Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Short Par 3's

One of the victims in the quest to build longer golf courses are short par threes, a staple of the classic school of golf design.  This hole type is excellent because it provides a test that is within reach of the vast majority of players.  Proper execution is always demanded, as holes of this nature tend to be tightly guarded and/or feature greens that are steeply pitched or segmented thereby making the effective target much smaller.  However, without length as an obstacle to scoring, the potential exists for most golfers to score a coveted two while a par is a definite possibility.  It is always nice to provide some hope for golfers and give the bogey player a legitimate chance to better the scratch golfer if only for a single hole.
Distance control is paramount at Shinnecock Hills GC 11th by William Flynn & Howard Toomey.  The delicate uphill shot to the green is guarded short by numerous bunkers, but more fearsomely at the back with a sharp fall-off where recovery shots to back-to-front sloped green are brutally difficult. (Photo: Ian Andrew) 
C.B. Macdonald's 6th hole at National Golf Links of America in Southampton, New York.  The green is large and heavily contoured, but the actual target in order to avoid three-putting is much smaller.  Note the horseshoe-shaped contour in front-middle of green. (Photo: Google Earth)
No. 10 at Kingston Heath GC in Melbourne, Australia.  This short par three was inserted into a busy section of the routing by Dan Soutar, and was bunkered heavily by Dr. Alister Mackenzie.
Short par threes are a valuable tool of the golf architect owing to the limited space they consume.  They can be inserted into a routing more easily than other hole types, and can often fit seamlessly into a corner of a tight property.  Additionally, because short par threes are within range of the vast majority of golfers, they can cover some awkward terrain or feature that would prove more difficult to cover as any other hole type whose typical tee shots are spread over a larger area.  Because of this, the next tee can be located nearer the green, a benefit to walkers and a boon on a tight acreage.
No. 3 at Wannamoisett CC in Rumford, Rhode Island.  Donald Ross fit this short par three into a corner section to maximize his use of the land on a very tight property. Note proximity to second green and fourth tee. (Photo: Google Earth)
Short par threes play an integral role in testing shot-making ability when confronted on windy days.  The ability to keep the ball under the wind is much easier on a longer hole which  demands a less lofted club from the tee.  The difficulty of a short par three is amplified when only 120 yards needs to be covered into a stiff head or cross wind, requiring the type of feel shot that is lost on many modern players.
The short 7th at Barnbougle Dunes in Bridport, Australia.  Designed by Tom Doak, this short pitch is intimidating in the ever-present winds blowing across the Tasman Sea.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Sunday Afternoon Drama at Augusta National

During this week's telecast of the Masters, we will often hear the announcers speaking in hushed tones about the genius that is Augusta National.  And without fail, the tournament drama will reach a crescendo during the back nine on Sunday when, as it has often been proclaimed, "the Masters really starts".  Alister Mackenzie drafted plans for Augusta National in July of 1931, and designed the course in consultation with the legendary amateur golfer Bobby Jones.  Later that year, the architectural duo decided to reverse the nines, a decision that would have robbed the future Masters tournament of much excitement had it been permanent.
1931 revision of the original plans for Augusta National, note the reversal of nines. (Photo: golfclubatlas.com)
Indeed, members played the course in this order for the first two seasons, as did the competitors during the first Masters contested in 1934.  The Augusta National Golf Club is a winter retreat, and is not open during the hot Georgia summers.  Therefore, with play confined to winters, the membership grew tired of frost delays which lifted much quicker on the back nine (current front) than the shadier 1st, 2nd and 3rd holes (current 10th, 11th and 12th).  With the course now as Mackenzie originally designed, the stage was set for the scintillating drama of a back nine charge on Masters Sunday.  In fact, the very next year, Gene Sarazen holed "the shot heard round the world" for a double-eagle 2 on the 15th hole en route to a final round 70 and an ensuing 36-hole playoff victory over Craig Wood.

It seems no lead is too safe heading into the back nine on Sunday.  While trouble awaits tentative and misplayed strokes, great rewards lie in waiting for those that successfully execute an aggressive game plan.  The sequencing of holes on the back nine plays an integral part in the great swings that play out in the final few hours of the tournament.  

