How Golf Lost Its Way

May 18, 2013

If you've ever had young kids at home, then you know what it's like to need to be in two places at once, to have only a few extra dollars in your pocket and to fervently wish for a few extra hours in every day. Unfortunately, the reality of the game today is that it takes too long, costs too much and is generally way too difficult. How did we get here? The common perception is that this is a recent phenomenon brought on by modern equipment and the multi-piece ball, but in reality, this problem is nothing new. In fact, it's been slowly creeping up on us for more than 50 years.

If you want to locate the Original Sin moment in modern course design, you have to go all the way back to 1951. Robert Trent Jones Sr. redesigned Oakland Hills to toughen up the Donald Ross track for the 1951 U.S. Open. After Ben Hogan won the tournament, he said, "I'm glad I brought this course, this monster, to its knees." Hogan also said to Jones's wife, Ione, "If your husband had to play this course for a living, you'd be on the breadline." No subtlety there!

By the mid-1960s, golfers began to confuse a course's difficulty with its quality. The lists we have now of the "Greatest Courses" started out as the "Most Difficult Courses." The perception took hold that a course couldn't be great without being hard. Televised golf also played a role by encouraging golfers to revere courses like Augusta National and the U.S. Open tracks they saw on TV. Suddenly, it wasn't enough to play an enjoyable round; people started seeking out the most difficult courses they could find.

Yet another factor that exacerbated this trend was the boom in residential golf development. Sea Pines, the site of Harbour Town, was probably the first golf course real estate development in which the developer controlled everything. From the 1960s until 2000, these residential developers were the dominant force in course construction, and their aim was not to create great tracks. Instead, the primary goal was to sell land. Routings were designed and lengthened to increase perimeter acreage so that more housing lots could be accommodated. Add on monstrous clubhouses that are costly to sustain, and everything about golf became more expensive.

By the 1980s, the "hard equals good" philosophy was in full bloom. At PGA West, Pete Dye was asked to build the most difficult course possible. The developers wanted buzz, and Pete gave it to them. And all this happened before metal woods, graphite shafts, and the multi-piece ball. To blame golf's problems today on technology alone shows a lack of historical perspective. The real issue is that at some point we lost sight of what a course should be — a fun, contiguous, walkable layout that can be played in a reasonable amount of time.

Sadly, I'm not sure there's a quick fix for this problem. We can't go back and reroute these overly difficult courses. While it's encouraging to see places like Bandon Dunes embrace a return to fun, walkable courses, it's still not the norm. One thing is for certain: The type of courses built in the last half of the 20th century are not sustainable moving forward.
This column appeared in the June 2013 issue of Golf Magazine.