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The New Golf Architecture

There was a bumpy dune on the eastern corner of the property that commanded a view of Tralee Bay and the open sea; Doak had thought it might be the spot for the tee at number twelve on his red routing. But then, just below it, he noticed a long, deep hollow full of marram grass. Beyond the hollow was a sandy, gently contoured bit of flat ground, perhaps 160 yards from the dune. Doak had thought it might be the site of the green for number eleven, but now it seemed as if nature had intended for it to hold a windblown par three with the sea on the left and trouble below. It could be fifteen, Doak thought.

Walking the land, Doak seemed to have one eye on the ground underfoot and one on the horizon, looking for things beyond the property that could help him align holes. It's a technique he first became aware of when he was studying an Alister MacKenzie course near Sydney, Australia. Many of the holes there seemed to point to something—a lighthouse, a cliff—across Botany Bay.

When he does a routing now, Doak looks for such beacons. On a piece of farmland in America, the steeple of a church adjacent to the golf course site might serve. At Kilshannig Cross, it might be one of the rocky Maharees islets out in the bay, a glimpse of the surf on the opposite side of the peninsula, or the stony face of Brandon Mountain, several miles away. These elements could give the eventual holes a pleasing look that golfers might be aware of only subconsciously. All they would know, Doak said, is that "suddenly, the hole looks really good."

For six hours on that first afternoon, until darkness was falling and the wind from the sea was a cold gale, he and Placek tromped around the property, foregoing lunch, veering around grazing cows and their copious droppings. Placek carried a range finder, and occasionally Doak would ask him to stand on a particular bump or dune and measure the distance to another bump or dune.

Distances are important in any routing, but for Doak they are especially so. If there is a signature element in his designs, it's that he likes to have a balance of short and long par fours. This is something he learned from Dye. The medium-length par four of about four hundred yards is too short to challenge experts and too long for hackers. Doak tries to build few of them. He likes, instead, to work three or four two-shot holes into his designs that are in the 350-yard range. He balances them with an equal number of long par fours—435 yards and up.

"If I look at the ten or fifteen courses that I think are the best in the world and then I look at the rest of the top hundred, the difference is that the ones I love have not just one good short par four but three or four or five," he said. "St. Andrews has six. Pine Valley has a bunch of them."

And what, to Doak, makes a great short par four?

"Sometimes it's a hole the really good player can think about driving, but usually it's a question of, 'Do I try to smash a driver to give myself a sixty-yard shot?Does that make the hole easier?Or do I concede my advantage of distance to make sure I'm in just the right place?' The tenth at Riviera Country Club is a great short par four. There's a ton of fairway, but if you're over in the right half you have no shot at the green. You have to hit it to the left. The farther you hit it, the narrower the area."

Conversely, Doak feels not a twinge of guilt when he designs a par four so long that the average player hasn't a hope of reaching in regulation. I watched as he and Placek walked along the path of a possible par four that figured to play about 440 yards, uphill and straight into the prevailing wind, which at that moment was threatening to blow Doak's topo map halfway to Killarney. I asked if such a hole were fair.

Doak smiled. In his offices, he said, the word "fair" is not uttered. It is referred to as "the F-word." Doak doesn't believe a particular golf hole has to be fair to everyone who plays it. Some holes will be too penal for some players, others will be too long.

"The only thing that would be unfair would be if you beat the player up the same way eighteen times in a row," he said. "If every hole were long. Or tight. Or required a draw. That would be unfair."

His ideal is a course not of "fair" holes but one with no boring holes. And what makes a hole boring?"Flat and open," he said. "Doesn't matter where you hit to in the fairway, you've got the same basic shot to the green. There's no interesting stance no matter where you hit it."

He and Placek spent an hour or so looking at the area around the par three they'd tentatively decided would be number fifteen. The problem was that it displaced two other holes, the tentative numbers eleven and twelve. The ripple effect threw several others off. They became either too long or too short, or out of order. "It's like a jigsaw puzzle with eighteen pieces," Doak said.

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