2004: Match-play whimsy can be wonderful

Great golf course architecture owes an unacknowledged debt to match play.

Yet those players today who expect courses to be “fair” are, by contrast, rooted in a stroke-play mentality that makes distinctive architecture virtually impossible to achieve.

Between 1916 and 1933, three of the five most important championships in golf – the PGA Championship, U.S. Amateur and British Amateur – had a match-play format. (The U.S. Open and British Open were stroke play.) Match play dominated amateur golf, and amateur golf dominated the country and the world.

This also was the era in which the greatest visionaries in golf architecture history – H.S. Colt, William S. Flynn, Alistair MacKenzie, Charles Blair Macdonald, Seth Raynor, George C. Thomas Jr., A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross – were at the peak of their creative powers. No wonder that era of design is called the Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture. And match play was crucial to that creativity.

That’s because these pioneer course designers didn’t worry about a feature being “fair.” The word is nowhere to be found in the lexicon of the day. What concerned them was building interesting elements that would provide intrigue, define success or failure, and most of all, make a round involving two competitors into a sporting contest.

You’ll get a sense of that drama with the Ryder Cup. There is nothing in golf comparable to the head-to-head matches of these 12-man teams. They are a rare throwback and a reminder of how different golf can be when it’s not contested at stroke play. It’s a format the pros rarely see. The PGA abandoned match play after 1957 for fear that a final involving two non-entities wouldn’t draw a Sunday audience.

These days, at the professional and amateur levels, the overwhelming concern is turning in an 18-hole score, whether to qualify for subsequent rounds or to qualify for a proper handicap. Along the way, the game suffers. Not only does the game slow to a crawl, but golfers begin judging everything in terms of how it affects their 18-hole medal. Steep slopes, severe hazards or mid-fairway obstacles are scrutinized – not for their beauty or challenge but for how “fair” they are to golfers.

We’re now at the point where sand-filled bunkers – “hazards” according to the rule book – are expected to be perfectly groomed so as not to penalize a wayward player. Blind shots are thought of as unreasonable. Slick greens that repel approach shots are condemned – by world-class golfers no less – if they don’t allow the player a reasonable shot at par. Meanwhile, nervous tournament sponsors micro-manage course setups according to some desired target score.

The result in modern golf is a loss of those sensibilities that make the game so human – caprice, whimsy, bad luck and fate. Players come armed instead with yardage maps, pin sheets, GPS technology and short-game gurus. If they find their ball in a sandy footprint, they ask for a ruling rather than take their lumps.

The classic designers weren’t worried about par. They were worried about building interesting golf holes. Ross’ elaborate design schemes, for example, carry no reference to par. Take a close look at those oversized maps that hang in so many clubhouses of vintage Ross layouts. You’ll find a little chart denoting hole numbers and yardages, but Ross was not about to be saddled with assigning a regulation score to his holes.

Veteran course designer Michael Hurdzan says that when he was finally asked to design a course with match play in mind, the result was an outpouring of ideas and one of North America’s most distinctive modern layouts. Devil’s Paintbrush in Caledon East, Ontario, Canada, was built in 1992 at the behest of two slightly wild-eyed owners, Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, who had made a fortune as the creators of the board game Trivial Pursuit. “Not many owners,” says Hurdzan, “give you the freedom to build for match play.”

Devil’s Paintbrush is a faux links, replete with deep, revetted bunkers, stone walls, massive bunkers in the middle of the fairway, knee-high fescue roughs, severe greenside hazards and putting surfaces that seemingly careen this way and that. As Hurdzan puts it, “it has small margins of error for attacking versus laying back.” In other words, all of its effects are exaggerated.

And memorable. So who cares if all of its quirks aren’t entirely visible the first time around? Like a good match-play course, it provides something of a home-field advantage and reveals more of itself on each subsequent trip.

Throwing away the whole notion of par and simply playing match-play golf would help the game dramatically. It would enliven design creativity and speed up rounds. And it would reduce the sense of difficulty that most newcomers to the game feel today.

If golfers didn’t obsess so much about turning in an 18-hole score each time, architects also would be freer to build more interesting, more diverse golf courses. That’s what made their work of 75 years ago so enduring. Golf architects, course owners and everyday golfers should adopt the lessons of match play.

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