The Future of Golf 1- Is it all about length?

Readers will be familiar with my musings on where the game of golf is going.

We all know that the ageing baby boomers  are not being replaced by younger generations at golf clubs, and that clubs all over the world are merging, consolidating, and looking at other revenue streams to future proof their operations.
Modern life is busy and working generations find it hard to justify the half day required to play golf.
Nine hole competitions, and oversize holes are suggestions that might help speed of play or time away from work and family.

In 2016 I attended a conference in the USA, and was invited to visit the base for U.S. Kids Golf at Longleaf GC, near Pinehurst.

Their concept is interesting: Basically they try and set up a course so that it has many different tees, and each individual plays coloured tees appropriate to the length they hit the ball.

The objective is to allow women or children, or anybody to hit the same club to the green as a professional would off the championship tees.

So if the pro plays a particular par 4 by hitting driver, 7 iron and then has a birdie putt, the theory is that the child off the correct forward tee could potentially hit the same clubs and also have a birdie putt.
And to determine the correct tee, the driving range is set up with colour coded posts that correspond to the tees should play.

So if you hit your driver 180 metres, and that is closest to the purple post, you play off the purple tees.


Longleaf MapThe Longleaf tee selection system

Off course the theory has some practical flaws- for instance the fairway hazards are not necessarily in the optimum strategic position for each tee, and it can be a little tedious if a group of four all hit off different tees.

But it definitely has merit and the Longleaf course is fun to play.

After the conference I was fortunate to play some of the better courses on the east coast of America, and I played Sebonack with architect Tom Doak.

Again distance was a topic of discussion.


At Shinnecock Hills, the course was in magnificent shape, and it looked and played like a real championship course.

It was a thrill to play it.

But even off members tees the course challenges you with length and fast crowned greens.

Magnificent as it was, I wouldn't choose to play there every day.


Then we played Sebonack with Tom Doak, and we actually played off a forward tee.

Doak said that the members that said they enjoyed the course the most were those playing off the shorter tees.

And we did enjoy it.

It is nice to have a birdie putt every now and then, and play every club in the bag.

Finally we had a great meeting with the managers at Kingsbarns GC in Scotland, and we were impressed with how knowledgeable, and businesslike they were with the operations of the course.

By altering a few key tee positions for length they have changed the percentage of players playing on the forward tee to the regular tee from 50/50 to 85/15.

The result- playing times decreased significantly, and feedback on the course improved through the roof.


Big BunkerBig Bunker, Kingsbarns

There is a message in their somewhere!

For me, I won't be shy about playing off forward tees when the opportunity arises- perhaps not all the time- but the fun factor is more important to the game going forward..if we could get that message across maybe the kids of today will want to pick up the game too.


The Future of Golf, pt 2 

In general, I think golf courses are too difficult,” says veteran American architect Jeff Brauer.

“It’s easy to understand why.

The emphasis is on ‘what if the tour showed up here?’, even though it won’t.

Or ‘let’s make it spectacular to sell houses/win awards/get a high ranking’, which does sometimes work.

Some think advertising as the hardest course in town will boost rounds and memberships.

But it doesn’t.

None of those typical design objectives mentions average golfers having fun.

If form follows function, and the long-term function is to create a space fit for its intended human purpose – typically a course playable and enjoyed by average golfers every day – logically, the form would be much different.”

What’s abundantly clear from talking to architects across the world is that the way that golf is marketed has caused untold problems for both the art of golf course design, and for the game as a whole. The phrase ‘championship course’ is perhaps the biggest single issue.

What is a championship course?

Well, logically, it is a course on which championships are held (I shall steer clear of an extended debate on what constitutes a championship).

But hundreds, perhaps even thousands of courses described in their marketing literature as ‘championship’ have been built across the world and have never hosted a significant professional or top amateur event, nor ever will.

So perhaps we have to come to a looser definition: a championship course is one which could host a championship, if the need arose.

Ask any golf architect, and you’ll hear the same refrain.

