Populous Magazine 04: Greens with Envy

From the archive: Issue 04, 2011

With professionals regularly driving the ball in excess of 300 yards, and a universal call for spectator-friendly live venues, the layout of modern golf courses is changing dramatically.

Ben Cove, from GolfPunk magazine, explores the dilemmas facing the course architects.

November 2009 was a momentous month in the annals of golf. While Lee Westwood secured the first ever Race to Dubai winner’s cheque and Tiger Woods thrust the sport onto newspaper front pages worldwide for all the wrong reasons, an equally significant development was being rubber-stamped inside a small boardroom in Copenhagen.

Thanks to staunch support from within the upper echelons of the game, and following a campaign spanning decades, golf was voted back onto the Olympic programme, and will now return in time for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. But the showcase in Brazil in five years’ time will be a far cry from the form of golf last seen at the Olympics more than a century ago. The Royal and Ancient game has gone through a transitional period, particularly in the last 20 years, sparking changes that have compromised the heritage and altered the very fabric of the sport.

"Average driving distances have increased by more than 50 yards in 15 years. Tournament golfers are simply out-growing some of the world’s classic courses."

Robin Hiseman / Chief architect at European Golf Design

First came the emergence of aerodynamic balls that fly further, followed by giant club-heads that connect with greater velocity. And now, a new breed of musclebound long-hitter is threatening to leave classic course layouts behind. Golf is at an evolutionary crossroads. The only way of maintaining a level playing field is to extend existing courses, or build new ones that meet modern demands.

“It’s turning into a joke,” admits Robin Hiseman, chief architect at European Golf Design, and the man charged with creating a standout course for Madrid’s Ryder Cup 2018 bid. “Average driving distances have increased by more than 50 yards in 15 years. Tournament golfers are simply out-growing some of the world’s classic courses.”

As one of the largest participation sports in the world, golf has long-revelled in the traditional appeal of regular players taking on the same courses as their heroes.

But the gap in strength and skill between Average Joe and top professionals is ever widening. This has seen a rise in what Hiseman calls “the TPC culture” – the notion, pioneered by the Tournament Players Club, of building one course for the pros, and a diluted version for the rest of us.

However, one man keen to retain tradition by developing courses that are equally challenging to all levels of player, is golf architecture guru Brian Curley. A native of Pebble Beach, California, Curley is in the process of building 12 very different tracks at the brand new Mission Hills resort on Haikan Island, in China.

  • Graeme McDowell of Europe is roared to victory by 45,000 fans during the 2010 Ryder Cup.

“It’s a challenge, but I like it that way,” he admits. “If you have a ‘bomber’ who’s driving it 330 yards then he deserves to gain an advantage, as long as he’s accurate.

I’m designing holes that offer those guys the option of cutting corners and landing in a narrow area, but also give the more conservative hitters a straight route to the fairway. This forces a decision on the tee box: it’s a risk-versus-reward scenario that makes for a great spectacle, which is just as important these days.” Curley’s point is a pertinent one.

Golf is a truly global game with mass appeal, and designing a new championship course is no longer solely a case of testing the best golfers. One of Curley’s latest tracks at Mission Hills – The Blackstone – is due to host the 2011 Golf World Cup this November. As such, he’s expected to make provisions for spectators, galleries and television cameras.

“The brief was to create a stadium environment. Fortunately the course sits on a bed of ancient lava rock, so we’ve been able to make the most of the steep banks, which will house grandstands and hospitality suites looking down on the action. It’ll be a real treat for the fans.”

Hiseman was also lucky with the natural terrain of his latest project. The Club de Campo Tres Cantos, Madrid’s potential 2018 Ryder Cup venue, is set to accommodate a 25,000-spectator capacity par-three hole known as Plaza de Toros (the Bull Ring).

“The design specifications for a Ryder Cup course are very different to 20 years ago,” he reveals. “You have to test players of all lengths and you almost need a crystal ball to predict how far the top guys will be hitting it in seven years’ time. But you also have to design a sporting arena. We had this bit of land that was due to be a practice ground but was too deep and rounded, so we’ve turned it into a signature par three of epic proportions. The green will be positioned in a giant bowl filled with 25,000 people. That ought to get the pulses racing.”

But before all that comes the 2016 Olympics, and golf’s induction into the wider public consciousness. With the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman throwing their distinguished design hats into the Olympic ring, the Rio course promises to be a classic.

A classic that facilitates a level playing field for all participants, no doubt.

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