News & Opinion

Blueprint to fix distance woes already exists

Look at Riviera Country Club, a classic layout that’s nearly 100 years old and is no pushover for the game’s elite players, as a model for how golf can downshift distance by design

As I was reading Rory McIlroy’s comments before last week’s Genesis Invitational about how golf needs to have a smaller environmental footprint, I was struck by how we anoint a successful golfer as being all-knowing.

Just because someone can put a ball in the hole in fewer strokes than the rest of us, we tend to gravitate toward him and listen to his every word as if he is part of the Mount Rushmore of golf.

The Genesis Invitational
A view of the 10th hole at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

This isn’t a slight against the current world No. 1; it’s just a fact.

But I digress.

The most recent comments from the Northern Irishman was about the increasing distance in golf and how the recent USGA and R&A report was enlightening in many ways.

While you could agree or disagree with that characterization, one thing that McIlroy did not address in his answer about golf reducing its footprint was how architecture has let golf down over the years.

One example is the site of the recent PGA Tour event.

Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., is a classic, iconic 1926 design by George Thomas and William Bell. The course played to 7,322 yards and a par 71 for last week’s Genesis Invitational, which Adam Scott won (scores).

The best hole on the property might be the par-4 10th. Short by modern golf standards, the hole is only 302 yards. The canted, kidney-shaped green and superb bunkering help make it a test for the best players in the modern game.

So why don’t we have more holes similar to Riviera’s 10th instead of converting par 5s to brutish par 4s for major championships?

Why can’t architects design courses less than 7,000 yards and not spend the week of the tournament explaining why the course didn’t stand up to the equipment of today?

I remember talking with Bill Coore of the Coore & Crenshaw design group. He was in the beginning stages of working on an update to the Plantation Course in Maui, Hawaii, site of the PGA Tour’s annual year-opening Tournament of Champions, and he agreed that the modern architect has to take some responsibility for where golf is today.

How a golf course is played starts with what the architect is trying to convey. It has little to do with how far the ball goes, or the sheer athleticism of the golfer, but how the player thinks.

What the architect is saying in the design and how the golfer interprets the designer’s thoughts is the pure essence of golf.

Golf is similar to chess at the highest levels: think about the best way to attack, and then execute.

What sounds so simple can at times be so difficult to accomplish.

Regarding the 10th hole at Riviera, virtually the entire field can drive the green, but the risk/reward calculation clouds the decision. A mistake off the tee could mean bogey or worse.

Is it worth it?

On a 500-yard par 4, a touring professional’s thought process is pretty clear: rip the tee shot. There is not much thought or analysis, as with old-fashioned golf.

Designing a digestible 18 holes by length should be the goal of all architects, not only because the course will stand the test of time but also, to McIlroy’s concern, will create a smaller footprint.

Architects often will counter with the mandate from the property owner, who wants a “championship course.” Too often today, that means something approaching 8,000 yards.

Well, consider such seemingly benign holes as the “Postage Stamp,” the par-3 eighth at Royal Troon, and some of the best short par 4s in the world: No. 3 at Augusta National, No. 12 at St. Andrews’ Old Course, No. 17 at Oakmont and No. 18 at Olympic Club’s Lake Course.

All are championship and iconic venues with holes that do not exceed a reasonable footprint.

What if we tried a design revolution first and then talk about the need to rein in equipment?

What if we celebrated golf’s best short courses versus some of today’s massive designs?

It’s time to turn to the design experts and see whether they can do something truly creative.

The next Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie or Old Tom Morris is out there. Hopefully, he or she will step up for the good of the game.

To receive Morning Read’s newsletters, subscribe for free here.