John Huggan: ‘Fixing’ a hole ... or how the custodians of the game made a hash of changing courses to deal with technology

Tom Watson walks across the 9th hole at Turnberry. Picture: Getty
Tom Watson walks across the 9th hole at Turnberry. Picture: Getty
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IT IS a sad but undeniable fact that history will not be kind to those charged with the administration of golf over the last two decades or so.

“Unless we provide golf courses full of intricate problems, players will get sick of the game without knowing why they are sick of it, and golf will die from lack of abiding and increasing knowledge”

Iconic holes such as the 7th at Augusta have seen the original challenge set by the designer become a casualty of the battle against big drivers and long-flying balls. Picture: Getty

Iconic holes such as the 7th at Augusta have seen the original challenge set by the designer become a casualty of the battle against big drivers and long-flying balls. Picture: Getty

Alister Mackenzie

By losing control and casting only a distracted eye over a seemingly never-ending stream of so-called technological “advances” – particularly in the realms of ball and driver – the rule makers on both sides of the Atlantic have badly let down almost everything they are supposedly employed to protect. They have also cost themselves money, if this week’s admission that the R&A has spent £10 million on “renovating” the Open Championship courses since 2000 is anything to go by.

In the process, untold damage has been done to so many aspects of the game, with perhaps the most egregious and offensive in the area of course design and set-up. Spooked unnecessarily by the ever-more absurd distances leading professionals can hit the ball, at least unqualified and invariably ignorant club committees across the land have wasted untold amounts of money building barely visible back tees, inappropriate water hazards and countless badly-placed bunkers. Never mind that those at golf’s sharp end tend to visit those courses once a decade if at all, or that the average club member is singularly ill equipped to deal with the newly-created monster he used to enjoy.

In the process too – as this column touched upon last week – the original philosophy of course architects such as Augusta national designer Alister Mackenzie is, typically, all but lost. Intelligently positioned bunkers become unreachable, or are surrounded by long grass, or fronted by trees. All as fairways narrow in a feeble and unthinking response to turbo-charged drivers. It is a culture that has sadly seen even some truly great holes reduced to one-dimensional caricatures of their former selves.

At this month’s Masters, all of the above was cringeingly obvious to all. The seventh hole, where the green was clearly designed to accept shots struck with lofted irons, players are now asked to approach with as much as a 4-iron. All because of a new tee built somewhere in the middle distance, far behind the original.

The story at the 11th, 15th and 17th holes at Augusta National is even worse. All have new back tees and all have seen the planting of trees, eliminating much of the strategies formerly characterised by each hole. It is not the point missing that is surprising, just the extent of it.

“Narrow fairways bordered by long grass make bad golfers. They do so by destroying the harmony and continuity of the game and in causing a stilted and cramped style, destroy all freedom of play”

Mackenzie

We are not immune on this side of the pond either. The mind’s eye goes to the par-5 third hole at Gullane No.1 in East Lothian. Set up as it once was, this grand hole made perfect strategic sense. With a green angling away from front-right to back-left and a brace of bunkers left of the putting surface, the ideal drive must be right-of-centre to create the ideal angle for the second shot. But a nest of bunkers sits waiting on the right of the fairway at driving distance from the tee. So it is that only the bravest drive, one that “takes on” the hazards and finishes close to the sand, gets the biggest reward.

In contrast, the man who opts for a safer line – a legitimate choice – and drives well left of the bunkers is disadvantaged by the fact that the greenside bunkers are now between him and the flag. But wait. That scenario is apparently not enough for someone in authority at Gullane. Now, what used to be a wide expanse of fairway on the left side has been converted into a sea of rough. In other words, the safe line has been eliminated, replaced by first a search for balls (no fun) then much hacking-out (not much more than no fun) up the fairway. This is point-missing on a grand scale.

A similar situation exists along the road at Muirfield, scene of next year’s Open Championship. Specifically, a new tee at the ninth hole has been built in order to make, one assumes, this formerly often-reachable and always exciting par-5 – one of the best holes in golf – a boring three-shotter, especially when the prevailing wind is blowing strongly against.

Even worse, a great opportunity has been missed. Between the bunker that sits on the left side of the fairway and the wall running all the way up the left side of Muirfield’s ninth is maybe 15-20 yards of very heavy rough. One has to wonder why this is so. Were the long grass instead cut short, the enterprising and brave player would have the dangerous option of taking the most direct route from tee to green, into the gap between sand and dyke. But that imaginative thought has apparently gone unconsidered by a faceless committee no doubt filled by those for whom a score of 85 represents a whizz-bang round of golf. Instead, the golfer with the brain will be hitting the same shot – right of the bunker – as everyone else. How dull.

On the other side of Scotland sits the visually striking ninth tee on the Ailsa course at Turnberry. It’s an almost endlessly picturesque scene, but it is also one of the worst holes on the Open Championship rota. The fairway, shaped like the roof of a house, is all but unhittable. And if you don’t believe me, ask Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear has said just that out loud and in public.

Again, just a little thought is needed to convert what is currently no fun into a place where every golfer will see his good shots at least have a chance of succeeding. It’s been said before – most notably by the late, great author and journalist Peter Dobereiner – but the ninth at Turnberry should be a par-3 played from the current tee out towards the iconic lighthouse. The tenth could then be converted into a sweeping and spectacular par-5 around the bay. What great fun those two holes would be to play.

So here is the crux of the argument. We as golfers have a choice: Do we want to play our courses as the original designer wanted them to be played? Or do we give up the fight for golfing intelligence and flair and play narrow, restrictive and ever-longer courses with a “hot” ball?

The answer should be obvious but, seemingly, is not, as evidenced by the last two decades. It really has been a disastrous period for the game. Where once architects set out to give players choices and room to involve their imaginations, there is now too often no choice of shot and certainly no incentive to try anything out of the ordinary. Which is just one more reason why people are currently leaving our golf clubs at an alarming rate. When someone other than the player is deciding what shot he/she should hit, the game is a lot less fun.