worse, getting rid of them altogether) because they think the land can be better used for something else. Unsurprisingly local golfers are horrified at the prospect of losing half of their beloved courses and councils would do well to remember MacKenzie’s line, “It is a remarkable thing about golf courses that nearly every man has an affection for the particular mud-heap on which he plays.”

Golf’s problem is whilst it’s one of the biggest participation sports in the country there are many more who don’t play it and see it as elitist and have no emotional attachment to it.

I’d agree with those aghast at the threats to golf if there was no commitment by government to invest in what’s left to make the reduced golf better golf.

A first-class nine-hole course with money properly invested in the architecture and the conditioning to make it more than just a place to ‘sock’ a ball around, as MacKenzie said of a course devoid of much interest, is surely just as good or perhaps even better than a poor 18-hole course?

The Road Hole at St Andrews is an unconventional hole that can cause plenty of heartache. PHOTO: Getty Images.

The most significant change to Australian golf in the last 15 years was clearly evidenced in the recent course rankings published in the January edition of Golf Australia. Five courses in the top 15 are public courses where for the first time all Australian golfers have the opportunity to access some of the best courses in the world. Tasmania, which barely had a course in the Top-70 20 years ago, now boasts four of the top eight. And one of the eight, Ellerston, virtually no one can play.

Of course not every public course can be made into Cape Wickham or Barnbougle, or even close to it, but they could all better show off improved architecture, making the game more fun, interesting and more viable in the long term.

The key to making better golf if these threatened reductions happen will be to be inventive, to go back and understand where the game came from in the first place.

Twelve holes are better than nine if there is space and the holes are well done. Making alternate tees or greens for players, who want to go around more than once replicates the principle of Pine Valley with its 8th and 9th holes having two distinct greens. If it’s good enough for the best course in the world, it’s an idea worth pursuing.

On the right piece of land and with a reasonable budget it’s possible to make a reversible course in the spirit of St Andrews. Tom Simpson, the great English architect, was drawing loops of holes a century ago capable of being played in reverse to double the amount of golf on a small site. Or a loop of three or four holes could be reversible if doing all nine isn’t possible.

Tom Doak just opened a reversible 18-hole course in Michigan making 36 quite distinct holes. At the amazing Bandon resort in Oregon with its four full length courses there is a 13-hole par-3 course designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, which Geoff Ogilvy thinks is the most fun of all great golf on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

In Melbourne those with the ultimate control over Albert Park, a hugely popular course and probably the busiest in the city are suggesting the 18 holes be reduced to nine.

Further from the city at Sandringham, the public course just across the road from Royal Melbourne, there is a proposal to remake the golf course to include a driving range to be used by elite players as well as the public, a new clubhouse and an office for Golf Australia, Golf Victoria and the PGA of Australia.

Two holes would be lost from the current course for a driving range and no one is overly happy with the necessary (if the project is to proceed) scenario.

There are a variety of options including a course made up of less than 18 holes or a shorter course repeating the Elie, no par-5s, principle.

The aim should be to make better, more interesting ‘golf’ no matter how long, or short, how hard or easy. Or how much of it there is.

Just adapt and make it better. 


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