In the wake of the 2018 Ryder Cup, commentators pointed to the design and setup of host venue Le Golf National as a crucial factor in the European victory. Le Golf National has long been considered a ball-striker’s paradise, a course where accuracy off the tee and into the greens tends to be more important than raw power. Astutely, in preparing the venue for competition, Ryder Cup Europe grew out the rough and kept the fairways narrow. Team USA found its distance advantage largely neutralized, and Team Europe thrived on the ball-striking prowess of Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari.
Seeing this as a rare triumph of old-school precision over new-school power, some suggested that Le Golf National should be a model for future tour venues. This argument, which I will spend much of this post refuting, stems from a premise that actually I agree with: because of advances in ball, driver, and instructional technology, power off the tee has become a disproportionate advantage in the professional game.
With their freakish length—and their freakish accuracy relative to that length—players like Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka can overwhelm the tee-to-green defenses of nearly any course in the world. As a result, they often employ a “bomb-and-gouge” method, worrying little about the exact placement of their drives because as long as they keep the ball in play, they have short irons or wedges into most greens. For fans, the primary appeal of this type of golf is that it serves nicely as an Ambien alternative.
During the Ryder Cup, Le Golf National called for a more precise style of play. As the Europeans pulled away from the Americans in the Saturday four-ball matches, Brandel Chamblee urged the professional tours to take note:
As Chamblee’s commentary often does, this tweet set off a debate, much of it in the Golf Channel pundit’s favor. Particularly controversial was Chamblee’s insistence that Le Golf National offered “options galore off the tees and around the greens.” Some poked fun at this point…
… but many others agreed that the narrow, punishing characteristics of the Ryder Cup venue restored a rare element of “strategy” to the competition.
Understanding Le Golf National: Strategic vs. Penal Design
To golf course architecture enthusiasts, describing Le Golf National as strategic seems odd. This is partly due to customs of terminology.
Architecture wonks use the terms “strategic school” and “penal school” to define different philosophies of course design. The goal of the strategic school, as Geoff Shackelford puts it in his book Grounds for Golf, is to “present options for the player to debate, ultimately rewarding the more daring play carried out with skill.” The penalties for a poor shot are often subtle: an awkward lie, an obscured view of the green, an impossible angle to the pin. In order to create these scenarios, strategic courses generally have to provide width and plenty of short grass. The tighter the playing corridor, the fewer options the player has.
The penal school, on the other hand, prizes execution above all. Hazards are pushed to the sides of the fairways so that well-struck shots are consistently rewarded and poorly struck shots consistently punished. The penalties can be severe: deep rough, furrowed bunkers, thick foliage, and lots of water. Hole after hole, the course shows the player a patch of green surrounded by danger, and asks for a straight, true shot toward safety. To increase the challenge, the architect can simply make the safe area smaller.
In its Ryder Cup setup, Le Golf National was clearly penal.
A pair of caveats, though: 1) The distinction between the penal and strategic schools is often blurry, and the terms themselves can be simplistic and limiting. Many good holes combine penal and strategic traits, and others manage to escape the dichotomy altogether. 2) Not all so-called penal designs are bad. Some of the best courses, from Pine Valley to Oakmont to TPC Sawgrass, have strong penal features.
That said, to call the 2018 Ryder Cup venue “strategic” is a stretch. The holes did not offer an array of options. By and large, the course simply asked competitors to hit the fairway, preferably the middle, and then hit the green. These were not easy tasks, considering how small the landing zones were and how severe the hazards, so the purest ball-strikers—Fleetwood, Molinari, Garcia, Stenson—rose to the top. It was penal golf, and the Europeans were better at it.
Some still insist that Le Golf National demanded a specific kind of strategic thought: on many tees, players had to think twice about hitting driver. At most PGA Tour venues, mild setups allow bomb-and-gougers to operate with impunity. At Le Golf National, however, competitors had to calculate the risks and rewards of a long, potentially wild tee shot versus a shorter, likely accurate one.
No doubt this is a form of strategy. It just isn’t a very interesting one.
First, it requires almost nothing of the course design. Just mow a straight, 15-yard-wide fairway, grow ankle-high rough on both sides, and voila! You’ve made Tony Finau question whether he should pull driver.
