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Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Intent of the Architect

"The intent of the architect" is a phrase we've heard often this week. There's been a great deal of talk about how Coore & Crenshaw restored Pinehurst #2 to the way original architect Donald Ross intended it to play. I don't question that at all, especially since much of the restoration was done using actual aerial photographs of the course taken during its heyday during the 1940s.

View at Pinehurst #2

However, I have to question whether the USGA has really kept that intent in mind -- especially after watching the 3rd round of the US Open on Saturday. The players are saying all the right things, but I have a friend who used to be a Tour caddie and still talks to Tour caddies. He tells me the players are, shall we say, "less satisfied" with the setup than they're saying in public.

Am I saying the course setup is unfair? No... but I'm not so certain this is a question of being fair or unfair.

It's a question of intent.

You see, the USGA has "intent" of its own. It has its own ideas about what kind of conditions are necessary to create a suitable test of golf, a test adequate to determine our national champion. Traditionally, their intent is to create a course where par is the winning score -- they can say it isn't, but we all know better because we see how the course setups change when someone "goes too low" -- and, to that end, they typically incorporate the following methodology:
  • Fast but narrow fairways (to test driving accuracy)
  • Hard greens that are extremely fast (hard, to test the precision of approach and short game shots; and fast, to test the player's putting touch)
  • Extremely thick rough around greens and fairways (to create a substantial penalty if a target is missed)
  • Prominent hazards (to intimidate players, thus testing their nerve)
The net effect of this methodology is to challenge the players' ability to strategize and just generally make good decisions. And there's nothing wrong with their intent.

But the architect employs a methodology of his own in order to achieve HIS intent. During the TV coverage we've been shown the sign Donald Ross erected on the first hole of Pinehurst #2; no doubt you've seen it:
I sincerely believe this course to be the fairest test of championship golf that I have ever designed. It is obviously the function of the championship course to present the competitors with a variety of problems that will test every type of shot which a golfer of championship quality should be qualified to play. Thus, it should call for long and accurate tee shots, accurate iron play, precise handling of the short game and, finally, consistent putting.
At first glance, Ross and the USGA appear to share the same intent. The big question, however, is what happens when the USGA's methodology interferes with the architect's methodology? What happens when intents collide?

In this case, I think Donald Ross lost out. I'll give the USGA credit for making some concessions to Ross in this championship... but ultimately, they ignored his intent in favor of their own. As a result, we haven't seen Pinehurst play as Ross desired.

The USGA accepted some of the Ross methodology:
  • Wider fairways with hard edges meant that wilder drives got worse lies and worse angles into the greens. (" should call for long and accurate tee shots...")
  • The "stuff" that took the place of the thick rough is a concession to Ross, who clearly believed the penalty for a missed fairway at Pinehurst shouldn't be a hack out but rather a less-than-desirable lie. Players can still advance the ball but may not be able to play the shot they really wanted... or needed. ("...accurate iron play...")
  • The hard ground surrounding the greens leaves players with difficult recovery shots ("...precise handling of the short game...")
Rather than a harsh penalty that automatically cost the player shots, Ross set up his course to allow players to make great recovery shots to compensate for the poor shots and thus still turn in a good score.

It's on the greens that the USGA made a mockery of Donald Ross. Martin Kaymer told reporters that any shot within 25-30 feet of the pin was a good shot, and that the pin on 18 was the only one he could attack. Ironically, Phil Mickelson said basically the same thing:
“Pins were very difficult. The only birdie pin I thought was 18. But the greens were receptive; it wasn't unfair,” Mickelson said. “I kept waiting. Well, I can't get to this one, I'll get to maybe the next hole. Can't get to this one, I'll get to the next hole. Finally, we got to the 18th and I'm like, ‘I can get to the pin.’”
Does anyone truly believe that such shenanigans were the intent of Donald Ross? At the time Ross designed Pinehurst #2, stimp speeds of 8-9 were common so his greens were designed with that in mind. The greens were contoured so that well-struck approach shots would stay somewhat near the hole while poorly-struck shots would ricochet off.

