Designs on new golfers part of PGA Show theme

Jack Nicklaus, Ken Griffey Jr., and PGA Officials during the opening of 2012 PGA Merchandise Show.

Jack Nicklaus, Ken Griffey Jr., and PGA Officials during the opening of 2012 PGA Merchandise Show.

We seem to live in a forgiving society. At least that’s the hope of certain politicians and baseball players. So when someone of Jack Nicklaus’ stature makes a confessional and asks for redemption, it’s worth listening to. Which is why his statement Thursday at the PGA Show was so interesting.

In a panel devoted to the industry’s commitment to its new player development and retention program, Golf 2.0, Nicklaus conceded that he bears some of the blame for an era of overly punitive golf courses.

“I’m as much of a culprit as anyone else,” Nicklaus said.

It’s one thing for armchair architects and golf course critics to write such an indictment. But it’s finally good to hear Nicklaus himself fessing up to having made the game harder than it needed to be. And it’s all the more important that as the game’s greatest, unsullied player, he is pitching in and lending his considerable reputation to an industry-wide effort to make golf more fun, friendly and family-oriented. In terms of design, that means courses that have more thoughtfully placed forward tees and more open access into greens.

In the case of two Nicklaus-designed courses, it also has meant new set-ups, with 12-hole rounds configured and the holes on the greens cut specially for events at a diameter of 8 inches, nearly twice the normal, regulation size. According to Nicklaus, members at the upscale Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, and The Bear's Club in Jupiter, Fla., had a ball getting around.

U.S. Golf Association executive director Mike Davis had no problem in endorsing the effort of a wider hole for the occasional casual golf round. When asked about whether this was heading down the slippery slope of “bifurcation” in the Rules of Golf, Davis was confident that it doesn’t signify a departure from the USGA’s long-term commitment to a unified set of rules.

Equally interesting at the panel devoted to Golf 2.0 was an announcement by Joe Steranka, chief executive officer of the PGA of America, for retrofitting golf courses. The unnamed program, undertaken in cooperation with the American Society of Golf Course Architects, will subsidize initial consulting visits by ASGCA members to courses seeking to modify their layout.

Funding levels were not announced, and a lot of detail has to be worked out. It’s impossible to imagine that funding would cover construction costs. The intent is to enable course owners and facility managers to think about expanded practice areas, new teeing grounds and partial rerouting to enable rounds involving 3-, 6-, and 12-hole loops.

In announcing the plan, Steranka invoked the spirit of golf architect A.W. Tillinghast, who went around in the 1930s under the aegis of the PGA of America and streamlined dozens of courses in the name of operational efficiency and ease of play. The analogy is awkward, however, because at the time, during the Great Depression, Tillinghast was nearly broke and desperate for work, and in the process, he erased many unique design features of classic courses.

Let’s hope this new program is applied more judiciously. Decades of design “modernization” made golf courses duller and less appealing. Those championing Golf 2.0 certainly know that it’s precisely the charm of these unique playing fields that makes golf so special and so appealing.

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