14 Apr 2020 | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: All the fun of the unfair

by Mike Clayton

The 13th hole at Scotland's North Berwick, known as "The Pit", has a wall running through it, adjacent to the green.
The 13th hole at Scotland's North Berwick, known as "The Pit", has a wall running through it, adjacent to the green.

In the early 1930s, Alister MacKenzie wrote The Spirit of St Andrews. It expanded on Golf Architecture (1920) and became one of the great golf books.

MacKenzie died not long after he finished the manuscript, which lay dormant among a pile of family papers until the mid-1990s. To the sport’s great fortune, his stepson discovered it and arranged for its belated publication.

For those who administer the game – and those who worry about its future – MacKenzie remarkably addressed several of the problems facing today’s game.

He railed against the use of long rough as a penal hazard. He forcefully argued the ball was going too far. He told us why people gave up golf. He spoke of the role of committees.

Unsurprisingly for one with such strong and well-articulated opinions, MacKenzie had little patience for committees and those he perceived as having little knowledge of the subject of his expertise: “It is strange that a committee consisting of doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers who, no doubt, recognise the importance of mental training and experience in their own profession, attach so little importance to it in golf course architecture.”

All architects work with committees and there is a long catalogue of problematic relationships mixed with others of long standing that have been hugely beneficial to the golf course in point.

Committees can be difficult or productive depending on the wisdom and the agendas of the people sitting around the table. The quality of every golf course is dependent on the wisdom of its custodians.

We all know golf clubs in which the committees understand how to make wise decisions when it comes to their course. The great custodians understand the architectural history of their course. They have read at least one book on the subject of course architecture.

My questions to anybody on a greens committee who hasn’t read at least one of the many great books on the subject, are simple: Why are you on the committee? Why would you want to be involved in something so important – as well as onerous and time-consuming – yet have so little apparent interest in the subject?

The answers, of course, get to the heart of the problem of poor committees.

So many people who play golf have little real interest in it outside of their own games. They don’t read about it. They don’t think about it. They don’t go and watch it played at a high standard, whether it be amateur or professional golf.

They take from golf what they want. There is nothing wrong with that – we all experience the game differently. But what they inevitably do is form opinions around the game based entirely on their own experience of it.

Golf attracts players from every walk of life. Many, especially in the clubs with first-class courses, are professionally successful and the tendency is for them to be fairly comfortable with the worth of their opinions.

Perhaps their biggest misinterpretation of the game is that it should be “fair” despite the best courses in the world being somewhat “unfair”.

Has anyone who has ever studied the Old Course ever thought of it as anything but what many would describe as “unfair”? The great challenge of the game is dealing with its inherent unfairness.

Golf was, unsurprisingly, invented in Scotland because hitting a ball with a stick across the broken crumpled dune land linking the sea to the farmland beyond made perfect sense. With no equipment capable of moving soil in any great amounts the early golfers played across the ground as it was, making uneven lies, blind shots and hazards in the direct line to the hole a part of the game’s fabric.

Mostly, too, they played matches against each other, thereby eschewing the need to count every single stroke they took.

Twice World Matchplay champion Geoff Ogilvy argues: “Golf is much more fun when you don’t have to score – we do it because we have to, but I’m not sure why people find the need to count all their shots every time they play. It’s not really what the game is about.”

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. Inevitably the game changed as it migrated inland and away from the idyll of the seaside. It adapted well and many brilliant inland golf courses were made across the world.

What changed was the introduction of the concept of “fairness” and the idea formulated primarily by Americans and adopted largely by Australians (and most others) that you had to be able to see where you were going. The notion of the “blind shot” was seen as somehow silly, poor design and something to be avoided by course architects at all costs.

Bunkers in the middle of fairways came to be viewed as poor hazards catching “perfect” drives. Yet if the measure of a perfect shot is its position in relation to the one following how could a drive into a bunker possibly be seen as perfect?

That two players could hit almost the same shot and come up with two quite different results also was seen as being unfair and the result has been a sanitisation of the original game. Architectural quirks, the luck of the bounce and multiple ways of playing a shot and a hole make the game unpredictable and offend the “predictable” crowd.

The most important lesson of the Old Course is surely that the game isn’t fair –why it is not only the most important course in the sport, but arguably its best. And, if it’s not the best it’s at least in the final.

Jack Nicklaus once answered a reporter sympathising with him over a particularly bad bounce and the unfairness of it by saying: “Yes, it was unfair, but the game isn’t supposed to be fair.”

Among the most worn of modern golf architecture clichés is that a course “should be playable for all standards of players” – a tired phrase at the head of every marketing document spruiking every new course to ensure the attraction of potential investors and members.

St Andrews might be the most playable of them all, but try building an opening hole in this age with a stream fully across the front of the first green, thereby making the requirement to carry it unavoidable.

Imagine trying to sell the principle of a course with any number of bunkers strewn randomly across the landscape, many of which are blind and from which escape by a less-than-competent player is all but impossible.

Yet at St Andrews, Muirfield, Prestwick and North Berwick, it’s a part of the game.

There are many enormous greens at Muirfield and North Berwick running 50 paces from front to back, but at St Andrews you can be 40m short of the 5th green and still have 120m to go to reach the hole.

At North Berwick’s 13th hole, players have to pitch the second shot across an ancient stone wall predating the course. Two holes later comes The Redan, a blind par three and a hole that has spawned hundreds of imitations around the world.

Critics of the blind 17th hole at Kingston Heath should spend a few minutes contemplating The Alps hole at Prestwick with its blind second across the dune to a green protected by a massive bunker also unseen from the fairway.

It is crazy and there is no way an architect could make such a hole now without criticism, yet its spirit and what it stands for makes it one of golf’s more important holes.

At Muirfield, viewed by many as perhaps the “fairest” of all Open courses, there are deep and fearsome bunkers well short of several of the greens and directly across the route to the hole. In many cases they don’t affect the better players unless they drive into trouble, but in this age, hazards only affecting the poor players are thought to be bad hazards.

Few view them as making the game interesting for players of all standards. But why must hazards only be placed for the good player?

St Andrews, though, is always the most interesting place to observe the game and championships there are the best of them all. Those who watch championships from the Old Course, whether live or on the television, should thank the Scots for what they gave us and, next time something unfair happens, appreciate their sporting instincts and their understanding of why golf is the most interesting game of all.

And spare a thought for MacKenzie, Donald Ross and the other travelling Scots for transporting the spirit to the world. It’s a pity it’s been distorted in so many places where golfers have attempted to sanitise the game to the point where it is utterly “fair”, yet comfortably more dull and predictable.

It was not always thus.

Join our newsletter

Get weekly updates on news, golf tips and access to partner promotions.

Related News

Golf Australia NEW LOGO White Mono_logo
Join our newsletter

Get weekly updates on news, golf tips and access to partner promotions!