How To Keep Courses Fun

PT-AH628_Golf1_20080208164102.jpgJohn Paul Newport uses his Wall Street Journal column to question Gil Hanse about what he thinks is fun, and uses the example of Soule Park in Ojai to illustrate the difficulties of being an architect in a world full of entitled idiots golfers armed with opinions.
Golf courses need hazards and obstacles the way good needs evil. Research done for the PGA of America suggests that what golfers love most about the game are the one or two great shots they manage to hit every round. But architects will tell you that the thrill of those shots is immeasurably greater in the context of risk. What fun is a course with 100-yard-wide fairways and no bunkers, ponds, trees or other hazards? You might as well stay at the range.

"When you think back to your most memorable shots, they aren't just the times you flushed a five-iron. They are when you hit that great shot in the face of some adversity," Mr. Hanse says. "Even less-accomplished players want to have to hit the ball over something sometimes, like a bunker or a stream. To take that challenge away is to water down design to the point where golf almost becomes bowling."

So architects try to scatter obstacles around the course in just the right mix to fulfill designer Alister MacKenzie's oft-cited definition of the ideal golf hole: "One that affords the greatest pleasure to the greatest number." But given the varying skill levels of golfers, it's not an easy formula to perfect.

One problem is that many golfers are so focused on the immediate task at hand -- getting the ball airborne -- that they don't think about strategy. Then, when they get off their best shot of the day, and helplessly watch it roll into a bunker, they aren't inclined to view that bunker as a catalyst for pleasure the way architects do. They see it as an abomination.

Mr. Hanse is unapologetic. His bunkers at Soule Park received many complaints for being too deep. But in his view, hazards need to pose "real penalties" or they lose their effect. "Where's the joy in avoiding a bunker if you know that, if you'd gone in, it would have been easy to get out of?" he asks.