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The Architects Strike Back

Yes, we are all amused by the Titleist commercials in which John Cleese parodies the plight of the modern golf-course architect—even many of the designers themselves are doubtlessly entertained. But like all great comedy, these ads contain more than a germ of truth: Golf-course designers are indeed worried about the changes that ball and club technology breakthroughs are forcing on the game. Of greatest concern is the distance the ball now travels, and what that means to the construction of new courses and to the viability of old ones. To better understand their particular perspective, T&L Golf assembled five notable architects—Arthur Hills, Dr. Michael Hurdzan, Rees Jones, Jay Morrish and Damian Pascuzzo—for a wide-ranging discussion. Their conversation revealed some intriguing side effects of technology that don't often get considered, among them the hidden costs to golfers, the land-use consequences and the safety of those on and even near courses. Here, without tears (and no visible plaid boxers), the defenders of par defend their point of view.

The topic today is distance—how the new technology that enables players to hit the ball farther is affecting courses old and new. Damian, get us started. In 1994 the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) issued a paper about technology, warning of what it might do to the game, and then in 2001 it felt obliged to issue yet another paper on the subject. What's the consensus at this point about where we are, and how do you define the problem?

DAMIAN PASCUZZO: Well, I'd say we're more concerned than ever, and the problem is so multifaceted it's kind of hard to know where to begin. As architects, we're uniquely positioned to see the impact that ball flight is having on golf courses. We see it on the old golf courses that have now become obsolete for tournaments and are probably much easier for even average players because they're using different clubs than the original architect intended. We're seeing it on new course development because we now need to ask for more land to build a golf course on—200 acres instead of, say, 150 acres—which impacts the bottom line and is going to be reflected in greens fees. I don't think it's a big jump in logic to say the rising cost has to be a contributing factor to why the game has a flat growth rate for the last three or four years. And as we look down the road another ten or twenty years, which is not a particularly long time in the golf business, we have to ask, Where are we going to be if we don't start putting some curbs in place now?

Yet the new equipment arguably makes the game more fun for average players because they can hit the ball farther.

PASCUZZO: Yes, but they're not only hitting it longer, they're hitting it farther right and left. I'm more of a blue-collar guy because I grew up on public courses and still play on them, with avid golfers in great shape. I call them the FedEx guys. They're not particularly good, they don't have great form, but they're strong and swing the club with tremendous speed, and they're the ones who are hitting it sideways. Boy, it gets ugly. I'll tell you, I have stood there on the tee watching these guys, and when they pump it out of bounds I'm thinking, Two or three years ago when I was doing conceptual plans and construction drawings, I never imagined you could hit it there.

So when the ASGCA argues that safety is a concern, that is what you mean?Wild shots?

PASCUZZO: Yes. Think about the older courses that had 300- or 320-foot corridors in 1970 or 1972, which at that time was perfectly adequate. And now you've gone from, say, not only the front line of adjacent houses being in jeopardy, but also those on the far side of the street. If you were to lay out a course today, your envelope would encompass those additional houses. What are those older courses going to do?They're thirty years old, relatively young in golf terms, and they can't push their elbows out any more. They're not going to buy up the first-row houses and expand the fairways, yet the clubs and the balls and the players are putting them in play.

REES JONES: It's not just a safety issue—it's a fun issue. If they're hitting it that far off line and not finding their balls because they're so deep in the woods or off the course, it's not much fun. Plus, when your ball goes off the planet it gets expensive—you lose a dozen balls a round.

ARTHUR HILLS: Another key factor is the time expended looking for wild shots. Speed of play is important because with all the recreational activities that we have to compete with for a dollar, we must change the perception that golf takes a long time to play. Courses must be more playable, and as a result more enjoyable and less time-consuming.

JONES: One difficulty that young parents have is they don't want to be away from their children that much. They may play tennis—it takes them an hour. They don't want to be away for six hours. A lot of people don't play golf on the weekends just because it can take so long.

So one counterintuitive argument is that the longer ball is slowing play, even though it travels farther. How are all these changes affecting course design?Do layouts need to be longer and thus more difficult?

PASCUZZO: I don't think the courses have to be more difficult, necessarily, but if you're talking about challenging the best players—and I'm not talking only about Tour pros, but even the single-digit-handicap amateurs who are hitting the ball so much farther and on line—then yes, you are looking at design a little bit differently. From my perspective, the game is becoming a little more segregated; the gap between the average guy and the top 2 or 3 percent is wider than it ever was. So the issue is, How do you handle both of those guys?How do you challenge one without either boring or totally overwhelming the other?It's a very thin tightwire that we need to walk.

But the game isn't getting any easier for most players. The average handicap is the same as it was ten years ago: nineteen to twenty. The new equipment may make it more fun for the average player, but he isn't scoring any better.

DR. MICHAEL HURDZAN: The reason the average guy has a high handicap is because he can't put the club on the right swing plane and move it with enough speed and hit it in the same spot every time. Look at a professional's club and you could put a dime over the sweet spot where it's worn away—they're maximizing the technology. But the average guy doesn't derive nearly the same benefit. I just don't think the average guy is hitting the ball that much farther.

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