Consider player A having a multiple stroke lead on player B who is three holes ahead.  The back nine begins with a notoriously difficult sequence.  Holes No. 10, 11 and 12 historically rank as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd most difficult holes during the Masters.  If player B can manage to get through these holes without giving up a shot to par, the drama starts to unfold.  Just as player A tees off of No. 10 and begins the arduous three hole stretch of 10-11-12, player B is leaving Amen Corner at No. 13 tee and can take advantage of the historically easiest holes on the course, the two short par fives at No. 13 and 15.  If player B can execute, these holes offer plenty of birdies and the occasional eagle, but with water lying tight to the green, dreams of wearing the Green Jacket can unravel.  The dramatic two or three-shot swings start to occur more frequently here, when player A bogies 10 against a birdie or better by player B at 13 and may continue for the next two holes.  Traditionally, Sunday hole locations on No. 14 and 16 provide more birdies then during the other rounds, due to the funnelling nature of the surrounding slopes that gather well executed shots to the hole.  If player B racks up a number of birdies over the 13-14-15-16 stretch and player A falters slightly under the pressure at holes 10-11-12, the leaderboard tightens considerably.  Psychologically, the comparatively easy stretch of 13-14-15-16 plays more difficult for player A if he has seen his lead evaporate or greatly reduced and might not play the holes as successfully as he has in the first three rounds.  The back nine concludes just as it starts, albeit not quite as difficult, with two exacting par fours.  If player B can handle the intense pressure and play level par over the final few holes and post a score, he puts added heat on player A who in our example is trying to recover lost strokes and regain the lead.  If player A manages to maintain his lead heading into the final two holes, it takes sound play to finish in that coveted position.

The drama produced at the annual Masters tournament on Sunday afternoon is a product of the tremendous golf skills displayed by the Masters participants, whose precision and execution under intense pressure thrills the patrons and millions of fans watching on television.  However, it is Alister Mackenzie's routing and hole design for the back nine at Augusta National that sets the stage for great drama to occur, providing architectural features and hole sequencing that can be exploited by talented professional golfers to produce the ultimate in sports theatre.


Monday, 8 April 2013

Dismal River Club (Part 1)

Last June, I headed down to Nebraska in order to play in a tournament dubbed "The 5th Major" at the Dismal River Club in Mullen.  The tournament was organized by Eric Smith, who as a member of the esteemed golfclubatlas.com discussion group, filled the brackets of the match play event with a bunch of golf architecture enthusiasts.  Not surprisingly, our meal time conversations tended to focus on the architectural minutiae of Dismal River and the many other courses discussed by the well travelled group.  It was great.  The club staff, including hardworking CEO Chris Johnston, did an amazing job at making us feel welcome, treating us to exceptional food, cold beer and comfortable lodgings.  Again, everything was great.  The tournament ran very smoothly, and I was fortunate to share second place along with my partner Matt Bosela from St. Catherines, Ontario - the victims of a net eagle on the 4th playoff hole.  My partner made life easier on me by constantly bisecting the fairway with solid drives.  It was a great format, and I was pleased that both of us contributed by holing lots of putts, although Matt deserves extra credit for the 110 footer holed on No. 16!!
The 60-man field of the 2012 "5th Major" with the rustic clubhouse in the background. (Photo: Eric Smith)
Dismal River Club was designed by Jack Nicklaus, and was completed shortly after his work at Sebonack on Long Island which was done in collaboration with Tom Doak.  It is clear that that experience influenced Nicklaus and his crew, and Dismal River represents a leap outside of the traditional Nicklaus design box.  The course is situated in the Nebraska Sandhills which is as perfect golf terrain as you could find in North America, sandy soil and rolling terrain.  The golf course is rugged, with natural looking bunkers, tall fescue roughs and heavily contoured green contours all in keeping with the surrounding landscape.  Most greens feature a combination of backstops and side banks which can be used to funnel balls close to the hole, and provide a plethora of option when attempting recovery shots around the green. The holes are routed through very hilly property and at times, tackle some rather bold terrain, meaning sometimes only slightly missed shots are heavily penalized while in other spots, indifferent shots can end up side-by-side with those well executed.  The front nine is relatively compact while the back nine runs in a big loop back to Jack's Shack - the perfect spot to grab lunch and some respite from the ever-present prairie sun and wind.  The clubhouse is located nearly 2.5 kilometres from the 1st tee and 18th green, with a practice green and tee located at the clubhouse, and simpler warm-up green and tee at the course.  I regret not walking the course, but expect that it would provide an excellent workout.  The real detriment to walking would be the distance between greens and tees, which in a few spots are fairly long.  Perhaps it is more noticeable at Dismal River because the closest tee to the previous green is frequently the 7,500+ yard tees which are seldom used, therefore most of us need to hike an additional 30-40 yards to the regular tees.

