Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Biarritz Green

THe Biarritz at Yale, argueably the best of the bunch.

The original Biarritz was the famous chasm hole at the Biarritz Golf Club in France. The hole was known for its incredible carry over a stunning 50 foot deep and 100 foot wide cut in the cliffs to a peninsula below. The hole was designed by Willie Dunn and featured a tee eighty feet above the ocean playing 220 yards away to a green sitting 50 feet above the ocean hard up against the cliffs. The lighthouse in the background and sweeping ocean view made this one of the most famous holes in its day. This was also one of the holes that influenced the thinking of Charles Blair MacDonald when he went on his trip of Europe to find and document the best holes in golf in preparation for his work at The National Golf Links of America (NLGA).

At NLGA his original plan was to make the 15th hole a “Biarritz” of around 225 yards, but that got changed as the design for the NLGA evolved. He did not use the Biarritz concept at NLGA, although he went on to use the idea (or at least Raynor did on his behalf) at a number of the courses he and Raynor designed. These include; Yale, Piping Rock, Chicago and the Creek Club. There are thought to be 30 Biarritz’s in existence today.

So what is the Biarritz concept? The original hole featured a 100 yard carry over a chasm, but that is not what caught MacDonald’s eye. What caught his interest were two concepts. First, the fairway and green on the other side were flanked by two strip bunkers making accuracy paramount from the tee. This did allow players to be short as long as they were straight. Second, the green was cited on a natural plateau a few feet above the fairway that keeping all but the best shots off the green. If you can imagine this was a daunting shot from 225 yards away, so much so that the hole was shortened a series of times before its final disappearance (to become housing).

MacDonald took the concept of the natural plateau, the strip bunkers and the role of the slope in the difficulty of the hole. He brought all three together and then modified the idea into what he thought was a superior hole. MacDonald not only had the plateau “green”, he used the defense idea of the front slope in a different but equally effective way by creating a broad swale. The swale still needed to be in carried or “run through” to get to the green (I have never seen any reference to the original having the swale). Then where the Biarritz found its current form, MacDonald made the front a “plateau” like the back. The hole at Yale with its higher back plateau has more roots to the original than others, but either way they all are equally as interesting to play.

Where evolution took this one step further was the front seems to be intended to be fairway, but at some clubs (Chicago and Yale originally) the front was cut to green height creating a most fascinating version of the double plateau green. It is not known whether this was the idea of Raynor, MacDonald, Banks or a green chairman but never the less it made MacDonald’s creation even more fun to play. The result was many clubs now have greens with high plateau fronts, a massive deep swale running across the centre, and a high back plateau. That green is now commonly referred to as the Biarritz green. When MacDonald built his first one at Piping Rock it was quickly referred to as MacDonald’s folly (the hole at Piping rock had the approach and swale as fairway and the green as the back plateau). Now each and everyone of them is cherished and protected by the club.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

My Comments on RCGA Canadian Golf Study

Kids playing on the Eden coiurse at St. Andrew's

First off I needed a break from architecture, because the hole series took a lot out of me. So I thought I would look at the most current news, although I’m admittedly a few days late on this item.

The RCGA released a study about golf a few days ago and I feel like commenting on some of the key numbers. Golf participation in Canada is 21.5 per cent. I must admit I’m surprised that participation equates to one in five, but we have always been known for one of the highest participation rates anywhere in the world. But when I looked into why it became obvious. Playing one round or company scramble counted as participation – this leads to 20% participation rate according to the survey. To me this number has no meaning.

The number that matters is the number of core golfers which is defined as people who play eight or more rounds a year. This group grew supposedly by 47.5 per cent since 2001. Does that seem like an unreasonable amount to you? It sure does to me. Through my own anecdotal evidence I have watched friends come into the game in the last 10 years only to leave in large numbers in the last five. Why? “The game costs too much and takes to long to play” is there standard reasoning. I find it hard to believe we have this much growth in a time when the largest region is in a sharp decline.

Now I get the ideas that this is not an issue in Saskatchewan and other smaller population centers where green fees did not take off recently. I get that Toronto is actually only a part of Canadian golf, but tell me how does the area that comprises almost as many players as the next three largest playing provinces combined - not show up in the numbers. Again when you look deeper in the polling it was proportional and this would make a huge impact on the numbers. It was made with an equal representation from provinces and right down the regions – this methodology makes Toronto and Montreal largely disappear despite representing close to half of all Canadian golfers. How can this be an accurate assessment of the game in Canada? I believe the survey was done intentionally this way to “help” the numbers along. This is not to suggest a conspiracy, but to point out consultants often find a way to deliver what people want to here.

Where this all gets confusing is the contrasting information with other major bodies in golf. We started the new millennium with 3 consecutive drops of 10% each - for the participation rate in golf - according to the National Golf Foundation. While I will concede that they are American based, but I still find it very hard to believe that Canada is running in complete opposite direction of the US. All I want is an accurate sense of where we are and where we are headed and I don’t believe this survey is releable.

Finally the survey confirms what has worried me all along – that junior participation is dropping. I think the Tiger Factor that everyone got a free ride from does not draw in new players anymore. The awe we and our kids once had for him wonder has largely run its course and kids are on to new heroes and new sports. We are back to cost being the single most important determination of participation in golf. As a parent with a child who plays, I know the cost is tough to deal with because many courses do not offer junior discounts near as much as they did when I was a young.

