Looking back on the first two months of the new year, everyone in golf has had something to say about the far-reaching changes to the Rules of Golf. But what in these new rules, beyond the unseemly social media tiffs about dropping or alignment, has to do with architecture and course design yet which nobody seems to be talking about?
The modernization efforts by the U.S. Golf Association and R&A have been lauded and criticized, depending whom you ask, but little attention has been paid to the fact that on Jan. 1, for the first time since the original rules were put in play on April 2, 1744, by The Gentlemen Golfers at Leith Links near Edinburgh, Scotland, the word “hazard” no longer appears in golf’s rulebook.
By the way, that was Rules 5 and 13 of the original Thirteen Articles, with which I won’t trouble you other than to say it had something to do with “wattery filth” and “Scholar’s Holes or the Soldier’s Lines.”
The noble and ancient hazard has an undeniably romantic, literary ring to it yet finds itself cast out in favor of the rather anodyne, bureaucratic sounding “penalty area.” But fear not, these new penalty areas come in both red and yellow!
Personally, I’m not looking forward this April to the first time a player takes on the corner of the 13th hole at Augusta National, with its famous tributary lying in wait to capture the carelessly played shot, only to have the television commentator suggest the fate of the Masters may hinge on whether the ball finds the meandering “penalty area” to the left of the fairway or not.
What would Herbert Warren Wind say about his beloved Amen Corner being defined each year not by the players who fell victim to the confounding hazard that is Rae’s Creek but rather those who cautiously negotiated the yellow penalty areas on their way to victory?
“Hazards – how well chosen the name!” wrote Robert Hunter in “The Links” in 1926, a book that clearly influenced his role in the development of Cypress Point and its world-famous penalty area to the right of the 15th, 16th and 17th holes. “Without well-placed hazards, golf would fail to arouse and to satisfy man’s sporting instincts,” wrote Hunter, adding, “They are risks; and penalties must come to those who take risks and fail.”
Perhaps the much-maligned committees in St. Andrews and Liberty Corner, N.J., could have called these newly designated zones “failure areas” instead? Who wouldn’t want to see Twitter’s response to that?
Fair isn’t necessarily better
The rules have far-reaching and unintended consequences when it comes to the architecture and design of courses. The irregular shapes of natural bunkers from years past too often have been formalized and reshaped by tournament committees in an attempt to make it easier to determine whether the ball was in the bunker or not. Though perhaps the new latitude in the rules will allow for unexpected creativity. At least the word “bunker” survived this rules change intact.
I worry if the banishment of one of golf’s greatest literary contributions will have an effect unforeseen by administrators seeking to make golf a game “more easily understood and applied by all” and one that is “more consistent, simple, and fair.” Are these objectives at odds, in reality, with “reinforcing the game’s longstanding principles and character,” all concepts that come directly from the USGA and R&A’s key principles for the rules modernization project?
Let me share another old-fashioned idea for you to chew on: “The spirit of golf is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it reap a reward, while he who fears or declines the issue of carry, has a longer or harder shot for his next play.” At least this was the case for George C. Thomas Jr. in his designs of Riviera, Bel-Air, and Los Angeles (North), among others.
Those of us who grew up in golf over the last 275 years, which would be all of us (N.B., the 275th anniversary of golf’s first truly formalized competition happens this April, and not in Georgia), were introduced to a sport where the risk presented by a hazard constitutes the fundamental challenge of the game. Yet anybody who comes to golf for the first time in 2019 or later will encounter a game whose language is defined by penalty areas to avoid, not hazards to dare.
Within a generation or two the concept of the hazard as something central to the spirit of the game will become as dated as the stymie or gutta-percha. Furthermore, the semantic implication is that if you hit your ball in a penalty area you will automatically get a penalty – not true! Does this application of newspeak really make golf a better game and reinforce its longstanding principles and character?
The new rules take design intent a step further and define the purpose of a bunker as “a specially prepared area designed to test your ability to play a ball from the sand.”
I think if you asked the designers of the world’s most compelling courses, alive or dead, they would say that the purpose of a bunker is to test your ability to avoid playing from the sand, not play from it. There’s a reason why Tiger Woods’ victory at St. Andrews in the 2000 British Open is celebrated not for his record winning score (do you remember?) or that he won the career Grand Slam (was he the youngest?), but because he played all 72 holes and never once went in a bunker. Try doing that with just a putter, let alone all 14 clubs.
When bunkers were bunkers
Prior to that millennial British Open, Hugh Campbell, then chairman of the R&A championship committee, said of the bunkers, “They’re meant to be real hazards. If you don’t have the fear of putting the ball in a bunker at St. Andrews it would take a lot of teeth out of the course.”
In any event the word hazard has had a long and distinguished history – basically it has defined the spirit of the game itself – and to see it come to an inglorious end without a shot fired is a bit sad.
It reminds me for the second time in this little letter of Herb Wind, who wrote in 1956, “One of the commanding frustrations in life is that all too often the things one likes best and respects the most somehow get mis-developed or lost through a lack of appreciation of their worth, or some supposedly progressive trend popularizes all the charm and pleasure out of them.”
Imagine a world in which Aleck Bauer wrote a classic book of golf architecture in 1913 called “Penalty Areas: Those Essential Elements in a Golf Course Without Which the Game Would Be Tame and Uninteresting.”
Of course he didn’t. His book was called “Hazards.”
You can look it up. Gwk