The long and short of golf courses


For reasons I’m still not sure of, I continue to hold memberships at two private establishments in southern Connecticut. One was founded in 1895 and features a course designed by A.W. Tillinghast, paddleball courts and a stately clubhouse erected at the highest point on the property. It is usually in immaculate shape and has hosted several U.S. Golf Association events over the years, most notably the 1987 U.S. Senior Open.

My other club is a 5,800-yard mousetrap we call the Little Brown Dog. In addition to a lack of space, the course has drainage problems and two or three holes that make no sense from an architectural standpoint. Speaking of which, I have no idea who is responsible for the layout at LBD.

Some would consider it a waste of four hours, others would call it quirky, but I call it home. I play a vast majority of my golf at the Little Brown Dog, which is about 1,000 yards shorter than the Tillinghast but every bit as difficult, especially if you’ve played it no more than 20 or 30 times. When it comes to local knowledge, LBD is basically Harvard with a little more mud.

I’m enlightening you with all this useless information because professional golf, at least in recent years, has gravitated toward venues with gigantic greens, lots of room to miss off the tee and a collection of 500-yard par 4s. Now more than ever, the game is rewarding faulty distance, blithely catering to players without anything close to a full skill set.

Not to pick on TPC San Antonio, site of this week’s Valero Texas Open, but after back-to-back stops at Augusta National and Harbour Town, two of the most ingeniously designed courses to host a golf tournament, we’re looking at a 7,500-yard behemoth with all the sign-of-the-times components requisite to befriending the PGA Tour. The posh, on-site hotel and spa. No par 5 shorter than 567 yards, which might be why TPC San Antonio’s par-5 scoring average (4.94) was the Tour’s highest in 2011. The outrageous green complexes and oversized putting surfaces, surely as competitive compensation for the sheer length of the course itself.

Add it all up and you’ve got a 21st-century shrine to modern golf. A place where Greg Norman, a renowned and very talented architect, had all kinds of room and all kinds of budget, then went out and waged his own little war with equipment technology.

Take a good look at the field. It is one of the weakest all year, which is not the fault of the tournament, which is happy to be part of the regular-season schedule after time spent in the Fall Series. The turnout is simply a function of the dates – smack in the middle of what Tim Rosaforte, my longtime colleague, has referred to as the “dead zone.”

Harbour Town, however, has done pretty well despite batting right after the Masters, in part because a good number of Tour pros – perhaps a dozen I’ve talked to over the years – consider it one of their favorite courses. It is very tight in spots, somewhat spacious in others, but without fail, Harbour Town requires precision. The targets are small (or narrow), the penalty for errant play unyielding. It is a test in every sense of the word, and players definitely like challenges that are unique, not silly.

I find it interesting that a majority of pros, at least in my estimation, would prefer Harbour Town over TPC Sawgrass – both Pete Dye products with strikingly similar aesthetic characteristics. Perhaps it’s just the relaxed atmosphere of Hilton Head and the exhale of post-Masters steam. Or maybe it’s the tiny greens and miniaturized margin for error they find so appealing, the notion that just reward is best gleaned from proper execution.

For all the talk in recent years about the sensibility and lovability of short par 4s, it’s a trend that simply hasn’t caught on. The few that made it such an endearing premise are still the common standard. When Sergio Garcia refers to TPC San Antonio’s 410-yard 12th hole as “short but dangerous” in his online description of the venue, I beg his pardon, albeit with a smile.

My Little Brown Dog has one par 4 in excess of 410 yards. And when the state’s best club pros gather for our charity pro-am, very rarely do more than a couple of them shoot par or better. As Jeff Sluman told me years ago when former Masters chairman Hootie Johnson began lengthening Augusta National, “If you really want to Tiger-proof the place, if you really want to give everyone a chance, you don’t make it longer. You make it shorter.” Amen.