Another problem is that penal courses suppress the diversity of recovery shots. When you miss, you are either hacking out or taking a drop. Compare that to the array of punches, flops, runners, and blind Hail Marys you might attempt when out of position at the Old Course or Royal Melbourne or Sand Hills.
I will tip my hat to one aspect of Le Golf National’s setup. As Ethan Zimman reminded me on Twitter, many of the greens were surrounded by contoured, closely mown grass. As a result, players used a variety of clubs—wedge, putter, mid-iron, hybrid—to get up and down. These were the most interesting shots of the Ryder Cup, testimony to the enduring charm of undulating ground covered with short grass.
Off the tee, however, Le Golf National was strategic only in the most meager sense. At best, it asked players to calculate their own dispersion patterns against the width of the corridor. At worst, it forced everyone to play to the same spots.
On the first hole, a lake cut in at about 280 yards, leaving a sliver of fairway between water on the left and brutal rough on the right. No Ryder Cupper in his right mind would have challenged those hazards with driver. The result was players selecting a long iron and aiming for the broadest part of the fairway. It was a buzzkill, and it was not interesting golf.
When golf course architects speak of options off the tee, they usually have in mind a wide playing field with hazards that ask golfers to choose between multiple angles of attack. Consider, for instance, Alister MacKenzie’s sketch of the par-5 14th hole at the Old Course.
Now that is a strategic hole. Staring down a narrow chute and trying to decide between a wood and a driving iron? That’s barely anything.
Contemplating the Future of Tournament Golf
In the past 25 years, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour has increased by 38 yards. This trend shows no signs of stopping. Every year, more and more players who came of age in the era of 460cc driver heads, solid-core balls, and Trackman-assisted instruction arrive on the PGA Tour. As the usual outlets reported last week in their usual breathless way, Web Tour graduate Cameron Champ averaged almost 130 miles per hour in clubhead speed at the Safeway Open. Luke List led the field in driving distance at 339.5 yards.
339.5. No golf course in the world is big enough to contain that kind of power merely by adding length.
The way I see it, professional tours and their host venues have three options going forward:
- Do nothing. Most casual fans have no problem with pros overpowering courses. Lowest score still wins. Why agonize over how that score gets achieved? Moving people off of this position is a challenge. (Trust me, I’ve tried.) But if you watch an old Masters or Ryder Cup broadcast, especially one from before the advent of the Pro V1, you cannot help but understand that elite golf used to be more varied and eccentric. Taking a big lash with a driver was a risk—the misses were more frequent and more drastic—so bombers had less of an advantage. Golfers could ride their own distinctive styles to the top of the game. Corey Pavin could go toe-to-toe with Greg Norman, Tom Kite with Davis Love III. Also, players sometimes hit long irons, even woods (!), into par 4s. This type of shot, when executed well, is thrilling. If the status quo remains, there will be fewer and fewer those thrills, and more and more false enthusiasm for “modern athletes” squatting and snapping their way to 420-yard dingers.
- Le Golf National-ize professional venues. I have already outlined my objections to the penal school of architecture, but I will add one point. If we follow Brandel Chamblee’s prescription, we will be faced with tough questions about perennial hosts like Augusta, Riviera, and Wentworth. Even after all of the depressing changes these courses have made over the years to defend themselves, their strategic features will continue to be rendered null and void as pros get longer. So we can either stop visiting those courses (unappealing and unlikely) or set them up with thicker rough, tighter fairways, harder greens, and other affronts to their original architectural intent. The surviving designs of Alister MacKenzie, George Thomas, and Harry Colt are among our game’s most precious resources. We should not allow them to be plundered.
- Embrace wide, truly strategic venues. Obviously this is what I hope we do. But it would be tricky. Maybe too tricky.
At many strategic courses, modern tour pros take advantage of the width to hit their tee shots so far that angles no longer matter.
Consider the 13th hole at Augusta, long regarded as one of the world’s greatest par 5s.
The goal of the design was to bait the player into placing his drive as near as possible to Rae’s Creek on the left. There, he would find a level lie and a good angle down the length of the green. Reaching in two would be possible, if daring. The farther away from the creek the player got, the shallower the target grew—and the higher the propensity for a pull into the water or, perhaps worse, into the short-game graveyard beyond the green. The hole could be endlessly wide to the right; if the player wanted a chance at eagle, he would not bail out in that direction.
