Friday, November 10, 2006

John Low’s 10 Principles

The 3rd at Deal

The following principles come from the book called “Concerning Golf” by John Low. I thought it might be fun to look at each and see how well they hold up after so much time has passed and how much the game has changed.

1. A golf course should provide entertainment for the high and medium handicapper while at the same time present a searching and difficult test for the accomplished golfer.

I don’t think there is an architect alive who doesn’t wish there course to have the same impact, some courses have achieved this lofty goal like Pinehurst #2, but most miss the mark.

2. The one aim of inventors is to reduce the skill required for golf. Golf architects must wage a battle against inventors by designing courses that emphasize golfing skills over equipment.

This is one of the more interesting ones since the inventor has definitely overpowered the architect to a point where we can no longer battle; and some of our greatest courses are in jeopardy. The biggest change from his era to ours is the value of land and the economics of the game have changed; we simply can’t afford the additional land. Would he feel it is up to us [the architects] to battle still, or would he be frustrated with the wide gulf between good players and the average player.

3. The shortest, most direct line to the hole, even if it be the centre of the fairway, should be fraught with danger.

This reminds me of Max Behr’s idea of the line of charm and the line of instinct. Alister Mackenzie also echoed this exact premise by suggesting the best bunkers are often in the place we would like to play to. That it is up to the golf architect to break up the straight line with hazards that force a player to negotiate as close a they dare to gain an advantage. I wonder if this influenced Mackenzie

4. The architect must allow the ground to dictate play. The good architect sees that there is a special interest for the accomplished golfer in each stroke, just as the billiard player always has in mind the next stroke or strokes.

This can be taken many ways, but each is a principle close to my heart. The ground contains the best and most interesting contours and should dictate play including the green surfaces themselves. The ground [or land] also contains features that make for natural hazards that are best used to make the game interesting to play. Finally this could mean leaving all the unusual stances and lies that come with a natural course. This is similar to the principles echoed by people like Bill Coore.

5. The fairway must be orientated to both the tee and the green, thereby stressing the importance of placing the tee shot in a position from which the green can be approached with safety.

This simply brings up the idea of playing for position and being rewarded for getting a ball to a desired location. Whether this means the typical risk and reward strategy employed by most architects or the flirt and reward idea of a Mike Strantz; he clearly is a believer in the strategic school of design [as am I].

The 6th at St. Enodoc

6. Bunkers should be used sparingly by the architect. Except on one-shot holes, they should never be placed within 200 yards of the tee. Ridges and depressions are the best way of controlling an entrance to the green. The best hazard on a course is a fairway bunker 200 to 235 yards from the tee, placed five to ten yards off the accomplished player's most favourable line to the green.

This is where I begin to depart. I have never believe in a standardization of bunker placement since it tends to only add interest and challenge to the one class of player. Substitute 200 for 250 yards and you see what I mean about this being a one dimensional answer that does not even consider effect of the wind. I do like the idea of less bunkers and more use of natural ridges and rises though.

7. Wherever possible, putting greens should be of the low, narrow plateau type, with the plateau tilting away, not toward the player. No green should be higher at the back than it is in front, for that gives a player confidence. Only half the flagstick should be seen from where the approach shot should be played.

Again, I find this general rule to restrictive. I’m fascinated by what he say about a back to front green providing confidence. The idea of all greens falling away from play would be equally as boring as all greens sloped to play. The green he describes is also very difficult to hit and very demanding; I’m really not sure how a high handicap player would deal with this [see first rule].

8. A course should never pretend to be, nor is it intended to be, an infallible tribunal of skill alone. The element of chance is the very essence of the game, part of the fun of the game.

We once again agree; the idea of luck, a bad bounce, or the fortuitist break is essential in the true spirit of the game. That’s why I get so upset when it all gets removed by over grading and over-shaping.

9. All really great golf holes involve a contest of wits and risks. No one should attempt to copy a great hole because so much may depend on its surroundings as well as some features miles away in the background which influence and affect the play of the hole. If the terrain is suitable, some of the character of the original might be incorporated elsewhere.

