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Courses Selected For Major Championships

The design of courses on which major championships are played has considerable influence on the evaluation and development of golf course architecture. It is pertinent, therefore, to consider whether those championships should be confined to historic venues or whether there should be a progression toward more modern tests of golf.

A compelling reason for staying with historic venues is that they are the places where so much of golf history has been made. The richness of golf history is one of the game's more important features. It is a prime factor in the promulgation of golf's traditions that are so universally observed. Those traditions give the foundations of the game the stability that endures in an environment that changes virtually from one day to the next.

One example of history's import should suffice - that is, Merion, where so much history has been added to golf's legacy. It was there that Bobby Jones played the ultimate chapter in the saga that is the Grand Slam. Its history-making credentials also include being the venue for the Open playoff between Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino in their respective primes.

Merion has hosted more U.S. Golf Association events—17 of them—than any club in America since golf came to the club in 1895. That’s when a group of members from Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, just outside Philadelphia, took up golf. But in 15 years, the much livelier Haskell ball made the layout obsolete. The board of governors decided to build a new course two miles away, in Ardmore, under the direction of member Hugh Wilson.

In 1916 the East course hosted the U.S. Amateur. Chicago’s Charles “Chick” Evans won, becoming the first to capture the Amateur and the Open in the same year. The only other player to achieve this extraordinary double also competed in the 1916 Amateur. Fourteen-year-old Bobby Jones astonished the golf world by carding the low score of 74 on the West course to earn a match-play berth, then gained the third round before losing to Gardner.

When Jones returned to Merion for the 1924 U.S. Amateur, he won every match effortlessly, downing Francis Ouimet, 11 & 10, in the semifinal, and George Von Elm, 9 & 8, in the final. In 1930, having won the British Amateur, British Open and U.S. Open, Jones came to Merion confident of winning the U.S. Amateur to complete the Grand Slam. Of course, he again won easily and not two months later, announced his retirement. Jones’ career had commenced as a lad of 14 at Merion, and 14 years later that is where it ended in sublime triumph.

The routing of the East course has remained unchanged for decades. There is balance, diversity and an overall elevation change of about 55 feet. No two holes are even remotely alike. There are boundaries on both sides of play—on the first nine, usually on the right, on the second nine, usually on the left. There is a mix of short and long holes—five par 4s measure less than 400 yards, while two stretch more than 500. In addition, the par 3s range from 120 to 246 yards. The greens come in all shapes, sizes and settings. And every green except the 1st, 12th and 18th is visible from its tee.

In 1934 Merion hosted its first U.S. Open, won by California’s Olin Dutra, who edged Gene Sarazen by a stroke. Nobody noticed that a 21-year-old named Ben Hogan, playing in his first U.S. Open, shot 79–79 to miss the cut. The U.S. Open returned in 1950. Ben Hogan, 16 months after a near-fatal auto accident, vowed that he was ready to compete on his battered legs over 72 holes, the final 36 on a single pressure-filled day. With nine holes remaining, Hogan found himself in the lead. But after a bogey on the 17th, the cushion was gone. And he had trudged nearly nine miles on those fragile legs since breakfast.

Following a perfect drive on the up-down-up 18th, he pulled his 1-iron out of the bag and made the swing immortalized by photographer Hy Peskin. The ball landed on the front left of the green. The weary Hogan took plenty of time on the 40-foot lag putt and very little time holing the four-footer to tie George Fazio and Lloyd Mangrum. The next day, now revived, Hogan shot 69 in the playoff to win. “Merion meant the most,” Hogan said, “because I proved I could still win.” Nicklaus once said, “Acre for acre, it may be the best test of golf in the world.”

Another compelling attraction of historic venues is their utility in providing a variety of benchmarks. One is for comparing great players from different generations. Another is a measure of the effects of athleticism and technology on how the game is played. We can see those effects more clearly on a venue where 10 or more years have elapsed since the previous Open was played there than we can on sites to which tour events return every year.

A decision to use a historic venue has to take account of how the modern game is evolving. The prime ingredient in that evolution is how far the ball is being hit. In the current context, if historic venues are going to be used, they have to be adaptable to accommodate that factor. Here again, Merion provides a useful example. The USGA had to decide whether Merion could be effectively adapted. There was some room for adding distance, but the jury is out on how effective it has been and we will not have a decision until the Open is played there in 2013.

