Friday, June 19, 2009

The Perpetuation of Golf Architecture Myths

Listening to the words of golf announcers or reading the words of golf writers, it is very easy for those unfamiliar with golf course architecture to be lead down the wrong path when it comes to what makes a quality golf course or golf hole, or the defining style of an architect.

Recently, while watching TV coverage of the PGA Tour stop in Memphis, golf announcer Frank Nobilo demonstrated how ignorant some golf announcers are of even the most basic design strategies.

During the Friday telecast, Nobilo described the tee shot on no. 10 at TPC Southwind as, “trees on the right, trees on the left, they act like goal posts.” I was waiting for him to say, “an awful quality,” but instead he made it sound as if splitting the uprights was a desired design characteristic, when in fact it is nothing short of a compete failure on the part of the architect.
Part of his problem is that Nobilo was a member of the PGA Tour and for those who play golf for a living, the less thinking they have to do the better. While all the great course designers were fans of alternate lines of play and causing players confusion by visual deception such as crossbunkers or the intentional lack of depth perception, golf professionals want to stand on a tee and know exactly where the preferred line of play is. A narrow band of fairway, even if guarded by six-inch deep rough, is much preferred to a wide-open landing area where the correct route to play is not immediately apparent, or might change depending on the wind. Goalposts to the pros are a perfect direction indicator; for the rest of us, it’s an aberration.
Nobilo’s not the only one I heard miss the point weekend.

There was the Golf Channel announcer, describing the 16th at Bulle Rock during the LPGA’s McDonald’s Championship as a, “tree-lined, a lovely hole.”

Bulle Rock is a Pete Dye-designed gem. The 16th is a medium length par-4 where players who choose to pull the driver bring more problems into play as the fairway narrows but are rewarded with a much shorter approach to a tight green with bunkers left and right.
The print media is by no means immune from this sort of misinformation passed on as fact. Leading up to the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, New York Times writer Charles McGrath wrote a wonderful piece about the disputed design history of the course -- A.W. Tillinghast or A.W. Tillinghast and Joe Burbeck? (

In the midst of the piece, though, McGrath, wrote, “This is somewhat subjective ground because everyone agrees that unlike Donald Ross, famous for his domed greens, or C. B. Macdonald, who tended to reproduce his favorite holes on all his courses Tillinghast had no signature style.”
Sure Ross built domes greens -- on two courses -- the famed Pinehurst No. 2, which he lived next to for the last years of his life and with which he constantly tinkered, and Sara Bay Country Club in Florida. At least McGrath didn’t write that Ross built “small greens.” That misnomer has appeared in print so many times that it is now taken for fact, when it is not. Ross did not design small greens as the norm, he built greens that would be considered average size then and now, probably between 5,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet on average, and went as large as 8,000 square feet at places like Wannimoisett Country Club in Rhode Island.

As for Macdonald, he didn’t “reproduce” his favorite holes; he used them as templates. The Short Hole at Sleepy Hollow, bears little resemblance to the short at National Golf Links of America and neither of them are copies of the original. The same holds true for the two who learned design under Macdonald: Seth Raynor and Charles Banks, who each interpreted and then altered the templates style to the specific site.

The good news is, though, at least McGrath wrote about golf course architecture at all and that the New York times gave it great play in the paper and on their website.

1 comment:

  1. Anthony -
    I have been enjoying your blog. I grew up in the Eastern Point area of Groton, Connecticut and learned my golf on Shennecossett - and got to Fishers on occassion. (I could see the island from the bottom of my street.)Anyhow, Your comment on Ross greens is dead on. The only domed green at Shenny was the famous par 3 4th. Still one of the toughest par 3's in CT. Also, I am the golf course architect restoring Teugega Country Club in upstate New York. Ross spent an enormous amount of time in Rome during the construction of the course and it has arguably one of the finest collection of greens he had ever done. Not one could be described as "domed". By the way - we are also trying to remove as many goal posts as possible!