Technology stretches courses to their limits
None other than Bobby Jones foresaw the dilemma some seven decades ago.
In one of his early writings, the Grand Slam golfer voiced uneasiness about the consequence of advancing technology on the typical course.
``He said we can always move up on a golf course, but we can't really move back,'' fellow champion Jack Nicklaus noted recently. ``We don't have the land to do so.''
Several top layouts, though, are examining just what great lengths they have available these days.
This week's Ford Championship at Doral will present a longer track to some of the PGA Tour's finest, installing five new tees that stretch the Blue Monster by 141 yards.
It's the third renovation to Dick Wilson's classic 1962 layout in an eight-year span, as Doral Golf Resort & Spa walks the tightrope between stimulating and strangling.
And Doral is far from the only one. Of the 39 courses kept in use by the PGA Tour for at least the past decade, the Blue Monster is among 16 that have grown by at least 100 yards during that time. Another fell just shy of the 100-yard threshold, but also trimmed par by two strokes.
Even such classic non-Tour layouts as Merion and Pine Valley have gotten caught up in the longer-is-better trend. So has the birthplace of golf: the St. Andrews Old Course, which is adding seven new tees and 160 yards for next year's British Open.
This year, Doral is one of three Tour courses that have introduced more distance. The others are venerable Riviera Country Club (Nissan Open) and the TPC Scottsdale (FBR Open).
``You can't just stay where you are,'' said Jim McLean, whose golf school is headquartered at Doral and who was a consultant on the Blue Monster's past two renovations. ``Do that, and you'll drop back in perception.''
The issue brings a mixed reaction from Tour players. Some accept it as a byproduct of advances in everything from equipment to fitness to teaching. Others question the rush to elongate, arguing the process does harm as often as good.
``This modern solution to the problem seems to be just knee-jerk,'' said pro Olin Browne, a member of the Tour's policy board. ``Why people feel it necessary to stick new tees in some places, I just don't get it.''
There's no denying that Tour pros are launching the golf ball farther than ever before.
In 1996, Tiger Woods' rookie year, no PGA Tour player averaged 290 yards in driving distance. Last season, 64 topped the mark.
At January's Mercedes Championship in Hawaii, Davis Love III belted a wind-aided drive off the 18th tee that didn't come to rest until 476 yards away.
``We are definitely eating the course up a bit easier than we did in the mid-'90s,'' said Stuart Appleby, the winner at the Mercedes Championship.
The result has been shorter approach shots, where players can spin the ball for dead-eye accuracy. Many a mid-length par-4 has become a driver/wedge hole, and scores have dropped.
In 2001, Mark Calcavecchia broke the Tour's 46-year scoring record by shooting 28-under-par 256 in Phoenix. That mark was eclipsed on both counts last year when Ernie Els went 31-under at Mercedes (par 73) and Tommy Armour III shot 254 to win the Texas Open (par 70).
Pick your favorite reason for the distance boom -- oversized titanium drivers, solid-core golf balls, fitter athletes, improved course upkeep, any or all of the above.
The bigger question is what to do about it.
``No one wants their course to look like a pattycake golf course,'' said Michael Yamaki, Riviera's chief corporate officer.
At the Doral Tour stop, the scoring average went from 71.76 in 1996 to 71.15 last year. The once-fearsome 18th, long one of the Tour's toughest closing holes, ranked 323rd with an average of 4.104.
``That's the signature hole,'' said Tom Manno, Doral's general manager. ``That's the one that gets the most exposure on TV.''
That can take on added importance for a resort course like Doral, where one-third of its 160,000 annual rounds among five courses are booked for the Blue Monster. Potential vacationers are watching.
``If the perception of your course is a top Tour course, it helps,'' McLean said. ``To play a great course in good condition, a famous place they see on TV -- that's really helpful to the resort.''
Even if vacationers shouldn't be playing from the tips. ``We're really building these new tees for just a few people,'' said Love, an 18-time Tour winner who also runs a course-design firm.
Not all that long ago, courses would defend par with doglegs, clever bunkering and undulating greens. When a problem was identified, a new bunker or added tree often provided the solution.
But the distance boom allowed Tour pros to blast it past bunkers and over the bend in a dogleg. More and more, courses have turned to new tees to bring old landing areas back in play.
``It seems to be what goes around, comes around,'' said Tim Petrovic, fourth at Doral last year. ``So they back the tee up and now it's 300 yards to get to a bunker.''
Though host courses have the ultimate say in any changes, the PGA Tour plays a major role. The standard contract includes a clause stipulating that for the Tour to utilize any changes, it must be consulted and involved.
Following every PGA Tour event, Tour officials sit down with tournament staff to review the course hole by hole and suggest ways to make them more competitive.
Henry Hughes, the Tour's operations chief, said suggestions often run more toward bunkering or fairway width, but added length grabs the public's attention because it's most noticeable.
