Friday, January 21, 2011

Design Mistakes Abound at My Home Course

The layout where I am a men's club member, Hunter Golf Club, owned and operated by the city of Meriden, Conn., is in the midst of a series of awful modifications that do nothing to improve strategy. In fact, some of the revisions serve only to make the layout that much more difficult for higher handicap players.

Seeing the work, it comes as no surprise that a golf course architect was not consulted for the changes. I really have no idea who is calling the shots but the ultimate approval of the work falls on the shoulders of the the Golf Course Commission, that according to the city website, "is a seven-member advisory panel which provides direction and oversight for the Hunter Golf Course."

They're doing a hell of a job.

The original Hunter was a Robert Pryde design that opened in the 1920s and existed very much in its original state until the late 1980s. Then, the city of Meriden swapped land with a neighbor allowing the course to be lengthened while also eliminating consecutive uncomfortable severe down-and-up-holes that slowed play.

It was architect Al Zikorus, a second rate Geoffrey Cornish, who was chosen to create a new layout. What he produced was, at best, boring and mundane and, at worst, frustrating and maddening. Nearly all 18 holes run in a north-south direction. The course is virtually void of strategy. Long and straight is almost always good off the tee. Of the 14 non-par-3 holes, none reward a tee shot with left-to-right flight while four holes favor a right-to-left flight. The middle of the fairway invariably presents the best angle for an approach shot.

On the dreadful the first hole, the best angle from which to approach the green is from the left rough.

The par-threes are forgettable. The second hole, at about 175 yards from the whites, is uphill and blind but could easily have presented the golfer with a Redan-like challenge. Unfortunately, Zikorus placed the runway tee in a position so that the angle was eliminated.

Architect Brian Silva walked Hunter with me a few years back and pointed out that the three most interesting green complexes on the golf course are not in play but are leftovers from the Pryde design. They include a stellar Punchbowl that is now on the back left of the driving range and a wonderful two-tier creation in the left rough of the fourth hole.

The revamping of Hunter began about three years ago when it was determined there was little that could be done to prevent flooding of the 10th fairway during particularly rainy periods or the spring thaw. Water settles in what is the first landing zone for most golfers on the par-5 hole, sometimes creating a swamp for weeks on end. It was decided to build a forward tee parallel to the problem location from which the hole plays as a par-4. In theory, a wonderful idea.

In reality it was a disaster. As shown in this photo taken this fall from the 18th forward tee, the new 10th teeing ground acts as a damn preventing the water from the draining into a pond. (The hole plays left to right.) It is a simple mistake that a talented course architect would not have made.

This is not the only mishap on this hole. Prior to the 2010 season, bunker work was done.

Zikorus originally built a large sand hazard in left front of the green that had morphed into a lifeless blob by the time it was renovated. The original placement was awful. The location posed no threat to longer and average players, some who reached the green in two especially with the usual summer tailwind, or laid up and played in with a very short iron.

Unfortunately, shorter hitters were forced to carry their longer approach shots over the bunker to a green that runs away and to the left, giving them a minuscule chance of keeping the ball on the front half of the green.

For those bailing to the right, a dreadful clump of trees was left siting just off the putting surface.

The reworking of the bunker gave the club a perfect opportunity to improve the hazard. Instead, the new version is just as awful as the original. What would have made more sense would have been positioning the bunker some 30 to 40 yards back down the fairway. That would have put it precisely in the middle of the landing area for longer hitters when the hole plays as a par-4, forcing them to contemplate laying up or trying to carry it. That same location would have caused consternation for the medium length players when it is played as a par-5. It would force them to rethink the second-shot strategy since the opportunity of reaching the green with a crack 3-wood would now be in the realm of possibility. Also, higher handicappers and shorter hitters would then have been able to access the front portion of the green with a well-played bump-and run; not an easy shot. Instead, the bunker, now a bland saucer shape, was reduced in size and moved slightly to the left of its predecessor.

To the right of the bunker a mound was added, which obscures the green from the fairway. For
reasons that I cannot fathom, the mound and area to the right of it is maintained at rough height, which only serves to thwart any but the luckiest run-up attempts.

