2006: Quality can’t be measured in yards

Distance is the least interesting part of golf and golf course architecture. It seems to dominate discussions, not only about how golf is played but also about what makes for a good golf course. Yet distance has very little to do with how most golfers play the game or what is most enjoyable about the courses we play.

Part of the problem is simply that so much of golf talk is based upon the PGA Tour, a place where 350-yard tee shots are commonplace and competitors regularly hit 550-yard par 5s with mid-irons on their second shots. Which is why, for better or worse, we’re seeing championship courses stretched to 7,500 yards.

Yet even if we include Nationwide Tour pros, college players and strong amateurs

who regularly play in state and regional championships, the percentage of golfers who play that kind of game is a vast minority. The lower you go down the totem pole of tournament golf, the fewer the amount of competitors who play that way.

Jack Nicklaus said it best when asked about the distance issue at the Masters this year. Nicklaus said that with the courses he designs these days, he’s more interested in how they play from 6,700 yards than from 7,300 yards. While he adds way-back tees to accommodate strong players, he said “only 1.8 percent of rounds” are played from those markers, and he found it far more important to worry about how his holes played for everyday players. Coming from a designer who was rightly criticized early on in his work for creating courses that were too hard for average golfers, the comment rang especially true. There’s something refreshing about the zealotry of a recent convert.

Nicklaus’ point nicely complemented an observation by three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo, who, in decrying the additional yardage added to Augusta National this year, talked about how ingenious two short holes at the course were – the 360-yard, par-4 third and the 155-yard, par-3 12th. Faldo said it is much easier for Tour pros to hit full shots than to gear down and make softer swings. He referred to “twitchy little shots,” such as the approach to the third and the tee shot at 12, as classic examples of the kind that test a fine golfer.

That is why I cringe whenever members and green chairmen propose to lengthen their home courses by adding teeing ground to short holes. Why destroy what usually are the quirky, whimsical elements of a short hole, all to gain some abstract numerical goal on a scorecard?

The mistaken assumption is that a 6,500-yard course can’t be championship quality. Yet I have seen dozens of wonderful, older, odd and artfully contoured courses less than 6,700 yards that are a joy to play and challenging, too.

Hint to those folks fixated on distance: If you’re going to add new teeing space, do it on the longer holes, not the short ones. Most golfers, even scratch players, love the occasional 125-yard par 3, the semi-drivable par 4 and the reachable (in two) par 5. Not every hole needs to be on the short side, but there does need to be variety – something that is lost when shorter holes are lengthened. Better to have a course with half the par 4s more than 425 yards and at least a few holes of less than 375 than to have all of them in the same range of 415-425 yards.

Courses easily can be ruined by the process of adding new tees. Case in point: the newly lengthened holes at Winged Foot’s West Course, home of this month’s U.S. Open. In an effort to squeeze an added 308 yards, Tom Fazio and his associates built vast, parking-lot style platforms on a half-dozen holes. The new back tees, especially on the par-3 third, par-5 12th and par-4 14th, while perfectly level, are disappointing since they are totally out of sorts with the subtle teeing grounds original designer A.W. Tillinghast had created. In the process of gaining yardage, Winged Foot West has lost major style points.

So why are 6,500-yard courses dumped upon as if they are outmoded relics? And why is it that even mid-handicappers who talk about golf courses judge the place by the most superficial number in all of golf – the distance from the back tees?

It doesn’t help that so much media coverage assumes the playing prowess of a Tour pro in describing holes, distances and clubs played. As if 275-yard drives and 195-yard 6-irons were standard for all golfers. One thing I can attest to: It’s not the game played by most golf journalists, the majority of whom are mid- to high-handicappers.

Come to think of it, so are most golfers.

They might occasionally hit a drive 270, but not consistently, and often not straight. And how conveniently they forget all of their missed shots in between. No, it’s more fun to pretend, like Walter Mitty, that they play Tour-quality golf. The sad thing is, they end up on the wrong tees and on courses that have been stretched in vain pursuit.

Along the way, a certain joy is lost. And the game is a little worse off for the pretension.


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