2001: Preferred - Adding length alone not the way to ‘Tiger-proof’

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Everywhere, it seems, cries of alarm are up: increased length off the tee and the distances modern PGA Tour pros are hitting the golf ball are going to ruin the game. Classical course design and the virtues of a 6,500-yard course are now, we are told, endangered species.

The fact is, there’s a right way and a wrong way to adjust to this. Adding length alone won’t make any difference; in fact, it would make courses more susceptible to one-dimensional power plays. That wouldn’t be Tiger-proofing; that would be Tiger-proving. For most courses and most golfers, there’s a far more sophisticated way to deal with the problem. That would entail bringing back classical strategy and shot-making demands that even the modern players would have to confront.

First, the analysis. Then, the prescription.

Prime evidence is found at Merion Golf Club (East Course), in Ardmore, Pa., whose par-70 layout, 6,518 yards, was good enough for U.S. Opens in 1934, 1950, 1971 and 1980, but which is now out of date for modern professional tournament play. The course is being stretched to 6,700 yards, enough, perhaps, when it hosts the 2005 U.S. Amateur, but obsolete for pro golfers who regularly hit 300 yards and rarely use a middle-iron, much less a long-iron, for approach shots to par 4s.

Just how far the modern game has changed can be gleaned from PGA Tour statistics. Since 1980, the average drive has increased 8.5 percent, or 21.8 yards, from 256.8 yards in 1980 to 278.6 this year. More stunning than that 21-year rise is the recent acceleration: from 1980 to 1997, the drives got longer by .63 yards a year. Since 1997, they’ve been getting longer by 2.75 yards annually.

The longer drives also suggest that approach shots are gaining ground. For purposes of assumption, let’s say the gain on irons is half of full drives. Add the yardage gain of 14 drives (14 x 21.8 = 305.2) and 18 approach shots (18 x 10.9 = 196.2) and you have a functional shrinkage of the course by 501.4 yards since 1980. In other words, courses would have to be stretched by 501.4 yards just to keep even today with playing conditions in 1980.

In terms of design, several things can be done.

Lengthening alone is possible – where there is real estate. But most courses can’t accommodate an additional 500 yards. New courses stretched to 7,500 yards will mean increased development and maintenance costs. Of course, one simple way to offset the distance factor is to abandon the par-72 course for professional tournaments and play layouts at par-70, and play the other two par 5s as 490-yard par 4s.

Of course, for the vast majority of golfers, a 6,500-yard course provides plenty of testing golf ground. It’s a shame if courses that are ample for everyday members and daily-fee play are suddenly subjected to modernization under the pretext of Tiger-proofing. Who cares if Tiger Woods or John Daly would overwhelm your 6,200-yard layout. They’re never going to play there anyway. Why destroy a course for one event and overlook its everyday use?

Some recent U.S. Open venues show that ground features count more than distance in creating challenges. At The Olympic Club (Lake Course) in San Francisco (1998) and Southern Hills in Tulsa (2001), unlevel lies and awkward stances create shot-making demands regardless of length. At Pebble Beach Golf Links in Monterey, Calif. (2000), wind is a constant factor. And at Pinehurst No. 2 (1999), the dominant features were greenside chipping and the short game.

The modern practice of aligning fairway bunkers laterally down the rough line does not promote interesting shot-making; it simply emphasizes hitting it straight. Yet those who can outblast the last bunker virtually have nothing to fear. A more sophisticated design strategy would be to take a lesson from Alister MacKenzie and Donald Ross by placing hazards closer to the central line of play – not laterally – and making golfers play around them.

Maintenance and architecture work hand-in-hand here. A good rule of thumb is never to let a ribbon of rough prevent a ball from running into a fairway or greenside bunker. The point of these hazards, after all, is to have them in play, not to have them buffered.

Extending greens to the edge of the full pad so that the putting surface tips outward onto downsloping ground is a great way to bring the fear factor into play. Rounded-off greens or those protected by symmetrical “containment mounds” and 4-foot wide collars of rough sugarcoat the course. Instead, it’s time to bring ground features more into play and put the golfer on notice that a wayward shot or an approach flown too closely to a hazard will, indeed, be propelled into trouble.

Cut bunkers closer to greens. Speed up fairways so the ball has the opportunity to run. And steepen the faces of bunkers so that they will pose more of a threat.

It also would help to clip down green surrounds and bring swales and chipping areas more into play. These, in fact, are the ideal feature for any course. High handicappers prefer to play on them while pro golfers hate them because they require thinking and choices.

Increasing distance doesn’t require thinking and simply plays into the hands of those who play the power game. Accelerating the ground game makes golf more diverse and interesting for all. It also helps identify the best player, not simply the longest.

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