Should future courses be shorter?

Columns - Design Concepts

Last month, I advocated moving from par 72 to par 70 to shorten courses. This month, I will go farther and propose that when golf course development resumes, most new golf courses should be vastly shorter.

June 24, 2010

Jeffrey D. Brauer

Last month, I advocated moving from par 72 to par 70 to shorten courses. This month, I will go farther and propose that when golf course development resumes, most new golf courses should be vastly shorter.

Gut feel tells me that longer courses cost more to build and maintain and require more turf and water usage. Research presented by golf course architect Phil Ryan at the World Forum of Golf Architects in St. Andrews, Scotland, confirms my instinct. For 26 golf courses in the Melbourne, Australia area, the cost of maintaining the course increases by about 2 percent for each 100 meters of additional length, which is about the distance of two “extra” par-5 holes. 

But, if we started building even shorter courses, the savings would multiply. When money and water didn’t seem like a deterrent, developers touted 7,600-8,000 yard courses. The problem is, even most PGA Tour players have no chance to win and average golfers have no fun at all (the original goal of recreational golf, no?) on such long courses. Nearly 67,000 drives have exceeded 300 yards this year.

Since everyone focuses so much on the PGA Tour people actually over estimate the length of these players. Based on current Shot Link Data, only four Tour players average more than 300 yards for all tee shots and 300 yard plus tee shots account for less than 18 percent of the PGA Tour’s drives. However, golf fans think they are the norm. The mystery even Sherlock Holmes can’t unravel is why so much time is devoted to designing around today’s long hitters when they represent about .07 percent of all players, rounds and shots.

In honor of Sherlock Holmes, I propose “The .07 Percent Solution” whereby new designs simply ignore those long hitters and concentrate on building “companionship” courses (since this is why most golfers play) rather than championship courses for players and Tour Pros who probably never show up, leaving actual future users to not enjoy golf as much as they should. 

If we admit that we have all the “championship” courses we need for the 40-something men’s pro tournaments annually, we would nicely accommodate more than 97 percent of players on courses with maximum yardage of about 6800 yards. Yes, some longer hitters might migrate to other longer courses more suited to them. And, many golfers would need some convincing that their course is just as good, even without those “way back” tees that they use about as often as I date supermodels, (i.e., never). If these courses need hazards 300 yards down the fairway, narrow the fairway or rumple it up. But don’t spend money on hazards in those areas.

Those golf course developers who can’t be convinced to build a 6800-yard course should consider a reasonable maximum length of about 7250 yards, which wouldn’t cause too big an ego blow since that is just 5 percent shorter than a U.S. Open course. That length should only be considered if the first 200 yards off each back tee can be low maintenance areas and the back tees are only well hidden 15’ x 15’ areas (Trust me, these tees won’t get divot scarred) to save cost. 

I once wrote, “For better or worse, the opinion of your course is determined by better players.”  I think it’s for the worse. It may be time for golf courses to rethink the one-size-fits-all mentality moving forward. It rarely works for fashion or golf and future courses may have to be more specialized to target markets, instead of designing every new course for everyone, especially when the tendency is to design for Tour pros who aren’t likely to actually play.  

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Never has so much (design thought, acreage and length) been devoted to so few.” In this age of belt tightening, wasting resources on so few in so many places just doesn’t make sense.