Among the many lost arts of modern golf is the sheer enjoyment of walking. Our overweight population includes plenty of bloated and unfit golfers relying upon mechanized chariots to speed them around when they could be traveling by foot. Folks who don’t walk are missing out on half the total experience that makes a round of golf so memorable.
The golf industry is quick to make lame excuses for this state of affairs. Course operators hide behind the cliche that the golf grounds aren’t “walkable.” That’s Pentagon-speak for the design team having been too lazy to create a proper routing. Yes, often these are wetlands that have to be protected and traversed. But walking paths and boardwalk bridges are available to make such intermediate journeys a pleasure.
More likely, the developers were simply too greedy to jam up the most desirable and attractive land for homesite or commercial real estate, thereby relegating marginal uplands for the golf holes. Or perhaps the site might have been very steep, rocky and scattered over far-flung parcels. In that case, it’s probably better not to build it for golf at all.
Technically, no golf course is “unwalkable.” Comedian Steven Wright says that any two points on earth are within walking distance – eventually. When someone tells you a course is unwalkable, consider it a euphemism for “unbearable,” and stay as far away as possible.
Architects who rely upon cart paths to solve their routing nightmares aren’t doing golfers a service. No wonder the modern golf industry is in trouble financially and unable to retain newcomers. Too many of today’s courses are patchworks of disparate holes rather than whole clots with a coherent sensibility.
A recent round at the Cypress Point Club reminded me and my friends (with two of our wives, who tagged along happily) of the joys of a walk in the park. No cart paths scarred the land. No rattling of golf limousines intruded upon the vistas or the ambient sounds. Cypress Point unfolds seamlessly from an outlook over the whole grounds, proceeds across open dunes, heads into dense cypress woodlands, re-emerges onto windswept sandhills and then culminates along the rocky Pacific coastline at Nos. 15-16-17 for the most dramatic walking experience in all of course architecture.
There is so much to look at, so much to admire in the land forms. There’s no need to play a single shot as you marvel at these golf features, traipse through the coastal ice plants or watch the seals and sea lions basking on the rocks.
Seaside courses usually are the most compelling, but only if the routing makes good use of them. It’s not enough to have the ocean in distant view. The key, as with Kingsbarns Golf Club in Fife, Scotland, is to have the shoreline within view and within play occasionally.
Torrey Pines South course in San Diego sits on dramatic headlands overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but Billy Bell’s 1957 routing manages to miss the character of the site entirely. The subsequent planting of trees along the coastline and bluffs further insulate the holes from ravines and outlooks that might give the holes any interest. Rees Jones’ much-heralded renovation in 2001 did little to improve the experience. The result is a mediocre walk on a course that squanders its setting. Television images of the PGA Tour’s Buick Invitational can make the place look enticing by showing long, overhead shots that bring the ocean and shoreline into view. But when viewed from the ground, you keep waiting for the land to come alive and it never really does.
A walk on the grounds of the Olympic Club in San Francisco has a diametrically opposite effect. It almost helps to walk the site first before playing the famed Lake Course, where four U.S. Opens have been contested, to get a sense of how intense the angles and slopes are. That’s when you see how the course, which tops out at 6,850 yards, is so vexing to the pros. There’s nothing close to a level fairway, and about a half-dozen holes convey a basic, gravity-defying feat of what’s called “negative camber.” That means the hole doglegs one way around the back of a hill while the dominant fairway slope goes the other way.
At NASCAR speedways, when the turn goes left, the track is banked from high right to low left to keep the cars from racing out of control. Not so at Olympic, where the ball seems to race away from the main target line, such as at the uphill fourth hole, which turns sharply from right to left, while the fairway slants left to right.
Here’s a course organized along a dominant eastward fall, from the clubhouse setting down to Lake Merced on the low flank. It makes for a round of golf in which you are constantly fighting the slope.
Sometimes, it helps to walk a course to see the dominant features. That’s also, by the way, a wonderful means to gain access to a course that might not otherwise let you on to play.
Even at your home course, you’ll learn a lot about angles, approaches, swales and interesting features that you might otherwise miss. And if you really think you know a place well but want to study it more carefully, do what some PGA Tour caddies occasionally do when they’re looking for an edge. Walk the whole course backward, from the 18th green to the first tee.