Golfers who play for a living tend to look at courses the way the rest of us look at office cubicles – just a functional place in which to ply one’s trade. Sure, some feel more comfortable and fit the eye better than others, but you’re there to make money, not study the artistry of the workspace.
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw might be the best architects working today, but you didn’t hear Dustin Johnson analyze the finer strategic elements of their Plantation Course as he pulverized it on his way to an eight-shot victory in the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Nor was Tom Doak much on the players’ lips at the Sony Open, despite his work to restore the Seth Raynor traces at Waialae Country Club.
These are designers whose work many of us would cross an ocean to play, but for most Tour pros, curiosity about the architecture ends at knowing the name to blame in the event of a lousy score.
According to Golf Channel announcer Frank Nobilo, an elite player approaches a course not to marvel at its nuances but rather in search of its vulnerabilities.
“He finds the weakness and exploits it. You take the liberties that your own game allows,” Nobilo said.
Nobilo notes that Johnson hit driver on eight of the last nine holes at the Plantation Course.
”At no stage is he considering what the designer had in mind, or for that matter who they are,” Nobilo said. “He only thinks what advantage he can gain.”
A man doesn’t need to waste time mulling risk when he can fly it all and reap the reward.
A cynic might suggest that Tour players aren’t much interested in architecture because there isn’t much interesting architecture on Tour. “Ninety percent of the time we play courses that strategically don’t make any sense, or they’re at best uninteresting,” Geoff Ogilvy said.
The former U.S. Open champion isn’t alone in his thinking.
“The quality of courses from an architectural standpoint is very average,” Zac Blair said. “We play four or five each year that are very solid. Most of the others are pretty weak, honestly.”
Both Ogilvy and Blair said course setups are usually more frustrating than the actual design, with predictable rough and soft conditions encouraging a one-note, bomb-and-gouge style of play.
“Golf has gotten one dimensional at the elite level,” Ogilvy said. “If we played firm strategic courses more often, we would practice to get better at that test. But if you keep presenting Torrey Pines South, for example, where the farther you hit it the bigger advantage you have, we’re just going to go home, plug in the Trackman and hit it as hard as we can. Then go do some squats and deadlifts. Because that’s the question being asked.”
Those who don’t notice design flaws – or don’t care – can proceed with blissful ignorance to a nice check on Sunday. Those who do notice can get derailed.
“The majority are just, ‘Put up the prize money and I’ll come play,’” Ogilvy said. “If you’re passionate about it then it can definitely be a distraction. I’ve been known to get on rants for two or three holes about bunkers on outsides of doglegs or growing rough between bunkers and the fairway, stuff like that. And you don’t realize that you’ve just made three pars and a bogey on four easy holes.”
Ogilvy’s distaste for uneven architecture may explain why the 2008 U.S. Open was his only decent showing at Torrey Pines South, a layout that stands as testament to how far the name and accomplishments of one’s forebears can propel a career.
I asked Ogilvy how many non-major events he’d compete in if he only played courses that engaged his brain. Kapalua. Riviera. Pebble Beach … Long pause.
“I’m starting to run out of courses,” he said. “Which is a shame. It’s a business and we have to go where the money goes. But strategically interesting architecture generally produces better tournaments and winners. Augusta National is so good at finding the guy who has got every part of his game – including his head – going that week. That principle remains everywhere. The more interesting questions a course asks, the more the cream rises to the top.”
For those who are as passionate about playing great courses as they are about playing great golf, a danger posed by architecture is not so much its strategic hazards but its capacity to bore. And that’s when adopting the attitude that it’s just another cubicle becomes essential to getting the job done.
“There are times in your career where the sameness gets to you,” Nobilo cautioned. “Even the Messis of the world sometimes just have to play football.”
Golfweek, Jan. 14, 2018.