2004: If a tree falls on a golf course . . .

With this annual column now in its 15th year, the drill is thoroughly familiar. We throw science out the window and just wing it, based upon bias and whimsy. After spending 120 days on the road and playing golf in 24 states (plus Scotland) last year, I had no shortage of material, though perhaps a lack of imagination.

The Lou “The Toe” Groza Field Goal Award: Toledo (Ohio) Country Club, 17th hole. A neat, if cramped, old Willie Park Jr. layout from 1916, with three lovely finishing holes on the Maumee River. Too bad that trees block any view of the waterway, nowhere with worse impact than on the downhill, 220-yard, par-3 17th hole. It plays out of a chute narrower than a football goalpost. The only strategy here is to play the ball over, under, or around the intruding canopy.

The Throw the Book at the USGA Award: Geoff Shackelford, “The Future of Golf in America” (iUniverse, 2004). The curmudgeonly Los Angeles-based architecture critic launches a full-scale attack on the state of the game, including a powerful account of how the USGA was asleep at the wheel during two decades of decisive technical innovation that has now overwhelmed most (classic) golf courses. His proposed reforms to simplify golf and get it out of the hands of big business make this a modern version of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary best seller, “Common Sense,” in 1776. Don’t expect it to win the USGA International Book Award, though it’s precisely the wake-up call folks in Far Hills, N.J. (and Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.) should take seriously.

A Mighty Wind Award: Durness Golf Club, Scotland. We played a round at Britain’s northernmost course in a 50 mph gale – typical for the top of Scotland. The woman who greeted us in the clubhouse looked like an aged Kathy Bates on Thorazine. She told us that she and her husband had moved there from Chicago and that after 20 years “we both went nuts.” Her explanation made sense to a golfer. “The wind blows your brains out,” she said.

The Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake Ultimate Halve-Time Award: Bel-Air Country Club, Los Angeles, 13th hole. True story about my last round of the year. I’m playing Bel-Air with director of golf Dave Podas from the back tees and have the honor on the 225-yard, par-3 13th hole. Into a modest breeze, I hit driver, out of bounds. Podas hits 3-wood to 12 feet. We halve the hole. That’s because I re-teed with another driver, this one to 1 foot and a kick-in bogey, only to watch Podas three-putt. Can’t say I won too many other holes, but this is one heck of a setting for golf – or for a wedding in the clubhouse that overlooks La-La Land.

Sweet Home Alabama Award: Shoal Creek Golf Club, Birmingham, Ala. It’s easy to forget today how good the design team of Jack Nicklaus-Jay Morrish and Bob Cupp were in their heyday in the mid-1970s. They had their excesses together, but Shoal Creek wasn’t one of them. You keep waiting for something stupid and instead you get one solid hole after another on the softest part of a site that could have been trouble. Deserves its ranking of No. 53 Modern.

The McCullough-Husqvarna Sound of Music Award: Trees coming down in groves. Gentlemen, start your chainsaws. The whole country finally is coming to its senses and relegating trees to the periphery of golf courses or out of the way of golf, turf and long vistas.

For years, clubs were randomly planting, with no regard for the health of the trees or the golf courses. Now, thanks to the model set by Oakmont, National Golf Links of America, Country Club of Waterbury (Conn.), San Francisco Golf Club and dozens of others, sanity has returned, and with it a more open look that’s conducive to better turfgrass and strategic diversity.

The Sigmund Freud Latent Fantasy Award: National Golf Foundation. What would the Vienna psychoanalyst say about the NGF’s hairbrained scheme to conjure up a boom in golf course development by claiming “latent demand?” Latent, schmatent. What a piece of economic wish fulfillment this has proven to be. The only thing more infantile was the eagerness of would-be owners to follow the advice. Looks like the NGF’s prophecy of “a course a day” will prove true in a perverse way. That’s how many will have to close or get plowed under the next few years for the golf economy to correct itself.

The Ivy League Presidential Brain Drain Award: Yale University Golf Club, New Haven, Conn. No wonder they can’t get the restoration (oops, I mean modernization/renovation) right. With an alumni roster that includes three U.S. presidents (George Bush, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton), a host of presidential hopefuls (Howard Dean, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman) and a school president, Dr. Richard Levin, who’s serving on the blue ribbon presidential panel to investigate intelligence failure in Iraq, there’s no one left at home in New Haven to monitor the intelligence failure at Yale’s once-grand golf course. New greenkeeper Scott Ramsay is a welcome addition, but he needs support and vision from above.

The One-Dimensional Tennis Game Award: PGA Tour. The power game destroyed tennis as a competitive game of any interest to spectators; now the same is happening to men’s golf. It’s become boring to watch players who can no longer work the ball and instead simply bomb it 300 yards. A simple solution we’d like to see: an “optimization golf ball” designed to perform aerodynamically at an ideal velocity, beyond which it deteriorates in performance. That would limit ball performance for peak players without punishing mid-handicappers. Instead of mindlessly stretching courses and narrowing landing areas with hazards left and right, how about reinstituting strategy by putting hazards in the middle of landing areas and letting players hopscotch around them?





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