I’m mixed on this idea, on one side I agree with good architects “find” the holes that nature provides to get the most out of a site; but I do believe that we should draw on the really great ideas for inspiration too. I have always believed that there are no really any new ideas, and that architects should be nimble with their own adaptations of proven principles to make the best holes. I think we should borrow from great holes, like the Redan, make our own allowances and adaptations for the land.

10. Inequalities of putting green surfaces should not be exaggerated. A tilt from front to back, or left to right or vice versa is sufficient. There should always be a special position for the flag on important days.

Completely disagree with this one. Greens offer so many options and so many unique strategies through contour, land form, or even architectural features. Walter Travis courses would not be near as interesting without the funky contours that force us to plan our approach or use our imagination to solve the putts. I certainly find courses with simple greens to be far less inspiring than ones that require additional thought once you reach a surface [or even before].

I think his ideas are very strong, but they certainly do not completely reflect mine; I left them in there entirety so you can judge them for yourself. I think it is important to review writers like John Low or Alister Mackenzie [who also wrote his own principles] to give us a base to find our own principles.

If I ever get enough nerve, I may try write my own principles and present them on the forum.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Why Flanking of Bunkers should make a Comeback

The side bunker at the ninth at Yahnundasis

Last week I made a trip out to Yahnundasis GC and to Onondaga G&CC both courses by Walter Travis. Both golf courses have had greens rebuilt by other architects. Yahnundasis had two greens rebuilt by the Gordon’s. At Onondaga there are five rebuilds, three by Skip Wogan and two by Hal Purdy. The interesting thing is these greens match each other quite well, but has no resemblance to the original work by Walter Travis. What we have ended up with is the Modern architectural philosophy placed up against the Golden Age architectural philosophy on the same course. This happened because of the timing of the renovation, more than a conscious decision of the architects to go in a new direction.

If we look at a lot of the work by the greatest architects working during the golden age of architecture, more often than not we find the trouble is set predominantly to the sides and the fronts are left open. There are exceptions with particular holes, but if we dare to generalize the work of Ross, Tillinghast, Thompson, Thomas, MacKenzie and Colt; we find that this pattern is reasonably consistent throughout. Now lets take the modern era where Trent Jones ushered in a new style that was widely embraced by almost all architects. His “new” view of the game was one which requires flying the ball over trouble to access protected pin positions. His greens got bigger to allow for more pin area, but also were protected with more trouble to balance out the change. Possibly his most fascinating change was the green shapes which were shallow and wide, rather than the tendency of the Golden Age architects to favor long and narrow. Imagine continually turning a rectangle 90 degrees and the concept is made simpler to understand.

The 15th green flanked by bunkers at Onondaga

So at these two courses we have a majority of greens that are smaller, narrow, and deeper than they are wide. The fill pads are very square in appearance (in particular Onondaga) and the trouble is almost always wide and long. The new greens are wider than long, fronted with bunkers and the fill is placed in a near perfect circle on all the greens in stark contrast to the squareness of the other green sites.
So why does this matter beyond appearance?

Let’s look at the basic results of most misses. The high handicapper misses a majority of their shots short. The great player has greater distance control, but may still miss left and right. The high handicapper gets in lots of trouble and often has to play short before playing on to try save par. The strong player will take chances from the rough to try and reach the green in regulation. The high handicapper is quite likely to need to use a long club that can not carry and stop a ball, but will roll into the green given the chance. The strong player wants the ball in the air and will fly everything in for control.

The rear bunkers on the 6th at Yahnundasis

In simple terms, providing a wide open front is a strong benefit to the high handicap, but has much less benefit to a strong player. Since most high handicappers hit the ball short when they miss shots, the bunkers flanking the green are less likely to penalize them than player who will carry the ball back onto the green. The amazing thing about flanking a green with bunkers is that it raises and lowers its challenge to the level of the player playing the hole. On a modern green a player missing wide often had either and easy recovery or even a putt; now they are in trouble for their wayward approach. A weak player worried about missing left or right can simply play short and play for par. A strong player feels the need to find the green in regulation which is very hard from the left or right rough with their approaches to a narrow target. Throw in Walter’s love for hidden back bunkers and the concept goes after the player who is the most aggressive - which is a great philosophy isn't it.

This represents a fine balance of playability and challenge, and that's why this idea needs to make a stronger comeback.