Then, for reasons the mystify me, a second bunker, also disc shaped, was positioned in the left front corner of the green. The bunker sits uncomfortably in and on the land in an area where few players ever hit a shot. Previously, if a ball did land there, the healthy, thick rough was enough of a hazard. As with the front bunker, this one also forces the golfer – think poor player – who does find himself there, with a sand shot of close to 30 yards if the flagstick is in the back portion of the green.

Making matters worse is the proximity of the two bunkers to each other and to the cart path. The above photo was taken from the location where carts are parked and players access the green. The most direct route to the putting surface is the narrow strip between the two bunkers, a “cow path,” in Silva’s words. Early in the first summer after the bunkers were built, a plastic chain was strung across the route because it was already damaged from wear. The fringe and green were suffering as well. Another gaff that most, if not all, architects would have avoided.

But wait, there’s more.
This fall the city decided that it needed to supplement the existing row of willow trees that separate the parallel 10th and 18th holes by planting saplings. Yes, at Hunter there is a place for trees on a golf course. As I hope you can see from the photo on the left, they were planted in a precise row designed to supplement the mature trees when they die. Apparently, nobody told the powers that be at Hunter that nature abhors a straight line.

There was no reason for trees in the first place since there is pond and stream on the left of the 10th fairway. The large willows on the right allow golfer only one route, down the middle. Supposedly, the trees are there to prevent players on the 10th tee from bailing out into the 18th fairway, but some well-placed bunkers on the right side of the hole, would have take care of that problem, something a course architect with talent might have suggested. A good architect might have even placed a series bunkers that would have acted as hazards on the 10th and 18th holes.

All the debacles were not confined to the 10th. I’d be remiss if I did not show the bunker work on the short 9th hole, a downhill—uphill par-4 of about 360 yards with out of bounds right and left. The hole is a long iron or hybrid off the tee for many players. Because of the narrowness of the fairway (there are trees on the left before the out of bounds) most find it a difficult tee shot.

The green sits comfortably at the top of a rise and originally had a large lifeless bunker to the right. Here, again, the golf commission had a chance to improve on what was there. I would argue that the bunker served no purpose and that replacing it with rough and subtle mounds was the way to go. I would also have extended the front of the putting surface closer to the edge of the hill so that those failing to precisely play an approach to a front pin placement would see their ball tumble down the slope. It is common green design found on courses by the likes of Seth Raynor, Wayne Stiles and Donald Ross.

There are those who would promulgate the idea that a bunker is needed to stop wild shots from running across the cart path and possibly out of bounds or into the bushes that surround the pro shop. In that case, a smaller bunker with just a little artistic flair to the design, since it is visible from the tee, as is the UFO-like clubhouse, would have done the trick. Instead, the bunker was moved towards the front of the green. It is ugly in appearance and too large for the site, detracting from the white farmhouse and trap rock ridge that is the backdrop of the view from the tee, along with the UFO. For the poorer player that finds the front bunker, the bunker shot, just like on the 10th, can be at least 20 yards in length, an extremely difficult task for anyone. Here, too, an architect with a modicum of talent would have produced a much more strategic and pleasing result.

The mistakes at Hunter continue. Other bunkers have been reworked with no discernible rhyme or reason and, I'm sure, more abominations are on the way. It's too bad. Hunter had a chance to make modifications that would have improved its standing among the golf courses in the area. Instead, it chose a path that will only perpetuate its reputation as a layout of no repute.


  1. Brutal story.
    Good luck.
    Did you give them a sketch of what they could do?

  2. I had to revisit the first paragraph where you wrote "The layout where I am a men's club member, Hunter Golf Club". Why?
    As I read this two thoughts popped into my head. First, I pictured you writng the first draft of this in the 19th hole after a Sunday round, with the vein on your right temple throbbing and about to explode. It sounds a lot like the conversations that occur in the "hornets nest" found at almost every golf club in the country.
    Second, I think you should submit this to the Golf Channel to run in the same time slot as the "Daily Show". So Funny, but sad.