If the so-called modern game, with orbiting tee shots and U grooves, continues to be the game's future, suitable historic sites for major championships are going to be increasingly difficult to locate. The problems involved in adapting historic venues to the modern game puts into useful perspective the import of effectively controlling and moderating the distance factor to rebalance the playing of the game and preserve the classic courses.

I would also consider how site selection could affect the basic elements of course design. If there were a suitable site that had links-course features, I would include that in the rota. I think that the links game, which requires accommodating how far the ball moves after it hits the ground and includes appropriate elements of chance in the result, is a far more interesting game than the point-to-point, in-the-air game played virtually everywhere in this country.

Augusta National as the venue for the Masters provides an example of the impact of site selection on golf course architecture. As that championship has evolved, the pace of the greens has become a central feature. A consequence has been that green speeds on other courses, particularly in the U.S., have increased exponentially, too often well beyond what the contours can sensibly handle.

While courses selected for major championships must be designed and set up so as to identify the premier players and history should be the predominant venue selection factor, the process should take account of the game's future as well as of its past.

In the early 20th century, a group of gifted visionaries produced designs that remain the gold standard of golf course architecture. After helping establish the U.S. Golf Association and winning the first U.S. Amateur in 1895, Charles Blair Macdonald bemoaned the state of American golf at the start of the 20th century: few players and even fewer courses, of inferior quality than those in the British Isles. A man of big ideas, Macdonald conceived a simple solution: Start building.

His resulting masterpiece, the National Golf Links of America, a world-class links featuring adaptations of Britain's greatest holes on the sandy soil of eastern Long island, opened in 1911 and ushered in the Golden Age of golf course architecture, an era that would never be matched in the number and quality of courses.

Francis Ouimet spurred the growth of the Golden Age with his victory at the 1913 U.S. Open. Over the next 20-plus years, more than 5,000 courses opened in the U.S. Included were some of the game's grandest cathedrals - Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pine Valley Golf Club, Augusta National Golf Club, Pinehurst No. 2 and Los Angeles Country Club still reign atop golf's A-List. "The Golden Age was a rare and fortuitous coming together of circumstances, talent and ideas," says golf course architect and historian Bill Coore. "These guys were brilliant engineers and designers, but they also understood the psychological elements. They dared and tempted golfers."

There is no better example of the spirit and philosophy of the Golden Age than Pine Valley. Carved out of New Jersey pine scrub, this layout lures the golfer to its edges with the prospects of more inviting angles and better scoring opportunities. Greed, however, can exact a high price. The sole course attributed to George Crump, who died before construction was completed, Pine Valley actually benefited from a "dream team" of Golden Age designers who walked and worked the grounds.

Englishman H.S. Colt often receives a co-designer credit, but most of the major architects of the day lent a hand. A.W. Tillinghast, who created Winged Foot and Bethpage Black, inspired the infamous "Hell's Half Acre" bunker on the par-5 seventh. Budding architect and charter member George C. Thomas spent much time on site. So did Alister Mackenzie, who went on to co-design Augusta National. William S. Flynn, a protege of Hugh Wilson (who designed Merion) completed the construction of Pine Valley following Crump's death. "After Pine Valley, anything seemed possible," says Golden Age scholar Mark Fine. "You had all these great architects working on all kinds of properties. Seaside sites. Mountain sites. Meadows. Deep forests. They applied the strategic tests of the great links to this wide range of topography. Their genius was a sense for how the land moved, and they put golf on top of it."

While most historians mark the end of the Golden Age in 1936 with Perry Maxwell's Southern Hills Country Club, the principles that guided that generation are at the fore of a renaissance movement today. Coore and partner Ben Crenshaw, Tom Doak, Gil Hanse and others have turned back the pages with courses like Sand Hills Golf Club (Coore and Crenshaw) and Pacific Dunes (Doak), which reject the heroic and penal styles that dominated post-World War II projects. "The things that make golf fun haven't changed much," Coore notes. "Golden Age designers studied the great links courses and applied those same natural and strategic characteristics in their own work. That golfers still love those old courses today says a lot. And I think modern architects are listening."
Frank (Sandy) Tatum. Major Designs. Links Magazine. January/February 2007.



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