Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ratings & Rankings Part II

The Masters Invitational Tournament 2012 has come and gone and we are into the golf season for men professionals full tilt. At one time the Augusta National Golf Club was rather different than it is today having undergone wholesale re-design at least three times now most recently in the 21st Century with the changes enough to obliterate all the uniqueness that Jones and Mackenzie originally had hoped the course would possess. Augusta National is a perfect example to segeway into a discussion of the morphology of a so-called Tournament Course. When I was a boy in the 1960's taking up the wonderful pastime of golf there were two prominent aspects of golf design that one could not avoid. The first was the beginning of prominence of the designer or architect of the course with Robert Trent Jones, Sr., blazing the way for the "Signature Architect". We learned a little of who RTJ and Donald Ross were, in fact at one time there was common knowledge that Donald Ross was responsible for the design of well over six hundred courses and RTJ was the hot ticket. The second was that thewell-recognized non-description "A Championship Golf Course" ensured little more than a back tee yardage approaching the magical 7000 yard endorsement of (frequently unrealized) implied quality. As a youth in the flatlands of South Florida seemingly every course had tacked on tees frequently unused which filled this apparent need. It seemed very unlikely that anyone was able to find anyone at any of these courses who could define just what a "Championship Course" actually was. Today we actually have a designation "Tournament Course" and it is far more than specific yardages. The current formula includes Narrow fairways, preferably tree-lined and isolating and original bunkers if the course was constructed prior to World War II. Also included is agronomic perfection - Bluegrass rough of at least 3-4", greens, generally flattened of contours, homogenous cultivars capable of Stimpmeter speed exceeding 13. The Modern Concept of Tournament golf and especially men's tournament golf has done great old courses little in the way of favors. Courses such as Oak Hill East (this time last year) really started my scrutiny of the ratings and rankings but specifically got me to analyse the concept of a Tournament Course. As a kid that meant every hole had a tee about 30 yards back, now it means 100. Trump has been stumping for the USGA and has already held joint Boys and Girls Junior events simultaneously at his Bedminster facility, site of Trump's Gem - The "Old Course" at Bedminster, New Jersey. It is also one of Tom Fazio's most versatile and interesting courses; playing it with greens about 10 on the stimp is great member fun while ratcheting the same greens up to 12 or so requires real skill. Still for my tastes overall it is a little bland for my own personal tastes as I like the quirk. The "New Course" there is a valid championship snooze, great for card & pencil types but built to be played in the near 7500 yard range it holds little interest at 6500 yards no matter what the greens are that day. I mention Trump because a recent visit took me to Trump's D.C. location where The "Championship Course" of 7400 yards was created out of two courses from the Loewe's Island Resort that it once was. I has holes from each course a Golf Buddy Platinum faithfully asks if you want to change courses when you go from what was formerly the other course to the main one. I mention this course in particular because it is such a hodgepodge trying for difficulty and yardage - yardage by adding tees on several holes across two roads and a slough off the river to add over 100 yards to a particular hole. Walking the course leads one to a three hole stretch near the turn where your caddie puts your clubs on a cart to remain on a cart path into and out of a wooded area while the remainder of the course is out overlooking the Potomac River, a rather odd version of attaining that "over 7300 yard total". Apparently plans are in the works to improve the routing but many a tournament course nowadays has bee transmogrified to include epic walks. Since it is a work in progress, I'll give it a pass and I look forward greatly to see updates. These Tournament Hosting Courses are important in this discussion for a variety of reasons. Most importantly it has led to a Frankenstein-like change in what were once nice little or pastoral places to play. On the one hand the not too interesting "Old" Course at Saucon Valley Country Club (A USGA Favorite site with plenty of parking access and infrastructure) was modernized and revised from a half -(Herbert) Strong Course to a full-fledged Fazio Course replete with cookie stamper cape and bay bunkers with orphaned tees tacked on 50-100 yards hither and yon to get the yardage up to counter-attack the out-of-control ball. I wrote on this as there is precious little Strong left anywhere and the bunkering could have at least emulated what was once done by Strong in this re-do. SVCC Old is still a better than average Tournament Venue for the club player and is centerpiece of perhaps America's most pastoral club. Perhaps not enough for the Men while