News & Opinion

Tour sites in Texas hit, miss golf’s needs

Prepare for golf culture shock in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The PGA Tour moves from sprawling, links-like, tree-less Trinity Forest Golf Club, the new course that hosted last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson, to Colonial Country Club, the classic, tree-lined, slightly claustrophobic, stately place where Ben Hogan made Colonial’s reputation just as much as Colonial made Hogan’s.

This is like shifting gears from Wynton Marsalis jazz to Blake Shelton’s honky-tonk country music. From Cherry Garcia premium ice cream to vanilla bean. 

Trinity Forest was an enticing course on TV. Watching the tournament that I still call the Nelson made me want to go play the course, just not until it cools off in Dallas. Which is, when? November?

The course backers have deep pockets, obviously. It was something like a $50 million project, costs $150,000 to join and if you want to play as a guest, you need to be born on the property or have at least two heads of state on your speed dial.

Trinity Forest was built to host the PGA Tour. It is an arena for entertainment and probably will succeed in that goal.

Take away the PGA Tour connection, however, and this project got the same things wrong that developers and architects have gotten wrong for the past 30 years, which has pushed golf perilously closer to endangered-species status.

Golf’s decline – the apologists will try to tell you that the game is just fine, but it’s not – is based on three issues: Golf takes too long to play, costs too much and is too difficult.

Golf needs low-maintenance, fast-play golf courses. Trinity Forest is a high-maintenance, slow-play golf course. Did you see some of those massive bunkers? An amateur could spend five minutes raking his or her way out of the trap.

Greens are the most expensive parts of a golf course to maintain, and Trinity Forest has gigantic greens. One double green is 35,000 square feet. Pebble Beach’s front-nine greens would almost fit in that corral.

It’s ironic that Trinity Forest seemed like a breath of fresh air with its different look and myriad challenges, but it is not an economically viable model for golf in most areas.

“One thing the PGA Tour has to do is lead the way to golf’s future,” said architect Ron Garl, who has designed or renovated more than 250 golf courses worldwide. “You can’t do that with only hard-to-play, high-maintenance, expensive golf courses. That’s not the future of golf. 

“All the studies I’ve seen, golfers today want to play it faster, play it forward and have more fun. It’s not complicated. Listen to the customer.”

I am among the tail end of the baby boom generation (born in 1946-64). We’re the cutoff line for the era of recreational players who are not only hooked on golf but have the means to afford it.

Garl points to data that show approximately 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, and about 7,000-plus die every day. Baby boomers possess an outsized share of discretionary money in the U.S. That’s a frightening vision for golf – and many other leisure activities.

“We have to ask ourselves, How do we replace those people as they cycle through?” Garl said. “We’re OK for the next decade, but the decade after that, we are going to run into a wall. It’s going to be a shock. It’s going to be too late if we don’t start working on this sooner rather than later.”

An example that Garl likes to cite is his renovation at the Islandside course at Longboat Key Club near Sarasota, Fla. He took out 40 percent of the bunkers and made others smaller and more playable. He also added forward tees.

“We made it more enjoyable, easier to maintain, and it made for faster play,” Garl said. “It’s also kept in great shape. People don’t want hard courses. They want fun courses, in good shape. They want value. If you don’t think value is king, try competing with Walmart.”

After Longboat Key’s changes were completed and got favorable reviews, the club quickly picked up 155 new members. 

“Ten years ago, everybody had a BlackBerry, including me,” Garl said. “Then the iPhone came out. Do you know anybody who has a BlackBerry now? BlackBerry didn’t change, and it died. Golf needs to change, or it’s going to be a BlackBerry.”

Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore did a great job with Sand Valley, a new course that winds through unusual sand deposits in north-central Wisconsin. It’s a sweet design whose secret is, it’s got spectacular hazards – some gaping waste areas that are intimidating – that you don’t have to play directly over. There were few forced carries, something that recreational players don’t handle well.

There are plenty of examples where that’s not the case in modern architecture. I won’t call out the designers here, but they know who they are. In many cases, it was the developer who insisted on a “championship course” because harder was seen as better. Harder is not necessarily better. As people leave the game, it’s clear now that any course considering spending money on design changes should make its layout easier and more fun.

“In the future, we have to look closely at the cost of maintaining a golf course,” Garl said. “We can’t afford courses that are high-maintenance, penal and take forever to play. We have to go away from huge greens. You can have reasonably-sized greens if they’re not over-bunkered and you leave the approach to the green open.

“The average player is almost a 17-handicapper, and he hits his hybrid about 160 yards, maybe. He drives it about 220 yards – Dustin Johnson averages 315 – so he needs to play holes that are 100 yards shorter than what Dustin plays. We have to remember who our customers are.”

We need courses where novice and advanced-novice-level golfers can play golf, not get embarrassed and want to quit. Sure, we need a variety of courses, and Trinity Forest and Colonial certainly are at either end of the spectrum. 

When I first covered PGA Tour events at Colonial in the early 1990s, I caught several glimpses of the late Ben Hogan being driven around in a cart so he could discreetly watch the world’s best players during the early tournament rounds. Did I go over to talk with him then? Hell, no. He was intimidating and seemingly unapproachable.

So, I don’t know what Hogan would say about modern golf or what he would think of a course such as Trinity Forest versus Colonial. Hogan changed his swing to become a great player, and he kept changing Ben Hogan clubs to keep up with the times, so I think he’d adapt. He was all about that process, in fact. 

I do know what Hogan would say if he and I were playing Trinity Forest, though: “You’re away.”

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle