Sometimes the evolution of the power game stares you right in the face. That was the case during last summer’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course in Springfield, N.J., when players at the 505-yard, par-4 seventh hole confronted three bunkers down the inside of the dogleg right hole.
Here was a golf course designed by A.W. Tillinghast in 1922, toughened by Robert Trent Jones for the 1954 U.S. Open, and in recent years revised and refined by Rees Jones over more than two decades of enhancements.
And all the evidence one needed for this lineage could be found down the right side of the seventh in the form of three yawning fairway bunkers, each one placed where the fairway turns by an architect intent on challenging elite players of the era he occupied.
The first bunker in the serial formation of three was placed by Tillinghast with a carry of 235 yards from the current back tee. The second bunker, by Trent Jones, demands a carry of 265 yards to cover. The third, by Rees Jones, is 300 yards to clear. Note two qualifying points about this example: Tillinghast’s original back tee was considerably shorter than the one they used in the 2016 PGA, meaning that the bunker carry in his day was closer to 200 yards. And all three bunkers were rebuilt by Jones, though in this case left exactly in place.
“We wanted to respect the tradition of architecture at Baltusrol,” said Rees Jones. “We could have eliminated it or moved it, but thought it important to recognize its place in the evolution of the golf course.”
Distance evolves. Back in the 1920s, when Tillinghast and Donald Ross were at their most productive and creative, drives carrying 200 yards were considered prodigious. This was an era of wooden shafts and golf balls that were often off center in their rotation. And swings were more arms-oriented, with the focus on hitting the center of a driver whose head was about 175 cubic centimeters – compared to today’s drivers of 460 cubic centimeters.
At the 1920 U.S. Open at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, long-hitting Ted Ray was considered a sensation for occasionally being able to fly the ball more than 275 yards and for driving the 320-yard, par-4 seventh hole twice during the U.S. Open. He birdied it all four rounds and won the title by one shot. He was the Jack Nicklaus of his day. Or John Daly. Or Tiger Woods.
Those pre-World War II turn points of 200 yards became 250 yards in the hands of Trent Jones – who along the way lengthened and toughened such legendary championship layouts as Baltusrol’s Lower and Oakland
Hills Country Club’s South Course in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. At the same time he pushed fairway bunkers back and clustered them on the sides of the landing areas at lengths of 240-260 yards.
Pete Dye took those decisive points and in the 1980s pushed them back to 800 feet (267 yards). After watching Daly annihilate the turn points at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., during the 1991 PGA Championship, Dye went for 850 feet (283 yards). The whole industry followed, eventually adopting 300 yards.
Not that it proved enough for elite players. Today at Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club, the set carry point for all fairway bunkers is 950 feet (317 yards) on level ground, adjusted a little shorter for uphill drives and a little longer for downhill drives.
All for good measure, as we know from PGA Tour statistics. Back in 1980, when the first comprehensive data set became available, the mean average measured drive on the PGA Tour was 256.7 yards and the longest driver (Dan Pohl) averaged 274.3 yards. In 2016, the mean average drive was 289.8 yards and the longest hitter (J.B. Holmes) averaged 314.5 yards.
Championship setups reflect this increase – 12.9 percent on average drive and 14.7 percent on longest driver from 1980 to 2016. To take one example, the U.S. Open kept par 4s under 500 yards until 2006 at Winged Foot’s West Course in Mamaroneck, N.Y., when the ninth hole measured 514 yards. Since then, par 4s exceeding 500 yards have become standard at U.S. Opens.
A strong case can be made, however, that the growth of distance and power in the game is largely confined to elite players and that it’s not relevant to everyday golfers, whose skills vary widely – if not wildly.
That’s essentially the view of architect Tom Doak, whose iconoclastic views on golf strategy and course setup the past 30 years – as both a writer and a designer – helped usher in a new, alternative perspective that emphasizes the ground game and shot-making, not sheer power.
“Turn points are the most overrated discussion in golf course design,” Doak said. “We took down the poles when we were doing Pacific Dunes (at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon). We’re not building courses for touring pros, and when you watch people actually play golf, they are not there; they are 30 yards short or 20 yards right.”
Besides, as he points out, even if you could get players from different tees to orient their drives to a common gathering point, they’re hitting very different clubs from there to the green. “From 160 yards, it’s a 9-iron for a tour pro, a 5-iron for a mid-handicapper like myself and a 3-wood that won’t even get there for the high-handicapper. So what you actually want to do is get the short hitter well past that point, not design from one point.”
Doak’s point is that simply designing for distance is self-defeating and only plays into the hands of the longest hitters. His own preference, one shared by a growing number of architects today, is to focus more on the short game, on angles and on interesting greens and surrounds.
That’s certainly been the case at recent U.S. Opens, such as Merion Golf Club, Pinehurst No. 2, Chambers Bay and Oakmont. For all the length of these courses, their main challenge has come in the form of diverse, sometimes maddening ground contours in and around the greens.