Clients demand ‘championship’ courses, no matter where in the world they are, whatever the average standard of players who will frequent them day in day out, or how unlikely it is that AN Other pro tour will ever drive into town and seek to host an event there.

“The biggest group of golfers is that with handicap 26 or higher.

They pay the bills!” says Dutch designer Michiel Vandervaart.

“The gap between the novice and the professional tour player will only get bigger.”

And in emerging markets, where most local golfers are just learning the game, this issue is even more important.

Across the developing golf world, we see championship course after championship course; fine for the pros, but pros play for free.

If golf is ever to embed itself in the sporting culture of these new countries, it needs more courses that are designed from the bottom up to appeal to average and below average players.

This makes those developers that consciously shun the super-tough championship course especially interesting, and even more so when they have been consistently successful.

Mike Keiser, the creator of Bandon Dunes, and since then the brains and money behind any number of golf projects around the world, has become well-known for his laserlike focus on what he calls the ‘retail golfer’.

“95 per cent of golfers are retail, which I see as handicaps from five to 36,” he says.

“In truth, most golfers are pretty lousy. Even five handicappers typically hit a bunch of bad shots, and don’t like being punished.

But they are the ones who make a course successful.”

Keiser says that the deepest irony of all is that we all know the model that best melds the championship and retail ethos, but we have forgotten it.

“The model is very easy, it’s the Old course at St Andrews,” he says.

“It has big greens with lots of pins of varying difficulty, and you can basically play it with just a putter.

Most ‘championship’ courses you can’t begin to play with a putter.

The Old course is fun golf and championship golf all rolled into one.

It has features like the Road hole and the Principal’s Nose that are wickedly enticing – for players of all standards.

In America, we have tended to go for small greens, because they are inexpensive to maintain.

That’s a mistake in my view.

The ampler the greens are, the better.

Courses have been designed so that the retail golfer is playing 6,300-6,600 yards.

That’s too long!

They should be playing 5,800.

They don’t want it to be slam dunk easy – no bunkers, every green flat – but they don’t like being penalised for missing a shot by six inches.”

Mark Parsinen, the developer and co-designer of Castle Stuart in Scotland – as well as previously developing the much-admired Kingsbarns – takes a similar view.

But he goes further, and says that even for elite players, golf is more interesting when the course is more playable.

“Golf is inherently a game of errors and recovery, not of perfection,” he says.

“The best 150 players in the world typically only hit nine of 14 fairways and only hit 12 of 18 greens in regulation.

The fascination of the game is the intermittent great shot coupled with recoveries; and the heart of engaging design is to make the recoveries interesting and varied and to make them less about difficulty at your feet – about issues that have to do with lie, stance, elevation differentials, and a target that offers choice – take on the difficulty now and get an easier next shot, or take the easier shot now and defer the difficulty to the next shot.

“One player’s success is not directly at the expense of his playing companion with whom he may be competing – golf is not a zero sum game,” Parsinen continues.

“Professionals conditioned to the narrow fairways, long penal rough and heavily bunkered greens may not be able to understand and appreciate this.

Difficulty alone in course design or setup does not identify the best players and simultaneously fails to deliver an engagingly pleasing form of entertainment.

Think of how Hazeltine was set up for the recent Ryder Cup course: it reflected some of what I believe in and it produced great theatre and pleasing, exciting, and entertaining competition for the players.

No one said the course was too easy and that it produced boring golf.

It’s also true that ‘difficulty’ in many respects fails to identify the best athlete and rather makes the number of events, by which excellence can prevail, too small a number for the law of large numbers to prevail and it thereby introduces a fundamental randomness.”

Jeff Brauer echoes much of what Parsinen says.

“You can count me in as one architect who is consciously designing easier and shorter courses,” he stresses.

“We have designed for the top 0.025 per cent of low handicappers for some reason.

Studies show golfers have to hit at least ten good shots a round to stay in the game, though we forget what a ‘good shot’ is for an average golfer – airborne, sort of towards the green, and sort of long enough.