Nowadays, most competitors in the Masters hit the ball so far that they have no incentive to challenge Rae’s Creek. An approach from a hook lie to a shallow green isn’t so scary when you have a short iron in your hands. In fact, if there weren’t trees along the right side of the fairway (planted post-MacKenzie and multiplied in the early 2000s), I bet players would 1) always use driver and 2) aim at least 100 yards to the right of the creek. They would still get it up there far enough to make the angle of approach irrelevant.
Watching Amen Corner Live during the most recent Masters, I saw one player use the old strategy on the 13th hole. Day after day, Bernhard Langer attempted to place his drive on the flat section of fairway near Rae’s Creek. As a viewing experience, it was strikingly different: more suspenseful, more interesting, more fun.
On the 2018 Champions Tour, the 60-year-old Langer averaged 283.3 yards off the tee. He would have ranked ninth-to-last in this category on the PGA Tour.
Lol, No, Clearly It’s the Equipment
In order for the best principles of course design and strategy to be part of the professional game in the future, either the driver or the ball has to be reined in. Otherwise, width will always struggle to produce the intended strategy for yoked Joey D clients whose heel strikes go 310 in the air.
Take the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills and the 2018 Byron Nelson at Trinity Forest. Both courses were wide and strategic, but the combination of benign weather, soft setups, and juiced technology allowed bombers to render angles irrelevant.
The 2018 U.S. Open veered to the other extreme. At Shinnecock Hills, restored to its original broad dimensions by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the USGA pushed the greens to the brink, eliciting some strategic play—for once, angles mattered—along with a lot of whining from competitors. I doubt the USGA will risk a similar PR headache anytime soon.
But more to the point, as Michael Clayton reminded us on Twitter, classic courses did not have ridiculously fast greens when they were built, should not need them as a last defense, and would not need them as much if equipment were rolled back.
I won’t go deeper into this topic because, to be honest, I’m tired of the debate. Suffice it to say that concerns about venues will always, inevitably intersect with concerns about equipment.
Why Should We Care?
Golfers can go back and forth all they want about the minutiae of strategic and penal design, tournament venue setup, and modern equipment, but a majority may ultimately decide that none of this matters. It’s just tour golf, after all. There are millions of golfers in the world, and not many can overpower a 7,500-yard course. Why worry?
One answer is that the golf played by the few hundred members of the PGA and European Tours has a huge influence on the health and future of the game.
Televised golf is a big business and a major means of attracting new people to the sport. Especially as Tiger Woods gets older, the elite game needs to be as compelling an entertainment product as possible. Long drives are impressive, no doubt. But people don’t cheer for TopTracer numbers. They cheer for inventive recovery shots, precise approaches, and holed pitches. They care about personalities, contrasts in style, and unlikely success stories. Good golf courses, set up and played in the intended manner, tend to bring out these dynamics in competition.
Another reason venues matter is that the courses themselves matter. Augusta, Riviera, and the Old Course are landmarks in the history of golf design. They should be the Sistine Chapels of our game. But because of how far tour pros hit the ball, all three courses have been lengthened, narrowed, and tarnished.
But even more important is that televised tournaments offer a profoundly influential vision of golf. Consciously or not, many golfers desire what they see on TV. They want lush fairways and fast greens. They want a par of 70 to 72 and a yardage of at least 7,000. They want a “championship course.” And they may view the quirkiness and unpredictability of strategic design with suspicion.
Fortunately, even in the face of these sentiments, the past twenty years have seen a revival of “Golden Age” golf architecture. Clubs have restored vintage courses to great acclaim, and neoclassicists like Bill Coore, Tom Doak, and Gil Hanse seem to get every promising new site. There is reason for optimism.
At the same time, for everyday golfers who have discovered the joys of great architecture, the pro game, as currently presented, may seem increasingly distant and sterile. If you are a member of, say, Ballyneal, or if you have completed a pilgrimage to Bandon Dunes, or if you simply plunk down $25 every Friday afternoon to chop it around Rustic Canyon, how could you regard the weekly strokeplay bomb-fest at the likes of TPC Kuala Lumpur as anything other than a missed opportunity?
Golf is a beautiful, exciting game. Let’s not stage tournaments that make it look dull.