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  • Mike Clayton

Unpredictable design = better golf

If you have never played golf in the United States, you would be forgiven for assuming golf across the Pacific was what you see on television from the PGA Tour.

I often hear Australian golfers refer to an ‘American-style course’ when what they really mean is a PGA Tour course. It’s got the mandatory long par-4 with water down one of its sides to finish. The fairways are narrow and lined with thick rough and the only club you need around the greens is a heavy lob-wedge to chop out of the thick grass. It’s a generalisation but mostly it’s true.

They are not talking about the great American courses like Shinnecock Hills, The National, Merion, Chicago Golf Club, Sand Hills or Cypress Point because most never get to see behind the largely closed gates of the most exclusive clubs in the country – clubs making Royal Sydney and Royal Melbourne look positively public in comparison.

Professional golfers have determined golf is a set exercise in hitting targets and the targets are fairways and greens. It is subtly different from the euphemism ‘target golf’, which suggests to Australians and British a form of golf played on soft surfaces and where the ball splats to a stop where it lands.

It sounds crazy but golf was a better game – is a better game – when an 18-hole score is not the focus and the purpose of the exercise.

The professional mentality in America is you reward those who hit fairways, punishing those who don’t with a consistency of punishment as opposed to the randomness of lie found in Australia and Britain. The next step is to hit the green and if you miss, the same formulaic approach to admonishing the wayward applies.

It is perhaps unsurprising America changed the way they arranged and played their golf away from the way the game was originally played in Scotland. After all, America gave us the McDonald’s hamburger. No matter where you go in the world it is exactly the same. Rooms at Holiday Inns follow the same formula.

Any more than a cursory observation of Scottish golf at places like Prestwick, St Andrews, Brora, North Berwick or Cruden Bay would reveal a mentality so utterly not fixated on predictability, fairness, the elimination of quirk or the importance of an 18-hole score.

In this age anyone who built the 13th hole at North Berwick, with the second shot a pitch played across a stone wall with the green directly on the opposite side, or the wild and almost impossible-to-describe 16th green, would be considered completely crazy. It makes the 14th green at The Lakes in Sydney look entirely sensible.

North Berwick's par-4 13th hole crosses a stone wall in a design that would be unthinkable today. PHOTO: David Cannon/Getty Images.

Any architect who built the blind shots over the huge dunes at the Himalayas (5th) and the Alps (17th) holes at Prestwick would be pilloried by those who argue the game should be ‘fair’ and blind shots are an affront to the values of both good architecture and the game.

It sounds crazy but golf was a better game – is a better game – when an 18-hole score is not the focus and the purpose of the exercise. Of course it is an important part of the game, but too many people play to score when they should play to hit shots, enjoy the company and enjoy the golf course. It’s fine to score but not every time you play. Or even half the time you play.

The early golfers played matches against each other so a bad hole wasn’t something to ruin your day and the making of a hazard not everyone could play from didn’t violate the ‘playable for all’ principle.

Making a course playable for all should not preclude the making of difficult hazards. There is no more playable great course in the world than the Old Course, yet put my mum in Hell Bunker at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I’ll come back and pick her up when the sun goes down because she isn’t ever getting out.

What is exciting about modern golf in the United States is the best of their modern courses are throwbacks to the era that began with the building of The National Golf Links of America and ended with the financial ravages of the Great Depression.

American designers including Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Gil Hanse and Tom Doak have moved the best of modern American golf away from the formula of the predictable and away from the model of hugely expensive courses appealing to those looking for the obvious thrill.

The extraordinary golf developer Mike Keiser has been hugely influential, as he eschewed the temptation to use famous professional players as designers and backed Doak, Coore and Crenshaw and David Kidd to make great, affordable public golf at places like Bandon in Oregon, Cabot Links in Nova Scotia and Sand Valley in Wisconsin.

The 145 yard par-3 14th hole on the Pacific Dunes course, designed by Tom Doak at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. PHOTO: David Cannon/Getty Images.

You won’t ever see professional events played on Keiser’s courses and the game is better for architects not having to consider the limiting concepts those who play for money often adopt when it comes to arranging the fields of play.  


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