A few years ago, a reader of one of my columns wrote to me questioning the emphasis, or lack thereof, that golf course evaluators place on conditioning in calculating the relative merit of those they review.
His thesis was: “The conditioning must take an equal footing with the design of the court and, together with the atmosphere of the surrounding court and the playability of the court, form a four-way evaluation of the court in question.”
I guess it depends on what you are evaluating.
So many people rate courses based on experience and conditioning, atmosphere and playability, factors that clearly contribute to the improvement of their playing experience. Who isn’t influenced by a beautiful environment, a field they play well on, or one where there is a real emotional connection?
For my part, I strongly believe that course rankings should measure design almost to the exclusion of other factors. How good, or maybe even big, are the holes? Does the course reflect the principles of strategic golf as best expressed by the great American architect George Thomas in the 1920s?
Thomas said: “Golf course strategy is the soul of the game. The spirit of golf is to take a risk and, by negotiating it, reap a reward while those who reject the problem of carrying over have a harder shot for their second; yet the player who avoids reckless effort gains the advantage over whoever tries more than lies in him, or who fails under the test. “
It is the strategy that makes a course extremely interesting to play. Allied with a refined construction that fulfills Alister MacKenzie’s motto of being “indistinguishable from nature” and an interesting land to play on, you’ll have a course definitely ranked among the best in the country (if, of course, its architecture is the measure).
Of course, the quality of the architecture is only truly evident if the greens are solid enough to disadvantage an approach from the wrong side of the fairway. It is useless to cut a bunker across the front corner of a green and then have a green so soft that even the most “vulgar of court shots” (quote, Bobby Jones) will hold the green.
In this sense, the condition is truly fundamental for architecture. But I suspect most would expand what they see as important elements of conditioning to include the quality of the fairways, tees, bunkers and rough. Few would rate the impact of trees on the project. A great greenkeeper understands that the real conditions of a course are not just about the playing surfaces but rather everything that lies within the boundaries of the property.
It is not particularly important to have consistent bunkers (a criterion most would associate with a “well conditioned” course) or perfect fairways, where every lie makes you feel like you are playing on a carpet. There is nothing wrong with a superintendent achieving such levels of perfection, but should that be the measure of a well-maintained path?
No course should receive extra points for unnecessarily high standards. Nor should a fairway course be marked from which it is easy to play golf but which are not as perfect as those found in Kingston Heath or Augusta.
The three factors – conditioning, atmosphere and playability – are so subjective that if given equal weight in the charts, we are bound to end up with lists that vary enormously due to the subjectivity of the experience.
A couple of years ago, I played a course that has incredibly beautiful views. Since then many golfers have told me that it is one of the best courses in the world. The experience of playing on the pitch was undoubtedly first class, but I thought the course had failed to make the most of the site; for me the construction was unimaginative at best and given the quality of the site I found the whole thing disappointing if only for such a missed opportunity.
However, thanks to an unlimited budget, it was perfectly conditioned. Should all unimaginative design decisions be forgiven because the fairways are “flawless” and the atmosphere “extraordinary”?
If 75% of the weight of a ranking were attributed to conditions, atmosphere and playability, it would really be a contender to be ranked in the top fifty in the world. If I rated it purely by design, it would not be in the early three hundred and would fall behind many brilliantly designed courses in less than “perfect” condition.
And what is “playability”?
Golf Digest rated Ellerston, the Packer family’s privately owned course, as one of the top ten courses in Australia. It is by far the hardest course in the country (which perfectly matches Kerry Packer’s original brief to Bob Harrison and Greg Norman) and nearly impossible for anyone with a single digit handicap to play within ten or fifteen strokes of their handicap. Many suggest that this is not a definition of “playable” and I agree.
Ellerston is walkable, as is walking from London to Brighton. But it is somehow the hardest route to take in the countryside. Does walkability go hand in hand with playability? It should.
Royal Melbourne are clearly better playing now that they are back in top condition. But twenty years ago, when it was at its “worst”, it was still the best architecture in the country. Until an architect builds a course with a greater collection of world-class holes, it will remain the best.
It is important that the best-conditioned paths do not become the measure of what a “well-conditioned” path is and those who fall below that high level are not considered somehow inferior and scored low in the rankings.
My colleagues and I are just beginning the long-term restoration of the brilliant Abercromby and Colt design at The Addington in South London. The first step is to address agronomy and the role of woods to ensure better playing surfaces. Together with the effort to improve the conditioning – which has often been erratic – we will aim to restore the key features of the course, restoring the architecture to its former glory. Improving the conditioning is unquestionably important, but restoring the architecture will win the hearts and minds of lovers of the great traditions of English golf.
The last thing the game needs in these troubled times is an escalation of maintenance budgets to satisfy those who think “perfect” is better – or a way to climb a list.
Ultimately, if the main criterion for ranking a course isn’t its architecture, the lists will drop into little more than beauty contests. And we all know how subjective they are.
This is the fourth article in a series by Mike Clayton, partner of golf architecture firm Clayton, DeVries & Pont.
Brown is great – June 2020
Golf without trees – July 2020
Rough Justice – July 2020