Golf Course Design – The Price of Progress

If you transported a footballer from 1880 to 2011 he’d recognise his sport as essentially unchanged in the last 130 years. The same sized muddy pitches, goal posts and nets. He might marvel at the light-weight Jabulani ball (which is more than can be said for the players during the last World Cup) and be scornful of the latest kangaroo skin boots, but in all other respects he’d be quite familiar with the sport. And if W.G. Grace walked out to the crease at Lords this summer he’d be hard pushed to see any changes at all to cricket. He might huff and puff about sponsors logos and helmets and he probably wouldn’t see eye to eye with Hawkeye or understand why they’re referring decisions to a third umpire, but the game as it is played today is pretty much the same. I suppose in tennis Fred Perry might struggle today with his wooden racket and long trousers but, like football and cricket and almost every other sport you could mention, at least the dimensions of the playing area have remained pretty much the same.

But in golf it’s different. The equipment manufacturers spend millions working out ways that we can hit the ball further and that’s creating a bit of a problem. In 1980 Dan Pohl led the US Tour driving averages with a measly 275 yards. In 2010 Bubba Watson topped the list with a much more impressive 315 yards. If we assume that the best players are hitting their iron shots at least 10% further as well then it’s no wonder par 4’s are creeping over 500 yards.

Twenty years ago if a client asked how much land he’d need for a tournament standard golf course we’d confidently say about 150 acres, and that would include room for a decent practice area, a clubhouse, a course of about 7,000 yards, a maintenance building and plenty of room for the club president to park his Bentley. Nowadays that figure is probably closer to 200 acres and often more. And guess what – bigger sites and longer courses cost more money and I’m not just talking about the purchase of the land. It’s been estimated that each additional 100 yards on the length of a golf course costs an extra 2% to maintain and longer courses need more irrigation, more fertilizer and more chemicals, at a time when we are trying to improve sustainability and environmental awareness.

What’s more, while we all might be hitting the ball further more often we are not necessarily hitting it any straighter. With larger sweet spots it is possible to hit the ball considerable distances even when the strike is not out of the centre of the club. Consequently the safety margins golf course architects are using are increasing and again that means more land is needed. I am sure that many golf clubs around the country are familiar with increasing litigation from adjoining home owners as those living next to courses find their peace being shattered by errant golf shots.

So what can golf course architects do? Should we try to reign back the length of courses by taking the driver out of the golfers hands and putting more premium on accuracy? Or should we make them more strategic, perhaps with trickier greens and more bunkers? Well it seems to me that we should be designing courses that test every facet of a players game. So yes, I want to see golfers of all standards given the opportunity to use their driver, but there needs to be a suitable penalty if they don’t use it correctly. And courses need to be more strategic; we would all benefit from having to think about our game a bit more and being rewarded for the correct placement of our golf shots. However, we also need to recognise that even courses built to hold tournaments must be playable for average golfers 99.9% of the time, so we can’t go over-board with hundreds of deep bunkers and wildly sloping greens. And length should play its part. If par 4’s need to be in excess of 500 yards so that a pro has to use a long iron for his second shot, then so be it, but let’s put in enough forward tees to make it enjoyable for everyone else.

While advances in technology do make the game easier and more fun for most of us, the real shame is that many of our great courses will soon be unable to hold major championships as they simply run out of room for expansion. On the Old Course at St Andrews they are now placing tees outside the golf course boundary, as we saw on the 17th hole this year. Can that continue? We shouldn’t be surprised if Open Championships on the Old Course become a distant memory, just like those at Prestwick and Musselburgh Links. I suppose it’s what they call “the price of progress”.

An edited version of this blog first appeared in Today’s Golfer.