• Alistair Tait

Why golf is where it is


As far as I know Mike Clayton and Guy Singh-Watson don’t know each other. They have a lot in common: they’re both trying to figure out how we got to where we are today. Singh-Watson might have the answer to a pertinent question Clayton asked this week.

If you haven’t read Clayton’s prose then I urge you to do so. There might not be another current player turned architect who thinks so deeply about how golf has evolved over the years.

In his latest article for Golf Australia, “All the fun of the unfair,’ the Australian asks why we have become so distanced from the principles of classic golf courses and great architects like Donald Ross and Dr Alister MacKenzie, he of Augusta National fame. Clayton writes:

“Anything more than rudimentary study of North Berwick, Muirfield or Prestwick (quite different courses in their own way) shows the observant golfer just how far the game has strayed from its Scottish roots and how many of the original concepts have been distorted.”

Clayton cites MacKenzie’s book The Spirit of St Andrews as proof that golf course design has strayed far from the game’s raison d'être. The Old Course was MacKenize’s blueprint for many of the courses he created.

You don’t need to be an architect of MacKenzie or Clayton’s stature to see how golf courses have strayed from the Old Course’s original principles. Take the Swilcan Burn, golf’s first water hazard.

From a narrow stream that cuts across two holes on the Old Course – the first and 18th, and doesn’t come into play on the latter – architects went crazy. We’ve all played courses where it seems as if water comes into play on all 18 holes, where water is there just for the sake of it.

Think of the long rough we’ve seen in the U.S. Open or the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie, when players who missed the fairway by a just few inches sometimes struggled to find a ball. (I remember helping Sergio Garcia try to find his ball just off Carnoustie’s 5th fairway in the 1999 Open Championship. It took about three and a half minutes even though it was only a foot from the first cut.)

Think about green complexes that are so undulating and so quick as to be almost unplayable. MacKenzie must turn in his grave when he looks down on Augusta National at green speeds he never though would be necessary. Consider bunkers that are 50-60 yards long. How did we get here when the original bunkers were mostly of the pot variety?

Clayton says MacKenzie

“Railed against the use of long rough as a penal hazard. He forcefully argued the ball was going too far.”

It was only this year that golf’s governing bodies finally admitted what many had been saying for too long: that distance was a problem in the elite game. For years they told us distance wasn’t a problem, all the while lengthening or tricking up golf courses to try to keep up with modern equipment.

Why did it take so long for the penny to drop? Singh-Watson might have the answer.

Singh-Watson created Riverford Organic Farmers. I been a Riverford customer for a few years, and get a weekly delivery of delicious fruit and vegetables. I also get ‘Guy’s News,’ a short essay on Singh-Watson’s musings that week.

This week’s edition might help Clayton, and us, understand why golf is where it is. Here’s what Singh-Watson writes:

“Fable would have it that if the temperature is raised slowly enough, a frog will sit in a pan of water until it is boiled alive rather than jump out. Wikipedia tells me this isn’t true – but the principle that we tolerate small incremental changes, which if amassed would cause revolt, certainly is (of humans, if not for frogs).
“George Monbiot describes it as ‘baseline readjustment;’ we have slowly got used to the depletion of moths, fish, bees, the dawn chorus, and arguably empathy for the vulnerable, slightly readjusting our expectations each year based on recent experience rather than that of our youth.
“If we notice changes at all, somehow we are convinced that resistance is futile, impractical or just too expensive to economic growth. We have surrendered our autonomy and the future of our planet to market forces, despite the fact that, collectively, we are those forces. Sometimes it takes a shock to wake the frog from its stupor and make it jump.”

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