``What people don't always see is maybe a fairway was 38 yards wide, now it's 28 yards wide,'' Hughes said. ``Or the rough was an inch and a quarter, but now it's an inch and a half.''
Stretching a hole sometimes presents a tricky challenge, adding distance while trying to remain true to the original design. Too much length can change the complexity of a hole.
``We don't need to add 70 yards to a hole,'' Love said. ``Now you're behind the bunkers, hitting a long club into a green that's meant for you to hit a wedge into. It doesn't play right.''
McLean said keeping the integrity of Wilson's design was ``absolutely paramount... . You don't want to take that away.''
At Riviera, Yamaki said that before turning plans over to architect Tom Fazio, club staff went the extra step by talking to several of yesteryear's pros about shots they hit in past tournaments.
``Ken Venturi said on No. 12 a par-4 now 460 yards, he hit 4-iron to the green, and 4-iron would be equivalent to 7- or 6-iron today,'' Yamaki said.
``Ben Hogan always talked about No. 8 par 4, now 433 yards being a perfect 4-iron/4-iron. We talked to Sam Snead, and Snead said, `I don't know about that. I played that hole 3-wood/7-iron.' ''
Even with good intentions and meticulous planning, course changes don't always get good reviews.
``I miss Riviera,'' said U.S. Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton, noteworthy because he was sitting in the Nissan Open press room at the time.
Sutton has a soft spot for the old Riviera, where he won the 1983 PGA Championship. A 1927 George Thomas design, it consistently ranks among the nation's top 50 courses.
``I don't see anybody taking a paintbrush to the Mona Lisa,'' Browne added. ``I don't understand the need to lengthen a golf course like this . . . The 10th hole is maybe the best short par-4 that I can ever say I've played.''
Riviera's No. 10, at 315 yards, is a big hitter's dream -- or nightmare. Last year, Charles Howell tried to drive the green in a playoff against Mike Weir and missed badly. Weir took the safe route and won.
``Probably the thing that I miss the most in the game of golf is that we used to have to make a decision on whether it was a driver or 3-wood or 2-iron,'' Sutton said.
``Now you walk off the green -- whatever the green is -- and if you're not walking to a par-3, your caddie might as well give you your driver and say, `I'll see you down the fairway.' ''
Golf's most talked-about expansion came two years ago at Augusta National. The Masters tees were pushed back on nine holes, adding 295 yards to the layout. Rain the past two years has made the course play even longer.
Browne, though, harkened back to the 1986 Masters, when Nicklaus shot 30 on the back nine to win his sixth green jacket. The gallery's roars, observers say, echoed for miles as the Golden Bear's putts kept falling.
``You're never going to see another Sunday like that again at Augusta,'' Browne said. ``There's no chance now for someone to make a charge from that far back. They've lost that.''
At Torrey Pines just north of San Diego, site of the Buick Invitational, the South course was bulked up two years ago by 547 yards -- an entire par-5! -- as part of a bid to host the 2008 U.S. Open.
It won the bid, but lost support among the Tour pros.
``It definitely lost its charm,'' Brad Faxon said.
During the second round of last month's Buick Open, Tom Lehman was overheard saying to playing partner Corey Pavin: ``Remember when this course used to be fun? Not anymore. Now it's 7,600 yards of torture.''
Doral officials understand the fine line. In an attempt to counter falling scores, the resort in 1996 hired three-time Doral champion Raymond Floyd to put some teeth back in the Blue Monster.
Floyd not only lengthened the course by 186 yards, he installed dozens of bunkers. Scoring rose in 1997 and '98, but players fumed and began staying away. A year later, McLean was called upon for a ``softening'' and trucked out seven acres of sand.
Now Doral is adding distance again.
``We want the course to be tough,'' McLean said, ``but still keep hazards out there at a distance where it's going to affect the super-long hitters more than the average guy.''
Hughes noted that even when a course adds a new tee, the Tour is under no obligation to use it. ``At Riviera, we didn't use some things that were there because they didn't enhance the competitive nature,'' he said.
Weather plays a factor, too. On days when the wind is blowing in golfers' faces, officials will set the tee several yards forward, especially if a hazard is involved. Likewise, downwind holes figure to get pushed back to the tips.
That was the impetus for extending No. 18 on the Blue Monster. With a helping wind, even short hitters could take an aggressive line. Now officials have flexibility.
``That's when it works,'' Woods said. ``You have to be sensible in the way you set up a golf course.''
The move to add length isn't likely to taper off soon. McLean said Doral already is looking at more changes for next year's event, and other courses continue to examine their options.
But whether it's 6,800 yards or 7,500, Appleby said, the game remains the same.
``You're still a person out there battling your own demons and your own little issues to get the ball in the hole,'' the Australian said. ``That's never changed.''
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