I presume just hitting a good shot isn’t quite enough – there should be some reward.

Good shots that end up in hazards get counted as bad shots, or at least really bad experiences.

Fronting bunkers are particularly frustrating to average golfers, punishing shots well within their personal definition of a ‘great shot.’

And those hazards cause all sorts of unfun things, like taking three to five attempts to get out of bunkers.

Other typical scenarios are hitting the green, but not holding it, with a ‘good shot’ either rolling off the back due to too little ‘but average for them’ backspin, or trickling off into a greenside bunker due to sidespin.

Tee shots aren’t any better, with approximately one in four tee shots on any hole played by an average foursome being topped or lost in the woods or native areas, despite 70+ yards width of open turf. Statistically, golfers are much worse than we can imagine and certainly much less capable than architects – even those trying to ease up – consider.”

Fellow American architect Andy Staples says that the fixation with difficulty leads to some odd results.

“A really interesting example of difficulty for players of different abilities is the current condition of many championship courses – Oakland Hills comes to mind – where it is actually best for the average player not to ‘play it forward’, but to play a longer set of tees.

By playing a longer yardage, poorer players can simply avoid the difficult bunkers by not reaching them from the tee.

The course is set up in such a linear fashion, with difficult hazards and little room to avoid them, that playing short of all the bunkers is often the best option.

This is a great example of how a design can affect the levels of difficulty for players of different standards. 

“We’ve finally learned that golfers don’t like golf very much when they get beat up and lose balls, especially when they’re not on the ocean or in the sand dunes.

This is the one area where I feel the characteristics of a site really is impactful on creating a course where golfers ‘play well’.

I also love designing ‘quirk’ into a course, and in most cases, it takes multiple rounds to appreciate these specific details.

When done properly, a player is left with the idea that there is more to this course, and they feel the need to play it again.

The courses at Bandon do a very good job of this. 

Tripp Davis, himself an elite, plus handicap golfer as well as a successful architect, has unsurprisingly thought pretty hard about how to challenge players of different standards.

“Better players are challenged by stricter margins of error and tougher conditions, but I also firmly believe that multiple meaningful options will challenge the better player,” he says.

“Require them to choose an option and commit to that option with the precision required to score well at their level.

I regularly try to create a dilemma between being aggressive and ‘smart’ for this player.

If you only give a good player one reasonable or meaningful option, they will tend to pull that shot off if it fits their eye or are generally playing with confidence.

Options can introduce doubt.

Whereas options can subtly challenge the better player, a lack of options will challenge the average player.

They need optional ways to play to their handicap on average. We do need to be mindful that this player does want to be challenged, so we cannot eliminate it completely, but we have to give them options to choose routes that are playable for them.

“It can all fit in one course, but flexibility in the design and how it can be set up, relative to conditioning and the location of tees and pins, is critical to making a course capable of being a challenge and being enjoyable.

Part of making the design work is strategising the play of the game from each tee for a variety of player types, making sure there are options to avoid stricter margins for error.

In doing so, the golf course architect needs to recognise that a 10 handicap is theoretically going to make 10 bogeys in a round, so while there may be stricter angles for getting an approach shot close to the hole, we have to design options for this player to strategically play for bogey from tee to green, noting that a bogey for a 10 handicap is their ‘sense of par’ on 10 holes.

“I don’t think there is anything wrong in a course that allows golfers to play well, but I would tend more towards allowing a visiting golfer to be able to look back and see how they could have played better.

That will more often get them to come back.

Perhaps there does need to be a minimum level of skill one needs to be considered a ‘golfer’, but I do think the best test is more inclusive than discriminatory.”

This article first appeared in issue 47 of Golf Course Architecture


 The Future of Golf, pt 3


With the impending U.S. Open at Erin Hills, I have been keen to see how the U.S.G.A set up the course.

Erin Hills is regarded as a very nice, natural course on a rolling sand base.

