Great Lengths

‘A first class hole must have the subtleties and strategic problems which are difficult to understand, and are therefore extremely likely to be condemned at first sight even by the best of players.’
Alister MacKenzieThe Spirit of St. Andrews (1933; pub. 1995)

Both men were over two hundred yards from the hole when we arrived at their golf balls, far to the left side of Streamsong Red’s thirteenth. My player, though not as skilled a golfer as his companion, was slightly closer to the green; the other player was further away. His caddie counseled him to take a long club, and play up to the right of the dune fronting the thirteenth’s green. The man did, hitting a heroic shot that flew over the center fairway bunker, to the right of the dune. It left him with a short wedge into the green, only partially obscured by the massive dune. My player looked at me, presumably expecting me to counsel similarly. But while I told the other player, “good shot,” I was handing my guy a wedge.

My reasoning, had there been time to follow it at length, had much to do with a golf course nearly three thousand miles away: Riviera Country Club, outside Los Angeles. The thirteenth hole on Streamsong’s Red Course draws from that golf course on two distinct levels: in the first place, it is a short par five, designed to follow the long par four twelfth—a rehash of a trick the Coore and Crenshaw team had already used on the first and second hole of the same course: a short par five following a par four of nearly the same length. The artifice is inspired by the opening holes of Riviera, a course that begins with one of the easiest par fives in golf and is followed by one of the most difficult par fours. But the Red Course, and specifically the thirteenth, also draws much from the thought of Riviera’s architect, George Thomas.

“Each hole at Riviera,” reads the course’s review at the website, Golf Club Atlas, is a ‘how to’ of golf architecture.” One of these is the contrast between the first and the second holes: one of the easier par fives on tour (often not even requiring a driver to reach in two shots) followed by the course’s number one handicap hole. The idea is a kind of rhyme, where what happened on the previous hole matters in a way not often found in less sophisticated designs.

One way the first two holes at Riviera rhyme, for example, is by contrast of their greens: the first hole’s green is very wide, yet not very deep, while the second’s is the opposite. Hence, the one mitigates a shot that is the correct distance but is indifferently aimed, while the second mitigates the opposite kind of shot. Conversely, each also punishes the “wrong” sort of shot—the sort that might have been just the thing on the previous hole. It’s a subtle but far-reaching effect, one that can be hard to detect—unless you happen to read the scorecard.

A careful reading of any course’s scorecard can, in other words, reveal holes of extremely similar distances; the lesson Coore and Crenshaw, following Thomas, would impart is: “Pay attention when two holes of similar lengths have different par values.” The numbers are a clear signal to the careful golfer, because the choice of length is not haphazard; it is a sign that those two holes have a relation to each other. In the case of the thirteenth and the twelfth on Streamsong’s Red, each is—in part—a funhouse version of the other. Where one is downhill (the 12th) the other is uphill (the 13th), and where one offers a clear view of the green the other obscures it. But the dune of the thirteenth is not just a mirror; it is a razor.

It’s a razor because the thirteenth on the Red Course embodies George Thomas’ thought in an even more subtle sense. “The spirit of golf,” Thomas wrote in his Golf Architecture in America, of 1927, “is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it reap a reward, while he who fears or declines the issue of the carry, has a longer or harder shot for his second.” Everything in golf revolves around that axis mundi; it is the turtle upon which the disc of the world, as the recently-deceased Terry Pratchett might have appreciated, rests. Proceed by one path, and others become unavailable—every choice, like Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths,” is determined by previous choices.

One way the thirteenth does this is by separating the golfer from a clear view of the green until he nearly stands upon it. But it does not do that entirely: from the extreme left it’s possible to see the flag, if not the green itself. The trouble—and of course, as George Thomas’ maxim advertises, there is a trouble—is that, from the left, a player must traverse nearly a hundred yards of sand; not so from the right, where a smooth road of fairway grass chases gently to the green. The architecture appears to be designed, in Thomas’ sense, to reward a “spirited carry” over the dune.

Some version of that thought, presumably, is why my colleague counseled his player to play up the right side with the strong shot he hit. Yet two wedge shots of just more than a hundred yards would easily reach the green—a shot that even the worst golfer can usually manage. So, why have a player choose a club far more easily mishit, like a long iron, to a target that grants only a modest advantage? I didn’t ask the other caddie for his rationale, but I’d presume it has something to do with the conventions of golf, at least as played by Americans in the early 21st century—conventions that seem to ignore the second part of George Thomas’ remarks about the “spirit of golf.”

That second part is this: “yet the player who avoids the unwise effort gains an advantage over one who tries for more than in him lies and fails.” In other words the player who can pull off a difficult shot should get the edge over the player who can’t—but the player who knows his own game ought to get the edge over the player does not. In that sense, the thirteenth’s “spirited carry” over the dune rewards, as it should, the player with a possible eagle—but as few seem to realize, it does not reward a heroic second shot that does not finish on the green. In fact, it positively threatens the player who makes that choice.

Just out of sight from the fairway, concealed from anyone standing at a distance from the green, about eighty yards short and to the right of the green, Coore and Crenshaw dug a deep bunker that threatens any ball hit past the beginning of the tall dune, but not onto the green itself. In other words, to try to hit a long shot that does not attempt the green risks sticking the struck ball in that bunker. Needless to say, it is a difficult recovery that more or less takes par—and certainly birdie—off the table. The player who know he cannot carry the dune, and lays up in front of the dune, has a much easier time of it than the golfer who hits a long second shot that does not reach the green.

The answer for most American golfers, I’d say, is to hit it as far as possible anyway—even if there isn’t a reward at the other end. But that is the ruse of the Red’s thirteenth: sometimes it’s actually more “daring” to decline the dare. It may be worth noting that Thomas himself, at least as ventriloquized by the golf writer Geoff Shackelford, was rather pessimistic about that possibility of such a lesson ever being learned: “I sense that that the combination of technology, refined conditioning, the aerial game and the overall curiousity with fairness have combined to eliminate strategy,” says “Thomas” in an interview published in Golf Club Atlas, and these are signs, the great Californian concludes, of “a society willing to go to great lengths to avoid thought.” This may yet be unfair, however: the existence of the thirteenth at Streamsong’s Red is an argument to the contrary.

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