The main practice range, notice the heaving mound in the middle of the tee (mid-picture), allowing players to practice the variety of stances they will encounter on the golf course.
When Dismal River Club opened, it received plenty of criticism (overly contoured greens, heavily irrigated rough, too narrow in spots) and has since been toned down in a number of spots by Nicklaus.  Personally, I found the course to be extremely fun, an ideal spot to get together with a group of friends for a weekend of golf.  There are many bowls throughout the course that can lead to indifferent shots ending up in the middle of the fairway or close to the pin.  Perhaps this effect is slightly overdone, but recognizing that Dismal River is a weekend retreat and not a PGA Tour venue, it enhances the experience rather than detracts by ratcheting up the "fun factor".  

Dismal River Club is opening a second course in 2013, designed by Tom Doak who was on-site during our weekend and gave the assembled group a tour of the course under construction.  One of his associates, Brian Schneider spoke to group while taking a break from shaping the 17th green.  It was a great to meet Tom and learn about his design process,  a positive experience that will influence me in the future.  I can't wait to get back to Dismal River Club to play the new course, which is sure to be another masterpiece, but I also look forward to getting re-acquanited with Nicklaus' course.  In tandem, these two courses will present two very different playing experiences, not only due to the differing design philosophies of the architects, but also because of the unique setting where each course was built.  The future of Dismal River Club looks bright.
An aggressive opening drive over the left bunker at the corner will gain substantial yards, ending in a bowl leaving a short approach.
The trade-off being the approach is visible from above the bowl, but blind from within.  The green itself is a punchbowl, funnelling shots closer to the hole.
The drive at No. 2 plays uphill and diagonally into this fairway.  While the pin is visible to the right, the ideal line here is over the fairway bunker 65 yards short of the green, using a big slope short to run the ball onto the green.
No. 3 is a straightforward par three, but distance control is important as internal contours aren't readily apparent from the tee.  Note the wonderful natural blowout bunkers in the distance, and the cattle which outnumber golfers.
The drive at No. 4 must thread itself between fescue right and waste area left to have a chance to reach the par five in two, although that does not guarantee a birdie as the heavily sloped green is a challenge.
A polarizing hole, that slope is as steep as it looks!!  The very back tee at No. 5 is from much further left of this angle and longer, and from there not my cup of tea.
The short par four sixth requires a long-iron into the heaving fairway, before an uphill approach into a green located artfully in a saddle. 
Another blind, punchbowl green at No. 6 creates anticipation as golfers ascend the hill to the green to see whether their approach is as close as they hoped. 
The reverse-camber nature of the seventh fairway makes hugging the inside bunkers with the drive difficult.
The approach into No. 7 must contend with two menacing bunkers right, but a generous bank left of the green can be used for those playing from further away.  Beware of leaving it short!!
The green at the drivable eighth is just visible left of the large ridge right.  Laying-up left of the huge waste area is safer, but the approach plays uphill into a shallow target to a green with plenty of back-to-front slope.
The line from the 9th tee is not apparent and requires a confident swing.  A deep natural blowout resides left and must be avoided and most players hedge right from the tee here (the club has thankfully cut down the fescue right, as it is blind from the tee making finding the ball more difficult).
The approach into the par 5 ninth requires a running approach which must flirt with the right side bunkers on the high side of the fairway.
No. 10 is a short par three played to a wild, three-tiered green featuring a central bunker.  This would be the type of green complex I'de build in my backyard, it is just plain fun.
From behind the 10th green, this back tier is accessible from both the lower front right and higher front left sections.  Add the side banks and options for putting and chipping are limitless.

Dismal River Club (Part 2)

No. 11 plays uphill off the tee around or over a protruding fairway bunker.  The approach plays into a huge, compartmentalized green.
The 12th is an "S" shaped par five that begs you to carry more from the tee to gain visibility on the next, and again on the second shot to shorten the approach.
The 13th plays between the fairway bunkers, but should challenge that on the left to avoid a blind approach. 
The deep chasm short of the 13th green is not visible from the right side of the fairway.  The pronounced bank right of the green is best approached from the left and a good target for those rightly fearing a miss left.
The 14th is another hole that garners much debate as a healthy percentage of drives end up in a similar spot due to the sloped nature of the fairway.  Approaches into the green from hanging lies are very difficult to control, leading to difficult up and downs from either the bunkers right or bail-out zone left. 
Another strong Sandhills one-shotter, the 15th sits comfortably within a little valley.
An excellent driving hole, the mound straight ahead left of the fairway bunkers can either push well struck drives into the middle of the fairway, or repel more timid strokes away from the green resulting in a completely blind approach.
No. 17 features a diagonal hazard on the inside of the dogleg asking golfers to choose how much of a carry they can handle.
The final hole features an exposed tee high on a dune where the drive must avoid the waste area left.  A lower tee plays over the waste area more diagonally, and can be easily accessed by foot.  Once in the fairway, it is all uphill to a shallow green with plenty on contour to complicate the last putts of the day.