Affordability is the top barrier to increasing participation in the game of golf. The smaller centers are still healthy, but the large centers are not. I don’t see how this survey could not possibly pick that up when the rest of us see it so clearly.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

18 Holes – Day #18 - 10th at San Francisco

The incredible 10th tee shot. The trees on the right are now long gone and the view is opened back up.

Well this is the last hole and another unconventional choice. The 10th at San Francisco is the finest example of correct use of scale that I know, this is a hard technique to explain and an even more difficult technique to use. I wanted to talk about scale during this list but I must admit this quality is the most elusive and requires an intuitive feel for space. I would honestly say that there are no more than a handful of architects that can work at a large scale. I have even seen a few good ones try to go to a large scale to disastrous results. I will spend this entire piece trying to explain how Tillinghast did it, and this may be to mixed results too, for this is a hard principle to get.

The aerial is crucial to understanding this hole, so I recommend you look at it often as reference. From tree line to tree line the clearing for the 9th and 10th fairway is 300 yards wide! What it does is create one of the grandest views from any clubhouse in golf. The hard part for Tillinghast was to find a way to make the 9th 10th and 18th holes not get lost in that much space. It would be overly simple to say that Tillinghast increased the bunkers to enormous sizes to help fill the space, but it is more than that. What Tillinghast did was take everything to epic proportions so that nothing would get dwarfed by the space. The bunkers are obviously large, but the mounding and fairway widths are much larger than convention too. Tillinghast was also smart enough to intentional blend the bunkering on the 9th and 10th so that they appear from both side to be an extension of the bunkering for each hole. This essentially helps create enough size and expanse within the bunkering to create definition, but more important balance with the landscape.

So why the 10th? The beauty of the 10th is you feel like you could hit that tee shot anywhere, but the Cypress trees closer to the green are unusually tight for San Francisco, and your real target for the tee shot is the smallest on the course. You must be right edge of the fairway, just beyond the carry bunker, to have the right line to cut the ball into the green. A fade is the only play to hold this green with a long iron, since the green angles sharply to the right behind an awaiting bunker.

So what can we learn from this hole? Understanding the beauty of scale and space can lead to breathtaking architecture, but not understanding it leads to the biggest misses in golf (just look at Doral after Ray Floyd for a great example). To work on this scale means to spend extra time getting the sweep and drama into the bunkering in particular. You must be painstaking in your details, since everything gets magnified by the open space. Only a confident creative hand that is capable of the broadest strokes can succeed on this level.

18 Holes – The List

10th at Riviera – George Thomas - 4
14th at Royal Dornoch – John Sutherland - 4
13th at Pine Valley – George Crump - 4
4th at National Golf Links of America – Charles Blair MacDonald - 3
14th at Royal County Down – Old Tom Morris - 4
9th at Cypress Point – Alister MacKenzie - 4
13th at Tobacco Road – Mike Strantz - 5
4th at St. George’s (NLE) – Stanley Thompson - 4
8th at Royal Troon - William Fernie – 3

14th at St. Andrew’s (Old) – Alan Robertson – 5
13th at Gleneagles (Kings) – James Braid – 4
4th at Royal Portrush – Harry Colt - 4
10th at Friar’s Head – Bill Coore - 3
5th at Merion – Hugh Wilson – 4
15th at Portmarnock – G. Ross & Pinkeman
6th at The Creek Club – Raynor
4th at Seminole – Ross
10th at San Francisco - Tillinghast

Monday, June 26, 2006

18 Holes – Day #17 - 4th at Seminole

When it came to the 4th at Seminole, I always knew it would be on this list. I’ve always been fond of the slightly unconventional routing that leads to the superior hole. Ross’s routing uses the two large parallel dunes on either end of the property on almost every hole. It is a magnificent method to create the feel of elevation when the reality is there was very little on the site. Without a doubt in my mind the best part of the routing is the holes (4-5-6) that run along the far dune. The 4th is a hole that runs right on top of the far dune and the hole is that it runs in contrast to all the others. Most holes play down from the dune creating a great tee shot and view, or up into the dune to creating great green sites. Seminole should be studied for the routing alone.

The 4th plays like a hogs back, with the land falling sharply away on both sides of the dune, but Ross was smart enough to create a reasonably landing to play for on your tee shot. He cut the top off the dune and then used bunkers and natural sandy areas on either side to define the right and left of the hole so that play must be accurate. The green is where this hole comes together for me. He has tucked it slightly behind the huge natural bowl on the left so that the fairway banks around the sandy bowl and then swings back as it gets to the green.

Ross’s genius was to not place the green right on the bowl, but to set it 20 yards back allowing a bounce in approach. Where this became essential was when he raised the green up a couple of feet creating a slightly crowned plateau. The bunkers right and long tell you that the smart play is to bounce in the approach or to play short and left for an easy up and down.

What have I learned? What I love about the hole is that if you want to get aggressive, the hole will punish you for being too cocky, since the crowned green is very hard to hold. If you recognize the room and the safer option on the left, you find Ross has given you a very fair route into this long testing par four and an easy way to make four. It is a great combination of difficulty and playability in one hole. Finally, this is another fine example of making sure every hole doesn’t have a raised tee, elevated green, plays through a valley, or goes with the grades; ridgeback holes (and other less conventional holes) are just as important to routing a great golf course.

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