The U.S.G.A. has been setting up the Open with the mantra that ‘par’ will be defended, and the course will be set up to test every aspect of these elite player’s games.

I am sure we will see a magnificent exhibition of power golf, and hopefully get an exciting finish.

The ultimate winner will have to play amazing golf- hitting obscene distances, and displaying an iron will.

But is that enough?

Golf is fighting for it’s future and needs to capture the imagination of the public, and bring people to the game.

When I saw this little video of the rough at Erin Hills- it hit me like a two ton truck. Maybe, they just don’t get it?

Surely we need courses, and course set ups that allow players with different skill sets to play their way.

Think back over the memorable championships, and moments that stay with you.

Seve out of the car park in the Open, Bubba around the trees at The Masters, Tiger chipping in at The Masters…

Bring back creativity as an option I say!

I would rather play a course which has me thinking about different options, and making decisions than a course which demands length and precision only.

The Travelling Golfer World Course Ratings & Reviews will be published in the months ahead and will focus more on the courses that engage, and intrigue the everyday golfer than the beautifully manicured championships courses which provide an exacting test of our games.

Bring back the fun!

Golf is a good walk with friends in a beautiful setting.


We have magnificent visual settings, and  if we play interesting, challenging, intriguing golf holes surely the game will flourish? 

So for our highly publicised championships how good would it be if the playing arena inspired people to take the game up.

How good would it be if we had kids and grandads alike trying to emulate little flips and flops, putts up and down dale from 60 feet, and bending shots around trees?

There will be some who aspire to hit the 300 metre drives, and that’s super- but the masses just wanna have fun!


N.B. Also see Adam Scott’s U.S.G.A. broadside 

Adam Scott didn't mince words when sharing his thoughts on the USGA

Chris Condon
Adam Scott's mostly known for his fluid, seemingly effortless swing and a debonair appearance. While both observations hold true, the Aussie is also one of the more introspective, forthright minds in golf, if not all of sport. When many of the absentees at the Rio Olympics hid behind PR statements, Scott was candid regarding his stance. As other anchor putters raised a fuss about the USGA's ban, Scott downplayed the new rule's effect with perspective. And instead of bowing to calls to dump caddie Stevie Williams after a controversy at Firestone C.C., the 2013 Masters champ squashed the fire with a levelheaded response.

So when Scott shared his opinions on the upcoming U.S. Open with Golfweek's Jeff Babineau, know these comments weren't coming from the hip.

Following his Sunday round at the Memorial, Scott discussed his preparation for Erin Hills, remarks that doubled as a plea to the USGA.

“Maybe it’s time to do away with the even-par target, just thinking about the bigger picture of the game of golf,” Scott told Babineau in Dublin. “If their major pinnacle event for them requires courses to be the way they are, it doesn’t set a good example for every other bit of golf that they try to promote. Maybe we should get the numbers out of our heads and try a new strategy.”

Though "the integrity of par" is somewhat of an antiquated notion -- only two winners in the past nine events have finished over par -- the sentiment regarding course fairness is certainly real.
Coupled with a handful of recent missteps from the USGA, the 36-year-old thinks the pressure is on for the organization to get things right in Wisconsin.

"The ball is in their court; they control it all," Scott said.
"Hopefully they get it right this time, just from a playability standpoint.
Let’s just have something that’s a challenge and interesting, not just playing brutal (golf).”

But perhaps the most condemning statement came when Scott asked if the criticism was justified.

“I think they’ve really dropped the ball with where the game is at, over the last 20 years especially,” Scott told Babineau.
“I know their intent is not to do that.
I don’t question their intent at all...I guess their primary role of administering and looking after the game, they’ve kind of dropped the ball in that sense and gotten worried about other things.”

Scott is making an appearance at Erin Hills this week before competing at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. In 15 U.S. Open outings, Scott has just one top-five finish at the event. The U.S. Open begins on June 15.
The Future of Golf, pt 4- coming soon...

At Sebonack with Tom DoakAt Sebonack with Tom Doak