Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Judging a golf course

We recently visited the World Golf Hall of Fame, which is just as much an enjoyable and impressive outing to a golfer as is the baseball HOF to a baseball fan, or the Rock and Roll HOF to a fan of that musical era.  It's worthy of the bucket list.

One of the enshrinees is Alister MacKenzie, a surgeon turned soldier (camouflage expert) turned golf course architect, who designed an impressive number of highly-rated courses in the UK, and later in the US, including Augusta National and Spyglass Hill.  He wrote a book on golf course architecture, in which he listed 13 attributes of good course design:

1: Two loops of nine.
2: A large proportion of good two shot holes, two or three drive and pitch holes and at least four one shotters (par 3s)
3: Little walking between greens and tees with a slight walk forward from the green to the next tee to allow for additional length if needed in the future.
4: Undulating fairways and greens but no hill climbing.
5: Every hole possessing a different character.
6: A minimum of blindness for approach shots.
7: Beautiful surroundings with all artifical features appearing to be natural.
8: Sufficient heroic carries from the tee but with holes planned to provide alternative routes for the weaker player who is prepared to give up a shot or portion of one to avoid a hazard.  
9: An infinite variety in the strokes so that the use of every club is required.
10: An absence of the need to look for lost balls.
11: A course so interesting that both low and high handicappers are stimulated to improve their games by attempting shots they have hiterto been unable to play.
12: A course arranged so that the high handicapper or even beginner should enjoy their round regardless of their score.
13: A course equally good over the entire playing season with the texture of greens, approaches and fairways perfect.

Some of my thoughts on them:

1.  Two loops:  Not too important, except for 9-holers walking.  Some great courses, such as St Andrews, have an outward nine and inward nine, not loops.
2.  2-3 short par 4's.  (Everyone has 4 par 3's, sometimes more.)  A good feature emulated by Palmer and Nicklaus in their designs.
3.  Designed for walking I:  Short walk from green to tee.  Still good, but in the age of motorized carts, not so important.  
4.  Designed for walking II:  No big uphill climbs.  OK, but I like the big downhill shots.  Climbing uphill between holes is sort of required in order to have big downhill shots, and, again, with carts is OK.
5.  Every hole different.  A hallmark of excellent design, rarely achieved.
6.  No blind shots.
7.  Scenic.
8.  Difficult tee shots, but for good players only.
9.  Use every club.
10. No searching for lost balls.  I'm not sure what to make of this.  Tallwood did a good job of clearing out the underbrush in the woods, so that the ball could often be easily found.  Some courses define "environmentally sensitive areas" where it is not allowed to search for a ball.  That's somewhat artificial.  Others mark the woods as a hazard, so that the penalty is not so severe, or have a local "desert rule" treating anything off the grass as a hazard.  These are good ideas.  It would be a shame, though, to burn off all the heather in the UK and Ireland.
11.  Requires creative shots.
12.  Fun to play, even if you score badly.  Maybe even especially if you score badly.
13.  Good conditions all playing season, "perfect" fairways and greens.

Besides the course design, some other things influence the experience:

14.  Nice clubhouse, pro shop, and restaurant.
15.  Friendly staff.
16.  Pace of play, enforced by player assistants.
17.  On-course beverage service.
18.  Value for money.

I'll stop at 18.  It is golf, after all.  And so is my scoring system.  Each item is assigned a par value, and the course is rated relative to par:  double eagle (for world class), eagle, birdie, par, bogie, etc.

Hole (factor)     1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
Par                    3   4   3   3   5   4   5   4   5    4   5   5   4   3   4   4   3   4    72

Like golf, you can gain a few strokes by doing a few things very well, and you can lose a whole bunch by screwing one thing up very badly.  Even though pace of play is a par 4, you can make a 12 on it if it takes 6 hours, and your better-than-average score of 70 can become a cut-missing 78.


1.  (Two loops of 9, Par 3)  Automatic par.  (Nicklaus says always start with an easy hole.)
2.  (2-3 short par 4's, Par 4.)  Birdie: 2-3 holes.  Par:  1 hole.  Bogey:  0 or 4  Double bogey:  more than 4.
3.  (Short walk from green to tee, par 3)  Birdie:  all tees close to greens  Bogey:  long walks through housing subdivisions
4.  (No big uphill climbs, par 3)  Birdie:  Hills, but not >1 tough uphill shot  Bogey:  Lots of up and down walking between shots.
5.  (Every hole different, par 5)  Eagle:  each one truly unique  Par:  many similarities  Double Bogey:  up and back par 4's, no character.
6.  (No blind shots, Par 4)  Par:  no blind shots to greens.  Bogey:  1-2 blind tee shots, with aiming sticks. Double Bogey:  >2, or no aiming sticks
7.  (Scenic, Par 5)  Eagle:  Beautiful, natural surroundings, stunning views  Birdie: course blends with nature.  Par: no houses, roads, power lines.  Bogey:  carved from asphalt surroundings
8.  (Difficult tee shots, Par 4)  Birdie:  Some long forced carries from back tees.  Par:  Any shot will work.  
9.  (Use every club, Par 5)  Eagle:  used 14 clubs.  Birdie:  12-13 clubs used.  Par:  10-11 Bogey:  <10
10.  (No searching for lost balls, Par 4)  Birdie:  really bad shots are unretrievable, everything else is easily findable.  Par:  bad shots can be readily found, or are known to be lost in a hazard.  Bogey:  average shots can be lost in knee-deep grass, desert, or leaves near the fairway.
11.   (Requires creative shots, Par 5)  Eagle:  several holes demand a fade or draw in order to reach the green in regulation.  Chipping areas around elevated greens.  Birdie:  1-2 holes demand such shots.  Par:  choices when chipping.  Bogey:  Can hit your normal shot every time.
12.  (Fun to play, Par 5)  Eagle:  shot 100 and loved it.  Birdie:  shot 90 and loved it.  Par:  Had a good time.  Bogey:  Broke 80, but it wasn't fun
13.  (Good conditions, Par 4)  Birdie:  "drains well", pristine greens.  Par:  no burned-out or drowned greens.  Bogey:  Some brown patches under harsher conditions.  Double Bogey:  brown patches are permanent and seem to be growing
14.  (Nice clubhouse, Par 3)  Birdie:  Country club conditions.  Par:  Has what you need.  Bogey:  No Coke, Pepsi.  Double Bogey:  Pro shop is in the trailer  
15.  (Friendly staff, Par 4)  Birdie:  Polite, prompt service, make conversation with genuine interest.  Par:  There when you need them.  Bogey:  What staff?
16.  (Pace of play, Par 4)  Birdie:  Played at my own pace, no waiting.  Par:  <4.25 hours.  Bogey: 4.25-4.75 hours.  No limit to extra strokes. 
17.  (On-course beverage service, Par 3)  Birdie:  4 contacts during the round  Par:  1-3 contacts.  Bogey:  What beverage cart?
18.  (Value for money, Par 4)  Birdie:  I'll be back tomorrow.  Par:  I'll be back.  Bogey:  What the heck, it's once in a lifetime.  Double bogey:  If it were free, it would be too much.  

I'll use these criteria in my course reviews, and see how it works out.  Of course, anyone can use their own criteria and values for birdie, par, etc., but it might be helpful to review readers to have a structure like this, and more golf-like than 5 stars.  Suggestions are welcome, it's still under development.

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