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EAGLE EYED: Coarse Architecture

Darren Kilfara takes a good look at bad design: why spoil perfection?

Photo courtesy Wentworth
Of the many memorable things I've seen in professional golf so far this year, the images which have stayed with me the longest come from the recent BMW European PGA Championship. I'm not talking about Thomas Bjorn's sixth birdie in a row on Saturday, or Luke Donald's amazing chip–in at the 16th on Sunday, or Rory McIlroy's double triumph over a world–class field and pre–marital heartbreak. No, I'm talking about the fairway mowing patterns at Wentworth, which (as shown in the image) looked like webs spun by a spider high on Benzedrine. My eyes, my eyes!

I used to rather like Wentworth. Easily the most recognizable golf course on the normal European Tour rota – particularly when it hosted the World Match Play event every autumn as well as the PGA in May – it had a refined parkland elegance and a memorably unusual finish of back–to–back par 5s with oddly angled tee shots rewarding direction far more than distance. But then Ernie Els was brought in to "modernize" the course, his most notable addition being the artificial–looking pond now guarding the 18th green. And then, well, some idiot greenskeeper decided to cut the short grass nine different ways and draw as much attention away from the natural splendor of the property as possible. What's left is the lingering impression of a former beauty queen now botoxed and liposuctioned to within an inch of her life, the scars more obvious than the fixes.

Sadly, meddling with classic golf courses seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Some tinkering can be beneficial, particularly when the goal is restoration rather than renovation. But more typically, such changes involve lengthening and toughening courses to defend them against the ever–increasing distance a small minority of golfers can gain from newer and newer clubs and balls. In a sane world, the USGA and R&A would regulate this technology and roll back the ball; after all, when the world's finest javelin throwers start threatening to impale runners beyond the infield grass, the IAAF doesn't get into the stadium architecture business. But the R&A is currently overseeing a two–stage renovation to "toughen up" the Old Course ahead of the 2015 Open in St. Andrews, a project about which I'm deeply in denial, and many other golf clubs with pretensions and/or delusions of grandeur routinely spend extravagant sums – money a stagnant industry could surely spend better elsewhere – to keep up with the Joneses. When will the arms race stop?

It seems depressingly apt that the hottest name in golf course architecture is currently Donald Trump. Now the owner of resorts like Doral and Turnberry as well as the venue for the 2022 PGA Championship (Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey), Trump's brand of bluster perfectly fits the increasingly muscular world of professional golf. Shortly after Trump suggested he could make Turnberry "even more spectacular", I played in a competition at Ganton, undoubtedly one of the finest courses in Britain and a venue at which many famous names in amateur and professional golf – Wethered, Faulkner, Bonallack, McEvoy, Wolstenholme, Faldo, Olazabal – won events in the 20th Century. Thing is, Ganton still measures less than 7,000 yards from its back tees.

Should that disqualify Ganton from being a serious tournament venue? Should it get into the renovation game? I don't really want to golf in a world where either of those answers is yes.

Darren Kilfara formerly worked for Golf Digest magazine and is the author of A Golfer's Education, a memoir of his junior year abroad as a student–golfer at the University of St. Andrews. His new book, a novel called Do You Want Total War?, is also now available online at Amazon and elsewhere.

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