What Makes a Good Test?

At the risk of having any future invitations to Augusta National revoked, I wanted to point out what I consider a fl aw in the current design from the championship tees: there are too many holes that are too similar in length.

Take the yardage of four of the par-4s on the first nine: 455, 455, 450, 460. Not much variety there, wouldn’t you say? The two par-5s measure 570 and 575 – again, not much variety.

The second nine at the National, the most famed nine holes of golf in the world, does have a little more variety in the yardages, and that’s part of what makes it perhaps the best nine in the world. Still, there are two par 4’s that measure 440, and two more par 4’s that are just 10 yards apart in length.

So, this begs the question: just what does make for a good test of golf ? The answers are probably as varied as the number of golfers who play the game. Golf Digest, for example, in ranking courses, lists shot values (rewarding good shots and punishing bad shots in proper proportion), resistance to scoring, design variety, memorability, aesthetics, conditioning, and ambience as the criteria for judging a great course. For this article, I will focus on one aspect that I believe is highly underrated – design variety.

Too many courses are like Augusta National in the sense that there are too many similar yardages. How often do you play a course and the par-3s are all between 150 and 170? It’s very common. The four par- 5s might “range” from 510 to 520. Of the 10 par-4s, half or more are likely to be in the 360-380 category from the white tees.

Another similarity you are likely to notice is that most of the greens are virtually the same size. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a short par-4 or a long one, both greens are likely to be nearly identical in size.

What is the problem with having too many holes similar in length? The most obvious is that one phase of the game gets tested disproportionately. Is it really a well-designed course when players hit ten 6-irons into the greens? Hardly. Yet, you would be surprised at the number of “top” courses you would do exactly that.

And what about courses that have all greens virtually the same size? I’ve played courses where you see the same size green, whether it’s a 450-yard par-4 or a 320-yarder. This doesn’t make sense; yet, I would wager most courses are like this.

Another aspect of lack of design variety is in the difficulty of the course. To me, it’s no fun to play 18 torture tests – just as it’s not very interesting to play 18 cupcakes.

To me, a good course would have the following aspects of design variety:

Size of greens. Greens should be smaller for short iron approaches and larger for long-iron approaches. You would think this would be common sense, but very few courses that I’ve played are designed this way.

Length of holes. In addition to having too many holes of similar length, how many times do we see the longest par-3 (from the white tees) being 170 yards and the shortest par-4 at perhaps 320 yards? All the time. From the back tees, you might see the longest par-3 at 210 and the shortest par-4 at 360. In both cases, we have a 150-yard gap. Why are so few holes designed in this yardage range? I really don’t know, except that most architects probably consider this range to be awkward. However, think about it – wouldn’t it be interesting to play a course that had holes of 240 (long par-3), 260 (short par-4), 280, 300, and 320 yards? A trend now is to have a “driveable” par-4, but usually it’s only one hole and usually it’s not driveable for us mere mortals. Finally, a course that has a wide variety of hole lengths will test all phases of the game equally – short irons, medium irons, and long irons/hybrids. When one aspect is disproportionately tested, it’s not only monotonous, but competitively, it provides too much bias in favor of and against certain players.

Difficulty of holes. How about six easy holes, six medium holes, and six hard holes? Again, you rarely see this. Most courses veer towards the vast majority of their holes being in only one category, and usually it’s either easy or hard. A course that has mainly difficult holes is dispiriting, even for good players. A course that has mainly easy holes leaves many players feeling empty, as if they weren’t really challenged. A good balance of holes in terms of difficulty leaves the golfer feeling both challenged and a sense of accomplishment.

Ironically, I find that older courses tend to meet these criteria much more so than newer courses. It seems the modern architect is so bent on the concept of getting each hole to “fit” with the others that the concept of design variety gets lost in the shuffle.

Given all this, perhaps Golfweek’s architecture editor Bradley S. Klein summed it up best a few years ago. He said that, despite whatever criteria that magazines use to create rankings, the best test is one question: “Did you enjoy playing the course?” Hopefully, the answer will be “yes” for your next round of golf.

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