poor old Merion East - Pennsylvania (at least the Eastern part)'s Historic gem has been made a mockery of with absurd back tees on holes such as five and 18, single file fairway widths and rough one might lose a toddler in on tournament day - all in defense of par. Then there is the mis-named Alister Mackenzie's Augusta National Golf Club - that which 68% of American men would wear a dress to just watch the Masters played there - just what is it with that course and just what is that course in 20012 or was it in 2008? Thus in the name of Tournament Integrity, we have Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo - for those not deeply into movies The Good, The Bad and the (just plain) Ugly. Why are these courses so important? There are hangers-on from the old days in terms of what were once great golf courses lost forever and not really all that good any more. I want to cite two great examples that are a little different yet. Aronimink Golf Club and Oakland Hills (South) - both originally Donald Ross and both modified for Tournament play at least twice and with greatly different results and eventual outcomes. One thing they have in common is that the two clubs had the sense of purpose to recognize that the green complexes of Ross could not really be improved upon and were chosen to remain in situ or de novo. Aronimink hired Mr. Jones Sr. to tournament-up the course for a mid 1960's PGA that never happened by creating a wasp-waisted signature at about 260 off the back tees with single file fairway between those Jones cloverleaf bunkers. At Oakland Hills - Jones Senior toughened up the fairways and bunkering from Ross' original to create the "Monster" that Mr. Hogan so proudly brought to its knees with a first round 67 in his magnificent Grand Slam year of 1953. He was five under par overall and six ahead of perennial runner-up Sam Snead. When time came for a further toughening update of the course, consulting son Rees Jones mindlessly bunkered literally each side of each play hole with fairway bunkers flanking narrowed fairways removing any possible semblance of a strategic approach to any of the wonderful greens. Aronimink? Originally opposed by a club president now long gone was a plan to restore Ross' original intent. Finally, Ron Prichard created a sympathetic restoration (I called it on these pages a "Rescue") retaining the Ross greens then creating bunkering similarly to the original design but accommodating current technology. Two vastly different outcomes. The great news for Oakland Hills is that if they ever choose to do so - since they have not re-built or abandoned holes such as some courses have - they can obtain a similar outcome as Aronimink did. Oakland Hills South remains in my own personal opinion the highest calibre tournament modified classic course. Just for the possibility of its return to roots by elimination of that absurd and unsightly bunkering. Getting back to the ratings and rankings - these historic tournament create a legacy, a boost an improper recognition of perceived greatness of architecture and in Golf Digest's system is actually directly rewarded for such changes by the nebulous shot values and difficulty from the back tees that they so cling to in their absurd decimal to the hundredth of a point system which still has arbitrary fudge factors as well. This effect is mirrored by all world rankings and when modern and classic courses are lumped together we see such anomalies as Whistling Straits (home of two of the worst golf holes I have ever seen, no less on the same course) such a missed opportunity with a blank slate poorly used, hystrionic mounding and scraped out bunker/waste area mostly out of play for the class player but an absolute nightmare for the proverbial 190 yard driving 18 handicapper who comprises the virtual Average Joe at America's Country Clubs. I counted 21 real bunkers in play on that course - the rest is candy for the eyes. Worldwide Top 100 lists somehow include this over-priced mess of a course as well as courses like Muirfield Village Golf Club. MVGC has an interesting hole or two but with a figure of 8 routing through neighborhoods of large homes that is a nightmare for spectators, force-grown bent grass, top billing as a Top Notch Course because of Jack William Nicklaus' Memorial held there, it can not even really claim to be America's Best Housing Course ABHC). TV Our exposure to courses created or modified to attract tournaments drives some courses to the proverbial top but most are absent from my recognition of greatness. What the future holds for the place of golf architecture that can test the world's elite of elite players is yet to be seen, it it certainly in evolution. We still get these head-scratching courses that everyone wants to play because they are famous on TV. There are indeed courses that A) You can play B) You can enjoy and C) both. Monday was my yearly chance at one of the "C" group. None other than the Black Beast at Bethpage State Park, New York. What a very special course. It is a bit different than the other beast of pro golf in that it, too is restorable to normal fairway widths and it is manageable from a grass standpoint. More later.

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