It's one thing if a well-struck shot has to be stopped somewhere near the center of the green in order to hold that green. It's one thing if a well-struck shot can be stopped near a pin in the middle of the green but not near a pin on the edges of the green. It's one thing if you place the pins near the edges of the greens where, if a putt from the center of the green is struck too hard, the ball can roll off the green.

But I'm pretty sure that having 25-30 foot putts on almost every green, even if the pin is well away from the edges of the green, does NOT qualify as the "consistent putting" Ross claimed his course called for. And I'm even more sure that having to land the ball in an area the size of a kitchen table just to get that ridiculously long putt isn't what Ross had in mind when he called for "accurate iron play."

This is a case of the USGA ignoring the obvious design of the golf course in order to "protect par." (Don't even get me started on that rant!) Stimping those greens at anything above 10-11 is criminal. And making it impossible to attack pins -- by forcing players to play away from most holes just so they can hold the green -- is not what I call "competition." Why don't we just penalize players for making birdies and be done with it?

Yeah, I know everybody had to play the same course; that's why I'm not saying the setup was unfair. As far as I'm concerned, whether Pinehurst #2 was a "fair" test on Saturday is a question for someone else to debate. But I'm pretty sure that the setup of the greens was nowhere near the "intent of the architect."

The photo came from the Pinehurst #2 page at


  1. Insightful comments.

    I am just reading Robert Trent Jones, Golf by design.

    Is there anything else you would recommend on Architects intentions

  2. I'm getting ready to start reading Geoff Shackelford's Grounds for Golf. The illustrations are by Gil Hanse, who re-did Doral and is building the Olympic course in Rio. I expect it to be pretty good.

  3. Very apt post again, Mike. I was fortunate to play the Valley course at Royal Portrush yesterday and was faced with the same musings about fairness and intent.

    I have never struck the ball better but the course setup was less than fair which led to a walk off after 9 (I know, I'm a quitter - more RMac than GMac). The rough was unreal. Lost ball every time. Approach shots that we're no more than 10 yards off line - gone, without a trace. I accept that a links course's main defence is the rough but a 248yd par 3 into a headwind with a green surrounded by humps and hollows has plenty of defence without punishing rough, I think anyone would agree. Did the architect want the rough to be a foot high right next to the green or was it the greenkeeper's decision? Who knows?

    So what is a fair test? Where is the balance between challenging and penalising? I think that a course should be a test of skill not just accuracy. Didn't Hogan say that a straight shot was a fluke? A course should test a player's imagination not pummel them into submission. Give them a shot at redemption not eternal damnation. We marvel at and remember those shots when a player has an opportunity to recover by demonstrating their creativity with a golf club. I only had one such opportunity yesterday from then on there was no recovery. For me. Or the course. I doubt I'll play there again (at least not until winter when the growth is much reduced).

    Perhaps this post is tinged with sour grapes from a bruised ego but I have played on proper championship courses and never felt as hard done by after the round. I have seen how the architect has intended the hole to be played, the risks and rewards. All yesterday's course set up said was don't even think about hitting any approach shots with anything more than a putter. Fair enough if you belong to the upper echelons of the amateur game but not for recreational golfers.

    How much more frustrating is it for the professional that has the shots but the course is bullet-proofed against them? Par 4s that are actually par 5s like last year must be hard to stomach.

  4. JB, maybe weather or something had kept them from keeping the rough in check, since most of the comments I've heard about the course are positive. (I've never been there myself.) And now the R&A have offered Royal Portrush a chance to be part of the Open rota, so those conditions must have been an aberration.

    But that doesn't reduce the disappointment, does it? Sometimes those in charge of well-respected courses seem to feel that their course has to be an almost impossible challenge in order to retain that label. I think that's part of the reason the growth of golf as a whole is stumbling a bit. Most people have enough trouble in their lives already; a sport that strikes them as masochistic isn't attractive at all. ;-)