Medaling with Soulful Design

No. 10 at Pine Valley, famed par-3 on a course that is just not "regulation" enough to make a tour pro feel confident that skill will prevail over the luck of the bounce and roll

A field of 144 professionals. Four 18-hole rounds. On a course measuring 7,100 yards. Playing to a par of 36-36—72. With a 36-hole cut to the low 70 and ties. The winner shoots, oh, 68-66-70-67—271, for a one-stroke victory. The runner-up, interviewed afterward, cites a bogey on 14 he couldn’t overcome and tells a consoling TV interviewer about a mud blob on the side of his golf ball that brought about defeat.

This is medal-play golf in America, in all its ponderous minutiae. It can’t afford to be quirky and unpredictable, because if it were the luckiest guy in the field, not the most skilled, might end up fondling that big check for $520,000 on Sunday afternoon. And the massive effort and expense of conducting a stroke-play golf tour would be reduced to folly.

For the sake of full disclosure (as we say in journalism lately), if I were among the few hundred golfers who could play for the big purse every week, I too would be out there on those laser-graded fairways asking if my yardage to the hole was indeed 187 and not, in fact, 188. And a mud blob three dimples wide would be a subject I’d discuss not only with the interviewer but with my swing coach, my psychologist, my chiropractor and my cat.

Instead I’m seated at a desk, attempting to hyphenate and justify sundry views and opinions. This column’s passionate conviction was going to be that the term “great match-play course” was a meaningless throwaway line, worth throwing away entirely. To test the theory, I ran it past some well-traveled golf people. One of those aforementioned TV interviewers, NBC’s Mark Rolfing, at least partially confirmed my suspicions.

“It comes in handy when you need to be polite and don’t know what else to say,” said Rolfing of the phrase. “Kind of like when you’re on a blind date and no one will say anything about the person you’re meeting except ‘Great personality!’”

Another means of discrediting the phrase is to ask whether there is a great medal-play course—Oakland Hills, Pebble Beach, Pinehurst No. 2, you-name-it—that wouldn’t also serve as a great match-play course? This issue’s cover subject, Sam Torrance, answered in a two words:

“Hmm. No.”

So far, so good, until I put the question to Tim Liddy, an Indianapolis-based course designer with a cerebral approach to things. Liddy collaborates often with Pete Dye and also works solo, most recently teaming with Dye on the well-received Bridgewater Club in Westfield, Ind. He contends that everyday match-play golf is [ital is] golf, and that the bouncy, baffling, swerving, heaving, tilting, semi-blind golf holes of early British links are what golf holes ought to be—to the extent the land will allow. It’s only when you redefine golf to fit the professional stroke-play tournament model that these values get eclipsed.

If courses were boats, Liddy’s preferred vessels would be tall-masted wooden sailing ships, tacking and rolling as nature dictates, not diesel-driven cruise liners plowing from point A to point B. He doesn’t begrudge pro golf its need for quirk-free playing grounds, he only wishes tour-tailored medal-play layouts had less influence on course design in general.

The two forms of competition, stroke and match, differ for the architect in that stroke-play competitors can’t reasonably afford more than a one-shot or perhaps two-shot error, or the week would be a bust after two iffy swings. Their misplays have to add up to 6, not 11, thus the courses they play have to penalize errors in a carefully calibrated manner. No Devil’s-Whatever bunkers in front of the green, nor much of anything from the Pine Valley wild-man/poet/mad artist school of design. In golf’s original form of scorekeeping, the penalty was mere loss of hole for landing in one these hellaciously inescapable hazards. Which made them, if not exactly reasonable (that’s not the goal, anyway) then at least legitimate.

“With the stakes so high in a tour event, there’s a sense that everything has to be fair, with leads to everything having to be perfect, which in turn leads to things being artificial,” sighs Liddy.

This style of architectural shouldn’t hold much inherent appeal, but there it is week after week on television, that droning cruise ship of a golf course, being played by the world’s best. The average American who hires a course designer can’t help pointing to it and saying: “One like that.” Which is how we end up with a duller game than we rightly deserve.

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